By: Dr. Jim Heisler
Mention Vietnam and the immediate reaction is “why are you going there?” “Is it safe?” For many, Vietnam conjures up a controversial war and iconic pictures of death and destruction. Fast forward 40 years and Vietnam today is a vibrant, emerging country, communist in its government, but highly capitalistic in its economics. Moreover, it’s a wonderful place to vacation.
My wife and I just came back from an amazing two-week trip to Vietnam. Walking off the plane in Hanoi, a man who came close to being invited by my government many years ago to “visit” Vietnam at their expense, my first reaction was “Oh my God, I’m in Hanoi!” That reaction was quickly overcome by the sights, sounds, smells and the wonderful, engaging people we met over the next two weeks.
It was fascinating to be in a country experiencing so much cultural and economic transition, from walking past high-end designer storefronts in central Saigon (I mean Ho Chi Minh City) to the poverty of the hill tribes in the northwestern most part of the country. Memorable highlights of our trip were taking a ride through Hanoi’s Old Quarter seated in the front of a pedicab being thrown face-to-face into the swarm of thousands of motor scooters going in all directions, trying to cross the streets amidst the swarm of these motor scooters, a Sunday market at Bac Ha, walks between the Hill Tribe villages near the Chinese border with dazzling views of the terraced rice paddies and distant villages, buying textiles from the Hmong and Red Dao ladies, enjoying a lunch at the home of a local family (one of the most delicious meals we ate on the trip!), drinking rice wine with a village elder, happening on a village festival near Ta Van, the shocking poverty seen in Sin Chai (Black Hmong) village outside Sapa, the daily produce/meat/fish markets in every city and town, an overnight cruise on a luxurious junk on Halong Bay and the chance to paddle a kayak around scenic karsts (pointed rock formations that spring from the water) and visiting a fishing village in Halong Bay, discovering the bas-relief mosaics in the royal tombs in Hue, sightseeing and shopping in Hoi An’s old quarter, taking a cooking class in traditional Vietnamese dishes, the Cai Rang floating market near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, the historic sites in Saigon and the chance to see the war from the Vietnamese perspective.
Despite the fact that some 70% of the population wasn’t even born during the Vietnam War (The Vietnamese call it the American War), our tour guides made a point of showing us some of the remnants of that time like a down B52 bomber that remains today in a lagoon within the city of Hanoi, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where captured pilots (think John McCain) were imprisoned, a museum dedicated solely to photos and relics of the war, and the tunnels the Viet Cong used to move troops and supplies down into South Vietnam.
As a destination, Vietnam is not that difficult, especially if you do it with tour guides who will customize an itinerary for you and handle all of the logistics. I highly recommend Ann Tours based in Saigon. At each of our destinations we had a friendly and informative guide and a driver who shepherded both my wife and I and another couple who accompanied us. The dollar goes a long way in Vietnam. So travel there is relatively less expensive than many other destinations. And the real coup de grass was that I lost 3 pounds. Who loses weight on a vacation? It was eating all those vegetables and unprocessed food, coupled with lots of walking.