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  • Writer's pictureGlenn Cohen

Vietnam- not what you think

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

Even though more than forty years have passed, most foreigners associate Vietnam with war. This cognitive scheme is hard wired in our brains and it takes a serious jolt to alter this. A month in Vietnam helped us make this mind shift. It so happens that Vietnam is quite amazing, blessed with beautiful nature, rich culture, history, and unique people. While travelling in Vietnam one sees the building boom and the development all around. Even though it has adopted a free market economy, the ubiquitous flags of the communist party are a reminder that Vietnam is one of the five remaining communist countries in the world.

We landed in the capitol city of Hanoi with a rush of mixed feelings. On the one hand, the people were unpleasant in a way that we had not encountered until now. On the other hand, the splendid smell and taste of the fresh French baguette at the airport café offered a warm welcoming after seven months of travelling in countries who do not excel in baked goods. The baguette is probably the best thing that the French colonialists left in Indo China. We landed on the day of the ”Tet". Before travelling to Vietnam I was familiar with the term from the "Tet Offensive" taught in history lessons, and I was sure it was the name of a city. I had no idea until I arrived in Vietnam that Tet is the name of the Chinese new year.

Two days in Hanoi

We are not big city lovers, and Hanoi was a necessary evil we needed to pass through. I have been to many cities in the world where the driving is insanely dangerous, but Hanoi takes the cake. Imagine aggressive driving with no laws expect for Darwin's survival of the fittest. In addition, one has to deal with thousands of motorcycles swarming the roads like a drove of locusts. Most people can not afford a car, therefore the family vehicle is a two wheeler. It is very common to see a couple with three children scooting through traffic during the madness of rush hour traffic.

Every Vietnamese is equipped with a fashionable cloth face mask in order to cope with the pollution. It is amazing what one can get used to, so at a certain stage we figured "when in Rome…", and adopted a motorcycle as our family vehicle.

We adopted the motorcycle as our S.U.V.

We found a fun way of spending our time in the city by playing our version of the "Amazing Race". This is something I made up during our journey, and is a fun educational way to explore cities around the world. The children received a list of 10 missions to complete within the old city, equipped with a tourist map and one million Vietnamese dong (approximately $40), to cover the expenses of the family for the day. Successful completion of all the missions grants them one million dong to split between them, in order to buy souveniers in Vietnam. They had to navigate between sites by various types of wheels, taste local foods, learn history, and interact with the Vietnamese. We sat together and let them plan the final and most challenging mission. There are street vendors who stand in the middle of a congested street, holding a ten foot long bamboo stick with over one hundred helium balloons attached to it. It is huge and heavy, but will fly away if not held tightly. Their mission was to take a photo with one of them holding this huge complex of balloons. The children planned nicely, and Maya even managed to convince the vendor without having to pay money, but decided to buy a balloon so the vendor would be pleased. We celebrated the successful completion of all the missions in a local restaurant which they chose.

"Race for the Million"

Final mission of the "Race for the Million"

Five days in Halong Bay

Vietnam is long and narrow, therefore most tourists travel along a set route from North to South or vice versa, depending mainly on the weather. Most tourists start in the north with a one or two day organized cruise of Halong Bay, renowned as a world heritage site due to its stunning karstic cliffs jutting out of the water, and the caves that one can kayak through. We decided to take our time, and spent five days on Catba, the largest island of the bay. The owners of the "Little Catba" guesthouse managed to alter the first impression that we received regarding the nature of the Vietnamese. We have not met such nice people throughout our entire journey. They picked us up from the bus station, rented two motorbikes for our unlimited use, did our laundry, and took us on a half day kayak trip, all this free of charge. In honor of the Tet holiday, they prepared a feast for all the guests (nine in total), and the conversation with the owner was riveting. His father fought with the North Vietnamese, and as an American who grew up during the fiasco of the Vietnam war, it was very moving to hear his opinions. Despite the national trauma, they do not hold a grudge and are concentrating on moving their country forward to greener pastures. Together with that, we felt tension surrounding the topic of Communism as he refused to discuss politics.

