I’ll admit it. There are a number of places I’ve wanted to see in Southeast Asia, and Vietnam has never been a top priority. In this region of the world, touring Vietnam is currently very fashionable, and despite the historical significance of the country for me as an American and the positive feedback we’ve heard from friends who have visited, it has never been on my radar. I think part of the reason for my indifference was I knew nothing about where to go or what to do, so when Sarah announced Vietnam was one of our destinations this trip, I had no idea what to expect.
Almost every foreigner entering Vietnam requires either a visa prior to arrival or a letter of approval to obtain a visa upon arrival in advance. We received our letter in Jakarta before we left and I filled out the appropriate forms on the flight from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). We had a two-hour layover before our next flight to Da Nang in the Central District, close to our first Vietnam destination, Hoi An. Upon landing, we queued up in an abysmally long line with the other travellers to the one window responsible for the entire airport’s visa processing, prompting Sarah to immediately make a disparaging comment about socialism under her breath. We were to submit our passports, forms and approval letter, then sit and wait. Time slipped by as I stood around in the cattle herd, while boarding calls for our next plane were announced and the kids grew restless. Finally, my name was called and our visas were complete, allowing us to pay the impressive fees and graduate to the next line, immigration. There was no chance of catching our next flight. Despondent, we retrieved our checked luggage and made our way to the domestic terminal with the kids in full mutiny. It was ugly.
Now, I’m more of a “grin and bear it” rather than a “make it happen my way” type when it comes to retail and services, but I was desperate and courteously pleaded with Vietnam Airlines to get us on the flight leaving in 45 minutes rather than 5 and a half hours away. I pointed at Cian crying at a kiosk for Hershey Kisses when we didn’t have any Vietnamese dong (that’s the name of the currency, you perverts) and Áine growling at anyone who came within her 5 feet “dragon radius” as evidence. It wasn’t the crumbling kids or the over two hours in immigration that allowed the airline to move us ahead, but that our previous flight was ten minutes behind schedule. I guess criticising the visa process would not be in the best practice for the national carrier. Whatever, get us on that damn plane! We were quickly shuffled into new lines, our bags were shipped off on the conveyer belt, and we boarded the next flight to Da Nang. To top off the day’s diarrhea of travel, we found ourselves climbing into a small turbo prop, Sarah’s worst transport nightmare and Cian’s dream come true, and he subsequently announced his future turbo prop pilot career with his face pressed against the plane window. Sarah smiled at him through clenched teeth, readjusting her grip on the armrest to get blood flowing back into her knuckles.
Someone met us at the Da Nang airport (curious as to why we were late) and drove us to the hotel. By this time, we were travel weary and our promise to have the kids on the beach that day broken. Our trip to Hoi An, a town that had received rave reviews from a number of our friends, looked dreadfully like a post-Vietnamese War version of Kelapa Gading. Fortunately, we were staying at the Vinh Hung Emerald Resort, and the hotel was our recovery- a spacious bathroom with a tub (aka a new, confined play space for the kids) and a balcony overlooking the pool and the river beyond. Every afternoon at the Vin Hung’s back lawn they serve a variety of popular Vietnamese street food for you to sample without the usual threat of amoebic dysentery. For the rest of our stay in Hoi An, we spent the mornings on the beach, despite the clouds and occasional drizzle, to let the kids out to pasture and ease the guilt from promises unkept.
The next day, once we had satisfactory beach time and filled our bellies of delicious Vietnamese food at a seaside restaurant, we stopped at hotel reception and asked for directions to Hoi An Ancient Town, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. They gave us a small map and vaguely circled an area. We had already been in Hoi An for a day and a half running errands and had not seen anything remotely of World Heritage Site caliber. In fact, everything looked pretty, well, dumpy. But we had come all this way and we needed to find dinner, so we walked into town at dusk. Along the way, Sarah saw something in a shop that demanded her attention, so while she and Cian began poking through Vietnamese trinkets, Áine and I continued down the road so I could get a photo of what looked like an interesting bridge up ahead before nightfall. The end of the street opened up to this:
I was completely shocked by the view, as was Áine, who marvelled, “Daddy, look!”. We quickly collected Sarah and Cian, assuring them that whatever nonsense they were about to buy could wait and pulled them onto the bridge to old town. It was stunning. For centuries considered one of the most pivotal trading ports in the South China Sea, Hoi An still resonates with an elegant patchwork of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and even European buildings and architecture. We arrived as the lights and lanterns were being lit, giving a warm glow through the warren of alleys and bustling streets overflowing with venders, café-like restaurants and shops. Our time in Hoi An evolved into afternoons in the old town eating in quaint restaurants, meandering through the roads and taking advantage of the famous tailoring for some new clothes.
