Honest Smiles

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Asia » Vietnam
February 28th 2018
Published: March 3rd 2018
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There are places we know we will return to. Like unfinished love affairs, they live in the corners of our mind, waiting to be rekindled. Over time the images move through our dreams, usually altered by time and further experiences. As we add distance the colors may become brighter, the smells more intense and the tastes more vibrant. We find these places returning to our conscience thought when we discuss travels or tell stories of our earlier life. We recall them with smiles on our faces and excitement in our voices. We realize we would like to have another opportunity to see if our memories match reality. Could actuality match the misty recollections we visualize in our thoughts?

We traveled to Vietnam in 2004. We were younger and far less experienced travelers then. We moved faster, collecting places and countries with a rapidity that didn't always allow for much introspection. Occasionally a place would resonate louder than others but lack of time, family needs and work commitments didn't allow us the opportunity to fully see the destinations we had traveled to. The deep greens of the rice paddies, the colors of the rivers, the warmth of the humid air and the smiles of the people stayed in our thoughts. We wanted to return but other places called more aggressively for our attention. It took us 14 years to have the time and opportunity to return. As we sat in the chilly winter mountains of China's Yunnan Province, we realized the time had come to see if our dreams were true.

We caught a flight from Kunming, China to Hoi An, Vietnam....

Honest smiles...

Sitting on our balcony early on our first day we already felt it. The warmth of the cloudy morning felt wonderful. For the first time in 2 months, our skin was not covered by extra layers for warmth. Watching the town wake up was instantly enchanting, Motorscooters filled the morning, busily taking adults, children, packages and even pets to destinations unseen from our sidestreet perch. We felt a contagious energy that caused us to immediately take notice.

Hoi An seemed the perfect place to begin our exploration of Vietnam. Perhaps a calm before the busyness began. We spent 6 days wandering the streets enjoying the cool of the mornings and evenings and happily welcoming the warmth of the afternoon sunshine.
We wandered through the riverside market, enjoyed relaxed coffee filled afternoons in cafes hidden down quiet alleyways, and evening strolls along the river or food cart lined backstreets. The warm golden glow from the yellow buildings of the French inspired old town was gorgeous and cast a wonderful light on sunset walks through the narrow streets. The food was excellent. Watching the tourist boats at sunset from the bridge that crosses the tiny river was captivating. Thousands of tiny candles flickered amongst the boats on the water as the lantern-lit buildings reflected in the water.

Unlike our earlier visit, the town has grown and has definitely been discovered by the tourist hoards that overfill the most popular shopping areas. We found that, with a little effort, it was easy enough to still find the honest smiles of the local people we so fondly remembered from our dreams. We felt there was a distinct possibility of this city being overrun by poor development and mass tourism. Still, whether we were in our hotel, walking on the back streets or just watching the local population from a cafe on a tree-lined street, we sensed a happy people who were satisfied with their situation. When we smiled, people smiled back. When we talked to people they warmly responded with good words and thoughts. We found Hoi An to be the perfect start for our journey.


Well developed streets are common in any city in the world. You may find a market, a butcher shop, a 30 seat restaurant or a motorcycle repair shop. Some may have a poultry farm, barber shop, a daycare and a construction company. A rare few may even have a seafood company. I found all of these on our street outside our hotel in Hanoi. The street was actually a 40-meter alleyway and none of these enterprises had a permanent storefront or office. They existed in and on the alley and all did a bustling business.

As we made our way around the city, we realized our alleyway was not at all uncommon. The wide sidewalks of the Old Quarter of Hanoi are filled with makeshift entrepreneurs. Motorcycles are parked by attendants on every available space. The trees that line the streets provide shade to portable plastic seat restaurants turning out tasty treats of every kind from single charcoal grills tended by the most efficient cooks anywhere we have traveled.

The traffic is overwhelming and not mastered without effort. With time, what appears like madness becomes manageable. The motorcycles are like droplets in a neverending flow of a great river. The occasional car or bus is interspersed in the tide. Bicycles, trishaws and cart vendors fill in any available space that might remain.

On first attempt, crossing this rushing river feels more like running with the bulls than crossing a street. It doesn't seem even Moses could part this sea. You learn that to cross, you must become your own droplet and carefully migrate your way in small increments.Being aware overcomes being scared. Newcomers are easy to spot by their inability to manage. When mastered you feel as a bullfighter must when he is in the ring. He must trust his ability and manage his fear. Once mastered, you can begin to enjoy this city of constant movement. It is unique and beautiful and over the 10 days we stayed here on 3 different occasions during our travels in the north and it became our favorite. We learned to love the city for what it is, an energy-filled city as fascinating and exciting as any.

New discoveries....

We arrived by bus to the first destination we had not previously visited. A three-hour bus ride took us through first the outskirts of Hanoi and eventually rice fields in the process of being planted. We had planned a homestay in the countryside near the city of Ninh Binh. The bus driver said he knew the area and would drop us off near our home for the next few days. We eventually passed an area of beautiful limestone karst that jutted abruptly from rice fields. Workers with conical hats maneuvered buffalo pulled plows in some fields while large groups of others hand planted each new rice sprout. It was gorgeous and was the perfect picture of Vietnam we had been seeking.

