Vietnam: An Unexpected Joy
We were excited and a bit nervous to go to Vietnam, but we never expected to enjoy the country the way we did. Who knew that Vietnam was so awesome!?
If you are considering a trip to Vietnam, we say: Do it!!
And here is why:
The markets: They are fantastic.
The food markets, the clothing markets, the souvenir markets, the produce markets,
the colors, the sounds, etc., are some of the most interesting things you will experience in this country.
We spent a lot of time in the markets in practically every single city we went to. The food markets in Saigon I think were our favorites. We were lucky enough to be there on the weekend when the Central Food Market (street food) was open.
WOW! It was fantastic trying the different foods! (See below for more on this topic).
Jay loved the clothing markets (everywhere) and bought a few new shirts.
And we both loved to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere. The markets were an absolutely fascinating window into the Vietnamese culture and people.
The food: What can we say? The food was unbelievable. We ate pho many, many times, but this one was the best!
Banh Mi (baguette sandwiches) was unforgettable. And the seafood: magnificent!
We also tried hot pot, or lau,
and BBQ, and all kinds of street food, and all we can say is OMG! I wanted to eat 10 times a day. Many times we just walked through the food markets and watched the street vendors and just stared and drooled.
We even tried this, if you can believe it. It tasted just ok.
And thank goodness, we NEVER got sick from eating in Vietnam. Even from food prepared on the street. I’m missing the food now, just writing about it!
The natural resources: Vietnam is so beautiful. The jungles and the mountains and the countryside rice paddies are gorgeous.
We were lucky enough to get some first-hand experience with these wonders in Phong Nha, where we did an "eco-tour", which included some trekking in the jungle, as well as a visit to a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center.
It was very enlightening to learn how this tiny village has the only center in the region for jungle animal rescue. We saw injured animals who would be returned to their habitats once they recovered.
We also learned about how the villagers go into the jungle and strip it of its valuable resources in order to make money just to eat. Hai, the owner of the trekking company, employs as many people as he can for his trekking tours, training them to be moto-drivers, cooks, porters, etc. in order to have them make money so they can spend less time in the jungle, cutting down endangered trees and hunting endangered animals.
It's hard to tell people to stop these practices when they are trying to feed their families and there is no work to be found. But Hai has found a way to put people to work. He's awesome!
Of course, Jay made friends with these guys. Even though they couldn't speak English, and Jay does not speak much Vietnamese, language was not a barrier for them to really get along.
This eco-tour was epic. It included an amazing ride on the back of the moto-driver's bike through the countryside, a hike through the jungle, a gorgeous waterfall hike,
and a wonderful lunch in the forest.
We made some great friends from Italy,
and we LOVED our trekking guide.
The next day we went on a 4 kilometer tour of a gorgeous, breathtaking cave called Paradise Cave, which is absolutely stunning.
As beautiful as it was, we were appalled that the tour guide directed us to not video or photograph him as he ran his hands along the stalactites and stalagmites, and hit them to make sounds and then encouraged the tourists to do the same. We were shocked that a supposed steward of this incredible natural resource was himself ruining it. Instead of educating the tourists about caves and their fragility and beauty, he was encouraging them to also destroy the formations. I was VERY sad and discouraged about this.
We saw a similar lack of ability to manage natural resources in Phu Quoc, an island in southern Vietnam where we celebrated our 20th anniversary. It was so beautiful there, with peaceful beaches and beautiful forests.
So it made it even worse to see the pollution that is destroying these beautiful places. On Phu Quoc in particular, the garbage that is dumped into the sea washes up on the beaches all day long. The waste management systems on the island are non-existent. We wondered how long this boat had been on the beach.
Seeing beautiful forests littered with piles and piles of garbage is disheartening.
While on Phu Quoc, we were fortunate enough to have a chance encounter with a college professor of natural resources management who provided us with a lot of insight as to the garbage problems we saw there.
On the bright side, we were thrilled to be staying at an eco-resort, which was powered entirely by solar power, had excellent water management practices (for example, no plastic water bottles) and other sustainable, responsible business practices.
