The ending of week 3 and the beginning of week 4 in Vietnam saw us crossing the 17th parallel, an imaginary line used by the French and subsequently the Americans to divide Vietnam into north and south. This demarcation divided not only ideals, but families, friends and neighbors.
Following the 1954 Geneva convention, husbands nonchalantly bid farewell to wives, believing that they would see them once again after the promised 1956 elections. Those elections never materialized, the Americans deciding instead to install a puppet dictator in the south. Children grew up not knowing their fathers and wives never saw their lovers again.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading; I just finished an autobiography of Nguyen Thi Binh, an incredible woman who represented the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN, the north) during the Paris peace talks from 1968-1973 and essentially negotiated the end of the war. She gave up her family and the prospect of a normal life to diplomatically fight for her country and it’s right to simply exist.
Unfortunately, Vietnam has had to do this since the dawn of time. Chinese, Mongols, French, Japanese, and Americans have all taken their turn invading Vietnam and attempting to suppress its people. It is incredible the fight and resolve exemplified by the people of Vietnam, and my eyes have been opened to their centuries-long plight in a life-changing way. I am now starting a novel discussing Nixon and Kissinger’s role during the war from an American perspective, and it is stunning how the same events depicted in Nguyen Thi Binh’s novel are presented in a much different way.
All this to say, history, bias and perspective has been weaved into virtually every experience we’ve had in Vietnam. As we crossed the DMZ, we crawled through tunnels used by an entire Vietnamese village to hide from American bombs, and toured museums bragging about shooting American pilots down and resisting the “imperialist invaders”.
Crossing into southern Vietnam, our first stop was the former imperial capitol of Hue. This bustling city was heavily bombed during the war, and its ancient citadel used as a battleground between Viet Cong and American forces. As we explored the ancient grounds, it was striking to see bullet holes still present in the centuries-old walls, evidence of a bloody conflict long ago. The walled citadel and the buildings inside were ornate and well-restored. We went in late afternoon when many tourists had already retreated to their lodging for the day, so we had the place mostly to ourselves. It was relaxing to stroll around the huge grounds and explore the large fish pond and gardens.
We ventured to Madam Thu’s for dinner, a restaurant serving exclusive Hue favorites, catered to tourists with set menus and English descriptions. This was one of our favorite meals, as we got to try a variety of different foods and they even explained how to eat each one of them! It was delicious and a great introduction to central Vietnam cuisine.
The next day, we were set to head towards Da Nang, the third largest city in Vietnam and an industrial hub. Most people skip over this in their itinerary, but we had planned for several days of exploring the city.
After talking to our hostel host, she recommended renting a motorbike and biking the 60-odd miles down the coastal roads from Hue to Da Nang, while another car followed behind with our bags. We decided this was a better option than another crowded bus, train or expensive private car.
We awoke early, grabbed breakfast, then hopped on our new bike. It was much nicer than our previous few rentals; it even had a working gas gauge and speedometer!
On our way out of Hue, we stopped at several famous tombs and pagodas devoted to previous emperors. It was interesting how each was architecturally unique.
The bike ride was quite long, filled with plenty of sketchy moments next to huge semis and cars going way too fast for the narrow roads. But the coastal roads and views from the top of Hai Van pass made it all worth it!
We entered Da Nang during rush hour after almost 6 hours of being on the road; we were both exhausted and covered in exhaust fumes! After a nice shower, we had a “fancy” dinner and headed straight to bed, catching the sunset over the famed dragon bridge.
We had no plans the next day, and found ourselves wandering from coffee shop to coffee shop, enjoying the young, hipster vibe in our section of the city.
Since we hadn’t spent much money thus far, we opted to book a full day tour for the next day for $38 each. It was really fun to have a local show us around, book our meals and choose our activities. Plus we got to share the car with a mom and daughter from Hong Kong who were super nice and loved to chat. It was a very soggy day, but we were both in good spirits and enjoyed exploring in and around Da Nang.
Since we are both very food-focused, we asked our guide to send us her food recommendations for dinner. After spending an hour looking for the location, including needing two locals to lead us down an alley, we finally found the popular spot. Banh xeo is a rice flour pancake with shrimp that is super popular in Vietnam. It is served with pork on lemongrass skewers, rice paper, various greens and an addictive peanut sauce. You can wrap everything together or eat it all separately, however you like it best! It became one of our favorite spots in the country and we even brought some of our friends back when we returned later.
After eating our weight’s worth in food, we headed back to our hostel to get ready for our journey the next day.
