Get ready, I’m about to fill you in on our three week, whirlwind tour through Vietnam.
First of all, the fact that I now consider three whole weeks much too short of a time to spend anywhere is a definite side effect of this lifestyle. I know most people would be delighted to spend three weeks exploring Vietnam and I don’t take the opportunity lightly but I also recognize that it only allowed us to scratch the surface of this culture.
Secondly, we actually spent the entire first week in Ho Chi Minh City, walking the streets, visiting the attractions, sitting in parks, making friends and marveling at the traffic.
Then, it hit us – if we keep up our usual pace we’ll be lucky to make it out of the Mekong Delta. So, we did a little research and made an executive decision to book a tour. A private tour. Yes, just for us, to all the places we wanted to see and the unique things we wanted to experience. It was about 60% over our daily budget – ouch (which we’ll try to make up elsewhere along the way) but worth every penny.
Out of our twenty-one days in the country we stayed thirteen nights in eight different hotels, three nights in three different homestays, three nights were spent in transit on so-called sleeper trains and two nights we were rocked to sleep on a boat named Dragon Pearl.
I suggest you speed read this and scroll through quickly to get the full whirlwind effect!
Our first stop after leaving Ho Chi Minh City was the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s most important fishing area where life is sourced by the water. Several hours of driving landed us in the heart of it all where we paddled down small tributaries, sampled local teas and learned how coconut candies are made.
But the highlight of the day was our evening spent at a local homestay, home to two lovable little puppies and an incredibly hospitable family of sisters. Upon arrival Adrian was quickly whisked away by a friend of the family to attend a birthday party happening in the village. I joined in the dinner preparations, chopping veggies and rolling up some kind of mushy goodness in rice paper to be fried. The three sisters worked at a methodical and rhythmic pace, preparing what seemed like a ridiculous amount of food. Just when my hunger was peaking and by the looks of it we were still an hour away from eating, the women began dishing up bowls of food and a entire group of lively men walked in and filled the table. It quickly became a full on party. With a feast before us, the happy water (rice wine) flowed, and a man at the end of the table strummed a melody on his guitar while the locals sang traditional Vietnamese songs, each in turn. We ate, we drank, we even sang. It was by all accounts an unforgettable experience.
A good start to the day includes hot Vietnamese coffee (with a healthy dose of sweetened condensed milk). This particular morning I got an impromptu manicure as well when the youngest sister insisted she could draw designs on my nails. How could I say no? We made a short visit to the neighbor’s house to see how rice wine is made and then we said our goodbyes to the family, snuggled the puppies one last time and headed off to see the floating market.
Villagers from around the region bring their crops to sell at this famous market, staying until the last of their goods have been sold before returning home to load up again. Produce is tied to sticks and hung above the boats as advertisement of goods for sell. Smaller paddle boats weave in and out of the market traffic offering breakfast and snacks to workers, shoppers and tourists alike. It’s a lively and busy affair.
We spent the afternoon driving back to Ho Chi Minh City and straight to the airport where we caught a flight to Hanoi. By the time we caught a taxi and arrived at our hotel it was well past 10pm and we were exhausted and ready for a good nights sleep.
We awoke in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, eager to hit the streets. To say the city is hectic would be an understatement. Narrow sidewalks spill their contents onto the busy streets where food vendors and coffee shops abound. We spent the day hopping around to various tourist stops including the old war prison where John McCain was held as a P.O.W. and walking the tiny alleyways taking photos. In between stops Adrian had his shoes glued back together for a dollar (the third time this trip) and we enjoyed a tasty local lunch and a cold beer. The day passed quickly and whether we wanted to or not, we had to go. We headed to the train station in the pouring rain and settled in for the long, bumpy night.
We arrived in Sapa a little before 6am, both of us tired from having tossed and turned all night in search of sound sleep. We were greeted by our local guide, Mao, and extremely overcast skies. During breakfast she explained that we would need to revamp our itinerary in response to the rain that was steadily falling. The Saturday market we were planning to visit is in a remote area and the roads would be made impassible by the weather so we opted to start with a tour in the minority village and planned to visit a different market the following day. We took a much needed nap in the late afternoon and wrapped up the day with a quiet dinner.
The entire day was visually stunning. We drove for a few hours through the mountains, snaking our way to Bac Ha Market, the most colorful market I’ve ever seen. Adrian and I quickly decided to each go our own ways and leave the guide behind in order to get sufficiently lost in the magic. We met back up a few hours later to have lunch and thumb through each others photos. It was a sunny drive back to the Sapa valley where we gathered our things and began our walk into the Hmong Village where we would be staying the night with a local family in their home stay.
From the very moment we woke up the day was a disaster. I won’t rehash it now but you can read about the iPhone fiasco here if you happened to have missed it.
