If the culture shock upon arrival in Hong Kong wasn’t enough of a jolt to our systems, landing in Hanoi, Vietnam certainly did the trick. After months of travel in Australia and New Zealand, immersing ourselves once again into a developing country, on a new continent, felt both daunting and exhilarating at the same time. Thankfully, we landed in one of the most lovely, family-friendly, travel-friendly countries in Southeast Asia; our 10 days in Vietnam have been nothing short of absolutely fabulous.
We started our journey here with a visit to the International SOS Medical Clinic, heading there almost directly from the Hanoi airport. Schuyler brought a cold with her to Hong Kong from NZ, and by the time we arrived in Hanoi we had an acute sinus infection on our hands along with an extremely miserable little girl. Haven had a heavy sniffle as well, so we brought her along with us and within our first 2 hours in Vietnam we were filling antibiotic prescriptions and enjoying a nice visit with Dr. Trang. The clinic was clean and professional, everyone spoke excellent English, and Dr. Trang took very good care of our girls. Considering that since our departure in September this is literally the first illness we’ve experienced that has required a doctor’s visit, we figured we were long overdue.
SCHUYLER: When we were descending into Hanoi on our flight from Hong Kong, I got a serious sinus migraine. At first I thought that I was poisoned by the stewardess because it was so painful! It was probably the most pain I have ever been in and I cried the whole way down. After we landed, my headache did not subside. I was whisked out of the airport and into our car to the hotel. My body was twitching because it was in shock from the pain and I could not stand (trust me, Dad got a great work out while carrying me everywhere!). Immediately, Haven and I went to a hospital to get looked at and we were taken care of right away. Sadly, I was in bed for most of our visit in Hanoi! So that is my sob story.
Hanoi is a bustling capital city where everyone seems to be on the move, all the time. Motorbikes are the transportation of choice and the streets are teeming with them. Entire families can be seen riding on one bike, and our girls had a great time trying to find the most interesting combinations of passengers and/or cargo as we explored the city. Competing with the motorbikes are a bevy of bicycles, rickshaws, and automobiles. To add a little extra mayhem, there are no speed limits, traffic lights, stop signs, yield signs, or road rules of any kind. In fact, we often saw motorbikes or bicycles driving the wrong way down the street against oncoming traffic, perhaps just to get somewhere a bit faster. You might be wondering how anyone survives a day on the roads in Vietnam, but the secret to their success is the relatively slow pace at which everyone drives. There is a very deliberate, measured speed that everyone seems to silently have agreed upon, a speed at which the motorists can survive the absolute chaos they are driving in. If Italian driving speeds were combined with Vietnamese driving rules, most of Italy would be dead by now.
All of this chaos makes crossing any street on foot an absolute art form. There are no crosswalks or stop lights to grant pedestrians safe passage. We were instructed by locals numerous times, in great detail, on how to navigate a street crossing: walk in a slow, measured pace, make eye contact with all oncoming traffic so they know you mean business, pick your moment and stick with it, do not stop or speed up at anytime because the drivers will not be anticipating that and will likely hit you, let the traffic weave around you… etc. etc. The first couple of attempts involved some shrieking here and there, but we soon got the hang of it.
VIETNAMESE WATER PUPPETRY
We only had a couple of nights in Hanoi, but as in Hong Kong, we used our time well. On our first morning, Mumsy and Blair took the four girls on an excursion to learn about Vietnamese Water Puppetry at the home of artisan Phan Thanh Liem.
Water puppetry, the art of manipulating puppets that dance on water, is a Vietnamese tradition dating back to the 11th century. Orginially, it was a form of entertainment for the workers in the rice paddies who spent long, arduous days planting and harvesting their crops. Today, the art form continues to delight young and old alike throughout Vietnam. Mr. Liem’s family has been working in water puppetry for 7 generations, and he studied his craft with his grandfather and father from a very young age. Now a father himself, Mr. Liem is passing his knowledge on to his sons so that the tradition may continue to flourish for generations to come.
We wandered through the back alleys of Hanoi to join Mr. Liem at his home where he carves and paints his puppets, and puts on small performances in the miniature theatre on his top floor. It was fascinating to watch the puppets swish and splash in the water, telling a story with their movements that choreographed to lively music.
We were invited to try water puppetry after the show!
THAYER: Trying the water puppets was so hard because they were really heavy and hard to control in the water. I didn’t get to go backstage or swim around and around in the water, but I loved playing with the puppets. We alternated puppets, and my favorite one was the unicorn. It looked different than other unicorns back at home. It looked like a dragon actually, but in Vietnam they call those unicorns. I don’t know why. But I loved playing with the water puppets all together with my sisters and Haven. And I got a souvenir water puppet to bring home. Yeah!
