During our last day in Vietnam, I was walking down the street in Dong Hoi to mail some post cards before heading to the airport, feeling a little sad that these were my final hours in a country I’d grown to love. As I was walking by a school, a little girl on the sidewalk asked “Where you from?” as I approached her. “Canada!”, I said. “You are BEE-YOO-TEE-FUL!” she announced enthusiastically, enunciating every syllable of her compliment as if it were a totally normal follow up to learning a person’s nationality. I burst out laughing and managed a “Thank you!” as I continued (now merrily) on my way. How could I not love this country?
We spent the last 3½ weeks of our time in Vietnam in what I think is hands-down, the country’s most magical city, Hoi An. Although our apartment was simple, it was such a treat to have our own kitchen, a washing machine and to not have to repack our bags every few days. All the things we took for granted back home have now become luxuries! It was so much fun to get a taste of the expat lifestyle (which many a digital nomad are taking advantage of in Hoi An), and to really immerse ourselves in a place for an extended period of time. Having the time to do that (without an ounce of guilt) feels like one of the biggest advantages of a year-long trip.
Ringing in the (Lunar) New Year
One of the reasons we wanted to settle down for a while in February was because travelling during the lunar new year celebrations, or “Tết” as it is called in Vietnam, is a complete gong show. The entire country shuts down for at least 3 days and travelling the week before or after the holiday is totally insane (and expensive). Watching the country prepare for Tết was one of coolest experiences of our time in Vietnam. It’s like the week before Christmas back home, except instead of going to the mall, everyone goes to the market. And by the market I mean really any kind of stall or shop that has popped up on the side of the road selling flowers, kumquat trees, sticky rice cakes, or other Tết must-haves. Since scooters rule the streets in Vietnam, a “drive-in” culture has naturally developed where people pull up to a stall on the side of the road and shout out their order for sandwiches, flowers, or toilet paper without ever having to get off their bike. As you can imagine, this led to many a traffic jam leading up to Tết as bikes crowded around the stalls, consequently blocking off half the road.
As novice scooter drivers, these traffic jams were a little stressful for us as we’d have to navigate through narrow openings the width of our bike without scratching the car coming through on our left or running over the toes of the lady sitting on the ground selling watermelons on our right. Back home, this scenario would inevitably lead to some serious road rage, but in Vietnam, everybody is cool as a cucumber. People are taking selfies of themselves stuck in traffic because they think it’s hilarious. There are no road rules to speak of (anything goes as long as you communicate with your horn!) and that’s the way they like it. Their easy-going attitude makes me think that maybe it’s the overabundance of rules and constraints on Western roads that leads to the pent up driver frustration causing road rage in the first place. Or maybe it’s that the Vietnamese are predominantly Buddhist. It could be that too.
Like Christmas, Tết is a very family focused holiday in Vietnam, which is why we were especially surprised to receive an invite to an intimate family dinner during Tết from the owner of the apartment we rented (he might be the kindest man in all of Vietnam). He doesn’t speak any English (all of our communication with him had been through Google Translate) and we’d only be living there for two weeks at the time so we were pretty much strangers. But in Vietnam, that doesn’t matter. Their lovely family welcomed us and some of the other residents in the apartment building to their table as if we were part of their family. We had a delicious meal, too many beers and made some new friends as we rung in the year of the dog together.
The Vietnamese have a lot of traditions and superstitions that go along with Tết – here are a few that I found interesting:
- The Vietnamese believe that the first person to walk into your house in the new year can determine the family’s fate for the coming year. Preferably it’s someone rich and successful! If that’s unlikely to happen, the head of the household will often leave the house and come back in just after midnight to prevent an undesirable guest being the first.
- It’s bad luck to sweep your house or empty the garbage bin during Tết as you may consequently remove the good luck along with the dirt and trash!
- Exchanging gifts during Tết is common. In business relationships, giving someone a puppy symbolizes long-term success in the partnership because a dog’s bark is thought to mimic the word “rich” in Vietnamese (as if I needed another reason to want a puppy).
Maybe it’s the communications major in me, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about social media (Intsagram in particular, which is said to be the most envy-inducing of the platforms) and how much power I have to control how others perceive my life and our trip based on what I choose to share, or more importantly, not share. I could (and often do!) post gorgeous pictures of beaches and our smiling faces all day long and you’d all think that my life was perfect. You might even feel a little jealous that you aren’t doing what we’re doing as you shovel snow or make your way into work Monday morning. Don’t get me wrong, we are indeed having the trip of a lifetime, but everything is not always perfect. There are two sides to every story and two versions of every travel experience.
