PART 3: DETOUR TO VIETNAM
We arrived in Vietnam midday after a harrowing journey on a local budget airline. The weight restrictions for checked and carryon baggage forced us to carry nearly 20km of clothing, shoes, books, and other items on our bodies, with David taking on most of the burden. Traveling with a partner has its benefits.
We’ve landed in Haiphong, a center of commerce, manufacturing, and trade for the north of Vietnam. It doesn’t see much tourism since most travelers opt for Hanoi, the capital and largest city in the north, and our Airbnb is a full 2 hours away near Ha Long Bay – the main attraction.
We’re picked up by a private driver (arranged by our Airbnb host) for the drive, which is eye-opening. Normally at this point we would let family members know we’ve arrived, contact our host to let them know we’re on the way, etc. But this is the first country we’ve been to where our cell phones don’t work. David bought a local SIM card at the airport, but can’t get it to work. As we look out the windows, it feels like we’ve been transported to another planet. First the chaos of hundreds of motorbikes swerving around us just inches away, some carrying 2, 3 even 6 people, not to mention the huge packages piled up on the back, racing down wide streets lined with huge communist flags every few feet. Then the beautiful, luscious green fields and swamp-like rice paddies where farmers work the fields. Finally the thick fog rising from the bay itself as night begins to fall. We try to ask our driver about what we’re passing, but he doesn’t speak any English.
Lost and incommunicado in a strange land, it’s all enough to make us wonder, for a moment, why we came here in the first place. In a word: Instagram. I wish I could say that we wanted to learn about the culture, history, etc (all of which would be true) but that was also true of a lot of places in Asia. The main differentiator was Ha Long Bay which looked STUNNINGLY beautiful on Instagram. It’s been named by some a “natural wonder of the world.” We also watched the episode of Parts Unknown where Anthony Bourdain visits Vietnam with President Obama. We were very intrigued to say the least.
Now, half a world away from home, we’re questioning our decisions. Not too proud of it, but at this point we’re actually scared for the first time. The long dirt road leading up to our Airbnb, with stray dogs running around, doesn’t help. We’re more than a little skeptical. And then we meet Le (our host and saving grace), and her daughter Me (12 years old and adorable with perfect English). While Me serves tea, Le makes us feel right at home and talks us through our plans. She’ll arrange a day-long boat tour of Ha Long Bay for us take take tomorrow, followed by a home cooked meal with ingredients she’ll get fresh from the market (it also happens to be Thanksgiving!). For tonight, she doesn’t have any food in the house (they don’t have a refrigerator) but can send us to a place where local eats. Since the restaurant staff won’t speak any English, Le writes out all the dishes we should order on a piece of paper. At the bottom, she writes “We’re ready to pay” and “Please call us a taxi” along with her address. Perfect..
The restaurant is just like Le described, full of locals and delicious smelling food. We show the paper and food begins to arrive along with a steady flow of Saigon Specials, the local beer. After trying all of our dishes, we spend some time observing the other tables and are curious what they’re eating. We order by pointing to dishes as they come out. In the end we get a nice sampling of different foods, most of which are barely touched (see photos). Perhaps it’s wasteful, but at ~$3/plate we’re not too worried. It’s clear that eating out in Vietnam is a rare and joyous occasion usually reserved for celebrations- we were the only table of two surrounded by huge parties of 10-15 people. We are awestruck by all the personalities and spend most of the evening people watching.
As we begin to pay, a young man from one of the tables we’ve been observing comes over to talk. He asks if we’re from American and welcomes us to Vietnam. He wants us to have a drink with him, pouring shots from an unmarked plastic bottle. We oblige, wishing he had come over before we were already on the way out so we could hang out longer. He tells us it’s a local “apple wine” that’s helpful for health, success and fertility- CHEERS!
The next morning we get up early for breakfast in the garden and a bus ride to the Ha Long Bay marina. Our tour boat is filled with tourists from Canada, Italy, China, Poland and other places. About 25 of us in total. We cruise the bay, making several stops.
Cave walk, followed by lunch on the boat
Oyster fishing village and kayaking
Island hike with incredible views of the bay
It's a long day, but were the views worth the trip? You be the judge:
Back home, we freshen up for dinner and Le has prepared a feast. She shows us how to make rice paper rolls filled with the pieces of steamed fish, noodles, veggies, and sauces (and doesn’t laugh too hard when we break them). Le’s daughter and assistant join us, and we learn more about her story. Le is from Ha Long, but lived in Hanoi (“the big city”) for many years before moving back to be closer to her aging parents. She says that many of her friends and family don’t understand why she doesn’t get a comfortable government job rather than this risky business but she says that opening her homestay has allowed her and her daughter the chance to meet guests from all over the world.
The next morning, after a final breakfast with Le, we’re off to the airport to return to Thailand. Our driver returns for the two hour trip back to the airport. While we travel the same streets, this time we see things in a different light, having learned a little about the Vietnamese people. The calm is interrupted by our driver’s aggressive tactics, which nearly get us into an accident with a huge tour bus, followed by a lot honking and what we can only imagine is cursing. The next thing we know we’ve swerved in front of the bus and are pulling off into the shoulder, causing it to stop behind us. Our driver jumps out of the car and gets into a shouting match with the bus driver, only to return to the car like nothing happened.