In the last six months, we have traveled to four different countries in Asia and interacted with the citizenry in each. Those countries are China, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam, and the people of each could not have been kinder or more generous in spirit toward us. Of course, due to cultural differences, there are always occasional moments of awkwardness and discomfort in our exchanges, but overall we have been treated well by all those we have encountered in their respective countries. That said, having just returned from eight glorious days in Vietnam, I will say that I have found my new favorite country.
I didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in Hanoi, given the dicey history between our two countries. As most know, more than 45 years ago Vietnam and the U.S. engaged in a horrific war that maimed and killed tens of thousands on both sides, and formally ended in 1975. The two countries only normalized relations in 1995, but have become relatively strong trading partners since, as the U.S. tries to increase its economic presence in Asia. Tourism is relatively new to modern Vietnam, but it has been picking up quickly as people recognize that much of the country remains untouched by visitors, unlike Thailand, Cambodia, and other well-traveled destinations. This year alone, Vietnam is projecting revenue of $10 billion (U.S.) from tourism as more people discover this amazing gem of a country.
So what would we encounter when we got to Hanoi? A 3rd world, communist state harboring a long-simmering resentment toward Americans, or a bright, serious, orderly country, trying to show visitors that it belongs in the top-tier of Asian vacation destinations? Well, neither really. Hanoi, and what we saw of Vietnam, is a dynamic, manic, lush, and somewhat scruffy country, with a populace that can be incredibly kind and sophisticated, but also aggressive and crude. I have never seen anything like Vietnam traffic, both within Hanoi and out in the country. By my guess, about 60% of the vehicles on the road are bikes, scooters, and motorcycles of varying sizes, and the rest aging cars, trucks and buses. There appear to be no rules of the road and people just turn and go where they want, whenever they want, without any indication that they are about to do so. I saw so many near-fatal misses that I finally stopped watching.
The traffic, however, appears to be indicative of the larger reality of Hanoi, and all Vietnam for that matter. It is go-go time in this semi-tropical country, and from the economy to tourism, everything is about growth. The communist government is working very hard at making Vietnam a welcoming place to tourists, and its citizens are a big part of that strategy. Their attitude of abundant kindness appears to stem from them being pleasantly stunned that you are there visiting them at all, and that you appear to be enjoying the experience. The Vietnamese, who have had a rough couple of hundred years thanks to colonialism and war, are now open for business. And they are really, really happy that you are here, and will do everything possible to make your stay enjoyable.
And enjoyable ours was. The first encounter with Vietnamese hospitality came in the form of the staff of the Intercontinental Hotel Westlake, in Hanoi (www.ihg.com/). The Concierge, Nguyen Diep Anh, had been wildly helpful to me before we arrived, assisting in planing our stay in Hanoi, as well as our various transportation needs to and from the airport. The Intercontinental is on a man-made lake just outside the insanity that is downtown Hanoi, though it actually seems worlds away when you enter its tranquil grounds. As I have stated before, we are kind of hotel snobs and look for good deals at nicer places when we travel. One of the many beautiful things about Vietnam, due mostly to its relative “newness” amongst the community of vacation nations, is that it is ridiculously cheap to travel there. The exchange rate is crazy — $5 = 100,000 VND, and I walked around with a Sopranos-style wad of cash in my pocket the whole time we were there. But Vietnam’s affordability allowed us to stay in beautiful, luxury hotels like the Intercontinental Westlake, so no complaining from me.
We launched from the craziness of Hanoi to the very chill beauty of Halong Bay. In Vietnamese it is spelled Ha Long Bay, which means “descending dragon bay,” and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (whatever the hell that means). It was also voted one of the “7 Wonders of Nature” in a recent global poll. It is a massive, shallow bay in the north of Vietnam that is made up of more than 2,000 islets, most of which are limestone. It is stunningly beautiful and worth the four hour drive along hellish roads to see it. We stayed on a refurbished Chinese-style Junk with six other passengers and five crew members, with comfortable cabins and outstanding Vietnamese cuisine (indochina-junk.com). During one meal, Stephanie tried the Vietnamese clams, something she had never had before, and ended up eating about 30 of them. Who knew?
The girls also loved sleeping overnight on the boat. Cassidy and I went up on deck to watch a spectacular thunderstorm as it moved across the bay during the night. (Yes, we squealed.) We got to explore caves in the limestone islands dotting Halong Bay, and visit a fishing village made up of about 40 floating houses where residents make their living fishing and farming oysters for pearls. It was a primitive place in a beautiful, sheltered bay, though the residents had a satellite TV, and the schoolroom, also floating, had six computers. Far out on Halong Bay, I have no idea how they connected to the internet (or even if they did), but they were living a 19th century existence with 21st century technology.
