Last time on Adventures with Nate and Jackie, we found our heroes in a video montage along with some chickens and ill-tempered men on a 24-hour bus from the capital city of Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. Did they make it? Is their sanity intact? Read on to find out…
Er…wait. I gave away the ending in the video montage. What? You didn’t watch it? Go watch it now, I’ll wait.
Ok, that’s more like it. Now you know that we did make it, so without further ado, here’s the rest of the story about our two-week tour of Vietnam.
We kissed the ground at the bus station in Hanoi when we finally arrived. As soon as we’d collected all of our baggage, we put as much distance as possible between us and our bus so that we could summon the reserves we needed to figure out our next move. Slowly, we were joined by a handful of other travelers from the bus who wore the same expression of bleary-eyed relief. I am positive that without our combined brain power, Nate and I would still be in the fetal position in a heap of unclaimed baggage. Thankfully, though, with our powers combined (Map! Bus! ATM! Hostel! Pho!), we were finally delivered to The Land Where 20 cent Beers Flow: The Old Quarter of Hanoi.
The Old Quarter is an amalgamation of bars, restaurants, mini-marts, coffee shops (so many coffee shops!), and tattoo parlors. Within 20 minutes of aimless wandering, a slight, elderly Vietnamese woman approached us with a woven basket filled with what appeared to be donuts on sticks. Our defenses already down, we were powerless to resist when she held up one stick under our noses (well, as close as she could get it) and beckoned us to “try.” One taste and we crumbled. I don’t even know how much we paid, but we staggered away with a bag of donuts, powder mustaches on our smiling faces. That little bag of donuts erased all of the wrongs we’d suffered. We were going to be ok, and we were really going to like Vietnam.
The rest of our tour around Hanoi revealed Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum with solemnly marching soldiers, a pond with a creepy abandoned boat house, and a botanical garden with peacocks and monkeys.
We also found a military museum that had both US and Soviet tanks and jets sitting outside, but we regrettably arrived too late to go inside. We were both hoping to learn more about the Vietnam War from this trip, so this was disappointing. Other traces of the war could be found, though. We found a shop a bit later that contained anti-American propaganda posters. Some looked like a perversion of an Uncle Sam poster. Instead of recruiting, it boasted how many US bombers had been downed. Others were reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter, but the strong, capable woman depicted had an AK thrown over her shoulder. See examples here and here. By stark contrast, what we didn’t find was any iota of lingering hostility toward our nation. Granted, we only scratched the surface of what people really thought and experienced, not wanting to engage everyone we met in such a sensitive topic, but a general friendliness permeated the air everywhere we went. It was in a lunch when the owner delivered our check with a hug. It was in the ubiquitous shouts of “Hello!” from children. And it was in the swaying hammocks beckoning strangers to come and relax at every road-side shop. Now, some of this might be explained by the beer flowing from kegs on just about every corner. At least this is what we suspected was the culprit when a smiling, elderly man joyfully smacked Nate’s butt as we walked past him and his friends who were enjoying the beverage on the sidewalk. Nate did not find this as amusing. I thought it was perfect.
Hue (pronounced “Hway”) is in the center of Vietnam’s long, skinny country. It is very near the DMZ during the Vietnam Civil War and only 50 or so kilometers from where the Americans had a base. Since we were only there one night, we didn’t have time to tour the DMZ area. Hue is also the former capital of Vietnam and the home of an impressive Imperial Palace. This one we did tour and learned all about the various ways in which rich, important people were carried by hand before rickshaws were imported from Japan. I bet that was a great day for a lot of imperial palace workers.
That night we crossed the Perfume River with its dragon boats roaring loudly and fought our way through an overly-crowded night market. With an odd mixture of indignation and admiration, I watched several Vietnamese grandmothers half my size elbow their way past me and through the thick crowds. We took their cue and fought through to our first taste of Banh Mi – a French baguette sandwich piled with cold cuts, spices, cucumbers, and cilantro. This made Nate very happy. He forgot all about the mean grandmothers.
The next day, we got on another 12 hour train to head south. These tracks snake along the South China Sea and go through an area called the “Ocean Cloud Pass” because the elevated tracks pass through the clouds rolling down the mountain sides toward the coast. You can see a video that I took while hanging out between train cars here. We passed some truly beautiful waterfalls, beaches, and forests on the way to our next stop: Quy Nhon.
Our final stop before Saigon was advertised as a small, beach town. Nate and I grew suspicious, though, when none of the locals we talked to seemed to have ever heard of it. When we arrived, a taxi from the train station dropped us in the center of town in front of what appeared to be The Karaoke Center of the World. Bright, dancing lights covered every inch of no fewer than five, music-blaring karaoke bars lining the street. Dazed, we found our way to a homestay. Figuring out the price of our stay only required Google translate, calculators, and one phone call to the owner’s daughter who knew more English. Once the amount was decided on, we were surprised to be invited by the owner to sit and drink tea with him. Indeed, when we left three days later, he invited us again to take part in some traditional snacks and a glass (or two) of rice-based cognac. Nate liked rice-based cognac. It made him extra happy.
The following days would reveal that Quy Nhon did have a beach, but the weather refused to cooperate, insisting on bringing chilly rain instead of the sun we’d hoped to enjoy. Undeterred, Nate and I did what Nate and I do best: eat. We were still having trouble getting a grasp on the various Vietnamese dishes, so we spent our time scouring the streets for food carts we hadn’t sampled yet. Our favorites were a bakery with the most delicious breads, muffins, and donuts, as well as a street cart with Banh Xeo, a sizzling, beef and shrimp filled pancake that is eaten with fresh veggies and wrapped in rice paper.
One night, on a rare occasion when we weren’t eating but sitting in our homestay room doing some blogging/podcasting, we heard cheering from various houses around us. It sounded as if everyone was watching the exact same game. Our suspicion was confirmed when we went out into the street and saw every household and café had a soccer game playing on TV. Vietnam was clearly playing an important game, and they were winning. We finally stopped long enough at a café to see Vietnam win in the last seconds of the game. Then the sleepy little town of Quy Nhon exploded in jubilee that made the shiny Karaoke bars seem dull by comparison. Within minutes the street was full of motor bikes and cars with passengers holding the Vietnam flag proudly in the air. Vietnam’s U23 team had beat Iraq to head to the semi-finals of the Asia Cup. It was so cool to witness such a proud moment for the country.
I think I was looking forward to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) more than any other city on this trip. Long ago, we’d booked a 4-day bike tour with Mr. Biker Saigon (highly recommended!) through the Mekong Delta, the fertile land in the south of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is a crowded city of nearly 10 million, so getting away from the buzz and into the more rural areas was a nice change of pace. It’s hard to describe everything that we saw on those four days, so I made….you guessed it…another video montage! Enjoy!