I made my first visit to Vietnam in April 2009 when my friend LP generously invited me to join her on any part of her three-month trip to Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam. I was able to take two weeks off and join her toward the end of her trip, into which we packed in as much as humanly possible.
The flight to Vietnam was long. I was lucky to travel in daylight from Boston all the way to the Incheon Airport, just outside of Seoul. It was a cloudless sky throughout the whole leg and as we flew over countries and continents I identified Ottawa, the Hudson Bay, the Arctic, Russia, and China.
I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, late at night but the next day, typical of Tamar Granovsky, my travel mode was “on” so I was able to hit the ground running. LP and I started the day with bun bo xao (beef noodle salad) and Vietnamese cafe sua da (iced drip coffee with condensed milk). We then went for more cafe sua da at a cafe on the fourth floor of a building that overlooks the Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi as well as the circle of traffic and thousands of motor bikes.
Hanoi traffic! Firstly, the noise is non-stop with vehicles honking; this is a sign that one motorist gives to the other to say that s/he is passing you, another motorist. How does a pedestrian cross the street? One walks across lanes of traffic where there are no lines (or rules), and as I said, seemingly thousands of motorbikes. Traffic lights appear to be a suggestion to help move traffic around in an orderly fashion – or so it seems. So… LP and I would grab each others’ arm or hand and together cross the street. The trick: first make eye contact with the closest or fastest motorist, keep moving, and NEVER change your pace. The fact is they do not want to kill pedestrians. Just follow these rules and do not stop until you get to the other side of the street. Here are two videos that demonstrate Vietnamese street traffic (take note of the pedestrians crossing in the first one. I crossed each of the intersections in these two cities multiple times.):
We plodded through the Old Quarter (I had map in hand to orient myself yet relied heavily on LP’s experience of several days already spent acclimatizing herself to the city), rested and people-watched at cafes, and planned our trips to Sapa and Halong Bay.
At the end of the day, prior to supper of grilled cha ca at the “famous” Cha Ca La Vong restaurant, we went for bia hoy (daily fresh kegged beer). We sat on a roadside corner curb in small plastic chairs watching the rush hour traffic go by. A Japanese man, around 65, sat next to us and ordered dried fish smoked over a fire and then cut it up and put it in a small bowl with a hot dipping sauce. This gentleman insisted that we try it and as we ate he told us his story: he had left Japan forever, has been living in India for three years, and was in the middle of travelling southeast Asia for a few months. From his point of view Japan had become too expensive, years ago, with no job prospects for young people. He moved away from Japan twenty years earlier when he retired from his government job.
The second day we ate breakfast at the same little restaurant as the day before and ordered what seemed to be their specialty, bun bo xao – just as we had the prior morning. Again we meandered the centre of Hanoi and this time snacked at a cafe along Hoan Kiam Lake where I discovered the world of Vietnamese shakes which began my love affair with both watermelon and mango shakes throughout my two weeks. That afternoon we had tickets for the water puppet theater. We ate dinner at the 69 Restaurant, recommended highly (at the time) by the Lonely Planet bible. This restaurant is situated in a century-old house in the Old Quarter and has a relaxing ambience.
Sapa and Surroundings
After an uneventful overnight train to Lao Cai and then a bus ride to Sapa we booked ourselves into the Family Guest House for a reasonable $8US. We then went to the local wet market for a pho and coffee breakfast, met up with a few Hmong women, and walked to the village of Cat Cat (3km south of Sapa). As we walked down the road the women told us that Cat Cat was created for tourists by the Vietnamese government about ten years earlier and, in order to enter, visitors must pay a nominal fee which goes to the government (not the villagers). So, to make money the village women put up stands to show off their handicrafts. The Hmong women, however, are not allowed to take their baskets into Cat Cat to sell their goods. Cat Cat and Sapa are surrounded by rice terraces and the walk through Cat Cat is via stone paths that wind around the village and up the mountain to the road leading back to Sapa.
