Lush, vibrant, diverse, enthralling, natural, authentic, and downright HOT. After eight days in Vietnam I have to admit I’m smitten, but it didn’t come easily. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, which is actually still called Saigon in the core districts, was anything but inviting. A miscommunication in the planning stages left us without arranged transportation to the hotel from the airport and neither Melissa, Lindsay, nor myself had the address on hand.
Broken communication in Spanish can usually get you by, but with the Vietnamese it is a lost cause. You’re left gesturing, slowing your speech, employing an elementary vocabulary that not one single taxi driver can understand. In a city where motorbikes rule, traveling by taxi feels like you’re something like an awkward whale swimming in a sea full of darting, synchronized fish. This was the scene; motorbikes, loaded down with four family members plus cargo, zipping through city streets and coming and going in all directions. Forget road rules. In Saigon it’s a free for all, and somehow it works. Thus was our first twenty minutes; doubting we’d ever make it to our hotel to meet up with our group, yet completely enthralled by the chaos around us.
Saigon by and large has not been my favorite city, but luckily for me it was only a jumping off point for the Mekong Delta to the south. This is the Vietnam I had pictured. Lush verdant jungles of bamboo, thick palms and several species of banana trees create a maze of canals and hidden villages. We checked into our homestay, which was a thatch-roofed, bamboo bungalow canopied by the dense jungle. Mao, our fearless leader, led us through the jungle villages by bicycle, an experience that soared to the top of my “Top 10” list. We also explored the canals by boat, stopping to watch locals make coconut candies and to try the local rice and snake wines. Ick! That night all 16 of us helped to prepare a traditional meal. We chopped, rolled, stuffed, battered, and fried in the “kitchen” bungalow with our leaders and several drinks in hand. Another “Top 10” experience.
Heading north by first class sleeper train (by Vietnamese standards) made for a lousy night’s sleep. Vietnamese people are far shorter than me, and so, too, are the beds. It’s ok though, because for the first time since Bangkok we were going to take root in Nha Trang for two nights. I could see plenty of beach naps in my future. We booked a boat excursion on the first day, which included snorkeling in the South China Sea and a fresh seafood lunch on board. Our second day was a dedicated beach day, and we did it right. Thatched umbrellas, loungers, and fresh fruit cocktails…THIS is what we had been waiting for. Nha Trang was nothing special and not unlike any other touristic coastal town, but it was the perfect stopover before boarding our sleeper train to Hoi An.
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to Hoi An. This town is the sole reason why I am falling in love with this country. Once a major trading port controlled by the French, Hoi An has old western world charm alongside traditional influences of the Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese. To put it simply, it is positively enchanting. The people are warm and inviting and the food is by far the best we’ve had so far. I found myself walking the streets completely absorbed in the atmosphere, not realizing I had left my friends far behind. By day Hoi An is a shopping Mecca where vendors tempt you with custom made clothing and shoes. One nod of the head and a creative eye sealed the deal for Melissa, Lindsay and myself. A two-day designing and tailoring bender became alarmingly addictive and wholly satisfying. Dangerous!! By night, Hoi An comes alive under the warm glow of thousands of paper lanterns in a rainbow of colors. This is when locals take to the streets to enjoy a hearty meal with relatives and friends as tourists, like myself, take aim with their cameras to try to encapsulate the magic happening around them.
I found myself reliving the town through photos during our four hour bus ride to Hue today and feeling pangs of sadness as we pulled further and further away.
|Where rice paddies meet the sea