Vietnam was high on my list of countries to visit. After traversing south to north for two weeks, I only wanted more. Vietnam is a special place. I think many Americans, especially of my parents’ generation, think of it only as that far away place we went to war with. But it is – and always has been – so much more.
It’s a beautiful country, with everything you could want geographically — mountains, caves, beaches, countryside and this. The major cities we visited, Saigon and Hanoi, are incredibly modern and bustling and the people are industrious and entrepreneurial. It seems like everyone is running some type of shop outside his or her home property.The countryside is beautiful, with plenty of traditional ways of life (fishing, weaving, cooking) still happening every day. The locals we met were friendly, playful and welcoming. And the food. Damn, we had some good meals.
In Saigon, we got a better understanding of the country’s complicated history with imperialism, including 10,000 years of Chinese rule, followed by 150 years of French rule, a bit of time under the thumb of the Japanese, followed by the war with the US. While of course there is plenty of propaganda at the museums, it’s impossible to deny that these years of imperialism had a lasting negative impact on the local economy. And while we learn in school about the Vietnam war, I don’t remember getting too much information about why we were there in the first place, other than the blanket statement “to fight communism.”
Of course, reality is always more complicated, but even after being in Saigon, I still don’t understand why so many innocent people were killed in the name of “democracy.” Seeing photos and hearing stories of war victims was disturbing and difficult, but also humbling and eye-opening. I’m grateful for the different perspective on the Vietnam War (called, notably, the American War by the Vietnamese) and to not be able to forget the actions of the past.
In Hoi An, we ate. A lot. This is the foodie capital of Vietnam and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its blend of culture and architecture. It’s an adorable old city and aptly called the “city of lights” for the hundreds of Chinese lanterns that hang all over the city and are lit up every night. Each area of Vietnam has its own local food traditions and Hoi An’s was definitely our favorite.
We also did a great bicycle tour of the countryside with Heaven and Earth Bicycle Tours. It was a full day tour with a group but it still felt personalized and not touristy. We visited a bunch of villages that are largely self-sustaining through fishing, cooking and local artistry and it was fascinating to see communities that are still thriving via traditional ways of life.
From there, we headed north to Hanoi. It’s loud and busy and so totally intoxicating. The city really comes alive at night, with people eating, drinking and walking around until all hours of the night. We did a street food tour that we’d highly recommend with Kevin Tihn, a local chef who spent 4.5 hours with us (it ended up being a private tour that night) stuffing our bellies with so many local dishes that we would never have dared to eat on our own…like quail egg embryos and sea worm hamburgers and snails. We said no to the dog on the stick (yes, literally dog meat served on a stick), but short of that, we threw digestive caution to the wind and had a hell of a time eating our way through Hanoi.
To finish out our time in Vietnam, we landed in the beautiful Lan Ha Bay, next to the famous Ha Long Bay, for a two day kayak / rock climbing / SUP adventure followed by an acro yoga workshop with Asia Outdoors. This meant we didn’t have time to go back to Northern Thailand before we leaving for NY, but it was worth it. Asia Outdoors is an awesome company run by a bunch of rock climbers. They were relaxed but still organized and professional, and we loved our time exploring Lan Ha Bay and the fishing villages that exist all around.
The acro yoga workshop, too, was really fun and took place outdoors on a farm in a beautiful valley. For two days, we learned some cool acrobatic tricks and connected with some lovely people.
All in all, Vietnam was a great part of our round the world trip and we’re looking forward to getting back there one day!