Halong bay is impressive even on a cloudy day

Two weeks in Hoian

We flew to central Vietnam close to the "17th parallel", the historic border between North and South Vietnam. We rented a house in Hoian, a coastal city also crowned by UNESCO as a world heritage site due to a charming mix of architectural styles from Chinese, Japanese, and French traders over hundreds of years. The atmosphere is enchanting, and it's no wonder that many Expats are drawn here. During our two week stay we created a much needed routine of studies, market shopping, cooking, fishing, and visiting the nearby beaches by electric bikes and motorcycle. Besides for many fun moments, we also had our share of tension and very tough moments with the children which remind us that a journey like this is more like a marathon than a trip. After eight months I feel that we're approaching the "wall", the marathon runner's nemesis which lurks around the bend as one nears the 20 mile mark out of 26. We've got a couple of months until the end of our journey, and I wonder how we'll overcome the hardships, what state will we be in when we reach the finishing line. I'll elaborate in a separate post or in the book, we'll see.

The Chinese lanterns are a hallmark of Hoian

Three days in the Phong Nha cave territory

We planned to continue southwards via the water park at Nha Trang and Dalat. I was tempted to take the family canyoneering, until I heard that three British tourists were killed at that very spot only a few days earlier. We had already purchased bus tickets to Nha Trang and then heard that the water park had closed for renovations. The kids were upset and sour faced, so we decided to make lemonade out of it, and headed northwards to explore the caves of Phong Nha. After our adventures in the caves of Guatamala, we were worried that the kids would not be impressed by more caves, but in retrospect, they rated them as the number one highlight of Vietnam. The fascinating subterranean world is the only realm on earth that is still unchartered territory and has yet to be completely discovered. Only six years ago, the largest cave in the world by the name of Dong Soong was discovered in the Phong Nha reserve. In order to tour this cave, one must book one year in advance, therefore we settled for a couple of day tours in nearby caves which were quite spectacular. The longest underground river in the world flows through the Phong Nha cave, which we rowed through. The deeper into the cave one rows, it's hard to catch one's breath due to the abundant beauty and lack of oxygen. The peak experience was our adventurous half day spent at the "Dark Cave". The longest zip line in Vietnam sped us to the entrance of the cave where we swam into the cave. Equipped with helmet and headlamp, we squeezed through the narrow passageways in to the bowels of the earth where a surprise awaited us. We slid into a huge mud pool where we frolicked until we were completely covered in mud and looked as if we were workers in Willy Wonka's factory who had fallen into the vats. After this sensual experience, we rowed by kayak out the cave until the flying fox rope course hanging high above the river. It's quite challenging to traverse the entire course without falling into the water, and the highlight of the day was when Maya and Yali led me to the other side with impressive tenacity and teamwork. The icing on the cake was leaping to the water from the 30 foot high cable. All this happened with no witnesses and no documentation. This was another lesson for all of us regarding the importance of experiencing the moment and not the selfie.

Entering the dark cave

The mud pool deep in the Dark Cave

Creating a festive Sabbath

The Sabbath is one of the most important anchors for our family during our worldwide journey, especially since we are lacking the usual frameworks from our normal lives. Having every Friday from sun down until Saturday sunset as a special day of rest and festivity, feeds our family rhythm during the year. Throughout our journey we carried a "Sabbath kit" which consisted of candles to be lit at sunset, a silver Kiddush cup to recite the Sabbath prayer, and a white tablecloth. Wherever possible, we would join the local Jewish Chabad house or rent an apartment equipped with oven and Orit would bake delicious Challah bread. On several occasions we were blessed with the opportunity to host Israeli backpackers and families for Friday night dinner, and these were some of the most festive memories of our journey so far.

We toured the caves on Friday together with some very sweet Israeli backpackers and we arranged to eat dinner together at our hotel restaurant. Upon returning to the hotel before sunset, Orit was upset not be able to have our festive Sabbath dinner as we are used to, and decided to pull out her magic wand. She waltzed into the hotel kitchen, chatted up the Vietnamese staff and chef, and taught them how to make traditional Israeli dishes. Two hours later, the hotel staff had set a beautiful Friday night table for us, with warm scrumptious Challah bread and Israeli Matboocha spread! The chef declared that he intends to add these dishes to the restaurant menu. The table was complete when our guests joined us. We made the Kiddush prayer and benediction and enjoyed an especially warm Sabbath meal together.

