From South to North
This was a more difficult trip to plan, because we had two weeks, and wanted to see everything, but of course one never can. There were two cruises (Mekong river Delta and Halong Bay) which seemed to be the “things to do” in Vietnam, we ultimately decided not to go on, because we had done something similar in Thailand. We did choose to visit both main cities, Hanoi and Ho chi Minh city, which we surprisingly loved. Everyone we had originally spoken to told us to get out of the main cities as quickly as possible. We only spent a day in each, and we wished we had spent more time there, just too much to see in terms of museums and monuments. We spent a few days in Hoi An, which was very charming, with awesome food. We flew to Luang Prabang, Laos for a few days, which was very expensive (flights) but proved to be a worthwhile trip. I mean, how often to you get the chance to go to Laos? We went north, with an overnight train ride to a village town of Sapa, and we took another overnight trek to a local village to spend the night.
#1 - City monuments and Vietnam war museums
#2 - Food in Hoi An
#3 - Mountain trek in Sapa
#4 - Feeding the monks in Luang Prabang
#5 - Riding scooters in Sapa
#6 - Falling over while riding scooters in Sapa
#1- City monuments and Vietnam War Museums - As I said, all our friends told us to avoid staying the cities, because of the traffic, crime, congestion, etc. But our stay in both of the main cities was great. I can’t exactly remember what museum was where, but the war museums were fascinating, as you were able to see the propaganda of the North and South of the country, which still pervaded the discussion today about the history of the war. Were the Americans saviors, invaders, instigators, defenders? It all depending on where in the country you happened to be standing. I remember seeing in one museum the flight suit and a picture of John McCain, when he was a POW there.
#2 - Food in Hoi An - We love Asian food, and we found a restaurant in Hoi An which was started by a local female chef, and had grown into multiple restaurants all around the country, serving “street” food. It was so delicious, we came back to the same place for a second evening dinner, something we’ve never done before or since. We always like to try new places, but this place was too good to pass up.
#3 - Mountain trek in Sapa - This would seem to be similar to the trek we took in North Thailand, but the two trips couldn’t have been more dissimilar. In Thailand, we were the only foreign family in the entire village. In Vietnam, we were one of probably 100 people/tourists travelling the trek, with dozens of host companies. We hiked for about 2 hours on roads (not really trails), though at one point, we were on a trail which opened up to quite a beautiful valley of rice paddies. We stayed in a purpose-build hostel for trekking tourists. At first we were appalled by the massage parlors in the overnight village, where was the authentic Vietnam jungle mountain experience? But we got over it, and Tera and I both went for a massage and bath that night after the kids went to bed. The massage was relaxing, and the bath was in a wooden barrel, where I could sit and submerge fully up to my chin. It was still the best bath I’ve ever taken.
#4 - Feeding the monks in Luang Prabang - In the remote towns of Laos, the young men are all expected to spend some time in the monastery. Some make a life out of it, others spend just a few months. Part of their vow is one of poverty, and so the villagers are expected to keep the monks fed. Every morning, the monks don their orange robes, and bring a brass bucket and walk a certain processional path through the village. Inhabitants come down each morning with food to share (rice balls, rice crackers, fruit, vegetables) and sit down along the path, to place something in the bucket of the passing monks. We saw some monks as old as 80 and and young as 6, all walking piously, silently, to take their offerings of sustenance for the day. A truly unique experience.
#5 - Riding scooters in Sapa - We rented three scooters in Sapa, a jungle mountain village in the far north of Vietnam. We all rode double or triple, and Emily our 14 year old at the time, was piloting one of the scooters, with her younger brother behind her. It was fun to ride around the streets, and explore new villages.
#6 - Falling over while riding scooters in Sapa - Unfortunately, the roads in Vietnam are not well maintained, and construction is ongoing everywhere, and they don’t block roads while under construction. Cars, bikes, scooters, simply drive through it, or around it or over it, with planks and cinder blocks. At one point in the road, we had to drive through some gravel, and then along a plank next to pile of sand. Tera, with two kids on the back, lost balance, and sacrificed her knee to save the kids on the back, and laid the scooter down on herself. It was an unfortunate place and time for an injury. She eventually healed, but not before some serious limping.