|(Most of our trips revolve around trying to eat as|
much of the local food as we can. Vietnam was
no exception and did not disappoint. Here we
are eating in an alleyway where some women had
set up shop - delicious)
We booked our trip through a website, that in turn set us up with a company called Getaway Halong Sapa, a Vietnamese travel agency. They planned out a North to South Vietnam experience with all sorts of fun adventures. This was our first time using an agency to plan our trip for us and it was quite nice. There was plenty of time for us to go off on our own to seek out various interests, while most of the more sought after locations were all planned out for us. Airport transfers, hotels, tours, and all other details of this kind were meticulously planned out and ready for us to just show up. When we had questions or our schedule needed to change due to weather, a person from Getaway was always super helpful. I cannot recommend them highly enough should you find yourself planning your own trip to Vietnam and you want some help.
|(Taken at the Hoa Lo Prison while looking at a|
sculpture representing the many prisoners who
were held in this place over the years for
one reason or another)
The next morning we woke up and went to enjoy a free day in Hanoi.
The capital of Vietnam is home to around eight million people or so, it is a city busting from the seams with mopeds, the smell of food everywhere, and people selling anything you might be looking for in almost every direction. First on our agenda was learning how to cross the street, which is actually much easier than it seems upon first glance. The trick to it is really just walking out into traffic, within reason of course. One must simply give the traffic enough time to merge and meld around you. After doing this for a few days, Sarah being much better at it than I was, I realized watching her one day what that mental itch was I had been feeling. Seeing her walk brazenly out into traffic and watching as the traffic flowed around her effortlessly, I had been reminded, though it took me some time to figure out of what, of the underwater scenes when a predatory shark or dolphin attacks a school of fish all grouped together. The shark enters the ball of fish and the fish seamlessly morph around the bigger intruder. Walking through a busy street in Hanoi looks just like this! The mopeds just flow around you as you walk out. Sarah made it look easy!
|(One of the dishes we wanted to eat in Hanoi was|
Bun Cha. I had read that when
Anthony Bourdain. The rec was
really good and we enjoyed the food)
|(While visiting the ancient capital of Vietnam,|
Sarah stops for a picture with a water buffalo)
I pause at Hoa Lo Prison because this was the first of a few places we visited on our trip that were connected to the Vietnam war in some way. This prison was used by the French to hold political prisoners and then afterward by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. I thought it was quite the unique experience to visit sites like this as an American who learned about these events through a much different lens than the Vietnamese, especially in the North. A very thought provoking visit, our time here started off a series of questions and a challenge to clear the historical cobwebs of what we were taught back in school. Mostly we were just trying to remember our history lessons.
|(From Tam Coc, this was taken during our|
peaceful boat ride up a river to see these
For the most part I think we started off Vietnam in a pretty decent way. There was surely some shopping and maybe even a water puppet show that first day I neglected to mention, but there is no lack of things to see or do in Hanoi. The second day of our trip put us into full tour mode as we were beginning the first of many little excursions planned by Getaway Halong Sapa.
|(Also in Tam Coc, taken during our bike ride)|
Once we were done at Hoa Lu we jumped back in our tour van and drove for a little while until we arrived in Tam Coc. Here we started our time by getting into a small boat and heading up river. As soon as our boat made it about 100 meters up the river, we almost immediately felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere. If not for the other few boats going up and down the river the scene would have been complete. The picture above of Sarah in her hat gives an idea of what this was like but fails to capture the overall mystery this place seemed to posses. To complete the slightly odd but interesting aspect of this area, the people rowing our boats mostly did so with their feet! I had never seen this done before but they had pretty much perfected the technique. When our boat ride was over we jumped on some of the most ridiculously rickety bikes I've ever been on to go out and explore the countryside. Like being in the boat, this gave us another way to see an extremely breathtaking part of this world. While it was too muddy to take some of the roads we were hoping to explore, the few we did wound their way through rural countryside of Northern Vietnam and they were fascinating (see the picture of Sarah riding).
|(Sarah and I in Surprise Cave in Halong Bay)|
|(Tough to get good pics of us while kayaking)|
There were two stops, one at Hang Sung Sot or Surprise Cave, and the other at Dao Ti Top Island. Between the two, the cave was something quite special. It was enormous (picture of the two of us above) and we were enthralled by the size of a cave as it seemed to be almost the size of the island it was on. It was truly huge! Our short visit to to Ti Top Island was fun because we could look out over some of the islands, but overall the cave and our time on the boat was the real deal for this part of our trip.
|(One of the many shopping streets in Hanoi)|
Next on our stops, and I'm trying to be more concise in my descriptions because I know this is getting long, was Sa Pa. Sa Pa is a smaller town with a lot of truly beautiful countryside around it - the classic rice fields tiered on flowing hills of green and flowers. When we were there we could not see as many of these fantastic vistas as we were hoping due to some massive amounts of fog/mist/clouds, but we could still picture it in our mind's eye and see just enough of the countryside to know what we were missing.
