w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
I've always wanted to see more of Vietnam. I got my wish. We flew into Hanoi, sailed a junk through Halong Bay, flew to Da Nang, drove to Hoi An, took another flight to Ho Chi Minh City, and then floated down the Mekong. Here it is: Vietnam in 4 parts.
Oh Hanoi. I've always had a love-hate thing with Hanoi. Love the gorgeous French colonial architecture, the colorful, vibrant street life, the traditions kept alive and kicking in the Old Quarter. But I do hate the haggle, the tiered pricing system (everything's double the cost for foreigners), the pollution, the dirt and the inescapable feeling that you are a walking, talking dollar bill. We rented a Western-style full-service apartment in the expat friendly West Lake area. It was meant to be luxury lodging, but after the first day, a face towel was said to have gone missing. Everyday thereafter, the staff would stop both Chris and I to insist that we search for the towel. I finally told them that we did not have their towel and to back off. Later that day we returned to our apartment to find that housekeeping had confiscated all of our towels, except, you guessed it, one face towel. Petty, ridiculous, but also sort of hilarious. Still, there is no place like it.
Some of my best travel memories are of Vietnam. Seventeen years ago Chris and I went to Hanoi and stayed with his friend Lam and his then girlfriend Hai Yen. We camped out in their posh French villa off West Lake. Lam was an excellent tour guide. We drove motorbikes past rice fields to dine at a lakeside restaurant. While the owner dug a pit, filled it with coal and then threw in a freshly butchered chicken for cooking, we fished off a tiny bamboo hut that sat on stilts overlooking the lake. That night we slept in a concrete bunker, the walls stopping short a foot from the ceiling, the shower free of hot water. I stayed up all night watching for bats and possums wide-eyed at every snap of a twig. Hai Yen, a fashion designer, took us to a fashion show where impossibly skinny girls with long slick hair and dour expressions walked up and down a runway. Using toothpicks, we plucked out the fat meat of snails caught on the shores of Hanoi by a grandma with a bucket, her teeth stained red by betel nuts. We drank bia hoi in what looked like a run down garage, sitting on plastic stools, staring at the pock marked walls decorated with a single curled calendar. One morning, Chris, wedged in the tiny bathtub, wrenched up and knocked the spigot out of the wall with his ass, flooding the bathroom and earning himself a bruised buttock. Another time we, along with 8 other expats, rode motorbikes to the edge of town to a wild game restaurant. We walked down a narrow pathway filled with dark, growling cages, appalled and intrigued when we saw that on the menu was dog, porcupine, fillet of snake stuffed with rat, goat udder, boar. We rode home at sunrise, all of us, weaving, singing a Tom Petty song, drunk on 333 beer consumed on an empty stomach and the freedom of the wide road free of the usual traffic.
It was that trip, in many ways, that sparked my love of true travel - not the easy vacations of concierge and room service, hammocks and massages, but the ones where you recall Chris, a meringue of shampoo melting down his face as he held his hands Dutch boy style on the hole where the spigot used to be, naked and trapped, laughing so hard your belly hurts. The feeling of the air moving through your hair, neither hot nor cold, oddly free of temperature as you felt the subtle shift of weight to make a left turn, my chin resting on the satisfying hollow of Chris’s collar. You recall the taste of the salt on the snails, the slime of butter and pungent garlic trailing down your throat. How the sounds of the animals spooked you so badly you drank your dinner with your feet hooked around the chair legs, afraid that if you put them down, an escapee from the cooking pot would go scampering up your calf. The kind of travel that provides such good stories you are willing to overlook the discomforts and annoyances of travel.
But children don’t like discomforts. Or annoyances. They don’t like sleeping in bunkers or eating lake snails from a bucket. They don’t think it’s funny when you have six small bowls of the wrong order for lunch, or 3 star hotels that in SE Asia translate to nothing better than a questionable Motel 6. Isoo, especially, does not want to be told that the chopsticks are clean, just maybe don’t actually touch them to your mouth.
So this time, we did Vietnam their way and while it was safe, easy and convenient, this approach (more and more common in Vietnam) in many respects also stripped it of the stories; so we got the watered down version of Vietnam, not the technicolored one of my memories. I guess that’s okay. There were still good times to be had, but with it, the sharp realization that things have changed in Vietnam. Yes, the tourism industry has evolved since the last time we were here, but not necessarily for the better. And despite this growth, things are still more than a little ragged around the edges.
Isoo searching for the giant asthmatic tortoises of Hoan Kiem Lake outside Ngoc Son Temple.
The iconic Huc Bridge overlooking smoggy Hoan Kiem Lake.
