Welcome to the first installment of my weekly blog series: Wednesday wandering: Spotlight on … For the inaugural Wednesday wandering post I’ve decided to focus on a country that blew me away with its magic and charm: Vietnam.
Wednesday wandering: Vietnam
Sean and I visited Vietnam in April of 2013. We had just done our first two years as EFL teachers in South Korea. On our way home we decided to travel to four destinations: The Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos. However, we only made it to two — the Philippines (more about that later) and Vietnam. This is an account of the most amazing two weeks of my life.
Gooooooooood morning, Vietnam!
Vietnam makes you grateful to be alive. The streets are buzzing with peddlers, pedestrians and motorised vehicles. Sean and I have just arrived; sweaty and disgruntled; our last days in the Philippines soured by our rapidly diminishing funds.
When I say rapidly diminishing, I don’t mean that we are broke. Just that we will be broke real soon. At least I will. Sean was saving up quite a bit during our two-year stint in Korea, while I didn’t have much left after paying off all of my students loans. But hey, at least that’s done!
Back to Vietnam. I’ve made a watertight budget and we’re staying in a series of youth hostels and affordable boutique hotels. We’re taking a ‘Hop-On, Hop-Off’ bus through all the major cities, starting in Hanoi, Halong Bay, Huế, Hoi An, Nha Trang and ending off in Hồ Chí Minh City. Our budget is set at US$30 a day and we are loving it. Where do we want to live forever? Vietnam!
Hanoi, if you please
Hanoi takes your breath away. We gawk at the cathedral, museums, street food, bars on every corner, women on bicycles selling fruit. It’s a maze of colours and sounds, and it’s where we found Jesus, or as he’s known in Vietnam, Hồ Chí Minh.
The Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi attracts visitors from all over the world. Queuing up is part of the fun. You have to wake up early to join the groups of school children on a field trip to the last resting place of their fearless leader. Hồ Chí Minh was the revolutionary leader of North Vietnam who led his country to victory against the US during the Vietnam War.
You stand outside the gates of the mausoleum for a few hours until you reach the front entrance. From there you walk into the deathly quiet building. His embalmed body lies on a raised platform inside a glass case, surrounded by a moat and protected by another square glass wall. We walked around the wall. You’re not allowed to talk, take pictures, or use a cellphone. It’s a matter of respect, you see.
Take me down to Halong Bay
Package tours are not on our list of must-do activities, but we decide to take a chance this one time and book a cruise around Halong Bay. Soon we’re sailing between the limestone karsts and the small islands popping up all around us like small balls of biodiversity.
The next day we pay a visit to a magnificent cave and we frolic on the beach till sundown. There’s something about rowing your own canoe on an ocean that puts life in perspective.
Huế are you now?
To this day, Huế remains the highlight of our trip to Vietnam. Huế is home to the Imperial City, a massive 19th-century citadel surrounded by a deep moat and massive stone walls. It’s like a scene from Game of Thrones, I kid you not. Once inside, we ride around on bicycles and spend the entire day exploring the ruins of old buildings. Lunchtime we find ourselves hungry but unable to decipher the Vietnamese script of the sidewalk cafes. We decide to take a chance and sit down at the nearest shop. Out of sheer desperation we order the first thing we see on the menu, unsure of what it is. What will we eat today? It turns out to be palm-sized transparent pancakes filled with a variety of ingredients, including shrimp and chili. The steamed rice pancake, called bánh bèo, is the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten without knowing what it was first, and I do that a lot.
We stay at the aptly named Google Hotel, where we enjoy free breakfast every morning and free beer every night. Huế is our hub to other cultural activities. The hotel organises a trip to the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. We walk between the bunkers and in the underground tunnels where not so long ago young men fought for their freedom.
Hoi An you beaut
Hoi An is an ancient city where the people are always smiling. The buildings are tall and cast ornate shadows on the crinkled pavements. By now we’ve been introduced to Phở, the most amazing Vietnamese noodle soup. The broth is thin and fragrant, the rice noodles light and airy. Seasoned with lemongrass, herbs and spices, it’s our meal of choice for breakfast, lunch and supper!
In Hoi An, we eat sugared ginger and ice cream right on the water. We walk between old houses and complain about the heat. Sean and I wander around the quiet streets, while men try to sell him suits. If they only knew that he’s allergic to formal wear.
At night, we have a festive dinner at a restaurant with a view of the river. Afterwards we take a riverside stroll, and bask in the lights in Vietnam.
Nha Trang and the blue-headed lizard
In Nha Trang we eat pho like it’s our last supper. We also book our tickets home. After the next city we are going back to Joburg. We walk around the sandy ruins of temples, spot a blue-headed lizard, and walk up and down the beach like we own the place. It’s getting hotter and more humid the closer we get to the south of Vietnam.
We spend our last day on Vin Pearl, a luxury resort and water amusement park set on an island that you reach by cable car. There’s ride called the Tsunami that leaves you suspended in the air for a split second before you plummet into the blue water below. From that viewpoint, you can see the bay and all its visitors glittering in sunlight.
Hồ Chí Minh City Blues
The buses between cities are double-decker sleeper buses. On the last bus, I meet a man who gives me a fake copy of a Chuck Palahniuk novel. (Which one it was, I can’t tell you for sure.) You can find fake books on every corner, but something about it doesn’t sit right with me. I want to be a writer, after all, so stealing someone’s work seems like bad karma. I never read the book.
In Hồ Chí Minh City, we try to squeeze all the history we can into the last few days. We visit the War Remnants Museum and try to imagine the way the world used to be:
We solemnly promise to return. One day. And this time, we’ll take it slow.
Have you been to Vietnam? Share your story in the comments below!
As a Matter of Fact
Largest city: Ho Chi Minh City
Population: 92 700 000 (2016 census)
GDP: $590.077 billion
Language: Vietnamese, English, French, Chinese, Khmer, and local languages
Calling code: +84
Time zone: UTC+7
International airports: Noi Bai (Hanoi), Da Nang International Airport (Da Nang), and Tan Son Nhat (Ho Chi Minh City)
Visa policy: Different rules for different countries. Check out Wikipedia.
What about the books?
I bought a copy of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell at one of the bookstores on the side of the road in Hue. Upon thorough inspection I believe it wasn’t a fake book, but then again, I couldn’t have been sure. Here’s to hoping.
Cloud Atlas became my bus/car/boat/plane read for the duration of the trip. With hindsight I wish I’d read some Vietnamese books as well.
Here are 5 books by Vietnamese authors on my ever-growing To-Read list:
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.”
A vibrant, picaresque memoir written with narrative flair and a wonderful, eye-opening sense of adventure.
Protagonists Kim Lan and Hoang Long marry in Saigon during the Vietnam War, uniting in a setting that allows Dinh’s dark, deadpan humor to flourish.
Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family
New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year.