Well, we didn’t drive the Old Home to Southeast Asia, and I only post about our road trips, but my companions asked me to write something on our blog about our incredible trip to Cambodia and Vietnam so…..
BTW, the better posts can be found on Emily’s travel blog “tedious and brief”. Check it out: tediousandbrief.com
The experience, however, was much more about traveling on the streets of Saigon by motorcycle than the food, because to the typical Westerner, Saigon traffic is absolutely crazy nuts frenetic…..nearly impossible for us to describe. You really have to experience it in person to truly appreciate the choreography of chaos that takes place on the streets of this bustling city. As an example, here is a quick video of the traffic outside our hotel:
Pedestrians (Vietnamese pedestrians) cross these frenzied streets as if there was no traffic at all. Westerners, who typically wait for a group of locals to cross and then try to follow, usually only get about a quarter of the way across, then flee back to the relative safety of the sidewalk. We learned that to walk across a street you wait for a brief lull in the traffic that is closest to your sidewalk, then bravely step in and start walking. The trick is to walk at a constant pace and with a purpose. The bikers will adjust their speed and trajectory to miss you. But if you panic, slow down or stutter step, they get confused by your unpredictability and are more likely to run you down. It’s all very exciting and wonderful entertainment! Who thought crossing a street could be so exhilarating!
I must say that by the end of our trip we had become very adept at crossing even the busiest streets. We only got stuck once, but were saved by an old man who was doing some landscaping on our side of the street. He saw our predicament, picked up his long shoulder carrying pole with full buckets of weeds on each end and literally stopped traffic for us by walking out in front of the oncoming traffic and blocking them with his buckets. He was our savior!
Emily is demonstrating how we were helped across the street!
So, getting back to our XO biker tour, it was absolutely thrilling to join the hoard of motorcycles and experience street traffic in the belly of the beast! Our girls were pros! They took us through miles and miles of the city’s craziness, all while chatting away as if we were at a cafe having coffee. They were as comfortable as can be, and why not? These kids were raised on motorbikes and in crazy traffic. They were once the 2-year-old little girls we were seeing standing on customized platforms on the front of the bikes, cradled inside the drivers handlebars…no safety belts, no helmet, no seats, just a front row bench with a view of it all. I asked my 20-year-old driver, Yu, about growing up and the whole biker culture and she shared her fond memories of being a little girl standing on the front seat, holding onto the handle bars, feeling the vibration in her arms and legs and the heat of the motor. The family has never even owned a car. Like I said, you have to see it in person to truly appreciate Vietnamese traffic culture!
Of course the food part was also fun and interesting as we sampled everything from Bún bò Huế and barbecued whole shrimp, to frog legs (aka jumping chicken) and Hot Vit Lon….or duck embryo, right out of the shell! Well, Emily and I tried it…Robin turned a bit green and politely passed on the opportunity.
While in Ho Chi Minh City we also toured the War Remnants Museum, Independence Palace (aka Reunification Palace, essentially the South Vietnamese version of our White House during the war), and took day trips to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta. With the exception of the Mekong, these sites are devoted to the events of “The American War”, so we endured a lot of disturbing displays and propaganda about the “evil and barbarous” American and South Vietnamese troops. Whole sections of the museum detail the use and lasting effects of napalm and agent orange, war atrocities (My Lai massacre), and the carpet bombing of Hanoi. There is also an excellent display dedicated to war photography and the photojournalists who died in the conflict. It was fascinating to read the stories behind many of the famous pictures our generation first witnessed in various 1970’s editions of Time and Life Magazines. BTW, the little girl we remember as “napalm girl” who was severely burned by napalm delivered from a misguided South Vietnamese fighter pilot (see below) is alive and well and living in Canada!
The Cu Chi Tunnels were part of the extensive tunnel system the Viet Cong used to hide and ambush American and South Vietnamese troops outside Saigon. Believe it or not they have widened the tunnels for tourists!