Temple scenes. An oasis of calm in the bustling city center.
There is nothing like the buzz of the Old Quarter where the streets are named for their products (i.e., Hat Street, Belt Street, Silk Street, etc.). Here we are at the start of Shoe Street where we had to buy Oona her second set of new shoes. The girl's feet are huge!
Bikes, whether motorized or not, are still the vehicle of choice. And yes, they can carry anything.
One of my favorite things about the Old Quarter are the trees. The giant banyans are believed to house spirits. They won't be cut down, instead, they are honored with incense.
Anyone can open a restaurant in the Old Quarter. Just pop a squat and light some coals. This one specializes in grilled mushrooms. At lunch time the shop keepers gather on the sidewalk, open small jars of something or another and sit in a tight circle around a rice cooker, sharing news of the morning.
Two pot washing method: Swish dirty plate in pot of soapy water. Dip into pot of clean water. Fear of germs are for sissies.
The Vietnamese love to keep birds as pets. You can hear their music all through the city. But ask Isoo what the thinks about birds in captivity.
Another iconic image of Hanoi are the heaving electric and telephone wires. While there are strict rules preserving much of the historic Old Quarter, this is one aspect that is rumored to be updated. The city plans to sink the wires underground, but the massive project has yet to begin.
And then there is the traffic. Chris lived in Hanoi 20 years ago. I can't believe he had the nerve to ride a motorbike through the city. If you want to ride like the locals, don't forget your socks and flip flops, a surgical face mask and your iPhone tucked into your helmet for hands-free talking. And if you get too close to your fellow commuter, be prepared to get gently kicked out of the way.
Chris would draw a crowd whenever he got his hair cut at open air barbers like this one. Strangers would gather to gawk and laugh at the (then) blond American getting a trim.
Evidence of the France's occupation of Vietnam. The gorgeous St. Joseph's Cathedral.
While in Hanoi, we played tourist and took the kids to a water puppet show, visited the Ethnology Museum to learn about Vietnam's 54 tribal groups and took a cyclo tour of the city. When Chris' driver stopped mid-pedal for a smoke, Chris couldn't resist asking for a puff. I think he coughed the rest of the way home.
We also stopped at the beautiful Temple of Literature.
Another thing we did: Took a street foods tour with our sweet guide, Mae (a.k.a. Money). Here we are eating Bun Cha. Oona sipping Lemon Tea. In all we tried 9 different dishes ranging from the traditional Banh Mi to a medley of crispy fried Nem and regional favorites like the Egg Coffee (custard froth on coffee). If you decide to take a similar tour (and you should), make certain you do not accidentally wander into the "kitchen".
Making Banh Cuon, rice flour pancakes filled with minced pork and mushrooms.
Adventurous eaters sometimes get a little food poisoning. Or in my case, you feel like you're dying and lose and entire day lying on the bathroom floor. This happened not once, but twice in Hanoi. (The food handling laws are a little lax in this neck of the woods.) Oh well, it tasted good going down.
I have this romantic fantasy of sailing around the 1,969 islands of Halong Bay on a junk. Unfortunately, the junks have been replaced by cruise boats, with the sails hoisted periodically for touristic photo opportunities. We booked the smallest boat possible and headed for Halong and the quieter Bai Tu Long Bays for an overnight tour. Sure our guide abandoned us at handicraft shops along the way so vendors could hard sell us into trying to buy crap, but kayaking among the eerily quiet rocks rock formations was a dream come true.
Chris and Oona could not resist swimming in the bay, but you know, it's WINTER people! Here is my fool husband in the water with our junk in the distance. (The sails are up, quick! Take a picture!)
While kayaking the bay we broke off from our group. Chris and I were happy to float around in the quiet, but the kids insisted we keep up. Later, they confessed that they were scared we would get lost on the water without any place to beach. I see their point. Some of the islands are named after the animals they resemble, but most are just numbered, making it very hard to identify for a lost tourist.
Isoo and I opted to explore the rocky beach instead.
The food on the cruise was some of the best we had in Vietnam and the other 13 passengers were very nice. There was one cuddly young couple who I SWEAR TO GOD WERE IDENTICAL TWINS. I could not take my eyes off of them. After dinner our shipmate Jonathan and the kids tried their hand at squidding. Here is Jonathan with a catch.
We were awoken at dawn to watch the sunrise and then we boarded small boats to sail to the local fishing village. In 1994 the fishermen and their families were relocated from (very cool, but inconvenient) caves to the floating houses. There are now 7 floating villages in the bay, with 67 families in the village we visited.
