musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

From Vietnam: So Many Treasures... So Little Time

Most of what Americans know (or think they know) about Vietnam comes from the war that was the defining event of my parent's generation. Few (including me 10 days ago) have any clue that in fact Vietnam holds countless, non-war-related amazing treasures. Of them all, I have to say that the abundance of natural beauty and the beautiful (inside and out) people were my favorite (and therefore most blogworthy!). Let's start with the people. I decided before the trip that I would rebel and not bring a razor. Those that know me know that this is not the most violent of rebellions, but whatever, I don't want to do it on vacation either. Unfortunately, in planning to periodically get shaved by a guy in X country on the side of the road, I forgot that Asians have very little, if any, facial hair. Fail. So, to avoid looking like a Neanderthal and to ensure Lauren will look at me, I've been going to haircut places who use an electric razor on me. Normally this is a fairly standard process, 10 minutes tops.

Not in Vietnam.

In Saigon, the random salon on the side of street into which we stumbled looked innocuous enough. One manicure (for Lauren), shave, and 40 minute 'best. shampoo. ever.' (it was really more like a massage honestly) later, we paid $10 and bid our adieus to salon heaven. That, my friends, is service.

This is but one silly example of a larger theme: Vietnam might offer the best service to money ratio of any place in the world. It's almost as if people are born with smiles and helping hands. Sure, vendors offer to sell you stuff, but you generally feel good after the experience (except at the beach near Hue where, being the only foreigners there, several children selling junk food declined to offer us any peace). Hotels are generally clean and the staffs are always fantastic. Maybe we've just had good luck (thanks Trip Advisor!), but most truly are fantastic. And all that will cost less per night than dinner at Chili's!

Dear Vietnamese people: love you guys! I'll definitely be back (although perhaps when your government realizes that communism is extractive, impossible, and just darn silly and that your economy would grow so much more if you would stop freaking out about everything)!

Then there's the natural beauty. And boy oh boy are there lots of options! We decided to stay in Hue while in mid-country, essentially for it's access to lots of different cool things. First stop was Thuan An beach which, as mentioned before, was absolutely pristine except for the durned kids (best if said in a crotchety grandfather-like voice).

Next was the massive drive (10 hours spent in the car that day) to Paradise Cave with a stopover into the war-era Vinh Moc Tunnels. Limestone caves are exceedingly difficult to describe if you've never been in one. Let's just say I let out an audible 'wow' when my eyes adjusted to the light and before me was a moonscape of formations dripping with water and whetting the imagination (is that a bear? a dragon? a face?). Privately operated and only opened in 2011, only one kilometer of 30+ kilometers of cave are open to the public. Can you imagine being the guy who stumbled upon that?! By the way, turns out it was a villager hunting (or something) in the jungle who first felt the cold blow of the cave's mouth in 1999. Crazy to think that this underground palace was completely hidden to humans before that; makes you wonder what else is out there?

The next day, instead of taking a taxi to lovely Hoi An town, we decided to take the Holiday Diamond Hotel's (worth every bit of the praise it receives on Trip Advisor - truly a gem of a hotel in Hue mainly because of the staff who really are that nice) advice and go the 200km by motorbike...

(This is the point in the post where our parents might or might not have heart attacks.)

In a move that would've made our dear Juba friend Sam exceedingly jealous (thanks for the idea buddy!), we strapped our backpacks to the back of the bikes... and off we went! To be fair, we weren't driving so the coolness factor is diminished a tad, but it was still amazing. After a quick dip (and some mechanical trouble) at the refreshingly cold Elephant Springs, a lot of very fresh seafood (i.e. you point at the live versions of what you will eat shortly thereafter) and a stop at a war era top-of-the-mountain US military bunker near Da Nang, we made it to Hoi An windblown and happy. Not sure I want to own a bike myself really, but I definitely get the appeal; especially on the side of the mountain windy roads overlooking the ocean, devoid of cars thanks to the normal traffic-preferred tunnel below.

Last, but certainly not least, no trip to Vietnam (especially Hanoi) is complete without visiting Halong Bay. One of the 7 natural wonders of the world, you (and thousands of your closest tourist friends every day) have to see it to believe it. As the story goes, a dragon's tail crashing to the ground created huge holes in the land that are now filled with water. The result of said dragon's handiwork is a surreal underwater mountain range with only the peaks peaking above the ocean. We heard (thanks Victor!) that with only a day trip there (it's a 3-4 hour drive from Hanoi) you're asking to hate it, so we went ahead and spent the night on a lovely, albeit extremely touristy, 13 room cruise boat. Definitely worth it as it wasn't until the second day that the sun started to power through the persistent mist, bathing the other-worldly, seemingly never ending (think 'far as the eye can see') rock formations in light. Stunning.

Notable exceptions that didn't make it into the post because they were neither natural nor specifically people- or service-related:

  • Hoi An - Amazingly quaint little town with an old quarter that's straight out of some French colonial novel about le times gone by.
  • The Imperial City in Hue - crumbling a bit but still really fun to walk through the grounds. Don't miss the Imperial Tennis Court!
  • Enjoying beers and fried pork while sitting on plastic stools at an intersection in Hanoi's old quarter... watching the world (mainly mopeds and flustered looking tourists actually) go by.
8 days definitely did not do Vietnam justice and every minute it seemed to inch its way towards the top of the 'favorite country of our trip' list... Oh well, guess we'll just have to go back!