Travel is the best education! It inspires me, continuously humbles me to new levels and pushes me outside my comfort zone. In the planning process I am always thirsting for knowledge and guessing what my take aways may be. In the moment, I am like a student enthralled with her favorite subject and hanging on her professor’s every word. In reflection, I am grateful for the opportunity to have captured pieces of a culture that will forever change who I am.
My first lesson was in Vietnamese coffee. It seems we are stuck these days on not comparing things. Perhaps it is because it can be unfair? It does not have to be. When it comes to travel I think comparison is what brings out the greatest level of gratitude. Coffee is a fine example in this case. As you may recall me mentioning, Seychelles sells primarily instant coffee. MC and I are diehard coffee lovers. It is often the first word we speak to each other in the morning. Coffee? As if there is really no other reason to get out of bed! In that regard, