on returning home from vietnam in 2011

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.  ~Freya Stark~

For four winter days, I explored northern Vietnam.  On a small city tour of Hanoi on Friday, I went with an unlikely group of vagabonds to West Lake, the largest lake in the city with its plethora of temples. We looked like a bunch of homeless people as we had thrown together a bunch of mismatched layers to keep warm in the unexpectedly cold Hanoi.

The capital was moved to Hanoi in 1010 by the emperor of the Ly Dynasty, who named it Thăng Long, or “ascending dragon,” because he saw a yellow cloud in the blue sky that resembled an ascending dragon.  In the 15th century, the name was changed to Hà Noi, which means “between rivers or inside river.”

After threading our way between 6 1/2 million people and 4 million motorbikes, we were accosted at West Lake by Vietnamese ladies wearing conical hats.  Some were selling yams, peanuts and ginger root out of baskets attached to their bicycles and others carried heavy poles over their shoulders, with baskets of bananas & pineapples at each end. One of them made a pitch to me for bananas; I don’t want any but she persisted. She transferred her pole to my shoulder and I was shocked by how heavy it was. Gonzales, one of our group members, kindly snapped a picture of me, the “Americanese.”

Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Vietnam, held beautiful Buddha statues in its many-layered niches. Luxuriant temples surrounded the complex; inside were more Buddhas enfolded in bountiful offerings. We lit incense sticks and made wishes. Inside, an orange-robed monk led a worship service for about 20 devotees. Tropical fruits, flowers, and colorful Vietnamese dong surrounded the Buddha in abundance. Energy was here, positive energy.


incense at Tran Quoc Pagoda

We headed to the Ho Chi Minh complex through the Old Quarter‘s extravaganza of motorbikes.  Sometimes there was a single rider with a medical mask over his face.  Sometimes whole families: father wearing a helmet, bareheaded mother and child, even a baby in the mother’s arms.  A motorbike with a huge flower bouquet, the stems whipping through the air high above the driver’s head.  One with bundles of herbs, open to the elements.  Piles of bananas.  Stacks of plate-glass, egg cartons, firewood.

The French colonial architecture, evidence of a bygone age, lent a dilapidated elegance to the hazy city. Tall thin rectangular detached row-houses painted in chipped and faded yellow, terra-cotta, light blue, green. Balconies on the front façades. The sides of the homes were windowless unpainted concrete. Porches sagged, trash was strewn everywhere. Commerce was ubiquitous, on every sidewalk, every street corner, every store front. The smell of cilantro, limes, mangos lingered in the air, mingled with exhaust from cars and motorbikes. Cyclos roamed the streets, somehow surviving the onslaught of the motorized vehicles that packed the street ten across. The energy here was infectious.

At the Ho Chi Minh complex we saw the impressive mausoleum where the Vietnamese hero lies mummified within. The Presidential Palace, formerly used by the governor-general of Indochina, was built in 1868.  It later was the official residence of the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. In February 1962, the palace was bombed by two South Vietnamese fighter planes in an attempt to assassinate President Diem.  It was destroyed by the bombing even though the President wasn’t hurt.  A new building was constructed called The Hall of Reunification.

We saw some of Ho Chi Minh’s collection of cars and then visited a beautiful carp pond where our guide Thanh told us you could bring the fish to the surface by clapping your hands, so everyone stood at the railing idiotically clapping hands over the pond.

On the far side of the pond was the House on Stilts, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1958-1969, when he died.  Built of lacquered and polished wood, it emphasized the simplicity and modesty the revolutionary leader believed in ~ he wanted to be seen as a man of the people.  The house was modeled on a traditional communal house on stilts.  A tunnel led from the dining room, which provided an escape route for Ho Chi Minh if his life was in danger.

