chilling feet

chilling feet

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Vietnam: The First Half of our Vietnam Trip

(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)
As mentioned in our last post, Sarah and I have been looking forward to visiting Vietnam and Cambodia for quite some time now.  After a trip to Thailand we decided we wanted to see much more of Southeast Asia.

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)
Arriving in Hanoi at nighttime was kind of fun.  After an interesting ride watching the traffic patterns of mostly mopeds and vespas zip around in a seemingly "anywhere I want to go" sort of flow, we very much enjoyed being able to lie down flat and put our feet up after the long flight over - seriously, on both sides of our trip that first night in a bed is fantastic and something we look forward to eagerly.

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
 Anthony Bourdain. The rec was
really good and we enjoyed the food)
All that to say, we made it across the street successfully to arrive at the first of many temples we would visit during our trip - Ngoc Son Temple.  Walking across a nice bridge that leads to this Buddhist temple on an island in a lake in downtown Hanoi is quite interesting.  The smell of incense fills the air as all of the other senses are overloaded in trying to take in the visual spectacle that we found most temples in Vietnam to be.  Ornate in architectural design and with bright colors covering every wall, roof, ceiling and in many cases floors, the temples are interesting to walk through.  They are so entirely different from the Judeo-Christian buildings that are scattered throughout our entire country, that I found myself thinking and feeling many unexpected things.  It is easy to become enamored by the mysterious symbols and statues strewn about the temple, at times in what seems like overly numerous representations of something clearly important but distinctly odd to my western mind.  With this temple as with many more we would visit, the number of tourists or other people visiting most certainly detracted from a person's ability to enjoy the sort of atmosphere that should exist at such a place, but I guess that goes with the territory.

(While visiting the ancient capital of Vietnam,
Sarah stops for a picture with a water buffalo)
Our first day was amazing.  We visited a quilt store Sarah had read about (she loves quilts and made one for the first time while we were at the South Pole), went by one of the many old propaganda stores (they sell copies of communist propaganda from the past, most of which are very interesting to look at), had our first local beer and cider, ate our first dish of real Vietnamese food on the street (pictured above with Sarah, this food was delicious), we went to one of the big markets in town (Sarah DID some shopping), stopped by at St. Joseph's Catholic church (where we stopped to listen to some people singing hymns in Vietnamese - amazing experience), visited a rooftop for another drink while overlooking the church and the square in front of it, and then made our way over to Hoa Lo Prison.  We got our walk on!

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
wonderful mountains)
We finished our day by checking one of the Vietnamese foods we wanted to try off our list.  Bun Cha was the meal and I had read about online, as the picture above suggests, about a time when President Obama and Anthony Bourdain had eaten this very dish at a particular spot.  So we sought out the spot, were seated within about five seconds, ordered the bun cha with some drinks, and sat back to enjoy looking around the restaurant.  Small and with plenty of photos now hanging on the wall to commemorate the afore mentioned visit by famous guests, we very much enjoyed ourselves while we were there.  The food came out speedily, was super delicious, and the bill for the two of us (if memory serves) was only around two dollars each!  They certainly have not raised their prices since the their infamous visit and Bun Cha Huong Lien was well worth the trip.  Wish I could have some more right now.

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)
The first of these took us up to Hao Lu (the original capital of Vietnam) and Tam Coc (a beautiful area with some great natural landscapes to see).  Our time a Hao Lu was nice as we wandered through a few ancient structures left over from the time when the capital of the country had been there.  We had a guide, Chi, who told us much about the history of Hao Lu and the people who ruled there.  The picture of Sarah riding the water buffalo was taken on the grounds at Hao Lu. 

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).
(Halong Bay)
Once our time in the Tam Coc countryside was over, we headed back to Hanoi and went out to our first night market (I think almost every town we stayed in had their own version).  Sarah could have stayed for days shopping these stalls.  I tire quickly of shopping but as long as we stop periodically for some food or a cold drink I can usually muster up some strength.

(Sarah and I in Surprise Cave in Halong Bay)
The next day we were off to Halong Bay, which our guide told us means "descending dragon" - pretty dang cool.  Before our trip I was most excited about seeing Halong Bay because as I looked at pictures of the places we would be visiting, and the images from this bay resonated with what I love most about traveling.  Seeing a place for the first time that is so significantly different from what I am used to seeing, that experiencing this new location forces a person to consider themselves seriously in relation to a greater world.  The world is bigger than the quaint lake my family lived off of when we grew up in a small town in Ohio, though somehow taking in the mysterious mist ridden islands of Halong Bay (oh and there are just under 2,000 islands in this bay) somehow allows memories of a place like my childhood lake to be that much sweeter.  For the big movie watchers, anyone who has seen the movie Kong: Skull Island will recognize Halong Bay as it was the home for one of the most infamously giant gorillas of all-time.

