Upon arrival at the airport in Hanoi, we walked out of the terminal and I thought that they must be having forest fires. The air was so thick and smelled like smoke. I asked our taxi driver if there were fires and he just looked at me with a blank stare oblivious to the question I had asked. After only a couple of minutes and after scanning the entire horizon, I quickly realized that it wasn’t forest fires, it was pollution! My first thought was Man, this is going to be a long 18 days.
Until about one week prior to arriving in Vietnam, we weren’t even sure if we were going to Vietnam. After reading all of the online forum commentary, it seemed that you either love or hate it. Wow! I am so glad that we decided to go.
As I somewhat struggled to breathe on the taxi ride from the airport toward Ha Noi’s Old Quarter, the controlled chaos quickly became quite hypnotic. Ha Noi is a very large city moving at a break-neck, frenetic pace. As my breathing became less shallow, I felt a real sense of enjoyment that we were stepping a little out of our comfort zone.
After Ha Noi, we moved onto Hoi An which was definitely everyone’s favorite. A small, beautiful and flat city where you get around by bicycle. The Central Market can be a little off-putting if you’re not prepared to be approached by the locals looking for you to buy their wares; always with a gentle smile of course.
After Hoi An, we travelled to the beach town of Nha Trang. There is a lovely beach front with a small park area running the length of the beach. Beach loungers with cushions cost $30,000 Vietnamese dong for a full day’s use, about $1.50 USD each. There are lots of Russians in Nha Trang.
After a 3.5 hour taxi ride through beautiful mountainous terrain, we arrived in Da Lat which is located in the South Central mountains at an elevation of about 4,900 ft. The area is described as a mix of Vietnam and the French Alps, although it was much less impressive than we hoped. The French built villas here to escape the heat, humidity and pollution in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) when they occupied the country.
Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City (same-same…but different) was our last stop. With approximately 8 million people, I thought that the pollution would be worse in Saigon than in Ha Noi. Maybe you get used to the pollution, but it did not seem as bad as Ha Noi.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Day Trip
We visited three places in one day while staying in Saigon.
1) The Cu Chi tunnels were very interesting.
The tunnels are where the Viet Cong hid underground from the U.S. soldiers.
2) We visited the main Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh to observe one of four daily masses.
Cao Dai is a religion that basically mixes all of the religions into one. However, the highlight of the day was seeing the beaming smile of a disabled man when we donated some money to him–an amount that won’t change our world, but will certainly make a difference in his. In the U.S., too many people want something for nothing. This person truly needed and appreciated the assistance.
3) We then had the unique pleasure in Trang Bang to spend time in Kim Phuc’s family restaurant with her sister-in-law.
We watched a documentary detailing the napalm bombing that occurred on her street on June 8, 1972. The iconic picture of Kim Phuc running naked in the street after her clothes were burned off her from the bombing was incredibly emotional to say the least. It was also a pivotal point in changing many Americans’ attitudes toward the war.
Our driver was a 66 year old Vietnamese man who was a sergeant in the South Vietnamese army who served as an interpreter for the U.S. during the war. He subsequently spent a year in a “re-education” camp after the war. His first hand details of the war were fascinating and literally kept us on the edge of our seats all day. Frankly, the older driver was far more interesting than the much younger tour guide.
During the entire trip through Vietnam, only four times did I ever really think about the fact that we were in a communist nation. The first was upon arrival when we were getting our visas; the second was at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum; the third was at Ha Loa prison, also known as the Ha Noi Hilton where John McCain and many others were imprisoned. The fourth was when we walked into our small Da Lat hotel one day and the owner was sitting in the lobby with what looked like two government officials going through his hotel’s financial books.
Bottom line: If you find yourself contemplating whether or not you should go to Vietnam, the answer is a very big yes. Despite some of the challenges, the people were incredibly friendly, and the diversity of the places we went will be in my memories forever.