After the show, we sat in Mr. Liem’s workshop while he explained in detail how he makes each puppet.
SCHUYLER: To make a puppet, first Mr. Liem takes a block of wood and carves the puppet shape. He hollows out holes in the back and the head of the puppet, for the strings to go into in later stages of development. He does a lot of sanding along the way to smooth the puppet. Next he paints the puppet with a water proof coat of black lacquer to protect it from extensive water damage. After that, he puts these tiny silver flakes all over it, and then paints again over that with the color of the puppet. In between all of these steps he has to dry the puppets in the sun, so he makes a lot of his puppets when it’s not the rainy season in Hanoi. Finally, he adds the details of the face like the eyes and lips with paint, and then puts the mechanical part together. It takes about a week to finish one puppet.
While the ladies were at the puppet theatre, Jeff and Jon (Pops) went to visit the Hoa Lo Prison, often sarcastically referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs during the Vietnam War. One such prisoner was Senator John McCain, who spent 5 years in captivity there and who is now something of a local hero because of his refusal to abandon his fellow American inmates when offered early release. The Vietnamese have great respect for his loyalty and he gets a lot of publicity in the prison museum. A Vietnam veteran himself, Jon had returned to Saigon in the mid 1990’s but had never spent time up North, and was glad to have the opportunity to visit the Hanoi Hilton on this trip.
RICKSHAW RIDE AND STREET FOOD TOUR
Later in the afternoon, some of our group took an hour long rickshaw ride through Hanoi’s Old Quarter, enjoying the blend of traditional Vietnamese and French colonial architecture in the meandering cobbled streets. It was relaxing and fun to just sit back and take in all the action and people watching along the way.
VIETNAMESE STREET FOOD TOUR
Another thrill during our time in Hanoi was a street food tour with local food expert, Daniel Hoyer, an American executive chef and cookbook author who has fallen in love with Vietnam and lives here full-time. Daniel walked Haven, Zoe, Jeff, Blair and Pops through the streets of the Old Quarter where vendors displayed fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, and meat on small tables or along the sidewalk. This is a Vietnamese market in action, and Daniel estimated that over 200,000 people would shop along these streets each day. No supermarkets, no refrigeration, no mass transport… just local farmers cycling into the city with their freshly plucked greens, or fruit, or rice in the wee hours of the morning. The meat is butchered at dawn and sold out by the late afternoon. The fish comes in by motorbike in coolers from the nearby coastal villages. This is “farm to table” in action, and the health and vitality of the Vietnamese people is no doubt a natural consequence.
Vietnamese people do their food shopping every morning before work (but after 5:00 am Tai Chi and aerobics), and sometimes again after work. They only buy what they will cook and prepare for meals that very day. Most people do not make breakfast in their homes, rather stop buy a local vendor for a bowl of “Pho” (traditional noodle soup with beef or pork) each morning, so they are shopping only for their lunch and dinner each day. According to Daniel, everything we would see on our walk was fresh, clean, and free of buzzing flies or bad odors. And he was exactly right – the Vietnamese take great pride in fresh and healthy food and they eat literally dozens of different kinds of vegetables and fruits, many of which we had never heard of!
ZOE: Looking at all these raw animal parts was, well, I can’t even put it into words. That’s how gross it was, but it was also really fascinating to see all the different ways that the locals use animals for food. I saw things like pig and sheep brains, intestines, legs, and tongues. We also saw these things called “blood cakes,” which are pretty much just baked blood put into a patty form (like a beef patty, only blood). It kind of made me sick.
At the end of our tour, we sat at a cafe with Daniel to try some of the local specialties. Fresh rice paper rolls and fried sweet corn went over well with Haven and Zoe, and didn’t feel too intimidating to sample.
HAVEN: The food tour was really interesting but also it got kind of gross because there were a lot of fish and cut up animal parts. Cooked pig’s blood and raw pig’s brains, eels and crabs, “1000 year-old” black fermented eggs (those were disgusting) — I would not want to eat any of these things! A lot of the people who were selling the food were so nice and said hello to us, which made us feel comfortable and welcome. When we sat at a cafe with Daniel to try some local specialties, I really like the spring rolls, and the fried corn was awesome!
ONWARD TO HALONG BAY
Our time in Hanoi passed quickly, and we soon found ourselves on a 3.5 hour drive northeast to the coast, where we would board a large junk boat for an overnight cruise in stunning Halong Bay. This magical bay is famous for the thousands of sculpted limestone islands and rock formations that occupy its waters, making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most scenic landscapes in Vietnam. Nowadays, hundreds of junk boats large and small take to these waters, laden with tourists like ourselves, for an afternoon or overnight trip through the Bay.
