Everyone has their moment. A moment when you realize Vietnam is so full of magic. For some, it might be crossing the street between dozens of motorbikes as they whiz by you, others it will be the fragrant smell of pho broth as you pass the stalls walking through the streets, and for others, it may be when you are in the northern mountains surrounded by the colorful traditional dress of the hill tribes. Whatever your moment is, you will undoubtedly find it.
This past November AGC went on their inaugural trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with a group of women ready to be challenged in this very different culture. For many of us, the intrigue of Vietnam and Cambodia was historical; they wanted to see a different side to Vietnam than the vision that the media portrayed to them when they were younger. Vietnam has had a very tumultuous past, starting with Chinese imperialism starting around 900 AD, France's colonization for around 100 years, and then the long and bloody Civil war with the help of American troops. Vietnam did not gain independence until 1989, and is still in the process of discovering who they are as a nation, and growing its diverse economy. We went into this adventure with open minds and empty bellies and came out with a newfound love for the people, the history, the architecture, and the food of Vietnam and Cambodia.
We began our journey in Hanoi, and we immediately started to create some of our favorite Hanoi pastimes like morning walks around Hoan Kiem Lake and observing the daily life of people from Hanoi. Our local Vietnamese guide, Phuong, was our beacon. She was a translator, interpreter, answerer-of-all-the questions, and above all, our friend. She was the one to teach us about the morning rituals of the Vietnamese. The older generation tends to work out in the morning since they wake up early and are usually retired, while the younger generations come out after the work day to dance to Zumba or jog around the lake.
We were intrigued, so we took a walk around the social hub of Hanoi - Hoan Kiem Lake. There was already a hubbub of activity even at 7 am! Hundreds of people were dancing, running, doing tai chi, and all focused around the lake. As we nervously stood watching the groups from afar, many dancers beckoned us to join them, and boy did we dance! We were twirled, dipped, and spun. This ended up being the highlight of Hanoi for some; the local’s warmth and welcoming personalities. This would become a theme of our trip, the generosity and friendly nature of all the people we met on our journey.
If you are like me, you are very food driven! During our first few days in the country, it felt like we never stopped eating, but I’m not complaining! To cool down the hot mornings, the locals normally eat hot pho bo (beef noodle soup), an aromatic broth made with star anise, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. While it seems like an oxymoron to cool down with hot soup, it truly does revive and refresh you for the long days of walking and exploring. We continued our tour of Hoa Lo prison, where John McCain was once held as a prisoner, the Temple of Literature, and some more food stops.
Our lunch was a Hanoi specialty called Bun Cha. We ate at one of the original and most famous Bun Cha shops in the city, also eaten by Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama on their visit here. After a quick stop to see the remnants of a B-52 and 3 very hot banana fritters, we made our way to our final stop of the day at Bia Hoi stand. Bia Hoi is a fresh beer, generally made a few days before. It is light, crisp, and oh-so-refreshing after a long and hot day. We all cheered (“moi, hai, bah YOH!”) to a great first day.
The next part of our adventure was to Northern Vietnam and the mountainous region of Sapa. The drive out of Hanoi was pastoral and beautiful, and we caught our first glimpse into Vietnamese rural life. As we wound through the valley, we saw the city shift from high-rise apartments into wooden cabins, rice paddies, and farmlands. This part of the trip was focused on learning about the family aspect of the Black H’mong and Red Dzao tribes, and even visiting a home of a few local families. Indigo plays a huge role in the economy and culture of the Black H’Mong, providing both a textile to sell and clothing for the whole community. Their name “Black H’Mong” is even representative of the dark and rich color indigo dye gives to the clothing they wear.
Our local H’Mong guide Sung was with us for 3 days and was a wonderful addition to the crew. She was kind enough to answer all of our questions about her family, her children, and even how they made the indigo dye. Our days in Sapa were filled with picturesque mountains, plenty of water buffalo, and the strength and camaraderie of the local women. We soaked up all we could of the culture and traditions of these generous and kind people, and even got invited to stay for dinner at one family’s home!