For example, when we visited Bai Tu Long Bay (Halong Bay’s less busy, equally beautiful neighbour) for my birthday, we had a really great time for the most part. We kayaked through the limestone karsts, met some lovely people from Maine onboard and marveled at the ridiculous dragons and swans that the staff had sculpted out of vegetables!
We were just heading to bed congratulating ourselves on what a great choice we’d made in picking Garden Bay Cruises to take us here from the hundreds of tour companies we could have gone with, when we heard a noise from across the room. I turned the bedside lamp on on and looked around.
Nothing. Lights off, eyes closed.
A few moments later, we again heard a scurrying sound from the next bed over that had a bunch of our stuff on it. This time when I turned on the light, a sizeable rat was staring right at me, perched on top of Mike’s jacket on the other bed. We locked eyes in a shared moment of horror before he bolted into the corner to hide. We moved everything that might be of rat interest in the closet, but I knew I wasn’t going to be sleeping that night. Even with the lights on, our rodent roomie continued to run laps all night long from the air conditioner cubby hole above the closet, down the room’s lattice decor serving as his ladder to the floor of our room. I didn’t sleep a wink that night and our cruise was totally ruined. But of course, you’d never have known that if I hadn’t just told you. The whole experience (good and bad) was definitely a memorable entry into my 36th year!
Communism is complicated
To be honest, I don’t really know much about communism in Vietnam besides the fact that a lot of unsuccessful effort has been put into stopping it. Technically Vietnam is still a communist country but from what I can tell, its citizens aren’t really benefiting from any of the usual perks touted by a communist regime. There is incredible disparity in wealth, education (at any level) comes with a price tag and old age pension is non-existent. The only real signs of communism seem to be the Ho Chi Minh propaganda around every corner and the corrupt ‘elections’ with a winner that’s been predetermined long before anybody hits the polls.
Vietnam’s attitude toward the government and communism also seems to vary considerably from North to South. Even though the country was reunited in 1975 when the communist North and Viet Cong forces won the war, people in the South still call Ho Chi Minh City by its original name, Saigon, as a symbol of their ongoing defiance. Although Ho Chi Minh might be a revolutionary hero in the North (to the point where hysterical crying ensues when some people view his mausoleum), his army isn’t so fondly remembered in the South, especially by the millions who were persecuted after the war for having any ties to America, France or China.
In Vietnam, there’s no shortage of historical war sites to visit as reminders of the country’s violent past are everywhere. From the Củ Chi Tunnels – an impressive network of hand-dug underground of tunnels spanning 250km long – to the Hanoi Prison Museum where we learned that Americans (including John McCain) actually really enjoyed being incarcerated there! At least, that’s what it looked like from the choice photos of their smiling faces in the museum’s exhibits.
Even decades later, the war is still having a devastating impact on the country and the environment. The land and the people are still suffering from the effects of agent orange, the horrific chemical the Americans used to destroy the thick vegetation concealing the communists. Unsurprisingly, the chemical has also caused terrible health problems for the people who were exposed to it. Thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO), especially in central Vietnam, also continues to take more lives every year and has killed more than 40,000 Vietnamese people since the war ended. The government estimates that at least 15% of the country’s total surface area is contaminated by UXO, leaving vast stretches of land too dangerous to use for farming, housing or tourism. It’s a sad reminder of the lasting impacts of war.
And yet, despite all this, you’ll never see the Vietnamese people playing the victim. They are insanely hard-working and as a collective, seem utterly content with what they have, even if most Westerners would consider it to be very little. We did an excellent food tasting tour in Hoi An and one of the women leading part of it had suffered birth defects as a result of agent orange. She walked with a limp but was quite possibly one of the most cheerful, enthusiastic people I have ever met. She considered herself to be lucky because so many other victims of agent orange don’t have supportive parents or access to education like she did. She now devotes her time to raising money and volunteering for VAVA (Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange) to help those less fortunate than herself. I’d been complaining a lot about the weather that week. Sometimes a little dose of perspective arrives just when you need it most.
Onward to Chiang Mai, Thailand next! Our itinerary page is up-to-date if you want to meet us anywhere en route! The invitation is always open.