Jen’s Travel Journal Part 1: Viet Nam

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VietnamTowards the end of last year it occurred to me that we have just a couple of years left before our girls flee the nest. I decided that we should have a magical vacation in both 2018 and 2019.
This year’s adventure was 2.5 weeks in Vietnam and Thailand. I wanted to take our family somewhere completely different, and it was! I kept a journal on an app called Journi which allows you to create a printed album after the trip. Family and friends were able to follow us on our journey and even comment. I took nearly 2,000 photos, so its hard to choose what to share with you. I hope you enjoy hearing about our adventure.
 Traveling in Vietnam is not for the faint of heart. If you really want to see the country I don’t suggest you stay in expensive hotels. We booked Airbnb’s and I scheduled a fair amount of tours which was unusual for our family but both allowed us a deeper cultural experience. I’ve broken the trip down into three postings so here is part 1 from my travelogue:
Day One: Good Morning! Twenty-six hours of travel door to door and we finally went to bed at 4 am this morning in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). We are starting in South Vietnam and working our way north.
This city is visual overload and being on the road is terrifying. There are no rules – it’s the wild west and there are more mo-peds than cars. They seem to have right of way on the sidewalk too. Most people own a mo-ped/scooter as a car is too expensive. We have seen entire families on a single bike! They strap a kind of high chair between their legs and a pillow to the handlebars so that the baby can sleep as they drive!
We set off for the day after a late breakfast of noodles. Let me tell you about Vietnamese coffee, it is served with condensed milk! We checked out Ben Thanh market which was so interesting, I can spend hours in a market exploring the local foods and people watching. So many fruits that we were not familiar with and tons of jade jewelry. Next was the War Remnants Museum. The girls were shocked to find out about the USA’s behavior in the Vietnam War. Apparently, this has not been included in their American history class! We checked out The Independence Palace which was a little underwhelming before heading back to our hotel to chill.
We finished our day with a 4-hour tour of the city via motorbike, each of us driven by a local student. The adventure started with a near-death experience at the first intersection! We made a left hand turn across traffic- there is no ‘giving way’! This really is the epitome of organized chaos but there is no anger or aggressive behavior. Everyone seems very relaxed and the traffic flows. The food tour included a rice wine tasting- one included marinated snakes – and the most delicious street food. We watched trucks unload at the flower night markets…boxes of orchids and lotus flowers which is the national flower of Vietnam. We drove all over the city, down narrow streets and visited local homes.
Day Two: We left at 7 am for an adventure on the Mekong Delta which is at the southernmost end of Vietnam and a two-hour drive from HCMC.  ‘Jason Superstar’ was our tour guide for the day. During the drive we saw many graves in the middle of rice fields. Jason explained that most people are buried out in the country as it is too expensive to be buried in the city. The older generation hope that by being buried in their rice fields the younger generations will not sell the land.
We arrived in Cai Be and transferred to our private boat complete with purple hammocks and traveled down the river to the floating market. The people living on the river are amazingly friendly as well as generous despite having very little themselves. Jason took us to the ancient Phi Chau Pagoda with a part being built in the 1700’s and a local market before ending up at ‘Auntie Superstar’s’ house for an incredible lunch. There is no refrigeration at the markets. The meat sits out all day in the heat and the price drops after 11am which is when the restaurants buy. Eek!  Back in HCMC that evening we enjoyed a show at the Saigon Opera House.
Day Three: Today was a little more relaxing and we enjoyed more of HCMC. We are still fighting the jet lag and today seems to be the worst. We visited a couple of pagodas with gorgeous patinas of pink and red peeling paint. Many individuals brought flowers to the temple and this was exchanged for fruit. I would love to learn more about the religious customs here. We treated ourselves to an air-conditioned lunch in a wealthy part of town. Like many countries there is an extreme contrast between the affluent and working classes. We checked out a couple of markets, bought a few more ‘must haves’ and had dinner at a local restaurant. We are feeling very impressed with ourselves as we now have a handle on the Vietnamese dishes and enjoyed some Bun Cha which consisted of noodles, a huge basket of herbs and lettuce and some pork in a light sauce/broth. $9 for four people!
 
