August 14, 2008

Vietnam recap

We returned from our honeymoon in Vietnam just a few weeks ago. What an incredible trip! Having never been to Vietnam, I had weak attachments to my mother's family -- who, sadly, were mostly in Germany at the time we were there -- and knew almost nothing about my mom's birthplace. But I was happy that Mark was enthusiastic about visiting, because I wanted to experience it myself. 

Vietnam is a beautiful country, vibrant with change and modernization and wealth but also full of stories from the past. The people were frankly curious about us (especially me, because they could tell I was part Vietnamese, I think), and happy to have tourists there to learn about Vietnam's culture and food and also to spend their dollars.

After a 24 hour layover in Tokyo (where we slept and ate ramen), we flew to Saigon. Over the next 4 weeks, we made our way way through the Mekong Delta, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Sapa, and Ha Long Bay and back to Tokyo. 

Ho Chi Minh City was loud, crowded, polluted, insane, and (despite all this) kind of wonderful. It seems like all 7 million of inhabitants are all on the streets at the same time, zipping around on motorbikes. The constant honking is almost unbearable. But the scenery and the food make up for it.

Crossing the street is a skill you must cultivate immediately. Saigon streets are like Frogger on crack.

These are the rules:
  1. Never hesitate. Just go.
  2. Look both ways. Keep looking both ways. Never stop looking both ways.
  3. A walk sign does not mean that the cars/motorbikes will stop. There will just be less of them to contend with.
  4. When in doubt, wait for a Vietnamese person to cross the street and follow him/her.
Sometimes the motorbikes are carrying crazy items. Like 7 live piglets. Or maybe goldfish, like this gentleman:

We spent our days wandering around the parks, temples and food markets, seeking out our next cold drink. Guys, it was so hot and humid. Fortunately, Vietnam has an incredible array of freshly made beverages available on the street and in cafes. My drink of choice was soda chanh, or lime soda. Simple and utterly refreshing: Lime juice, sugar syrup, and club soda. We also loved sinh to, or icy fruit smoothies sweetened with condensed milk. My favorite was the mango (xoai) and Mark liked the soursop (mang cau xiem). And we drank a lot of Vietnamese beer and iced coffee.

Let me just say right now that we pretty much ignored all the warnings not to get ice, not to eat the fresh herbs, not to eat fruit we didn't peel ourselves, and not to eat street food. It would have been impossible to enjoy Vietnam's incredible cuisine without sampling street food and trying all the different raw vegetables, herb garnishes, and iced concoctions. I paid the price for my lack of caution and got sick briefly but Mark was totally fine. We ate extremely well in Saigon, but the best thing would have to be the cha ca: juicy morsels of turmeric-marinated fried fish garnished with chopped dill. I still think about this meal.

From Saigon, we hired a driver to take us to the Mekong delta past rice fields and herds of water buffalo. Can Tho felt immensely quiet and peaceful compared to Saigon, until we got caught in the most wonderful rain storm we've ever experienced. So much rain, so much thunder, and all so quickly. We ate a fantastic sour seafood and vegetable hotpot with our hired guide, enjoying the rain and chatting with our guide about life in the Mekong delta, where he grew up. Mark saw a little mouse in the restaurant, but we can't blame him for seeking refuge from the downpour!  He was funny, smart, and informative. When we asked how his family and friends felt about Americans, he reminded us that Vietnam is a country that has known many wars with different countries. He thought it better to look to the future than worry about past horrors.

Up early the next morning for filtered coffee and a tour of the Mekong and its floating markets. There were lots of homes built on the river so people could easily access their boats, their fish, their neighbors. 

We sampled some local products, the most notable being toasted rice cakes flavored with coconut and brown sugar. Not bad at all.

From Can Tho, our driver took us to Mui Ne, a tiny beachside town where we had rented a tiny bungalow on the beach.

This place would have been idyllic if it wasn't for the moth infestation (apparently the moths are kept in check by rain storms but this area had been dry for the last week). I'll never forget our dinner here: tamarind crabs, beers, and every surface covered in white moths. It was totally Hitchcockian.
Up early the next morning to Nha Trang. My mom spent most of her life in Nha Trang so I was excited to visit. This was our "splurge" of the trip -- a beautiful, private, totally peaceful cottage on the beach. It was the most luxurious place we stayed in and it felt truly honeymoon-ish. We swam, snorkeled, took a cooking class (the teacher said that everything I made tasted better than Mark's, even though we used the exact same ingredients), got massages, tried every kind of tropical fruit we'd ever heard of, watched Cham dancers, and read on the beach beneath coconut trees. It was so nice we decided to extend our stay in Nha Trang for two extra nights.

From Nha Trang, we visited Hoi An, a tiny/charming town known for its tailors, old merchant homes and proximity to Cham ruins in My Son.

Next up was Hue, where we took a boat tour of the Perfume river and a moto-taxi tour of the emperors' burial grounds. Mark died laughing at the look on my face when I found out I had accidentally arranged a moto-taxi tour, but we had no choice. It was okay; we couldn't really go that fast because I outweighed the driver by at least 50 pounds (poor guy!). The burial grounds were amazing, though, so I was glad we did it.

We flew from Danang to Hanoi, a fun, vibrant, beautiful city. We wandered around the city, met up with two friends of a friend who proved to be the best tour guides we could have hoped for, and ate a lot of street food.

From Hanoi, we did two side trips -- Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa. To get to Sa Pa, we took an overnight train into the mountains, where the air was cool and foggy. We learned about the culture of the mountain people and the terrace farming they do here, which were both super interesting. The crafts they did here were beautiful and unique, but once I bought some pillow cases every other sales woman marked me as a target. One lady waited for us for an hour outside the restaurant we had lunch. They were aggressive and totally determined, but also smiling and kind.  

In Ha Long Bay, we booked a room on a junk boat and they took us fishing, kayaking, and cruising throughout the bay. This was a high point of our trip, especially the kayaking, maybe because poor Mark did all the rowing work while I pointed out fish and interesting rock formations! The boat proprietors were impressed with Mark's fishing skills (that guy caught 6 fish in an hour using a bamboo stick with string tied to it) and also let him steer for a bit. They also called us a "love couple" and gave us flowers since we were on our honeymoon. It was pretty adorable. We caught a fantastic sunset on the last night. 

From Hanoi, we caught a flight to Tokyo and we were determined to visit the city before our flight to Houston left 6 hours later. We took the train in, caught a cab, and asked him to take us to a place where we could eat "soba or tempura." This kind man felt very confused by our question (his response: "soba ... and tempura ... different!") but dropped us off at the best possible place: Tsukiji fish market. We ate sashimi for breakfast before hopping in another cab and catching the train back to the airport for our flight home. What a honeymoon! Looking forward to another trip one day, hopefully with my mom and her family.

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