A recap of our incredible trip to Vietnam, which brought us to Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay and Hanoi.
Wow guys. So Vietnam...
Every trip I take changes me in some little way, but Vietnam truly had a profound impact. Interacting with the people, learning about the history and seeing the simplicity of life gave me a new and deeper appreciation and understanding of my own.
When we told people we were going to Vietnam, the most common response was a confused "Why?" Vietnam is still very much associated with war, much more so than Germany, Korea, Japan and other countries where war is a semi-recent memory.
We really didn't know what to expect when we booked our trip. Southeast Asia was always high on our bucket list and I had a special interest in Vietnam, mainly because Anthony Bourdain (my celebrity crush) frequently cites it as his favorite country. We found a great deal on a Gate 1 tour of Vietnam, on a whim (and one bottle of wine) we booked it!
What we learned was that despite having a history dominated by war, the Vietnamese were the kindest, most helpful people we've ever met. They truly just want you to love their country and experience all the wonderful things about it.
We also learned that although it's a poor country...it's not really. There's almost no unemployment (the rate's about 2%) and practically zero homelessness. We saw one person begging on the first day. That's it. It may look poor compared to Western standards, but people are comfortable with a simpler kind of life.
Politically, we weren't sure what to expect. We had to get visas because technically we were visiting a communist country. But it's communist in name only. I call it diet communist. Although it's a single party, communist (and pretty corrupt) government, it's a free market economy. Out of the 90 million who live in Vietnam, only 2 million are part of the communist party.
Next week, I'm going to share a post on the incredible food we enjoyed and links so you can make it at home, but until then, here's a recap of our trip!
SAIGON/HO CHI MINH CITY
After a 14 hour flight next to the worlds smelliest man (no really), followed by a 3 hour layover and another 4 hour flight, we finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. You probably know it best from the picture of Americans escaping to a helicopter after the fall of Saigon, which ended the war. Now it's the largest and most modern city in Vietnam.
After meeting the rest of the group and our (fantastic!) tour guide Tuyen, we started our day with a walking tour of Dong Khoi, a neighborhood once nicknamed 'Paris of the Orient' from when the French colonized Vietnam. We visited French buildings from that era like the Municipal Theater, old Post Office, City Hall and Notre Dame Cathedral. The highlight of the tour was exploring the alleyways most middle-class Vietnamese call home. They live in very narrow (like, 5 ft wide), tall homes, living in the top floors and keeping the bottom floor open for business - selling street food, produce or other goods. It felt really special to get a glimpse into everyday life.
After lunch, we took a bus out to the Cu Chi tunnels. These were impossibly narrow tunnel complexes used for guerilla warfare during Vietnam war - most were only 2 ft wide yet they spanned hundreds of miles. While it was fascinating to learn how they were made and used, it was pretty awful to think about. A place you definitely need to go, but no where I want to go back.
By the time we got back it was dark, so Scott and I went out to explore the city at night. We ended up picking up dinner and enjoying it in the big square in front of City Hall. It was absolutely gorgeous lit up at night! After dinner, we went to the rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel, which overlooked City Hall and the brightly lit square. The Rex was an important place for American military activities, both social and strategic during the war, and they definitely were running with that old nostalgia! They had the cheesiest cover band playing pop songs from the sixties and seventies. I debated sharing a couple videos we took, but I just don't think I can bear having a video of me dancing and lip syncing for permanent view on the internet.
After an early flight followed by a quick stop for pictures and a beer at China Beach, we arrived in Hoi An for a walking tour. Hoi An was hands down the prettiest town we visited. It's long history as a trading port has given it a unique mix of architectural styles - warm yellow French-colonial homes, intricately carved dark teak wood tube houses, and brightly colored Chinese assembly halls line the flower filled streets. There's also great shopping! Some highlights from the walking tour were the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall (I took about 500 pictures of the pretty tiled floors!), the market, and the Japanese Covered Bridge.
Our second day in Hoi An, Scott and I went off on our own and visted My Son, the remains of a complex of Hindu temples built from the 4-14th centuries. The site was pretty heavily damaged during the Vietnam War - you can see the holes from bombs pockmarking the site - it's still incredible. We got there early and were some of the first people at the remote site, so it felt like we were discovering it ourselves. For me, My Son was the highlight of our trip! There's something romantic about old ruins, imagining all the lives
We got back to Hoi An in time for lunch then spent the rest of the time wandering the city and shopping until our Vespa street food tour that night. More on that in next weeks post!
