Sinchow (or as Patrick likes to embarrassingly say, ‘Kung Pow’),
Despite the title of this post, we didn’t actually visit Ho Chi Minh City, but I couldn’t resist a good pun for spending Christmas in Vietnam. But more about that later. Let’s take it from the top!
After two weeks of sunshine in Thailand, we were sick of the perfect weather, and opted to go to Northern Vietnam during the low season a.k.a. the rainy season. Honestly, we didn’t know that we wouldn’t see the sun for 16 days when we started out on our Vietnamese adventure, but even the ugly weather couldn’t make this country ugly. We started our exploration on a two-night cruise of quite possibly the most beautiful place in the world: Halong Bay. Somehow, we managed to score the nicest room on the boat with floor to ceiling windows, a private balcony, and best of all, a freaking jet tub overlooking incredible scenery.
Following our two nights in luxury, we decided to settle into the nation’s capital, Hanoi, for the holidays. Like many Asian cities, Hanoi is not set up for pedestrians. Walking along what would be sidewalks, there hundreds of mopeds parked, making pedestrians walk in the street instead. Also like many other Asian cities, the streets of Hanoi have no rules (as far as I can tell). There are no stop lights or stop signs to control intersections, but instead the twelve lanes of cars flow through each other like a bending river with the not so occasional honk of a horn. Did I mention that there are no cross walks to cross said twelve lane roads? Like the cars, pedestrians too have to “flow like a river” through oncoming traffic in both directions. Oh and pedestrians don’t have the right of way…. ever, so having cars lightly tap you and honk their horns at you becomes about as comfortable and normal as sitting in a reclined lazy boy.
Like many other travelers and ex-pats, we got pretty dang homesick with Christmas fast approaching. Luckily for us, the people of Hanoi like to celebrate Christmas too… just a little bit differently than you and I may be used to. After stumbling around the bustling streets of the city, Patrick and I made it to a street dedicated entirely to Christmas decor: stockings, thistle, lights, the works! We promptly over-paid for two miniature stockings, two short strands of thistle, and two adult-sized Santa hats, and worked our way to a convenience store to grab some Christmas wine and candy to fill the stockings. With all of that covered, we were ready to spend Christmas abroad!
On Christmas Eve, we made our way to the vibrant Hoan Kiem Lake, where we were surrounded by people wearing Santa hats, street performers in Santa pants, little balloon Santas being sold on every street corner, and of course Mariah Carey’s rendition of “All I Want for Christmas” blasting through the speakers of every bar. It was a little bit weird, but hey it got us into the Christmas spirit!
Waking up on Christmas Day, we setup a nice little Netflix fire, opened our candy filled stockings, and got Christmas massages… naturally. If you’re wondering (which I know you are) massage parlors in South East Asia are more common than McDonalds are in America, and no, the vast majority do not come with a ‘happy ending’. At least, not that we know of…
Anywho, with a relaxing morning behind us, we decided to do something a little different for Christmas lunch, so we found ourselves at a PACKED local restaurant specializing in hot pots. Of course we had to order a hot pot, without fully knowing what we were getting ourselves into. A few minutes later, our waitress brought over a portable stove top, a massive pot, and a plate full of mystery meats and vegetables. With her and the other women at our table’s help, we were able to get our hot pot rollin’ and severely undercook some chicken! Lunch behind us, we toasted our evening with $75 worth of vinegar bottles, with fancy names such as ‘Merlot’ and ‘Cabernet’ and pizza.
With Christmas and city-life taken care of, we made our way to the quaint little tourist town of Tam Coc (pronounced cow, not cock – despite Patrick’s insistence to the locals). In Vietnam, you get to say ‘this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been’ almost every day. We said it in Halong bay, and when we reached Tam Coc, we said it again. Tam Coc is basically where the earth quite playing by the rules, and decided that instead of being flat and boring, it would be awesome… and remarkably it has no cows.
Which brings us to the NIGHT TRAIN, fittingly boarded from a dimly lit foggy train station. Nine hours of train tracks separated us from our next stopover, so naturally the preferred method of travel was to lock ourselves into a closet-sized room with four other strangers and six coffin-sized beds; each bed equipped with some lets-hope-these-were-washed pillows and blankets and an inch thick ‘mattress’. Our tickets stated we had booked ‘hard-sleepers,’ defined loosely as hard-to-sleep. Beyond the paranoia of having to keep one eye on our stuff all night (assigned to Patrick), there’s also the constant question of ’what is that strange noise coming from the top bunk??’ On top of all that, we had to translate what the announcer was saying to ensure that we wouldn’t oversleep and miss our stop.
Either way, the train brought us to Phong Nha National Park – home of the world’s largest cave system. So you think this paragraph is going to be about caves right? Nope… it’s about haircuts. Phong Nha is not only a hotspot for caves, but also home to all of Vietnam’s best hair dressers, or so their signs claim. Patrick insisted that we get his hair cut at a place advertising “I am sure you will have a nice hair when you leave here,” so we walked in, Patrick explained what he wanted in English, showed a picture of a very normal looking haircut, and strapped in. There was a conference of all the barbers in the shop, who were clearly excited at the opportunity to style a westerner’s hair. After lots of arguing in Vietnamese, the haircutting ensued with a razor blade swish design down the right side. From then on, Patrick was committed. Thirty minutes later and lots of suppressed laughter on my part, Patrick emerged with his new Vietnamese haircut and a half-gallon bottle of hair-gel keeping it all together.
Oh, and they did have some pretty sweetttt caves, too!
Wanting to ensure that we didn’t make it to the sunny part of Vietnam, we wrapped up our time in the country exploring the cities of Hoi An and Hue. Hoi An was more of a stopover to whoop up on some backpackers in flip cup and ring in the New Year. In Hue; however, we got down to the business of getting more suits and dresses tailored, and learning how to make pho. Included in our pho making class was a delicious appetizer of sautéed grubs with rice crackers. If you remember from Thailand, I love me some bugs, and Patrick will try almost anything at least once, so we loaded up two rice crackers with a few grubs each, chowed down, and instantly discovered we had wayyyyyy overcommitted. Expecting a crispy salty taste, we instead found something with the consistency of a pus-filled ballon and the taste of blue cheese left over from the Great Depression. In short, it tasted like a grub.
Outside of the grubs, Vietnam is a top-notch destination full of the kindest people in the world, incredible food, and some of the most beautiful landscapes we have ever seen. We cannot wait to go back in the future to see what it looks like with some sunlight!
Extending our Honeymoon to the Temple Capital of the World,
Samantha & Patrick
Updated Travel Stats:
Days Abroad: 168
Flights Taken: 30 (includes connections)
Miles Traveled: 31,145
Bags Lost: 1
Flights Delayed: 2 (thanks Thailand for ruining our 28 flight streak of no issues)
Countries Visited: 9 (minimum stay of 48 hours)
Dives Logged on this Trip: 91 (previously 91!)
Designer haircuts: 1