Day Four: Today we traveled North to see the sites of Hoi An which is a UNESCO site. Our flight to Da Nang was only an hour and we are staying in a beautiful, traditional Vietnamese home at An Bang Beach which is much more lux than most locals can afford. There is a lady next door who will wash our clothes and hang them in the street to dry and I believe someone is coming to deliver bread, fruit and eggs at 7 am every day! There are few local dogs who join us in the house when we are there – girls love that and have named them. We walked down a path to the beach and discovered a tiki hut with a table and 4 chairs. a woman appeared with menus and our meal was prepared by a lovely family whose house backed on to the beach. The girls parasailed in the afternoon and then we headed to the ancient village of Hoi An for dinner. It was packed with tourists which was a little overwhelming but also beautiful. The whole town is lit with lanterns at night and we took a traditional Vietnamese boat down the river to released lanterns in the water, a magical experience! When we got back to the house there were a couple of old ladies sitting in the street. They were using toothpicks to pull the flesh out super tiny shells that had been marinated in a lemongrass chili sauce. They invited us to try so we sat and enjoyed but unable to communicate much. The people here are so kind. 
 
Day Five: We started the day with a cooking class just outside Hoi An. So much fun! We toured the local market, took a trip down the river in basket boats made of bamboo and caught crabs before arriving at the school. Fisherman actually go out to see in these tubs! At our class, the owner showed us the old fashioned way of de-husking the rice and separating plus how to make rice milk. He told us that these methods were used in his town until 1992 when electricity was introduced in his town! We each made rice paper using the traditional method then it was time to start cooking! We made sweet and sour fish sauce, banana flower salad with shrimp, beef Pho, eggplant in soy sauce, Banh Xeo which are crispy pancakes and lastly spring rolls. Of course we had to sample our dishes – stuffed!
That afternoon the Uber driver Jin- that we have befriended – drove us to My Son which is a another UNESCO site. Every time we get on the road here it is a feast for the eyes. We see people living their lives, working, water buffalo doing their thing in the rice fields. During the drive Jin shared with us the love he had for his dog that disappeared after five years. He feels sure that his dear pet was eaten- which happens often. He was so sad. We had a guide show us around the ruins. Beautiful!  My Son was built between 4th and 14th century by the Cham tribe who were Indian Hindus.
 
We came back to the house and took a walk along the beach. We found a super-cool restaurant on the sand with huge sofas and had a delicious dinner. We plan to spend most of the day there tomorrow as I messed up the dates for our bike tour tomorrow…. so that is no more. I think everyone was relieved.
Day six: Preparing breakfast each morning is interesting. There is an alcove in between our rooms with a low table and a hot plate. This is the kitchen – no running water. When plugged in the hot plate speaks to you in Vietnamese- not exactly helpful when trying to cook breakfast. Each morning our host drops off delicious baguettes, amazing fruit, and eggs.
 
We left for Hoi An at 7.30 am in the hopes of avoiding the crowd of tourists. We were successful and enjoyed many pagodas and super-old buildings, some built as early as the 1600’s. Jin is officially our driver now- he took us to and from Hoi An. He is such a sweet man. Hoi An’s original streets are packed with houses dating back to its emergence as an important Asian trading port in the eighteenth century. The houses reflect the architectural styles of the major trading partners of the time – China and Japan as well as Vietnam’s coloniser, France. Hoi An is known for the production of ceramics and this can be seen in the details on the roofs of the pagodas.
 
We spent the afternoon at the beach which was a nice break from our busy schedule. Jin mentioned Marble Mountain and we asked him to take us there later in the day. What a place! The five mountains are named after the five elements: Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth).  We took the elevator to the top of Mt. Thuy and explored the grottos and sanctuaries including the pagoda Tam Thai, built in 1825,  The sanctuaries had gorgeous statues carved out of the marble. An unassuming entrance took us into a smallish cave, down some stairs and into the huge Huyen Khong cave – about 200ft high with a very large Buddha. It was incredible. Dinner on the beach was followed by bed. Being a tourist is tiring!
Tomorrow we head north to Hanoi and then on to Thailand. More in two weeks!

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