The One Pillar Pagoda, built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong (1028-54), was designed to represent a lotus blossom, the symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.  The Temple of Literature, was dedicated to Confucius in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong and later established as a university for the education of mandarins.  It had 5 courtyards, with a serene reflecting pool in the front courtyard, roofed gateways, and low-eaved buildings.  In 1484, Emperor Le Thang Tong ordered the establishment of stelae honoring men who received doctorates in triennial exams dating back to 1442.  Each of these 82 stelae is set on a stone tortoise.


carp pond at Ho Chi Minh Complex


Temple of Literature

The end of our tour was at Hoan Kiem Lake, or Restored Sword Lake, with its Ngoc Son Temple.  The Buddhist temples were rich in color and offerings and energy.  Young Vietnamese couples posed for wedding photos on the red bridge leading to the temple.

A small group of us peeled off to see the water puppet show. We negotiated the crazy traffic as we attempted to get to our destination.

At the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, all in Vietnamese, the little puppets performed silly actions & acrobatics and we couldn’t help but laugh even though we didn’t know the story.

After dinner, I took a cyclo back to my hotel.  By day’s end, I was loving Hanoi, its craziness, its chaos & energy, its cilantro- & lime-flavored food, its sing-song whining language, its rich colors, its French-ness.

Maybe because of this chilly and overcast weather, we were just three in the van on Saturday morning cruising from Hanoi to Halong Bay.  The road was chock-full of bicycles and motorbikes and slow-moving trucks piled high with all manner of tropical fruits, sugar cane, green leafy vegetables. One couple whizzed by; the driver had a huge sack of rice between his legs. Debris dotted the roads, the businesses, the yards. Another motorbike scooted past with dead roosters piled high behind the driver. Weathered shacks and paint-chipped houses flew by. At temples along the roadside, incense smoke spiraled upward, prayers to the Buddha. The yellow haze of Hanoi followed and enveloped us like an old ratty blanket, too threadbare to cushion any head-on collision. Ruth commented on the ever-present haze: “At least it’s atmospheric!”

Ruth, a redhead who lives in Toronto but was raised in Australia, was in the seat directly behind the driver. She was working in Hanoi for 3 weeks helping Vietnamese community colleges with strategic planning through a contract with the Canadian equivalent of USAID. She was close to my age and we immediately struck up a conversation, finding we had a lot in common. She had teenage children in college, she’d been married and divorced twice, and she loved to travel.

Behind me, in the third seat, was Ken, a bearded New Yorker with a hearing aid who was retired but traveling around the world, volunteering as he went along. Mostly teaching English, apparently. He told us that he was practically deaf for five years but had a cochlear implant. Now he was just “hard of hearing.”

We made a stop at a “happy room,” which is basically a shop for tourists that had a bathroom. I bought a bunch of Vietnamese souvenirs, sucker that I am: a buffalo tusk bracelet, an alabaster box with a carved vine of pretty flowers, a leaf box, placemats, and a lacquer picture that looks like an impersonation of Gauguin. Ruth bought some scarves. We used the “happy room” and head on our way.

We arrived at Halong Bay and boarded a little motorboat that took us out to the Dragon Pearl III, our own personal junk moored in the bay.  We lucked out in that there were just 9 of us on a junk that held 22.

Underway on the boat, all polished dark wood and gleaming brass, our guide Thanh told us there were 1969 islands in Halong Bay. Its name means “descending dragon,” and it has been recognized by UNESCO twice. As we cruised along, we marveled at the limestone karsts and isles that made Halong Bay famous. Legend has it that the gods sent a family of dragons to defend the land of Vietnam. The dragons spit out jade and jewels which became the chain of islands that served as a blockade against Chinese invaders. Later, the dragons settled here to live peacefully. The place where the mother dragon descended is called Halong Bay. It was quite lovely looking out from our little junk, as we cruised along, at rock formations shaped like slit-eyed monster faces and other imaginary notorious creatures.

After lunch, our group went on an excursion to a little island, climbing a path to reach caves filled with, alas, stalagmites and stalactites. Of course as in all things natural, rocks & clouds, we saw familiar-shaped formations such as sea horses and dragons.

