By Mary Major Jack
Passion, history, fragrance, flavor, it is all an undeniable part of the experience in Vietnam. Our 10-day journey began as a wish for our daughter’s sweet 16 and became a present to all of us. Despite the 21 hours to get to our first destination, the time spent was well worth it to experience this truly rare gem.
Our first morning we awoke to the honks and oily smell of scooters, lots of scooters! Hanoi, like Saigon, is a densely populated city and scooters are the main mode of transportation. This is organized chaos at its best with few lights, merging traffic, and pedestrians all moving in synchrony. On the sidewalks, people cook pho (a traditional noodle soup) in kettle pots while communing in front of their homes and businesses. Across the street, a game of badminton on the sidewalk is in progress… right in the heart of the city. Did I say this was another world?
We took a 3-hour van ride east of Hanoi to one of Vietnams’ natural wonders. Halong Bay is a magnificent emerald green body of water with over 3,000 limestone islands jutting out of the water like giant dragon’s teeth. We were booked on a private cruise, through Paradise Cruises called Paradise Privilege. It was amazing! We had a 6 person dedicated crew to pamper us. I understand living large now. As we lifted anchor and set sail, ahead of us was a magical, mysterious view of the islands.
Lunch aboard was a welcome to the exotic: Jellyfish salad, steamed gooey duck, lotus seed soup…delicious. As we anchored we were met by a bamboo boat engineered by a smiling woman who took us to her home in one of the floating fishing villages. An entire culture of floating villages has evolved with interlinked boats that can move from island to island. Our evening activity was squid fishing off the boat and the Chef gave us a lesson in making fresh spring rolls.
Our journey in Halong Bay concluded on day three with a morning tai chi lesson amidst the isles in the middle of the bay and a hike into Hang Sung Sot a popular cave with spectacular crevasses that take on complex human and animal like forms. It is so enchanting; you are reminded that nature outdoes herself, again!
Our return to Hanoi was a plunge into the city on a cyclo tour, a bicycle with a one-person cart in front. What a riot to the senses! You are surrounded by hundreds of scooters coming from all directions, sights, sounds, people, colors, smells of cooking…all colliding.
Hanoi, now the capital, is filled with history. One of the busiest destinations is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex where hundreds of people come to pay their respects to the renowned communist leader. On the grounds is also the legendary One Pillar temple that is still frequented for prayers of fertility. Respect and honor to ancestors remains paramount to their culture. Another of the many temples to see is the Temple of Knowledge, where the first University was housed. After a full day in Hanoi, we head south to Hoi An in the middle of the country.
Hanoi accommodations: The Metropole Hanoi, a luxury 5 star hotel steeped in history, room appointments are elegant and the spa, pool and gardens make this an oasis within the heart of the city.
Day 5-Hoi An in the middle of the country. We awake and head to the robust farmers market. Imagine vendor after vendor, mostly women with fresh farm vegetables and fruit, rambutan, lotus flower, live chickens, live fish to filet as you choose. The chatter is high pitched, people competing for the sale. The street quickly goes from sleepy to electric.
The lively market was merely one aspect of the beautiful quaint riverside village of Hoi An. Positioned in the middle of the county’s coast, we did a walking tour highlighting the beautiful old houses, pagodas, temples and bridges that reflect the rich culture fusing Japanese with Chinese. Hoi An’s contribution to the Vietnamese food scene is cap lau, which are doughy noodles mixed with bean sprouts and greens and topped with sliced pork. Ms Ly is a popular dining spot where we had dinner, appetizers and drinks for 3 for less than $30.00! Food is very affordable.
My daughter and I took a traditional cooking class. Part of the fun was shopping for fresh live ingredients in the local market. We made tuna in a clay pot. Fresh shrimp and pork egg rolls, chicken with chilies and lemongrass and beef with garlic and chili wrapped in basil leaves. The best part, we got to eat it all.