And sometimes the fog would life just enough for us to see portions of the wonderful views. The best portion of our time in Sa Pa was spent hiking down to one of the villages outside of the town, guided by a few of the ladies who lived there. We were hiking to the Black Hmong village of Lao Chai. This hike began on the edge of the roads leading out of Sa Pa, winding on dirt roads up and down hills. We slowly worked our way further from town until we descended into some of the tiered rice fields (like the ones behind us in the picture), and then our hike to the village became much more interesting. Mud, tricky footing, a little bit of precipitation, laughing as the ladies made jokes for us and helped us along, and overall trying not to fall as we kept glancing around at everything surrounding us.
|(No I do not have brown boots, but look at that|
background! What a special place)
While we were hiking this amazingly proper Vietnamese countryside path, which all of the women with us were navigating way better than us, I thought a few times back to books I have read or movies I have watched depicting the Vietnam War. As Americans visiting this country only a mere fifty years after such a terrible conflict, the concept of the war and its effects were always close to the surface. I know that most of the Americans who experienced the Vietnam I was now gleefully hiking through did not have the same joyful time I did, and neither did the people who were trying to repel their presence. A sadness would seep into the joy I was experiencing while looking around at such beautiful landscapes, knowing full well that similar sites such as these had been terribly laden with traps, ambushes, and massacres.
|(Sarah poses for a picture with all of women from the hike down into the village, with the village in the background. Such a fun group of women - and very helpful during our hike)|
|(When we hiked down to the village this was one|
of the many beautiful views we saw)
|(Back up in Sa Pa after our trek|
down to the village, I paused for a
pic at the church)
One of my favorite parts of this tour out to Sa Pa was having some time just walking through the countryside. It was refreshing, even in some damp weather, to get away from the cities we had been visiting and walk down dirty trails through fields and rolling hills. There was a distinct quietness that rested over us and allowed us to enjoy the small conversations with our guides.
"What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "How old are you?" "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"
|(Sarah posing with her egg coffee)|
|(Another site in Sa Pa)|
Ok. First post on Vietnam done. There will most likely be at least one more post just on Vietnam and then a separate one on Cambodia. Sorry for length, but then again, maybe I am not sorry for sharing so much about our fun trip to Vietnam. We really did love it. On each of our posts I am going to share this short section below for those who might be trying to plan their own trips, or just for those who want to cruise through the web and look up fun things. Thanks for reading about our journeys.
A list of top things to see/do in Vietnam:
2. Halong Bay - I had looked forward to it and it one of the most beautiful places we visited. It was a bummer that there was a little bit of trash floating around but we also saw boats of people picking it up - nice. I could have spent more time here!
3. Hanoi - Originally I did not think I would enjoy having as much time as we had built into our schedule to be in Hanoi. When we left Vietnam I wanted to go back to Hanoi. There is so much to do and see! From food and drinks to temples and museums to countless streets to shop on, Hanoi was very enjoyable for us. We highly recommend spending some time here. We walked a lot! But we love to walk, and it was a great way to see the city.
4. Hoi An - We very much enjoyed our time in Hoi An. Unfortunately we could not visit one of the highlights for this time, the Cham Islands, because of weather. But we were thrilled with some food that is specifically Hoi An (seriously one of my favorite food spots in our Vietnam travels), had some dresses and a suit made here, and bought more than a few of the hand made lanterns (the prices are super good). We liked Hoi An and you should go to there.
5. Mekong Delta - The delta was an interesting trip. We got to spend a lot of time on the water and visit some fun places. Coconuts! This one I will talk more about in our second blog post on Vietnam, but it's a fun way to spend a day.
6. Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon - Again, we enjoyed the time we spent in this big city quite a bit. Breweries, food, rooftops, more food, and mostly just walking through the city to get a feel for Vietnamese city-life. Quite the adventure.
7. Hoa Lu/Tam Coc Day Tour - We enjoyed this tour but it took a long time to get there. And while very beautiful the guides who rowed us up the river were a little bit pushy about tips. Though it did not sour the experience it sure made it weird. It is a nice area but if you were pressed with time I would visit Halong Bay or something higher on this list. Still worth seeing and experiencing if you have the time to see more of Vietnam.
8. Cu Chi Tunnels - This is lower on my list only because it was difficult to tell if we were actually traversing any of the tunnels that were used during the Vietnam War. I would hazard a guess - no. But it is the same area and if you are into history this is a must see place. I will write more about this in our next post.
9. Sa Pa - So I actually wrote a lot about Sa Pa in this post and though we did like it I rank it lower on our list because our weather was so damp and dismal. I do believe if we had had a clear day this very well could have been a highlight of our trip. We did enjoy it and it is worth seeing but it does take quite a bit of time to get there. You should probably go to Sa Pa, however, if time is short I would not feel too bad at having left it off your list.
10. Cao Dai Great Holy See Temple - This is last on my list for a few reasons. It is on my list because through all of my religious studies in college and in seminary, this temple is quite unique. I will write more about it in the next blog post, but what an interesting place! I wish we could have spent more time there with someone who could have explained what was happening during the portion of a service we witnessed. Watching any religious ceremony in another language is difficult, though still fascinating.
Some of the most memorable things we did, which I hope I will include in these posts, are things we stumbled upon or one of us discovered while researching what to do in certain areas online. Go read up on these places by people who have been there and find some off the beaten path places to explore. And make sure you won't end up missing something right near where you are traveling!!