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Seeing and Traveling Through Vietnam 30 Years Later

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Vietnam is truly an exotic destination that has turned up on many travel itineraries in recent years and lies next door to Cambodia and Laos. I had lived in Vietnam in the mid-1970s and wanted to go back to photograph Tet Trung Thu—the Moon Day Festival—a holiday for children that I remembered celebrating, featuring colorful balloons and lanterns, special toys, moon cake, and parades. I also wanted to see more of the country, something that I was unable to do during my previous experience in Vietnam. Nancy, my good friend, travel buddy, and fellow photographer agreed to accompany me. The plan was to be in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) a few days prior to September 14, 2008, the day that the festival activities were to occur, then tour the country, ending up in Hanoi.

Planning

We knew that it was going to be important for us to be able to move around independently and that a preplanned, “by the number” tour would not give us the flexibility that we wanted in terms of travel dates. We also decided that, although we are well-traveled, somewhat adventurous women “of a certain age” who have traveled solo in other countries, we wanted a guide in Vietnam to help us with the language. Also, having a guide would enable us to make efficient use of our time in-country by eliminating the need for us to find our way to important sites on our own.

Enter the Internet, where I became my own travel consultant and discovered Haivenu UK Limited, an in-country tour company that proved to be just what we needed. My query, outlining our basic ideas for the trip, was soon answered by Mrs. Nguyen Thu Hang, who suggested an itinerary. Mrs. Hang was very prompt in responding to all of our questions and in making requested changes to our initial proposal. She provided references for Haivenu upon my request and obtained our government-issued visa approval letter for us. The booking process was fast and easy—all on-line or fax—even making payments was simple.

Young Monks, Hue, Vietnam
Young Monks, Hue, Vietnam

Our final itinerary would take us from Saigon to Hanoi via Hoi An, Hue, My Son, the DMZ, ethnic villages, the Vinh Moc tunnels, as well as two days on Ha Long Bay in a gorgeous junk boat where we would spend one night. The price included two in-country flights, a private, air conditioned car with a driver and a bi-lingual, English-speaking guide at each location, several day trips, transportation to and from airports and hotels (all of which were pleasant and well located), and all breakfasts and some dinners at each location. When in one locaton for several days, we were free to explore on our own with the assurance that Haivenu was available for help if we needed them. Per person cost was just over $2,000 for 15 days.

Author and friend Nancy with Guide.
Author and friend Nancy with their guide.

Getting To Vietnam and Back

For international flights, of course, we were on our own. Once again, the Internet helped us find the travel arrangements that best suited our needs. We used Expedia  to book our out-bound flight from Dulles International Airport into Saigon and our return flight out of Hanoi back to Dulles through Seoul, Korea on Korean Air both ways. This route offered the shortest overall time (21 hours + 1 day) at the best price--about $1,450.00 per person. It was slightly more expensive, but arriving and departing from different cities created a more time-efficient schedule.

The Korean Air jet offered increased leg room and individual entertainment systems in coach, two features that helped us endure the 14+ hour flights. Inchon Airport offers a transit lounge where you can sleep, eat, and/or have a relaxing massage in a full-service spa - a very nice, if expensive, way to spend a four-hour layover. My sixty-minute leg and body massage cost $88.00 US.

Challenges and Successes

One of the pleasures of travel abroad is being able to speak to people in their own language. Although I remembered some of the language, re-learning Vietnamese was a daunting task. It is a monosyllabic language with tones that are almost impossible for westerners to distinguish and yet are critical to being understood.  For example, the word tam can mean either “bath” or the number “eight”, depending on the tone. Nevertheless, we did manage to learn numbers plus basic words and phrases. The reward was that by breaking the language barrier somewhat, we demonstrated to locals our willingness to connect with them. Natives then helped us learn more of the language with their characteristic Vietnamese charm. In addition, the pushiest vendors left us alone immediately when we told them “no” in Vietnamese! And, yes, there were good-natured giggles all around when we really butchered the language. 

As photographers, we never felt hampered or uncomfortable with cameras around our necks. Surprisingly, religious ceremonies like the one at the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh, did not prohibit picture taking. Although some made it clear that they did not wish to be photographed (an attitude we respected) most of the friendly, smiling Vietnamese people were as wonderfully cooperative with us as with their friends... and everybody seems to have a camera (or at least a cell phone with one). 