The town of Sapa is situated in Northern Vietnam, is high in the mountains, and has an altitude over of 1600 meters. It is not a beautiful town but there are markets, opportunities for trekking, visiting local minority villages, and as I mentioned above is spectacularly landscaped with rice terraces. Among the many local tribal minorities are Red and Black Hmong, Dzao, Red Dao, Day, and Tay people.
When we returned to Sapa the women we walked with suggested that we go to the market for lunch. LP and I obliged and bought them their food: chicken pieces with bones and bowl of rice, with added hot water/broth. It was clear that all the Black Hmong women at the market were eating the same thing so we deduced that they eat this meal daily.
The Hmong women want sell their handicrafts to tourists. After lunch LP and I were surrounded by one, then two, then what seemed like dozens of women pressuring us to buy from them. The problem of course is that if you buy something from one woman the others appear jealous and urge you further (without relief) to buy from them, too. In fact, there were two women who attempted to sell me goods at lunch, unsuccessfully, and then followed me around town until I finally became outright rude and turned around and walked the other way — away from them. This was certainly not polite and I am embarrassed to admit to having done such a thing – but it worked. They were utterly taken aback and probably quite insulted (the latter was not my aim). And this is after I learned some Hmong phrases and words to help me out with communication in Sapa. Clearly that did not endear me to them or make them less relentless but I just couldn’t think of anything else to do.
But not everyone is like these two women. LP and I met two Black Hmong women who were genuinely curious about us. Hue and Zhoun, who were close friends with each other, walked with us through town asking questions about our lives. They offered us a homestay (which we initially accepted but then had to forego because on our second day in Sapa they had a fight which we knew would have complicated a homestay). Here are two photos of me; the first is with Hue and the second is with Zhoun:
That afternoon and the next day we explored Sapa and environs and left in the evening back to Hanoi.
Our trip back to Hanoi and then Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay was quick and efficient. We took a night train to Hanoi, a taxi to the bus station where we ate the worse bowl of pho EVER, and then took several buses and a ferry (each connection went like clockwork) to Cat Ba. We spent the day eating and relaxing before embarking on the obligatory Halong Bay tour. What else sends you to Cat Ba?
Four others joined us for our overnight boat tour: a German woman and her Eritrean friend living in Germany/Bulgaria as well as a French father and daughter who LP and I thought, by the way they were acting, were lovers until they actually told us otherwise!!!
This boat tour taught me an important lesson that was later confirmed: in Asia never assume the transportation you booked will be the same transportation for the whole trip or that it will be as efficient as my first few experiences, at the beginning of this trip in Vietnam. It is best to assume that there will be technical difficulties and if you are LUCKY you will be pointed to other transportation. On this particular trip we barely made it out of Cat Ba when the captain discovered that the rudder wasn’t working. We waited an hour for another boat without beds. We learned that a third boat would meet us later in the day with beds – although not quite enough for all of us. Somehow we arranged ourselves and made it work.
Via the tour we visited a fish farm, kayaked through limestone caves, swam, and went to a different and more tremendous limestone cave that was like being in Disneyland or a sci-fi movie set, all a-lit with colourful lamps. We also stopped at Monkey Island, on our return to Cat Ba, for a little (what else?) monkey viewing and a walk to the top of a karst.
Hue and Hoi An
The evening we returned to Hanoi LP and I took an overnight “double-decker” bus with reclining seats and a toilet, to the middle of the country – seated in the lap of luxury! We were on our way to Hoi An, and were fortunate to have to change buses in Hue which gave us a half-day of sightseeing, there. We started our morning with coffee and pain au chocolat at La Boulangerie Francaise, a business that teaches disadvantaged youth to become pastry chefs.
Hue lies on the banks of the Song Huong (Perfume) River. Most of the historic sites are within the Citadel, built in 1804 by Emperor Gia Long (Nguyen Anh). He established Hue as the new capital and and began the Nguyen dynasty that united Vietnam for the first time in two centuries. The Nguyen dynasty ruled until 1945.
