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Days #11-15: Vietnam

We landed in Vietnam early on Monday morning and went through the usual airport arrivals process — all very smooth with our newly minted eVisas (which I almost forgot to get!). Our driver met us at the designated place and time. We proceeded to drive into Hanoi in what I have to assume was rush hour traffic, which wasn’t very bad at all.

First impressions were positive — well ordered traffic and good infrastructure. As we made our way into the historic city center, Libby and I grew a bit more apprehensive of my hotel choice as the world seemed a little grittier — perhaps more “elegant decay” a la Venice — with the addition of all manner of street vendors and narrow, crowded lanes. But, really, our concerns were for naught. The location was fantastic. The streets were vibrant. The hotel (Hanoi Pearl)—while not a Ritz-Carlton—was a fantastic value, perfectly located, and service as personalized and good as we’ve experienced anywhere.

Since the rooms were so affordable, I splurged on paying for an extra night on both ends to give us a guaranteed early check-in and late check-out. This also entitled us to breakfast, which is what we did first after our overnight flight. We then took a nap, grabbed a drink on the roof deck lounge, and prepared for our evening tour / dinner featuring the street foods of Vietnam.

Wow! What can I say about the cuisine?!? We wandered the neighborhood (probably never more than 5-10 mins from the hotel) eating all kinds of new and delish dishes. Unlike Chinese, Japanese, or even Thai food, our exposure to Vietnamese cuisine had been limited. Now we’ve been spoiled by the subtlest and most flavorful pho I could imagine, delighted by all manner of spring rolls, eaten bun cha (with a beer) like Obama and Bourdain, munched on a delightful banh mi que, and innumerable other dishes.

Tuesday started with a walking tour that I booked of the Old and French Quarter, which started by meeting at the local cathedral before heading to Loading T’s for coffee (amazing!) and a chat about Vietnamese coffee and history. As an American of our generation (born after the end of the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War), I found our expectations of and beliefs about Vietnam to be refracted through and colored by a lens of history that is very different than that of the Vietnamese people — not unlike our first experience to Eastern Europe in visiting Prague. For Americans, the Vietnam War was a seminal event for at least one generation that has rippled through our culture and politics to this day. For Vietnamese, the American War was but one of a 50 years long string of conflicts (involving at least the French, Japanese, French again, Americans, civil war, Chinese) and not even the worst of their experiences (that distinction goes to the famine during the Japanese occupation in WWII). I’m no expert on this subject, but it feels like the country has sort of “moved on” from it all with a sort of communism/capitalism that works for them.

Anyway, we cut the walking tour a bit short as Emerson’s stomach was upset — nothing serious — probably more to do with time and dietary changes versus any sort of real illness. By the late afternoon, everyone was up for seeing the delightful Thang Long Water Puppet show. Although performed entirely in Vietnamese, we were able to “follow the plot” of the various scenes and enjoyed the show more than expected.

Wednesday and Thursday were basically dedicated to Ha Long Bay, which is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. I have a separate post reviewing that cruise experience, which outlines it in detail. Overall, it’s worth the visit, but I’d suggest spending more time there and trying to get a bit further off the beaten track (or whatever the nautical equivalent of that would be — I kept thinking “this would be so much better on our own boat”). Back in Hanoi, we replicated our usual pattern of coffee at Loading T’s followed by a happy hour cocktail at the roof-top lounge.

Dinner was at a local Vietnamese place that had excellent reviews on Google — it was good but not as much as the street food / sidewalk vendors. One lesson we learned: staff in some Vietnamese establishments really pimp for online reviews, ask for you to mention them specifically by name, and actually tend to hover over you while writing the review on the spot. As a result, I would approach any tour/restaurant/activity with a seemingly disproportionately high number of excellent reviews with skepticism, especially if they repeatedly and consistently call out the same staff members by name.

On Friday, we were on our own and explored the Old and French Quarters. The primary highlight was a visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which outlined the role and contribution of women not just to the family and agriculture but also socially, politically, and militarily. Amongst certain ethnic communities within Vietnam the cultural is matriarchal, but I got the sense that equality for women is reasonably deeply rooted in at least modern (post-colonial) Vietnam.

After the museum, we had a late lunch at a local microbrewery (this seems to be a global phenomenon) with excellent beer and food, followed by a final trip to Loading T’s for their delicious cinnamon-flavored coffee with evaporated milk, and a stroll through the Old Quarter. We returned to the hotel to finish packing, get cleaned up, check-out, and leave for the airport around 9pm.

Today’s box score: +1 country (Vietnam)

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