(Tough to get good pics of us while kayaking)
While we were in Halong Bay we stayed the night on a boat, which was pretty much the only way to see the bay except for maybe by helicopter.  Relaxing, taking in all of the unbelievable views, gliding through Kong's lair, and eating delicious Vietnamese food on the boat was way too much fun.  We even started off our second day on the boat with a morning of Tai Chi, which was really neat and invigorating.  Mostly just watching the sunset and the sunrise were the outright winners of our time on the bay.

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)
Our trip to Halong Bay ended with a wonderful morning of kayaking around a few quiet islands.  It was a perfect way to end our time in a place of such memorizing beauty.  None of our pictures really quite captured it.  Then it was back to Hanoi for a night of some time on beer street, and some more shopping the markets before we headed off to our next excursion.

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)
I am pretty sure Sarah enjoyed the hike down into the village as much as I did.  At one point, while we were negotiating a small crossing of some rice fields, my foot slid a little bit off the path as my weight carried with it the ground I had stepped on.  In just the brief moment before I could counter with my other foot I had sank into just over my boot in deep, thick chocolate milk like mud.  It was still sinking when I countered and lifted it back onto the path (the picture shows the kind of consistency and mud we are talking here).  Slipping into the mud, ducking under thick and opposing branches, jumping over a small creek, and negotiating all of this trek was what made it more enjoyable.  Finally some proper Vietnam countryside experiences.

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)
And yet, just look at the faces of the women who helped us down to their village.  While there is a regrettably horrific past in the recent Vietnamese/American history, after knowing what country we were from people all over the country would still welcome us openly and kindly.  Not once did we ever experience a cold shoulder or witness any negative interactions, though quite frankly I was expecting at least some.  We had one guide in particular, who I will talk about more in a future post, who talked more openly about the war and the current feelings of Vietnamese people about America, but even he said much forgiveness has flown through the hearts of Vietnam people.  It was really quite amazing.

(Back up in Sa Pa after our trek
down to the village, I paused for a
pic at the church)
At any rate, we hiked through their village and stopped off at a few places along the way to see particular sites - some to get warm and have a drink and others to buy some small souvenirs.  It was fun to see what one of the small countryside villages away from most of the more modern conveniences looked like.  This was a good way to see a slower-paced side of Vietnam, especially compared to the bustling streets of Hanoi.

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)
These were some of the questions we would be asked, and in return ask the women walking with us down to the village.  They always seemed to ask these questions with a giggle or a smile, amused at our responses and perhaps at the chance to converse in English some.  Of course when we arrived in the village we were given the opportunity to present the women with a tip or to buy some bags/clothing/etc that were all made by them specifically, a point of emphasis for them to share.  So, as Sarah pointed out later, I overpaid for a small bag and a few other small items.  I did not barter them down because I felt like it was a nice way to tip them for their help and time.  After all, it was quite nice to have their company and assistance in the more difficult parts of the trail, not to mention their smiles!

(Another site in Sa Pa) 
Once we finished up with our hike, we headed back up to Sa Pa to get warm and ready for our bus back to Hanoi.  We had just enough time to explore some and headed down to see a church I had seen on our way in and out of town - The Notre Dame Cathedral.  Unfortunately at the time it was closed, so we looked around a little bit and then did the next best thing.  We headed back up the road and had our first egg coffee in Vietnam.  Yep, it is pretty much what it sounds like, though slightly more than just coffee with an egg in it too.  And wait for it...  It was delicious.  Well, I liked it more than Sarah but I think she liked it too.  We made sure to have one once back in Hanoi (as that is where you are "supposed" to have one) just to be mainstream, but they really are tasty drinks.

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:

1.  Food - we loved all of the food we ate, with the exception of a few poorly made Ban Mi sandwiches, but I think that is because we had two that we so delicious.  I recommend you search what foods to try in each city.  It was more fun to try and eat dishes a particular area or city that was known for making it - such as egg coffee in Hanoi for example.

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!!