Trip Report: Vietnam: January 2017

Here is the continuation of Tina C.’s trip journal – covering the Vietnam portion of her multi-family group’s trip (11 people) to Southeast Asia.  We customized our 16-Day Southeast Asia Explorer: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia trip for these clients. Many thanks to Tina C., who agreed to allow us to publish her trip report.

Traveler: Tina C.
Travel Dates: January 1 -January 6, 2017
Destination Visited: Vietnam

DAY 9 – Hanoi, Vietnam (Old Town District)

Phong met us in Hanoi, and our first impression of Vietnam’s roads was “This feels like the Trans Canada Highway”!  The airport was brilliant, the roads were fabulous, and I couldn’t be more shocked by its modern feel…UNTIL we got to the Old Town district where we were staying…phew!  Old Town was more third world and where the action was…and as we approached, I started to feel much more like I was in SE Asia.  Hustle/bustle, tuk tuks and scooter traffic, density, noise, tons of peeps…LOOOOOVE!  I was soooooo excited to be here…the piece de resistance of this trip, albeit Cambodia and Laos had already FAR exceeded expectations.  We checked into our hotel and Phong took us immediately for a walk about town, to our evening dinner venue.  OMG…what incredible stimulation for the senses!  It was wild…lots of peeps sitting on tiny stools outside restaurants, eating, drinking, and happy, loud music, honking horns, dense traffic…I was seriously in my HAPPY PLACE!  Love. That. Scene.  😁

We had a great meal for less than 40$ per family, and wandered back afterwards, with some ‘The North Face’ and ‘Old Propaganda Poster’ shopping en route!  Off to bed and already feeling that we hadn’t booked enough time here!  This trip has just been one awesome experience after another…and the time was starting to fly!

DAY 10 – Hanoi (West Lake, City Tour, Hanoi Hilton, & Bicycle Rickshaw Ride)

Up early to meet Phong and embrace a run/walk around West Lake…a beautiful lake and park situated a block from our hotel.  Tons of city folk were up and at ’em with their morning exercise routines…tai chi, line dancing, yoga, walking and running.  One group of women was sporting dark capris and fuschia tshirts…matching my outfit exactly…but I missed the photo opp by joining them!  We then went through some markets and Old Town on foot, and got THE BEST COFFEE YET…ICED COFFEE WITH SWEET CREAM!!!!!!   What’s THAT you might ask???  It’s flipping CONDENSED MILK IS WHAT!!!  AND I COULD EAT IT OUT OF A BUCKET IF ONLY IT SPARED MY WAISTLINE!!!  O. M. G…they REALLY should not have reintroduced CONDENSED MILK to me…childhood favorite treat on white bread…eh Mom???  LOOOOOOVE.

Returned for breakfast, and then spent over three hours walking around Hanoi with Phong.  Super cool capital city, with tons of government buildings and history. We got a lesson on Vietnam history, and contemplated their communist government, which, seemed largely only so in title…the reality didn’t seem sooo red!  Asked about 6 guards for a photo before one said yes, however, as they are likely watched and may be reprimanded for not being adequately serious.  We saw the area where John McCain was shot down, as well as the remains of a B-52 bomber…and enjoyed a coffee at the B-52 Cafe (apparently, the BEST COFFEE YET according to G.).  Phong told me that they’re allowed FB and have their own version of Tinder, called Zalo.  When I queried whether Psychotherapy was a thing, he said most people just listen to radio psych talk shows or use the net to discover themselves or work out their problems.  Hmmmmm…seems I’d be outta business here!

We made our way through the city, around several lakes and over to our lunch spot…for Bu Cha!   A densely packed, 4-story resto with a gajillion people, bench seating, and serving only one dish!  Rice noodles with pork and broth…and if you’re lucky, some fried prawn spring rolls!  It was where all the locals eat Bu Cha, originally on the street…but now popularized by Obama’s visit six months prior!  With very low expectations, we were shocked to discover it was DELISH and we polished it off pretty dang fast!  . . . 

After lunch was a sobering visit to the Hanoi Hilton, the prison where many many soldiers were tortured, beheaded and kept during The American War (in Vietnam, they refer to it differently)!  Remarkable tour of an experience that wasn’t so long ago.  We were left somewhat depressed and somber, just as we had left the Khmer Rouge museum and prison.  Lots of recent history in SE Asia, and very intriguing for all of us. 

. . . continued our evening activities.  First stop…a BIG shopping expedition at a shop selling lacquered paintings.  G./M. and I bought several pieces and we . . . shipped the dang art!  Hope he likes ’em cuz his first question was “Are they TACKY?”!!!  IIIIIIII DON’T THINK SO, BUT…😬😬😬!

