Three decades ago, we were at war with Vietnam, in what they call “The American War.” Today, Vietnam welcomes Americans and looks to the west for inspiration. The communist party still holds sway, but there is roaring free enterprise, a thriving stock market, open discussion and criticism of the party, and unstoppable individualism and ingenuity. The Vietnamese have suffered wave after wave of war and occupation, and they have bounced back with amazing resilience. They are forward-looking, forward-thinking, and masters of forgiveness. I can’t imagine a sentient being who wouldn’t love Vietnam.
A rural farmer buys another traditional hat.
My feet were all over Vietnam, but my heart was really in the north. Hanoi, for me, is about the streets. People cook, eat, talk, play board games, sell, buy, hang, smoke, socialize and nap on the sidewalks. On the roads of the city, there are approximately one-and-a-half million motorbikes (I heard estimates ranging from one to two million) and it’s like the Wild West. Sure, there are traffic lights, but no one pays attention to them. You soon develop a strategy for getting across the street; mine was to stand next to a Vietnamese person, close my eyes, move my feetäand pray. You can buy anything in Hanoi–from silks and high fashion to water puppets (Vietnam is famous for its aquatic puppet shows, which include fireworks, music and puppets fighting, loving and fishing together). If your digestive track is delicate, you can find western-style food or familiar Vietnamese dishes you would find in restaurants back home (but better, of course). There are upscale restaurants where you can put together a customized Vietnamese banquet. If you are adventurous, you can try delicacies that include porcupine and rice wine infused with a huge cobra. And yes, you will see crispy dog in the markets. Everywhere you go, you’ll find pho (pronounced “fur”) – a delicious, inexpensive noodly soup with beef or chicken. If you don’t read Vietnamese, and the menus aren’t translated, you can just point.
If you leave Hanoi and head for the hills (the mountains in the north) you enter a world of ethnic villages that maintain a traditional lifestyle. Vietnam has 53 ethnic minorities, more than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. They are designated by tribal names (and, according to some experts, some names reflect the colors of their traditional dress). Along the road and in villages, you’ll encounter groups like the white Thai, back Thai, black Dzao, red Dzao, white H’mong, black H’mong, Nung, Tay …and many others.
Blackening the teeth is considered beautiful in the custom of a White Thai village in the north of Vietnam.
Several of the inhabitants of the villages have learned English well enough to be your guides into their daily life and customs. They are friendly, open and willing to answer any of your questions. If you have a camera, it’s a chance to get those shots of a lifetime of women in conical hats working in the rice paddies, water buffalos, kids playing, thatched wooden houses on stilts and beautiful people in dazzling native dress.
The most well-known of the mountain villages is Sa Pa. The guidebooks warn you that it’s touristy, but, frankly, the fact that some other westerners were there didn’t bother me at all. The ethnic minority women are very persistent, and you should be prepared for a gaggle of them to follow you through the streets, proffering embroidery and jewelry. They are really poor, and they are trying to sell to survive. If you buy something from them – and it’s wonderfully affordable – they will give you a little embroidered bracelet as a gift and gently move away.
If travel is about adventure, about leaving behind your daily life, cares, worries and surroundings, then a trip into the northern mountains is the very essence of traveling.
The romance and glamour of the south China seas is found in the Gulf of Tonkin on a luxury cruise among the fabulous limestone formations of Halong Bay.
For sheer beauty, head for Halong Bay (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and board one of the ships for a one or two night cruise. There are more than 1969 sandstone islands and that rise, mysteriously, out of the water. When it’s foggy and overcast, the islands look ghostlike and shadowy; you’ll feel as though you have entered into a Chinese painting. After sipping wine on deck and lingering over a multi-course dinner, you can make arrangements to burn off the calories the next day by paddling a kayak to visit picturesque caves.
If shopping is your thing, think Hoi An. It’s the new Hong Kong where, for an unbelievably low price, you can have clothes custom tailored and ready for pickup within 24 hours. The best of the shops offer up-to-date catalogues for you to pick out clothing designs, and you can choose from an almost endless variety of silks and silk blends. If you don’t want to be fitted and like your shopping ready-made, hand-tailored clothes are available at many of the shops.
In the southern part of the country, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is a bustling, thriving city with high-end shops and hotels. The War Remnants museum provides a chilling overview of the American war with objects and photos that bring home the horror of warfare. And outside of the city are the infamous Cu Chi tunnels, where thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers lived in claustrophobic, miserable conditions as they carried out a guerrilla war. Some of the tunnels have recently been widened so that well-fed westerners can fit inside. Going down into the bowels of the earth, with the walls closing in on you, is a searingly memorable experience. If you don’t wish to have tunnel moments, the grounds around the tunnels are a living museum of the war from the Vietnamese side.
And, every day, at noon, visitors can go to a temple to experience Cau Dai, a Vietnamese religion that includes all other religions and has some pretty unusual saints–like Victor Hugo. It is hard to leave Vietnam. No matter how long one stays, there’s a feeling that you have just grazed the surface and there is much, much more to discover.
IF YOU GO: One of the reasons I signed on as an expert with Trusted Adventures is because I traveled to North Vietnam with Myths and Mountains . The experience, the guide, the care, the cultural connections made this trip one of the most memorable I have taken in years. I extended the trip to include four days in Cambodia, and would be kicking myself in the culottes for the rest of my life if I hadn’t. Info on Myths and Mountains: www.mythsandmountains.com Phone: 1-800-670-6984. Flying there: Asian travelers and Westerners in the know fly EVA airline and book seats in their premium-economy Elite Class. They fly from 5 North American cities and make one stopover in Taiwan. Phone: 1-800-695-6000 or online at http://www.evaair.com . In Hanoi, the legendary Sofitel Metropole Hotel drips with French colonial charm and offers luxury, elegance and graceful service. Stay in the old wing rather than the new one; the former has much more character. Telephone: 011-84-4 826 6919 The hotels in the north are generally lackluster and basic. But the Mai Chau Lodge in the Mai Chau valley does not disappoint. It used to be a resort for guests of communist party officials. (www.maichaulodge.com ) The Bhaya is one of the best boats to take for a visit to Halong Bay. (www.bhayacruises.com ) In Hoi An, take the money you have saved on clothes and book a suite at the Life Resort. The multi-level rooms are designerly, spacious, elegant and beautifully appointed. (www.life-resorts.com ) Bon voyage!
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