Throughout our trip, travellers we met spoke highly of Vietnam. They raved about the beautiful landscapes, the fantastic food and wonderfully friendly people. I was looking forward to visiting the country that had been top-of-mind throughout my childhood because of the war waged here.
Having just spent a week in Vietnam, my perspective is not quite as gushing as the travellers we met, undoubtedly tainted by the fact that I was a bit under-the-weather most of the week. Through that jaded lens, the landscapes are, indeed, lovely, the food can be tasty and the people ranged from very pleasant to some of the rudest I’ve met while on the road.
John and I divided our time between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. We stayed in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Some people enjoy the chaotic, rapid pace of the city, but I’m not one of them.
Sidewalks in Hanoi are not for pedestrians. They are motorcycle parking lots. You dodge people, motorcycles, vehicles and bicycle rickshaws just to walk anywhere. Crossing a street is a gauntlet since stop lights/signs are almost non-existent and always ignored. How can you look around to sightsee when you’re fearful of being road kill at any given moment?
I did enjoy a trip to Lake Hoan Kiem and the Taoist temple perched on a tiny island in the lake. You crossed a colorful, red footbridge to get to the temple. (See photo of John above for a glimpse of the bridge.)
Lake Hoan Kiem aside, I was glad to leave the beehive of Hanoi for the calmer environs on Cat Ba Island.
A day at the beach is a good day, even when you’re not feeling 100 percent.
We also spent a day boating and kayaking around the truly magnificient Ha Long Bay. Our first stop was Monkey Island where I did spot one monkey scrambling over rocks to flee encroaching humans.
Kayaking through caves and in and around the giant limestone monoliths that seem to endlessly populate the bay was definitely the highlight of the visit.
It was also quite interesting to see how people lived on the bay.
While I saw plenty of fishermen, Cat Ba is essentially a tourist town and when dining one morning at a restaurant, we met an interesting young American, a veteran of the war in Iraq. Disillusioned by the war, he had decided to travel the world, paying for it by teaching English, rather than settling down in his home state of North Carolina.
He told us the back story of the young man, age 18, who was serving us breakfast. Like most Vietnamese, the server works seven days a week, 12 hours or more a day. He sleeps on a mat on the floor of the restaurant. He makes $150/month.
The young man had a funeral in his family and had asked his boss, the owner of the restaurant, for a day off to attend the funeral. His boss had denied his request. The American knew the employer and had intervened on the younger man’s behalf. He was not successful. Apparently, labor laws in Vietnam are non-existent and the employer couldn’t see how releasing his employee to attend a funeral would benefit his business.
The American was helping the young man improve his English so he could get a better-paying job as a tour guide.
I thought about those two young men as I watched the U.S election from our hotel room in Hanoi.I thought about how both were impacted adversely by the decisions of others — global politics for one and personal politics for the other.
I thought about how surreal it was for someone of my generation to be watching the messiness of democracy unfold during a BBC broadcast on a TV screen in a hotel room located in the capital of communist Vietnam.
Life on the road is beyond strange sometimes.