In terms of backpacking meccas, Vietnam isn’t as high on the list as, say Thailand or Western Europe, but it has all the trappings of a budget traveler’s paradise. First, the country is culturally exquisite, with northern hill tribes nestled in cascading rice terraces, to a southern delta people who live and thrive on the greatest river in Southeast Asia, to a national resiliency embodied by every person there, born from centuries of struggle for their only recent independence. Vietnam also has some of the most awe-inspiring scenery with coastlines, mountains, rivers, caves, and fields so majestic that they defy logic, transcending the stuff of dreams and make believe. Obviously, Vietnam has a special place in my heart. If I was forced to choose a country as my favorite to visit, the nation of red flag with yellow star may very well be it. The first time I stepped foot on Asian soil was last summer when I visited this place and by the end of my first week there, I just knew I would be coming back…next time with Jenna. Well, next time has arrived!
Last summer, I cut Vietnam off at the waist, essentially exploring most everything down to and including Hoi An, in the middle of the country and then bouncing to Cambodia. This time, one of the things I was looking forward to the most was exploring the southern capital of Ho Chi Minh City and locales south of it, particularly the Mekong Delta and its famous floating markets. As soon as we stepped foot outside Tan Son Nhat International Airport just north of the “HCMC”, it was evident – we weren’t in east Asia anymore. Taxi drivers and bus attendants barked at us vehemently as we made our way to the bus that would take us to the touristic center of town. Checking in to Kim Khoi hotel, I was reminded of how much better a place looks online when booking it than it does in real life. Nevertheless, we had arrived in backpacker alley: Pham Ngu Lao Street, akin to Khaosan Road in Bangkok, with its bumping bar scene, souvenir shops, and travel agencies every ten feet, if just a bit less crazed and a couple doses more of motorbike. The next day, we toured Cu Chi, which is part of a vast network of tunnels famously used during the Tet Offensive in 1968, and a good intro to what we’d encounter later that day at the Museum of War Remnants. This museum was dedicated to the “War of American Aggression” as some call it here. We began outside, in a plaza full of massive war machines seized from the Americans, all with plaques describing the firepower each was capable of and their numbers on the ground during the war. Walking around the side of the museum, we found pictures, accounts, and full-scale dioramas of detention centers used by American forces for torture and interrogation. These appalling images and stories behind them began to snowball into intense thoughts and feelings of anguish for all those who suffered, becoming ever more chilling once inside the museum. The interior held various exhibits detailing everything about the war, from the millions of lives that were lost, to the protests of the war that swept the world, to a series of powerful images shot by photojournalists, and crescendoing with the horrific effects of the chemical weapon, Agent Orange, on the Vietnamese people. Similar to the Cambodian genocide museum and killing fields I saw last year, this opened my eyes to an entire series of devastatingly unfortunate events hitherto I did not fully comprehend or appreciate. Jenna and I were both aghast that such levels of carnage and ruin could be perpetrated by anyone, and ashamed that it was our country that had committed these acts. After reflecting on everything we saw and learned there, I couldn’t help but hope that the war in Vietnam, whatever one chooses to call it, teaches us that conducting warfare, the like seen in there, is simply unconscionable and we cannot allow it to happen again.
The following day, we embarked on the single thing I wanted to do last year but simply didn’t get a chance to: explore the Mekong Delta. It’s not an easy trip and many of the most interesting things to do require either an intimate knowledge of the area or a guide. Without the time to develop the former, we opted to contact Susan Bui, who came highly recommended by TripAdvisor. I don’t generally tend to use TripAdvisor (or tour guides for that matter), but the reviews were all so glowing and I really wanted to get deep into the culture of the place in a short amount of time, so we gave her a chance. She definitely delivered. First off, Susan has a glowing personality and a kind smile that is backed up by her skills as a liaison to all things Mekong. Having grown up in Can Tho and studied tourism at the local university, she understood the value of customer service, flexibility, and speaking good English. After meeting us at the local bus station, Susan took us through a small river village where women cultivated plants for farmers in a sort of assembly line-esque nursery from seed to small plant, and we were able to see each step of this interesting process. Afterwards, we walked through a local rice processing factory to see the machinery and understand its outputs: whole grain rice, half/broken grain rice, rice powder, and rice husk. Nothing is wasted: the whole grain rice is eaten or sold, half grain is used mostly for animal feed, the powder for rice noodles and paper, and the husk for fuel and then the ash from the husk for fertilizer. After we picked out some local food