We stopped at a railroad track that ran right through a small alleyway, with flats and shacks right ON TOP OF IT!  Soooo cool…but can you imagine the noise and jarring vibrations with every train?  Yikes!  Pretty cool to see people’s laundry hanging right off their shacks, likely skimming the passing train cars…AMAZING! 

We were then set up for a FANTABULOUS BICYCLE RICKSHAW RIDE through old town!  Ten chariots in a row took off for a 45-minute ride around The French Quarter and Old Town…soooooooo cool!!!!  Love seeing the sights this way!  We were dropped off at our hotel for a quick freshening up and made our way out for dinner.  Very nice resto recommended by Phong, followed by some more shopping at The North Face and Poster Shop!  Far too short was our stay in the lovely city of Hanoi…but we definitely made the BEST of it in this sensation-seeking, jam-packed, stimulating day!

DAY 11 – Halong Bay & Ho Chi Minh City 

After an early breakfast and checkout, we headed off to the port 4 hours away, for our houseboat adventure in HALONG BAY.  May I just say…

WOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOW!

O.  M.  G.  !!!!!!!!!! 😳😁😍❤️😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

WOW. WOW. WOW.  Halong Bay was my image of Vietnam when it became a bucket list venue…but it far exceeded expectations!  Absolutely spectacular vistas were EVERYWHERE!  Holy Moly Batman…I was sooooo excited I coulda jumped up and down ALL DAY LONG!  I think I might’ve done my HAPPY DANCE a weeeeeee too much for my kids’ liking!  It was soooo breathtaking!  We were all in awe!  We had few expectations (the PLUS SIDE OF NOT PRE-READING THE ITINERARY OR GOOGLING FOR PICS!  Ha!), and could not have been more blown away!  Our houseboat was far larger than the one we enjoyed in Kerala, and we each got a full room and bath. We were served fresh meals, embraced a kayaking or Sanpan excursion on the bay, swam off the dock, tried squid fishing off the boat, did tai chi at 6am, and had a super fun cooking lesson and competed for best spring rolls!  Our guide Sun was a hoot . . . ‘

[T]he next morning we visited the largest cave we’ve ever seen, via tender.  Back for brunch, a gajillion more photos and we had to say goodbye to Halong Bay…until next time my friend…❤️. . . . 

Arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and were floored by its Las Vegas or big city/big lights feel.  Ten million in this city…the largest in Vietnam, with a Starbucks and McDonalds right outside the airport!  Our hotel was situated just beside the largest market in town, hosting heaps of peeps.  We were met at the airport by our guide…you’ll never guess what his name is…CONG (after Vong, and Phong)! . . . 

We made our way out for dinner and sat beside a pimp, his madam, and two of his young ladies!  Yikes…and so very sad at the same time.  We ate very interesting food (I’m sure G’s meal had internals!), and were charged for the wet napkins we were delivered at the table when we sat down…definitely a first!  Strangest dinner venue yet…but cheap…our dinner for four was under $20!!!  We roamed the sidewalk markets on our walk back, and L. and I got thoroughly confused when contemplating the cost of a couple of scarves…just can’t wrap my head around the exchange when we’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of Dong!  “One dong at a time” has always been my motto…😂.

DAY 12 – Ben Tre (Bike Tour, Canoeing the Mekong Delta, & Jeep Ride Through Jungle) & Saigon (Motorbike Food Tour)

On the agenda today is a 2-hour ride to Ben Tre, a small town in the countryside of HCM city.  We had little expectations for the day, perhaps because we had left utopia in Halong Bay and entered THE BIG CITY.  Thankfully, however, we were LEAVING LAS VEGAS and took off for a series of spectacular surprises, that turned into another favorite day of the trip!  We got on some pretty oooooooold and rusty bikes upon our arrival in Ben Tre, and rode through traffic to enter what seemed to be a rural bike path.  It turned out to be a winding narrow road through dense foliage, with shacks and a small canal on its neighboring sides.  We were literally riding in the jungle…super cool experience!  Shared the road with a few scooters and found ourselves at the home of an older man who literally HOARDED HUNDREDS OF ANTIQUES!  I was sooooooo hot and sweaty by the time we got to his house, that I barely listened to Cong’s translation of his story, and history.  IT WAS SOOOOO HOT…AND THIS WAS WINTER!!!  He was a wonderful man, and a lovely host.  He showed us how he scaled the coconut tree using some natural twine to grip the tree with his feet…you could see why at 64 he was in fabulous shape. C., K., M., K. and R. all followed suit, and gave the large, slippery tree a go at its coconuts!  Not easy to climb!  And just behind it was a very brown canal that they could easily have fallen into…God knows I PROBABLY WOULD HAVE…😩!

