Stepping into the airplane, I was nervous and yet could barely contain my excitement. I had been in plenty of planes before, but this one was different. Barely a year ago I had decided to take the plunge and booked a trip to Vietnam. I didn’t know what to expect. I know my family was nervous. I was for that matter. I had quite a few layovers; one in Vancouver, Narita, and finally Hanoi. It was difficult to navigate some of the airports, and I found myself going through customs and then back through security when I missed the turn for transfers. 😂 The heat and humidity is the first thing that hits you as you exit the airport, however. And then the sounds. The motorbikes, the language... it was all so intimidating. There are most definitely lanes on the larger roads and freeways, but they merely seem to be suggestions. Like an anxious crowd at Disneyland, motorbikes and cars weave in and out of each other, go up on the sidewalk, honk, and rush past the dizzying lights. It was truly a sight to behold. We were almost hit head on by a fairly large cargo truck, but I’m still here to tell the tale.
Temples, Churches, and Nature
As an eastern country, Vietnam has many different religious paths and beliefs. As a brief history lesson, the Northern part of Vietnam used to be part of Imperial China until a Vietnamese victory in the Battle of Bạch Đằng River. Successive imperial dynasties flourished, and Vietnam expanded geographically and politically into South-Eastern Asia. In the mid-19th century, the Indochina Peninsula was then colonized by the French. The Vietnamese President Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France on September 2, 1945. You can still witness this long history in the heart of Hanoi; the old quarter, the French quarter, and the new quarter. The old quarter is most famously associated with the time of the Lý dynasty. It features 36 streets, with each one historically producing and selling specific goods. The heart of the city was the true gem, however. Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake, or Lake of the Restored Sword, has a history fit for the epic dramas of legend. The tower stands in honor of a Vietnamese warrior and what he did for the nation and also for the magical turtle that is standing guard over the sword he used to free his people. It has stood for almost 150 years as a symbol of patriotic pride for the people of Hanoi. Not only that, but it is an incredibly beautiful natural scene.
Because of the influence of the French, there are many Catholic Church’s as well. One of these is St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Built in the mid-19th century, it is a gothic revival style church built on the site of a demolished sacred Buddhist temple. Although stunning to behold, it’s history serves as a reminder of the dangers of ignoring mutual religious respect and love.
Last but not least, the beautiful Buddhist temples scattered throughout the city add to the rich colorful nature of the country. We were always mindful to remove our shoes, bow, leave offerings of money, food, flowers, etc. and to learn as much as possible. Many of the temples had a specific deity it honored. Or in the case of Ỷ Lan, a concubine. Ỷ Lan was the favored concubine of Emperor Lý Thánh Tông. She not only gave birth to his first son, but successfully acted as regent in his absence. She is also considered the first woman who taught Vietnamese the embroidery technique. One important aspect about Vietnamese culture is the mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist traditions.
Jellies and Dragons in Ha Long Bay
Dragons in the water? Well, maybe only in myth. But what isn’t a myth is the sheer beauty of this place. Ancient islands emerge from the water in this majestic bay in many shapes and sizes, giving rise to the myth of circling dragons and other creatures protecting the people. After exploring Hanoi and the hustle and bustle of city life, we made our way several hours by bus to this beautiful site. Long, long ago is apparently wasn’t even a bay, but completely submerged in the water. I was obsessed with seeing this place since watching Anthony Bourdain, and tried to look for the famous fishing villages. However, we learned that several years ago they had been permanently moved. We boarded one of the nicest cruises and after a day of caves, swimming, and drinking, witnessed one of the most majestic sunsets ever.
The caves were absolutely stunning, but very touristy as well. Taking a little boat over to the entrance, we hiked up a few hundred steps to the top and enjoyed the view. After, we made our way to a small beach and enjoyed time in the water. We were joined by a lovely English woman with her Vietnamese family, and we quickly became a second family.
I was completely unaware of the presence of jellyfish, however! Several of us were stung, myself in the top of my foot, and were sprayed with what I hope was some form of medicinal liquid. Overall a beautiful place.
And at Last I See the Lights...