at a country street market, Susan took us to a small commune of Khmer people (from Cambodia, which lies just 80 miles up the Mekong River) to visit a Buddhist temple. Although this was no Angkor Wat, the temple was just remodeled a few years ago and its shiny bright gold against the lush green backdrop of jungle, coupled with its quiet and remote setting (we were the only people there other than a few monks) made it one of the highlights of the tour. Later, Susan brought us to her house to meet and eat with her family. The Bui family lives on a few acres of rice fields outside the town of Binh Minh, across the river from the metropolis of Can Tho. As the sun went down on a fun day, Susan, Jenna and I made dinner and ate with her similarly super smiley and friendly family. Rising early the next morning to catch sunset on the Mekong River, we boarded a small wooden boat and headed out to see the highlight of the Mekong, the Cai Rang floating market. Hundreds of boats (some with tourists, like ours) were laden heavy with the stuff of fields – turnips, watermelons, cabbage, to name a few – and jostled deftly around one another to trade and sell in what amounted to a sort of aquatic farmer’s market. We ate breakfast on the river and after buying a few pineapples, were allowed to climb up on one of the bigger trading boats to look out over the organized chaos that was Cai Rang. Later, we toured a rice paper factory and were led step by step through the process of making this integral ingredient of pho noodles and spring rolls. We were actually invited to take part in the making, laying out the paper on bamboo mats for drying and then slicing dried paper into noodles. As another fun day with Susan on the Mekong came to a close, we retreated to our hotel for a much needed nap. Before heading back to HCMC to catch our flight to Hoi An, we used our last day in the region to tour around the countryside villages and forests on motorbikes.
After the rough-around-the-edges Mekong, we were really looking forward to Hoi An, the refined coastal town, famous for its long history of trade and plethora of custom tailors. Last year, when I visited Hoi An, I used the time to relax and make use of a few unused buffer days. I ended up dropping a cool $400 on two suits, six pairs of pants, 6 shirts, 6 ties, a pair of leather shoes, and a dress for Jenna. All were custom fitted and all used the finest of fabric. Even without the draw of super cheap custom clothing, the town itself is a well preserved piece of east Asian trading history, cementing its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We only had three days in Hoi An, and in order to really get our clothes custom fitted, tailored, refitted, and final fitted, we had to get a move on. But with a 24-hour bug in her, Jenna was not fit to meander the streets, enduring 95 degree weather, trying on clothes and negotiating with merchants. So, this gave us only two days to choose our clothes, have them made, fitted, and refitted – a tall task to be sure. So what did we do? We made that task even taller. What’s the one piece of clothing more intricate, ornate, special, and expensive than any other? That’s right, Jenna set out to have her wedding dress made in Hoi An. After visiting a handful of tailors and talking to them at length about the dress she wanted, she selected the renowned (in Hoi An, at least) AoBaBa custom design shop. Over the course of the next 33 hours, she tried on the dress about a half dozen times, and the tailors there worked on customizing it to perfection over the next two weeks. It’s exciting to think that they will ship it to the states, and in ten short months, I’ll finally get to see Jenna wearing it on our wedding day! For my part, I had a bunch (4 pair) of pants and (6) shirts made, along with another pair of shoes, all of which came to only $300. Although Hoi An may prove to be one of the priciest stops of the entire year, it will actually end up saving us thousands of dollars, considering the relative costs involved. It was a mad rush around Hoi An those two days, and we wished we had another day or two there to relax and really appreciate it, but we were excited for the next part of our trip, where we’d be meeting up with my parents!
Growing up, it’s not like we were jet setting on the regular, but as far back as I can remember, my family took off for a week or so every year. For a handful of years in a row, we drove the seemingly (at the time) interminable distance from northwestern Pennsylvania to North Carolina’s outer banks, and other times, with an extended family spread over the east coast, we would use our week of vacation as an excuse to visit and see them. Two trips defied that trend. Just before starting high school, our family went to the South American nation of Guyana for three weeks of volunteering. This trip, to what was then the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere (after Haiti), was pivotal in shaping my worldview and how I understood poverty, prejudice, and service. The other trip was to Israel and Greece during my junior year of high school, and if not as transformative, it certainly proved to pique my interest in travel, exploration, and interacting with people of different cultures. And although we’ve gone on other vacations since, to travel abroad with them again, 20+ years later, was more special than anything in Vietnam and was really the key element that made this part of our adventure year so significant.