After four days in the hustle, bustle and heat of HCMC, we were happy to arrive in the small central coastal city of Hoi An. Once one of the busiest trading ports in SE Asia, Hoi An is now known for its well-preserved (and UNESCO site) “Ancient Town”, art galleries, custom tailoring services, and street lanterns. We spent several days walking the narrow streets, sampling various coffee drinks from the endless supply of cafes, and enjoying the vibrant and beautifully lighted riverside district.
We also managed to squeeze in a very entertaining cooking class, hosted by our boisterous cook, Vee na, from the Gioan Cookery School. Vee na took us on a tour through the local market, then instructed us on how to make spring rolls, Lemon Grass Chicken, Pho Beef, and Aubergine in Clay Pot.
The highlight of our time in Hoi An was spending an evening with a local Hoi An family, relatives of the woman who has been Robin’s manicurist, Vy, for the past 15 years! Vy insisted we contact her family in Hoi An, even though none of them speak a word of English, so we could have dinner with them. When Robin asked what we should do at dinner with her non-English speaking relatives, Vy matter of factly said….”eat”. So we met them….and we ate!
The family owns an art gallery in the Ancient Town district, so we tracked them down, showed them a picture of Vy, and before we knew it, we were on the phone with Vy’s nephew’s wife, who works at a local hotel and speaks wonderful English (whew). Arrangements were made to have them pick us up at our hotel, and for them to show around Hoi An. So that evening, much to our surprise (although in retrospect I’m not sure why), the family showed up on their motorbikes, we hoped on (being experts at this by now) and off we went….
We had such a nice time visiting with several generations of Vy’s family in her childhood home, and enjoying dinner and coffee at a few of their favorite spots in town. Their hospitality was genuine and gracious, and we sincerely enjoyed our time with them.
Continuing our trek North, our next stop was the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. I wasn’t sure what to expect coming to Hanoi. Again, being from a generation that was around for the war, Hanoi represented the enemy. This was the heart and home of the Northern Vietnamese army and government; so unlike Saigon and Hoi An, whose older citizens mostly fought with and supported US troops, we were now in a city that endured more American firepower than Europe did in WWII. These people fought against us, and although relations have vastly improved over the last couple of decades, I couldn’t help but wonder if the reception would be somewhat different from the amazing hospitality we experienced in the Southern part of the country. It wasn’t. We loved Hanoi!
Hanoi was the administrative center of French Indochina for over seventy years, and as such, has a very distinctive European feel. Throughout the city we were referred to as monsieur or madam, and our hotel, the Sofitel Legend Metropole, built by the French in 1901, felt more Parisian than Asian (well, except for the look of the staff).
The city center is highlighted by the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake, which attracts countless street artists, musicians, and young couples. On weekends the city center streets around and near the lake close to traffic so the residents can gather and enjoy street food, visit night markets, play games, listen to music, dance and enjoy various crafts. A popular activity for the small children is to rent motorized toy vehicles (most controlled electronically by the parents) so they can zoom in and out of the unsuspecting pedestrians…..no doubt training for when they get their first motorbikes!
We loved walking around the crowded streets, visiting sites such as the Hoa Lo Prison (aka Hanoi Hilton….once home to POW John McCain),
Bai Tu Long Bay is truly spectacular. The water is a beautiful emerald-green color and incredibly calm; but it is the vast array of limestone islets and monoliths that make the region so uniquely alluring. Cruising among the formations, often shrouded in mist, was absolutely hypnotic. We felt like we were in a King Kong movie………and it turns out the last Kong movie was indeed filmed in Bai Tu Long Bay.
The tour included exploring caves (by land and by sea), a visit to an oyster farm and fishing village, and a long kayak trip that ended with a barbecue on a small beach. We had a great time, met some nice people from Melbourne, London, and San Francisco (of all places), and ate really well (they served nine course meals on the cruise. Really, nine).
If you are considering a trip to SE Asia, I would highly recommend putting Vietnam (and Siem Reap) on your itinerary. The place is just so fascinating on so many levels (especially as an American), that you can’t help but be completely captivated. The people are happy, considerate, grateful for tourists, will talk about anything, and love practicing their English. We felt very comfortable traveling throughout the country, although I have to give full credit for that to our tour guide Emily.