Vietnam Experience, Part 2
Linda Back McKay, Becketwood Member
At the Betel Garden Homestay in Hoi An, Vietnam, all twelve rooms were spacious, with homey verandas and garden chairs. There were flowers and plants everywhere, a refreshing swimming pool, and a restaurant onsite, run by the owners, who had an adorable little 2-year-old boy. It was another family-type place to stay and we fell in love with it immediately. After getting settled into our room, we explored the gardens and sat down at the restaurant where we ordered a bottle of wine and dinner, which were both delicious.
Again, the hotel staff couldn’t have been more attentive and helpful. When we arrived they gave us several ideas for sights in the area, and we immediately planned to do the walking tour of the city the next day and a bus tour to My Son, which means beautiful mountain, the day after that. Then we’d leave for the airport and back to Ho Chi Minh City for our last night.
We watched a few minutes of TV on the hotel’s flat screen. The programming seemed to be mostly soccer games and the BBC. There had been a typhoon recently, but it barely made the news, that being a fairly common event. We were eager to explore the little city of Hoi An. Next day we headed out down the dirt road across the Thu Bon River and took the main road into the city center. Our first encounter was with a small child who waved and said, “Hello!” Virtually everyone smiled and waved at us, and many of the children were practicing their English. It was like being in a small town.
Hiring an English speaking guide was important to us. We wanted to know what we were looking at during the city tour. We purchased our tickets and found our guide in one of the many ticket booths peppered through Hoi An. Trang had been a soldier during the Vietnam War and then had gone to fight Pol Pot in Cambodia. The laugh lines around his eyes gave no hint about what he must have experienced. Together we walked through the town, chatting like old friends and visiting fascinating places, including a historic merchant’s abode, city museum, the Japanese Covered Bridge, the river front and markets. The downtown area floods regularly – sometimes there are three or four floods during the rainy season. When this happens, the people move all their furniture to the second floor and wait. When the water recedes, they shovel out the mud and move back in. We saw photos of boats being paddled down a main street.
After Trang left us, we shopped at some of the stores and had a beer at a riverside restaurant before going back to the hotel. We had made appointments for therapeutic massages, which seemed like a great idea after all the walking we’d been doing. Two tiny Vietnamese women appeared at our hotel door at 5 pm sharp. They didn’t speak much English, but we understood that they wanted us to remove most of our clothes and lie across the bed. It was a queen-sized bed, but I still couldn’t figure out how they were going to massage both of us at the same time. But they did. They were very athletic, climbing all over and around us. My therapist was so strong I had to tell her to ease up. “More medium!” I moaned. “More medium!” She finally got the idea. After the women left, we showered and dressed for dinner.
It happened that this was “family night” at the hotel. The staff pushed all the tables together and served us free dinner, including beer and wine. There were many courses and the meal was delicious. We got to know the others who were staying there, who were almost all Australians. Vietnam is a convenient and cheap vacation for them. The nicest part of the meal was that the owners sat down and ate with us. They plan family night for once a week and we felt lucky to have been there that day.
The My Son (pronounced mee sohn) tour was on our day of departure. The schedule indicated that we’d be back in plenty of time for the hotel driver to return us to the airport. The bus was too wide for the little dirt road, so the guide came to the hotel to fetch us.
A United Nations Heritage Site, My Son features ancient temples of the Champa people, whose civilization flourished from the 2nd to the 15th century, when the Vietnamese moved down from the north and conquered them. The area had been carpet bombed by the Americans during the war, so many of the temples were ruined. Deep craters were everywhere and we were told to stay on the marked paths because of land mines. A lot of restoration is going on and I hope the structures can be repaired eventually. Our guide said his father, who was Viet Cong, was lucky because he was only wounded in the war. Our guide was also visibly disturbed and saddened about the destruction of this holy place.
We had checked out of the hotel before the tour and they were good enough to hold our bags in the office. It had been hot in the jungle and on our walk from town; we were sweaty and grimy. Our hosts took one look at us and asked us if we’d like to take showers before leaving. Our room had already been readied for the next guests, but we were invited to use the shower again, which meant the room had to be cleaned again. We were so grateful. The driver returned us to the airport, we boarded our Vietnam Airlines flight and returned to Ho Chi Minh City and a basic room at the Sunflowers Hotel, very near the airport. We left the next morning for our conference in Seoul, South Korea.
Vietnam is still a third world country but it is emerging as an important tourist destination. Right now, Vietnam is incredibly inexpensive. None of our hotels cost more than $50 a night and dinners were around $7 - $9. Our massage therapy was $12 per hour per person, booked through the hotel. I wonder what changes will occur in the next few years. For us, Vietnam was an amazing experience. More of an adventure than a vacation. It wasn’t on our list of places to see and I doubt we’ll ever return, but the beauty of the country and the kindness and friendliness of the people are sweet and lasting memories.