My heart rate increases as the plane lands in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, formerly called Saigon. And I can’t help but wonder how the U.S. soldiers’ hearts must have pounded years ago when the United States was at war with the North Vietnamese.But those years are long past. My wife Mare and I have no tour group waiting for us and only trek with trustworthy guidebooks. I’ve learned at least one thing from world travel — ignorance breeds fear. Reading travel books and magazines not only prepares us for what to expect, but eases unwarranted fears.
Over two million scooter riders fill the crowded streets, nearly colliding with one another, but road rage is rare. To show displeasure in public is to “lose face” in this culture. Smiles replace anger and patience conquers tantrums. I see hardly anyone over the age of 40, and everyone is busy working, eating, and or selling wares.
It’s lunchtime at the convivial Ben Thanh Market, and the scent of fish head soup fogs with the humidity. Catfish wiggle for their lives in an inch of water on the lids of steel drums, while countless eels slither below them in vats of muddy water. Shrimp swim in buckets, while ivory squids flare on tin sheets covering the tops of jars of entangled snakes.
We feast on shrimp, ground into paste and wrapped around sugar cane, with a side of asparagus soup. Later, we savor a tasty seafood pot full of squid and crab.
After maneuvering our way through the sea of scooters to a local Travel Agency, we agree upon a sightseeing strategy. We begin with a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta, the region in Southeast Vietnam where the Mekong River empties into the sea through a network of tributaries.
We decide to include an overnight stay in Can Tho, the largest and most developed city in the Mekong Delta. Then we will fly north to Hanoi, spend the night before arranging a tour to the mountain town of Sapa, followed by a two-day boat trip of Halong Bay. Any journey to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without some relaxing time on the beach. So we choose to spend our last few days at Nha Trang on the South China Sea.
For now, we pile into a van with travelers from Australia, New Zealand, France and Korea. “We’ll reach the Mekong Delta in about three hours,” Mr. No, the guide says.
We drive due south and after passing many rice fields, we eventually board a small motorboat as Mr. No describes the way of life in the Mekong Delta. While visiting the crowded, floating market of the Delta town Cai Be, I sink my teeth into freshly cut pineapple still attached to the stem like an ice cream cone.
Surrounded by hundreds of boats, many serving as homes gently colliding with each other, our boat breaks free and explores the jungle-lined canals. Floating hyacinths and lotus flowers drift in the low tide as we pass under single-log monkey bridges. Eventually spending the night in Can Tho, I talk with a group of Australian Bikers, “The Vets of Foreign Conflicts.”
“I’ve always liked this place,” a tattooed biker says, “But it’s a lot better to see the friendly side of everybody.”
After lunch the next day, Mr. No drives us back north to Ho Chi Minh City, where we board a plane for the two-hour flight to Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi. Once there, we book tours to both Sapa and the Halong Bay. (Four days of tours, including transportation, lodging and most meals, cost about 3,200,000 dong or US$ 200)
That evening, we board the train and sleep soundly on the 10-hour, overnight ride to the misty, northwest mountain town of Sapa. Arriving at the train station in Lao Cai, we switch the train for a crowded van. The vehicle travels up muddy roads twisting around the mountains on the way to Sapa (elevation: 5,400 feet or 1,650 meters). About 36,000 people live in Sapa, which is also the coldest place in the country.
Tien, a friendly, young guide greets us at the bus stop and leads us to our modest room. Within minutes, we’re hiking in the soggy jungle, occasionally separated by foggy hills layered with infinite rice paddies. We meet the H’mong minority people during a village funeral. The purple dye in their garments permeates their skin.
“The entire village drinks homemade rice wine for four days before the burial,” Tien says. “Then they carry the casket to the top of a mountain, drop it into a pre-dug hole, and run like crazy back to the village in fear of the body chasing them. Hopefully, the body is still in the hole the next day when they fill it.”
That evening, Mare and I dine on venison and wild boar in Sapa and sleep the following night on the 10-hour train ride back to Hanoi. I sip some of the best coffee in the world next to Hoan Kiem Lake, located in the center of this clean town of many lakes, where thousands of locals exercise with everything from badminton to Tai Chi.