The next part of our journey was to the much anticipated Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is a huge area of ocean, punctured by staggering limestone karsts soaring into the sky. Cruising next to the monolith karsts, we were all amazed at what a little erosion and a lot of time can do to transform these huge limestone cliffs. Two local women paddled us through the floating fishing villages, one of whom gave a local history lesson about her family and how they live on the water. The people of Ha Long Bay are special people. The Vietnamese creation story is that they are the descendants of dragons. According to the legend, a dragon came from the ocean and stepped onto the land east of Hanoi. The dragon created the bays and karsts from his heavy footstep, thus the Vietnamese legend is born.
We were lucky enough to spend three days cruising and enjoying Bai Tu Long Bay, a less popular, and therefore less crowded, part of Ha Long Bay. We encountered only a few other boats, and most of the time felt like we had the bay all to ourselves. A Highlight of the boat trip was a sunset kayak. The boat captain took us to a low-tide beach, where we explored and began to watch the sunset. We paddled back to our ship through bright orange and pink skies. This magical moment was a great ending to a great day. Can anything beat paddling through Bai Tu Long Bay as the sun is setting? A BBQ dinner was ready for us on the deck, filled with fresh seafood from the area, and the popular dipping sauce of Vietnam, nuoc cham. The next few days were peaceful bliss, as we took in the fantasmal scenery of Bai Tu Long Bay.
We spent a full 8 days in Vietnam, and while we were all sad to leave, everyone was very excited for the next chapter in our journey. On to Cambodia! We arrived at Siem Reap and checked into the Jaya House River Lodge. This stunning sustainable lodge was a welcome accommodation and base for our exploration of Angkor and the Siem Reap area. Finally, after looking forward to it for weeks, we sped off to the Angkor Archaeological site! Angkor is the remains of 150 square miles of temples, cities, and the cultural and spiritual hub of the Khmer people living from 900 - 1500 AD. We visited many temples including Ta Prohm, the location of the Royal Monastery, with its strangler fig trees growing through the temples. It makes a beautiful and eerie temple to visit. Next up was Preah Khan, the “royal sword” temple. The last temple we visited in the morning was Bayon temple. This temple had striking murals that depicted everyday life in ancient Khmer life. We all looked in wonder, as some of these temples were constructed over 1,000 years ago! The attention to small details in the carvings, the thousands of deity statues, and how all of this has been preserved for centuries.
We reserved a whole afternoon for the temple of Angkor Wat, the biggest, tallest, and most well-preserved temple in Cambodia, and even the world. We learned of kings who lived in and around the temple, how important the temple was to the daily life of people, and also how centuries later, the Khmer Rouge fought wars inside the complex. Angkor Wat is so important to Cambodia, that there is a special law that no building in the country can be taller than it. We arrived back home exhausted but amazed at how beautiful and spiritual the Khmer Regime was from 900 - 1500 AD. We learned so much about the Hindu and Buddhist histories of Angkor, along with the different kings and rulers. It was unreal to be inside these temples, listening to the stories of the people who lived there. Walking through the ruins, you could almost see and feel the people worshipping, praying, and living a thousand years ago.
On our final day in Cambodia, we drove to the Association for Cambodian Conservation and Biodiversity (ACCB), with a tour of all of the animals they have rescued, many who were poached and sold into illegal animal trade. We learned about gibbons, dozens of birds, and many types of turtles. We soon were whisked off the Phnom Kulen, or the “Lychee Mountains.” It was here we discovered the sacred waters, with a thousand carved linga, and the healing waters of the natural springs. This mountain sanctuary used to be as important as AngkorWe climbed many stairs to see the golden Buddha, as well as a short jaunt to a refreshing river. We saw many families resting and eating lunch next to the river, it was definitely a locals' spot.
After 11 days spent in Southeast Asia, we all left with our own special memories of the cultures. For some, it was the mouth-watering cuisine, the smiles of the locals, or the mind-blowing beauty, but all of us discovered a new love for the two countries. It's amazing how travel changes you, it opens up doors to see that people around the world are just like you and me. We have families, we love each other, and we discover how strong we are each and every day.