Week 49: The Fam Takes Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi)

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Tet, an important holiday celebrating the Vietnamese New Year. The streets were full of festively-clad people, and many stores and restaurants were closed. Traffic was supposedly “slow,” but it still felt like a city full of scooters to us.

Shortly after settling into my (amazing) apartment, I got 10 texts in a row from Remotes saying some version of “Your parents are downstairs and they are so cute!”

Indeed, my mom and Galya were waiting for me downstairs, and we happily reunited after a few days apart. They loved Siem Reap and Angkor, and had enjoyed their day of touring Saigon (the old name for HCMC, one still used by many locals).

We were both staying in District 3, a bit removed from hectic downtown, and ended up walking towards city center for dinner at Vietnam House that night.

I can’t say this was my first impression of Saigon, since I came here in summer 2015 with (can you guess?) Angela and her sister. We found Saigon to be crowded, hot, and overall not too impressive. We were much more charmed by Hanoi, the capital in the north.

This time around, something had changed. Maybe it was the fact that I was coming from Phnom Penh. Maybe it was the more pleasant winter weather. Maybe it was living in District 3, away from some of the craziness. Either way, I wasn’t mad about Saigon! Perhaps I was wrong to write it off when seeing it on the itinerary…

The city was lit up for the holidays and we even enjoyed some festivities at a flower showcase in Ho Chi Minh Square.


The next day, we were supposed to do a tour of the Mekong Delta, but I woke up super sick. Sudden fever, no strength, sore throat – the works. I hadn’t been this sick the whole year and was disappointed with the terrible timing, since we had a week of travel coming up. I slept most of the day while my parents toured the delta, and even caught some Australian Open tennis (Federer vs. Nadal was epic).

Despite being sick and miserable, I decided to deal with it later and took the flight with my family to Da Nang. A brief cab ride later, we had made it to the highlight of any trip to Vietnam…

Hoi An

Hoi An is one of the cutest towns in Vietnam, and possibly the world. It was an ancient trading port and has maintained its historical Chinese-style houses (mostly painted yellow), its cobblestone streets frequented by grandmas on bicycles wearing teepee hats, and its most colorful feature: its lanterns. Hoi An is a city of lanterns of all different shapes and colors, and it’s truly magical to wander its little lanes.

I had my first Remote Year visit to the doctor (made it to month 12 – not bad!), who quickly diagnosed me with strep-induced tonsillitis and prescribed me some fancy French medicine. After tea in a café on the way home, I left my parents to do some more exploring while I recovered and worked. We stayed at the An Hoi Town Homestay, which took incredible care of me, feeding me ginger, lemon and honey any chance they could. It was a wonderful family to whom I remain so grateful.

My parents got to explore most of the town and even nearby An Bang beach, though they didn’t love it. It was a little chilly for swimming and they found the beach dirtier than expected. Maybe it’s different in different locations?

We wandered nighttime Hoi An together and had dinner at Hai Cafe before turning in for the night in preparation for our next destination.

Hue

We took the train from Da Nang to Hue (pronounced Hway). This leg is considered to be the most beautiful part of the Saigon-Hanoi route, with the views far outweighing the ricketiness of the old train cars during the 3-hour journey. We bought some snacks on the side of the platform, boarded the train full mostly of locals, and were off. Some of the views were truly amazing, with limestone cliffs peeking out of the South China Sea and rice paddies being patrolled by water buffalo.

We arrived to Hue, the Imperial Capital during the Nguyen Dynasty (19th-20th Century), and a short time later were situated in the Jade Hotel.

Hue boasts an impressive citadel and palace, and many imperial tombs surrounding the city. We spent one rainy afternoon exploring the citadel and learning about the last emperors of Vietnam, and one morning driving around a few different tombs. Far from being dark and gloomy, the tombs were downright spectacular. My favorite was the Tu Duc tomb, which was a fully-fledged park and was even used by the emperor as a summer residence while he was still alive. The grounds had an incredibly peaceful and serene energy, and I could see why people would visit this tomb on weekends as a getaway from the city.

I spent most evenings and nights in Hue working and taking calls from the hotel (including a late-night call in the stairway!), but did get to enjoy a fantastic dinner with the fam at Les Jardins de la Carambole, a French Vietnamese restaurant. It’s situated in an old colonial-style mansion, has impeccable service, and delicious dishes.

Hanoi

Our last stop of the trip was Hanoi, in the north. We hired a local guide who spoke Russian (though not very well) to take us around the city and to Halong Bay.

We took a full-day trip to Halong Bay, one of the most amazing natural wonders of Vietnam. Limestone karsts jut out from the aquamarine water while your boat weaves through cliffs. We had a boat all to ourselves, and enjoyed the beautiful views despite the cloudy weather. The strongest memory I had from Halong Bay from my 2015 trip was the terrifying car ride back to Hanoi, which I was sure would be my last. Even though we got to kayak and enjoy sunny weather then, this trip was much more pleasant.

In Hanoi, we saw the old quarter with its narrow streets, Hoan Kiem lake, great for strolling around in the evening and watching street performers, and the lake into which John McCain’s shot down plane fell. We enjoyed visiting the oldest university in Vietnam, now called the Temple of Literature, and seeing the stone pillars on which students had to write their exams.

We watched the adorable water puppet show, showcasing several Vietnamese folk stories with expertly choreographed puppeteers, and checked out my favorite secret coffee shop, Cafe Pho Co, great for an egg white coffee with a view.

Among other things, Hanoi is known for its food, and I was really excited to share some of my favorite dishes with my family (especially my dad, who was doing his own pho taste-test throughout the country). We had bun cha (rice noodles with beef & pork) here and bun bo nam bo (rice noodles with beef and peanut sauce) here. Both were phenomenal, demonstrating the advantages of specializing in one dish only. Finally, we made it a point to go to Pho Thinh for its famous pho bo (beef pho), and it did not disappoint. When my dad said it was the best pho he’d had in Vietnam, I knew my work was done…


And just like that, it was time to go our separate ways. I loved introducing my family to two new countries and an incredible region, and hope they’re eager to return for more. Many times we talked about how Vietnam had a thriving empire for centuries that we in the west never learned about. It’s visiting places like this that make you realize how little non-European history we learn, and how advanced many places we think of as “developing” truly are.

After a brief hotel lobby goodbye, the fam was heading home and I was off to Sa Pa, a new destination for me in the mountains of northern Vietnam.

 

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