Travel Dates: March 12-27, 2017
Good Morning Vietnam! It’s taken 34 years but I’ve finally made it back to my ancestral motherland.
My parents (independently) fled Vietnam in the early 80’s after the Vietnam War. My mom was a young mother of three left widowed by the war and my father was a former soldier in the southern army. They were one of the lucky few “boat people” that made it safely to one of the Asian refugee camps before resettling in the United States. Statistics vary but roughly about 2-3 million Vietnamese fled the country from 1975-1990 and it is estimated that about 250k died at sea. My parents would later meet, fall in love and have me.
I was nervous to tour Vietnam. There was so much about the history and culture that was foreign, even to me. I didn’t know what Amit and I were getting ourselves into but what we encountered (people, food, sights) completely blew us away!
Ho Chi Minh City
Accommodations: The Reverie
Our first destination on our tour through Vietnam started in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named but still often referred to as Saigon. It was a quick 45 minute flight from Phnom Penh. We landed in the evening, eager to explore but more anxious to eat!
The streets of Vietnam were just as I had always envisioned them to be with hundreds of motorbikes zipping in all directions through the tree lined boulevards. You will find as many as four people (babies and young children included) piled onto one bike! It is also common to see several drivers transporting goods, balancing oversized boxes, large clunky fans, or heavy bags of rice on the back of their motos like NBD.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit, you will find that life happens on the sidewalks. Commerce, social gatherings, meals, even groomings and naps take place on the sidewalks of Vietnam. Unlike in western countries, sidewalks here are not typically reserved for pedestrian traffic. Instead they are commonly utilized as parking spaces (sometimes even roads) for the 35 million motorbikes found in Vietnam. It is also where makeshift restaurants sprout up with their low plastic tables and stools, where women in the ubiquitous conical hats roam up and down with their milkmaid yokes slung over their shoulders peddling fruits and vegetables, and where you will often find an old man propped up on his plastic chair catching some zzz’s, despite all the noise and chaos that surrounds him. Be sure to find a seat at any of the sidewalk coffee shops (there are tons!), order a Cà Phê Sữa Dá (drip coffee with condensed milk over ice) and enjoy the people watching!
An extreme word of caution, crossing the street can prove to be a challenge for any newcomers like myself and Amit. At first we were unsure when to step foot onto the street, given our overwhelming fear of getting ran over, especially when it seemed like there was a never ending flow of traffic. But we took cues from the locals and, against our intuition, crossed the streets in the midst of all the traffic and ‘trusted’ that the drivers would simply maneuver around us like a school of fish. We essentially looked like ‘ducks crossing the road’ but hey it worked.
I know I’m a little (maybe a Lot) biased, but Vietnamese food is far and away our favorite type of cuisine. I scoured the internet for all the best food blog articles pertaining to Vietnam, researched all the places Anthony Bourdain ate, and combed through all the reviews on google to locate all the best places to eat. I then took Amit on a self guided food tour through Saigon. Here were some of our favorites:
The best bánh mì sandwich can be found at Bánh Mì 37 Nguyen Trai. I’m still salivating over those delicious grilled pork patties in the soft yet perfectly crisp baguette roll loaded with thick cuts of crunchy cucumber and drizzled with the most amazing secret sauce ever…all for less than $1 USD.
A great place to have Bánh Xèo (sizzling cake), a savory crepe accompanied with fresh herbs and nước mam (fish sauce), is Bánh Xèo 46A.
If you know me, you know that my favorite food is noodles (all kinds – I don’t discriminate). So to satisfy our noodle craving we headed to Bún Thịt Nướng Chi Tuyen, which serves a delicious bowl of rice vermicelli, marinated grilled pork, topped with copious amounts of fresh herbs and dressed with some tangy nước mam. But the best part was the crispy fried chả giò (eggroll) on the side that tasted just like my mom’s.
To get a better sense of the culture and history, we organized a couple unique tours through Trails of Indochina. On our first day in HCMC we met up with Cau, a local professor, who took us on a fascinating architectural tour through the city. We visited the Jade Emperor Pagoda (also commonly known as the fertility pagoda), checked out the Archbishop’s Palace, strolled through the grounds of the University of Social Science and Humanities which was formerly the military barracks for the French, stood in front of Saigon’s old opium refinery, and ended at the former home of US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. It was an awesome way to see the city and learn more about the Chinese, French, and American influence on Vietnamese culture and architecture.