It’s time to jump into another van for a four-hour ride to Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin near the border with China and about 100 miles (160 km) east from Hanoi. Vịnh Hạ Long means “Bay of the Descending Dragon” in Vietnamese and this UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the great natural wonders of Asia, with a coastline of 74 miles (120 km) and over 3,000 islands. We board a wooden houseboat, and cruise around these spectacular limestone mounds topped with jungle vegetation that rise through the blue-green waters of this tranquil bay. Many islands conceal caves and small beaches. The quiet is a welcome break from the constant “meep-meeps” of city scooters.
“We haven’t seen any American tourists around here,” a British woman says. “Is it true that only 20 percent of Americans have passports?”
“I don’t know,” I answer. “Most of my friends think I’m nuts for coming here on vacation.”
“I’d love to visit the U.S. one day,” she says, “but hear it’s pretty violent.”
After a good night’s sleep on the boat, the van brings us back to Hanoi, where we spend the night, and take a long overdue shower. Before leaving the capital, I must taste one of its special foods, Cha ca, which is tasty ground fish surrounded with spicy sauces. In the northern part of the city, restaurants specialize in dog-meat, but Hanoians believe that it is bad luck to eat this during the first two weeks of the month. Early tomorrow morning, we will catch a two-hour flight to Nha Trang, a beach town that rests on the South China Sea, about 280 miles (450 km) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.
Soon the sea rolls its turquoise waves in front of us. At first glance, the beach appears to be a typical paradise, until vendors tease us with offers to cook nine-inch long (23 cm) shrimp next to our palapa, a thatched roof of dried palm leaves. Mare enjoys a manicure, while I opt for a full-body massage. Lien, the husky, middle-aged masseuse, straddles my padded lounge and drips eucalyptus oil on my back. Her hands make clicking noises as she pounds up and down my spine.
Exotic fruits are cut for our pleasure, and the most pressing question of the day is whether or not it’s too early for a beer. It’s not. We sip the locally popular “Tiger” beer while the couple in the palapa next to us accepts a vendor’s offer to grill huge shrimp on the beach at their feet. They notice me staring.
“We ate the shrimp yesterday and they’re fantastic,” the young man said. He rubbed his stomach.
“That’s all I needed to hear,” I said. “I’m getting some, too.”
“I figured you were American. I’m Portuguese, and my wife, Loi, was born in Saigon.”
“We like Americans,” Loi said. “Most Vietnamese are too young to remember the American war. In 1975, the only tourists were Russian men. We called them ‘Americans with no dollars.’ We especially like your dollars.”
“I appreciate your honesty,” I said. We laughed.
Gnu, the shrimp vendor, smiles at me revealing two teeth. She dangles a giant shrimp in the wind, and I nod yes. Within moments, shrimp are sparred with transparent green crabs on a small grill. We dunk the tender meat into a green sauce made from fish, garlic, lime and other seasonings, including some sand. We devour more than two pounds (1 kg) of the tasty morsels for about US$ 5.
As we sip Tigers, and contemplate our good fortune, the theme song from “The Godfather” plays in the background, calypso-style.
That evening, we gorge on a seafood pizza on the beach, while the sun drifts behind the mountainous waters. The pizza is so good, we order another.
Lien the masseuse and Gnu the cook prepare our palapa the next morning. My wife takes a massage today, and I simply drink, swim and write. Vendors share our shade while we eat, and we’re all happy. I don’t want to leave. Alas, after 14 days in Vietnam, we have many connections to make to fly home tomorrow.
If You Go
It’s safe, easy and inexpensive to travel in Vietnam. Many hotels offer tours, most folks speak several languages, and eager guides are plentiful. Booking flights to different cities is painless, and a good way to see a lot of the diverse countryside in a short period of time.
An excellent travel agency and hotel in Ho Chi Minh City is Kim Travel, 270 De Tham Street, Dist 1, +84 08 836 9859.
The Hai Yen Hotel in Nha Trang (40 Tran Phu Street, +84 58 822 828) for about US$ 20 includes breakfast and balcony sea views. This moderately comfortable hotel is considered higher end. Budget accommodation is readily available in Nha Trang.
Vietnam National Administration of Tourism