We had taken the overnight train from Sapa to Hanoi and checked into our hotel, once again in a complete state of exhaustion. But, we woke up the next morning and it was indeed a brand new day and we had just a few short hours before we’d be picked up and taxied to our next stop, the beautiful Moon Garden Home Stay (homestay is seriously misleading in this case, it’s more like a resort) in Ky Son village. As soon as we arrived I was wishing we could just stay the week. We had a spacious room overlooking the emerald rice fields with a wall full of windows where the light poured in. It was beautiful.
During our day and a half stay we attended a private cooking class, witnessed a traditional prayer ceremony, rode bicycles through the surrounding villages, stopped in to visit excited school children and shared tea with this amazing woman.
Adrian spent the better part of the morning writing a blog post about the iPhone fiasco so we could share it here for you guys then we devoured a tasty lunch before it was time to pack up and head back to Hanoi for the night.
We arrived at our hotel and Adrian continued working on his post while I completely gutted my backpack. You know when you’ve reached that limit and it doesn’t seem possible to live with your disheveled closet (or garage, or pantry, or whatever) one minute longer? Ya, that happens with backpacks too! Do we really need to carry around five rolls of toilet paper? Probably not.
It was another early morning rise to catch a shuttle for the harbor. We were all set to embark on a two night cruise through Ha Long Bay, hailed to be one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Several hours later when we arrived to the port we were told about impending weather and the new arrangements for us to stay in a hotel on shore. Our new itinerary meant we’d board the small ship, be served lunch during a short sail but head back before nightfall to avoid the weather. I’m the last person that wants to sleep on a ship during a storm (easily sea sick plus a healthy fear of the deep ocean) but I was disappointed. Post lunch socializing meant getting to know our newest travel companions, twenty other people from all around the world, while taking in the views of the bay. As the late afternoon came upon us our cruise host came up deck to inform us that we’d been cleared of all weather warnings and would be staying the night.
The day was packed with events including a sail through Cong Dam, an old, tradition fishing village, with a population of about 120 people. Families live in houses that float in neat rows on the surface of the water and children paddle themselves back and forth to the small school nearby. Generations have lived for years like this but the more recent concerns about the pollution of such communities to this precious world heritage site have threatened their existence. Education and resources have been funneled in enabling them to stay but if efforts fail to take care of the environment they’ll be forced to move out entirely.
Later in the afternoon we kayaked ourselves out to a small private island and swam as the sun went down. A quick clean up back on the ship and it was time for dinner in a cave. I was prepared for a small hole in a rock but was highly impressed when we made our way into this gigantic cavern set for a feast. We drank, we ate, we sang (the Vietnamese really like to sing) and took our party back to the ship for a late night of dancing on deck.
Breakfast was served on the ship then we loaded up and went to the harbor where we would wait to be loaded into vans heading back to Hanoi. Our van stopped off for a water puppet show along the way that I could’ve totally done without. But, when you are on a tour where they herd you around like cattle, you go wherever they prod you. It’s the downside of such an organized schedule, one that is rarely worth the payoff of not having to think and plan for ourselves.
We arrived in Hanoi just in time to be taxied to the train station for our third and final overnight ride to Hue.
One night in Hue is all we had to spare if we wanted to make it Hoi An before leaving Vietnam, and we did. So even though we might have just as soon crawled into our comfy looking bed upon arrival that morning (you just don’t sleep so well on trains), we dropped our bags and hired a taxi for the day. Our first stop was to see a palm reader that Adrian had met on his previous trip to Hue. He couldn’t remember much about her but luckily the taxi driver had heard of her and drove us straight to her village. She held my palm in her wrinkled hand and looked at me with shiny, alert eyes as she muttered out my future in broken English. I’ll be happy, live long and have two children, which sounds just fine by me. She was lovely.
We stopped off at a few of the popular tourist attractions in the area including the Thien Mu Pagoda before heading back to our hotel to meet Adrian’s friend, Trang. She took us to a traditional Vietnamese BBQ (total meat fest: bird eggs, frog, clams, chicken) and educated us on her life as a young, progressive Vietnamese woman working and living in a rather conservative society.
Hoi An, our last stop. Only a few hours south of Hue, the road runs along the coastline making for a spectacular drive. I wish we would have had more time to stay in this quaint and colorful town but two nights would have to be enough for now.
In a flash it was over. Three weeks in Vietnam were gone. I wouldn’t have said that I loved it while we were there but I did feel a pang of sadness as we loaded into the taxi and headed for the airport. Vietnam, The Beautiful Beast, as Adrian affectionately calls her, is just that. Hard as nails and full of perseverance. You may not love her but you will most certainly respect her.