Sunday, February 22, 2015

Galavanting in Southeast Asia: Vietnam Part 1: "and so the adventure begins"

Our most excellent adventures continue and this time to Southeast Asia.  Apologies for the pause in posting blogs, but we were very busy starting up our new food tour business Taste Seattle Food Tours.  Are we crazy?  Of course!  But there was a method to our madness—we both have a passion for food and sharing out beautiful city of Seattle so a food tour was the perfect medium to do both.  Plus, we figured we could take time off during the winter season for our other passion traveling.

Speaking of travel—this year we each picked a place from our respective bucket lists.  For Ro, being an island girl at heart, she had always found Bali to be a place she hoped to visit. We decided this would be a perfect place to get some sunshine in January.  Early in Flo’s childhood and after the Vietnam War had ended she remembers having a young Vietnamese man who was attending the local university visit her family.  He was trying to bring the rest of his family to the United States.  With a child’s mind, the seriousness of this situation was incomprehensible.  Instead what was gleaned was there were other countries and different cultures to be explored.  It subconsciously planted the desire to go to that absolutely foreign sounding country of Vietnam someday.  We quickly realized when we started planning our adventure that to return to Seattle from Bali was too far and we were going to need to connect somewhere.  So we added in South Korea to the itinerary.  Suddenly, we were writing our own Eat, Pray, Love script, with the emphasis on the Eat.

The most difficult part of our great journey to Southeast Asia was  literally getting on the plane.  We consider ourselves seasoned travelers, but made a critical rookie mistake.  We had booked a tour in Vietnam and relied on the booking travel service to advise us on any special travel considerations.  However, imagine our disappointment in misplacing our trust, when we showed up to the airport the morning of our flight brimming with excitement to begin our long anticipated adventure only to be told when we checked-in that we couldn’t get on the airplane without a Vietnam Visa.  The next 48 hours were spent scrambling to get an expedited visa and find seats on new flights without needing to mortgage the farm to pay for fare differences.  By some miracle, we returned to the airport two days later, vowing to never rely on someone else again to tell us what is required to travel and with renewed excitement and determination. Even more drama ensued halfway across the Pacific when there was an announcement over the PA asking for a doctor to help with a passenger's medical emergency. There were moments considering the possibility that we were going to need to turn around and head back to Seattle.  However, we later learned that said passenger had indulged a little too heavily on the booze on board and had fallen on his way to the restroom. He was patched up with a make shift gauze turban around his head, making him look like a mummy, but crisis averted.  Julia Robert’s character in Eat, Pray, Love endured a terrible divorce to begin that movie, luckily our obstacles paled in comparison, but still had tinges of the same Hollywood drama.


Flash ahead almost 24 hours and after a layover in Tokyo, Japan we finally arrived in Hanoi.  With a bit more drama at the visa counter we were finally admitted into the country.  Not the warmest of welcomes, but after traveling for a full day, all we cared about at this point was finding a bed to sleep in.  One of the things we soon got very accustomed to (a real plus of booking a tour) was having a driver waiting for us just outside the airport to whisk us away to our hotel.   We got a few key hours of sleep before our first venture out into the country began the next morning.


We experienced our first Vietnamese breakfast bright and early that first morning.  It’s where we first experienced starting the day off with a piping hot bowl of noodles (Pho).  It’s no surprise that almost every culture has the equivalent of chicken noodle soup and Pho is Vietnam’s equivalent of this comforting food.  Neither of us could remember ever starting the day with soup, which is a shame because it’s actually quite lovely.  As we peered out the dining room window and looked across the busy street through the raindrops there were several locals sitting at child-sized tables squatting on tiny chairs devouring similar bowls of noodles.  

We didn’t have much time to linger over breakfast as we were picked up by our tour guide and loaded onto a tourist bus.  We began to get our first look at Hanoi city as the bus wound it’s way through the streets stopping at various hotels to pick up other tourists.  There was a rhythm to the morning— locals eating street noodles for breakfast, women carrying their wares with a bamboo stick balancing on their shoulders, the iconic pointy hat also made from bamboo. From our perch on the bus, we got a quick snapshot of the city, which we would return to, but first we were starting our three-hour journey East to Ha Long Bay, an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature.  

Our journey took us over the Red River and into more rural providences seeing plenty of rice patties, a few monkeys and some water buffalo.  On the journey, we heard stories of how poor most Vietnamese are, making less than $50 US per month.  Also, how in the country outside the large cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, people hold onto tradition even when in stark contrast to modern knowledge and technology.  Our guide Vinh, told us about an ancient tradition of Vietnamese women where they smoke a bamboo water pipe with guests to welcome them to their home.  She said this tradition is why many older Vietnamese women have black teeth.  To this day, they still believe this practice gives them health and calms the nerves, despite all of the scientific evidence on the danger of smoking.  