After exploring the cave, we clambered back down the path to the beach, where we donned life vests and got into kayaks, promptly heading out into the rough and cold seas. Ruth and I were not experienced kayakers. We zigzagged through the choppy water, waves jumping into our boat at every opportunity. Around the islands we went, paddling hard to keep up with the others, getting soaked and cold.  On the beach, we were welcomed by a rock formation shaped like a whale against the setting sun.

After dinner, back in my cabin, I wrote a while, as I left my book behind in my suitcase at the Ngocmai Hotel. I felt quite intoxicated, high, not only from the bottle of wine I drank, but from life. From two days surrounded by interesting and adventurous people. From immersion in a fascinating culture. I hadn’t felt happy in a long time, and now at this moment I could claim true happiness, in this time and space, as my own. I loved meeting fellow nomads, soul-mate adventurers, sharing stories and our love of cultures. We had a spirit connection, a thread of whimsy and a lust for life connecting us, dreamers all.

I was floating, anchored, in the midst of whales and turtles and sea monsters in this bay of descending dragons. My cabin was toasty and pristine, and I was under a white-cloud duvet, on a bed of pure white, rich paneled walls surrounding me. I tried to draw the happiness I felt in my little notebook, but how does one draw happiness when one’s artistic ability is limited to stick figures, star doodles, hearts, musical notes, and smiley faces? How could I capture this happiness, bottle it, and take it with me back home, to Korea, where happiness was elusive as a firefly?


junks on Halong Bay


junk on Halong Bay


junks on Halong Bay

On Sunday morning, we floated among the descending dragon’s islets of jade.  My cabin gleamed, its wood rich and brown and deep as the earth.  I was in my down comforter cocoon.  The quiet was punctuated only by the lapping of tiny waves against the boat.  This morning I savored being alone; I had moments to myself, but I knew I could connect when I chose to.  I didn’t mind being alone under these kinds of circumstances.  It was only when I felt there was no one for me, no one to connect with, that loneliness haunted me.

I was here on top of this water world, this bay of limestone and emeralds. I loved it. Too much for words. I lay in bed and soaked it in, breathing the sea air, pulling the comforter close to ward off the chill seeping through the door. I still tasted the happiness I felt last night. How, I wonder, could I have it again? Why was it that I was greedy? Why couldn’t I just enjoy it when it came without wanting it more, again and again? Could Buddhism, I wonder, teach me to do this?

After breakfast, we went on bamboo boats through a floating fishing village.  In all of Halong Bay there were about 1600 residents of 4 fishing villages.  They lived on floating houses and sustained themselves by fishing.  In this particular village, there were 59 floating houses and about 300 people.  They lived here year round; they lived with their children, who attended school at one little schoolhouse in the village, and their dogs, who protected what few belongings they had.

Most of the houses had generators for electricity, but they were only allowed to use them from 7-9 each evening. As we floated past the villages in our bamboo boats, we could see flat screen televisions inside the huts, complete stereo systems. Thanh told us that generations lived here, that their sole livelihood was fishing, that it was a hard life. I couldn’t imagine living like this year round and rarely visiting land, or cities, or people outside this small community.

Before we came out on our boats, Thanh told us that there was a problem with the residents throwing “rabbits” in the water.  Several of us looked at each other, baffled.  Rabbits?  Where would they get rabbits to throw in the water?  WHY would they throw these rabbits in the water?  I asked Thanh, probably with a “duh” look on my face: they throw rabbits in the water?  Thanh nodded, Yes!  But one of our group knew what he was saying, “Rubbish, he’s saying they throw rubbish in the water.”  Ohhh.  That explained.  Thanh says Indochina Junk and other tour operators had a system set up to take away their rubbish.  To promote a green bay.  Bravo for them!

We took a boat back to the Dragon Pearl, where we returned to the dock and met our van to return to Hanoi.

On the way back, we were all quiet in the van. Ken slept, Ruth read, and I napped in between staring out the window, and closely observing, with clenched teeth, the harrowing chicken games on the road.  Out the window were the riff-raff edges of Hanoi.  Gray woolen skies.  Smoldering fires burning in open fields.  Women in conical hats bending over in rice fields with huge power grids in their centers.  Water buffalo grazing, oblivious to the slummy areas surrounding the fields.  Further along, more ladies in conical hats selling loaves of French bread hung on racks displayed along the highway, open to the elements, the pollution.  When the ladies made a sale, they bagged the loaves in bright yellow plastic bags.  Many of these yellow bags had made their way into the unkempt patches of dirt and grass along the roadway, yellow blights yelping out to be noticed and hauled away.

