For the past year I have been writing about daring adventures that other people have gone on. I have met and interviewed people who traveled the world (Antarctica, Guatemala, Egypt, Africa, Mexico, Central America, India and Nepal). Listening to their stories inspired me. I realized that it was time that I start having some daring adventures of my own.
I had never traveled outside of North America. My son, Dana, who has always had an adventurous spirit, moved to Vietnam last April to teach English. He described the country to me and I was determined to not miss out on an opportunity to see what it was all about. My daughter, Britta, decided to go with me. On New Year’s day 2020, we boarded a plane from Minneapolis to Vietnam, via Detroit and China. On the way there we spent over 28 hours in airplanes and airports before we reached Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Then we got on another plane to meet Dana in Hanoi.
Hanoi, in the north, is the capital of Vietnam and the population is around 7.8 million. We booked a Home Stay which is someone else’s house but they rent it out. This place looked really neat in the picture, but ended up being pretty small when we got there. The apartment was located in old Hanoi and had widening steps nestled in between markets selling vegetables and herbs on the street. Hanoi was crazy. Motorbikes were going every which direction and honking, honking, honking. The sights and smells of Hanoi are exotic. Some (like the pollution) are not so good. People in this part of Hanoi, for the most part, live in the street. Basically, they sleep in their homes which are located in the back of, or over, their storefronts. They cook, eat, sell their goods and socialize with others in the street. If you want to eat with them, you can buy something for a very reasonable price as we did with a woman making egg Bánh mì (a Vietnamese sandwich) for us out of her small cookpot in a crowded street. It was delicious. The newness and strangeness of Hanoi were exhilarating. The best part was the egg coffee.
From Hanoi, we decided to take a short day trip down the Perfume Pagoda. A pagoda is a Hindu or Buddhist temple or sacred building, typically a many-tiered tower, and there are a lot of them all over Vietnam. To get to this pagoda we went to a travel agent (also all over Vietnam), and they arranged for us to take a van, then a boat ride down a river. After a huge lunch where we were treated like VIPs, we took a tram way up high, to the top of the mountain. Then, steps to climb to reach our first pagoda. The second pagoda, we finally ended up going down into a deep cave way down in the mountains. It was the Perfume Pagoda, named because it is filled with flowers, incense and offerings for the ancestors, the monks and Buddha.
Next day, for around $4, we boarded a train that would bring us to Ninh Binh. This is a tourist area with more Pagodas to see and boat rides through caves. Tucked into Vietnam’s Red River Delta, this beautiful landscape has sometimes been nicknamed “Ha Long Bay on land.” We stayed in the cutest little chalet-type cottage for $26 on the edge of the village of Tam Coc. My daughter Britta recalled, “From our room at the Tam Coc Bungalow, we watched the infamous Tam Coc boats glide past; more awesome women rowing boats with their feet and carrying loads of tourists all day long.” Dana and the internet told us that we would be safe in Vietnam but to watch out for people who take advantage of Americans who don’t speak the language. Our first encounter with this was on a walk in Ninh Binh. We were greeted by an old man and his grandson feeding chickens. They didn’t speak English, but brought us to their home, which doubled as a cafe, in the middle of nowhere. We asked for coffee and received over-priced orange juice. The first lesson: Be mindful of what you are actually buying and how much it costs. It was not to be my last encounter like this, but luckily most things were not that expensive. The next day we rented motorbikes and headed to the Trang An Boat rides. The boat trip we took navigated us through nine caves and three temples. We enjoyed ourselves so much in Ninh Binh we decided to stay an extra day, renting motorbikes again. The last day in Ninh Binh we spent at the ancient capital of Hoa Lư, and, before heading in, we took a side trip to Động Am Tiên and discovered a beautiful lake.
By far my favorite place in Vietnam was DaNang. Located right on the ocean, it has beaches, spas, seafood and wonderful tourist attractions like the Lady Buddha and the Dragon Bridge. The weather in DaNang when we were there was around 80 degrees. We found a favorite coffee shop in a back alley with a nice lady that we visited every day. The last tourist spot on our journey, and Dana’s temporary home, was DaLat.
