While living in Vietnam we were able to travel cheaply, and pleasantly around the country. Each adventure was unique and intense in its own way. I do not intend to write about facts which you can find on the links I have added, but I rather write about how the experiences at each place altered my senses, and how each location had a particularity which became part of me and my family. I will start with Hanoi where we landed, our first taste of Vietnam, our first home outside of the US.
Ha Noi – The Capital (North Vietnam)
The maze of alleys where the 5 am markets and the city roosters rise with the sun. A heaven where the interlocking of electric cables decorate the urban but historical capital of Vietnam. This intense, fast, and chaotic city is flooded with motionless motorbikes and pagodas in every corner where the incense cleans the energies, and the ashes on the streets trace back to a full moon. In Hanoi you find historical landmarks like the Old Quarter, the Temple of Literature, the Turtle Pagoda, the legendary Phu Thay Ho, and above all, millions of little shops that sell everything from stationary to car parts, to dry fruit, to all kinds of noodles, to memorabilia, to souvenirs, to clothes. To us, the most peculiar sites in Hanoi were the coffee shops inside shops; places you could not imagine existed behind the counter of T-shirt stores. These mysterious places are accessible walking or on motorbike. You pull into the store [unnoticeable], and continue driving smoothly through a thin, dark alley that resembles a time travel tunnel… and then, just as if you came out of a cave, you see light in between a mesmerizing view of old Asian decorations at the start of a spiral staircase which will take you to a heaven of Vietnamese coffee and green tea. From this places you can see lakes, city views. In Hanoi you witness wedding photoshoots and encounter smiles, odd looks, and the smell of fresh basil and mint. In Hanoi you have pho for breakfast, a city where the dark green and pink lotus ponds become colourful gardens in the Spring.
Hoi An – Historical City (Central Vietnam)
Quang Nam Province is the home for the city of lanterns, where the historical pink Japanese bridge is the chord to shops and exquisite restaurants featuring international, eclectic, Asian-fusion, and extraordinary Vietnamese food. This little town is full of magic. It is small, but quaint. Only 50 minutes by plane from the capital. The flight takes you to Da Nang where you see the Lady Buddha gazing from a mountain. From there you can get a Taxi for about 40 minutes, stopping at the famous Marble Mountain, where I got my first crystal, a spherical rose quartz. To the left we passed the ocean, and finished in the historical city of Hoi An. We took a tour to the Champa Ruins: My Son, these mysterious Hindu temples covered in green nature were part of the Chapma Kingdom occupied from the 4th to the 13th centuries. There are 8 groups of temples found throughout the complex, and 71 standing monuments. However, after the American War, there was substantial damage. These beautiful architectures are 60 minutes from Hoi An. Since 1999 they have been a UNESCO heritage world site. Watching Gaia run around the history secretly hidden between the brick and the green plants was heart warming. Once again, it becomes sublime to know we are doing this, to be aware enough to see my toddler be present in ruins I never knew existed. We spent 2014 New Year’s Eve in Hoi An where the lanterns decorated a colourful background for Gaia’s moments. A place we learned has a rainy season in December, but one we would continue to visit while in Nam.
Nha Trang – Strong Blue Beach (South Vietnam)
In Khanh Hoa Province we landed in a tiny airport, took a long taxi ride through the mountains, more than 1 hour… as we continued to climb the mountains by road, besides running out of ideas to entertain our excited toddler, we started to feel apprehensive as to how safe this trip really was and were was the speeches driver actually taking us. At the end of this paranoid thought, the car started to slowly descend, and there it was, an enormous and magnificent blue ocean. One of the many features our planet has which continues to mesmerize me since I first went to the Pacific beach in Colombia, only this time I was again visiting it, but now East rather than West: I am in Asia, a thought I could never get pass. The ocean is strong, but calm as you listen to its roar. I could see mountains from the shore, and this became my favorite highlight. We rented a motorbike and rode through the city, experimenting different restaurants and sites. We also drove to see a mystical waterfall which took an eternal rock climbing before we could bathe. This city of Nha Trang has a heavy Russian influence, so we were approached with flyers that we could not read, but fortunately we could always turn to the back for English. In Vietnam we had our first real Russian dining experience.