All I knew is that I felt a sore throat coming on.

Back in Hanoi we rode alongside the ceramic mosaic mural on the dyke beside Hanoi’s Red River.  The wall depicted scenes of the different periods of Hanoi, along with modern art work, children’s drawings, and paintings of Hanoi.  It was said to be the world’s largest ceramic mosaic.

I returned to my room at the Ngocmai, where I burrowed under the duvet and watched some TV, drank some orange juice, hoped to feel better.


floating fishing villages of Halong Bay


floating fishing villages of Halong Bay


floating fishing villages of Halong Bay

On Monday morning, I woke up to a drearier day than any I’d seen in Vietnam, my throat burning.  But, I was on vacation, so I forced myself out of bed and embarked on another local tour, to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc, about 100 km south of Hanoi.

Our guide, Adam, told us Hoa Lu, in Ninh Binh province, was the first capital of Vietnam. His English was bad so I didn’t understand half of what he was talking about.

He kept referring to two-digit numbers like twelve o’clock as one-two o’clock.  He told us we would see the Ling Lai Temple at Hoa Lu and then we would have lunch at one-two o’clock.  After lunch we would spend two hours on a small boat at Tam Coc, where we could see scattered tombs at the tops of the mountains.

It was a long drive in a van with no seat belts on bumpy potholed roads. The driving style was the same; on two lane roads, people drive at an excruciatingly slow pace, passing bikes, motorbikes, buses or trucks regularly despite the traffic being heavy in both directions. At the last minute, these passing vehicles managed to slide back into their proper lane before a collision occurred. In between chatting with people, this is what I saw out the windows: a gas station called Petrolimex; concrete open-air cubbyhole businesses, doorless garages with corrugated tin roofs. Rusted chain link fences, piles of dirt, piles of gravel, refuse everywhere. Palm-like tropical plants fuzzy with dust. Two- or three-story thin rectangular concrete houses with fancy balconies, chipping paint in Mediterranean colors, some with red tile roofs. Again, no paint on the sides, just windowless gray concrete. A few exceptional houses painted nicely with plants on the balconies.

Huge gravel lots dotted with grotesquely shaped rock sculptures. Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Symauto. Sidewalk barbers giving shaves and haircuts. The Bank for Investment and Development of Vietnam. Government buildings in faded banana yellow with brown trim, palm trees in front. A park with huge Rorschach-blot rocks. Motorbikers bundled up in knit caps, helmets, bubble jackets, slippers with fuzzy socks, masks. Old buildings in various unfinished states of construction, much like the ubiquitous apartment buildings I saw in Egypt. Not new, these unfinished projects sprouted plants and weeds and vines on walls and floors; I couldn’t help but wonder why the projects died before they ever got off the ground. Cemeteries filled with hundreds of miniature pagodas. The ever-present gray haze here with us even 50 km south of Hanoi.

And in the midst of all this, I wrote in my journal: “A journey is really all the people you meet along the way.”

The truly nice and beautiful places around Hanoi were specks in the overall landscape of rubbish and decrepitude. This was more apparent on the drive south than on the eastward drive to and from Halong Bay. In front of houses along the road, square or rectangular fish ponds were hemmed in by scrubby palm trees or refuse. One of the Vietnamese guys explained that these ponds are filled with sunfish, meals for the local families. Rubbish, rubbish everywhere. Dust, haze, smog, gray skies. It was dreary and cold.

