I have always dreamed of traveling through Asia and expected my first trip to be to Thailand, since I LOVE Thai food. I didn’t know much about other parts of Southeast Asia. I, like many Americans in my generational cohort, was highly under-educated about the Vietnam-American War. Towards the end of 2018 as I was wrapping up my degree program I learned my dad was considering taking a trip to Vietnam sometime in the new year. I expressed interest in joining him and he offered to pay for the trip if I would buy my plane ticket. Deal!
As a baby boomer, he had completely different reasons for wanting to go to Vietnam, specifically: the war. He was a part of the anti-war movement and wanted to pay his respects to a part of his life and a time in the world that he resented. Traveling inter-generationally brought interesting perspectives and dialogue and opened my eyes to something I had no personal emotional context to, not having been born or generationally impacted in a dramatic way. Additionally, my dad works as a city planner for a living and is a geography-history nerd. He does an amazing job at planning trips (which is probably where I got it from!)
The majority of our trip was through an American peace organization based in San Francisco called Global Exchange. They lead tours to places that have strained relationships with the U.S. in order to build people-to-people bridges despite the political strife. The tour lasted 10 days, starting in the North in Hanoi and ending in the South in Ho Chi Minh City. My dad and I met 6 days earlier in Hanoi, and he planned everything for that time. I am glad I began my journey in Bali because it allowed me to adjust to the time change. It was also really cheap to fly through Bali via Honolulu (I bought my plane tickets through Jetstar and AirAsia).
We arrived in the afternoon and spent our first night exploring the neighborhood on Ho Truc Bach Lake. Thanks to Google I found us an amazing vegetarian restaurant and we ended up eating there the next night as well. Our second day we wandered around the Government buildings and visited the Vietnam Military History Museum. Hanoi is a BIG hustle bustle city and learning to navigate traffic was…intimidating to say the least. But also exciting! The city and energy has its own rhythm and flow and allowing myself to de-gridlock from my own customary movement patterns and relax into the motion was liberating. I observed my dad and I becoming more comfortable as time went on. Cars are honking and coming at you from every which way and you just have to stare ahead in a zen-like manner and walk confidently into traffic trusting that the cars and mopeds will adjust accordingly.
Our third day my dad booked us a tour that took us into the countryside to Pu Luong and Ninh Binh through BC Family Tour which was one of my favorite parts of the trip. A young local guide took us into the mountains to some rural villages where we stayed at an Eco Lodge. The views here were absolutely stunning, our guide was so genuine and there was little to no tourism in the area. I think it’s important that Westerners are exposed to these other walks of life but also hope they are able to protect the forests, locals and nature from an over-saturation of tourism. The food here was also the most delicious. While the locals’ diet consists of a lot of animal products, they had no problem preparing vegetarian food for me. All the ingredients were so fresh and flavorful, coming from the garden at the lodge and markets of the nearby villages. Ninh Binh was stunning; we stayed at another Eco Lodge and rode bikes to the boat rides that took us along the river through caves and amongst amazing earth formations.
After we returned from our tour excursion we spent a few more days in Hanoi on our own; we took a Vietnamese cooking class through Apron Up . Our guide met us at our hotel in the morning, took us to a local market where she explained the bartering system and the market culture and got all our fresh food for our five dishes we were to make. We made fried rice, papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, pho soup and egg coffee. Yum! Our instructor was so sweet and talented I would definitely recommend this school. After we cooked all our dishes, we delightfully devoured our works of art. Egg coffee is delicious when it is made right, which seems to be only in Hanoi where it was invented! We tried egg coffee further south in Hoi An and it turned me off eggs to the point that I haven’t had one since (it has been a month and a half).
We went to see a water puppet show which Hanoi is known for at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, which had live music and folk tales in Vietnamese that went mostly over my head but were still stunning to witness. We also went to see The Quintessence of Tonkin, which was really magical and incorporated music, movement, light shows, water elements, and a moving set in their storytelling. I felt completely moved and inspired.
These were the highlights of our first six days, prior to joining the tour with Global Exchange.
The Global Exchange tour was wonderful in other ways; so many of my trips are self-planned, spontaneous and low-budget and, still in my 20s, I often take for granted how adaptable I and my body can be. My dad requires more comforts, which I got to enjoy as well. It was fun to stay in higher end hotels with luxurious breakfast buffets and soft sunken pillows that put my head in the clouds. It was also refreshing not to plan anything, just to be present with my experience. While I adore all of the traveling I have done, there are times I know I have not been as present because I was planning where I was going to sleep that night or what city I was going to next. When there is an itinerary and guides who are managing all of that for you, you can relax and take it all in. There were seven participants in our group from different parts of the country in different professions. This brought interesting perspectives and discussions about what we were experiencing on the trip. The tour is also when I deepened my understanding about the war. We walked through the Vinh Moc tunnels which were built during the bombing and visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh which was extremely disturbing.
There is so much more I could share but I would rather you experience it for yourself. My deepest take-aways were: Finding so much beauty and appreciation in this completely different flow of life, having a deeper understanding of U.S. imperialism’s impact on Vietnam, and an appreciation for the food culture, the food being so fresh, the culture around food being more wholesome than what I am accustomed to, and people being more connected to where their food comes from. Can’t wait to make some of the recipes I learned at home!