DaLat is located in the mountains and cooler than the other places we visited. According to Google, DaLat is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its distinctively temperate climate; Đà Lạt was developed as a resort by the French in the early 1900s, and many reminders of its colonial heritage remain.” One famous attraction was the weasel poop coffee farm. This rare coffee was developed in the mountains of DaLat by the poor people. Apparently, the peasants could not afford to buy coffee, so they went into the fields and picked up the weasel poop filled with the beans. Now, weasels love coffee beans ,and are experts at picking out the ripest and best beans. They eat the sweet fruit on the outside and poop out the bean. Apparently there is some kind of enzyme from the weasels that makes the coffee even better. They do remember to wash and roast the beans, and the coffee was delicious. Finally, my favorite spot in DaLat was the Crystal Pagoda, a place filled with huge and beautiful crystals.
Vietnam was an adventure. Adventures always have some risky experiences you have to overcome or they wouldn’t be an adventure. These were mine. First, I had to keep up with my younger kids and we wanted to see as much as we could. We walked six miles a day, according to my step tracker. There were stairs everywhere. Every Pagoda required walking at least 100 steps. At one site in Ninh Binh, we wanted to see the dragon on top of the mountain. It was 500 uneven, jagged rock steps. I followed another woman (close to my age) up who had as red of face as I, but I made it. I was very grateful I did not have a heart attack. When we got to the top, we couldn’t even see the dragon. It was a beautiful view down, though. I was in better shape when I got home then I was before I left. Second, new forms of transportation. We rode on two trains, one very nice, the other, the evening train. I was in the seat right by the toilet; not so pleasant after a day of travelers. Once, we got on a city bus in DaNang that was supposed to take us to the Lady Buddha, and the bus just kept driving and dropped us off in a not-so-nice part of town. Walking again, we discovered a boat graveyard and had to find our way out of there. I spent a lot of time on the back of a motorbike, just happy that I did not have to try driving in the chaotic traffic in Vietnam. I also discovered “sleeper buses.” These are buses with small compartments that you sleep in overnight, and then arrive at your destination in the morning.
The last harrowing experience was driving in a car from DaLat to Ho Chi Minh City. A glitch happened when we booked our sleeper limousine that was supposed to get us to the airport to catch our plane home. No limo came, they didn’t get our reservation. Our plane home was due to leave. Luckily, the limo company sent a young driver to pick us up. Now, DaLat is located in the mountains and this small car drove at a breakneck speed, driving in the middle of the road sometimes, and honking and passing cars and trucks around mountain corners. Our driver, in his broken English, kept saying, “Don’t worry.” We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City two hours before our limo was supposed to arrive, even though we started out an hour late. Needless to say, we kept our eyes closed most of the trip. The third kind of scary experience happened when we got home. On January 2nd, on our way to Vietnam, we went through Shanghai, China, and we were given a health screening, where they took our temperatures and asked some questions. At the time we thought, “This is strange; China must be really fussy about who they let into their country,” and thought nothing of it. When we got home, we learned all about the Coronavirus, which luckily we had not encountered. I joked with my daughter that I was glad I did not have a hot flash when my temperature was taken, or I might still be in China.
Despite the obstacles we had to overcome this was a wonderful adventure that I would do over again in a minute. I got to spend some quality time with my kids, got in good shape from all that walking, and met some really awesome, kind and wonderful people in Vietnam. People in Vietnam have no problem asking you your age. I received a lot of great compliments on how young I looked. Though, I am not sure if that was because they had not seen a lot of older Americans, since mostly young people travel there. I learned that when I travel I have no problem being mindful and living in the moment. This is something I strive to do in my everyday life at home. My advice: if you have an adventure you want to go on, DO IT, don’t wait. Then contact me afterwards so I can tell your story. Life is (really) a great adventure, or nothing.