Our particular boat was called The Valentine and only had 5 cabins for passengers, so we pretty much filled it with the eight of us. There was a wonderful little crew to take care of us, providing delicious meals, interesting stops along the cruise to local attractions, nighttime squid fishing off the bow, and even an early morning Tai Chi lesson on the upper deck.
We took a few notable side trips during our Valentine cruise using a smaller motor boat that was moored to the side of our junk boat. One small limestone island had a swimming beach and a 428-step climb (counted by Zoe) to its peak, from which we had a spectacular view of Halong Bay.
Later that afternoon, we took a tour of a nearby fishing village that was literally just floating alongside some of the rock formations way out in the bay. Some of our group got to kayak through the village, while others rode in little row boats owned by the villagers. The fishing community operates today in much the same way that it has for many generations gone by. Families live on floating houses and get around by small row boats and fishing boats. They sleep in hammocks or on pallets on the floors of their tiny homes. The fishermen sell their collective catch at the market once a day, over on the mainland, and bring back fresh produce and rice for their community’s daily meals. When a typhoon comes, the villagers evacuate and hide out in the caves hidden among the limestone islands.
The village has a school to serve the youngest members of the community, but it only teaches rudimentary reading, writing and math — many of the children growing up in the floating villages continue to live and work there for life, in part due to the limited educational opportunities. The village that we saw now has a generator for electricity and a bustling business rowing tourists around to learn about their lifestyle and living conditions, but there were few additional signs of modernity. Because the woman rowing us around did not speak a word of English, we were unable to ask questions about things like sanitation, medical care, and how on earth they manage to support all the pet cats and dogs we saw roaming the small plywood docks.
SCHUYLER: I shared a kayak with Haven and we had little races against Dad and Zoe. First we paddled from our junk boat to the floating village, which was basically a bunch of houses made of wood and tarp floating on the water. What surprised me was that although they had very little space in their houses, a lot of people had pets like cats and dogs. Lots of people waved to us when we were touring the floating village, maybe because we are younger tourists and they were being very friendly. I really loved kayaking but I freaked out at some points during our outing because of strange sea life that I thought might swim underneath our kayak. There are sharks in Halong Bay, even if they are small, and there are LOTS of jellyfish. One time when we were on our way to the village a HUGE jellyfish swam under our kayak and I panicked until it had crossed under and moved away from us.
ZOE: I loved being on the junk boat. The scenery was so beautiful and it was really amazing to see the floating fishing village. Kayaking was cool because we saw a lot of wildlife in the water, like 2 giant jellyfish. My arms got tired but I had Daddy in my kayak so I could cheat a little.
While on the Valentine, we also enjoyed some delicious meals at this gorgeous table, and had a relaxing evening playing cards and games with each other and the crew.
When it was dark, we joined some of the staff at the bow of the boat and took turns trying to fish for squid. A bright spotlight shone down into the water from the top of the boat’s mast and we all dangled fishing rods into the sea, hoping for the squid to rise to the light. Zoe persisted the longest of all of us, determined to meet with slimy success, but alas the only lucky squid-catchers were the Valentine’s crew members. Those squid must have been laughing from the deep at our clumsy American squid fishing techniques.
The next day, we awoke to a beautiful morning and, following our 7am Tai Chi lesson on the deck, we ventured to a nearby cave called “Surprise Cave” (probably so named because whoever who discovered it was genuinely surprised at the sheer scale of it). It is absolutely enormous, and was exciting to explore for all of us. Thankfully, the inside is well lit now and we had no trouble navigating the paths throughout.
SCHUYLER: Surprise Cave was amazing. What fascinated me were the many different shapes and formations inside the caves that resembled animals or people and had nicknames like the “hugging couple” and the “lucky turtle.” There were three different chambers in this cave and in between the first and the second there was a tiny tunnel through the wall that you could try and sneak through. Zoe, Haven and I went through with Dad and Mumsy. You had to be pretty small to get through – the ceiling was so low and there were jagged rocks sticking out everywhere. Dad had to twist his shoulders a lot to get through. Even I did sometimes!
THAYER: The Surprise Cave was weird because all of the rocks looked like statues and it was a little bit scary for me at first. I liked walking around inside it though, even though it was creepy!
ONWARD TO HOI AN, VIETNAM
After disembarking from the Valentine, we drove to the nearest airport in Haiphong City and caught our flight to a lovely town called Hoi An on the coast of Vietnam, where we would remain for our last week here. Stay tuned…. we are working hard on the next post!
SEE YOU SOON!