My workplace recently offered me the opportunity to visit Vietnam to be the company rep for a Bestway tour, a company we have partnered with in the past to do group tours. While Vietnam was on my bucket list, I didn’t really know too much except for some knowledge of a raging war that ended in 1975 (for America but not Vietnam), terrible humid heat, and delicious Pho noodle soup. I had also never traveled in a group before so I had no idea what to expect.
Now, as a seasoned alumna of a group tour, I can say, “Wow”. There are a few secret ingredients that elevated this to an amazing travel and life experience. The first was the itinerary itself. Was it ambitious? Yes. Did it leave everyone exhilarated and nicely tired at the end of the day? Absolutely. Over the course of ten days we covered a lot of ground starting in the north in Ha Noi.
Crazy, beautiful, wild Ha Noi. We arrived late in the evening and our guide Thanh had us up at the crack of dawn to go to Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh read the proclamation of Independence in 1945. After watching the flag raising ceremony we went back for breakfast and then visited the Temple of Literature, (Vietnam’s first university) and then we wandered through the Old Quarter streets.
I won’t go into all the details because there are really too many to mention. But we left Ha Noi and went to Ha Long Bay. Being a British Columbian, I have the good luck to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But Ha Long Bay will make your jaw drop. I ended up just lying on my bed in my room staring out the window thinking, holy smokes, what an extraordinary place and what a beautiful world we live in.
But people really make a trip and by them time we hit Ha Long Bay the group started to gel and laughter infused our conversations as we got to know one another better. Add in people making us feel welcomed and acknowledged throughout our journey and the recipe for an amazing experience was well underway.
After Ha Long Bay we went back to Ha Noi and caught a flight to Da Nang and from there took a bus to Hoi An, a beautiful, ancient town, filled with charm, colourful lanterns and a complicated history. We walked the market with Thanh leading us through expertly and hydrating us with fresh fruit just when we thought we might drop dead from the heat!
Later that afternoon we were taken to basket boats (squid fishing boats) for a ride along the coconut river. This was probably my least favourite activity of the tour and that’s saying something because I loved virtually everything. It felt like a bit of a disconnect being in a boat on a river with loud music playing (I counted three boom boxes, all playing different music) with enthusiastic boat captains singing and dancing wildly. But in spite of my reservations, I have no regrets joining in the lighthearted fun.
I’m not going to lie…the pools at some of the hotels we stayed in came in handy. Even though I forgot to bring a swimsuit, I fashioned one out of various yoga wear and in I went, cocktail in hand, while others were getting fitted for their hand-tailored shirts and dresses at a local shop. I pruned up like a raisin in the pool for a few hours and felt fully restored and ready for more evening fun.
We saw endless cool things in Hoi An, the city of lanterns, not the least of which were some great restaurants with the opportunity to enjoy the fresh, clean, flavours of Vietnamese cuisine which is fantastic.
Our next stop was Hue, taking us back through Da Nang, and up to a mountain summit which was stunningly beautiful. As I looked at the greenery and the beauty around me, I thought about the men and women both Vietnamese and American, who lost their lives in the beautiful countryside and in the places we had visited. This is now, I heard a voice say in my head. Indeed, this is now.
Thanh’s knowledge of history and politics is extensive and I learned more than I ever could have hoped on my own. Many times I tried to nap but gave up because I didn’t want to miss one single opportunity to learn something from him. I think the tragedy of what happened there and learning so much more on this trip, was balanced by the company we had on our bus. People wanted to learn but they also wanted to laugh and to lose themselves in the fun of living in the now. And I think most of us truly succeeded in the ten days we had together.
Our next stop in Hue was top notch. I don’t even know where to start, the rickshaw ride through the crazy traffic to the old citadel city, visiting pagodas and temples, the vegetarian lunch at the pagoda, the dragon boat trip up the Perfume River, or the dinner at Madame Ha’s. Or just siting quietly by myself in the hotel bar, enjoying a drink and taking in the beautiful view of the river.
I bet you’re wondering if I ‘m done yet. Nope. THERE’S MORE! Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) is different from Ha Noi. The influence of Asian and European architecture makes it a very familiar feeling city for visitors from the West. I loved visiting the presidential palace of south Vietnam, with what looks like 60s architecture which is one of my favourite periods. (I’m probably wrong about the era). You can’t imagine the decisions that were made in the rooms we visited…large maps of the country, sixties and early seventies phones, now looking like relics of a bygone era.
A group of us chose to visit the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which was certainly a sobering undertaking, and our usually ebullient and funny group was silent on the ride home. Wars have a millions edges and it doesn’t matter what you see or whose side it is, it’s hard to witness what human beings manage to do to one another.
Our last day was a trip to the Mekong Delta. I had no idea you could pack so much living into one day. It started with a bus ride, then a boat that was laden with wonderful fruit. Along the way we visited micro- economic development projects nestled in the palm fronds and the greenery that borders the river. Freshly made coconut candy, friendly honey-bees (including magical age reversing honey cream for sale!).
My memory is already getting foggy on the details but I’m sure we got on another boat, got back on land, jumped on tuk tuks, took a ride on the wild side until we came to an outdoor restaurant where we were treated to yet another amazing lunch. After a short walk, we were back on another boat, until we finally reached our final boat where we had to throw ourselves to the floor THREE TIMES, so we could pass under the various bridges. I’m not sure what was going on by this time but Blue Family (as we called ourselves) was deliriously excitable and with every bridge, we’d throw ourselves to the floor singing and hooting and howling, as grown adults are known to do:)
There is still so much from the itinerary that I’ve left out. But you get the picture. A fabulous trip was planned by a genius at Bestway and their affiliate partner in Ha Noi. A man, who treated his guests on his bus as though we were guests in his own home, and who took the time to passionately share the history of his “beloved Vietnam” so that we were left with a taste of its history, culture, cuisine and politics, and stories told so passionately, you felt you were living them yourself. Add in a group of people who were ready for a ride, and opened their arms wide to soak it all in and to connect with everything and everybody and it transformed into a magical experience.
For a short time it felt like we were all on fire. That all the things that divide us, brought us together. It felt a lot like family. And maybe that won’t last forever and I’m okay with that. But I hope little seeds of friendship were planted along the way.
And thank you Thanh for showing us Vietnam with all of its enormous history and culture, its pride and its kind people.
Thanks to my Blue Family members. You made it great.
Thanks to Paul Holden and the Board for letting me have this extraordinary opportunity.
The nicer photographs were taken by Mike Checko and Suzie From and Hermes Salonga.
Want to read more on the Vietnam War ?Here are two books I read ages ago that are worth a read. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Dispatches by Michael Kerr.