We spent five weeks in Vietnam exploring the Mekong River, lounging on powder-white sand, meditating in the mountains and sailing in Halong Bay. Travelling from the south, through the centre and onwards to the north, on each leg of our journey we wanted to enjoy the culture, food and meeting like-minded people.
By the time the plane touched down in Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon), we were ready to ramp up our sunshine quota after Thailand’s monsoon. The plane landed at dusk, we breezed through customs, found our taxi and were out of the terminal with minimal hassle. As an aside, immediately arriving in Vietnam we felt a different vibe, more so than any other country we’ve been to so far. From customs officials in their communist-era uniform adorn with hammer and sickle to security officers in military green attire greeting us from their boxy white sanitize arrival hall, it was a clear reminder to everyone you’re entering the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. As we moved out of the terminal, however, our taxi passed sky high glass buildings, commercial storefronts and modern architecture that would fit in any large Canadian city, lining both sides of a six lane streets. Vehicle traffic mixed with scooters, some on sidewalks, zipping past us made our entry to Vietnam a very surreal experience.
The first evening in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was simply to acclimatize back to urban life. As in Thailand, our street food adventures would continue, however, this evening we leaned on our concierge’s advice to spend an enjoyable dinner popular with expats in district 1 of HCMC. After dinner, we meandered slowly back to our hotel as the street started to come alive with people, illuminating the night life in Vietnam’s largest city.
Cai Rang market is one of the largest commercial areas in southern Vietnam, with all trade exchanged in the centre of the Mekong River. We were interested in a personal, private and slightly off the beaten track introduction. In our earlier research, we’ve read of various large packaged bus tours for Cai Rang – they advertised “Mekong in a day!”. The tour buses all arrive together in the early morning and leave together by the afternoon. There was more we wanted to see and settled on an intimate experience (as much as possible). We researched and finally settled on a local one-woman tour company who would be able to show us a sliver of Mekong river life.
Susan, our tour guide, was waiting for us at the local bus terminal when we pulled in. After a quick lunch we made our way to the riverside where a little wooden boat was there to take us to our first journey: grocery shopping! Before we departed, she handed each of us the iconic Vietnamese Non La hats to shield from the coming afternoon sun.
We enjoyed seeing Mekong day-to-day life from our small boat. It was just perfect for our family. Along the way we explored a fruit nursery, visited a Laos Buddhist monastery and saw a working rice-paddy farm. Our last destination was her home (a first homestay for us) where we spent an evening together with her family. She prepared a fantastic dinner with groceries we picked up earlier in the day. Dinner was delicious, full of traditional Vietnamese flavors and spices. It happened to be Vinh’s birthday and Susan arranged for a surprise cake with candles and party hats and all! After dinner, we settled into our bedrooms and were surprised to see (and feel) the wall air conditioners operating. A definite luxury as the day was both hot and humid!
Cai Rang’s floating market peaks at 7:00am which required a 5:00am morning wakeup. Susan got us onto a traditional long boat that guided us along the river. Our first stop was breakfast–wonderful Vietnamese coffee from one boat and freshly made delicious noodle soup from another – before seeing the floating market’s commercial trade. Near the end of Cai Rang Market, we enjoyed fresh cut pineapple at the top of a pineapple trader’s boat which happen to make for a perfect photo opportunity of the entire floating market.
Ho Chi Minh City
We were back in HCMC for a week of sights and sounds of a metropolis again. Even though we’ve been through several Asian cities—Bangkok, Delhi, Bangalore, Kathmandu—HCMC had its own fresh vibe. The significant difference noticed right away was the number of scooters that outnumbered cars significantly—and, surprisingly, everyone wore a helmet, not voluntarily of course (apparently a city helmet bylaw was passed fining non-compliance riders with huge penalties).
