Vietnam: An Adventure With Heart
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
Have you ever traveled to a country, where after having returned home, you think to yourself, “I need to go back there. Often.”? That has been my sentiment about Vietnam. Four years ago, my husband and I chose that as our belated honeymoon destination. It was quite possibly, our best travel adventure till date. We spent a solid two weeks there, arriving first in Ho Chi Minh City, and making our way up north with several memorable stops along the way. We were part of a tour group, and before you roll your eyes at our non-hipster cookie-cutter arrangement, we went that route given that it was our first foray into Southeast Asia, and we wanted to cover a lot in two weeks. The neat thing about our tour, is that we had the option to break away whenever we wanted – and we did – to explore on our own. So we got the best of both worlds; transport to get from place to place, and accommodations, then time to venture out and walk along the proverbial off-the-beaten path. Whenever we do return, I think we’d be comfortable enough to forego a tour group altogether.
Ho Chi Minh City is alive, loud, and comfortably chaotic. Those aren’t words you’d normally put together, but I think I drew comfort because there was an element of nostalgia, with scooters, insane traffic, humidity, and brisk walkers taking me back to summers in Mumbai.
While in Ho Chi Minh City, I picked up áo dài, one of the traditional Vietnamese dresses. It was initially more common in Southern Vietnam and has weathered cycles of political controversies over decades, now being ubiquitous throughout as we saw it worn everywhere we travelled while in the country.
My stand out memory from that city was a local man, who saw us hesitating to cross the street past maniacal traffic (you think it’d be in my blood. Not so much. *hands over my Desi card*). He motioned us towards him, and then walked us over to the other side, waved bye with a smile and carried on with his stroll. This gesture of simple kindness was a pattern that followed us from city to city in some shape or form, and truly was the most meaningful part of our trip.
We did also visit the Củ Chi tunnels site, a must if you want to get a sense of both the genius and brutality of war tactics, and you’re also given the opportunity to watch an old-school propaganda video to see what the local school of thought was before, during, and after the war. I had taken several photos while there, and had initially posted those on Facebook. I took them down a few weeks later. I realized I was smiling in some of them, and I suppose it was because I was with my husband at a novel destination, and my focus was more on the people I was with. But in retrospect, there was a better way to capture images in that location, and I’ve since tried to be more cognizant with my photography when it comes to historical context of certain sites or architecture, and emotions that may endure for some.
We flew to Da Nang from Ho Chi Minh City a couple of days later, and had a bus ride from the airport to Hội An, a sleepy seaside town that was historically a trading port. [sidebar: I adore bus rides. The ability to fall in and out of naps and wake up to random beautiful scenery is an incredibly underrated life pleasure]. The main market area in Hội An is of course geared towards tourists, but even then, it has enough of a laid back feel to evoke a sense of calm, especially at night.
This city is where we made a lifelong friend. We had stopped by a store to check out handcrafted bags (See? We’re hipster-ish) and while there, my husband began chatting with one of the store employees, named Phuoc, about a unique local dish called cao lầu that he really wanted to try. It’s a dish made of sliced pork, local greens, deep fried croutons, and noodles. But not just any noodles. Magic noodles. Authentic cao lầu noodles are traditionally made using stone-ground rice flour and water drawn from ancient Cham wells around the Hội An area. Lye from wood ash from the same area is also incorporated in the recipe. Or so the story goes. The resulting texture is unlike phở noodles, and instead have a firmer, chewy texture and flavor distinct from typical rice noodles. Phuoc’s eyes lit up when my husband asked about the dish. She had us both sit down at her storefront desk, while her colleague scurried off somewhere. To our absolute surprise and joy, she returned with a bowl of cao lầu as a treat for my husband. We were in that store for a good hour, noshing and chatting about each other’s hometowns. The language barrier didn't matter. We still keep in touch via Facebook, and have seen Phuoc become a mom to a beautiful baby boy over the years.
Our next stop was Huế . This is where I had phở as breakfast for the first time. I was more used to eating it as dinner at our usual dives along Buford Highway in Atlanta, GA. If you think phở hits the spot on a late night, try it for breakfast. So good. It’s a nourishing hug that keeps you satiated for a good while, and staves off any sweet or uber carby cravings.
Not that it held us back from sweets. I mean, we were on vacation. This right here was a bowl of shaved ice, red bean ice cream, condensed milk, and fresh fruit. A flavorful and textural bonanza.
We visited Dong Ba market on one of our nights in Huế , and it’s exactly as you’d imagine. Vendors grabbing your arm as you walk by, smells and colors galore, fruit and vegetable selections beyond the norm.
Huế is also where we bought our Phin coffee filters, so we could try to replicate Vietnam’s exquisitely brewed rocket fuel coffee once home. By adding condensed milk, that simple yet delicious twist makes a world of difference. I mean, just take my money. And they did. Because while there, we drank so. much. coffee.
We tried regular brewed coffee, instant coffee, cà phê trứng (egg coffee), and cà phê chồn (civet cat or weasel coffee). The latter is controversial given its origin, so be sure to check the farm source if possible. My husband actually tried asking for decaf once. That was a riot.
The capital, Hanoi, was our last stop. French colonial rule in this area began in the mid to late 1800s, and although independence was proclaimed in 1945 by Ho Chi Minh, the former president of what was then North Vietnam, it wasn’t until several years later that it was released by the French. Most are familiar with what came next. I will sometimes see articles describing a Vietnam still deeply divided over the war. While that may be the case among some, we did not witness that, at least from our chats with the locals in each city we visited. The French influence in Hanoi also still thrives, as is often the case with any formerly colonized country. We spent most of our time in the French Quarter, home to a mix of upscale stores and fine dining, and small mom-and-pop store fronts and restaurants. My husband had forgotten his cell phone in one such store and we were probably a quarter mile down the street when the shop’s very pregnant owner came running after us with his phone in her hand. We were lucky, and grateful. That afternoon, we huddled at a small communal table with plastic stools and feasted on Bún chả Hanoi with locals on their lunch break.
Fluffy white rice noodles, sliced pork straight off the grill, fresh herbs and leafy veggies, and a simple broth with chilies on the side. Sweet baby Jesus, it was incredible. We did eat at one fancy restaurant on our last night, but I honestly don’t remember much about the meal except that I wanted to permanently borrow their salt and pepper set. I resisted. I may or may not be regretting that decision.
There is so much more about our trip that I could add here, and even then I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. From the fresh seafood catch and stunning natural rock formations at Hạ Long Bay, to museums and countless cafes in major cities, there is a bounty of people and experiences that makes the ego shrink, and heart swell. We occasionally toy with the idea of retiring in Vietnam. Who knows what the future will bring, but in the meantime, we've got a few more places to go.