It wasn’t without some hiccups though. First, a week before we were to meet them, we got word that my mom had broken a toe and would have trouble walking around…and if you’ve been following our adventures, you know that we do a lot of walking, hiking, trekking, biking, climbing, etc. in our travels. Then, on the morning we were to meet them at the Hanoi airport, we couldn’t find them. We waited for what felt like an hour and just before leaving to find some wifi to try and make contact, Jenna acquired a signal and got a message from my mom that they were at the other terminal looking for us! It all worked out in the end, but with such an inauspicious beginning to the trip, I wondered how the rest of it would go. As it turned out, nearly everything went swimmingly, and weather aside, I’m happy to report that we pretty much nailed it. The first thing we did with my parents was another cooking class, this time in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It started with a walk through a lively street market to pick out foods for our forthcoming meal, followed by an enjoyable course on how to cook spring rolls, lemongrass chicken, and, papaya salad (our favorite) and ended, naturally, with us eating our humble masterpiece. Even though I hadn’t ever considered taking a cooking class for fun before, they’ve turned out to be one of my favorite activities of the trip and it seems like my appreciation of food and awareness of taste has increased because of them.
After a day of museum walking in Hanoi, we headed to one of my favorite places in the world, Tam Coc. If you’re traveling to Vietnam, have only a few days and can only see one thing, despite the visual impressiveness of Halong Bay and the cultural intrigue of Sapa, I’d have to recommend Tam Coc, for a number of reasons. First, it’s less touristy than most places in Vietnam – in many cases you can be the only one alone at the top of a hike, a rarity in developed areas. Also, the place combines the grandeur of Halong Bay’s karst mountains with the simple beauty of Sapa’s rice fields, and the best part is that it’s all accessible by pedal bike. We toured a number of temples, caves, temples in caves, temples on top of mountains inside which were caves, all with a bright green backdrop of sprawling rice paddies until the eye hits the horizon. Our favorite day came when we rode our bikes (provided to us for free by the hotel) to Trang An, a nationally protected area of rivers, grottoes, mountains, lagoons, and temples. In total, we passed through nine grottoes, which are caves formed by rivers running through mountains, to four hidden temples, all of which are only accessible by taking boats through the grottoes on these underground rivers. And the cost of this experience? Well, we thought $7 was a bit steep for Vietnam prices until we passed through the first cave, which was nearly a kilometer long, with a hidden temple on the other side.
After a most pleasant time in Tam Coc, we made the short journey back to Hanoi in a (surprise to us) limousine bus in time to board the night train to Sapa. Really, the only way to get to Sapa, which is about 200 miles northwest of Hanoi, near the Chinese border, is by night train or night bus. After hearing my horror stories of the night buses in Vietnam last year, my parents opted for the albeit more expensive and slower night train out of comfort concerns. And I’ll admit, the night train was much nicer than the night bus, but was it five times nicer, as the price difference would indicate? Probably not. Nonetheless, we snagged a few hours of shut eye before dropping our bags at the (once again, not as nice as the online photos would suggest) Villa Sapa, before meeting our homestay host, Mee, to begin our trek. I trekked with Mee last year in Sapa, so I knew what was in store and had chosen to come to SaPa, given my parents’ propensity for hiking. But with my mom’s bum toe, we decided to cut the trek a bit short. Jenna and I did a full day trek the first day and my parents met up with us half way through; the next day we all opted for a half day trek again. The views in Sapa are absolutely incredible, with soaring mountains (including Vietnam’s highest, Fansipan at 3200 meters), cascading steeply down in terraced rice paddies to a verdant valley floor, and small villages of rustic homes scattered about. But the views aren’t even the best part about trekking in Sapa – it’s the homestay with a local family. Most homestays are packaged tours from Hanoi and are relatively inexpensive, but I had heard about Mee from a friend of a friend, and her’s is the real thing. Mee lives in a minority village of the Black H’mong hill tribe, known for their dark indigo jackets with brightly colored embroidery and leg warmers. Her house is simple, with dirt floor and a ladder to get upstairs, but she made us feel very welcomed. Jenna was able to learn about northern Vietnamese cooking from Mee and her daughter, Gee, and we all agreed that Mee’s meal was one of the best we’d had in Vietnam. In general, Sapa is quite a touristic place, but if you take a chance on one of the multitudes of hill tribe women who flock to the tourist busses when they arrive in the town’s center square, you may just get lucky and find your own guide, like Mee, to lead you out of the tourist rut and into their world.
