Vietnam, and a little Bangkok, too!

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January 30th 2013
Published: January 30th 2013
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One can be fairly confident that she has chosen an ideal travel destination to escape the stresses of helping open a school when she asks the coffee shop owner for the wifi password and the response is, “happy.”

My school runs on unique breaks, so I have been plotting a Southeast Asia adventure in January for some time. As though the break wasn’t enough good fortune, a travel partner appeared in a fellow teacher! We narrowed our sights to Thailand and Vietnam for three weeks and decided to just have a light sketch of a plan to allow for in the moment decisions.

After many hours on an airplane, we stepped out into the humidity of Bangkok. This was my second time to the city, so I was ready for the clogged traffic, plentiful street food, and warm people. Our lack of planning made landing in a hostel a challenge, but we fared well and settled in just fine. We had only planned on one full day in Bangkok before heading over to Vietnam, so we woke early, slugged back some espresso, and hit the town!

We donned rented sarongs to admire the glittering Grand Palace where we ooed and ahed over intricate details. Swept up by a crowd, we found ourselves in a room that reminded me of the Sistine Chapel- some individuals honoring the emerald Buddha in the front while tourists migrated through, taking in the altar and detailed paintings covering the room. A woman was discussing a boat ride with the sarong-renting attendant and we decided to join up with her for a little river cruise and stop at an incredible temple- Wat Arun. A steep climb up allowed for an incredible view of the river buzzing with boats and the city sprawling out into the distance. Though our stomachs were rumbling, we made our way to the Reclining Buddha which was enormous! I became distracted from the Buddha though as I was entranced by people putting money offerings into a series of metal bowls. Now, time for lunch- worthy of a new paragraph.

Jenny enjoys a meal as much as I do, thank goodness, so we made our way to a market by the river for some pad Thai and green papaya salad. Yum! The ingredients were so fresh and the spices so unique that we could only come back down to earth
Grand PalaceGrand PalaceGrand Palace

Wonder if we were the first tourists to ever do this?
to look at each other and say “Wow, this is delicious!” This meal set the tone for three weeks of exceptional eating! As we needed to wake up early for our flight to Hanoi the following day, we spent the remainder of the day wandering the city and appreciating the people before heading to sleep.

The joys of traveling without much planning were many, but the downside came in the form of us not having visas for Vietnam. I felt seriously silly for missing that- I’ve had to acquire visas in the past but it never occurred to me for this trip. Whoops! So, we had to miss our flight that day and make our way to the embassy for a rush order visa. Our hostel lady found the story comical, as did we, so we made the most of the day soaking up the sunshine and hitting spots not frequented by tourists. This did include a restaurant where the only choice was skinny or fat noodles and a Thai massage that was not really relaxing so much as it was eventful!

We had to spend one more day in Bangkok as the next flight with two seats was not until the following day, so we took the advice of a friend and booked the Tiger Tour—our only regret in three weeks of travel! The tour took us to the floating markets, which must have been lovely once when women paddled the canals with their fresh produce, but now it is vendors hawking cheap plastic goods and motor boats coughing exhaust into your face as you try to appreciate the few vendors with fruits or flowers. A quick stop for some who wanted to ride elephants- we skipped thinking we were going to the elephant reserve in Chang Mai after Vietnam- and then off to what made the floating market look idyllic. The tiger monastery was supposedly begun when a monk cared for an abandoned tiger. Whatever its origins, it is now an empty dirt lot with water buffalos wandering around and a noteworthy lack of monastery. Down a rocky hill, one finds a line into an enclosure with 10 tigers and one monk. White westerners chat up the people in line explaining that for only five more dollars, they can have the tiger’s head in their lap for a photo. We immediately left to catch our van back to town trying to hunt down a beer to put the experience behind us, but as it was by a “monastery” there was none to be found. Though what monk would allow for the sedation of animals who are then manhandled by hundreds of tourists every day, I don’t know. The day had me on edge about tours, the pitfalls of a place being a tourist destination, and ready to leave Bangkok behind in the hopes of a less exploited Vietnam.

As we made our way into Vietnam, I tried to avert my eyes from the visa on arrival booth, which was easy as I noted the winter coats and hats that residents were wearing. Another oops of not being so well planned! 54 degrees in Colorado is warm but when humidity enters the picture and buildings are not heated, one can be quite chilly for days on end! We put on all our layers and headed into the city. Immediately we were drawn to the low houses, narrow streets, the conical hats, and motor scooters bopping around the town.