Ceremony, Cao Dai Holy See, Tay Ninh, Vietnam
Ceremony, Cao Dai Holy See, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.

Keeping in touch with friends and family at home was easy. Technology is up-to-date and everywhere in Vietnam. Wireless Internet access is readily available in hotels, restaurants, and cafes. Vietnam seems to have jumped from the clumsy old French PTT communications system of the 1970s straight into cyberspace. And the connections were fast and reliable, although for some reason, we could not send or receive calls to the U.S. on Nancy’s international cell phone, though we could send text messages back and forth.

When we needed cash, we found ATMs offering instructions in English, as well as Vietnamese, on every street corner. Most major bank cards work fine dispensing dong (the local currency) in a variety of amounts: 1,500,000VD equals about $95.00 USD at approximately 16,000VD to the dollar.

Prices are low throughout the country. A taxi ride within one district in Saigon is less than $2.00. A gourmet French meal at the Green Tangerine, 48 Pho Hang Be in Hanoi with two glasses of wine and dessert is about $35.00 per person. Tipping is not expected but we did tip modest amounts in both restaurants and taxis. ur drivers and guides received generous amounts ($3 - $5 per day) for their good service and willingness to bend the “plan for the day” if there was something that we especially wanted to do or see.

Health and Safety in Vietnam

The question that I am asked most often is whether I felt safe in Vietnam. The State Department website lists many things to be careful about--from malaria to street crime. My husband feared for my safety while driving around the DMZ with a couple of “strange men” (our guide and driver). Others warned about the food and drinking water. “After all”, they reasoned, “Vietnam is nothing like Pennsylvania, where you live, and at 60+ will you be able to handle the long flights, the jet lag and the climate along with everything else?”

Truth be told, the only thing that did a number on me was the climate: It is hot, very humid, and sticky. So you are often dripping with sweat, consuming mass quantities of bottled water, and hardly ever needing a restroom (although there are plenty available). For me, being in air conditioning at regular intervals was paramount to enjoying the trip. Maybe that’s just the “senior” part of me reacting or maybe it was because we traveled during the rainy season in September—rather than between November through March, when it is cooler with lower humidity. 

In any case, we had received the recommended vaccinations and malaria tablets prior to departure. We also sprayed our clothes with insect repellent and used sunscreen. However, I do not remember seeing so much as an ant, let alone a mosquito! We were careful to drink only bottled water, including when brushing our teeth, and we rested when we were tired. The food was fresh, healthy, and delicious, and beautifully presented.

As far as feeling safe from crime, the comfort level was very high. This is not to say that it is not necessary to take the same precautions that you would in any large city. It is. But when the hotel door men remind you every time that you step outside to keep your valuables where you can see them, it is harder to slip up. The biggest problem that I encountered was a hotel manicurist who tried to shame me into giving her a 100% tip!  Did I say tips weren’t expected? Well only by some.

The one time that I feared for my personal safety was crossing the street in Saigon. As one guidebook put it, street-crossing is an extreme sport. There is a trick to it and it is unnerving: You must step out into the intersection and proceed at a slow, steady pace (as if you were walking across your living room), looking straight ahead and not stopping or making any sudden moves until you get to the other side. The motorcycles and other vehicles will then “flow” around you. I knew this was going to take some practice when, on my first day in town, an old woman got up from her seat on the sidewalk and took my arm, helping me to cross. Traffic stops for no man (or woman) in Saigon.

Conclusion

Booking an in-country tour was the perfect blend of independence, comfort and security. Since it was just the two of us, we were able to get to know our local guides on a more personal level than would have been possible otherwise. We could also make the most of the time we had in terms of sightseeing, making discoveries on our own and doing the photography that we came to do. We were not limited by a strict timetable or itinerary, just our curiosity and energy level. For example, the Dong Ba Market, on the edge of the Perfume River in Hue, is an authentic local market and a great place to shop for souvenirs. Our guide took us there, not by car, but by dragon boat. When we disembarked at the same muddy bank that the locals use, we were greeted with curious but welcoming smiles and stares.

Perfume River at the Dong Ba Market, Hue, Vietnam
Perfume River at the Dong Ba Market, Hue, Vietnam