We spent most of the time in the Imperial Enclosure (within the citadel). After exploring this area we separated for a few hours each moving at her own pace around the city for photo ops, etc. The city seemed fairly empty (especially compared to the other places I had been to thus far). There were school children bicycling the streets in their uniforms and I was even knocked over by one boy while I was walking on the sidewalk.
We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon and found relatively fancy lodging (compared to the $8US lodging in Sapa and in Cat Ba) near Hoi An’s Old Quarter – Vinh Hung 2 Hotel.
Hoi An is a beautiful town; the historic section’s architecture is magnificent. Bougainvillea is everywhere and was in bloom and storefronts and the streets are alit with silk lanterns. The architecture is a mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, as well as European styles; and I wandered that area a few times but also made sure that I explored the rest of Hoi An where it was clear that older homes are razed and rebuilt. I explored some newer sections of Hoi An, on my own, before I met LP for lunch in the old part of town (the streets are closed to cars and thus fairly quiet despite tourists).
We ate lunch at Morning Glory Restaurant where we had: cau lau ; banh bao and banh vac: “white rose” rice flour dumplings; goi xoai xanh, green mango salad with shrimp and herbs; Vietnamese creme caramel ; and a banana shake with lime juice. Although the food we ate could be easily found in the markets and on the street this restaurant was a true find; we returned a second time for more of Morning Glory Restaurant’s subtle and delicious meals.
LP and I spent the next days apart and together. I explored markets and more of the new part of town, together we went to historic sites and we investigated the nearby country-side. And of course we ate and ate the excellent food to be had in Hoi An.
After a quick two weeks I parted ways with LP in Hoi An and took the bus to Danang which got me to the Hanoi airport and home. This was my first trip to Asia and the beginning of my love-affair with Southeast Asia which has made me fiercely determined to return.
My return trip to SE Asia started with surviving the 25 hour travel to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMH) from Boston. The smell and sounds of Hanoi came right back to me the moment I stepped out of the airport. There is a smell of burned meat and the sound of motos and cars honking everywhere. I felt at home. The first thing I did when I arrived was wander the neighbourhood where I was staying and survived crossing the streets. My hotel, in District 1 at the Hotel Luan Vu is situated on a quiet lane (and therefore the hotel was quiet). District 1 is in the very centre of HCMH, is home to backpackers and is also both the central business and entertainment area. Many of the streets are narrow as are the houses whose architecture is a mix of colonial French and newer high rise buildings. I got right into things and drank a bia 333 (beer 333) before heading off to bed.
So began my 3.5 month adventure to Southeast Asia and China.
Since I was in travel mode, I woke up early and, not tired, went to the local market to eat a bowl of pho bo and drink cafe sua da (two in fact, one for me and one for Steve, as per my promise to him). The first day included a massage and booking a tour ticket of the Mekong Delta that would lead me to Cambodia via boat.
While taking care of business that first day I discovered that cashing traveller’s cheques in 2012 was not as easy as it had been when I travelled in S.E. Asia 2009 and 2010. I had to go to multiple banks before one finally let me cash the cheques. Clearly it will only get harder over the years.
Day two started off slowly. I walked around District 3 which is considered a part of the city centre. I took many photos as I strolled the streets then met Hanh who I was introduced to online through Couchsurfing. We had lunch together at Nam Loi – a place I stumbled upon the night before and a restaurant that happened to be the place she took me to that day. After lunch we went to a smoke-filled coffee house for (what else?) cafe sua da. We talked about work and the role/expectations of men compared to women in Vietnam. We also discussed the fact that the country is communist and yet capitalism is creeping in, in a regimented way.
I continued my walk through District 3 and was stopped by 5 men drinking beer and eating in an empty lot. They invited me to join them, which i did. The bia 333 hit the spot given the heat. We tried to communicate with each other as best as we could and luckily I had my glossary of words and cheat sheet of phrases. Clinking glasses and cans to a happy new year continued for an hour. One man, whose wife joined us 15 minutes later, kept on telling me that I’m #1. I could only agree! Our conversation was very simple: we exchanged names and ages. I learned that they had just finished their first day at work after time off because of Tet, the Vietnamese New year. As I got up to leave, after thanking them and saying goodbye, they told me I must be very careful with my camera and purse; it is not uncommon, it seems, to have purses snatched.
