I recently had the great pleasure of spending two weeks traveling in Vietnam with my daughter Taryn. Going there has been a dream of mine for a number of years. Born first out of an interest in kayaking Halong Bay, this vision soon morphed into a dream of doing a photography trip with Taryn. Last fall we both realized that we would be able to take time off in April, and we locked in the dates. As I get older, one-on-one times with loved ones has been a growing priority, and I want to make these happen while I am still reasonably fit and healthy. The trip completely exceeded my expectations; Vietnam is now on the short list of places to which I would readily return, and the time with Taryn was the most precious part of all!
Another reason for traveling to Vietnam, of course, was to explore a country that figured greatly in my formative years. My earliest memories of world news were dominated by the Vietnam war. I remember being frightened as a child about the war, much more so than during the Cuban missile crisis. I can specifically remember when the government changed its policy and began releasing actual weekly casualty figures, rather than vague descriptors. These numbers were very scary, since they were often in the hundreds, and signified soldiers killed. A number of years later, in high school, I became active in the antiwar movement at a local level with my liberal friends. My freshman year in college coincided with the last draft selection, and I was relieved to draw a high number. I had been debating my choices between declaring CO (Conscientious Objector) status or moving to Canada; in hindsight both options were long shots. At the time, no one in the US ever imagined traveling to Vietnam as a tourist. Now, some fifty years later, here we are. And to begin our explorations, we cross the street by our hotel.
Vietnamese traffic intersections are legendary. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians all weave around and through one another across busy intersections undirected by traffic lights or police. Crossing a busy street can be a terrifying prospect to a first time visitor. Vehicles seem to come directly at you from all directions. Nearly every guidebook offers the same advice: walk at a constant pace so that drivers can predict your position in advance and maneuver around you. Somehow it all works out. Yes, there are accidents. But in general, it works. Everyone makes constant tiny adjustments to their direction and speed: yielding a bit here, accelerating there, shifting slightly right or left to avoid oncoming traffic. Everyone gets to where they wish to go through constant negotiation and accommodation with others. It resembles a tightly choreographed dance, but in reality it is improvisation.
This struck me as an apt metaphor for Vietnam itself. The country has coped with the challenges of hundreds of years of regional strife and political intrigue, the spoils of almost a century of western colonial rule, and the utter devastation of decades of war, and is now emerging as an increasingly prosperous and technologically modern nation. Balancing the different needs of over 50 ethnic minority groups and coping with an unpredictable world economy, the Vietnamese people have proven resilient in their ability to construct a stable society and economy. At the heart of this success is an ability to constantly balance between competing forces. Hill tribe cultures find accommodation with the Viet majority. Socialist and communist policies exist side by side with an entrepreneurial market economy. French and US citizens are embraced by their former foes. Farmers tending water buffalo on remote steep mountainside rice terraces are in touch with one another by cell phones. Citizens light incense at temples on their way to the Hanoi stock exchange. All of these forces converge and somehow manage to find their way around each other. There are bumps, yes, but by and large Vietnam remains in constant, purposeful motion.
Meeting each other in Hanoi, the only firm arrangements Taryn and I had made ahead of time was for our first night hotel and a couple of days rock climbing and sea kayaking in the Halong Bay area. I loved the flexibility and spontaneity we had built into our itinerary. We chose to spend all of our time in the northern part of the country, and targeted Hanoi, Sapa, and Cat Ba Island as our main destinations. I prefer to travel to fewer places and explore them in depth. We had a general notion of focusing on the culture during our time in Hanoi and the hill tribes in the northern mountains, and indulging in more active pursuits in the Halong Bay area for the latter part of our time.
These choices proved to be good ones. The highlight of our time in Vietnam was a three day trek in the mountains around Sapa followed by a day’s excursion to a large weekly market with a Hmong guide who spoke excellent English. For four days straight we photographed the countryside and had a constant dialogue with Sy about what we were seeing. She patiently answered all of our questions about farming, religion, natural history, food, families, tribal differences, and countless other topics. We requested long and challenging routes in order to see more remote areas and get away from other travellers. We hiked on very steep hillsides, most of which were terraced for growing rice and were constructed by hand. At night we stayed in “homestays.” These varied from simple sleeping platforms in a small hut featuring an indoor cooking fire on the cement floor in the middle of the living area to accommodations more closely resembling B&B’s. In each, we ate with other guests as well as with the host family. Throughout the four days we witnessed different hill tribes making a rural living in quite rugged terrain, and got a feel for daily life.
