Barb and Ben Dietrich, recently retired, travelled through Southeast Asia for three months last year and sent emails “home” describing the journey.
We have loved Vietnam and we are now much more seasoned to the cultural differences. Many of you have asked about the language barrier and it really has not been a problem anywhere except when you get away from the city and in the countryside. We would probably have more trouble in Quebec than what we are experiencing in Southeast Asia.
Of course one of the big things about Vietnam is the history and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1973. It was the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Treaty while we were here. It was such a senseless war and so many lives were brutally lost—both American and Vietnamese.
Our timing was very good to come to Vietnam as we were right in the thick of their celebrations for the Chinese lunar New Year (called Tết) and this is a huge affair and so fascinating. They believe their New Year is a fresh start, so they clean, paint and decorate their homes and businesses with brightly coloured Chinese lanterns and flowers that are for sale everywhere.
As far as the food goes—that has been our biggest challenge. We are not much to try new things and we are very cautious about the street foods, although they say they are generally pretty safe and are very good. We do not eat much meat, unless we see it being cooked in front of us, or if we are at a higher end restaurant. We have stayed away from salads as they can be washed in non-potable water. I am sure we are being way too cautious but we have heard some nightmare stories of some very sick people who have had to go home or who have been hospitalized. We are both missing a good home-cooked meal but you make the most of it – and no I am not losing weight—I eat a lot of junk food.
When we arrived in Vietnam we started in Hanoi in the north. It is the capital city of Vietnam and has approximately 6.5 million people. It is described as one of the world’s most attractive and interesting cities. The biggest shock for us in Hanoi was the traffic. Seeing is believing and it is absolutely terrifying to cross the street. You go slowly and DO NOT STOP or you will get hit. It is mostly motorcycles and scooters on the road and they calculate your speed so they can dodge around you. They come from every direction and they are moving. I almost got us killed twice by stopping.
A popular thing to do here is to have a beer on a street corner and watch traffic go by. There is one corner in particular where international travellers often go. You have to sit on child-size plastic stools or chairs. The draft beer cost 16 cents and local canned beer 50 cents and you can’t beat that.
We did enjoy Hanoi. There was so much to see and do and people were very friendly and helpful. There’s a large lake in the centre of the old town that we would walk around each day. We visited a few museums and saw a water puppet show. One night Ben went squid fishing but his catch was not impressive.
We went on an overnight cruise in Halong Bay, which is one of the new 7 wonders of the world. It was a little misty but the scenery was stunning. We visited a floating fishing village, toured through a huge cave with limestone formations and visited a pearl oyster farm.
The next day we left for Hue, which is further south down the coast. It is a very historical city but unfortunately most of it was decimated during the French and American wars. We did a lot of biking out of the city, following the river, and it was fascinating. There were thousands of acres of rice fields, all hand-planted and harvested. Vietnam is the 2nd largest rice exporter after Thailand. Their gardens are immaculate. We saw many shrimp farms too. People do their laundry and bath in the river, and they dry rice right in the middle of the road. Cars just drive over it.
We loved South Vietnam as much as the North. We continued down the coast from Hue to Hoi An. Hoi An is a world heritage site and back in the 16th century it was an important trading post with China. It is now a quaint picturesque town with many protected historic landmarks. We were astounded by how many tailor shops there were and how they could pretty well make anything you wished for at amazing prices. So Ben had a suit made and I got a dress. We were measured up and had 2 fittings, all completed within 48 hours. We then shipped the clothes home.
We did a lot of biking in Hoi An. It’s nice and flat. The beach was about 5 km from our hotel and the hotel offered free bikes and chairs and umbrellas on the beach for our use, so how could we resist. We spent two afternoons there and we pretty much owned the beach!
Then we went on a full day bike tour. There were 4 travellers and 2 guides. Our bikes were loaded on a boat and we toured down the river for about an hour. Then we started riding out in the boonies—for 23 km in total—through rice fields and over bamboo bridges. We visited a home where the family was making rice papers and noodles—even the little ones were involved. We saw families weaving mats, building wooden boats and making the round bamboo boats that they still use for fishing. The bamboo ones are not considered to be “boats” so the fishermen don’t have to pay taxes to use them.
The men are the important ones in their culture so you often see the women working and the men sitting on the floor with their buddies drinking and playing cards, at any time of day. The men insisted that Ben and the other guy on our tour join in their toast. This was at 10 in the morning. They were drinking homemade rice wine but the bucket they were dipping out of was full of roots and who knows what else. Ben couldn’t do it.
Our guide was great and shared a lot of stories about life in Vietnam. She told us that many of the Vietnamese people don’t worship a god—they worship their ancestors. They have pictures of their dead ancestors (up to 3 generations) on their mantels and there is one door that is only for their ancestors to use when they return for the celebrations. She told us the oldest boy is the most important child in a family and when he marries he and his wife live with his parents. The parents look after their children while they work and in return the son and his wife stay with the parents and care for them until they die.
After Hoi An, we took the overnight train down to the bottom of Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh. It was a 20-hour train trip. Ben wasn’t keen on the train but I reminded him that our trip is all about the experience. Well, it was an experience. We had the bottom beds and a nice young couple had the top ones. We all stayed in this little room together for the full 20 hours. The train was very dirty and we were very ready to get off.
Ho Cho Minh city was our last stop in Vietnam. It’s the largest city with a population of 8 million people. There are 5 million motorbikes and 400,00 cars on the roads. 65% of the people are under the age of 35. The traffic was just as crazy as in Hanoi and there was much excitement because it was soon to be New Year’s Eve. We visited a few museums and the famous Ben Thanh market.
Our most memorable tour here was to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These underground networks were used during the war. They were brilliantly designed with kitchens (which were vented elsewhere so the enemy couldn’t find them), meeting rooms and sleeping rooms. It was hard to believe that people lived down in these cramped, dirty, claustrophobic quarters. We had a chance to climb into them and Ben had to crawl as he was way too tall to stand up.
Last but not least was our New Year’s Eve party. We went to the famous rooftop bar at the Rex and had an all-inclusive evening with unlimited beer, wine, buffet with every kind of BBQ seafood and steak. There was non-stop entertainment and then at midnight we were given a bottle of champagne to pop and spray. I got picked to help fill up the chandelier of champagne glasses. There were the most amazing fireworks that we watched from the rooftop. Literally thousands of people lined the streets.
Needless to say our next day was pretty low key as we said goodbye to Vietnam.
Follow Barb and Ben’s journey: A classic travel itinerary for Southeast Asia
Barb’s letters are reprinted with permission; the content has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Barb and Ben Dietrich
© Riding the buses 2014