This is a story about my trip to Vietnam for Recess week:
From Singapore, we flew in to Hanoi, where we spent two nights before traveling to Halong Bay, where we spent the night on a boat for one night. Next, we returned to Hanoi to fly to Da Nang. From Da Nang, we drove to the historic city of Hoi An, and from Hoi An we traveled back to Da Nang to fly to Siem Reap in order to tour Angkor Wat. It sounds like a lot of travel, but the entire journey went well if not fantastically (aside from my losing my class notes on the airplane, and by losing I mean my leaving them in a seat pocket. This was quickly resolved, however, thanks to my friend Mike’s Skype minutes and the wonderful efficiency of the non-budget airline I happened to have used).
We were able to experience quite a bit in our 6 days in Vietnam. My favorite memories from Hanoi (called the “Paris of the East” by many who visit) include the charm of the city and the conversation I had with local students, who approached us on a walk around the lake (Hoan Kiem Lake – “Lake of the Returned Sword”) and asked if we could simply have a conversation. They later pointed us to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest institute for education, which dates back to 1070 and is now a beautiful, historic monument in the middle of the city.
Other highlights of Hanoi include spring rolls, and lots of them (both fresh and fried) and the first tastes of Vietnamese coffee, which is a filtered, semi-sweet coffee variety sweetened with sweetened condensed milk. It is rich, strong, and delicious. My favorite food, though, was either the homemade, slightly sweetened potato chips fried at the night market (yes, I know this statement is so American of me, but it had to be shared. All who go to the Hanoi Night Market must buy these) or the delectable coconut bun (also at the night market). Vietnam has a way with fried things.
From Hanoi, we traveled to Halong Bay. I will never forget the mysterious beauty of Halong Bay and the camaraderie of our tour group about the “FantaSea”, nor the affection of our tour leader, Peter, who spoke decent English but lovingly referred to the group as “everysbody”. I may try to forget, but continue to embrace the humor of kayaking on a chilly day in the bay and becoming soaked in salt water (wearing jeans) only to learn we kayaked the wrong way and missed a cave full of monkeys. Our new friends, a Danish couple, informed us of this. They also recommended a store called Moss in Copenhagen to me (with amazing pants!). I will get there some day. Additionally, we met a Dutch European commercial producer, so I can now say I know a Dutch commercial producer, and also that I have spent a night on a boat at sea. To say the least, it was a fruitful adventure (despite missing the monkeys).
After Hanoi/Halong Bay, we traveled to Da Nang and then to the picturesque village of Hoi An, a former Southeast Asian trading port city conveniently nestled against the sea. The village was beautiful, as were its people. Food highlights of Hoi An include street food fried banana pancakes (note: fried), more Vietnamese coffee, and the regional food to end all foods: Cao Lau. I truly developed a passion for this dish, which was OK, because the meal shown below cost me less than 2 USD (ginger tea included!).
The major highlights of Hoi An, however, included biking through the countryside to villages surrounding the town, and motor biking along the coast in to Da Nang to see Marble Mountain and the “Lady Buddha” (Bodhisattva of Mercy) who overlooks the city. Another pro to these adventures is that I did not crash my motorbike – don’t worry, we weren’t going that fast, wore helmets, and were very careful!
I fell in love with the people in Vietnam. I displayed my affection by buying an excessive amount of clothing, jewelry, and other such gifts before leaving the country. Not only is bartering fun, but it also enables the barterer and the vendor to develop a sort of relationship. Merchants I bought from remembered me the next day. One merchant’s mother even did my hair in a beautiful bun when I came by the next day and offered me coffee and water. Through this process, I also noticed the autonomy of the women throughout the country. They were the shop proprietors and producers. If I approached a man working in the shop and inquired about an item, he would go ask his mom/sister/wife to come talk to me, most often. This was particularly obvious in Hoi An, the world’s emerging capital for tailor-made clothing. All of these shops were owned and operated by woman, and many of them were incredibly successful. I may or may not have purchased five clothing items.
I noticed this autonomy early on. It was further cemented after a visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi. Here, we learned that Vietnamese women were honored military veterans, benefitted by matrilineal society in many ethnic groups, and in many cases, major providers for their family. They are a strong group of individuals, and I think this is clear to any visitor of the country (the women’s museum is a trip advisor top attraction!).
Vietnam is still quite traditional. I was asked several times if I was married. I wear a gold Celtic knot ring on my right hand, which was often mistaken for a wedding ring. One of my most memorable encounters of the entire trip was on a plane ride from Hanoi to Da Nang. I sat in the middle of 5 Vietnamese men. They spoke essentially no English, but this did not stop our communication. It seemed every time I dozed off I would be tapped on the shoulder to observe something out the window or to have my watch pointed at in order to communicate how much longer was left on the flight. My ring was also a topic of “conversation” as the man next to me pointed my ring, and then to me, while I pointed to my left hand and shook my head “no”. We shook hands after disembarking and non-verbally bid one another safe travels. It was an enjoyable flight in the middle of a better-than-I-could-have-ever-imagined trip.
I already look forward to my next visit to Vietnam.