We were also very excited to tour the first Phu Quoc organic bee farm, where they are raising bees and producing honey, while also teaching the local people about resource preservation and management and sustainability. We were so happy to see this initiative and were very glad to support it.
The people! So nice, and kind and welcoming. The children were so adorable, and Jay really fell for them (or vice versa).
Every one of our tour guides was amazing and became our friends.
In addition, we were so lucky and fortunate to have met some wonderful fellow travelers. Meeting up with these people made our own travels so much richer.
We really enjoyed Vietnam. We loved the sights, the cities, the jungles, the beaches, but most of all we LOVED the people. We were unfailingly welcomed with open arms and warm smiles everywhere we went.
A few additional highlights:
Phu Quoc: Rented motorbikes again and this time we felt so much more comfortable.
It was here that we celebrated our 20th anniversary, so it was a very special time for us.
Hanoi: At first it felt surreal to be in Hanoi in “North Vietnam”, but we were soon charmed by the city and its people. The old city was absolutely adorable. It was quaint and lively and filled with activity. We were so lucky to be there in the days leading up to Tet, and so we were able to witness the city’s preparation for the most important holiday of the year: the lunar new year. The food, nightlife, people, and activity level were just fantastic.
Some fond memories we have from Hanoi are seeing some talented local pop singers putting on a street show in the old quarter, and attending the "must-see" water puppet show. Quite a unique cultural experience.
We found an amazing bakery in a local neighborhood, I tried “egg coffee”, a specialty of Hanoi, which is absolutely delicious even though it sounds disgusting, and Jay found shirts to buy and markets to explore. We did two walking tours: one of the old city, and the other a food tour, which was SOO good. We loved our tour guides for both these tours, and recommend Hanoi by Foot as a way to learn more about the city and help the university students who are the guides. So, everyone was happy in Hanoi.
And finally, we went to Hoi An,
an adorable small city, where the “ancient quarter” is the place to be.
We stayed on a small island just outside the ancient quarter that was so fun to explore.
Hoi An was such a great place for photos. We loved it.
A few travel stories:
I decided to tell you these travel stories so you can get a taste of what our Vietnam adventure was like.
Crossing the street in Vietnam can be very tricky. Here’s how to do it:
Because the traffic doesn’t stop (ever), and this is what it looks like sometimes,
and there are very few traffic lights (although you will see this particular street had one), you have to kind of inch forward into the street while keeping your eyes on the drivers.
As you inch forward, you can stick your hand out if you want, to let them know you are crossing, and they start aiming their bikes behind you, so you keep walking forward at the same pace, and the bikes kind of wave over you, ahead of and behind you.
Then you get through one side of traffic, and you have to turn your head to the other side of traffic, and do the same thing. You can’t speed up or slow down because the drivers are paying attention to your pace, and timing their intersection with you based on that, and they decide to go in front of you or behind you.
You know this was hard for me. So Jay and I finally set up a system where he was the leader in crossing and I was hanging on to his hand and just following his lead. It worked out most of the time, but occasionally I lost my nerve and he was across the street and I was stuck on the other side, unable to stick my foot into the traffic.
When that happened, sometimes he would come back across and get me, and we would try again, and sometimes I just fended for myself. Which always took a while. But we did get the hang of it and this skill came in handy throughout the entire country.
We were in Hanoi and were going to be traveling overland to Phong Nha, where the beautiful caves were, and then on to Hue. Simple. Right?
But, a couple challenges. When we went to make the overnight train reservation to Dong Hoi, the closest station to Phong Nha, we found out that because of Tet, the New Years festival, the night train was sold out. So we would have to take a day train. OK. We decided that we would take the 9 hour train ride during the day and we would see the Vietnamese countryside in the daylight.
The day before the trip I was reviewing our travel itinerary, specifically noting that after Phong Nha we would be meeting our DMZ tour guide in Dong Ha.
