A Vietnam Experience, Part 1
Linda Back McKay, Becketwood Member
It was almost an accident that we went to Vietnam. We were scheduled to attend a technology-related conference with the nonprofit group Voqal (see voqal.org for details on the group’s work.) The conference was to be held in Seoul, Korea in October, 2013. Since we were going on such a long trip, we decided to add on another destination. We talked to some of our friends and neighbors at Becketwood, asking them about their travels to Asia and received many suggestions. (These people get around!) In the end we chose Vietnam. No particular reason. We kind of pulled it out of the air.
Since most of our recent traveling has been done in our little RV, touring this great country, I decided to plan this whirlwind tour much more carefully. Each day was precious because we had only seven of them. I hopped online and read reviews on hotels and destinations within the country. I found people who knew people who had been there recently. I spent months gathering information.
When we were thinking about which of the big cities to fly into, I immediately decided on Saigon, because Hanoi is in the north. I knew the country had been reunified after the war, but my mindset was from thirty years ago. It’s funny how one can get stuck on things. I began to make a plan, starting in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
First, we needed to get our visas at $100 each. The scary part was mailing our passports to the Vietnam Embassy in Washington, DC. We followed their directions carefully, and they took care of everything in record time. No problem. This was our first experience with Vietnamese professionalism.
Online, I read about a little boutique hotel called Duc Vuong that had rave reviews. It was said to be in the “backpacker’s district,” which seemed like one of the quieter streets. I made reservations for a few days and arranged for the hotel to pick us up at the airport.
Our modest goals for the trip were to experience some of the city and markets, have some time in the countryside, and for the most part avoid things war-related. For us, it’s always important to get to know the people.
I found information on a small city called Hoi An. There was a resort with great reviews called Betel Garden Homestay. I reserved the weekend there, along with a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang, which is to the north. Again, I arranged for the hotel driver to pick us up at the airport. After that stay we would have just one night in Ho Chi Minh City before leaving for the conference in Seoul, so I booked a hotel very close to that airport. The trip was sketched out and I was reasonably confident that the plan was sound. But we’ve traveled enough to know that it’s important to be flexible, because something unexpected always happens.
On the day of departure, we got to MSP airport in plenty of time for our first flight, only to be told that our American Airlines flight had been delayed and we wouldn’t make our connection (to Korean Airlines in Chicago. But not to worry because they’d put us on another airline. We hot-footed it to the United counter and they held the flight for us. We made it to Chicago on time.
Once we were in the embrace of Korean Airlines, all went well. On-time flights, smiling and attentive service, lovely food, all the convenience possible on a 24-hour travel day – even a little extra leg room. We spent hours watching a good assortment of movies and documentaries. We dozed a little and ate every time food was offered. After dinner they dimmed the lights so people could sleep. Before the next service, they brought up the lights gradually so people would be wakened gently. After ten or so hours, the flight attendants used aromatherapy and warm towels to soothe us. It was all very comforting. If you ever have a chance to fly Korean Airlines, jump at the chance.
Our layover was in Seoul, where we would be having our conference in a week. I slept fitfully at the airport for an hour or so. Then back on the plane to Vietnam. We got there, bleary-eyed, at 10 pm their time. We had no idea what time was our time. We stumbled out of the airport into a sea of joyous people, waving and cheering. My husband said, “Quite the welcoming party!” Then we saw rows and rows of men holding signs with names. We knew our name was on one of those signs. Finally, we saw MCKAY on a white sign held by a smiling man in a white dress shirt.
“Sin xiao,” I said to the driver, using one of my three Vietnamese phrases. He smiled and nodded but didn’t seem particularly impressed. I figured he was tired since our flight had been a little late and he’d probably been holding that sign for a while.
Since it was dark, we couldn’t see much of the city between the airport and the hotel but the road was teeming with motorbikes and buses. We didn’t see any stoplights. Instead there were several roundabouts. Vehicles and bicycles took turns, or seemed to have some sort of radar.
When we arrived at the Duc Vuong Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, which many still call Saigon, the staff took our bags, plied us with cool fruit drinks, got us checked in quickly and took us to our room. They spoke excellent English and were extremely gracious. In our room, the towels were wound like swans and the bed pillows read “Sleep Well.” Very welcoming. We took showers and collapsed into the comfortable bed.