Returning to Hanoi, we next set out for Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island. This phase of our travels focused on experiencing Vietnam from an adventure perspective. The adventure started immediately. Visiting the local (not tourist) market in Cat Ba a couple of hours before we were due to set off on our climbing and kayaking trip, we were caught in an unexpected torrential downpour that eventually began to flood many of the streets surrounding the market. Soon we witnessed cascades of water pouring down from spots in the market roof, and goods floating in the aisles. We purchased disposable ponchos to keep camera gear dry and made a series of dashes from cover to cover until reaching our hotel, soaking wet. The owner there told us he rarely sees such torrential rain this time of year (April.)
Drying off, we began our “official” adventure. We took a boat out to Lan Ha Bay, which features the same stunning karst formations as found in the larger Halong Bay, only more remote and hence less populated with tour boats. Seeing Taryn in her element – dancing up rock – was a joy. I had not been on rock for years, and was far less elegant in my climbing. Still, it was great fun. The following day of sea kayaking found me at home, and whetted my desire to do a much longer multi-day trip in the area along the lines of my original vision. We paddled around the limestone pinnacles and by floating homes and villages. In Vietnam, if your house and “yard” floats, you are exempt from real estate taxes, so thousands make their living raising farmed fish in big underwater cages beneath their homes. Many had dogs, and these ran back and forth on the floating wooden docks barking furiously at us, protecting their territory, just like their counterparts on land. We slept aboard a junk at night, and enjoyed observing the darkening silhouettes of the karst landscape that surrounded us as daylight faded.
Our time in Vietnam began and ended in Hanoi. I very much enjoyed the city and its mix of the traditional and the modern, the west and the east, the old and the new. We stayed in a hotel on a small side street near Hoan Kiem Lake, and were able to walk everywhere from this reasonably central location. Life around the lake and in both the Old and French Quarters was bustling with residents and tourists alike. Walking by the lake became our favorite route whenever we set off on another exploration of the city. Street food abounded, and one can take a tour of these vendors with their tiny plastic chairs set out on sidewalks throughout the city. Indeed, many seem to come to Vietnam simply to savor the food here. Restaurants were good, varied in style, and very reasonably priced.
Indeed, travel in Vietnam was surprisingly easy. Taryn and I made most of our arrangements in country after our arrival. Cell phone coverage throughout Vietnam is better than where I live in rural New Hampshire. The most rustic of our homestay accommodations – the one with the cooking fire on the living area floor – had wifi. People were very helpful and by our experience, trustworthy and reliable. Travel vendors went out of their way to help us craft the experiences we desired. The variety of ethnic groups and their different cultural beliefs and practices were fascinating, and the geology and topography made for stunning scenery. And I never ceased to be amazed how friendly and welcoming the Vietnamese were towards their former enemy. When considering future travel, my general bias is to explore countries that I have not yet visited. But I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat. I’d love to rent a motorbike and journey to the farthest north part of the country, then head south down its entire length to the Mekong delta.
The best part of the trip was sharing it with Taryn. I always cherish one on one times with my children (or with two, like last summer’s adventures with Duncan and Alec.) It was helpful to have a common passion for photography, and we frequently inspired each other in sharing our different approaches to crafting an image of a particular subject. We traveled at the same pace, usually equally captivated by the scenes around us and lingering to photograph – Sy (our guide on the trek) was very patient – and we found it easy to make decisions together about what we wanted to do. Conversation was always interesting and covered topics ranging from the totally superficial to the deeply personal, all in a natural, unforced manner. I feel blessed to have had this time with her, and will seek similar times with her again, as well as with Duncan and Alec.
Oh, and the woman on the motorbike in the photograph above? She eventually got out of the mud with minimal fuss and continued on her way. It’s Vietnam……