“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate…”
Why Vietnam? My husband and I are baby boomers, the Vietnam War was our war with all of its heart-breaking tragedy. We knew people who went and came back and some who didn’t. But most of all we had heard stories about the people, the beautiful landscape, the food, and the gorgeous architecture, which brought us to Vietnam. Which brings me to reason number one for going to Vietnam:
Vietnamese People and their Culture – We traveled to parts of the north and central Vietnam, and while there are clearly differences in the people and cultures of the two locations, the people were incredibly friendly, warm, hospitable, and always greeting with a smile wherever we were.
While we have never taken tour guide vacations, Vietnam is a long country, and as a foreigner you cannot rent a car, and so looking at our options, I decided having a local tour guide was the best. I highly recommend this option! We learned so much from our Vietnamese guides, one being from Hanoi by the name of Huong, who took us around Hanoi, to SaPa, Ninh Bìhn, and Bac Ha and the other from Da Nang by the name of Tommy, who took us to Hué and Hôi An. Due to their birth places, their life experiences were so different, and it was great to really hear about Vietnam from each perspective.
One of our sweetest experiences during our visit, was on our last day, walking around Hoàn Kiém Lake in Hanoi. On the weekends, the streets in the old quarter of Hanoi are closed off from motorized transportation, so that people can get out and walk around and enjoy the lake area without the concern for traffic. As we were walking we started to get stopped by groups of young school children whose parents/teachers asked if we would speak English with them. They were given a list of questions to ask us, and we answered. It was so heart-warming and funny, we truly had a wonderful time conversing with so many of the children. Whether you are in Hanoi on a weekend or during the week, taking a walk around Hoàn Kiém Lake is a delightful respite from the hectic urban life.
Scenery – The scenery in Vietnam is spectacular, and we didn’t even get to half of it! I wanted to go to Sa Pa, which is in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwestern Vietnam. To get to this location I would definitely recommend getting a tour guide. After we went there and travelled in the most treacherous mountain roads I have ever been on in my life (due to torrential rains that had been occurring days earlier, not being the best roads regardless of weather, and then partly due to the Vietnamese way of driving with motorbikes, trucks, cars, and vans all making three lanes out of two or even one lane), I was extremely happy to have a professional driver!
Sa Pa is a popular base for trekkers, and it reminds me of a ski village without the snow. The food here was delicious due to the local farmers. You must get the pumpkin soup if it is offered!
Side Note: Bac Ha is known specifically for the local farmers markets in which many of the Hill people of the area sell their food and wares.
When you see photos of the terraced rice fields of Vietnam, it is from this area, the Muong Hoa Valley. The Hill Tribes of Hmong, Tay, and Dao make up most of the population.
There were two reasons I wanted to come here, scenery and to meet the women of the Hmong and Red Dao Hill Tribes, and see their embroidery and indigo dyed wares. This ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. We walked with four women of the Red Dao and were graciously invited to one of their homes. We purchased, embroidered cloth, scarves, and a small purse. It was so delightful spending that time with them, seeing how they lived, and asking us to come back and stay with them! They were so proud of their handiwork and the indigo dyeing of their garments. They make their living selling their handiwork, as well as farming, selling their produce at the local farmer markets. While they live a very meager life in terms of possessions, they have such a rich life in community and creative handiwork. My husband and I were each given two embroidered bracelets and wished good fortune as they tied them on our wrists, which we still wear to remember these amazing women.
The other place we went to for the scenic portion of our trip was Ninh Bình. I recommend that you go on a boat ride in Trang An and to go early to try to beat the crowds. You are taken on a small rowing boat usually by a woman (our rower didn’t look like she weighed more than 100 lbs.) who takes you on a 2 hour tour through caves, temples, lakes, and along the beautiful karsts (limestone mountains). Taking a bike ride along the rice fields is another excursion that would have offered a different view of this beautiful area, but it was over 100 degrees F (not including dew point), and we just weren’t up for that.
Food – is the third reason to visit Vietnam. The Vietnamese know how to cook. Our guide in the southern region broke down the restaurants for us, food for locals only, food for Vietnamese, and food for tourists. He said, with the first you may get sick, and with the last you will get poor quality, so shoot for the middle. Just make sure you try the following:
Goi (salads, but no lettuce)
Bun ChaGoi cuôn (spring rolls)
Ca Kho To (caramelized fish in clay pot)
Rau muong (morning glory – greens stir fried with garlic)
Architecture – is the fourth reason to travel to Vietnam. Really, architecture and history go hand in hand. Vietnam is one of the oldest cultures in Southeast Asia dating back to 2000 BC. The country has been influenced by China, India, the Khmer and the French. The French colonization, in and of itself, was horrific for the Vietnamese people. The only thing left behind from that difficult era are beautiful buildings of which many are in disrepair, yet still lovely. The many temples and pagodas throughout the country tell another aspect of the history of the Vietnamese people.
While we went to Hué, for reasons that have to do with the Battle of Hué during the Vietnam War, we visited what would become our favorite pagoda, Thien Mu Pagoda or Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. This was the only pagoda that we saw Buddhist monks. It was such a peaceful, serene, beautiful place that I highly recommend.
Hué is in central Vietnam (was considered South Vietnam during the war), and was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors and the national capital from 1802 – 1945. Tour through the 19th century Dai Nôi Citadel which includes the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City and a replica of the Royal Theatre.
Hoang A Tuong is an example of the fusion of Vietnamese and French architecture located in Bac Ha. It was built for one of the Hmong Kings by the French between 1914-1921.
Hôi An is another city in central Vietnam that was a major port and shows that in its eclectic mix of architecture from wooden Chinese shophouses and temples, the Japanese Covered Bridge with its pagoda, colorful French colonial buildings and Vietnamese tube houses. The ancient town is its most beautiful at night when all of the lanterns strung over the street are lit and glowing against the river.
Experiencing – a completely different way of life is the 5th reason to visit Vietnam. Walking across a street in Hanoi is truly a death defying feat. My husband sees it is as an aquarium where there are all size fish swimming haphazardly right towards each other without bumping into one another. There are 5 million motorbikes in Hanoi, and it seems like no adherence to stopping. A family of four could be on one, or someone carrying their wares on another, or someone carrying their produce to market so that some may become 6 feet wide. Seeing how the people live, the shophouses, the street food vendors, the rice field farmers and the Hill Tribes all part of a country with 54 different ethnicities. Vietnam should be on the top of your travel list!