After eight months in Mongolia, five of which were at my very challenging first site, I was blessed with the opportunity to take a trip, an R&R vacation, to a warm climate: Vietnam. It had been almost 40 years since I’d traveled internationally, except between the US and Mexico, and Vietnam was on a list of places I’d long wanted to visit.
I arrived in Hanoi in the dark. My taxi ride to my hotel, which was about 50 minutes, took me through lively streets, with ground level businesses open seemingly all hours. The city was lit up enough that I could see the elegant 3- and 4-story buildings, one room’s width wide, with beautiful decorations on them. All the areas I rode through seemed very much alive, perhaps partially due to the impending holiday of Tet, the Lunar New Year. The celebration was to be kicked off at midnight January 30 with fireworks. Then the holiday would begin January 31 for three days, although many people celebrate for longer. Many businesses close for at least those three days, some for a week or more. Trains and Vietnam Airlines were fully booked for the time just prior to Tet.
My hotel was located in the Old Quarter, which is vibrant and noisy. As I walked around Hanoi in those first days, I saw flowers and decorations everywhere, celebrating the new year of the horse. Dragons lurked on tops of walls, on lanterns, on everything! There were temples in the midst of blocks of street food. An Italian restaurant sat next to a French cafe, which was next door to a Vietnamese Pho kitchen. So much is packed in to such small spaces. Every time I walked again on the same streets as before, I saw more things I missed last time through. I was worried at first that I would get lost because it seems so confusing at first. But I discovered that I have a good map inside my head.
St Joseph’s Cathedral, built by the French in 1886, with bells that ring every quarter hour.
The sign reads, “Happy New Year.”
Beautiful terrace gardens in the middle of winter!
Dragons on the tops of temples abound.
There are more motorbikes here than cars, and they don’t always obey the traffic lights, of which there are few. Crossing the street is a challenge. Even walking down the sidewalk is an adventure. Motorbike parking is on the sidewalk, and sometimes there are so many motorbikes parked, I had to walk in the street!
Walking the lanes around the Old Quarter at night was magical. Some of the lighting was in celebration of Tet, but most of what I loved was simply night life.
One of my favorite places to have dinner
A view from my restaurant balcony
People packed into places where they could watch the midnight fireworks.
Queen of Peace statue in front of the cathedral
Ho Hoan Kiem Lake was close to my hotel, and there were walkways all around the lake, festooned with flowers for Tet.
Turtle Tower, in honor of the reclaiming of the sword from the emperor by the Golden Turtle God
Year of the Horse in living flowers
I walked the Huc Bridge to Jade Island in one end of the lake, to the Temple of the Jade Mountain.
The highlight of my time in Hanoi was the water puppet performance. I was laughing, nearly crying, clapping my hands at the antics, the hilarity, the sweetness, and the exuberance of the puppets. There were musicians playing traditional instruments and singing. People operated the puppets, standing in waist-deep water, controlling the movements from behind a bamboo screen with long sticks. Some puppets emerged from behind the screen in the back of the stage, and others came up from the water. The puppets were brilliantly colored. The performance was action-packed, so I couldn’t get good clear pictures.
Puppeteers taking a bow
The performance was in Vietnamese, so I have no idea what was being said. But the combination of sounds and movement, and of course the design of the puppets themselves, was so exquisite that it was very moving. In a group of puppets depicting humans, the face of each puppet was unique, just like humanity. I’m so in love with the puppets!
I went on a day trip to Halong Bay, and it was beautiful and peaceful once we got there. It was a long grueling drive both ways, but worth it. These are limestone islands that have some beaches and caves, and where floating communities live. It was a hazy day, and the pictures reflect that.
As we were leaving the harbor, we were fed a delicious seafood lunch.
We arrived at a dock near a floating village, and had the opportunity to go out in bamboo basket boats, which are used for fishing. These are woven baskets that have been sealed, with a wooden frame on top.
Our boat, waiting at the dock, while we were out in the small boats
This is a huge cave, which has lights to show the depths.
I went to Hoi An, on the coast south of Da Nang for six days. Hoi An was initially disappointing, but then I realized this was mostly because of my hotel. Every time I came back from being out, I felt like I was coming to a compound away from the people whose country I was visiting, and that was exclusively for tourists. Once I recognized that, I went out and walked around as much as I could, and there was plenty to see and do.
One day, I ate at the Morning Glory Street Food restaurant. The woman who owns it is trying to keep alive the ancient knowledge of the health benefits of different foods. It’s a wonderful place – so much to choose from, and so little time! I had an amazing soup traditionally used for people who tend to develop ulcers, made of cabbage and tiny shrimp, with two little rolls of shrimp mousse inside cabbage leaves and tied with a chive or green onion leaf. It was so good! My stomach is a sensitive part of me, so I thought I’d give it a try. It pleased me to the tips of my toes!
Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant
The food is cooked in this island in the middle of the room.
Sauteed pork salad, with rice noodles, cilantro, shredded vegetables, topped with peanuts
I wandered the streets during these first days, finding so much beauty, and periodically I could smell the water. And there was the relentless hawking of the vendors, “Madame, do you want to buy?” or “Madame, what are you looking for?”
Ahhh, winter in Vietnam!
I made one excursion to the beach, but I didn’t stay long. It was crowded with umbrellas and lounge chairs behind a restaurant. It was beautiful at the water, though.
Sen Restaurant, the way to the beach
***** Please see blog post “Vacation in Vietnam Part 2” to continue. *****