Did you catch that? Dong Ha. I looked at our train ticket and saw that we were traveling to Dong Hoi to go to Phong Nha. Uh oh. It looked like we were going to the wrong place. Our tickets were for Dong Hoi but we needed to get to Dong Ha. So I went to the hotel guy and made him rebook our train tickets to Dong Ha. So he did. Phew. We didn’t want to get to the wrong city to catch the taxi to Phong Nha and not have the taxi waiting for us.
Several hours later I was reviewing our itinerary again. Suddenly, I realized that we needed to be in both Dong Ha AND Dong Hoi. Dong Hoi was for the beginning of our trip to Phong Nha, and Dong Ha was for the end of our trip from Phong Nha. And Dong Hoi and Dong Ha were 2 hours away from each other along the east coast.
Here is what we needed: We needed to go from Hanoi to Dong Hoi by train to catch the 45 minute taxi to Phong Nha, and then, a few days later, we needed to catch a bus from Phong Nha for a two hour bus ride to Dong Ha to meet our DMZ tour guide. And so… we now had tickets to Dong Ha but needed to get off the train at Dong Hoi. I had a headache from all this. But, I figured (and it worked out this way) we would just get off the train at Dong Hoi, even though our tickets were to continue on to Dong Ha. (no one cared or looked at our tickets anyway).
When we got off the train, we were picked up by taxi and driven to Phong Nha. Great success! We arrived safely.
- On the way out of Phong Nha, our hotel booked us on the bus to Dong Ha. But the bus generally doesn’t go there since it’s not a usual stopping area for tourists, but they agreed to drop us off there. We went on this sleeping bus, where all the seats were beds, which was pretty interesting, and after 2 hours the bus stopped on this main highway, threw out our bags and us, and took off down the road. Leaving us in the dust.
The DMZ tour guide had told us to catch a taxi to his office. But there were no taxis to be seen. So after a bit of back and forth, he finally came to pick us up and off we went. Success again!
After the tour, he took us to the train station, but the train didn’t leave for Hue for 6 hours so we decided to take a bus. He took us to the bus station and as we were walking to the ticket window, a minivan driver yelled to the tour guide and started negotiating for us to go with him to Hue. The tour guide told us it was a good deal, and so, with the minivan driver’s wife pushing us forcefully towards the minivan, dragging our bags in front of her, we got on this unofficial minibus to Hue. It was the kind of minibus where the wife hangs out the door as they drive along, and she yells “Hue, Hue, Hue” and picks up people along the road. So slowly the minivan began to fill up with people.This young man was very excited to see us and invited us to visit his restaurant in Hue.
(Unfortunately, because I was sick in Hue, we never made it to his restaurant).
And then when we arrived in Hue, the van stopped and just dropped us off in some random place and we didn’t know where we were. It looked like we were in front of a public bus stop. It was on a busy main street, but there were no taxis.
After a few minutes, Jay approached a young lady who was sitting and waiting for a bus and asked if she would help us. She embraced this helper role, and immediately called a taxi for us.
When the taxi arrived, to my surprise, she climbed into the taxi with us. She said she had to go to the hospital and it was on the way to our hotel. OK. Jay said later that she had told him she was going to do this, but for me it was a funny surprise. It turns out she is a pharmacy student and so had school business to take care of at the hospital.
She was quite a lovely young lady and we are so grateful for her help. And after a whirlwind day of adventure, we arrived at our hotel successfully! And that kind of ended our travel adventure for the week.
In retrospect, even though I experienced many moments of anxiety, this ended up being a really fun, exciting adventure because there were so many mix-ups and unknowns, and we had to fend for ourselves and figure it out as we went along, and ask local people for help. How fun was that? (after the stress and anxiety dissipated!)
After three and a half weeks of amazing experiences, when our time in Vietnam was over, we were both sad to leave. As we sat in the taxi on the way to the airport, we looked at each other and saw that we both had tears in our eyes. Saying goodbye to this country was really hard for us. We don’t know what the future will bring, but we both would very much like to return to this wonderful place!