Sunrise over the Mekong Delta.

Guided tours have never appealed to me, as I hate being told what to do and the thought of schlepping around foreign countries as part of a clump of tourists doesn’t quite fit in with my romantic notions of myself as a traveler. Hitchhiking through East Germany, working the breakfast shift at a beach bar in Puerto Angel, speaking just enough of whatever language to get by… at least in my twenties, this was the way I rolled.

Nonetheless, I just got back from a guided tour of Vietnam. And it was amazing.

As weird as it may sound, as a child during the years of the Vietnam War, I learned the names of its towns and cities in somewhat the same way I learned the vocabulary of golf. Birdie, eagle, double bogey. Danang, Khe Sanh, Hanoi. The language of the grownups around me, the words that blared from the television. Over time, this early immersion created a kind of tenderness toward both golf (theoretical — I don’t play or even watch) and Vietnam. 

Hue. Gulf of Tonkin. Mekong Delta. My Lai.

I was nine years old in March 1968, the time of the My Lai massacre. I was acutely aware and deeply horrified by its details, and I was inspired as only a nine-year-old can be by the passion and grooviness of the anti-war movement. In the decades since, I learned to love Vietnamese food, and got some idea of the particular beauty of Southeast Asia. Ultimately all this coalesced into a strong feeling that I had to go to Vietnam myself. I had to see the places, meet the people, eat the food, spend money — a tiny, possibly silly, one-woman mission of reparation. 

But I didn’t want to go alone, so I told my daughter Jane, who finished college this past June, that I would take her to Vietnam for a graduation present. When I started trying to plan the trip, I quickly got overwhelmed. Research indicated that we should travel from Hanoi to Saigon, and that we should stop at several places along the way, and clearly a truly mind-boggling number of arrangements would need to be made using the internet because at 64, I am not hitchhiking in East Germany anymore. But ever since I booked a rental car for the wrong month of 2009, causing me to be stranded indefinitely outside Boise, Idaho, I have been edgy about internet arrangements. So what about, um, a guided tour? 

The itinerary of the Real Food Adventure.

I landed on Intrepid Travel, a company based in Australia, which offered a 12-day “Vietnam Real Food Adventure.” The itinerary was just what I had been beginning to figure out on my own, except a lot more detailed and better. And as the comments on the site made clear, having a native guide would make all the difference. So we booked the trip, then Jane got a summer job so we rescheduled the trip, then my neighbor Pam decided to come too, and then, to my surprise, she talked my sister Nancy into joining us, and then because of Nancy’s tax deadlines, we rescheduled it again, and then finally, e-visas and passports and vax cards in hand, we went.

Short version: it was great. The food was delicious, the people were lovely, the scenery often stunning, and our guide was nothing short of perfect. 

Long version: I wrote it all down in way more detail than you could possibly want to know, especially considering everything went so smoothly that there’s no interesting drama to report. 

The medium version follows, illustrated by photographs we shared on the WhatsApp group we made for the trip, the Intrepid Motorcycle Club. Photo credits to Jane Sartwell, Ross Barnard, Pam Stein, Nancy Seeback, and Jen Rollins.

Day 1: Hanoi, Sunday

The first meeting of the tour group was Sunday night, but we had to leave Baltimore at 3 am on Friday morning to get there for it. We flew Dulles to Dallas, then Dallas to Tokyo. The food on Japan Air Lines was mildly disgusting — a weird pasta salad, a blob of smoked salmon, corn pudding, can’t believe they eat any of this in Japan — but the free brandy on ice, which I learned about from the guy sitting next to me, was the highlight. Jane had vowed to sleep through most of our 24-plus hour trip. It took Klonopin, Flexoril, Xanax, Ambien, ibuprofen, brandy and beer, but by God she did it. And survived.

