“It is impossible to come back from one’s journey; there’s always someone else coming back“.
I don’t know who said this, but I know it’s true.
Especially if your travels take you somewhere so foreign it feels like you stepped through the looking glass… or fell down the rabbit hole.
I went to Vietnam and someone else came back. Not someone vastly different, just someone a little adjusted and hopefully slightly better. Maybe someone with brighter eyes and a more grateful heart. Perhaps someone a little happier and a little less stressed out.
Whatever the case may be, getting to immerse myself in a sultry and exotic destination for 10 whole days was nothing short of an exquisite sensory overload.
Our adventure started with an upgrade and the most comfortable flight EVER in Qatar’s 5-star business class, complete with champagne, linen serviettes, pajamas, plush eye masks and seats that turn into beds. (Not sure if I’ll be able to go back to cattle class now!)
A good 20-something hours later, including a two-hour stopover in Doha and another hour in Bangkok, we arrived in hot and humid Hanoi on a Saturday afternoon at 3 pm. We were met by a Vietnamese man with a broad smile and an energetic wave. It was Le Van Cuong, our guide and one of the most charming people I’ve ever met. A Viet Cong veteran who fought in the famous American-Vietnam war, he regaled us with incredible stories from his years living in the jungle throughout the journey and often brought an unexpected tear to our eyes.
Once we left the airport, we spent the rest of the day and night in a daze of overwhelmed disbelief.
People wearing conical hats (they really wear them!!) waded around in rice paddies next to the road, legions of scooters rushed past our bus – some carrying families of four, some trailing farming equipment and fresh produce in little carts, some carrying miscellaneous loads such as a large bag of soft toys positioned precariously behind the rider and yet others playing steed to petite masked girls (apparently they’re quite paranoid about keeping their skin pale, so they wear cute little masks that look a bit like doctors’) in high heels and the latest trends.
That night we watched the sidewalks come to life as Hanoians of all ages gathered outside little cafes, sitting on tiny plastic chairs, eating ice cream, drinking beer and chatting. A slight man in jeans and a black t-shirt pushed a mobile sound system down the street, dodging the crazy scooters, and crooned what must have been a love song into a microphone.
We defied jet-lag and rose at 6 the next morning to experience the communal exercise routine next to Hoan Keim lake at the center of the city. Even at this early hour the lake shores teemed with solitary old men and women completing slow tai chi routines, while just across the road an energetic aerobics class attracted the younger at heart, kids were racing around on bikes and some adults indulged in more mundane activities such as jogging or strolling along. Already the air was thick and humid and the mercury had hit the twenties. Without a breath of air the lake was a mirror, reflecting grey skies and a bright red flag.
From Hanoi we headed to the fantasy world of Halong Bay for an overnight junkboat cruise. Each of us got a gorgeous cabin, just big enough for a double bed, a little basin, a shower, a toilet and a tiny balcony looking out over the placid waters. We were canoed out to one of the floating villages and took a dip in the clear, warm sea.
It’s impossible to tell every single magical moment we experienced along the way, but in an effort to keep it short, here’s a point form list of some favourites that came after:
- Cruising on a dragon boat down the Perfume River in Hue and visiting a Buddhist pagoda at that strange hour when day starts melting into night.
- Getting soaked through while exploring the magical old-school streets of Hoi An in search of gifts and mementos.
- Drinking strong coffee and condensed milk, the real Vietnamese way.
- Swimming in a clear blue pool at dusk while piano strains floated through the air and tropical life burgeoned all around the Victoria Hotel in Can Tho city, in the Mekong Delta.
- Cycling to Tra Que village just outside Hoi An and playing farmer-farmer in a brown shirt and conical hat.
- Soaking up the New York-like bustle of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city.