On our return to Hanoi from Halong Bay, we stopped to see a water puppet show in the lush, verdant countryside that makes up much of Vietnam. Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnamese art that dates back to the 11th century. It was started by rice farmers who, when their rice fields flooded, discovered that water was a great medium for puppets. The water hides the strings and rods of the Puppeteers, who are usually behind a curtain, and adds drama by making splashes and waves. It is a difficult art to perform as the puppets are large, weighing about 20 pounds, and need to be kept above the water and synchronized with the other puppets. It was cool to see, though after you have seen two or three water puppet vignettes of life in the Vietnamese countryside, you have pretty much seen them all.
After Halong Bay, it was back to Hanoi for the night. Then we were off to Phu Quoc Island for our much anticipated beach week in the tropical sun. Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island and is surrounded by white sand beaches, while the interior is full of dense, tropical jungle. The island actually is located off the coast of Cambodia, and both countries lay claim to it. I could care less whose it is, because it is freaking paradise. I’ve spent alot of time on tropical islands in my life, mostly in the British, American and Dutch Caribbean, and Phu Quoc rivals any of them (including Phuket, Thailand). We stayed at a remarkable place on the beach called Chen Sea Resort and Spa (centarahotelsresorts.com) in a two bedroom villa with a plunge pool on the deck. (I’m telling you, Vietnam is so cheap right now that it is doable to stay in four and five star resorts and not go broke!) We ate, drank, lolly-gagged, got beach massages, and watched the sun set into the Gulf of Thailand many times.
The Chen Sea was so relaxing and comfortable that we only left it once during the five days we were there, and that was to visit the Dinh Cau night market in Phu Quoc’s capital, Duong Dong (visitphuquoc.info). The market is one long street, lit up like daytime, where vendors sell everything from fresh-caught fish to jewelry, and visitors can eat at a large variety of street food stands throughout. The market is clearly for tourists, though a good number of Vietnamese were eating there, which is always a good sign. We ate some street food and drank local beer for a while, then jumped back into our cab for the bumpy 20 minute ride back to our comfortable Chen Sea villa and a night swim in the pool.
My only concern about Phu Quoc is that it has been “discovered.” Unlike many vacation destinations in places like Thailand, Phu Quoc is relatively uncrowded with tourists, mostly undeveloped, and there is very little to do after dark except watch the stars and relax. 70% of the island is protected national park land, and there are few cars driving on the half-finished roads, meaning no traffic jams like we encountered in Phuket. Unfortunately, that could be coming to an end, as I heard that large hotel chains are getting set to break ground on new resorts on the otherwise empty, white tropical beaches. My advice to anyone looking to go tropical in Asia is to get your butt to Phu Quoc ASAP, because in a few years it probably won’t be the pristine paradise it is now.
We left Phu Quoc after a glorious week of doing nothing and all felt the way a good tropical vacation is supposed to make you feel — food, drink, and sun-satiated. Back in the manic energy that is Hanoi, we checked in to the Intercontinental for our last night in Hanoi before the two-hour flight back to Shanghai the next day. (We flew Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com) to and within Vietnam, and they were great and are affiliated with Delta Airlines, so you can get Skymiles.) Before we left, we had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant called Spices Garden at the Hotel Sofitel Metropole in the heart of Hanoi. The hotel was built in 1901 in French colonial style and is one of the few still left from that era (sofitel-legend.com). Architecturally, the hotel is a wonder to see, and its large, lush courtyard, with several restaurants and a poolside bar, makes you feel like you’ve been transported back 100 years to colonial Vietnam. The French-influenced cuisine of Vietnam is my favorite in the world, and like much of the food we ate in the country, the meal at Spices Garden was exotic, sublime, and wonderful.
Then we left for our home in Shanghai and I came to the conclusion that I was seriously in love with Vietnam, and would be back. The country and its people are wonderful and I hope (and fear) that one day it becomes one of the premier travel destinations in Asia. It is that stunning. Meanwhile, I have to contend with my lovely wife’s axiom that, while we are living in Asia, we never travel to any destination twice, no matter how wonderful it is. Her point, which is valid, is that we have a limited amount of time to get to lots of places in the Asia Pacific region. That said, the food, the people, the climate, and the beauty of Vietnam are calling me. Maybe next Chinese New Year, when we go to Cambodia, she won’t realize until it’s too late that we have a four-day layover in Saigon.
IMPORTANT VIETNAM TRAVEL TIP: When traveling to Vietnam, you are required to have a Visa to enter the country. There are two ways to do this: 1) Go to the Vietnam embassy and try to get one there, which means lines. 2) Do what we did and have your travel agent arrange for a letter from the embassy which, upon your arrival in Vietnam, will facilitate you receiving the Visa at the airport (our travel agent in Shanghai is Julie at firstname.lastname@example.org). When you get to the airport, you will need to go to the Visa entry office and hand them your passports, a completed application that hopefully your travel agent sent you, and the letter of approval to enter Vietnam. It is all very confusing at the airport, and you will literally hand over all your documents to official people who don’t speak a lick of English. Just do it and head to window on the other side of the same office and wait for them to call your name. When they do, be prepared to hand over $45 American per person, and they do not make change. After, they hand you back your passports with the attached visa, you can enjoy my new favorite country.