Intrepid had booked us into a sweet hotel called the May de Ville, where I had my first encounter with the wonder that is Vietnamese hotel breakfast, seemingly included with the room everywhere and often pretty extravagant. Thick, chocolatey Vietnamese coffee, which you can have with sweetened condensed milk, regular milk, or black, French rolls (“banh mi” actually just means baguette), omelettes, gratin potatoes, bacon, yogurt, plates of dragonfruit, mango and pineapple, and, always, pho. Pho is the standard way to start your day in Vietnam and if you’ve never thought of noodle soup as breakfast, you soon learn it goes down easy. 

The pho and omelette station at the May de Ville Hotel in Hanoi.

The minute we walked out the door of the hotel, we we were initiated into the extreme sport of street-crossing in Vietnam. There are rushing hordes of motorscooters everywhere at all times and very few traffic signals, even fewer that are obeyed. In fact, crossing streets was the scariest aspect of the whole trip. Later we would learn to cling to our tour guide like a family of terrified ducklings, trying hard to obey his orders not to run, but proceed in a stately manner, with one arm outstretched, palm flat, as the phalanx bears down. 

We spent the day wandering the Old Quarter of Hanoi, dazedly window-shopping. In the afternoon I fulfilled my dream of getting a mani-pedi, which I suspected might be a good thing to do in Vietnam and I was not wrong. My manicurist, Uyen, managed to be very funny without having a single word of English except “No.” She spoke into her Google translator app and the robot voice spoke to me, and then we did it the other way. “Do not arbitrarily move your hands from my lamp.” 

Banyan trees lean into beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake.

That evening we met our guide, Bon Can, and the two other members of our group, an Australian couple named Jen and Ross. Only six people on the tour and four of them are us, what luck. Bon is a cheerful, down-to-earth, well-spoken and (as we would learn) virtually imperturbable man in his late 40s who radiates good vibrations and savoir-faire. He told us how he grew up with nothing in the country outside Hanoi, carrying his flipflops under his arm to school so they wouldn’t wear out too quickly, having only one suit of clothes for a whole school year, and being very cold all winter long. 

Around the lake, kids studying English come with their teachers to seek out English conversation. I asked An how to say ‘excuse me’ in Vietnamese. She didn’t understand so I explained, ‘you know, what you say when you bump into people.’ She said, in her precise little voice, “I don’t bump into people.”

He also filled us in on all kinds of basics, like the street-crossing, and not confusing the 1,000 and 10,000, and 100,000 dong notes, (100,000 is just under 5 bucks; you see 1,000s lying in the street and no one picks them up.) Don’t cross your fingers for luck because here it means fuck you and don’t say “yum” because it means “I’m horny.” About the Vietnamese War, he said, we don’t worry about that anymore. You cannot change the past.

The many faces of Mr. Bon Can, explaining everything from the operation of ancient microwaves to the details of the Nguyen dynasty.

This seemed unlikely if not all-out impossible, but eventually the welcome and kindness we received from all the people we met, including many who were born or grew up during the war, made me feel that amazingly, it must be true.

Then we all put in $38.40 or 870,000 dongs each, for a tipping kitty, and headed back to the Old Quarter for our first dinner. Hanoi Food Culture was a sweet, simple spot with staircases that smelled of cinnamon, and our dinner a family-style tasting menu. Highlights were the appetizer courses — fresh and fried spring rolls, and green mango salad. Also the giant heads-on shrimp. 

We got to know each other a little better — Jen and Ross are both widowed, friends set them up four years ago, and they’ve both recently retired, she from speech pathology and he from cinema management. Jen’s brother is the author David Rollins, the Tom Clancy of Australia, well-known in the States. We had a good conversation about books, maybe the first of many. 

Day 2: Hanoi, Monday

A full day of Real Food Adventures kicked off our week, many of them enjoyed while seated on the brightly-colored plastic kiddie dining sets that are ubiquitous here. 

