I knew I would love Vietnam the moment I stepped off the ship. I just knew, but I wasn’t sure why. Ho Chi Minh had me sweating bullets as soon as we started to pull into the port. The skyline wasn’t all that impressive, and it smelled a little funky to me.
Still, I knew. And I was right.
Vietnam is now an incredibly special place to me. The food was cheap, the sights were beautiful, and the people were amazing.
The first morning, my friends and I took an SAS shuttle bus to the city center where we were dropped off in front of the stunning Notre Dame Cathedral. We then went to exchange currency at a local booth. Claribel, one of our resident directors, joined us for the day. She wanted to find a nail salon and a spa, so we traveled as a group to a shop she found on Trip Advisor. The place was excellent, but servicing nine folks took quite a bit of time—well over an hour. After a relaxing event, the group headed to (a very late) lunch at the Ho Chi Minh Hard Rock Café.
Honestly, I wasn’t really interested in going to the Hard Rock. I’m not a fan of it back home, so I really had no desire to eat there in a foreign country. Some folks in my group had particularly narrow dietary preferences (not restrictions), so in the interest of finding some place where we could all eat I caved for American food.
One of my favorite facets of traveling is being able to try various different local and culturally significant foods. In China, frustration and lack of access and understanding prompted me to eat more fast-food than I would have like. I won’t be doing that anymore though; I’m vowing to stay from most things with a recognizable business label.
The Hard Rock wasn’t terrible. Afterwards, we rode the SAS sponsored shuttle bus back to the ship and prepared to depart for the airport. We flew to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. The flight was a later one, so the ride to the airport was my first experience with Vietnamese night traffic. I’d never seen something so frightening yet amazing. Vehicles didn’t really follow traffic signals or lane indicators; they just flowed around each other in indistinguishable yet fluid movements.
Somehow, between booking mishaps and taxi confusion, my group arrived in Hanoi and made it to our hostel. Until then I had been apprehensive about staying in a hostel rather than a hotel. The only other time I’d lodged in one was during my Bonner Scholar spring break trip. It wasn’t horrible. The hostel we stayed in was considered a luxury one, so everyone had their own relatively private cubby. Plus, we were with a large enough group to fill an entire room; it was like a big ‘ole sleepover.
Oasis Bay, the travel company we used, picked us up from our hostel (early) the next morning and started us on our journey three-hour journey to Ha Long Bay. Naturally, I slept the majority of the ride. Hundreds of boats greeted us as we approached the dock. A small boat brought us from the dock to our bigger ship for the evening. After a bit of safety instruction, it was smooth sailing.
The Ha Long Bay cruise was a magnificent experience. Beyond the majestic sights of limestone karsts visible from nearly every angle, we were able to kayak through the caves and dive off the vessel. The authentic Vietnamese cuisine was top notch; we were even given a cooking class on how to properly roll and cook Vietnamese spring rolls. Maybe some of the attached photos can begin to share some of the innate beauty of the bay.
Ha Long Bay wasn’t the end of our fun in Vietnam. After we returned to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay we still had a day to explore Hanoi. We lodged again in the French Quarter. Our guide from the cruise even joined us for the first evening back, showing us some of the best spots for cuisine and fun in and around the Quarter. An evening of partying was followed by a day of cultural exploration. Nearly everywhere we turned we were greeted by smiling and friendly faces.
On the first day in port, I ripped one of my shoes on our way to the airport. By that point, I couldn’t turn around to go and get another pair, so I was stuck with a ripped shoe. The end, right? Not so much. On our last day in Hanoi, while casually exploring the district, I was approached by a man on the street with a basket. He grabbed my shoe, polished, sewed, and glued it back together. It actually looked brand new by the time he was done.
My feet received quite a bit of pampering that day, because later that evening my friends and I went for massages. I had my first hot stone massage on my feet. Glorious is an inadequate description of how my felt feet post-rock rub, but it’ll do.
Ultimately my memory of Vietnam is, in many good ways, a blur. I remember smiling faces and kind acknowledgements, an aura of warmth and welcomeness that I did not experience in the last port. This isn’t to say that I’m blind to some of the many social ills and struggles that exist behind a smile. Yet, after experiencing general hostility in my last stop, it was refreshing to have my faith in human goodness reenergized.