Next morning, after enjoying an extensive breakfast at the rooftop restaurant, we got directions from Eva, our host, and began to make our way to the famous Ban Tanh market. The first challenge was to cross the street. There is only one stoplight in this city of more than six million people. The streets are filled with pedestrians, bicycles and motorbikes zigzagging around full-size buses and cars. It’s a bit terrifying but we soon learned to cross with a Vietnamese family or large group. And, after that first step off the curb, it’s essential to keep going. Don’t stop, because the drivers anticipate your trajectory and go around you. Yikes!
The market was huge and teeming with aggressive vendors. Capitalism is thriving In Vietnam. We were told later by one of our guides, “We can do anything, as long as we stay out of politics.” Goods are cheap and plentiful. The people are eager to grow tourism and will sew a custom-fit dress or suit overnight. They will make shoes, handbags… anything you want. We made a few purchases and returned to the hotel for a nap.
At the Duc Vuong it was very easy to book our day-long trip to the Mekong Delta for the next day. A bus picked us up, drove us to a larger bus, which took us to the river, where we were transferred into a boat and then a smaller boat, and a long canoe before getting back into the original boat and back to the port. We visited islands and a honey bee farm, a coconut factory, and a water buffalo, had lunch, listened to traditional music, ate local fruits, watched wood carvers and boat builders, and more. The excursion was a perfect slice of Vietnam and much more than we had hoped for. The best part was the price, which was $10 per person.
There was an Indian Restaurant across the street from our hotel. Eva recommended it and we ate there twice. It was the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted, authentically prepared by the Indian owners. After dinner we wandered through nearby shops. I picked out fabric and ordered a simple dress made for the next day. The cost for the dress was $12. We returned to the hotel, enjoyed an adult beverage on the rooftop bar and returned to our air conditioned room to sleep.
At this point I should mention the weather. Vietnam is tropical and we were there during the rainy season. Temperatures range from the upper 80s to upper 90s and the humidity is often 100%. There are sudden downpours that flood the streets, but that doesn’t seem to faze any of the motorbike operators. They fill the roads like a motorized ant colony, bikes piled high with merchandise of all kinds. Many times whole families ride together – an older child standing in front of Dad on the floorboard, a younger child wedged between Mom and Dad, along with the groceries packed in there somewhere. If it rains, they pulled out pink and blue ponchos and keep going.
There were entrepreneurs and street food everywhere. We didn’t sample any street food for two reasons. The ample breakfast kept us full until dinner, and it was overwhelming – all the choices, smells, and noise. There were many sights to be seen in HCMC, but we were leaving the city for our resort adventure the next day. That wasn’t the only time we were sorry we didn’t have more days to spend in Vietnam.
The wifi service was excellent for the most part. It was good to keep up to date with family back in the states. That evening, I got a strange email. The sender was listed as Vietnam Airlines, where I had booked our upcoming flight to Da Nang. The email stated that our noon flight was delayed until 3 pm. I was upset because I had been looking forward to seeing more of the country. We went to the front desk and asked Eva to check with the airlines. She called and reported that they had no information about the flight being delayed. That was puzzling. She said, maybe they hadn’t received the update yet. Maybe so, we thought.
The next morning, after another great breakfast, we walked in a different direction and found a city market filled with locals. The fish vendor had pails of slippery, glistening sardines, octopus, squid, shrimp and all sorts of sea delicacies. There were bakers and handbag makers and every sort of jewelry and gadget you can imagine. We spent several fun hours talking and bartering. Everything we bought had to be small or flat, since we always limit ourselves to one suitcase and a carryon. (This self-imposed rule makes every trip much easier.)
Around noon we packed up and went to check out. Eva offered to check with Vietnam Airlines again, and she was told our flight had taken off at noon as scheduled. And, there was no 3 pm flight to Da Nang. What? What about the email? I showed it to Eva and she was just as confused as we were. We decided that the best thing to do would be to go to the airport and sort it out in person. She asked us to let her know when we got to our destination and that we were safe. And then she hugged us both, with tears in her eyes. The hotel’s logo says “We are family” and, even though it was a short stay, we certainly felt like and were treated like family.
At the airport, from what we could figure out, I had thought I was booking directly with the airlines, but I was actually booking with an agent. The airline representatives were sorry, but we had to wait a few hours for the next flight. They did call ahead to our hotel in Hoi An to let them know we would be late. I was sad because I did not want to spend any unnecessary time in an airport, but the Vietnam Airlines flight was efficient and quick. After landing in Da Nang, we easily found our driver, who welcomed us kindly and took us to the Betel Garden Homestay.
(Watch for Part 2, coming soon)