After crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam on the Mekong River, we enter into a small tributary, arriving in Can Tho late in the afternoon, overnighting in a bad room in a hotel over a motorcycle repair shop. The room’s only window is onto a hall. No sheets, towels or toilet paper. Dirty walls. No soap. Broken fan. No air conditioning. No air. Ugh! We find a gorgeous restaurant on a patio overlooking the river, have dinner and drinks, delaying as long as possible a return to our room.
The next morning we get in a mini-van headed to Saigon. The driver gets lost. The day is long. We’ve reserved a room at the iconic Continental Hotel, a venerable old place where war correspondents gathered during the Vietnam War. We are shown to a dark, luxurious, spacious room, where we sleep for a few hours before going out to eat. Saigon is ready for Tet. Vietnamese New Years. Lanterns everywhere. Flowers too.
The museum/memorial to the Vietnam War is sobering and moving. The Vietnamese call it the American War.
It is hot and the air is humid and polluted. We go out early in the morning, then retreat to an air-conditioned restaurant for lunch. The verandah at the Continental is a great place to escape the afternoon heat. We read, drink iced coffee and play Scrabble, watching Saigon hustle and bustle around us.
From Saigon we take a train north to Dha Nang, heading to a beach resort called Diamond Bay. The train is 3rd class. Slatted wood seats. Crowded. It breaks down about 2 hours from the destination. Miraculously it is repaired and we continue on, an hour late.
A sign for “Mr Richard” awaits us at the station. A cool, dark sedan whisks us to paradise. Our spacious and modern bungalow is set in a garden. The pool is huge. The buffet meals varied and delicious. We’ve booked with an agency, Asiarooms, and paid about $50/night. Clearly it is worth a lot more and we got a deal.
We have no transportation booked onward because of Tet. We’ve been unable to book a bus or a train out of Dha Nang to Hoi An, our next stop. Everyone is traveling home to spend this important holiday with their families. The hotel arranges a private car. For $200, it is not bad value. Although 12 hrs on the road is very taxing. We make slow progress and quickly become restless, captive in the back of the car with little to do but watch the chaos on the road and try to not look at our watches. We arrive very late, stiff and hungry. A bit cranky.
Hoi An is one of Craig’s favourite places. He still talks about going back. Me, I’m less keen. It is beautiful, particularly decked out with lanterns, lights and flowers for Tet. The silk clothing shops are tempting. The food tasty and fresh, served in quaint restaurants by gracious wait staff. The beach is a quick bike ride from town and there are Champa era ruins a short bus trip away at My Son. We spend 5 days taking it all in, with lots of time to chill at the beach.
From Hoi An we fly to Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. Tet is in full swing. Which means the roads, villages and small towns are bustling but the city is deserted. It is also cold and rainy and grey. Most restaurants and businesses are closed. Our hotel, directly under the freeway, is old and creepy. The lobby is freezing cold, the breakfast deplorable and the staff speak no English. Hanoi is off to a bad start!
Wandering around the Old Quarter, we stumble upon the Medallion Hotel. Newly opened and promoting business, we get a brand new modern room for $50/night. YAY!!
Hanoi never really grows on me. The weather, the desertedness, the unfriendliness of the locals, the car horn honking, the food … all negatives.
From Hanoi we take the overnight train to a region of north Vietnam close to the border with China. Called Sapa, it is a tribal land, largely Hmong and Dao. The local women dress very traditionally and we soon learn to tell the difference between the Flower Hmong, the Black Hmong and the Dao styles.
A day of hiking among the rice paddies from village to village has us lost about halfway through the trip. A farm woman sends her daughter to escort us to the next town and get us back on track. Several of her friends join us. We pay them a few dollars each at the end and they are happy.
The Sunday market at nearby Bac Ha is overwhelming. The colourful textiles dazzle. Purses, blankets, and pillow covers find their way into our already bulging packs. Our camera shutters click away as we photograph the many gorgeously decked out women.
Our guest house in Sapa is owned by a Norwegian who is getting the Olympic hockey games broadcast on his TV; Craig watches the Canadian women win gold. A surreal experience of connecting with Vancouver while so far off the beaten track.
Back in Hanoi, in our room at the Medallion, after a night of not sleeping on the overnight train, Craig turns on the TV while I run a bath. The men’s final hockey game is on; we watch as the winning goal is scored. Suddenly there is honking outside in the streets. We automatically assume it is drivers showing their appreciation for the win by the Canadians, although Viet Nam is hardly a country of hockey fans. And even if it were, they’d not be cheering for a Canadian gold medal win. Remembering we are in Hanoi, not Vancouver, we realize that the honking is just rush hour traffic. Horn hocking is a national pastime in Vietnam, meant to draw attention to the fact that the honker has a car. Purely status and vanity. And so very annoying after a few hours and then days of listening to it.
Halong Bay is our last destination in Viet Nam. Monolithic karst formations rising from the sea, like sentinels, just north and east of Hanoi are the defining features of Halong Bay. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, in better weather, a major tourist attraction. We are here in the off season and not only are there few other tourists, our boat, which could accommodate 50 or so guests, is hosting a mere 5 of us.
The clouds are low. The sky dark. The karst sentinels are looming and almost sinister looking. We try to imagine the scene on a bright sunny day. And we get excited by brief breaks in the gloom, but they are short-lived and we are resigned to a moody encounter with mother nature.
On the bus ride back to Hanoi for one last night we pass by flooded rice paddies. It is spring and time to plant. In paddy after paddy we witness farmers putting seeds in the soil by hand. Old ones bent by years of repeating this ancient ritual.
We also see an accident. A body on the road. Covered by a blanket. Most likely dead. The traffic we’ve almost become accustomed to takes its toll and this is the third deadly accident we’ve seen. On the way to the airport the next day our very young cab driver is continually losing the “get ahead in traffic” game played on Vietnamese roads. If you are not aggressive, you get nowhere. I start ranting about the country in general and how they can’t seem to figure out that if everyone obeyed a few basic rules of the road, we would all get where we are going faster. Time to go home? I think so.
Vietnam was not my favourite destination on this trip. Although it is very popular amongst a certain group of travel cognoscenti, it was not my cup of tea. I much preferred Cambodia and Laos. And of all three, Laos was the sleeper, a surprisingly fabulous, little-known, off-the-beaten track place that we will recommend to others and dream about returning to ourselves.
That’s the thing about travel: you never know until you get there what you’re going to find, how you’re going to like it and how you’ll be changed by the experience of it.