The houses used to float on styrofoam rafts which would break off and pollute the water, harming the fish. Only recently did they start floating the houses on plastic drums. In 2006 when tourism began to boom in Halong Bay, several of the tourism companies began working together to clean up the water and help to established Halong Bay's first elementary school. Now kids paddle themselves to class in small boats and one teacher schools all 30+ children. Still, the lifestyle is hard: a fisherman's typical day begins at 2 a.m. and brings an average daily income of $22. There are no doctors (most treat themselves using local herbs), but there is a floating general store. Fresh water, food, and all supplies must be purchased and shipped in and waste must be shipped out. The monsoon seasons brings additional challenges although the islands do a great job providing some shelter from the wind.
Despite our beautiful cabin, Chris and I had trouble sleeping on a boat. Here we are looking exhausted.
Catching some winter rays on deck.
The small boats ready to take the next group of tourists to the bay.
We flew into Danang and headed straight for Hoi An. Once a bustling trading port, the area is so well preserved and charming that the entire Ancient Town is a UNESCO site. We were pleasantly surprised by its quaint, laid-back feel and loved walking around, taking in the Japanese, Chinese and European influenced architecture.
The Japanese Covered Bridge
When night falls, the Ancient Town is illuminated by lanterns. Wish we could have brought some home with us.
Lots of great shops selling custom clothes. Oona and I got bathing suits made and Chris got a pair of custom shorts, all complete in less than a day and super cheap.
The port is bustling with little boats with sinister looking eyes painted on the bow. The eyes are said to help sailors find their way back home and to scare off crocodiles in the river.
Our favorite house in the Ancient Town was Tan Ky. The house opened to the port in the rear so ships could ferry cargo directly to the house. Goods were stored in the back, the front of the house served as a shop and the family slept upstairs. Another great traditional house is Duc An, where intellectuals and patriots met to discuss and plan the overthrow of the French occupation. Here is Chris giving the kids a history lesson. In the photo is General Vo Nguyen Giap, a national treasure and with whom Chris once shared a cup of tea.
We borrowed bikes and rode the kids to Nah Trang beach. Many of you have commented that the kids have grown a lot; it's true; they've gotten very heavy.
Order lunch at one of the beachside restaurants and you get an umbrella lounger and free use of their boards. This is my kind of winter.
Basket boats ready to take you out on the water.
While we were in Hoi An the boys got a haircuts. Chris sporting the Beckham. Next time they'll also do the ear clean.
For lunch we went to the famous Madame Khanh - The Banh Mi Queen for sandwiches. At the age of 78, Madame Khanh still oversees this modest little storefront restaurant. While we were waiting for our fantastic banh mi, her octogenarian husband came shuffling out of the back apartment in flip flops and boxer shorts to retrieve something from the kitchen. Chris and I just looked at each other and grinned.
The local specialty is cao lau, a slightly sweet, chewy noodle dish served with a tiny bit of broth, vegetables and pork. You can only get this dish in Hoi An because for real cao lau noodles, you must use water drawn from one specific well located on the edge of the city (kinda like the myth of the NYC bagel). They are delicious and worth a taste if you're in Hoi An.
We love Vietnamese food so we took a cooking class to learn how to make a few of our favorites. First stop: the local market to buy fresh herbs and produce.
The class was fun, but not terribly challenging. I think they underestimated our kids' knife skills so the teacher and the sous chef did most of the actual cooking in the kitchen. Sort of a bummer, but we did enjoy the fantastic dinner that followed.
We stayed in Van Lan Riviera Villas among the rice fields just outside the city center. Run by Phuong and his nieces, the hotel is a homey little place with a great pool and a well-tended garden. Every day one of the staff would hang a pair of enormous white panties on the wall to dry in the sun (see my comment re: ragged around the edges). Our two bedroom villa was huge and Phuong would serve us breakfast on the banks of the river and chat with us while we ate. One morning, while we were eating breakfast, Phuong rode up to the hotel with a special package. He gleaned from our passports that it was Chris' birthday so had gone into town to get him a fancy cake. We were so touched by his thoughtful and generous gesture especially because chocolate is difficult and expensive to procure in Hoi An. It's always hard to be away for special occasions, but we felt, thanks to Phuong and the ladies, that we had celebrated with our incredibly kind (if not slightly eccentric) family.
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ask anyone in Hanoi or Hoi An what they think of HCMC and you get the same response: too much traffic, overwhelmingly noisy, taxi drivers that rip you off (and this is from the Vietnamese!). From what we saw (which admittedly, was not much), their assessment is true. Hanoi's traffic doesn't hold a candle to HCMC's madness. And yes, we totally got ripped off by the cabbies. Luckily, we stayed in a low rent expat resort apartment in suburban District 2 and spent most of our time floating in the pool.