R.F.A. #1 was the official breakfast of Vietnam, served in a pho restaurant near the hotel — classic Northern style, which apparently involves fewer herbs, bean sprouts and other toppings than you get in the South. Afterwards, we visited a covered food market where meat, fish, grains and vegetables are sold. We tasted banana flowers and dragonfruit and longans (these are nothing new to the Australians.) It was dim, smelly, and to me, rather nauseating, with water pooling on the rough cement floor and the occasional escaped fish or eel flopping around in it. There were butchered animal parts all over the place and frogs in bags. Jane and I were thrilled to leave. Jen, who makes her own cheese, said she loved it. 

We continued along, visiting stalls on the street that sold all manner of things, then got in an airconditioned mini-bus and headed over to a coffee shop for R.F.A. #2: a sample of “egg coffee” which apparently went viral when Kim Jong-un was here for a summit. The barista gave us a demo of whipping the hell out of a couple of yolks, adding coconut syrup, honey and a shot of espresso — basically a very rich coffee-flavored eggnog. Meh.

R.F.A. #3, rice-flour crepes, was a favorite. The crepes are made on a flat round skillet like regular crepes except with steam underneath, then they sprinkle on fried shallots, shrimp, pork, chicken, or some combination, and roll them up, and serve with nuoc cham. A couple came in — apparently mobsters or movie stars, plenty of bling and fancy clothes — the first visibly rich people we’ve spotted, despite much talk of wealth accumulated via real estate ownership. (Bon very into providing economic info, such as price of cars, and operation of half-socialist, half-capitalist economy.) 

R.F.A. #4 was out in the suburbs, a tea house in what was described as a Soviet-funded apartment complex, a dusty, paint-peeling row of five-story buildings, some with extravagant bowers of plants pouring off the balconies. The tea room had low tables with cushions on the floor and a gentle young woman named Giang made us two types of tea. She poured hot water over each tea seven separate times, and we drank each infusion out of tiny cups, the flavor surprisingly getting stronger each time.

Giang explains how the owner of the teashop travels into the mountains in the remote north of the country and selects the leaves, which she ferments, dries and blends with flowers. It was great to be in this peaceful spot listening to Giang’s quiet voice after the hustle and bustle of the morning on the streets of Hanoi.

R.F.A. #5 would prove to be my least favorite of the whole trip. It is known simply as Sweet Drink, and it involves choosing from an array of mixin’s: jellied beans and cubes of gelatin and weird puddings and other colorful but nasty ingredients which are layered in a glass, then topped with very sweet coconut milk and ice cubes. It almost seems like something you would have to eat on a dare.

R.F.A. #6 was outside of town, far off the beaten track. The venue was a wooden structure built over a swamp — including a floating dock, and a cement-floored room with three walls, low table and cushions on the floor. A rather ethereal young man served us glasses of craft beer made from some thick-skinned pink berry. He told us the recipe was based on the life of his ex-girlfriend. He makes a different variety each week, he says, each with a different story. 

Thang went to university in Canada, left after a year to volunteer in Gambia, then spent the next ten years traveling overland back to Vietnam, passing through Iraq, Iran, Russia and Central Asia.

That evening we four Americans went off-tour to see the traditional Water Puppet show in the Old Quarter by the lake, recommended by Jane’s dad’s girlfriend who is a Vietnam maven. This was a good example of how Bon was happy to integrate non-itinerary items into the itinerary from time to time. It was magical, seen from our $8 third-row center seats, with a band playing traditional instruments and singing, and a pagoda backdrop over a deep blue pool. 

Adorable brightly painted puppets swam out and performed water dances. In one part, incandescent red dragons spat fireworks and streams of water. Four boys frolicked, a couple of phoenix birds made a baby, fish flopped and flew. At the end about 10 puppeteers came out from behind the curtain, standing hip deep in water. 

Day 3: Halong Bay, Tuesday

Today I began to appreciate the joy of having little idea of what is coming next, then having it be something wonderful you never would have been able to imagine or picture.

