by Nancy Bestor
Our family enjoyed an amazing journey in Vietnam. While not the easiest trip we’ve ever taken, nor the most relaxing, it was certainly the most fascinating-an amazing look at a culture completely different from our own here in the good old US of A. To make the most of our journey we wanted to see as much of the country as possible. But we also needed to balance that desire and spend ample time at each stop to get a good feel for each region we visited. Although it worked out great for Bob and I, it kept us on the move via bus, plane, boat and taxi, which was hard on at times on our daughters Emily and Sarah, who were 10 and 8 at the time.
Early in the trip a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta gave us a glimpse of how the Vietnamese live outside their major cities. The Delta covers quite a large portion of southern Vietnam. Formed by sediment deposited by the 2,600-mile Mekong River it teems with agricultural trade and produces enough rice to feed the entire country. Our tour included boating throughout the Delta and short hikes through some of the Delta countryside and small towns and cities. We saw barges full of sand for building and others full of rice for eating. We toured floating markets, visited a family who makes “pop-rice” and another who makes coconut candy, walked past many, many rice fields, and met up with a group of young children who were so thrilled when we said Xin Ciao (hello) to them in or fractured Vietnamese that they followed us for half a mile, laughing, marching and chanting Xin Ciao the whole way. Women passed by on boats with cut up meat or vegetables for sale, while others were cooking on board and selling meals. We bought a fresh and very tasty pineapple from a pineapple boat, served whole on its stem, peeled and trimmed, for 3,000 dong (20 cents). Tourism is still so new in this part of the country that children waved to us, but often adults looked at us like we were either crazy or from another planet. We encountered very few Americans during our stay in Vietnam, and virtually no children. So I’m certain that western children were not often seen, particularly in the Mekong Delta.
The Vietnamese people were friendly to us, but everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to sell us something. The average Vietnamese takes home just $50 per month. I am sure they feel that anyone who can afford to travel halfway around the world must have money to burn. And let’s face it, comparatively, we do. All “casual” conversations would start out with questions about us, our family and our trip, and inevitably, would turn into an invitation to show us this or that “great deal”, or take us to their “auntie’s” shop, or sell us gum, fruit, bread, or books. A trip to the beach was terrific, except that we were constantly asked to buy any number of things by vendors. They didn’t always easily take no for an answer either. They would tell us how bad business was that day, and how they needed money, and didn’t we just want to help out by buying sunglasses, or postcards, or cigarette lighters or a massage. It sometimes took several firm no’s before they would move on to their next target. That being said, when finally we did want something the service, hospitality and offerings were fabulous. Lobster and shrimp fresh cooked right there on the beach. Beer, sodas, candy and other snacks were all available along with foot and leg massages whenever you so desired. One never had to look too far or wait too long and we were always fair game, not just while at the beach, but also while eating in restaurants or drinking a beer in local bars.
One of the highlights of our trip was a five day stop in Hoi An, a coastal town halfway between Saigon and Hanoi. Here we stayed at the new and lovely Hoi An Pacific Hotel, where we booked a two-room suite for $80 a night. The hotel was terrific, with free shuttle service into downtown and to the beach, and a lovely pool. During our stay in Hoi An we didn’t see many tourists, and we decided that most must stop in this city as part of a tour for one night, and see the sites early in the morning before heading off on another stop. Even our hotel seemed almost empty, at least when we were around. The town itself is enchanting and well worth a several day stay. The streets are narrow, and crowded with mostly locals. We ate several Hoi An specialty dishes here, including the “white rose,” shrimp in a steamed wonton served with crunchy onion bits and drizzled with lemon and fish sauce, and fish grilled in banana leaves.
Hoi An is well known for its silk tailor shops, where you can have clothing made to order. Bob decided to have a Nat Nast-style bowling shirt made, and as the shop he chose had no idea what a bowling shirt was, he ended up drawing the shirt out for the tailor. Less than 24 hours later it was ready to go, perfectly tailored to his specifications and measurements, and the fabric colors he chose turned out great. It was $15 and loads of fun too!
A great day trip from Hoi An was a visit to My Son, ruins of the Cham civilization. We rented a car and driver, so we could arrive at My Son early in the morning, before most tour buses arrive. The road to My Son is a bumpy 45 minute journey, one in which Sarah got car sick and threw up in her hat, but well worth the trip. The ruins, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, are in an isolated rural setting that we had virtually to ourselves. The towers and sanctuaries of My Son were erected between the seventh and 13th centuries, and at one time included 70 buildings. Many of the buildings were bombed during the Vietnamese war, but there are plenty left to see today. We spent a lovely morning wandering through the ruins.
Ten years ago 10,000 foreign tourists a year visited Vietnam. Today two million tourists visit each year. While the numbers of tourists has increased dramatically, Vietnam is still getting its feet wet where tourism is concerned. Getting around the country by land is still very slow, and hotels tend to cater to high-end tourists as part of a tour group, or low-end backpackers. But Vietnam is a beautiful country, and the Vietnamese people seem to have put the war behind them, and harbor no resentment towards Americans (at least as far as we could tell). The sights, smells and sounds of Vietnam will stay with my family for a long time, hopefully forever, as we learn once again of the many wonderful places there are in this great world to visit.