October 28, 2013

Vietnam: The Good, The Bad, The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!"

Now it's time for the Vietnam version of 'The Good, The Bad, The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!" But, like before, when we reviewed India, Burma, and Cambodia, we'll start with "The Bad," then move on to "The 'Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!'" and end with "The Good."

This post is really difficult to write. Not because it's a sad story or a reflection of a trying time. It's because we can't think of a lot of things about Vietnam that would fall in the "Bad" or "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!" category. We're going to try, though.

Before you get any further - have you read our Vietnam wrap-up yet? If not, do it. It's full of photos and even a video with a few funny pictures of Mr. Tom. Here's the link again. Go ahead.

The Bad

Ha Long Bay Pollution
We had a great time at the Cat Ba Homestay on Cat Ba Island and loved kayaking through the mystical karst formations there and at Ha Long Bay (read about it here). What we didn't like, though, was the horribly polluted water we were kayaking through. It's a beautiful place and that's why so many people visit. But that level of tourism has taken its toll. The water often has a sheen of swirling pearlescent oil on top and our kayak paddles picked up trash several times. Let's hope that the region finds a way to benefit from the tourism without destroying this gorgeous place.

Ansana Lang Co Resort
We celebrated my 30th birthday in Vietnam at the Angsana Resort (part of Banyan Tree Properties) in Lang Co and, while my birthday was AMAZEBALLS (see below), we were less-than-impressed with the resort. Don't get us wrong, the R&R was amazing and we loved the pure luxury after spending months in bottom-dollar guesthouses. But this was a new resort and they have a lot to figure out before they're providing the level of quality and service that their prices suggest.

The Rain
This is getting really nitpicky, but it rained most of my birthday week. It was the worst stretch of weather we had on the entire trip so, of course, it happened while we were paying top dollar for a fancy shmancy resort and hanging with our BFF, Roman. Because of the weather, we didn't take advantage of the beautiful pool or beach as much as we would have liked.

Some people didn't mind the rain
Bags of Cats
You remember this, right? How could you forget? We spent an 11-hour train ride sharing a small cabin with a wailing bag of cats destined to be served with rice and morning glory greens. It was horrible. It was hilarious. It was, simply, exactly the kind of experience you come to expect when you chuck your "real" life and embark on a year-long adventure with your husband. I didn't like it. But I guess I'm glad I experienced it. It was going to happen whether or not we were there, and we wanted to have as many authentic experiences as possible.

The "Are You Effing Kidding Me?!?!"

No, Vietnam isn't at war right now, so save yourself the Google search. But Vietnam is still very much recovering from the Vietnam/American War. There are still countrysides that are ravaged, UXDs and land mines littering the forests, villages that are destitute, and mountainsides defaced by missiles and bombs. And that barely touches on things. The effects of war are much different for the country where the war takes place than they are for the "other side," and a visit to Vietnam is full of the reminders of the true cost of war. Don't misunderstand me. This isn't a statement against the United States in the case of the Vietnam/American War. This is a statement against war. It may be necessary at times, but it should only be undertaken with a full understanding of the long-term effects of doing so. The war was over for most Americans when our troops left Vietnam. (Though I don't make light of the emotional recovery that American Vietnam War Vets are still going through.) But the Vietnamese had a ravaged economy and country to recover from in addition to the emotional recovery their veterans and civilians have to go through. In that way, the war is not over for them. One of the hardest moments of learning about The War while in Vietnam was visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chih Minh. (Read about our visit here.) The Museum has an entire floor devoted to Agent Orange and it's incredibly difficult to see and to learn about. The Museum is even staffed by 2nd and 3rd generation Agent Orange victims, many of them with severe deformities. I'm sure many of you are wondering if we ever felt uncomfortable or discriminated against while in Vietnam. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were always welcomed and treated with kindness. Even when The War came up in our conversations, it was done so in a way that encouraged open dialogue, forgiveness (on both sides), and moving forward in a positive way.

The Good

The Food
OMG, THE FOOD! It's all incredible. We loved phobánh mì, bún chảnước mắm, Vietnamese coffee (wow!) and every bowl of noodles, rice, and pork ribs in between. Vietnam has everything to offer when it comes to food; delicious, salty meat, abundant fish and seafood, spicy sauces, comforting soups and broths, light and fresh salads. I want to go back right now just to eat my way through the country. Oh! And don't even get me started on the amazing French-Vietnamese fusion food. The baguettes and croissant are the best I've ever had (even at the fanciest of bakeries in SF though, admittedly, I've never been to France). We took a great cooking class in Hoi An and I still salivate every time I think about the amazing food we prepared and devoured. We have big plans to get well-acquainted with San Francisco's Little Saigon neighborhood to find the perfect versions of our favorite foods. Yum!