We left after breakfast on a mini-bus for the four-hour trip to Halong Bay. The ride was broken up by a stop at a ceramics cooperative, where we saw the process of making giant urns, the slip poured into molds, dried, refined on wheels, then painted by hand with breathtaking dexterity and speed, one person turning out 45 – 52 giant urns per day (!?!) with practiced whisks of a feathery brush. 

We arrived on the dock for our cruise on Halong Bay, where over 2000 limestone islands rise from the emerald green waters of Bac Bo Gulf, dotted with beaches and grottos created over thousands of years by waves and wind. We boarded a charming wooden boat, the Bien Ngoc 10 (Sea Pearl), written in pink cursive on the prow of the top deck. On the main floor is the dining room and bar, and nine compact staterooms are spread over that floor and the one below, each with large windows on the view. I thought the very firm beds were great but Pam and Jen later disagreed with me heartily. On the top deck are chaise lounges, potted plants and an awning, plus arching pole-lamps for evening.

Ross says goodbye to the crew, Nancy dries off after our swim, in the background some of the limestone formations.

We were served a fine multi-course lunch by a very nice man again named Thang. He was lanky and cadaverous, quite witty and a great bartender. A table was set with linens on the main floor. There were little dishes with salt, pepper and lime — you mix it together to make a dipping sauce. The local Halong beer became our favorite so far. We had shrimp and crawfish, both of which were cooked in savory, buttery sauces. There were fried spring rolls, rice, curried vegetables, morning glory greens, cucumbers with peanuts in a light sauce, carved apples for dessert.

After lunch we visited a cave, Sung Sot or Cave of Surprises, which was like a tour of Mars, really quite spectacular. Steps led up and down through giant caverns and corridors with stalagmites and stalactites, ceilings that looked like meringue made of stone. 

Next stop was Titop Beach, named for a Russian astronaut. Ships of various sizes anchored out in the bay and lots of people of numerous nationalities were enjoying the sandy beach and perfect body-temperature of the bay. The water felt so good after being hot and sticky most of the time for the past few days. We soaked off the heat and grit of the city for a good long time, approaching sunset. 

It seemed that there might not be a pretty sunset because the sky was cloudy, but as we took cocktails up to the top deck we were surrounded by a gorgeous silvery light — sky shaded lavender and pink, the rock formations that poke up from the bay shadowy blue-gray. We played Scrabble and Jane had a Halong Dream, a tasty blue drink in a martini glass.

Dinner was another Halong Dream — more shrimp, an oyster Rockefeller wrapped in foil for each of us, squid cakes and delicious fish… for Jane the vegetarian, sweet potato tempura that she loved.

To read about the remaining nine days of Marion Winik’s trip to Vietnam, click here.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

4 replies on “Notes from Vietnam: A Travel Journal”

  1. Oh Marion; this was a fabulous read! Should be on every travel agents page. Only you have the gift to make one feel as if they are there with you on each and every leg of this journey. You’ve captured the tastes, smells, atmosphere! And most of all the emotions of both natives and visitors. What a lovely, lovely trip! I long ago decided that any traveling I do in the future will be guided and pre planned for me. I cannot plan out the details as I used to and also like the little surprises. Thank you so much for this piece.

  2. I took the exact trip with Intrepid a few years back. Our guide was very accommodating particularity to a younger man in our group who wanted to eat the funkiest food-snake, rat, fermented eggs. Loved the exquisite cuisine on the boat in Halong Bay. Did you look in the galley? Impressive spread from very small area.
    So nice to hear your take on it and reminisce. Favorite moment was accidentally sitting next to the plexiglass enclosed table where President Obama and Anthony Bordain shared a meal. It is perfectly preserved.
    I love Intrepid. Used them for Morocco and Thailand. Both were terrific.

  3. What a trip, and your writing skills have not diminished a bit over the years fro my first experience when you were in Austin.
    Best wishes Marion I hope you have many pleasant trips through life.

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