Vietnam Ventures| Linda Back McKay | Minneapolis USA
It was almost an accident that we went to Vietnam. We were scheduled to attend a technology-related conference in Seoul, Korea. Since we were going on such a long trip, we decided to add on another destination. We talked to some of our friends and neighbors about their travels to Asia, and in the end we chose Vietnam… kind of pulled it out of the air. Starting in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, we would also visit the Mekong Delta and the World Heritage Area Hoi An.
“Vietnam was an amazing experience…more of an adventure than a vacation. It wasn’t on our bucket list and I doubt we’ll ever return, but the beauty of the country and the kindness and friendliness of the people are sweet and lasting memories,” wrote Linda to her friend Dee, editor of RainbowTourism.Asia.
Here are excerpts from her travel blog.
Our modest goals for the trip were to experience some of the city and markets, have some time in the countryside, and avoid things war-related for the most part. For us, it’s always important to get to know the people.
Once we were in the embrace of Korean Airlines, all went well. On-time flights, smiling and attentive service, lovely food, all the convenience possible on a 24-hour travel day – even a little extra leg room. We spent hours watching a good assortment of movies and documentaries. We dozed a little and ate every time food was offered.
After dinner they dimmed the lights so people could sleep. Before the next service, they brought up the lights gradually so people would be wakened gently. After 10 or so hours, the flight attendants used aromatherapy and warm towels to soothe us. It was all very comforting. If you ever have a chance to fly Korean Airlines, jump at the chance.
Bleary-eyed, we stumbled out of the airport into a sea of joyous people, waving and cheering. We saw rows and rows of men holding signs with names. We knew our name was on one of those signs. “Sin xiao,” I said to the driver, using one of my three Vietnamese phrases. He smiled and nodded but didn’t seem particularly impressed. I figured he was tired since our flight had been a little late and he’d probably been holding that sign for a while.
Since it was dark, we couldn’t see much of the city between the airport and the hotel but it seemed teeming with motorbikes and buses. They fill the roads like a motorized ant colony, bikes piled high with merchandise of all kinds. Many times whole families ride together – an older child standing in front of Dad on the floorboard, a younger child wedged between Mom and Dad, along with the groceries packed in there somewhere.
When we arrived at the Duc Vuong Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, which many still call Saigon, the staff took our bags, plied us with cool fruit drinks, got us checked in quickly and took us to our room. They spoke excellent English and were extremely gracious. In our room, the towels were wound like swans and the bed pillows read “Sleep Well.” Very welcoming. We took showers and collapsed into the comfortable bed.
Next morning, after enjoying an extensive breakfast at the rooftop restaurant, we made our way to the famous Ban Tanh market. The first challenge was to cross the street. There is only one stoplight in this city of more than six million people. It’s a bit terrifying but we soon learned to cross with a Vietnamese family or large group. And, after that first step off the curb, it’s essential to keep going. Don’t stop, because the drivers anticipate your trajectory and go around you. Yikes!
The market was huge and teeming with aggressive vendors. Capitalism is thriving In Vietnam. The people are eager to grow tourism and will sew a custom-fit dress or suit overnight. They will make shoes, handbags… anything you want.
The Mekong Delta trip was finely choreographed. A bus picked us up, drove us to a larger bus, which took us to the river, where we were transferred into a boat and then a smaller boat, and a long canoe before getting back into the original boat and back to the port. We visited islands and a honey bee farm, a coconut factory, a water buffalo, had lunch, listened to traditional music, ate local fruits, watched wood carvers and boat builders, and more. It was a perfect slice of Vietnam and much more than we had hoped for. The best part was the price, which was $10 per person.
The next morning, after another great breakfast, we walked in a different direction and found a city market filled with locals. The fish vendor had pails of slimy sardines, octopus, squid, shrimp and all sorts of sea delicacies. There were bakers and handbag makers and every sort of jewelry and gadget you can imagine. We spent several fun hours talking and bartering.
Hoi An Tryst
Hiring an English speaking guide was important to us. We wanted to know what we were looking at during the city tour. We purchased our tickets and found our guide in one of the many ticket booths peppered through Hoi An. Trang had been a soldier during the Vietnam War and then had gone to fight Pol Pot in Cambodia. The laugh lines around his eyes gave no hint about what he must have experienced. Together we walked through the town, chatting like old friends and visiting fascinating places, including a historic merchant’s abode, city museum, the Japanese Covered Bridge, the river front and markets. The downtown area floods regularly – sometimes there are three or four floods during the rainy season. When this happens, the people move all their furniture to the second floor and wait. When the water recedes, they shovel out the mud and move back in. We saw photos of boats being paddled down a main street.
We had made appointments for therapeutic massages, which seemed like a great idea after all the walking we’d been doing. Two tiny Vietnamese women appeared at our hotel door at 5pm sharp. They didn’t speak much English, but we understood that they wanted us to remove most of our clothes and lay across the bed. It was a queen size bed, but I still couldn’t figure out how they were going to massage both of us at the same time. But they did. They were very athletic, climbing all over and around us. My therapist was so strong I had to tell her to ease up. “More medium!” I moaned. “More medium!” She finally got the idea.
A United Nations Heritage Site, My Son features ancient temples of the Champa people, whose civilization flourished from the 2nd to the 15th century, when the Vietnamese moved down from the north and conquered them. The area had been carpet bombed by the Americans during the war, so many of the temples were ruined. Deep craters were everywhere and we were told to stay on the marked paths because of land mines. There is a lot of restoration going on and I hope the structures can be repaired eventually.
Vietnam is still a third world country but it is emerging as an important tourist destination. Right now, Vietnam is incredibly inexpensive. None of our hotels cost more than $50 a night and dinners were around $7 – $9. Our massage therapy was $12 per hour per person. I wonder what changes will occur in the next few years.
All photos by the author. To learn more about her writing, poetry and artistry, see www.lindabackmckay.com.