Bia hơi
What could be more perfect than an ice cold beer on the hottest day of your life? No, seriously, what could be more perfect? It could cost a quarter. That's 25 cents. If you think that's the most beautiful thing you've ever heard, then get thee to Vietnam STAT. Bia hơi ("fresh beer") is made every day and is widely available, making it incredibly tempting when you're walking down the sidewalk on a sweltering day. Don't fight it. Get yourself a glass or four. It's only a dollar. Just make sure you celebrate with a spirited "Một, Hai, Ba, Yo!" ("One, Two, Three, Yo!") and you'll fit in just fine.

My Birthday and a Surprise Guest
I'm the luckiest girl on the planet. My husband arranged a week of surprises for me on my 30th birthday in Lang Co. To begin with, he knew I would want a few days of luxury so that I could feel a bit more like my "old" self with some champagne, room service, and an overpriced massage, so he booked us at the Angsana Lang Co resort. (The resort wasn't perfect...it had some problems, but it was still luxurious and indulgent, which was exactly what I wanted.) But that's just the beginning - my friends and family mailed cards and presents to me. My best gals sent me a fantastic outfit so that I could look fancy (and appropriately accessorized). And, you guys, MY FRIEND, ROMAN, FLEW TO VIETNAM TO SURPRISE ME! He was also dressed in an orange tuxedo, and that makes any surprise infinitely better. It was five days of feeling crazy, crazy loved and I am so grateful! Thanks again to everyone for making it so special.

Best surprise EVER!

The Organized Chaos
Vietnam cities are chaotic. There are a zillion motorbikes on the streets. There are hawkers peddling tourist attractions, massages, pho (yum) and donuts (yes!). And, somehow, it works. It's not chaotic in the way India is (India takes the cake when it comes to being seemingly disorderly). It's different. It's noisy and busy, but in a fun way. Watching the motorbikes intersect at a 4-way is mind boggling and impressive. Walking across that same intersection is terrifying, but surprisingly safe if you just stick to the rules. (Begin to cross at a slow pace and maintain your speed no matter what. Do not slow down. Do not start running. The motorbikes will maneuver around you.) The cities (particularly HCM) have a vibrancy that's around 24 hours a day. Several times, as we found ourselves on an early shuttle to the airport or train station, we saw that the streets were still full of friends sitting at roadside stalls on tiny plastic chairs, enjoying themselves, even at 3 or 4am.

The city streets of Vietnam are always tasty!
They're also always beautiful and colorful!
History...and Pride
We all know about the Vietnam/American War, but Vietnam has been the subject of numerous wars and invasions in their long history, and they've never really lost. The country has an incredible history full of battles and mythology and fierce bravery. The Vietnamese people are appropriately proud of this past. But it's not the kind of pride that means you have to insult other cultures or nationalities. And we never felt like the pride of the people meant that they thought they were better than us or anyone else. In that sense, it felt like the truest kind of pride - the kind that doesn't require a negative counterpoint. And that was nice.

The Activities
We were pretty active in Vietnam. There's just a ton to do. We went to beaches, hiked, biked, kayaked, swam in rivers, took cooking classes, shopped, visited museums, spelunked, and boated.

View from a kayak at Cat Ba
  • Ho Chih Minh: We loved this city. It was vibrant and exciting and we can't wait to visit again. 
  • Hoi An: What an amazing place! This small city is romantic and beautiful with everything any tourist could want. The shopping is INCREDIBLE. The food is delicious. There's a beach and cobblestone streets and it's just so, SO wonderful. It was one of our favorite places, for sure.
  • Phang Nha: This is a must-stop if you're visiting Vietnam and want to get off the well-beaten tourist path a bit. The Phang Nha Farmsty is a great choice and the caves, mountains, and jungles in the region provide countless opportunities for exploring. And a trip to Phang Nha just isn't complete without a visit to the Pub With Cold Beer.
Romantic Hoi An

Action-Packed Phang Nha
Does that sound cheesy? Well, it's true. We loved it all. Since we've been home, people ask us all the time what our favorite place was. This is an impossible question and we could never truly answer it. Every place we visited was unique and "our favorite" in some way. India, for example, was the most impactful place for us and will likely leave the longest impression on our lives. So, for that reason, it was our favorite. In Burma, we were treated with unmatchable levels of kindness, so it was our favorite. Our best diving was in Thailand, so it was our favorite. We got to see a lot of old friends in Australia, so it was our favorite. Namibia (coming soon-ish) was the place where we saw the most incredible wildlife and so, for that reason, it was our favorite. But we realize what people want to hear when they ask about our favorite place is what place makes us smile the most when we think about it. And that place is Vietnam. Sorry to be even more cheesy, but this place became a part of us and I think we'll always have our eye and heart set to the next time we can visit this amazing country. Sigh...

This is what I would look like running back to Vietnam!
In case you're still not sure what we did in Vietnam, We:
And you can read more of our final thoughts and watch a Vietnam Retrospective in our Vietnam, Revisited post.

As always, you can view all of our pics by clicking here. Follow the below links to see specific photos:
SideNote/HiddenTrack: How hot is my husband in this picture? It's my favorite. (And so is he.)


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