Vietnam (Feb 2016)

We thoroughly enjoyed exploring New Zealand, Australia and Singapore over the first five weeks of 2016, but we were eager to reach Southeast Asia, the focus area of our trip. The basis for much of our itinerary is the Banana Pancake Trail (yes, that is a real thing). It’s a travel circuit around the region that has well-developed tourist infrastructure and reaches most of the interesting sights. Southeast Asia is a poor but developing area of the world. It’s a little rough around the edges, but is extremely inexpensive and full of beautiful places. We weren’t sure where we would start on this trail, but we had been coordinating a meetup with Kevin’s friends Josh and Erika, who wanted to see some of Vietnam, so that was that – a one way ticket to Saigon was booked!

In the week leading up to our flight, it hit us that we didn’t have as much figured out about Vietnam as we did with the last few destinations. It’s a long, narrow country. Where would we go, in what order, and how would we get around? Why did the Vietnam War vets we talked to at home all seem so eager to one day return as a tourist? And as always, what was the food situation? We had some research to do…and as that research progressed, the nerves hit. We read a post from a popular travel blogger titled “Why I’ll Never Return To Vietnam.” His experience with the locals was abrasive, to say the least – he was constantly being ripped off and treated poorly. Many commenters to his post echoed his sentiment, but there were also a few who had the complete opposite experience. Then we started looking at the food of Vietnam. There was all sorts of meat (a lot of it), cubes of congealed pig’s blood, and many other foreign ingredients. We eat vegetarian when possible, but read that this would be extremely difficult in Vietnam. To top it off, dog is still on the menu in certain areas. It was a lot to swallow (no pun intended) in terms of being optimistic about what lay ahead. Not ones to rely solely on the opinions of others, we pocketed this information, picked a few places that sounded interesting to us, and set off to discover Vietnam for ourselves.

Christine definitely had some culture shock when we arrived in Saigon. It was dirty…make that filthy, loud, full of motorbikes, and our first dinner was flat out gross. We had positive experiences with locals though – making friends with a man who sold banh mi, and with the hairdressers where Kevin got his head shaved – and we really enjoyed exploring the city with Josh and Erika. It was so nice to have some familiar, English speaking Americans around! After a week in Saigon, we were ready to move on to the next stop…and that’s when we got to see the beauty of Vietnam away from the chaos of the big city.

Our second stop was Hoi An, a picturesque ancient town in central Vietnam with quaint, lantern-filled streets, awesome (and cheap!) restaurants, beaches, and a countryside waiting to be explored by bike. The pace of life here was more our speed. There were still motorbikes and chaotic markets, but it was different than Saigon. This city had small-town charm and character. People were very friendly, the food was awesome, and there were 25 cent “fresh beers” readily available. We acquired a bounty of knowledge on Vietnamese ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques through an all day cooking class. Christine even had a dress handmade by one of the many tailors in town. Needless to say, we loved it there and could have easily stayed longer, but there was a one way motorbike ride over the hills with our names on it.

The slowness of Hoi An was echoed in Hue, our next stop, where we halted the tourist activity for a few days and just existed. Some of our favorite memories here are seemingly mundane, everyday experiences: eating in the market, finding a new coffee shop, and of course, the ear cleaning experience. One afternoon, while exploring Hue’s central market, we decided to sit down on a tiny plastic stool about one foot off the ground, next to a lady with a basket full of herbs, a plate full of something that looked good, and a bucket on the ground for washing dishes. We’re not sure what we ate…Kevin called them Vietnamese gnocchi, but whatever they were, they were awesome. The lady smiled and laughed while we ate. We aren’t sure why she was laughing, but we assumed it was because she made Kevin’s really spicy – spicy to the point where he was drooling afterwards!

On one of our morning runs in Hue, we ran past a makeshift coffee shop by the river. After jogging past it and saying hello, we promptly turned around, sat down and ordered a coffee. This must have been odd, because the chatter started as soon as we sat down. We weren’t sure what to think, but realized that it was most likely positive. As people left, they stopped by our table to say hello and good morning. They would walk by, giggle and wave, with big smiles on their faces. They genuinely seemed happy that we were there. After talking to the “barista,” we learned that every morning at 4 am, this family carts plastic chairs, tables, teapots, cups, saucers, and all of the fixings to make good Vietnamese coffee all the way down to the river to serve the locals before they start work. Before we left that first morning, they asked us to come back the next day, and we did. The next morning was rainy, so the coffee shop was under a tarp propped up by sticks.

We ended in the northern capital city of Hanoi, with a side trip to Ha Long Bay. We didn’t realize how much colder it would be in the north – in the 60s, compared to the 90s of Saigon. Vietnam really is a long country, and February is a winter month! While Hanoi is a larger city like Saigon, it’s personality is closer to Hoi An. It’s a cool town with so much to explore, and we’ll never forget how delicious the Egg Coffee and Doner Kebab Banh Mi were. And Ha Long Bay was just stunning. Two nights weren’t enough. It was a peaceful retreat in an otherwise loud, chaotic country. It should be on any nature lover’s bucket list.

25 days later, we can easily say that we enjoyed Vietnam. We failed at being even remotely vegetarian, but embraced the experience and tried whatever was in front of us. Thankfully, we don’t think we ate any puppies. We are now experts at de-heading a prawn, and Christine’s chopstick skills have dramatically improved…so much that she can eat a big bowl of pho without a spoon!

Were we treated poorly by the locals like others? Not really. We were most likely overcharged on occasion, but it wasn’t in a rude and blatant way. A street vendor might add 10,000 dong to the price of something because they know that we’re tourists. While 10,000 dong is significant to them, it’s less than 50 cents to us. There’s some give and take, but we always smile, act respectfully, know within reason what something should cost, and we’ve managed to have a great time. Yes, there is a significant amount of haggling to buy things in any tourist area, they don’t always take no for an answer, and it becomes an acquired skill to recognize and react to the many ways in which you’ll be approached. We tend to stay on the fringes of those areas, where it’s not only quieter, but most of the people are not dependent on tourists for business, and therefore are pretty friendly.

While we enjoyed Vietnam and highly recommend it, we’re not sure if we would return either, but for different reasons. We saw a lot of what the country had to offer, and there is so much to experience elsewhere in the world. Maybe someday, a summer trip to Sapa, coupled with a longer cruise on Ha Long Bay and a venti Egg Coffee. For now, Vietnam will live on in our memories and pictures.

Here are a few of our favorites for you to enjoy, by region:

Southern Vietnam

Central Vietnam

Northern Vietnam