As a city itself, I didn't love Hue. I found it depressing - maybe because it poured the whole time, or maybe because of it's tragic history. Still, the Imperial City and tombs we visited were stunning.
After arriving in Hue, we took a walking tour of the Imperial City built by the Emperor in the early 1800s. The massive complex was damaged during the Tet Offensive, but most of it is well restored except for the Forbidden Purple City, where only the emperor, queen and his concubines were allowed. I couldn't get over all the gorgeous distressed red and yellow palette! After our tour, Scott and I went off with another couple from our group, went to a museum, walked around the market and ate street food until it got dark.
The next day, our group took a boat cruise down the Perfume River, stopping at the tombs and pagodas lining the countryside outside of Hue. First stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda, which translates to Source of Happiness Tower (love it!!). We also explored the monks quarters out back and learned more about Buddhism (60% of the country is Buddhist?). Then we went to the royal tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh, which sits in this gorgeous location in the mountains. Even though it's only 100 years old, it looks much older than that as time has blackened the concrete structure. From there, we visited the tomb of Tu Duc, then enjoyed an incredible vegetarian lunch prepared by female Buddhist monks. Because Hue is a Buddhist hub, there's a ton of vegetarian food. YAY!!
After lunch, Scott and I went back out on our own to visit the tomb of Minh Mang. I think it was the most beautiful of the tombs we visited. There were only three other people at the site so it felt really special to be there. Plus, we got a break in the rain, although it was still muddy (as Scott learned the hard way - keep scrolling!)
Halong Bay...no words. Okay, I do have a few words, but none to fully describe how stunning it was. One of the New Seven Wonders of the Natural World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong is a large bay filled with thousands of tall, limestone islands. The unique geology was formed by tectonic action and erosion, which created a labyrinthe of oddly shaped islands jutting up from the sea. We took a cruise of the bay, first stopping to visit a cave called the Grotte des Merveilles, then winding our way through the less trafficked areas of the bay. Everywhere you looked there was a new and equally gorgeous landscape!
I just loved Hanoi. There was something really charming about the city. Walking the streets, everywhere you looked there was life happening. I pinpoint any single reason, but I kept thinking to myself, "I could totally live here."
The first night we were there, we got in late, so a group of us went out for beers. They have these little stands all around the city where you just pull up a seat and they serve you (pretty crappy watered down) pitchers of beer for about 10 cents. While the beer isn't that great, it's a fun experience and great people watching! After that, we walked all over the bustling area around our hotel, stopping for street food and more crappy, watered down beer.
The next day, we took a walking tour of the city. First we explored the Old Quarter, where each street specializes in selling a different type of good. From there, we went to the political hub and visited Ho Chi Minh's tomb. While the tomb itself wasn't anything special, it was fascinating to learn how important he is to the Vietnamese. I always thought of him as this 'bad' Communist guy, but we learned he actually wanted Vietnam to join the United States some 20 years before the war so they could gain independence from France. Visiting his tomb is a huge deal to many Vietnamese - our guide, very much against the communist party, told us with tears in his eyes how heartbroken he was to not be able to fulfill his grandmothers lifelong dream of visiting his tomb.
We spent the rest of the morning at the Hoa Lo Prison, then the Museum of Ethnology. It was really fascinating to learn about the ethnic minorities in Vietnam from our guide, who is also a professor of ethnic minorities. After a lunch break, we went to a water puppet show, which historically was done in flooded rice fields for entertainment. We spent the rest of the day wandering around town and shopping, essentially finishing our Christmas shopping!
The next day, we wandered around the city with two other couples from our tour. We visited the Temple of Literature, which was packed with students taking graduation pictures then wandered around the picturesque Hoan Kien lake. After a late lunch, Scott and I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city, shopping, exploring markets and eating random street food. We wrapped up our last night there with dinner with the group before heading to a pub with our new friends!
Stay tuned next Wednesday for a recap of the incredible food we had (the street food!!) and fun produce finds at the market!