Wednesday, June 19, 2013
In my opinion, an opportunity to travel and visit different parts of the world is an opportunity not to be missed - there is so much to be learned and experienced while visiting another city, state or country. Kevin and I often talk about how fortunate our children are to not only live the ex-pat life but also to have visited the 10+ different countries we have been to over the past eight years. I know they probably won't agree with me, but they both have a greater knowledge of and appreciation for the world and our place in it because of their travels. They have experienced so many different cultures and opportunities that most people only read about. I don't think I will ever regret taking a trip (and dragging them along) anywhere. There is always something to be gained by visiting another place and being immersed in that culture, even if only for a short time.
That being said, I don't know if it is a good sign that I am still very undecided about how I felt about our trip to Vietnam. I guess I should say right off that the side trip we took to cruise Halong Bay was the highlight of our trip - as our tour guide said, "you cannot say you have visited Vietnam if you haven't visited Halong Bay". More on Halong Bay later.
Unfortunately, Hanoi was a smaller, dirtier, louder and poorer version of Bangkok - and so similar to other Southeastern Asian countries that we have visited. Unlike Bangkok, however, there was never a break from the noise, the traffic, the filth...it just went on and on and on. Street after street, hour after hour. In fact, we left the hotel at 6:00 am yesterday for the airport and, even at that early hour, the streets were chaotic and horns were blaring. I have such a love/hate relationship with Bangkok and was surprised to find myself frequently thinking, "thank goodness we live in Bangkok!". Hanoi was just too much noise and chaos for me. Add in the poverty and the filth and I was done.
Hanoi is not a pedestrian friendly city and crossing the street is not for the faint of heart. I found this video on you tube (courtesy of Lonely Planet) which very accurately shows the challenges of navigating & crossing the streets in Hanoi. Coincidentally, the video was shot right near our hotel on a street that we crossed (by the grace of God) several times without incident. Once you make the decision to cross and step into the street, the general rule is to just keep moving. I hesitated at one crossing and our tour guide simply said, "don't worry, they won't hit you". You really have to take a leap of faith and trust that the cars, scooters and bicycles will all weave their way around you. And they do. The locals pay no attention to what is coming at them as they cross - they text, chat on the phone, etc. Kevin's "trick" was to follow a local and stick to him/her like glue until we were safely on the other side. If we lived in Hanoi, I don't know how long my heart would be able to take that kind of stress. I probably would never go out.
Hanoi wasn't all that bad. The pros: the coffee, the food and the artwork. In that order.
The coffee in Hanoi was beyond delicious - it was truly liquid gold. I was so bummed to wake up this morning and have my "usual" French Roast. I bought several bags of Vietnamese coffee to bring home and, a short time after we returned to Bangkok yesterday afternoon, I found an on-line distributor that delivers to the U.S. The coffee was that good! Vietnam is the largest robusta coffee-growing nation in the world. Although the quality of the coffee has been sketchy in the past, the coffee bean growers and the government are making major efforts to improve the quality and purity of the coffee being produced. Most of the Vietnamese coffee crop is grown for bulk instant coffee production but there are small farmers that are growing excellent robusta and arabica beans to meet the rising demand for specialty and gourmet coffees. While most coffee is roasted at about 500 degrees (F), the Vietnamese roast their beans over an open fire for a longer time and at a lower temperature. The longer roasting time at the lower temperature allows the flavor to fully develop throughout the bean and prevents the exterior of the bean from burning. This different method of roasting results in a coffee that has a full, rich flavor without the bitterness, or charred taste, of modern dark roast coffee.
One of my "to dos" on this trip was to try Vietnam's famous "weasel coffee". Civets (weasels) eat the coffee cherries and defecate the partially digested fruit which is gathered by the farmer, thoroughly washed, sun-dried and then slowly roasted.
Weasel coffee is said to be the best (and most expensive) in the world with a rich, smooth taste and fragrant aroma. Apparently there is something about the natural fermentation that occurs in the weasel's stomach that makes the difference in the taste. Caitlynne and I found some in a small cafe but since I am finally recovered (knock on wood) from my Cambodian stomach issues, I opted not to push my luck and passed on trying it.
The food. The oh, so delicious food. Everywhere we ate - street cafe, restaurant, on the boat - the food was absolutely amazing. Everything was so fresh, flavorful and not at all spicy (like Thai food). The only thing that I did avoid were the dishes served with shellfish or seafood that could not be identified - and that was only because of my shellfish allergy and not because I was worried about the quality of the fish or seafood.
We didn't go thirsty either! The adult beverages...
I did try a Vietnamese white wine which could very well have been vinegar.
Fresh fruit smoothies for the kids..
Hanoi has a large art community and I wanted to buy a couple of oil paintings while we were there. We found a very nice art gallery while we were out wandering around one afternoon. Their selection and prices were amazing and I was able to cross that "must have" off of my list. The kids even picked out a piece for each of their bedrooms. I am sure it will cost me a small fortune to have everything framed but the paintings will be nice mementos of our trip.
I will post tomorrow about what we did in Hanoi and about our cruise on Halong Bay.
Have a great Wednesday!