A beautiful city, HCMC has strong remnants from past French colonisation leaving it with gorgeous architecture, crispy banquettes, fresh beer and bold aromatic coffee. After travelling through Asia for more than two months enduring “coffees” of the instant variety, fresh roasted ground coffee was a welcome change. Vietnam is known for their Robusta coffee blend and a top commodity export, second largest behind Brazil. Starbucks and its equivalent large chain coffee shops were visible throughout the city, but more interesting were the multitude of independent coffee shops and bean roasters. We visited many shops and was difficult to limit the number of Vietnamese café da (made from coarse dark Robusta beans, condensed milk and ice) in a day. We settled on 2 cups a day (in addition to our morning coffees) as an afternoon and early evening treat.
One part of the trip was to see Vietnam and how the country rebuilt itself from their recent war with America. Showing kids first hand impacts of a war and its collateral damage to a country and people would be a good lesson in humility. The kids really got an up close and personal lesson when we visited the Cu Chi tunnels just north HCMC. The day prior to visiting the tunnels, we spent an afternoon in HCMC’s War Museum for a brief Vietnam history lesson – from the “other” perspective. After the museum visit, kids were eager to learn more that we watched documentaries on the internet to11:30pm that evening. After doing our homework, we were ready to visit Cu Chi tunnels war memorial park the next day.
Amazed by the Viet Cong’s determination and ingenuity to create such elaborate underground maze networks. The tunnels, built using simple farming tools, showed a glimpse of their determination and solidarity in their battle against the United States. The tunnels took close to 20 years to build. Some parts of the tunnel network were so extensive, certain sections reached into neighbouring Cambodia. Our guide jokingly asking if we wanted to travel to Cambodia. We would’ve until after 100-feet into the tunnel we had to stop as the air got damp, movement was by hands and knees, and claustrophobia started to set in. After backing out and into fresh air outside, we learned some Viet Congs would live in the tunnels without seeing sunlight for months. The day was a definite eye-opener for us and the kids. We left with a slightly better understanding of war in general.
After a 5-hour bus ride, we finally arrived at our next accommodations–a beach homestay. We weren’t sure what to expect as we made this booking almost one year ago. The place advertised itself as a mini eco-resort homestay for up to five different families/couples. We expected rustic but weren’t sure what this meant in Vietnam. Instead, we received a simple room with a large bathroom and a front patio overlooking the ocean. The place was indeed rustic, but very tastefully decorated and had amenities for a comfortable stay.
The open-air communal dining area was eclectic chic with gorgeous painted flower pots accenting tables and lights to make it quaint and perfect. The food was an incredible highlight. The meals a fusion of Vietnamese and western entrees greeted us each day. Situated right by the ocean, fresh seafood was a regular menu staple—grilled fish, squid and shellfish — all plates cleaned without a fuss.
The food alone would have been a highlight, until we saw their beach the following day. Made of fine white sand, stretching for miles both ways. Other than the local fishermen, who were out of the water by 9am, we had the beach to ourselves.
Our breakfast was taken on open-air tables, then off to the beach covered in sunscreen. After a few hours of morning sun, sand, and ocean swims we were back to our covered porch for kids’ school work. By the time kids were done, lunch was ready. Then free time and more school work followed by afternoon beach swims or walks and a power nap before dinner. Rinse and repeat for the next 5 days. It was perfect and exactly satisfied our beach stay.
After 5 lovely days turning into beach bums, we drove inland to the mountain town of Dalat for a few solitary days at a yoga retreat to ring in the new year. What a shock to go from lazy mornings drinking coffee on an oceanfront porch to meditation classes before the break of dawn. But as they say, everything happens for a reason. We spent five days at a classical yoga ashram. 5:30am wakeup, followed by four hours of asanas, one hour of meditation, two hours of kirtan. Everyday. The rooms were basic and meals simple. We happened to be there on New Year’s eve and celebrated (sans any alcohol or indulgent food) with meditation, traditional dancing and music with new found friends and yogis to bid adieu to 2016! The yoga group chanted mantras as the clock struck midnight to welcome 2017. This turned out to be a most special experience, reflecting on 2016 and welcoming 2017 as a family.