HCMC's take on the family sedan.
We did manage to make it to the War Remnants Museum. The main floor is heavily slanted toward the Vietnamese, featuring propaganda posters decrying the U.S. attack on Vietnam. The upper floors feature the victims (mostly civilian) who were killed during the war. The pictures are grisly (and definitely not kid friendly - Chris and I took turns waiting outside with I&O). Particularly affecting are the giant photos of the Agent Orange victims, a legacy of the warfare that still continues to resonate throughout the country generations later.
Our only other excursion into the city was to visit the Fito Museum, a history of traditional Vietnamese medicine. The mandatory tour was led by a woman who told joke after heavily accented joke. It was sort of like being held hostage in a bad SE Asian comedy club. At one point she approached a French tourist, patted his big belly and cackled, "Ah ha! Look here! This man have baby! He man! He pregnant so fat! Hahaha!" So freaking Asian.
The apartment complex is located next door to an international school so there was a plenty of kids activities and tons of new English speaking friends with whom to play. The kids swam, played tennis, took a karate class and had a massive World Cup match with new Dutch, German, Japanese and Polish friends.
Hanging out with the boy.
Everyone says, "You must float down the Mekong Delta!" And from the likes of it, everyone was listening because the Mekong was bursting at the seams with tourists. Two years ago, the Delta underwent a tourist friendly makeover. New restaurants were built, boat tours launched, packages created with elaborate five-course lunches and pointless stops tacked on to justify exorbitant prices. The result? A orgy of gross consumerism, tacky sales pitches and the feeling that you're being shuttled like cattle from one inauthentic spot to the next (this despite our "custom" tour). At the Bee Farm a young woman poured us a thimbleful of honey tea and then proceeded to hard sell us into buying honey products, grabbing our hands to slather it with sticky ointments. The ladies at the Coconut Candy factory opted to skip the workshop altogether, leaving us to browse the monkey shaped lacquered coconuts while we waited for the tour guide to save us. The 2.5 hour "Cycle around the village to experience the feeling and meet the locals" segment was canceled when we realized that there were no bikes for the kids and the road had been razed for repaving. The piece de resistance, the tour of the Mekong Delta, was so clogged with boats that I nearly lost a finger when another boat tried to cram past ours; hardly the promised "gentle glide down a scenic natural canal to observe daily life in the Delta". We ended up coming home 3 hours early, but was only offered a smile and a consolatory $15 refund off the $250 tour price.
During my first trip to Vietnam, Chris and I rode an overnight train to Sapa. We slept on bamboo mats and shared a sleeper car with two strange men who snored in the bunks overhead, their skinny limbs hanging down like bars in a cage. At the train station a young man agreed to let us borrow his old Russian Minsk motorcycle, hopping off as he handed us his keys in exchange for Chris’ passport. We packed little wheels of kid cheese wrapped in red plastic, a baguette and a bottle of red wine and drove down the terraced green rice paddies past Hmong boys carrying sticks in a basket made of sticks. We crossed a rope bridge, parked the Minsk next to a water buffalo and ate our bread and cheese. When we were done, Chris took off his shirt and jumped into a lake to swim with the local kids. As the afternoon faded, we tried to ride back up the hill, only to have the bike conk out. Again and again Chris would start the bike, with me pushing from behind, and then hopping on just as the engine petered out. By then a mob of kids trailed behind us, laughing at the two foreigners wearing stupid Vietnamese patchwork skullcaps, covered in dust, me sweaty from pushing the bike and Chris halfway up the hill. When a young man on a scooter stopped next to us, he pantomimed that we should trade bikes so we did and I hopped on the back with him, wrapped my arms around his waist as he zipped me up the hill with Chris following behind. I didn't know this person. There was no plan. No safety net. No itinerary, but we knew that everything would be alright.
I'm glad we went to Vietnam. We were happy to share it with the kids and Halong Bay will remain a favorite. But I can't help but feel a little moony for the way the country, and we, were before we all got so savvy. I hear they recently built a super highway that can take you from Hanoi to Sapa in under 4 hours. No doubt it is wide enough to accommodate a tour bus.
Our guide was very sweet, but not terribly knowledgeable about the Mekong region. Here she is with the kids.
Coconut candy ladies. They do not care about you one bit.
Local boys watching the cavalcade of tourists board the small boats.
Ready and waiting.
The milky waters of the Mekong.
Making coconut milk out of coconuts? Life is just a bowl of coconuts? Oh whatever. Cheers!