Monday, August 17, 2009

Summer Vacation: Vietnam Report

Vietnam wasn’t a place I was supposed to want to go to. My dad was all but avoiding the issue about my upcoming trip. But his Vietnam was worlds away from the Vietnam we visited.

To be fair, there is still plenty about the country that echoes its past. Farmers still tend to their rice paddies wearing conical hats. Hawkers sell their fresh baguettes on poles by the roadside. Fisherman hurl nets off small boats to take in a day’s catch. There is still so much village life left in Vietnam, and its refreshing to

see that it hasn’t exchanged its soul for tourist’s cash … at least not yet.

Most of the cruise operators in Halong Bay offer a two-day or three-day sail. If you have the time, go for the three-day option. On our extra day, we were able to spend it sailing on a private junk, and we even took a tour of one of the fishing villages that call the islands home. It’s worth seeing how people live in this remote part of the world. The one-room school that the students attend, the outdoor restaurant that exists solely for tourists like ourselves and the large government building -- what could they need that much space for?

Back on our tour ship, life stood in stark contrast. We had a big stateroom decked out in lacquered teak. Evening entertainment included cooking demonstrations, squid fishing and kayaking, and meals were served with white table linens. Sipping cocktails on the main deck while watching the sun set behind the cliffs was something I could have enjoyed for yet another night. But we had other places to see in Vietnam,

Our next stop was at Tam Hai island. Getting there was an adventure in itself: Plane from Hanoi to Denang, two hour car ride, followed by a boat to get us to the island. But upon seeing Le Domaine at Tam Hai, we felt as if we had discovered Paradise Island.

The resort is a quiet place set along the beach with huts placed thoughtfully spaced among the beautiful tropical forest. Days are spent lounging by the pool, kayaking down the inlets or finding shells along the beach. This was not a cultural excursion, but Le Domaine takes relaxation seriously. One of my favorite aspects was dinner. Tables are set out on the beach and meals are served with fine china and silver. Want to enjoy an after-dinner cocktail or dessert? The staff puts out a couch and sofa table by the waves for you to enjoy your final hours before bedtime.

Of course, one can only be so rested, and while Le Domaine was a much needed and appreciated pit-stop, we had one more destination in mind: Hoi An. The town is considered a World Heritage Site for being on the map since the 10th century as an important trading port in the South Asia. The Japanese once owned part of the city, which was sectioned off by the now famous Japanese bridge. Tourists can still walk over the 16th century structure and cross easily between both sections of town.

My husband and I took up residence at The Life Heritage Resort. The rooms are designed with a definitive modern palate, although the exterior oozed old-world imperial charm. But we didn’t come here for the hotel, we came to see the city.

Hoi An is a small town, but it is chock full of small arts and crafts stores and tailors who can riff off any designs you may be coveting. In truth, it’s a tourist trap. It’s a great place to walk around for the day and pick up some unique souvenirs -- we made out with some lanterns, and kitchenwares -- but it isn’t a place that you can take up residency for too long without getting bored of the hawkers and their calls.

On our second day, therefore, we visited the nearby China Beach. This long stretch of sand was perfect for strolling, and I especially enjoyed playing in the cooling waves on a day that soared close to 100 degrees outside. Yes, Vietnam is hot in summer. Hotter than any place I’ve ever been. And remember, this is not a first world country,

so air conditioning is spotty at best ... when it’s available. In fact, a walk from our sun chaise to the ocean resulted in a couple of heat blisters from the sand. It’s hot!!

Back in Hoi An, we spent our last day getting last minute adjustments to some dresses I had made and watching the comings and goings of the market. One remarkable thing is that it seems only women are in charge of the business transactions. We watched women fishing, hauling the catch and selling their vegetables. Where were the men?

There is plenty that we didn’t see in Vietnam, but that only leaves many excuses to return. Beautiful scenery, fresh food and pristine places will beckon us back soon.

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