We tucked into huge bowls of pho’- noodles and broth- before heading out on a self-made walking tour of the city. Crossing the streets was an adventure as it was a matter of just stepping off the sidewalk into a wall of oncoming scooters! Somehow the traffic dance always ended with us safely on the other side of the street! As we made our way to another pagoda, which offered a contrast to the buzzing streets, we decided to miss our flight back to Thailand and just spend the next 2+ weeks in Vietnam. Something had bit us, though who can say what it was exactly. Could it have been the food? Lemongrass tofu bon mi and more green papaya salads certainly did not lessen our desire to stay in Vietnam! Walking the streets of the Old Quarter that night, we admired how much of life took place on the sidewalk- cooking, eating, sipping tea, or having a cigarette.

With serious reservations, we signed up for a day trip- will this tour be like the last!- to Tam Coc. The countryside dotted with little towns invited me to imagine myself “doing a Che” and motor scooting all over the country! The tour was lovely as we enjoyed an hour and half on a river which took us through three caves- where Tam Coc earned its name- past huge and unique mountains, and what would be rice paddies in another season. We not so creatively returned for lemongrass tofu and green papaya salad that night in Hanoi before preparing for a few nights out on the famous Halong Bay.

It was rumored that the weather on Halong would be warmer than Hanoi, and indeed it was, though clouds and gray persisted. Still, as we boarded our boat that would be our home that day and night, we were awed by the beauty of the unique geological phenomena that is these enormous rock mountains poking out of the water. The gray fog added a bit of drama and interesting layers that we were able to appreciate as we gorged ourselves on a lunch feast of fresh veggies and fish. We took advantage of an afternoon kayak option that allowed us to appreciate the beautiful water and to make our way close in to the rock islands. We chatted up our “cruise” mates that evening laughing with British and Irish couples and discussing the state of affairs with a Danish family. A great end to a day spent surrounded by natural splendor!

As we had opted in for a night out on Cat Ba Island, we were let off in the morning and swept away to the middle of the island to explore a bit in the national park there. We took a speedy hike up to the top of a peak encouraged along by our guide Alan, dubbed Monkey Man by the other guides, who fanned us down as we huffed and puffed. In many ways, he was joy in person form. Though the summit did offer a splendid view, I think I will remember longer the minutes spent in Alan’s home. He invited us into his home where he was able to help us understand that the photos hanging over the couch were his daughters, grandchildren, and wife. Jenny and I marveled at how straightforward life can be when we watched the pleasure Alan took in his job, the pride he took in his home, and the love he shared with his wife.

An afternoon excursion to Monkey Island proved worthwhile in that we had another good little hike with spectacular views and an unusual experience with a monkey. After our hike we decided to enjoy a beer on the beach as we waited for our boat back to the main island. After we tapped cans and said, “cheers!” I set my beer down beside me to rummage for my camera, and good thing, because I soon had a photo opportunity of a monkey guzzling my beer! I am sure this was not his first taste of the stuff and he certainly was interested in more if Jenny had been as careless as I! The ride home took us past a floating fishing village and more hypnotizing views of the islands. The evening was spent in the town that has grown up on the island. I can only imagine what it is like in the warmer months! We danced the night away in a bar that allowed us to choose our own music! That warmed us up to the core at last!

The sun that greeted us the next day amplified our exuberance for Halong Bay and Vietnam in general! As we took the boat back to the mainland, we were able to take in the landscape in a new way as the sun turned the water a lovely and inviting color. We
Tuk tuk rideTuk tuk rideTuk tuk ride

Our second favorite way to travel
crossed our fingers hoping that the sun would also shine in Hanoi, and were fortunate enough to find it so! In a move that had so far been unthinkable, we finally sat down to plot out how to maximize our remaining days in Vietnam. Up to Sapa to hike and appreciate the various mountain communities? Down to Ho Chi Minh City where there is more likely to be sun? The sun won out as we overheard travelers in puffy down coats raving about Sapa with the caveat of being cold. If they were chilled in spite of their attire, what about us? Layered tank tops only offer so much warmth, after all.