But the most memorable activity in Saigon was visiting Bung Sang (district 5), a home of 50 blind children founded by blind musician, Dao Khanh Truong. After Dao’s death, the home was entrusted into the care of the Sisters from the Lovers of the Holy Cross. There we met with the children, gained some insight into their lives and were even treated to some lovely songs sung by the charismatic kids.
Afterwards we dined in the dark at Noir where blind waiters lead us to our table and served us a multi-course menu. It was quite an experience having a meal in pitch darkness (literally no difference between eyes closed or open). With our sight temporarily suspended, we were forced to rely on other senses to guide us through dinner. Food was pretty mild so as to not overwhelm the taste buds, but the overall experience was unforgettable. Definitely worth trying at least once in your lifetime.
Accommodations: La Residence
After an incredible time in Saigon, we hopped on a short flight to Huế, the former imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty (the country’s last ruling family) in central Vietnam. Unfortunately Huế suffered substantial damage during what the Vietnamese refer to as “the American War.” Only 10 of 160 historical structures were left standing. Fortunately the buildings that do remain are undergoing restoration and preservation.
As we’ve traveled, we’ve discovered one of the best way to gain more insight into the history and culture is to take a private tour with a local. We were picked up at our hotel by our guide and driven to the tomb of Khải Định, the twelfth king of Nguyễn Dynasty, located in the Chau Chu Mountain. Next we made our way to the Imperial City where we walked the grounds of what used to be the emperor’s former home (A.K.A. The Purple Forbidden City). Finally, our last stop was the seven-story Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. We ended our tour with a relaxing cruise back to our hotel along the Perfume River aboard a traditional dragon longboat.
I first learned about Agent Orange in the car ride to Bung Sang in Saigon. Agent Orange is an herbicide chemical used by the U.S. Military in the Vietnam War to destroy forested land thereby depriving guerrillas of food and coverage. This caused devastating health consequences for millions of Vietnamese people who were exposed to the chemical. It is estimated that up to one million people are disabled or have health problems as a result of the contamination. Its effects do not end there. Research shows that Agent Orange damages genes, causing descendants deformities generations later. As a result there is an overwhelming number of disabled children either born to poor families that cannot afford to properly care for them or are orphaned.
One of the most amazing qualities of my people is the strong sense of community. Several orphanages have been established to care for the disabled children. Many of these orphanages are solely funded by the local community whose members all pitch in to help care for the children. Trung tâm Bảo trợ Trẻ em Khuyết tật chùa Long Thọ (Center for Disabled Children) is one such orphanage. There we met with a Nun to learn more about the organization and the children’s lives. Afterwards we toured the classrooms, met the children, passed out treats, and made a small donation to the center.
Next stop, Hoi An via a 3 hour scenic drive over the Hai Van Pass.
Accommodations: Le Royal
Hội An is an exceptionally well-preserved former trading port town. Today, the old historical district of Hội An is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Interestingly, it is the only town in Vietnam with most of its traditional architecture intact. The narrow pedestrian-only streets and colorful silk lanterns strung about only add to the old town’s irresistible charm.
On our first day in Hội An, we borrowed a couple bikes from the hotel and set out to explore. Cycling around the city isn’t as leisurely as it sounds, though it is quite adventurous. Similar to crossing the road in Saigon, it’s a bit of challenge and must be approached like one is playing a video game. The only rule that applies is you must not hit anything. Pedestrians, motorbikes, other cyclist will at times present obstacles but the ultimate test is making it through a four-way intersection unscathed. Do not depend on any traffic regulations to help, there are none! It’s chaotic but exhilarating, an experience you would probably only get in Southeast Asia.
We had such a great time on our Vespa Tour in Cambodia, that we decided to take another one in Hội An. It was a perfect opportunity to get out of the old quarter and see the beautiful countryside from the back of a vintage Vespa scooter.
We visited a traditional boat building yard, learned the art of mat weaving and Bánh Tráng (rice crackers) making, crossed a rickety 300 meter bamboo bridge as we made our way to the Tra Que Fishing Village before ending with a traditional lunch in the middle of the serene rice paddie fields.
Before taking us back to town, our guides were kind of enough to give Amit a tutorial on how to drive a scooter. Let’s just say he narrowly popped a wheelie into the rice fields. Luckily I captured the footage on camera.
