Friday, August 18, 2017

August 15 – Final Thoughts on Vietnam

For our final day in Hanoi, and Vietnam, we had no plans. Since our onward flight was going to be just after midnight tonight we had booked the room for two nights, allowing us to stay here until we had to leave for the airport. After a bit of a sleep in, and a slow breakfast at the hotel we walked to the Ho Chi Minh Museum complex which, we had read, contained a mausoleum with Uncle Ho’s preserved body, a large museum, a presidential palace, and the traditional stilt house that Ho Chi Minh used to live in.

To put it bluntly, the mausoleum was closed, the grounds were confusing to navigate, and the museum was disorganized and it was very hard to understand whatever story they were trying to tell. So we didn’t get much out of it. I was quite looking forward to learning more about Uncle Ho, so I was disappointed. It was sort of like finding a large box labelled “Ho Cho Minh”, dumping its muddled contents of letters, mementos, photos, and items of interest onto a flat table and picking through it.

During the walk back Magnus spotted an Apple store (they should maybe call them “Rotten Apple” stores because I have a feeling they are not exactly bonafide) so we went over to see if they could change the battery on his phone, which had been acting up. When we walked in there were two older Vietnamese gents sitting at a table near the entrance, eating and drinking, and one of them gave me a nod on the way in. Magnus didn’t have any luck with the battery, so we left, but on the way out the man held up a bottle of…something, and called me over. With eyebrows raised and a mischievous grin, he motioned to the bottle and empty glass, and I indicated my interest. He poured me a glassful, passed it over, and motioned that this was a “one shot” drink so I tipped it back and was hit with the unmistakable heat of a homegrown hooch, rapidly warming my interior temperature to match that of the exterior. It must have been a fortified rice wine, because it had the same flavor, but was much stronger than the ones I’ve tasted in the past. I could feel it burning out every germ in my body and marinating my internal organs. The old man was smiling from ear to ear, so I gave him a huge smile back, said thanks with my words, eyes and hands, and left, probably never to meet again, but happy that on our final day here, I was yet again overwhelmed with the generosity, kindness and spirit of the Vietnamese people.

Which brings me to some final thoughts on Vietnam.

If somebody who had never been to the region asked me which was the best country to visit in SE Asia, I would recommend Vietnam. Before this trip, I probably would have answered that question with Thailand, but after spending three weeks here I would have to say that Vietnam has nearly everything Thailand has to offer, and then some. Now if that same person asked me which countries in SE Asia they should skip, I would say none of them, because they are all amazing in their own ways. But for an introduction to the incredible sights, sounds and smells of the region, and a rich overall experience, Vietnam is the place to go. Now, saying this, we have yet to visit Indonesia and the Borneo island of Brunei and eastern Malaysia, and Papua, New Guinea, but those are the only major remaining gaps for us in this part of the world.

I also loved Cambodia. A lot. The people were just as kind, humble and friendly as those in Vietnam, and their country too has been through terrible times. But as far as tourist infrastructure goes, it is well behind where Vietnam is at, making it a little more difficult to digest and comprehend. One of my favourite spots along the way was Baddambang, because here we saw a place that could be on the cusp of a great tourist influx, but is still relatively unaffected by tourism. We experienced everyday people out enjoying their city and loving life and it really made me think about what elements of that vibrancy and spirit could be adapted to our community at home. But Cambodia had its issues – it was very dirty, pollution was bad, there were stray dogs and cats everywhere, and it was a little rough around the edges; but I hadn’t realized any of these things until we visited Vietnam.

One of the most rewarding aspects of travel for me is when I get home and meet people from the countries we have visited. When you can say you have visited somebody’s country, and even city, their eyes light up and you can just see the pride and memories swelling. It gives you an instant and personal connection you would otherwise not have. This is one of the joys of travel that benefit you long after the trip is over; in fact, for your whole life.

Over dinner we discussed our favourite places in Vietnam. The kids surprised us when they both said Dalat was their favourite, simply because we found it to be such a strange place. But they really liked being able to walk around outside, during the day, without feeling like you were being grilled like a chunk of tenderloin. And that weasel poo coffee really made an impact! But as a group, we decided that Nha Trang was the Olson family’s favourite town because it has all the things we love – especially that huge, luscious beach. But also the 50 cent beers, the great food, the Vinpearl Land theme park, the night market, and the great diving and watersports.

In a few short hours, we fly to the Philippines.

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