After a failed cooking class, silly story but this is already a long tale, we ran into a man from Wales who teaches in Hanoi. He shared in our excitement over the city and fanned an existing flame for us to teach in Asia ourselves. We hopped aboard an overnight train heading south along the coast full of curiosity about what the night might bring. Our sleeper, second-class hard sleeper, had six beds and was full that evening. The night was full of jarring stops and opening and closing doors and the two of us with a case of the giggles, but proved otherwise unremarkable. A little stiff, we took to the streets of Hué. Our hostel was on a main street along a river that had a sterile feel making us long for the buzz and chaos of Hanoi. We walked the city, took a boat up the river to a pagoda, dined on fish wrapped in a banana leaf, and then rented bikes to appreciate what the city had to offer. Once we were out in the traffic on the bike, it was much less intimidating. As we wound through the smaller streets and down small alleyways, we saw real life and the charm of the city revealed itself. Another scrumptious meal was an excellent end to a day of wandering.

The time on the bike and a tip from our guidebook lead us to accept an opportunity to ride on the back of motor scooters to our next stop, Hoi An. Though my heart was in my throat for the first few moments, the rest of the 5-hour trip was incredible! We had a brief rainstorm, making us feel really hardcore, as we scooted along past farms and little towns. Up a dramatic mountain pass with views of the ocean and down by fishing villages, we felt a part of it all as there was no glass in the way of the view. We took the chance to stretch our legs and climb up some step to appreciate the Marble Mountains where many carved Buddhas and temples are clustered on the side of a mountain. As our trip neared its end, I was conflicted between my cramping legs and love of the ride as to whether I wanted to reach our destination just yet. Thankfully, Hoi An captured our attention as soon as we climbed off the bikes and we were ready for another adventure.

As we enjoyed more fresh fish and salads, I couldn’t help but marvel that we could have been in the south of France or Havana until a woman in a conical hat on a bike towing firewood passed. The town has a beach feel to it and lovely well-kept low buildings offering a chance to have clothes made! As we finished licking our plates, we could not imagine who would take the time to have clothes made while traveling! Another night of dancing in a bar where we could choose our own music rounded out our day and allowed our legs a chance to shake out the kinks from the day!

I woke up excited for the day as we had scheduled a cooking class for the morning! We started in the market, which offered all sorts of delicious fresh food. There was a constant hum as vendors and customers chatted over the goods. A boat ride took us to the cooking school where we tried our hand at separating rice from its husk and then at making rice milk, which we later used to make a sort of crepe. We cooked four incredibly delicious dishes, each brimming with fresh herbs and delicious flavors. As we returned to town, I noticed that our disbelief at those who had clothing made seemed less. The next thing I knew, I was being measured and was selecting fabric for my dresses and blazers! When in Hoi An…While our clothes were being stitched up, we rented bikes and headed out of town past verdant farms to the beach. We took in the sunshine and waves before heading back to another extraordinary meal, we just couldn’t seem to order anything mediocre! Before heading home for the night, we had to pick up and try on our clothes! A new experience for both of us that I am glad we had!

For the first time, we had a big chunk of travel ahead of us during the day, so we boarded the train and lost ourselves in the passing countryside and coast. As though our hostels hadn’t been lavish enough, amazing what $13 can get you in Vietnam!, we decided to splurge on a resort for a few nights. A little time spent reading on the beach, taking walks, doing tai chi, practicing sunrise yoga on the beach, and indulging in a half-day spa experience allowed us to unwind even more than we already had.

Our last night train was much quieter as we sprang for first-class soft sleepers and had the cabin to ourselves. We were not too excited about a day spent in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, because of what we had heard about it being too busy and such, but we must have stumbled on the right neighborhood, because we relished our day and time walking around! As our flight back to Bangkok approached, we both lamented having to leave Vietnam. The pace of life and the rhythm in which the country exists drew us in. Smiles and kindness were genuine and bridged the language gap. Perhaps it is their way of life in Buddhism? Whatever the reason, a calm and joy filled me throughout our time and made me want to stay.

Another day in sunny humid Bangkok where we returned to our favorite lunch spot and wandered the city allowed us a day to separate ourselves from Vietnam before our long journey home. Hopefully I can hold on to some of the peace I found in Vietnam as I return to the fray of American life. If not, I’m great at buying plane tickets.

Additional photos below
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30th January 2013

I am surely tempted and warned of the temperatures!

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