After showering back at the guesthouse, I went for a supper of salads, pork, and pigskin rolls as well as pig’s ear spring rolls. I also ate spicy ground beef wrapped in betel leaves at Hoang Yen buffet at the Zen mall.
The following day I went to a cooking lesson given by the Saigon Cooking Class. We began with a tour of the Ben Thanh market — the 2nd largest market in Asia – where we were introduced to various produce including about 10 different types of mint. We were informed that if we eat at a stall the first item listed on the board is usually the specialty of the stall (a very good tip!) and the dish to order since it will be the freshest. Ben Thanh Market caters to restaurants, wealthier Vietnamese, and tourists. Apparently it has the freshest meat, fish, vegetables, etc. After the tour and ingredient buying we proceeded to the school which is part of the Hoa Tuc resto. The cooking menu:
- Fried Saigon spring roll with pork, carrot, mushroom and glass noodles. Traditional Nuoc Mam dipping sauce – Chảgiò Saigon
- Fresh lotus stems salad with prawns, pork and Vietnamese herbs
- with prawn cracker and a chili flower. Sweet and sour dressing – Gỏi Ngó sen
- Sticky rice fritter stuffed with pork and carrot with soya sauce – Xôi nhân thịt chiên
- Char-grilled beef wrapped in Betel leaves with lemongrass served with fresh rice noodles, rice paper and fresh leaves – Bò La Lot
In the afternoon I visited the War Remnants Museum. It was a profound experience. The museum documents the “American War” – which it clearly was. The first floor covers all of the support against the war and includes, quite heavily, American resistance to the war, too. The second and third floors displayed photographs (including a large collection from the war correspondents), written histories of the war, statistics, and information about the use of the herbicide agent orange dioxins – used as a defoliant. Today, two generations later, there are still birth defects linked to it. It was not an uncommon to see a person who had clearly been physically damaged by the war. The museum also has displays about the torture that went on during this time period – including the torture of women and children. Finally, as an offering of hope, there is a display of photos of places throughout Vietnam that were destroyed by this war, and corresponding photographs of these places today. There has been an incredible amount of growth in this country which is inspiring. All in all, however, it is a very sad part of American history and kudos to the Vietnamese who welcome the Americans so openly, today.
Overall impressions: HCMC is a bustling city with people and motorbikes everywhere. I have never seen so many parking lots (xen gui) for the motorbikes (and many people hang out in them when they are not driving on the street). Men hang out drinking beer and coffee and playing games while women work (seemingly, more than men and confirmed by Hanh. LP and I noticed this when we were in Vietnam together in 2009). In fact, it seems that more women than men work in the public sector although it is the men who work as guards. Also, although there are propaganda posters they are not as evident as in other places I’ve been to in Vietnam. I do like this city but it has not gotten under my skin the way Hanoi, Hue, and Hoi An did.
The Mekong Delta
I spent two days of a three-day tour in the Mekong Delta before leaving Vietnam to Cambodia. As many as fifteen million people live in the Mekong Delta and most use the canals, rivulets, and rivers to survive, in one form or another. The delta, is the rice bowl of the country and yields enough rice to feed all of Vietnam and still have a surplus. Coconut palms and fruit orchards also are in abundance. We visited a coconut candy “factory” the size of the upper floor of my house (and I live in a modest-sized house), where everything is made by hand; spent time at a fruit orchard where a man-made pond was built from a bombed crater; and then spent the first night in My Tho. The following day we were taken to a brick factory and spent the night in Can Tho so that we could visit the floating market the next day. Three of us were then left in Chau Doc which was our gateway to Cambodia.
The next time I am in Vietnam, if I do not go to Hanoi, I’d like to spend a few weeks, at the very least exploring the delta by bicycle.