A Dream Trip - Part 1/3 - Vietnam

Preface: Recently I had the opportunity to travel to South East Asia for 3 weeks. It is a trip that I have dreamt of for years, but finally had the chance make happen. My goal all along with this trip was to see both the real life side of these countries, but also the beaten path tourist spots; this brought me to some realizations along the way. My wife and I booked the trip with Buffalo Tours, but before you dismiss this hear me out. When I hear the word "tour" I tend to have a negative reaction, and picture this flood of annoying people getting off a giant bus...a nightmare. 

That is not at all how Buffalo Tours operates. Every day we did something, and over three weeks we saw almost an incomprehensible amount of places, taking 5 flights, 2 over night trains, and countless vehicles. For the majority of the time (when reasonable) it was the two of us and a guide. Having a local guide to tell us facts, along with a person to just talk too and discuss perspectives and traditions was invaluable. I have no connection to Buffalo Tours, but I highly recommend them for both the personal touch and for all of the transportation coordination. Our trip, covering the ground we did, would not have been possible without them.

For my favorite photos from the trip check out the portfolio linked on the left, this blog is meant to share the story and background in more detail.

Vietnam: I loved our time in Vietnam, and specifically I loved Hanoi. The city was just so alive with so many things going on, it is the perfect place in my mind to just walk around and observe. The mix of millions of motorbikes and little to no traffic rules as we are used to, and its amazing how well it works. No one is yelling, or swearing and flicking people off. People are calm, respectful, something I think we are losing these days. The photo above is our meal from the 2nd night of the trip. In the area we were in, restaurants with a few tables on the sidewalk were much more common than what I would a traditionally think of as a restaurant.

Because of the time of year we visited, there were a lot of festivals or events going on. For example, the day we visited the Temple of Literature (Vietnam's first university) was Poetry Day. It was busy but added a highlight of hearing musical performances from local people. One of the things that stayed with me the most is the Stelae of Doctors. Carved from 1442 to 1779, each stone has the name and information of the best students from royal exams and served as "the way to identify talent and select officials from the grassroots for the State apparatus." "This created a spirit for learning in villages throughout the country" said Professor Bui Xuan Dinh to the UN when the site was recognized. More if you want LINK. Education has always been important to me so I liked this.

City scenes around Hanoi.

Long Biên Bridge - Originally built in 1903, some parts are original and others have been rebuilt after bombings.

Vietnamese egg coffee - We only found it in Hanoi but if you see it, get it. Its so good. In short it is fresh eggs whipped into a cream and then added into a cup with a strong coffee. 

Hanoi before sunrise was like a different place.

Sa Pa: We got to Sa Pa by overnight train. In the morning after we arrived, our bunk mate and people at the train station asked how we slept since it was our first time. They were surprised to hear that we slept amazingly well, and we could not figure out what the big deal was. The way back to Hanoi was a different story, and it all made sense, we must have been so exhausted to sleep with all the rocking and screeching.  

The fog was heavy for our time in Sa Pa, but it was not surprising the time of year we visited. I hope to visit again one day in harvesting season and catch a clear day because it would look like a completely different place. The fog did add some really nice mood. As random as it might sound, seeing the rice paddies was one of the things I was most excited for on the trip.

We stopped for lunch while walking in the rice paddies. These were among my favorite springs rolls on the trip. 

I love rice, while most kids took PB&J to school I took rice. In a kick ass animaniacs thermos. 

In this area of the valley they use the indigo plant to dye fabric.

Our next stop was Ha Long Bay. It was a beautiful place, but the weather was cold and grey. I don't have many photos to share from this time because we decided to relax for the most part, so here is one. I did catch two squid that night while fishing. 

This trip opened my eyes to a lot of things, but one of the major points is how well people adapted what they had to fit the need, specifically in regards to scooters. In the US, people have two kids and act like they need a minivan, countless times we saw a family of 4 on a scooter. Making what they had work. The littlest kids were either wedged in, standing in front held by the driver's legs/arms, or had a strap around them tied to the person in front. It just worked.

We started to make a list of everything we saw on a scooter, some highlights are below but it just put me to shame. Picture a paper box, the ones that offices get that hold 8 reams of paper. My car will fit 3 in the trunk and I hate putting stuff in the back seats. We saw people with 8-10 boxes on their scooter!

On a Scooter?! Small orange tree (video), family of 5, 3 caged goats, bird cages, 8 foot poles, 13 cases of beer, a door, 20 or so bricks, crazy amount of flowers, 3 propane tanks, just to name a few.

The Mekong: The whole idea for this trip started after watching a documentary on the Mekong. This section of the trip, along with the next section, highlight one of my other takeaways from the trip. Use everything. One of the most interesting stops was at a brick factory, as strange as that might sound. I have always loved seeing how things are made and how the process was engineered.  

The first step was loading the clay on the left. It was then pushed out forming bricks. The woman shown then moved that pipe from side to side. It had 4 wires, much like a wire cheese cutter, that would cut the bricks into equal sizes.

After drying some, they were loaded into giant kilns. They would heat them by burning rice husk they bought from farmers. After the process was complete, they would sell back the burnt husk so that farmers could use it as fertilizer. 

The last step was to remove them from the kiln and stack until needed.

Long ago, this area around the Mekong in Vietnam was covered in bamboo. When more people moved to the land around the river, the bamboo was not offering the resources they needed to survive. Coconuts were seen as the solution, so over time it has replaced bamboo and flourished. Along the river were many coconut candy production businesses. 

Ho Chi Minh City: Our last major stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon. Our time was limited, so we mostly just walked around and explored some markets. The main reason for stopping in Saigon was for a cooking class and market tour with a local chef. The city seemed much bigger and more modern than Hanoi.

Buildings, at least historically, were taxed on the width of the building so it led to a lot of tall skinny buildings.

I wish I lived by a market like this. Most of the fish, meat, and produce seemed fresh and I think you could have gotten pretty much anything you could think of (that was somewhat local). The chef told us that most of what does not get sold either they take home to cook or they salt and sell that way.

Another example of using everything. The frogs and eels were a bulk order from a restaurant. It was gnarly to watch since in the US you rarely see how your food is butchered. Every part of the frog was used though - the head and innards were sold to fishermen for bait, the skin was fried, and rest of the meat went to the restaurant.   

The biggest shrimp I have ever seen. 

At night the market moved out of the building and onto the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

With that our time in Vietnam was over. It was an amazing trip by it self, but we still had over two weeks left on our journey. One day I hope to visit Vietnam again and spend more time exploring new places and revisiting others a different time of year. Thank you again to Buffalo Tours and to everyone that made our time in Vietnam so great.