A taste of my recent trip to beguiling Vietnam
First impressions of Hanoi
Absolute chaos!! A cacophony of scooters, horns, taxis, communist messages being broadcast, street vendors bargaining, music and more... but also a beautiful green city with rich French colonial architecture, exquisite tastes and smells, friendly people with a desire to please their visitors. A city of opposites with a 5 month old international airport, brand new highway and bridge into the city, mixed with traditions of the past still clearly visible wherever you look. An absolute visual symphony!
The beauty of Mai Chau valley
After leaving the old French Quarter in Hanoi, we ventured inland to the Mai Chau valley. It's a peaceful and lush green place belying the busyness that's taking place in the myriad of villages and paddy fields within it. Many are unseen from the main road, with villages that are only accessible through narrow tree-lined paths on scooters, bikes (which I opted for) or walking.
I had to take my 'conical' hat off to the muddy and barefoot 75 year old lady that was finishing her days work in the field and giggling away as we asked to take her photo. She encapsulated what was visible in all who we saw - their honesty and humour serving them well into their old age, with happiness and contentment as the result.
Or the little wooden shacks where the men guard the paddy fields but take a siesta in the heat of the day - only to watch the premier football league on sky tv. They have a saying; "everything is changing - except the change". A delightful place to visit...
The wonder that is Ha Long Bay
After a 4 hour journey east of Hanoi to the coast, we landed in the UNESCO heritage sight of Ha Long Bay. In 2012 it was added to the seven wonders of the world (now 8?) and has hundreds of limestone islands ascending out of the water with rainforest covers. Some of the islands are hollows and these caves can be explored - a natural paradise for hikers, divers and anyone who appreciates nature in all its glory.
Being able to hop off our boat and swim in the warm East Sea and paddle through the "Dark and Bright" cave with islands rising up all around us was quite the experience. Then walking an hour through a hidden cave, opening to several massive chambers (like our Waitomo Caves - only much bigger!) was something worth making the journey for. Meeting the local fishing villagers who live on their boats and survive by fishing and selling their wares to us, all with a smile on their faces despite what we perceive as hardship, makes you think about what's really important...
Next stop, Hoi An...
Half way down the coast between Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City, is the delightful and quaint Hoi An. With the river meandering through the town from the ocean, its original purpose was for trading on the old Silk route. Now the trading is done in the shopping quarter with its plethora of food, crafts and clothing markets that is definitely a shopper’s mecca. Another specialty of theirs is getting something tailor-made, including shoes, at a fraction of the price by using their fabrics of silk, cotton and linen. I had a copy of a skirt made in 3 hours... (if only I had more time!) The French influence can still be found but more historic Japanese and Chinese landmarks are here. In the evening, the tree-lined streets, river banks and cobblestoned walkways are lit by colourful lanterns which renders this area quite the romantic place to be!
Hello, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)!
Arriving in HCMC, it was clear straight away that this city was a modern, cosmopolitan and spreading metropolis. This was the East meeting the West at a rampant pace - worlds away from the more conservative and traditional Hanoi, although still very green. Retaining many historic buildings, they have restored these to their former glory. The Post Office is in the traditional ochre colour and just as much a tourist destination as it is a working business. HCMC, despite its 12 million people, is run in a far more organised manner than its northern counterpart, and the road rules are generally adhered to i.e you can use the crossings with reasonable confidence!
And lastly, the Mekong Delta
Just out of HCMC, my last destination is where the water world of the South begins - the Mekong Delta. Heavily populated with the industrious locals using every inch of their land with rice and every part of their coconuts and bananas to extract a living from the water and the land. The humidity was in 90's and the temp in the high 30's, so when the thunderstorm hit while we were in a boat, it was a welcome relief to clear and cool the air (it was cooler up North). Arriving at our home stay (B&B) right on the river, we were welcomed and shown to our rooms complete with mosquito nets. That night, we were taught how to cook - Vietnamese-style, and then enjoyed a sumptuous five course meal. Our hosts were gracious and humble and wished us well as the next day we went on another bike ride. This time the paths were a little narrower and I constantly had to say "stay right!" in my mind, particularly when a motor bike wielding rice sacks high and wide was heading towards me! Being here in the middle of the tropical forest watching how life never stops but a friendly, yet shy smile is always given, how the little children practise their English on us and then hearing their squeals of laughter in the distance was why this place never stopped intriguing me...
Vietnam fact: they love coffee!!
I'll definitely miss my traditional Vietnamese coffee that's made with very strong plunger coffee, mixed with condensed milk and then joyed either hot or cold with ice. We were told that the American tourists find this too strong but with our own lust for coffee, I'm sure that any kiwi visitor wouldn't! And at US 50c from a street vendor to USD $2-3 in a western style cafe, the coffee culture here is a thriving business and bolting ahead. Although coffee and pastries were introduced by the French, the Vietnamese (all 90 million of them) have turned this habit into their own traditional culture with a twist. Waking up to strong coffee and a warm croissant is only one of many things I've enjoyed about my time here.
Would I return? In a heartbeat! So, goodnight Vietnam, it's been a blast.