Northern Vietnam Is Awesome

Now that our trip through the northern region of VN is over I can breathe a sigh of relief. Not only was it non-disastrous, we had an amazing time. Our days were jam-packed and bustling with activity so I wasn’t able to blog while traveling and now that we’re back in southern VN it’s hard to retrospectively chronicle each portion of the journey. I’ll just summarize by saying that the people we met were lovely, the scenery was breathtaking, most of the food was excellent, the accommodations were wonderful (by VN standards), and the overall experience was delightful. Even though folks were getting tired toward the end, the trip was a resounding success without major incident.

An unexpected highlight of the trip was the gracious hospitality of my cousin’s husband’s family in northern VN. We were strangers to them and they welcomed and hosted us like family. Everywhere we traveled, from Vinh Phuc to Lao Cai to Sapa to Ha Noi to Ha Long Bay to Tam Dao and back again, we were greeted and chaperoned and chauffeured and well taken care of. My cousin SW met her husband Hung in Saigon but he was born in Ha Noi and many of his relatives still live in the north. Hung’s family arranged much of our transportation and accommodations, often without any cost to us, and kept us well fed. Homemade meals prepared by Hung’s relatives were generally better than what we found at restaurants. It wasn’t exactly comfortable to dine in the traditional northern style — sitting cross-legged on reed matts on the floor — but discomfort was a small price to pay for trays upon trays of delectable (and sometimes unusual) food. Within a span of a week we sampled delicacies such as horse, squirrel, porcupine, and tortoise. I always appreciate the opportunity to try new foods but I have to admit the exotic stuff was not my favorite. The northerners got a kick out of Tom with his southern, Americanized accent and easy humor. Tom has never been one to refuse liquor, even if it looks, smells and tastes like gasoline, and he quickly became a favorite among the beer-guzzling, shot-pounding men. In typical VN fashion, men and women dined in separate groups and afterwards the men would talk and joke and toast each other while the women washed dishes squatting in the corner of some courtyard.

After the first night at a guest house in Vinh Phuc, we took an overnight “sleeping” bus to Lao Cai, which is within driving distance to Sapa. The mountains and valleys of Sapa were gorgeous to behold and it was exhilarating to enjoy refreshing, crisp mountain air. It was probably the first time we’ve been comfortable being outdoors during the day in VN. It was also the first time that I felt like I was on vacation since arriving to VN. We visited silver waterfalls and climbed hilly gardens. The town nestled in the mountains of Sapa was as overrun with western tourists as Hoi An had been, but also quite lovely. After two nights in Sapa we returned to Vinh Phuc for another night and the next morning were driven to Ha Noi to catch our boat tour to Ha Long Bay, my favorite part of the trip. The boat was relatively new, which is a good thing because last year several foreign tourists on a similar boat tour drowned in Ha Long Bay when the boat sank as they were sleeping. We tend to throw caution to the wind when we’re vacationing (the reason why we jumped at the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong at the height of the SARS epidemic, because fares to Asia were so cheap, which trip we fondly remember as our “SARS Vacation”). The boat had about 25 guests and was absolutely charming. I loved the cabins and the meals and the sight of beautiful green islands drifting by and calm waters surrounding us all day. It was heavenly! After a fun-filled day exploring an enormous cave, kayaking, and squid-fishing, we spent a relaxing night on the boat and the next day sailed to a private island with equally charming wooden bungalows overlooking an isolated beach with powdery soft white sand. After our tour of Ha Long Bay, we spent a night in Ha Noi and then returned to Vinh Phuc before heading up to the mountains of Tam Dao to visit temples and enjoy more cool mountainous weather. After a final meal with Hung’s family, we boarded our plane back to Saigon feeling sleepy, weary, and contented.

Not only did Tom and I have a fantastic time, our kids were delirious with joy. I think that was the best part. The sight of them running and laughing so gleefully all over the boat and the beach are memories that will warm my heart for the rest of my life. Even my hypercritical mom, who’s hard to please and quick to find fault, couldn’t help but be thrilled. When she first met Hung’s relatives, she was skeptical about their motives. She had her prejudices about northern VN people, as most southern VN people do. There might be residual tension between northerners and southerners, something about a war. Southerners think northerners are two-faced, mean, arrogant. Northerners think southerners are tactless, uncultured posers. Those are the stereotypes anyway. The first meal hosted by Hung’s family was dominated by beef dishes, which, after my Stir Fried Beef FAIL experience, we knew was no small expenditure. Instead of being honored and grateful that our hosts had splurged on us, my mom whispered to me that northern VN people like to “show off” because they used to be so poor. By the end of the trip, my mom had to concede that Hung’s relatives were genuinely gracious, kind-hearted people.

My cousin SW had been nervous about the trip and especially the boat tour because she didn’t want us to be disappointed. Seeing us so happy made her really happy which in turn made us even happier. Happiness is just as infectious as misery. Everything wasn’t completely perfect all the time, but it was easy to overlook minor imperfections. The company we were in had as much impact on our experience as the activities and the amenities we enjoyed. Being around generous, caring people who are so eager for you to have a good time and who are so invested in your happiness cannot fail to put you in a good mood. And the children behaved beautifully. There were mild skirmishes and breakdowns but all standard stuff and I was pleasantly surprised by my cousin’s sons and so proud of my own kids. They ate well and didn’t torture us. In a nutshell, we were in the ideal setting to thoroughly enjoy ourselves. I don’t think we would have enjoyed ourselves or appreciated our surroundings nearly as much if we had traveled with different people; not because we don’t enjoy the company of other people, but because the people we were with were bending over backwards to make us happy, so we were highly motivated to forget any complaints and focus on the upside. Glass half full sort of thing. Except our glass was much more than half full; it was brimming, with good fortune, good intentions, good company, and good cheer.

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