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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Vietnam: Thai Tour Group Style

Last week I was living the dream. I was part of an Asian tour group, to an Asian country, complete with matching bucket hats and luggage tags and a 20 hour bus ride bursting with karaoke.  Although the tour guide only spoke Vietnamese and Thai and I could not understand (mai kow jai) a lot of what was being said, I still immensely enjoyed my experience in Vietnam.  As soon as we drove into Vietnam from Laos I was blown away by how beautiful it was, and also, how different it was from Thailand.  I guess I was expecting it to be "same same but different" since it is a fellow Southeast Asian country, but right from the start I realized it was no place like home.  The people, the language, the food, the currency, the music - it was all new. We stuck around central Vietnam, and I'm already itching to go back and see the Northern and Southern parts of the country, but here's some of the highs and lows from the trip to Hue, Da Nang and Ha Noi:


  • Hoi An: I am obsessed with this town.  From the Ancient City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to the amazing markets and streets flooded with custom design clothing shops to the French bakery that sold chocolate croissants, a-ma-zing.  This was definitely my favorite stop, the market was full of people and bursting with color (delicious fruit! silk lanterns! fresh flowers!) and I definitely dropped some serious Baht/Dong/Dollars there (Vietnam accepts all three currencies).  
  • Dipping my toes in the South China Sea: Growing up in landlocked Missouri (unless you count the Muddy Mississippi) I've always had a deep love for oceans, and one of my favorite things is to get my feet wet and watch the waves.  We arrived at our hotel in Da Nang pretty late, but the moon was the perfect light for a little adventure to the beach.  After spending a few minutes trying to figure out exactly which body of water we were in, I was happy to enjoy the moment and listen to the waves as they rushed ashore. 
  • Motorcycle city: I had heard that Vietnam was full of bikes and motorcycles, but I didn't expect to be that impressed because Thailand has a ton as well, little did I know the number of bikes in Thailand pales in comparison to Vietnam, the streets were teeming with two-wheeled forms of transportation, even the Vietnam version of a tuk-tuk looks like a bike with a wheelchair seat strapped on the front. It made for some scary moments in the market where I thought I might lose a foot or two while trying to purchase a conical rice-paddy hat, but luckily, I survived. 
  • Shopping spree: Traveling with 80 Thai teachers from school only added to the greatness of this trip, it was so fun to interact with all of them outside of school when they often seem so intense.  They really let loose on this trip, and I quickly learned that Thai tours are all about three things: eating, shopping, and bathroom breaks.  Our bus made stops every hour or so to fulfill one of these needs.  I wasn't exactly planning on going wild at the markets, but what can I say? I was inspired by my fellow teachers and their excellent bargaining skills.  My apartment floor is currently covered with gifts I picked up for my family and friends (and myself, let's be honest) and I don't even know how to begin to distribute them. 
The Lows:
Apparently Vietnam imports bananas from Laos.
  • Bus time: there was a lot (a lot, a lot) of time spent on the bus. I could barely walk straight when I finally arrived back in Suphan at 4am on Sunday.  While the roadside scenery in Laos and Vietnam was beautiful, captivating and so vastly different than anything I'd seen before, it was hard to appreciate after 20 hours of full blast Thai tunes and the tour guide yelling dirty jokes in Thai into the microphone.
  • America's history in Vietnam: When we first entered Vietnam and the sprawling hills, everything I'd learned in my history classes about the tough battle fields of Vietnam was suddenly so realistic- huge hills, dense forest, winding roads, etc.  Our tour guide pointed out as we were rounding one curve that there were no tall trees in the area because they had been destroyed by America's bombs during the war.  It was hard not to feel guilty.  We also had the opportunity to check out the Vinh Moc tunnels in Hue, a village created 30 meters underground to shelter people from the bombs.  Amazingly, 60 families lived in these tunnels and 17 women gave birth there!  Luckily, the underground villages were never hit by America's bombs.
Striking a pose at the Vietnam/Laos Border

Sa-nguan Ying Teachers!

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