We then sat down to some yummy sugared coconut and coconut water.  The host showed us the powder derived from some nut found in the forest, which he wrapped in a leaf and chewed, before spitting out the leaves and red fluid.  The effect was of a natural high…so D., C. and G. all gave it a try!  Interesting effects…red heated ears, shaky legs, and lightheadedness.  Apparently the older women of the community sit around enjoying these leaves quite frequently!  We took off on bikes again for another ride through the jungle, and found our beautiful, outdoor restaurant oasis along another trail!  We sat down to a full service meal of fresh Elephant Ear fish, that arrived ‘standing up’ on a platter, head and tail intact, and its unusual bony scales along its cooked body!  We were given rice paper, vegetables and sauces and expected to roll fish spring rolls with the cooked fish…delicious!  We also got some deep-fried banana fritters and jumbo prawns to enjoy, and fresh pineapple for dessert.  K. and I just looked at each other with that “Can you flipping believe we’re eating AGAIN?” look!

We took a walk down the path and climbed onto, what seemed like WARTIME canoes (turned out they were only FOUR YEARS OLD!), for a guided ride down The Mekong Delta!  It felt a lot like the canoe ride we had done off the houseboat in Kerala, and somewhat like a smaller Amazonian canal…SUUUUUUPER COOL EXPERIENCE!  There were water coconuts that lined the canal and fisherman using nets to capture their evening meal.  Surreal.  Small, rundown old shacks equally lined the canal.  Hard to imagine actually living here! 

Upon leaving the canoes, we hopped on two motorbike-driven pickup trucks for a WILD, SPEEDY, WICKEDLY FUN RIDE THROUGH MORE OF THE JUNGLE!  O. M. G. It was a hooooot!  We were dodging low-laying branches and giggling at speedy near-misses as we head off oncoming traffic on this narrow road!  Too. Much. Fun.  And soooooo unexpected!  We stopped at a carpet-weaving family and marveled as this 150-year-old woman squatting so flexibly for 12 hours a day to weave a straw carpet…WE HAD TO BUY SOMETHING!  I wanted to give her my firstborn she was so dang adorable!!!  Then we longboated up the canal to a coconut candy-making shop, where we bought more souvenirs, were served coconut tea and many fresh fruits, and were serenaded by two musicians and three lady singers.  I gotta say…Vietnamese tunes ARE AN ACQUIRED TASTE!!!!!  😝  I think they may just beat Indian singing in agonizing pitch!  We got back on the longboat for a ride back to the bus, and our 2-hour drive back to Saigon.  Oh my…what an amazing day…sooo full of surprises!  And our motorbike food tour is yet to come! 

O.

M.

G!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wow!  What a huuuuuuuge surprise this evening turned out to be!  Again, not having really investigated our itinerary too KEENLY, none of us had any real awareness that we were EACH getting our own motorbike for a food tour of Saigon!  It was PHENOMENAL!!!  Eleven young university students met us at our hotel, kindly introduced themselves, and took us out on the back of their motorbikes for a fantastic ride around this incredible city. We stopped at 4 different restaurants to sample local fare, and rode through 4 city districts, including the “locals” district we would never have seen on our own.  We had BBQ and beer at one venue, sitting outdoors on little stools, whilst our hosts barbecued various meats (including goat udders!), seafood and vegetables on tiny little tabletop grills!  We had fabulous chats with these awesome young peeps during our buzz about town.  They were such a lovely group of young people…they truly MADE THE EXPERIENCE DELICIOUS!!!  My driver, Michelle (the tour leader), talked to me about life in Vietnam, being a bit rebellious and desiring to go abroad, and what living with a communist government was really like…fascinating!  IT WAS SOOOOOO DANG AWESOME TO RIDE A BIKE AND SEE THE CITY THIS WAY!  TRULY EXHILARATING!  None of us will ever forget tonight…a TRIP HIGHLIGHT, amongst so many!  Dan and AWR…YA DONE GOOD!!!

DAY 13 – Cu Chi Tunnels

Up early for our last day with The B’s…😔….will miss them a ton!  Headed out to see The Cu Chi Tunnels, about two hours outside of Saigon.  Fascinating experience to walk through the “jungle”, and learn of the Viet Cong’s presence, tactics and life over the course of the Vietnam war.  It was very different to hear the perspective from Vietnam, rather than the usual U.S. point of view we are always privy to.  We imagined the lives of the soldiers as they lived within the 250km tunnel system, and squeezed through a length of the tunnel ourselves.  A highlight for the guys was an opportunity to target shoot with an authentic rifle!  Continuing the tour after that was far less evocative for the four young men…we should have saved the REALTIME CALL OF DUTY GIG for the last hoorah! . . . After the Cu Chi experience, we went out for our last lunch together in a beautiful pagoda on the side of the canal.  As per our experience here, everyone got their meals at different times…but very yummy, fresh fare…so all good! . . . 

[If the Vietnam portion of this trip appeals to you, we invite you to explore our 9-Day South Vietnam trip and our Vietnam tours page.  To read more about Tina C.’s group trip, follow the links below:

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