Mai Chau – Quiet Mountains
West of Hanoi, in a 4 hour drive we found a perfect getaway from the urban busy live. The first time I met Mai Chau in Hoa Binh Province, I was on a Yoga retreat. This is a small and calm place, where the stilt houses hide between the mountains and you can witness the rice paddies grow endlessly as they get picked by the local workers, whom are only seen from the top of their cone hats. Children run around with their dogs, chickens, and roosters. It is rural, rustic, and reserved. When I went back with Bert and Gaia we rented bikes and rode through the mountains while the local people smiled at Gaia as she rode on the back of the bike. In Mai Chau I saw the aquatic lotus flowers close in the afternoon, and sink into the water. The next day the Lotus emerged and bloomed in the morning until the mid-afternoon. I was amazed by the cycle of this flowers that rise from the mud into a clean beautiful pink bud that opens gently. In Buddhism it’s associated with purity, spiritual awakening and faithfulness.
“Just like the lotus we too have the ability to rise from the mud, blossom out of the darkness and radiate into the world” -unknown
Sapa – Majestic Mountain Top
A town in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains of northwestern Vietnam, part of the Lao Cai province is where I felt a sublime love for this country, one which became my second home after leaving South America. The town itself is small and geared to the tourism. There are 54 ethnic groups included many of different denomination with a multitude of dialects. We opted to stay in the mountain top, at the EcoLodge. The drive to the top of the mountain took me back to my childhood memories in Colombia, when we used to drive through the mountains to arrive at my great-grandparents “farm”. I observed the same vegetation, the same dangerous cliffs where we could see children waving as they fearlessly chased each other. While we continued to move around and around the curves, my fear of heights creeped, and I wondered when we would reach the top. A stilt house marked our destination, and many minority women dressed in their traditional outfits welcomed us. I later learned that they are part of the Hmong tribe. In their few words of English they smothered us trying to establish clientele for their traditional crafts. It was fascinating and overwhelming at the same time. A Western man greeted us, and together with a young Vietnamese guy they carried our luggage, as we followed them behind the house where we arrived. The curtain lifted and there it was: the mountain top of Sapa. The Ecolodge is located literally at the top of the mountain and with this there comes a 360 degree view. Wherever you look there are mountains, infinite rice fields, wherever you breath there is fresh air, and then there were the ladies, picking flowers, herbs, and way down I could see their husbands working the fields with the water buffaloes. It was a dream, a photograph from the National Geographic where I was standing as if I was a goddess witnessing every move. We spent 3 days “relaxing”, making sure Gaia would not roll over the mountain cliff, playing Badminton, table games, napping, taking photos, many photos, breathing the air, and eating fresh home-made food. This was my favorite trip, the best corner from all the ones we visited in Nam. I would do it again despite my fear of heights and the challenging drive.
Ha Long Bay- The Green Boulders
A UNESCO world heritage since 1994, in the Quang Ning provice, is home of endless emerald waters and 1,600 huge limestone islands covered in rainforests. We booked a tour in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. There are millions of offices that will book these trips for very little money. We went with the “moderate” price in a tourist office behind the Cathedral. The bus picked us up at our apartment (then home #2 on Tay Ho street), and took us to pick up more passengers, including a loud and excited group of Russians. The drive is about 4 hours from Hanoi including a stop at a famous shop which features traditional Vietnamese art from silk dresses, to dry fruit. The arrival at the bay was madness! Millions of people, boats, tour guides among locals selling food, balloons in your face while trying to stay with our group. The safest place for our toddler was the sling, as we pulled suitcases and followed the tour guide. Once we settled in the big boat that would take us through the bay, all was calm in between the loudness of our Russian neighbors. We laid on beach chairs and just watched the boat move gently through the infinite green islands. Later I saw women in small fishing boats cleaning the water from traces of dirty plastic. I was sad to see this, but accepted the trash collection system that is generated in Nam, i.e. Trash is created so others can earn a living. At night the bay is stunning, you can spot the lights of other boats as their shadows decorate the water.
Traveling Nam gave us insight of the small differences in culture which are conditioned by external factors like war, immigrants, climate, and time. We learned how different people are from the North to the South, and how their behavior is challenging yet influential. The corners of Nam that we visited decorate this beautiful country, which despite the times of war, has remained strong, patriotic, and mesmerizing. From beaches on the East to Mountains on the West, this East Asian country has a vast cultural richness to offer.
Gaia continues to claim she is from Hanoi, and this statement will forever make this country powerful and special to us. We will always call it home…