Our flight from Hoi An to Dalat was 6:30 in the morning, which meant leaving the hotel at 4:30. To top off the hotel’s hospitality, they packed us food to take with us (since we’d miss their breakfast) and arranged our transport to the airport. After another turbo prop (Sarah did admit after our second flight that they were pretty smooth) and a taxi ride, we made it to the Saigon Dalat Hotel just in time for their breakfast. We were in the Central Highlands, at 5,000 feet, and it was considerably cooler. This region was developed in the early 1900’s by the French as a mountainous retreat. Today, it is a common vacation spot and wedding destination for Ho Chi Minh residents and tourists looking for something off the beaten track.
The hotel’s primary draw for us as parents was the indoor pool, necessary with the more moderate climate, and the kids were anxious to try it out, so our time exploring the area was limited on that first day. We decided to investigate the Crazy House, a guesthouse built by famed Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga. If Antoni Gaudi, Tim Burton, and the Brothers Grimm were in a car crash, this would have been the result. The kids enjoyed running though the maze of what looked like caves, cottage rooms, and tree houses, although the Mommy did not appreciate the lack of safety features. Intriguing for about 20 minutes, I would pass it by unless you are looking for a unique place to stay. We quickly retreated to the hotel and spent the evening in the pool.
The next morning a local guide, Mr. Chien, gave us a tour of the Dalat region. We started with a cable car trip across the mountains, landing at Truc Lam monastery. The Central Highlands are particularly known as a botanical paradise, with weather in the upper 70’s during the day and rarely below 50’s at night year round, allowing roses and hydrangea to grow next to orchids and palms. At the monastery, Zen Buddist monks and nuns adhere to a strict praying schedule and tend to their gardens with incredible detail. On our way from the monastery, we were able to watch traditional silk weaving from a woman whose family raises silkworms and produces silk. She then dyes and weaves the silk by hand into clothes and scarves Sarah just had to purchase. From the monastery, we took a boat ride on Xaun Huong Lake to an island and back, then ended at a local waterfall. We descended into the waterfall ravine and returned on a two-seater roller coaster with hand brakes to control your own speed- good fun as long as you weren’t behind a pantywaist. And all of this completed before nap time.
Mr. Chien was a terrific guide, providing us with an unbiased, insightful view of his country while appreciating our childrens’ …um… exuberance. He tells me most of the previous animosity towards Americans in much of Vietnam has been revolutionized by the tourist trade. An undercurrent of division, however, still exists between the North and South Vietnamese. Naturally, we requested Mr. Chien again the next day when we took a second tour out to see the rural lifestyle around the Dalat area. Our first stop was to a rose farm, an important export in this region of the country, since roses bloom year-round. From there we explored a family coffee plantation, where I had a rather exotic cup of coffee (which you may have read about). I also tried home-brewed “rice wine”, a euphemism for hooch potent enough to use as ignition fluid and wake you up on your early morning tour. Just a few houses down was a family animal farm. We saw a few baby crocodiles (for pets? No, to eat), crickets (for their singing? No, to eat), porcupines (for pets? No, to eat), scorpions (to torment the neighbourhood kids? No, to soak in vodka for back aches) and cage after cage of guinea pigs (to eat, right? No, those are pets.) Oh.
The most interesting part of the day was the silkworm farm and silk factory. Shamefully, Sarah and I knew nothing of the process even though we were born and raised in Manchester, Connecticut. Mr. Chien first brought us to see silkworm caterpillars and their cocoons. Pupae allowed to emerge and produce moths are unable to be used for silk, as the process of emerging severs the threads. The cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, then threaded to a machine. Amazingly, one cocoon yields around 700 meters (almost a half mile) of silken thread. The silk is then dried, dyed, and either fed into weaving machines or woven by hand. Vietnam is one of the only places left where women soak their hands in the hot, dirty water for hours, boiling the cocoons and threading the silk manually onto the machines. And what happens to the countless naked pupae revealed in the unraveled cocoons? That is for another story.
Perhaps through our own ignorance, Vietnam was a land of surprises. Its stronger historical connections to China compared to the rest of Southeast Asia provided a distinct and striking cultural transition. We found the Vietnamese more bold and vocal than the people in neighboring countries. The street hawkers, for example, were more forceful for a sale and visibly frustrated when they were unsuccessful. However, the pervasive Asian grace and courtesy (and their adoration of children) is still very much present, and we enjoyed our time with the Vietnamese people. There is much more to experience than our short stay allowed, and it felt almost disrespectful to leave having only peeked through the window. Abundant and dynamic, Vietnam deserves its reputation as a rewarding destination.