We haven’t traveled much in Asia. The omission is intentional; it’s long been our plan to move to southeast Asia and explore from there. But we just signed on for our eighth year in Africa, so maybe it’s time to start visiting some of those other continents before we have to retire.
Due to the way the Islamic holidays fall this year, our school calendar includes (probably for the only time ever) not one but TWO week-long spring breaks, one at the beginning of March and one at the end of April. We decided to spend the first of the holidays in Vietnam.
With only nine days to see the country there wasn’t going to be a lot of room for spontaneity so I booked all our hotels and transportation and many of our activities in advance. We usually try to do things more organically, but I’ll admit I had fun planning the details of our speedy tour through Vietnam.
The itinerary started with two nights up north in Hanoi, followed by a one-night cruise on Ha Long Bay. Then we would return for a few more hours in Hanoi before catching the overnight train to Hue. From there we’d take a private car on a scenic route over the mountains to Hoi An. The next night we’d get a transfer to Da Nang airport and fly down to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The next day we’d take a full day tour of the Mekong Delta, then on our last day see the sights of HCMC before catching a late plane toward home.
It took three flights to get to Hanoi and by the time we landed it was very late. We hired a taxi to take us to the Old Quarter, where I’d reserved a room in a small hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel was so small it didn’t have a night clerk, at least not one that was awake. There was no response to the buzzer and the front door was bolted and barred. I didn’t have a working phone because it had been too late to get a sim card at the airport. Luckily the hotel next door was able to summon the sleepy night manager for us. Once we were inside, it turned out to be a lovely place. The manager upgraded our room to one with a balcony from which we got our first look at Hanoi the next morning.
We spent the next day wandering the streets of our neighborhood. So much to see, hear, taste. We fell in love with Vietnam that very first morning.
We walked all the way around the lake in the Old Quarter. It’s an oasis of tranquility surrounded by colorful gardens, with a bridge to a little island with a temple on it.
In the afternoon we went to a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry originated in the 11th century in the villages of northern Vietnam, where shows were staged in flooded rice paddies. This Hanoi troupe puts on five one-hour performances every day at their own indoor theatre. The puppets perform on the surface of a waist-deep pool; the puppeteers operate them from backstage using long bamboo poles and wires hidden under the water. Opera singers narrate the stories (folktales and vignettes of village life) and a traditional orchestra adds music and sound effects. There were mainly tourists in the audience although I did spot a few Vietnamese families and seniors. We were quite charmed by the experience.
We met up with a former colleague in another part of the city, by a different lake, for drinks and dinner. It was the first of what would be many bowls of pho over the coming week.
Later we visited the night market. I didn’t buy a cat face phone cover but I did get an inflatable new year pig on wheels. We tasted some traditional sweets that were sour, sweet, and salty at the same time. Andreas bought some of those but I think it is an acquired taste.
When we returned to Hanoi after our bay cruise (the subject of my next post) we visited the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first public university. It was founded in 1070 and classes were last held there in 1779. You see the halls, dormitories, temples, classrooms, and courtyards all beautifully restored, and there is a museum where academic robes, scrolls, pen and ink sets, books, and other items from university life are on display. What I liked best were the turtle stelae where the names of all doctoral graduates are inscribed. Each year got a different turtle.