Hội An is up there with one of the most picturesque and charming places we’ve been to. It was a perfect opportunity for Amit to take a photography class with an expat Frenchman to sharpen his skills. We’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Accommodations: La Siesta Trendy
Continuing our journey North, we made our way to Hanoi, capital of reunified Vietnam. We checked into La Siesta Trendy, an artistic contemporary hotel located in the old quarter. We booked a beautiful balcony suite, with boasting views of the cityscape. Unbeknownst to us, this beautiful spacious balcony had drainage issues that we would soon discover (more on this later).
We kicked things off with one of our all time favorite traveling activities, a food tour! Tuan, our guide for the evening took us on the best food tour of our entire trip. His passion for Vietnamese cuisine, culture and country really came through as he proudly showed us around the streets of Hanoi like we were old friends. We ate at the most obscure food stalls and seemingly sketchy hole in the wall restaurants that only locals would know about but these turned out to be some of the best dishes we’ve ever tasted.
The following day was dedicated to visiting three philanthropic organizations whose founders all had the same mission in mind: providing job skills for the disadvantaged. As the saying goes, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
First we had lunch at KOTO (Know One, Teach One), a restaurant and training center founded by Jimmy Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian who on a trip to Vietnam was shocked at the living conditions of street kids he had encountered. He figured the best way to help was to provide culinary training and job placement to at-risk youths in an effort to end the cycle of poverty.
Next we visited Thương Binh Liệt Sĩ who has dedicated his entire life to helping the less fortunate. He provides housing and vocational training for his students and his humanitarian work is primarily self-funded.
Our last stop of the day was Hold the Future, founded by Le Minh Hien who began producing handicrafts as a form of income after a terrible car accident left her handicapped. She realized she could help others like her by passing on her knowledge and providing employment opportunities through arts and crafts. We spent the rest of the afternoon helping (more like hindering) the students as they worked on their origami craft projects. My little asian fingers are just not as nimble as I thought…
The next morning we woke up bright and early to head to Halong Bay. Little did we know, as we peacefully slept, excess rain from the balcony flooded our entire room. There was so much water, that one of Amit’s flip flops floated to the other side of the room! Fortunately I never leave my belongings on the floor; unfortunately Amit doesn’t practice the same habits. His backpack and its contents (laptop included) sat in a one inch pool of water all night. What really took us by surprise was how the hotel responded to the incident. They comped us not one but two nights, immediately took Amit’s macbook to an Apple dealer for inspection and arranged our airport transfer free of charge. It’s service like this that make us want to come back, even after our little fiasco.
Hạ Long Bay
Accommodations: The Violet
Legend has it a family of dragons descended from the heavens to help ancient Vietnamese people defend their country from foreign invaders. The Mother Dragon and her children scattered giant emeralds around the battlefields to form an impenetrable wall, defeating the enemy. Fast forward thousands of years, these scattered emeralds formed into thousands of islands and islets now known as Halong Bay (Descending Dragon).
I have always dreamed of visiting Halong Bay ever since I first saw breathtaking images of the of the towering limestone pillars, islets, and the calm majestic emerald water. When we started thinking about the Southeast Asian portion of our tour, we knew we wanted to spend a couple nights on a boat, floating down the bay amongst the 1,969 islands. Through Trails of Indochina, we booked an Imperial Suite on board The Violet, a traditional deluxe junk on the Heritage Line. You can choose between 1 or 2 day tours. We suggest doing the 2 day excursions so you have more time to relax and enjoy the cruise.
We spent the next couple days taking in the beautiful sights. During our downtime, we would just sit on the balcony or lay on our bed and stare out in awe at the massive limestone pillars.
One afternoon we visited a floating fishing village in the Cua Van area. It is rare to see these kinds of communities in existence because most have disbanded and relocated onto land to give the children better access to education.
The following day after an early morning session of Tai Chi, we were transferred to the day boat where we joined by Mary and Wolf, a lovely Aussie couple on holiday. Together we all explored the Surprise Cave (the largest cave in Halong Bay measuring 10,000 square meters), kayaked the waters around the Luon Cave attempting to stay clear of the hundreds of Chinese tourist boated in for the day and toured a Pearl Factory. It was a perfect day and a perfect ending for our memorable trip to Vietnam.