After our yoga experience in the mountains of Dalat, we were ready for more beach vistas. Four spots were reserved on a sleeper bus to takes us to our next destination. We think a sleeper bus is the best invention ever, a bus where you’re fully reclined (narrow of course with just enough horizontal space to stretch to enjoy a nap or read) over long distance travel, in our case, a 5-hour ride to the seaside town of Mui Ne. We spent two wonderful weeks in an ocean-front villa overlooking the South China Sea. No need for pools as we swam each day in our ocean playground, did school work and ate far more than we intended too.
Next was the former bustling port city of Hoi An, often mentioned as a must-visit city in Vietnam by travellers. We knew it would be beautiful and dedicated 10 days to this UNESCO heritage town. The old quarters was connected by cobble stone roads lined with historical buildings and the Thu Bon river as a backdrop. Hoi An happens to be the culinary and tailor capital of Vietnam. The perfect combo of food and fashion—bespoke clothes could be tailored as waist size grew.
Getting around by bike made a very enjoyable way to see its many neighbourhoods spread across several bridge-connected islands. Our hotel provided bicycles to their guest, but lacked children sizes. The kids were relegated to the back saddle of our bikes. Our self-guided tours became exotic adventures where our paths took us from bustling busy streets to expansive desert roads, tropical farming villages, cemeteries, eroded beaches, country-side rice paddies, and many more Hoi An food emporiums.
After two weeks of biking daily, complimented by our very own taster menu tour of the city, it was time to say goodbye to this wonderful town. We got on an airplane to our next destination.
Halong Bay was always a destination we wanted to visit, but we weren’t sure the best way to experience it. Sailing on a junk boat in Halong Bay was certainty the typical thing to do, something we were hesitant at first. It didn’t help as the number of tour operators in this region all provided the same “2D1N” or “3D2N” (D as in day and N as in night) packages. After some researching, we decided to go with the classic Indiochina junk boat company. We booked a two day, one-night cruise on their Dragon Legend boat, one of their newest boats that went out to remote Bai Tu Long Bay.
We boarded their Junk Boat and after a welcome drink checked into our rooms. Initially, an interconnecting room was requested. This was somehow missed in translation and individual rooms next to each other had been arranged instead. Kids loved the idea and so did we! There were no rooms available to make a last minute change, so that’s how it had to be. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Kids had their space and we had ours.
Halong Bay, known as the Bay of the Descending Dragon in the Golf of Tonkin, is surrounded by more than 3,000+ limestone islands, speckled with small floating villages, deserted sandy coves and hidden caves. Traveling on a classic junk boat made our two days magical, as we traversed across one of the natural wonders of the world sites. Our time in Halong Bay was certainty enjoyable, a definite must see and became one of the most memorable tours we been on so far.
Our departure city from Vietnam was Hanoi, but prior to going there, we stopped in Hai Phong—the place where Vinh was born. We visited the area and enjoyed a bowl of noodle soup to mark the occasion. The area changed a lot, even according to those who grew up there from the 1970s. Many of the smaller apartments and houses are now gone today, gentrified by large modern buildings and skyscrapers in its former place.
We enjoyed Vietnam from south to north, the country’s multitude of ethnic flavours each accented by different parts of the country. We noticed various remnants of the war, while at the same time, saw the country progress towards an entrepreneur climate. This was most evident in Hai Phong, which was a small fishing town in 1975 but now a bustling metropolis of 1.8 million inhabitants trading in commerce. We will always remember Vietnam mainly for the cultural experiences and wonderful food, but a close second was the beer, coffee beans and best buildings, as told by one of our local guides.
After five weeks replenishing our sunshine quota, we were ready for Chinese New Year in the epicentre of all places in the world–Hong Kong. Nervous and excited, we boarded our plane to our next adventure – and so we did.
PS: Food, food, glorious food. There was so much goodness we had to dedicate an entire slider to food in Vietnam.