When we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, I turned to my husband, Alex, and said, “Don’t mention my dad to anyone.” I was apprehensive about telling our group we were American – throw in that I’m the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and I was sure I’d get some backlash.
The war was definitely not a shining moment for America, nor was being an American something I felt I should broadcast. Both seemed to be working against me and I was worried what people would say on both subjects. Would the group care? Would they ask questions? Or worse: Would they, and perhaps our guide, judge us?
Alex seemed a little nervous too but as he’s travelled to more places than me, I figured he was more worried about me than anything.
Of course, the fact that we were American immediately came out during orientation but I needn’t have worried. Our group embraced us and our guide, Voung, or “Vee” for short, was super excited to have us; he interacted with us as if we’d been friends for years!
We had decided to book Intrepid’s 15-day Vietnam Discovery trip since we had been on a previous trip of theirs to Morocco and absolutely loved it. We appreciated their commitment to eco-tourism and that itineraries were more focused on cultural sites rather than popular, touristy locations.
I was a little worried our trip would be centered around the war but it seemed Vee had other plans. Rather than war zones and museums, we’d check out local markets and fisheries, visit Buddhist temples, interact with locals, bike ride around neighboring areas and eat some of the most amazing food. Everything Vee had planned helped to immerse us into daily life and learn more of the Vietnamese culture.
And within just a few short days, I was in love.
Bonding over food
Something I had been looking forward to during our trip was finding a cooking class. I was sure no one else would be interested in something like this as most people would rather go to a nice restaurant than cook their own dinner. After all, we were all on vacation!
So I was shocked to see everyone raise their hands when Vee mentioned the optional activity. Alex and I were used to taking solo cooking classes, receiving individual attention, so I was a bit concerned how much hands-on experience we were going to get. I figured with a group this large we’d mostly watch the instructor work while we took notes or photos of the process. Then, we’d eat.
Nothing about that was true.
When we arrived at the cooking class, which was situated inside a busy Hoi An restaurant, the head chef handed each of us a black apron, small hand towel and a toque blanche, a traditional chef’s hat. Then, we got cooking!
First was veggie spring rolls stuffed with carrot, cucumber, jicama and herbs, followed by a delicious chicken pho which, as it turns out, is traditionally eaten as a breakfast dish rather than dinner. I hadn’t known that! Lastly was desert which was a sweet mango sticky rice. Finally, we sat down and ate with gusto while conversations flowed easily. Anyone watching us
would have thought we were a large family, relaxing together with big smiles and full bellies.
Vietnam has over 23 million registered motorbikes so of course Vee announced to our group that we’d be taking a motorbike tour of what used to be Vietnam’s capital, Hue. I loved riding on motorcycles back home but I had a feeling this would be different. Of course, Vee would only trust our safety to the best of the best: locals!
Our motorbike drivers carefully navigated the narrow, crowded streets with ease, slowly forging a path through the chaos of daily commuters. It was incredible to see the city as the locals do. We stopped to see water buffalo grazing on the side of the street, visit the Thanh Toan Bridge, eat lunch prepared by Buddhist monks at Chua Thien Mu and see the mysterious tomb of Vietnam’s 4th emperor, Tu Duc.
Although these were highlights which were included in our tour, there was one non-scheduled stop that was a real tipping point for our group. Looking over the Perfume River, we played several rounds of jianzi (a kind of foot badminton) and had a blast simply playing and laughing! I knew, when the trip was over, when we went back to our own countries, we’d all still remember this moment.
A homestay like no other
Alex and I had decided to take our Intrepid trip to Vietnam in February so that we could be there to celebrate Tết, the Lunar New Year. When we received our itinerary I saw we’d be participating in a new homestay with the Muong tribe in Da Bac, a stop that Intrepid added just a month prior. Our timing was perfect. Not only would we get to experience the holiday in a rural area but we’d be in Hanoi the next day to celebrate in a urban setting as well. It was a unique opportunity for us to see two different styles of celebration.
When we arrived at Da Bac we were not disappointed.
Never have I been to a homestay where both family and local community have been so inviting, where everyone greeted us with warm smiles. Members of the Muong tribe performed traditional songs, had us participate in a fun dance competition and presented us with tokens for Tết.
We were treated by our hosts like family and couldn’t believe how beautiful and humbling the experience was. And while I knew there were plenty of homestay locations available, Intrepid really had outdone themselves by sourcing this experience with the Muong tribe.
All the festivities
The evening after our homestay in Da Bac, we were in Hanoi and ready to celebrate Tết. We drank beers, shared food and walked the streets with locals of all ages. The fireworks began at midnight, signally the beginning of the year of the Dog, and we shouted and jumped up and down like children.
It was then I knew I was ready to go home to the US, excited to share my Vietnam experience. I wanted to share everything: the food, the culture the people.
Ultimately, though, I was anxious to talk to my dad. To let him know that Vietnam has prospered in the years since the war and that the people embraced Alex and I, without a thought to us being American.
And as I watched the fireworks with my husband and our new friends, I made a promise to myself that I would someday return to this beautiful country.
This time, it would be with an open heart.
Ready to have the time of your life in incredible Vietnam? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours there.
(All images c/o Andy Lowry and taken on Intrepid’s Vietnam Discovery trip.)