It was a bit depressing today. There seemed no attempt made by the Vietnamese to hide their piles of rubbish. Piles of gravel, bricks, tires ~ the discarded building blocks of society in useless array. Around the sculpture businesses, chips of stone were left where they fell, littering the ground. I kept thinking that the rubbish collection business could make a killing here if the proper laws were passed and enforced, and public dollars went towards creating a rubbish collection infrastructure. My question about the rubbish is this: is it just poverty, naturally sloppy Vietnamese, or poor government planning ~ no infrastructure? I thought the garbage problem is worse than what I saw in Cairo.

I mentioned my thoughts on this to Colin and Tracy from Manchester, who just came from a month in India. Colin said in India I would see ten times the rubbish I see here. They said there are rules that you can’t smoke in certain parts of India, but it’s okay to pee or defecate anywhere. I asked them what was their favorite thing about India, and Colin said, “The flight out.” They said a trip to India is “a trip you endure, not enjoy.”

Australians Danny and Kim said Phnom Penh was worse than Hanoi by far ~ impoverished, filled with rubbish, and not much there. But they loved Siem Reap. Later, when I got to Phnom Penh, I didn’t see this at all; to me Phnom Penh was nicer than Hanoi. It’s so funny how each person’s experience of a place can be so different, how one’s experience can be colored by interactions with people, weather, where exactly one is in the place, whether transport goes smoothly. So many factors.

Finally, after an interminable drive through the dilapidated outskirts of Hanoi, we arrived at Hoa Lu, the political, economic and cultural center of 10th century Vietnam.  It was also the native land of three royal dynasties.  The ancient Citadel existed no more, and all that was left were some remainders of the dynasties.  I found the entire complex quite shabby.  No matter how we humans try, everything we create disintegrates around us.


Ling Lai Temple at Hoa Lu


offerings at Ling Lai Temple

We then headed out to the metal rowboats, not as charming as the bamboo boats on Halong Bay.  Tam Coc, which means “three caves,” was a 2-hour boat excursion down the Ngo Dong River through rice fields, limestone karst towers, and 3 caves.  My partner in the boat was the Portuguese guy João, since we were the only two not paired up.  On the boat ride, João kept talking about the “visitation” in Portugal, and I said, What? Like the Virgin Mary? After much going around and around, I finally figured out he was talking about the “vegetation” in Portugal. João kept hacking away and had been doing so the whole way down from Hanoi.  When I expressed concern about his health, he said he was sick from going from warm Ho Chi Minh City to cold Hanoi.  I knew what he meant because I felt sick all day, chilled, sore throat, nasal stuffiness and post-nasal drip.

The boat paddlers were Vietnamese of all variety, some young women with conical hats, some toothless old men. Some paddled with their feet, all playful, laughing and joking among themselves, across the expanse of water.

We floated along marveling at the sheer karsts; I kept looking for rice paddies. This place was touted as the “Halong Bay of the rice paddies,” but I didn’t see any at all. Maybe it was because it was winter and the rice had all been harvested?

We went through the 3 caves with their low ceilings, ducking to avoid getting clocked by the granite ceilings.

Our boat lady paddled us into a floating market, a virtual Vietnamese 7-11, and as we went into the midst of the boats, they surrounded us. In their straw cone hats, they flung their sales pitches at us. We were at the furthest point out and trapped. One lady offered hot coffee and as I’d been cold all day, I took her up on it. She handed me a small dirty glass with her brown stained hands. I drank it, unsanitary though I thought it was, just to feel warmth for a few short seconds. In the meantime, she held out a coke and some crackers and motioned that I should buy them for my boat lady. Portuguese Joao remained stone-faced the whole time, acting as if he were totally removed from the scene.

Finally, we were on our way back to Hanoi in the van. A repeat of the drive down, more of the same. Late in this afternoon, it was gray and even colder than earlier, so I asked the guide and driver if they could please turn on the heat. They told me the van had no heat. I had been quietly freezing for 1 1/2 hours. Finally, I’d spoken up, and still I would be cold. Overall, it was a miserable day. I would definitely NOT recommend this tour and I wished I had stayed the day in Hanoi, exploring the city.