The driver spotted a sign that listed our homestay at a crossroads. The sign said 0 kilometers and he indicated this was the place. All we saw was an ancient graveyard surrounded by towering palm trees in the middle of flooded rice fields. Before we had time to gather our thoughts that something must be wrong, our bags were unloaded from the bus and the bus drove on towards its destination.

We walked through the arched entrance to the graveyard and didn't know what to do. We have stayed in some crazy places in our time, but we saw nothing that looked like the pictures we had seen on the internet. Luckily a man on a scooter came along and using sign language indicated this was indeed not the place and pointed us down the road. It seemed a long way to walk and luckily a passing motorist stopped and asked if we needed help. He knew of our homestay and thankfully said he would take us there. He drove us down several dusty roads into a small enclave of recently built cement block houses. We were thankful we didn't have to walk.

Our host met us and after a refreshing freshly squeezed welcome drink he took us farther into his property. We passed a wonderful garden filled with fresh vegetables of every imaginable type and lush foliage including papaya and banana trees. He had built several brick cottages with verandas that held hammocks and beautiful flowers. The interior was equally as nice with wooden floors, a dining table and comfortable beds. It was perfect.

We spent our days riding bicycles in the surrounding area. A peaceful ride on a cool afternoon took us to the spectacular Trang An area. A boatsman rowed us through scenic waterways that meandered through the lush green karsts. The waterway led through 3 caves, each leading into a more scenic area. Temples were built on flatlands and islands and multicolored birds frolicked in the reeds. It was seriously one of the most incredible natural areas we have ever been.

Another day we went to Mua Caves and climbed the seemingly endless steps to the top of a mountain that gave commanding views over the entire area. The back side of the mountain provided a perfect view of the Tam Coc river area in the distance. On our third day, we braved renting a motor scooter to take us on a more distant journey. The nearly deserted roads made for easy riding and the cool day was perfect for visiting the spectacular Bai Dinh temple. Judging from the massive parking area we were lucky to be one of the few visitors on this nearly deserted day. Later we even had time to visit the backpacker haven of Tam Coc.

We woke early on our last morning and waited for our onward bus at the end of our dirt road. We were slightly shocked that the building next to where we were waiting proved to be the village slaughterhouse. The sounds were slightly frightening as many goats lost their lives as we waited in the still dark morning for our bus. It seemed amazing that a visit that started in a graveyard and ended outside of a slaughterhouse would still be remembered by us as a scenic wonderland that we will not soon forget.

How-long Bay....

Halong Bay may be the best known and most visited destination in Vietnam. Whether a backpacker or luxury traveler, most itineraries include a visit. When we visited in 2004 the town of Halong Bay was small with a couple of recently built modest luxury hotels and several junk style boats that took visitors on day-long tours of the spectacular natural area.

That is not what we found in 2018. Halong Bay is a quickly developed sprawling city of large hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, malls and a huge bridge. The small amount of junks that once plied the bay have been replaced by a massive fleet of hundreds of medium size cruise ships carrying huge amounts of package tourist groups on multiple night excursions around the congested bay.
The skies were cloudy and we felt we wanted to wait for a photogenic day to take our cruise. We checked into a medium size, brand new hotel some distance from the main central area. The price was cheap and many small local oriented restaurants were nearby. The forecast showed a weather change in the next few days and we decided to see what the town offered.
The Lunar New Year (Tet) was rapidly approaching the following week. Houses and business were decorated with banners, flags and flowering trees. Small businesses were closing shop and it was obvious people were thinking of vacations rather than business. Most residents of Halong Bay are not originally from the local area and normally return to home villages for the holidays. We checked on buses and were told it would be a tough ticket if we waited too long.
Finally, the weather broke and we booked our overnight cruise. A medium priced boat offered good food, karaoke, cooking classes and lots of drinking. We visited the same basic things we had seen in the past, a cave and a beach area, only now they were completely overrun by rude, drunken tour groups that frankly spoiled any natural beauty we may have seen.

Another night in the hotel and we booked the last bus back to Hanoi before Tet began. I came away with a disappointed feeling of the entire experience which was reminiscent of any number of once pristine natural locations (Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Waikiki, and part of Bali) that, in my opinion, have overdeveloped and seem to cater to the worst elements of tourism. The bay is still spectacular but seemed diminished by poor planning.

To the hills....

We celebrated Tet in Hanoi. The town was basically shut down and was in full celebration mode. Mixed generation families strolled Hoan Kiem lake enjoying ice cream and the cool weather. Roads were closed to traffic and musicians entertained the smiling population. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their best clothes and all were involved in a happy conversation. Sitting by the lake, we were greeted by adults and children with smiles and kind words. The mood was contagious and while we were anxious to move on with our trip, our 3-day delay was some of the most enjoyable we spent on our trip.

Eventually, buses were again available and we made our plans to visit the northwestern hills of Vietnam. Sapa would be our base for several days. Sapa is famous for its rice terraces, traditional villages and cool weather. Unfortunately, the terraces were just recovering from a wet and snowy winter and the temperatures would be cold rather than cool. We knew it was not the optimum time to visit but felt we would be missing an opportunity to visit an area we had not seen before.