Orit giving an Israeli cooking class to the Vietnamese chef

How much wood can a Vietnamese wood chucker chuck?

While running from our hotel through the quiet forest I suddenly heard voices and a ruckus within the trees. I saw a few bicycles lying at the side of the path, and saw ladies with sickles in hand, vigorously hacking away at branches and trees. They were proficiently cutting down trees, but seemed to have difficulty with the thicker trunks. As I approached, they greeted me gleefully, and even though they didn’t speak a word of English, they mimed the technique to me and I chopped down the trees with trunks thicker than five inches, while they shaved off the branches and prepared the wood to be sold to the market. We took some selfies together, and when I showed them the photos they burst out in laughter as if it was the first time they had seen a smartphone photo. I was amazed to realize that one kilometer from our hotel there live people who have not yet discovered the selfie and the bicycle is their only mode of transportation. Judging by their age, it's safe to assume that these ladies experienced their share of sorrow during the war, and I was surprised to see how full of energy and joy they were. On the way back to the hotel I saw a limping man who must have been close to 90 years old, with a walking stick in his right hand and a heavy bundle of branches on his left shoulder. I offered to help and he was thankful as I took his load and held his hand until we reached the top of the hill.

The Vietnamese are very proud of their tenacity and determination which helped them maintain their independence despite waves of conquerors throughout the years. I could feel the Vietnamese espirit de corp through these "wood chuckers". I wanted to share this experience so I returned to the hotel and brought my family along, and we found found the female wood chuckers a few hours later in the forest. The ladies were very excited to meet the family, touching and hugging them with great curiosity. This brief encounter in the woods left a lasting impression on us. Vietnam and it's people have helped us realize that even people considered as enemies can touch and move us.

Vietnamese wood chuckers

Tips for travelers to Vietnam

*Halong Bay- Most travelers buy a package deal in Hanoi which includes a bus to Halong plus a one or two day cruise of Halong Bay. One can accomplish the same for half the price by going directly to the Hanoi bus station and buying a bus and ferry ticket via Haiphong to Catba for 210,000 dong. Catba is the largest island in Halong Bay, and there one can buy a cruise from a local agency or boat company.

*Catba- Recommended guest house: "The little Catba" guest house. Beyond the wonderful experience of staying there, the host will be happy to arrange tours for the best possible prices. The owner's name is Hey; telephone +84988894830

*Phong Na caves- There are 3 caves that one can visit, Phong Na, Paradise, and Dark cave. You will be offered organized tours, but one can tour them independently for half the price. One simply arrive there by taxi or motorbike and pay admission at the gate.

1. Phong Na has the longest subterrainean river in the world (44km). The tour includes a half hour boat ride along the river until it enters into the mouth of the cave, and continues another half hour inside the spectacular cave plus a 20 minute walk before returning by boat to town. Tickets can be purchased at the dock in the Phong Na town, the boat costs 360,000 dong ($16) , which is split between the number of passengers (it usually does not take more than a few minutes until the boat fills up with the maximum 16 passengers). The entrance ticket to the cave costs 100,000 dong ($4.5), so an independent tour should cost roughly $6 per person.

2. Paradise cave is a huge and impressive stalagmite cave, entrance fee 250,000 dong ($11). Like many backpackers that we met, we decided to skip the Paradise cave since we didn't feel that it had substantial added value relative to the Phong Na cave, especially if one is going to the Dark cave too.

3. The Dark cave is the cave to visit for those seeking excitement, and not afraid of darkness and and the 20 mile distance from Phong Na town can be covered by taxi for $40 including a stop at the nearby Paradise if you wish.

4. There is a more expensive option of a two day trek to the Hang En cave which is the third largest cave in the world. This costs $250 per person and includes a challenging 10 mile jungle trek including camping and touring in the cave.

5. Dong Soong is the largest cave in the world, for those with no budget issues. This cave was opened to the public two years ago, and costs $3000 per person for a seven day trek including camping in the depth of the cave. It sounds like a super cool experience, but before you run to book your flight to Vietnam, take into consideration that one must book about one year in advance.

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