Cue in music here from Fiddler on the Roof with Tevye singing:
Tradition, tradition! Tradition! Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
We also began to hear about how this country has survived an almost continuous onslaught of invasions including the Chinese, Mongolians, French and Americans.  This was the beginning of learning about the fierce determination the Vietnamese people seemingly embody in their genes to fight stronger foes.  As we got closer to our destination our guide recounted a story of when Ha Long Bay was invaded by Chinese hundreds of years ago.  The intelligent Vietnamese knew they could not out power their enemy, but they could out think them. At low tide they put sharp poles down into the floor of the bay, which became covered when the water returned.  As the Chinese boats came into the bay, they were gouged and began to sink and the Chinese were forced to retreat.  

Armed with some history and cultural information we finally arrived at the dock and were shuttled onto a day boat, which would take us to the V’Spirit junk (floating hotel boat) and once aboard we soon set sail into the bay.  We were assigned cabins where we quickly dropped off our bags and returned to the dining room.  The timing was impeccable as we sat down to lunch we suddenly saw the limestone karsts begin to emerge from the water.  The junk sailed effortlessly by dozens of these limestone mountains and the bay quickly filled up with many other boats bringing with them more tourists.  It was really like nothing we’ve ever seen before and very peaceful despite the number of boats.   The only unfortunate thing was mother nature was not cooperating with sunny weather so we did forego some of the planned activities like kayaking, swimming and night fishing.  However, we did get our Indiana Jones on and went cave exploring.


We took a day boat over to Bo Hon Island (one of the thousands of islands that makes up Ha Long Bay), donned our plastic raincoats and ascended the exactly fifty steps to the entrance of Sung Sot Cave.  We stood at about 100 feet above sea level and were able to get a gorgeous bird’s eye view of the bay from here.  We then took several steps down into the cave’s outer entrance and entered a room covered with stalactites and stalagmites.  Our tour guide, Vinh, had us play the game you play with clouds, imagining different animals out of the stalactites.  

Upon returning to the junk we snuck in a pre-dinner nap as the jet lag was hitting us hard.  We awoke to the PA system announcing dinner would be served in five minutes.  We reluctantly left slumber and joined the rest of the passengers and crew on the upper deck.  We enjoyed a lovely multi-course traditional Vietnamese dinner served family style.  The chef even put on a show by flambĂ©ing shrimp.  At our table was a man and his niece from Houston, Texas and a retired couple from Malaysia. Turns out the two people from Houston would be the only Americans we encountered on our entire trip. After dinner we divided up into teams and tried to solve an ancient Vietnamese puzzle game, competing for Vietnamese beer.  We thought we had won at one point, only to find out that one of our pieces wasn’t right.  We took our defeat in stride and decided to console ourselves by retiring somewhat early to our cabin, exhausted from the days adventures and immersing ourselves in a new culture.  Needless to say we slept very well.


The six a.m. planned group exercise session came all too early and we did not make it to morning tai chi on the lido deck, but definitely did not miss breakfast as that was a announced again over the PA system and very difficult to sleep through.  Even if we had wanted to sleep in late, this was not an option with this well-oiled machine-like operation.  

After breakfast we were given a few minutes to freshen up and then we were taken by day boat to another island called Soi Sim.  We walked past the beach that had a few monkeys hanging out in the overhanging trees.  We were warned ahead of time to hold onto anything we considered valuable as apparently this band of monkeys were known thieves.  We decided to forego getting into the water because it was still pretty cool and instead hiked up the steep landscape to the top to get another great view of the bay.  This was way more than yesterday’s fifty steps, but we were well rewarded by the beautiful scenery at the top.  

Once back on the junk we were treated to a cooking lesson including how to make Vietnamese spring rolls and decorations out of fruit.  The chef then returned to the kitchen to cook us another lovely traditional meal.  We then bid adieu to Ha Long Bay, loaded ourselves back onto the bus for what was supposed to be a 2 hour return to Hanoi.  Cue foreboding music in the background....
Our bus ended up breaking down on the way back to the city and we had to pull off in a small town to get it repaired.  We waited around the garage for an hour until the bus was diagnosed as not a fast repair.  

We then ended up going to a local coffee shop to wait for a replacement bus to come and pick us up.  We got to know a group of Australians from Darwin (Aussies tend to be the best people to get stranded with— highly entertaining).  Some of them drank beer, while we tried traditional Vietnamese coffee.  

French colonists first introduced coffee to Vietnam in the late 19th century.  This unique style of coffee using condensed milk was invented out of necessity because milk is hard to keep fresh in the heat so they began to substitute milk and cream for sweet condensed milk.  It tastes really good, you just can't think about the calories.

If you are going to get stranded in rural Vietnam, this would be the ideal scenario.  However, we were anxious to get back to Hanoi for our scheduled night street food tour and began to sweat it out the longer it took for the replacement bus to arrive.  Plus, the sugar and caffeine started to kick-in.

To be continued…..