Traveling abroad takes me out of my comfort zone and throws me into an alien world. Sometimes this world is comfortable, relaxing, beautiful, serene. Sometimes it’s a hardship, ugly, dirty, cacophonous. I often feel dislocated, a little off kilter, because nothing is familiar. Most times I like this; I feel my senses are heightened, I’m more present to the moment, I notice things I wouldn’t notice at home. Other times, it can be drudgery. But ultimately, I’m awake, I’m alive!


floating markets at Tam Coc


floating markets at Tam Coc


cave at floating markets at Tam Coc

One extraordinary thing in Vietnam was the food. In Hanoi, Pho (noodle soup stalls) were tucked into every crevice. Oversized people hunched on miniature plastic stools in front of low plastic tables savoring the street food prepared by cobbled-together food stalls.  I ate spring rolls with peanut sauce, deep-fried eggplant, chicken.  At a nondescript restaurant with a glass case showcasing delectable treats, I ordered shrimp with broccoli and noodles.

In a Hanoi hotel, accompanied by episodes of Tom & Jerry, I ate a nondescript omelet, orange juice, bananas, papaya strips, and coffee.  Though I tried to communicate that I want Pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup, somehow the omelet came unbidden to my table.

On the Dragon Pearl, we enjoyed a phenomenal 9-course lunch: soup with red beans and lotus seeds, slivered vegetable salad with carrot juice, Halong clam with fragrance smooth fruit and cilantro, oyster cakes with garlic sauce, deep-fried prawns with garlic and butter, steamed sea bass with soya sauce and vegetables, cabbage with garlic, steamed rice, and tropical fruits for dessert: passion fruit, watermelon and oranges. I added a beer and a glass of red wine for good measure.

Another extravaganza at dinner: we were served another fresh vegetable salad, covered delicately in some kind of spring-fresh sauce, cilantro abounding. Then out came the spring rolls, accompanied by two herons carved out of turnips. Prawns in a delicious sauce were decorated by a dragon carved out of a pumpkin. Crayfish, very messy to peel, but delectable. Chicken, mackerel, rice, and more tropical fruits. And the grand finale carving: a sailing junk carved from a watermelon. Apparently, the chef spent three hours of his day carving these showpieces.

In the long drive south to Hoa Lu, we stopped at another “happy room;” there I bought a Thailand plum, a cross between a pear and an apple, but not as sweet.   Back in the van, as I munched happily on this fruit, we flew past a pedaling biker loaded down with big flat cone baskets full of limes and tangerines.

At the Green Mango, an elegant and rich place hung with draperies, dimly lit, with artistically stark dried flower arrangements, the wait staff wore tee-shirts for a cause: Save the Cat Ba Langurs. The Cat Ba langurs are the most endangered primate species, with only about 53 individuals alive.  There, I savored grapes in goat cheese and cashew nut, Green Mango grilled prawn salad, lemon custard with strawberries and raspberries, chamomile tea.

Finally, on our last evening, I met Ruth at her hotel and we went to a French restaurant, La Badiane.  Ruth had to work during the day, but she also found time to go out and buy a warmer coat.  I was still cold.  We ordered a bottle of red wine and the whole set menu, with appetizers, main dish, & dessert, all masterfully and artistically prepared. I was enjoying myself too much to write down what I ate. But I swear it was delicious!!


Herons carved from turnips on the Dragon Pearl


Dragon carved from pumpkin on the Dragon Pearl


sailing junk carved from watermelon

When I returned home to Korea after my trip, I continued my contract with EPIK (English Program in Korea) through the end of February. During the Lunar New Year, I visited Kyoto, Japan and then spent three weeks in India before returning home to Virginia.  Though I kept a journal while traveling, I sadly misplaced it; luckily I had recorded my journey in my blog: rice paddies & papayas: vietnam.

I also kept a few brochures in a journal I kept during my entire time in Korea.

Much later, in 2018, I finally watched the real story about the Vietnam War in the excellent Ken Burns 2017 10-episode TV series:  The Vietnam War, where I learned of all the lies our government told the American people during the war years.

*Friday-Monday, January 14-17, 2011*


“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops.  How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them?  How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.

For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.

Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, September 1 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, September 2, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