I knew it would be hard to top experiences like Tam Coc and Sapa, so I left the granddaddy of Vietnam sites until the end: Halong Bay. The day after leaving Sapa, we headed toward the famed emerald seas of Tonkin, studded by massive limestone karsts jutting out from water’s surface like crocodile teeth. Similar to the trekking homestay tours in Sapa, most people visit Halong Bay on packaged tours from the big city…not us. In fact, we decided to go to the less traveled island of Cat Ba to relax and explore the less touristy but equally impressive southern cousin of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay. Unlike Halong, with access restricted by UNESCO rules, visitors can travel freely around any and all parts of Lan Ha Bay. After a bit of shopping, we found a day trip with the climbing company on island that promised to take us away from any other tourist boats, which was exactly what we were hoping for. Our guides were great and we didn’t see more than a couple other tourist boats the whole day as we kayaked around floating fishing villages, homes, and aquaculture farms, all of which reside in the shadow of the colossal limestone formations. The tour ended on a small beach stretching out from the mouth of a cave on an island in the bay. As most everyone else waded on the beach, I chose to explore the upper reaches of the cave for one of the most beautiful views of my life. As everyone was heading back to their kayaks, it was hard to drag myself away from this image of an emerald Lan Ha Bay, with an uninhabited beach in the foreground and the towering karsts behind, all framed by the mouth of the cave. But my pace was hastened by the knowledge that as soon as we got back to Cat Ba Island, the fam and I would be enjoying a vegetarian hot pot. The real reason we opted for Cat Ba Island in the first place, in addition to it being less touristic and slightly cheaper, is because it holds the best rock climbing in all of Vietnam. Unfortunately, rain struck early in the morning the next day and we weren’t able to climb – one of two days that our plans were stymied by a weather (we also didn’t get to explore more of Sapa on motorbikes because of rain) – so we had to come up with a plan B. We opted to split the difference and take motorbikes around Cat Ba. Since we only had a half day left, we rode to the national park and hiked to one of the highest peaks on the island for what would be our last vista grande of Vietnam.
I knew Jenna and my parents would enjoy Vietnam and we all wished we had just another day or two in each place. But time is fleeting and vacations cost money. On the flip side, we thought, “You know what, why not check out Cambodia too?!” You really can’t come to southeast Asia without at least thinking of seeking Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious complex, nestled in the central Cambodian lowlands. With only two days to work with there, after travel time, we decided to go to a Cambodian cooking class on our first day. The class was a lot different than our prior classes, which aimed to help us understand and appreciate the nuances of the recipe and worked at a leisurely pace, allowing us to soak in the experience. This class, however, was cooking boot camp. If the first few classes were like baking cookies with grandma, this class was like an episode of one of those reality cooking shows where the head chef bellows out orders to his cook staff and has little time for small talk. Although we felt hurried, the food was tremendous and varied, as each of us prepared two different dishes. But by the end of the class, especially after eating all that amazing food, we were ready for a nap! Despite reports that promised rain all day, the weather held off for our first day in Cambodia. But we were really hoping it would hold off for our second.
At 5:00 am on day two, we headed out into the darkness of Siem Reap on our bicycles with the goal of watching the sun rise over the world’s largest temple, Angkor Wat. As the light began to appear on the eastern horizon, hundreds, possibly a thousand, people milled around on the banks of Angkor’s reflecting pools. Soon after sunrise, people began filing into the temple, traversing its maze of corridors, and climbing to its highest points. Despite the throngs of people awaiting the sunrise in front of Angkor Wat, the shear size of the building itself seemed to dwarf their numbers, as we felt like some of the only people on the grounds by the time we made our way to the back of the complex. With the sun rising and temperatures following, we knew it was time to move on, so we jumped back on our 5-speeds and headed to Ta Prohm, the temple of the trees. Already famous but made moreso by the movie Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm is like a lost city, totally overtaken by the jungle with vast webs of trees and roots growing around doorways, up pillars and along walls. Further on in the primary temple circuit is Bayon, the temple of faces. A hundred massive stone faces, each at least five feet tall, adorn the stupas of this most central of Angkorian buildings. Walking around all of these 1000+ year old monuments of civilizations past, we were thrown into wonderment: How could the Khmer empire, once the largest in the world, have sustained such power for so long to enable it to construct so many architectural monuments of this magnitude? And how many people must have worked on building and crafting them? And how long must it have taken for someone to carve a single panel or a single face or a single column? And then we remembered, the answers to those questions remains locked away, only accessible by those who know how to use the secret technique called Google search.
As our time with my parents wound to a close in the Bangkok airport, we tried to savor the moment and let each other know how grateful we all were to have been able to spend this special time together. We all knew it would be another ten months until we’d see each other again. Ours was a whirlwind trip in Vietnam to be sure; from its southern deltas to its charming cities and sweeping vistas of bright green fields, sheer limestone cliffs and aquamarine waters, the place won our hearts in only three week’s time. It’s hard to put into words how much this trip in Vietnam, meant to Jenna and I, particularly because much of it was with my parents, but it will certainly be remembered often, recounted many times over, and considered one of the highlights of our lives. So, have you bought your ticket to Vietnam yet? Well, what are you waiting for?!