Saturday, January 10, 2015

Things that make you say "Hmmm. . ." (in Vietnam)

Things that make you say, Hmmm.

Clear air.  Pointy straw hats like upside-down tops.  Colorful glowing lanterns.  Rice paddies.  Noodles.  For ten days of winter break, our family ventured off to Vietnam for our first vacation there. While generally vacationing goes fairly smoothly, this trip had its share of ups and downs and things that make you say "Hmmm."

The first of those occurred upon our arrival in Ho Chi Mihn (Saigon) where we were prepared to get our Visas upon arrival.  Perhaps because they are a bit of a developing nation, or perhaps because they just aren't that organised, there were only 2 windows prepared to receive paperwork for Visas.  Hmmm. . . How quickly did the waiting area fill and then overfill with 150 people waiting to process their work.  With a fair bit of butting in line and who knows what else behind the scenes, our wait stretched to two hours before we could pass through immigration and onto our baggage pick up.  In the mean time we were about 2 hours late for a lunch date with friends.  It all worked out in the end, but I'm fairly certain Brent gained 10 grey hairs in 2 hours.

The first big chunk of our trip was in a lovely city in central Vietnam called Hoi An.  We were assured by everyone who has been there that it is one of their favourite cities.  Aside from the weather being a tad cooler than we had anticipated, our four days there were quite delightful.  We did the sort of things everyone does there: get tailor made clothing, shop in the myriad of quaint shops in the Old Town centre along the river where we could easily stop at a restaurant and watch all the beautiful lanterns light up as night approached, get cheap massages, and enjoy the Vietnamese cuisine.  

We also had fun on a half day bike tour of two islands with old friends, biking through rice paddies, waving to so many men and women and children who smiled and said "hello", seeing craftsmen and women creating coconut boats, mother-of-pearl inlay, and rice wine. One little story you might like has to do with the coconut boats which are not made of coconuts but simply have the round shape of a coconut shell.  During Vietnam's occupation fishermen families didn't want to pay taxes on boats to the occupying nation, so instead they fashioned waterproof baskets large enough to hold 2 to four people by day but rice and kitchen goods when not in use!  This way when the tax collectors came, they could say "We have no boat!"  Incidentally, rowing such a round basket is a bit tricky.  I found this to be true when I had to be rescued by the funny old lady who had claimed to be The Sexy One (when she had wanted to say "sixty-one").  On our way back to the ferry at the conclusion of our bike tour and on a remote path, we actually ran into Alec's best friend and family from Korea!  Things that make you go, Hmmm.

Another highlight in Hoi An was the cooking experience.  It was so cool to be guided to the vegetable market at 7 AM to pick up fresh ingredients, then next to the meat market, at which we saw pig and lamb heads on display, then to the fish market (where fishermen arrive with their night's catch around 4 am).  Everything was fresh!  And I was surprised that the fish market didn't smell fishy.  Back at the hotel we had a chef and translator and several work stations set up to make 3 Vietnamese dishes including a mango carrot salad, a hot pot mackerel, and cao lau (a local dish).  Brent looked the least comfortable and coordinated; maybe he should get cooking more often!

From Hoi An we hopped a short flight to Phu Quoc (only after a very frustrating delay and stand-by notice).  Phu Quoc is a small tropical beach island off the south western tip of Vietnam.  It is about the size of Singapore.  With a new airport and roads and resorts springing up here and there, Phu Quoc clearly has its sights set on tourism.  Thankfully, for us, this quaint island is still very authentic.  The water is quite blue, the beaches soft and free of litter with few people selling you something.  Those that are walking the beaches are adults selling pastries or fresh fruit or artwork.  I have to say the highlight of being at Phu Quoc was being with good friends that we hadn't seen since leaving Korea.  What fun to celebrate the holidays and hang out on the beach together.  I was excited to find a huge starfish and the kids gathered twenty or more hermit crabs in just an hour at the beach.  Sun and sand.  What more could you ask for?  New Year's Eve our family ate at the huge buffet at our hotel.  The features there were fresh seafood like mackerel, prawns, oysters, mussels, scallops, and squid.  Then these Wisconsites headed down to the warm beach at dark, took our sandals off and walked two miles just enjoying the moonlight on the water on one side and the restaurants and celebrations on the other, fully aware that for most of our lives this night was spent indoors with the heat cranked to 70.  

And so, 2015 came in quietly.