We were set to head only about 10 miles down the road to Hoi An, a tourist paradise with a bustling riverfront and more relaxed pace than the big city. After almost vomiting on the crazy city bus, we debarked with all of our bags in the pouring rain, getting absolutely soaked to the bone! We managed to find our hostel and it was by far the best hostel we stayed in during our entire trip. Here, we were essentially adopted by our Vietnamese mother who took fantastic care of us and was incredibly kind and generous. we also met up with our friend Scott (who we spent time with in Cat Ba) and Rob and Hannah, who Taylor had met in Peace Corps. We were very excited to be there!
After a relaxing afternoon and evening, we woke up to a delicious breakfast with homemade papaya salad! Hiên loved trying new recipes with us and they were always delicious! After that, I convinced everyone to go to the cat cafe down the street.
In Vietnam, cats are considered a very viable food source, especially in more poverty stricken areas. My personal opinions aside, there are several organizations in the country who pick up stray street cats and keep them safe in shelters that also function as cat cafes. The cats get to roam in the courtyard and socialize with people and other cats. Food and drinks were also available once we entered which helped to fund the efforts of the organization.
Needless to say, I was in absolute heaven. Good coffee and lots of cuddly cats? SOLD.
(In an ironic twist of fate, Taylor, who hadn’t had stomach issues yet on the entire trip, ended up with food poisoning later on that day. At least our money went to a good cause!)
The next day, Hiên took us on an impromptu and free (!!) food tour of the city, showing us her favorite hole-in-the-walls as we walked and biked across Hoi An.
The rest of our time in Hoi An was a relaxing mix of bike riding, hanging out on the beach, playing cards and getting new handmade shoes. After a great trip and mini Peace Corps reunion it was time for us to head back up to Hanoi for the final week of our time in Vietnam.
Having been in Hanoi once before we felt we had a pretty good grip on the city. It came as a surprise to us then when we were dropped off at our hostel at 2am after a late flight only to have the gates closed and no one answering our incessant doorbell ringing to let us in. Unwilling to spend the night sleeping on the stoop of the hostel, we set out to look for another hotel. Our big backpacks and clearly lost expressions did not bode well for an aimless walk down an unknown street in the wee hours of the morning. We eventually made our way to the one open hotel in the area, which of course was a fancy hotel and cost more than our entire daily budget. In no real position to go searching for something cheaper, we handed over our credit card and had a most luxurious 10-hour hotel stay; the shower even had a shower curtain!
Kendall enjoying a bowl of bun cha
The next day, we shifted locations to somewhere more in our price range and set out to find the Hanoi rock climbing gym. We had explored several climbing gyms elsewhere on our trip and were eager to check out the one here. After working out and indulging ourselves in a very first-world activity, we found yet another hole in the wall restaurant for lunch. Bun Cha, a dish of grilled pork and vermicelli noodles in a cold broth, quickly became a favorite of ours in Vietnam and this particular street vendor had the best we had tried yet!
Hanoi has several renowned museums that we ventured to, the most interesting for me being the Hoa Lo Prison museum, better known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. This prison was first used by the French during their occupation of Vietnam to house and execute political prisoners. The details are truly gruesome and terrifying. After the French left Vietnam, the prison was converted and used to house American POWs, most famously Arizona Senator John McCain. The museum painted a picture that was rather contradictory to what I had learned in school about the treatment of POWs that left me wondering what the truth really is. We decided it is likely somewhere between the two extremes of wonderful and torturous, but it’s so difficult to ever truly know.
Purported to be John McCain’s flight suit and parachute
Rules posted for inmates at the Hoa Lo prison
A few days later we met back up with Hannah and Rob for several more days, eating and sightseeing our way through the city. We made a rather interesting trip to see the embalmed remains of Ho Chi Minh, the famed communist revolutionary leader. Embalmed and displayed in true Soviet style, the former leader’s sallow skin and perfectly combed hair was eerie to see over 50 years after his death. It was a somber and extremely rule-oriented trip involving silent, straight lines of tourists and Vietnamese alike paying their respects in the giant mausoleum where he rests. A unique experience not easily forgotten.
We also played food tourist for our friends and took them to our favorite local spot for more banh xeo. Using Google Translate, I asked the workers where their orange cat was, as I had loved the friendly kitty last time we were there. Not only did they find it hysterical that I remembered the cat and wanted to pet him, they even offered to let me take him for free! I settled on having him on my lap for almost the entire meal and feeding him the extra shrimp. I’m a sucker for animals.
Finally, we said goodbye to our friends and to this amazingly beautiful, delicious, friendly, and bustling country, our sights set on a far-away hemisphere and continent. Spending five weeks in Vietnam was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made and I know we would both love to head back.
Until next time,
K and T