On the afternoon of our second day in Hoi An, jet lag was still nipping at us so we opted for a leisurely bike ride to the Cua Dai Beach. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful, wide, powdery beaches I have ever seen. Just the right move.
Hoi An. Accommodations: Life Resort. A boutique hotel on the edge of the city, Zen suites on the river. We are greeted by croaking frogs on the Lilly pads.
We are now on to our forth city in Vietnam, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), a stark difference from the north. Scooters multiply, some carrying entire families. It is here that the Vietnam War memorials are housed because the Presidents Palace was the point of declaration of North Vietnams’ defeat over The South and the United States. The Cu Chi Tunnels were mesmerizing. This legendary underground network of tunnels stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border approximately 250 KM, was instrumental in helping the Viet Cong surround, capture and defeat their foes. Going in the tunnels no larger than three feet high, dark and with little air, you immediately are overwhelmed with the immeasurable fear yet creativity they were challenged with.
We took a break from history to shop at one of the most famous landmarks: the huge indoor market called Ben Thanh. It is rows of vendors selling everything from jewelry to clothes, and if you stomach is ready, street food. The Pho (noodle soup) is everywhere for about a buck or two and add a local ba ba (beer) and you are set.
As, historically in every city, there are temples, shrines and pagodas that celebrate the culture and ancestors. Make sure you take time to say your own prayers and light incense for your spiritual insurance. The Norte Dame Cathedral and the Old Post Office are two architectural masterpieces, a must see!
One of the more upscale districts in Saigon, houses the Majestic Hotel. Opened in 1925, the Majestic was used as Japanese Imperial Arm barracks during World War II , and was frequented by foreign correspondents during the Vietnam War. It was a welcomed retreat as our Saigon home!
Our last stop, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Away from the fast paced, scooter smoke filled streets of Saigon we were greeted with a gentle hello. The common greeting for the Cambodian people is a bow of the head, with hands in a pray like position. Siem Reap is the home of the magnificent 12th century temples Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and The Banyan temple complex. It is hard to believe that this country is only a decade removed from Civil War.
Early morning, day 10 of our trip. As we enter the sacred grounds of Angkor Thom we decide to explore the land by the mode known to the ancestors, by elephant. These sweet gentle creatures lapped up their pineapple treats and we rode gratefully on their saddle. This is an unforgettable experience, and quickly ignites my imagination to channel a Cambodian princess surveying the land. We explore the temples, feats of wonder when you consider they were built by human power in the 12th century. The temperature is now pushing a hundred degrees, so we decide to stop at one more temple the Banyan temple complex.
That evening, we venture into an area called the Pub District. Here are alleys filled with restaurants and shops. A popular menu item was snake! No, I wasn’t that adventurous. But the real steal, for $2.00 and a free beer, you could get a pedicure by flesh eating goldfish.
Our final day, we started at the preeminent temple Angkor Watt. One can only imagine what the complex was like in its glory! Later that day we drive to Tonle Sap, to cruise Cambodia’s largest lake. In the middle of the lake is Chong Khneas one of the floating stores, where a little boy rows up in a washtub, offering a pet of his 4 -foot water snake. On our return home we stop at a lotus farm. The lotus, a symbol of peace, is the native flower. A final memory to a peaceful people and a sweet land.
In Siem Reap our home is the Heritage Suites. The soothing garden -like Zen setting inside the hotel walls felt like coming home. The rooms are open and tastefully appointed with smiling Buddha’s and gardens, an in-room sauna, even our own outdoor shower. Ahhhh!
Kensington Tours in Vancouver booked all this ambitious yet magical tour. www.kensingtontours.com. In every city we were picked up, guided and escorted by an English-speaking native of that region. Each guide was passionate about their city, knowledgeable and accommodating. The hotels were 4 or 5 star and deservedly so. The food, well let’s just say I now have lemongrass, basil, chilies’ and ginger in my spice cabinet.
For any thoughts, questions and or comments, please email me