On a whirlwind tour through Vietnam - visiting places that begin with an "H"! - Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Every city has been so different, and the country is so different from anywhere else I've been, with strong Chinese and French influences - its definitely not Thailand with its Chinese style temples and baguettes everywhere!
My friend Cari and I just finished an 10 day Classic Vietnam tour with G Adventures. It was a great way to see highlights of the country and we had the best Tour Leader (Haing, from Cambodia) and tourmates from Australia, Wales, Canada and the US. I learned a lot about the Vietnam war - very brutal, very heartbreaking obviously - how can war be anything else? Extremely sobering to visit sites and memorials around the country - it has an impact as you're standing at a viewpoint outside of Hue, overlooking the beautiful Perfume River, then turn around to see bunkers and jail cells (pits) built by the Americans, knowing Hamburger Hill is only 40 kms away. It amazes me that the country has re-unified and carries on. The war seems very close.
However - the tour's over and we're now lolling about in high style, enjoying an end of tour/pre-birthday treat at the Park Hyatt Saigon. WOW. The posh area of Saigon is at our doorstep and reflecting on all we've seen and done from a poolside lounger is beyond heavenly - especially when it's 35C and humid here!
We've sampled many Vietnam beers (Tiger, La Rue, Huda, Saigon, San Miguel, Bia Hoi- the best), now we're making it our mission to drink chocolate martinis on rooftop decks around the city where views of the skyline, the riverfront with it's festive riverboats, and the crazy traffic below are spectacular!
Highlights? Really hard to narrow it down as I loved everything about Vietnam (except for 2 things), but here goes:
1. Hanoi - in Northern Vietnam and our entry point into the country. Our first glimpse of this 1000 year old city had us both grinning. Lots of monuments and places of historical significance, but we loved wandering the streets best. Try to picture the incredible 4km long mosaic wall built to celebrate the city's 1000th year anniversary and the sociable street corner gatherings (cafes) with customers perched on tiny stools drinking bia (beer), sharing multiple bowl meals, and watching the world go by. Can we do this in Canada please??
2. Hoi An - in Central Vietnam, where we had dresses made (hundreds of tailors here!), wandered the Old City streets, cycled into the countryside, and enjoyed the food, markets, and great vibe this river city offers. Definitely a favorite!
3. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) - in Southern Vietnam, a sophisticated city, full of karaoke bars, casinos and "massage" parlors (not the kind I go to!), that has us feeling like we're in a crazy game of Frogger every time we try to cross the street! The trick is to walk slowly, so cars know where you're headed and can veer around you - AND try to make eye contact!! It's fun and somewhat terrifying at the same time - especially when there's about 6 "lanes" of traffic, bicycles, cyclos (cycle rickshaws), cars, busses ands an estimated 7 million motorbikes on the road! Sometimes you just want to hold hands and start screaming, but maybe that's just me...?
What didn't I love? 2 things: Halong Bay and the dog meat eating part of the culture. I expected Halong Bay to be the highlight of the trip for me - and it IS spectacular with it's postcard perfect limestone karst formations, kayaking opportunities, amazing cave system, and even a houseboat community (43 families and a floating bank) - but the garbage in the water and the sheer number of boats ruin it. Over 500 big boats bring 7000 passengers each day to this fragile area, and now the cruise ships are moving in. Say good-bye to one of the earth's beautiful places...
And as for dog meat - well, I know it's part of the culture, and as a carnivore who enjoys a good bbq steak, chicken, and the occasional bacon wrapped scallop, it's hypocritical to comment - but it's still hard to take. I felt physically sick when I saw a transport truck loaded to the brim with caged, live dogs making its way to Hanoi from Da Nang. It's unlucky to eat dog meat in the first half of the month, but after the 15th, depending on the cycle of the moon apparently, the 600+ Hanoi restaurants that specialize in dog open their doors. Ugh.
Anyways - Vietnam is absolutely wonderful and I'll be sorry to leave. I'm heading further into the Mekong Delta next, then overland to Cambodia where I hope to take a slow(ish) boat up to Phnom Penh.
The attached picture is from the streets of Hoi An, outside the morning market. And yes, Vietnamese people really do wear conical hats, especially in the countryside, as they're good sun protection!