Dear Vietnam, Im still not sure what to think of you. There are times I love you and times that I despise you. I swear you have two distinct personalities. One is sweet and innocent and the other is all noise and chaos. Granted, I only spent two weeks with you and never saw your southern region, but I think I saw enough. Maybe someday in the future we will meet again, and under different circumstances we could be a better match. But for now I am moving on. Best of luck to you- Love, Nomadic
Ok, so I didn't love Vietnam. I loved parts of it though. We started our time here in Hoi An, a revitalized and UNESCO protected port town south of Da Nang. Hoi An was a great introduction to Vietnam, full of character and loaded with charm- there is an almost Parisian feel to it. The architecture is defiantly more french-Colonial than Asian. We stayed with a family in a home-stay for the 7 days we were there and had time to explore the town from end to end checking out all the cafes, shops, and markets. We even broke down and picked up a few original art pieces to bring home...our first of the trip. Christmas Eve our hosts held a traditional Vietnamese dinner for all the guests and Christmas Day we bicycled down to the beach for the day. We had our first experience with Vietnamese coffee while here, and it is something else! Coffee culture is very strong here and so is the coffee itself. It is brewed by placing a small tin vessel filled with grounds on top of a cup and pouring hot water over the top. It takes about 10 minutes for the water to filter through and you get what amounts to a very strong expresso. The beans are mostly the robusto type which results in quite a bitter brew so often the grounds are mixed with coco to smooth it out. Many locals also add sweetened condensed milk- which is what I did. It took a couple days to acquire a taste for it but it certainly wakes you up!
Next stop was Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, located in the far northern part of the country. We had previously talked with a fellow traveler while in Thailand about checking out Ha Long Bay while here and had decided to splurge on a 3 day cruise through the bay which is also an UNESCO world site. Ha Long bay is about 4 hours by car from Hanoi, but would take about 1 1/2 hours if the road wasn't in such poor shape. We arrived in Hanoi the evening before the cruise and stumbled upon an Italian restaurant called Mediterraneo`- what a find! We had some of the best food (and company) of the trip- we ended up spending New Years Eve here also and consider Leo and Dinh Lan friends...hopefully we will reconnect with them while in Italy as they will be there at the same time as us in the spring. The cruise on Ha long was my first real cruise. I have spent my entire life on or around water but never spent a night on any kind of boat. We were pleasantly surprised when we boarded the Indochina Sails Junket. Far more posh than I expected and nicer than any of the accommodations we stayed in so far. The forecast was gray and rainy for the 3 days we were there which was a bit of a bummer, but the mist gave the bay an almost magical feel while the cool temperatures allowed us to break out the pants and jackets that have been languishing in the bottom of our bags for 3 months. Once again, we met some great people aboard the cruise including a young couple from Toronto and several groups from Australia. MJ and I took advantage of the kayaks and toured the bay for a while until I dropped her waterproof (but not sink proof) camera into the water. She was a good sport about it though...one less thing to carry going forward!
After the cruise, we returned to Hanoi for 4 more days. Talk about a shock to the system! The noise and chaos of the city was a bit disorienting, especially for MJ. I am usually OK with the energy in cities but this was almost too much. The vietnamese have a thing for over using their horns and navigating the city on foot is treacherous. when there are crosswalks, which is rare, the motorbikes and cars ignore the lights. The way to cross any street in Vietnam seems to be step directly into traffic and make your way across the road without pausing or hesitating. We stayed in the old town of Hanoi, and I spent a lot of time exploring the area. I especially liked the markets but could do without the open caldrons of soups and stews that were bubbling away day and night. I think the smells of Hanoi are what will stay with me the longest. We did find some bastions of calm in the city in the many parks and lakes that are found throughout the city. Most any morning you can find locals doing Tai Chi, fan dancing, or lifting weights, and students looking for westerners to practice their English on. After a couple days of looking, I finally found a bookstore that sold english books. Interestingly enough, in the Hanoi airport there were literally 15 souvenir shops in a row and one bookstore which had been closed down. If anybody is looking for a sure fire money making venture in Hanoi, open an English bookstore.
All in all, I didn't love Vietnam but maybe I didn't give it enough of a chance either. I did have reservations and some preconceived perceptions of what to expect. As an American how could I not. I found the people to be mostly warm but the pace of daily life a bit too fast and frantic- odd, because from what I understand things usually do not happen fast at all in Vietnam. It almost seems that they are rushing to get nowhere in particular.