A grueling 6-hour bus ride brought us to Sapa. While Hanoi was back to business, Sapa was still in full Tet celebration. People from surrounding villages were gathered in Sapa to enjoy their time off from their normal lives. The town was filled with villagers in wonderful traditional clothing, all gathered in groups in the lakeside park or central area of the small town.

Most visitors do some kind of trekking in the hills to visit outlying villages. We had planned to participate ourselves, but actually found
Cat Cat VillageCat Cat VillageCat Cat Village

Sapa, Vietnam
we could have an "authentic" experience just staying in Sapa town. We spent our days sitting in the many restaurants, cafes and parks and just observing the environment of happy citizens enjoying their last few days of holiday.

We were able to visit a nearby village and we found it enjoyable but touristy in a good way. The rice terraces were indeed incredible even if not at their most beautiful. The roads and town were a bit rough around the edges but we enjoyed our stay immensely. We had conversations with Hmong villagers in the park and posed for many photos with the families. The easy pace and cool weather made our stay comfortable, relaxing and very interesting.
We again had an amazing visit to a unique and beautiful country. It was not the country we had visualized over the years in our dreams. Like everywhere else in the world, time and progress have changed the country. We saw things we had seen before and we saw others that were new to us. No doubt while some of our future dreams will be altered from the past, they will not be diminished. I can't say what the future will bring to Vietnam.

In our last few days in Vietnam, we spent a lot of time enjoying the peaceful area around Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. Sitting on a bench and enjoying the city as day turned to night was a great end to our trip. We sipped coffee by the cathedral and ate delicious food in the infinite amount of cafes.
We had the pleasure of sharing a seat at the lake for an hour with a young woman who worked nearby. We spoke of our travels and her life. She grew up in a traditional village and had attended university in Hanoi. Afterward, she had stayed to pursue a career. She talked at length about her own battles of traditional family ties vs. a desire to move into the future. She had just visited her home for Tet and had experienced pressure to marry and start a family and perhaps even move back to help her family. She also felt a pressure from modern expectations of job, possessions and making the most of her hard earned degree. She seemed the perfect representation of the crossroads we witnessed Vietnam being at. Traditional culture vs. a modern future. I wished her luck with her journey and encouraged her to follow her heart. She smiled the smile I had seen so often on the faces of so many Vietnamese. An honest smile even in times of trouble or stress. I hope she, and Vietnam, will find the correct path forward. I want my dreams and hers to become reality.

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


Tam CocTam Coc
Tam Coc

As seen from Mua Caves

5th March 2018

Always allow for introspection no matter the speed of your trip. Embrace all the senses to absorb each country. Glad you circled back. Love Ha-noise.... what a great description. Some changes are good and some less desirable.
5th March 2018

We count ourselves as some of the blessed few who have time to take in what areas we travel properly. We didn't really have that opportunity earlier in life. I think we were products of a "quantity over quality" society and are happy to now have a chance to go back and take a closer look. Thanks for reading and commenting!
5th March 2018
Mua Caves Trail

Looks like my kind of place
I was in Vietnam many years ago and afterwards I didn't feel like I needed to go back again. But after seeing your photos I realize I was wrong and in the future I will probably give the country one more chance. /Ake
5th March 2018
Mua Caves Trail

Second trip....
We saw most of the country on our first trip, but this time we added a couple of places (Sapa and Ninh Binh) that made a second trip worthwhile. We usually just visit countries once, but I think Vietnam justifies multiple visits. Thanks for reading, Ake!
7th March 2018

At crossroads
We were in Vietnam in 2009 and had very much the same thoughts as you regarding Vietnam's choice of path into the future... but after reading your post, I'm left wondering if not choosing one way or the other, is their choice. Of all the dichotomies we witnessed, trying to straddle both communism and commercialism simultaneously was the one that intrigued us the most. We've been longing to go back and do a trip that focused on their vastly different regional food :)
7th March 2018

Politics and food...
We generally try to avoid political conversations in our travels but we did have a couple while in Vietnam. People were very interested in how free speech and the ability to choose between different parties works. I told them free speech is great but sometimes even the ability to choose doesn't always work out (see: current US president). Ha Ha. They will figure it out and the great thing is, for a change, they will make their own decision. The food was amazing! Cheap, tasty and fresh and a huge step up from what we had in China. We definitely thought it was worth going back. Thanks so much for commenting and reading!
1st April 2018

Such beautiful photos , I also loved wandering the streets of Hoi An , and there was something special about floating down the river at night in a little wooden boat and putting your candle into the water . We found that our cruise in Halong Bay was very peaceful so I am sorry you had to contend with rude and drunken tourists. Tran Nang sounds wonderful , maybe I will have to go back
1st April 2018

Thank you. Trang An was a new find for us and we really enjoyed it. Worth a visit. We didn't have the best weather for Halong and when mixed with the crowds it just wasn't what we were looking for. It is a beautiful and unique place that everyone should see.

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