As we made our way from Halong Bay to the airport, I was beyond excited to explore the ancient town of Hoi An. We arrived with plenty of time to spare before our flight, and enjoyed lunch at a beautiful restaurant. Did I mention that almost every meal had been provided family/Asian style? Around five courses were offered lunch and dinner, all spread out in the middle of the long tables. Needless to say, we did not go hungry or lacked local, delicious food. Some highlights I had already tasted included squid, snail, frog legs, phò, and Banh mi with goose liver! Anyways, we leave lunch to go through security and I realize that we boarded in 25 minutes! We were so enamored with lunch we had failed to pay attention the the time. The officer checking passports and boarding passes took his time checking each person as well, and it took us a good hour to get through. One thing I have learned about Vietnamese culture, and perhaps Asian culture as well, is to assert yourself. People push, cut in front of you, and generally don’t have time if you’re unsure. We made it to the plane with seconds to spare and were off to Hoi An!
And at last I see the light
And it's like the fog has lifted
And at last I see the light
And it's like the sky is new
And it's warm and real and bright
And the world has somehow shifted
All at once everything looks different
Now that I see you
Upon seeing the beautiful ancient town, this song played in my mind on a loop. Lanterns...Lanterns...and more Lanterns! It lit up the night and transported you physically and spiritually to the ancient trading post of the past. Hoi An was once part of the important Silk Road and is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a small-scale trading port active the 15th to 19th centuries. There is also the fine wooden Japanese bridge, with a pagoda on it, dating from the 18th century. It’s known for tailored clothes, and I most definitely took them up on that reputation and purchased a tailored romper for myself.
Being sure-footed in Vietnam has been no joke. Many streets and entrances are tiled and slick, being wet from rain and other water sources. It is easy to slip or stumble on the cobbled walkways and cracked sidewalks. It takes practice to keep up with a large group trying to stay out of the road, dodge motorbikes and other pedestrians, and watch where you’re going. Many motorbikes use the sidewalk itself to go around others, making street walking dangerous to say the least.
Markets and More... Traps?
The smell of fresh fish caught that morning filled my nostrils. It has been awhile since I had good seafood, and I’ve truly enjoyed it, but we have eaten so much here I think it will be awhile until I am ready for more. But the busy chatter of the vendors tells a different story here. This is how his people live. How they work. How they eat. Local, fresh, and real. The colors catch your eye from a mile away. The vegetables, clothing, and flowers all flooding the senses with awe. Some fish still squirm in the buckets, alive and waiting to be sold. We took a boat out to a secluded restaurant for an afternoon of cooking delight. And may I say, it was delicious! We made spring rolls and our own rice paper, Vietnamese pancakes, and chicken soup. It was serene and quiet, except for the other tourists. We even went home with recipes.
Next on our list was basket boats and a tour of the coconut forest. It was fun, but a major tourist trap. And when I say trap, I mean you are trapped in a basket boat, watching locals dance and pretend to fish for tourists, and expected to tip—trapped. One man continually threw his net into the water, catching nothing, so tourists could get a cool photo. Tourism is a major source of income here, I understand, but it was a little unsettling. Upon exiting the boat my foot was caught on the lower step and I ended up falling. I did not get hurt and thank goodness I did not go into the water.
One thing about the markets, as beautiful as they were, was that most of them were selling the same things for tourists. There were t-shirts with funny phrases, bags, magnets, and cards. Many of the vendors will forcefully stick them under your nose so you will buy something. One even grabbed the arms of a woman in our group and pulled her into the store. Besides that and the assertiveness, many people here are very friendly and wanted to take picture with us. Maybe we’re just funny looking as blondes.
One thing I was nervous about on my trip to Asia was the food. Because, let’s face it, food IS important! It gives us energy, helps us socialize, and express our cultures. We all have those comfort foods that help us through difficult times or that we simply enjoy. I am usually a picky eater and I was afraid I would not like the food and either starve or feel sick most of the trip. I promised myself I would try everything and I didn’t have to finish it if I couldn’t. But the funny thing was when that happened, the food was delicious! Some of it, like the seafood, we ate so much that I grew tired of it. But even the frog legs, snail, liver, and sauces weren’t going to do anything harmful to me.
The markets were filled with the most colorful vegetables and fruits. Some I didn’t get much back at home. Dragonfruit, Jackfruit, delicious tiny bananas, and rambutan were all AMAZING! We enjoyed watermelon and pineapple every morning, and there desert was mostly fruit plates. Of course, that was only the desert offered as part of our set menus. They still have all kinds of ice cream and candies. The most delicious deserts were made of passion fruit! On the second day we stopped at this adorable coffee shop and I got a passion ice which was incredible. And then one evening after dinner we got a passion fruit mousse.
Lots of things were fried too. We enjoyed these delicious fried cakes on the cruise in Halong Bay. I’m not sure what they were made out of—possibly rice—but they were good!
If there's one thing I want to leave you with, it's to travel. Experience this colorful and beautiful country for yourself.