Sometimes this traveling the world thing feels like a luxurious vacation. At other times, it feels like the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Mostly in Vietnam, it was the latter. I truly loved the country, but after over a month in Southeast Asia already, I was just ready to have a bit of comfort and home – which we are getting plenty of here in sunny New Zealand. Vietnam challenged me and changed me – and made me miss our neighborhood in Boston, which is mostly Vietnamese and filled with some of the best people I know.
Hectic Hanoi was probably the biggest challenge I’ve had on this trip, aside from illness, so far. As some of you know, I’ve had vision issues since birth, now including double vision and limited periphery vision. Mostly, in well-lit situations it’s under control and I use my other senses more to get me around. But in Hanoi, all the senses are constantly bombarded. Getting around the streets at night was especially difficult. Nate and I adopted a new paradigm: I just hold his arm and he guides me. Otherwise, I’d just be too scared to move and would likely miss something going on around me. There were a couple times where just walking a block or two involved too many close calls, and I’d just have to stop and cry a bit. I’d never felt so pathetic and infantilized, but I’d also never been challenged to trust, both Nate and strangers, in quite the same way before. It was one of those “growth opportunities” that really suck in the moment but you find beneficial after. This trip is full of lots of those, Hanoi just hosts the most.
HA LONG BAY
During our stay in Hanoi, we decided to take a three day cruise on nearby Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique 2,000 limestone islets, and arguably one of the coolest places in the world. We’ve already gushed about it, but we’ll say it again: this was one incredible place to camp out on a junk boat for a few sleeps!
After ten days in Hanoi, we flew down to sunny Phu Quoc island, the cheapest place we found to fly to and stay from Christmas to New Year’s. Radically different from the north in both food and culture, we loved meeting and chatting with restaurant owners and the staff at our hotel. Though the ubiquitous construction on the island was something we learned to detest, there were plenty of positives during our stay: daily chocolate crepes made to order at breakfast, a place to hang our hammock on the balcony, and strong, unlimited wifi. Phu Quoc wasn’t all we’d hoped it would be, but we’re glad we got to see another dimension of life in Vietnam.
HO CHI MINH CITY
On our way from Phu Quoc to Sydney, we had an eight hour layover in Ho Chi Minh City – just enough time for us to leave the airport for the afternoon and explore. We found a city less chaotic than Hanoi, with more open spaces and parks for families to play and relax. As our taxi brought us into the city, we drove right past the grounds of the US Embassy, made famous in 1975 during the evacuation of Saigon. We had just watched the documentary Last Days in Vietnam and, though the original embassy building is no longer there, we felt a little chilled looking at the iron gates that so many climbed over in desperation to leave the newly captured city. We even flew in and out of Tan Son Nhat Airport, the military airbase of US and South Vietnamese operations in Saigon during the war.
For all these haunting shadows of the Vietnam conflict, there are more satirical ones as well. Công cà phê is a “communist-themed” cafe with locations all over the country. Walking in, you see young baristas in faded green uniforms and military style hats, the walls are drab concrete, and the overwhelming theme is bunker. You can order your Vietnamese coffee (made with condensed milk instead of cream), sit back, and imagine the days of colorless war-time communist rationing.
Decades ago, my father was in stationed near Da Nang, Vietnam and no one would have ever considered going there on a vacation. Now, tourists flock here for the gorgeous scenery and beautiful beaches, and young Vietnamese look back on those days with smirks. Looking around our world and realizing how fast change like can happen – that’s got to be encouraging, right? It is to me.