Vietnam. Like Cuba, a mystery to us here in the Western hemisphere. It is never easy to talk about these places and their unique beauty, however, when one is able to impart this information correctly and without offending anyone, it is impossible to deny that Vietnam, just like Cuba, have a kind of charm completely unique to these countries shaped by the C-word (Communism…).
A Friday night cannot be as hectic as the Friday night when we left. Let’s just say that with the amusing factors of jet-lag and time zone change, by Sunday morning we had lost track of time. After arriving to Hanoi, we were transported to the Sofitel Legend Metropole at Central Hanoi. Again, factoring in jet-lag and time zone change, spending the rest of the day swimming in the pool and sleeping was the best decision we could have made.
Imagine that Monday morning. Perhaps it was the thought that we had just flown across the world to visit Vietnam; perhaps, it was the thought that we were going to be eating quite well and locally that day -- it comes down to the fact that waking up was hard. Anyway, back to the story. We were picked up from the hotel lobby and taken to meet Van Cong Tu, a Vietnamese street-food blogger.
(By the way, you can find him as @vietnamesegod in Instagram). Van took us to eat some delicious treats that I had not conceived before. For example, we tasted a street omelet made with chrysanthemum, cooked in oil, and then seasoned with a delicious kumquat sauce with salt and pepper. After that, my husband and I obtained some egg coffee, which is normal coffee with egg and vanilla instead of creamer or milk, and the boys got some hot chocolate. For lunch, we had some white rice noodle soup. This soup was fresh and simple, but you could add whatever spiciness to it - the result was the most flavorful, rich, pork-stock-based noodle soup I have could have had at that moment.
To pass the food, we were taken on a guided tour of Hanoi. The first stop was the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, which in the words of my husband was “typical communist architecture” dark and gray. However, the big boulevard that leads there was surprising and entertaining, as we observed more and more of the Vietnamese lifestyle. After the mausoleum, we went to visit a wooden, ethnic minority style house which belonged to Ho Chi Minh himself from 1954-1969. In the same complex, we visited the One Pillar Pagoda, which was made my King Ly Thai To in 1049. It is very important for the people at Hanoi. Then, to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university. The beautiful gardens and its classical architecture made me think about what it must have been like in the past. This beauty is overwhelming.
The next day, early in the morning, we were picked up and taken to Halong Bay. The ride was amazing. We were allowed to see the beauty of the Vietnam countryside and the suburbs that lie outside of Hanoi. Once at Halong Bay, we boarded the Orchid Cruise, a traditional junk boat. About 45 minutes into the cruise we arrive at the limestone rock formations that Halong Bay is famous for. These formations, the result of 20 million years of being exposed to a wet and tropical climate, are a surreal sight to behold. There is a fog that moves through early morning that adds a mysticism that is unforgettable. After the fog had lifted and the boat had settled into the bay we were able to kayak the bay and graze the rock formations; all while we view the unique wildlife that have made their home in the area. After the kayaking we were able to return to our boat for a quick swim in the bay before returning for lunch. The cruise offers Tai Chi in the mornings before sunrise. The martial art of Tai Chi perfectly compliments the surreal surroundings of the rock formations.
After the cruise we were driven back to Hanoi to catch our regional flight to Da Nang in central Vietnam which is the disembarking point to our next stop in Hoi An. Vietnam's oldest town situated near a beach but also one of Asia’s greatest trading ports. Upon settling in our hotel which overlooks the much underrated Cua Dai beach, we ventured off the next morning on a bike tour of the gorgeous green countryside outside of Hoi An. Oh but don’t worry there aren’t any hills to ascend. It’s all flat land making for relaxing ride through the small local villages, where you will come across local artisans and craftsmen that have been perfecting their crafts for generations. Some of the crafts include bamboo boat makers, sapphire pieces, and distilled rice wine. On the return ride we made a stop through the omnipresent rice patties.
This unique crop is so different from how other crops grow, most of the plant is constantly submerged in water. At first glance it appears to be overgrown grass but shake the leaves a bit and the rice falls right out. The ride left us exhausted so we rode our bikes back to our hotel for some much needed R & R on the beautiful Cua Dai which gives any Thai beach a run for its money. Finally, before our departure from Hoi An, we visited a museum dedicated to the Cham people. Their contemporary population, a diaspora, is a unique ethnicity comprised mostly of Muslims that reside in this particular region of Vietnam.
After visiting the museum, we departed on a 90 minute drive to Huê. Upon arriving we checked in to the Pilgrim Village hotel. Which is a must stay while visiting Huê. The resort is nestled off a small road in a dense jungle. This central Vietnamese city came into prominence very early in the 19th century as the seat of the famed Nguyen Dynasty.
As an attempt to unify the north and south , the Nguyen dynasty built an impressive Citadel, which looks like a miniature version of the forbidden city in Beijing . While in Huê we also made a few stops to the tombs Khai Dinh and Tu Duc, two of the more popular emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. But of course a trip to Huê wouldn’t be complete without a stop to a pagoda . The Buddhist temple we visited is named after the Celestial Lady, Thien Mu. This very early 17th century temple represents not only the 7 reincarnations of the Buddha but also the famous blue Austin car which was driven by a student monk who drove the vehicle in 1963 into what was then Saigon to protest the repressive regime. The monk later on self immolated. The photo of the self immolation became one of the defining images of the war. Upon spending a culturally historical day in Huê it was back to the hotel to relax in our huts before heading to dinner at the Les Jardins de Carambole. A very popular upmarket restaurant that offers a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine.
Upon indulging in Bánh mi, spring noodles, grilled sea bass and Vang Dalat (Vietnamese wine) at Les Jardins de Carambole it was time pack for the final leg of the trip. A quick 75 minute flight got us to Ho Chi Minh or as many southern Vietnamese still call it Saigon. Upon arrival we checked into our French colonial hotel that is situated adjacent to the Saigon river . After a few hours to relax we were picked up by Vespa Adventure tours . This tour company specializes in tours through Saigon on Vespas with a professional driver. It’s a good idea to have a driver because driving in Saigon in particular and Vietnam in general can be a free for all . We chose the evening street food tour so we able to not only enjoy the amazing Vietnamese food but also to be able to experience the miniature Manhattan skyline with its recently completed 81 story building which is now has 14th tallest building in the world.
Zooming through Saigon on our orange Vespas took us to some unique hole in the wall joints that started with cocktails overlooking the skyline to Spring noodles. Saigon is different in so many ways from the rest of Vietnam, it is a liberating metropolis of 11 million far removed from the historically rich area of central Vietnam to the cultural conservative city of Hanoi . Of course artisan jewelry shopping was in the agenda, we returned with goodies like buffalo horn earrings, bamboo crossover bags and colorful cover ups!
Vietnam was a truly amazing experience for my entire family. It has so much to offer to everyone. When you visit you will find amazing food, a rich unique history and centuries old culturally preserved hinterlands. Vietnam is the future of an ever increasing urban world.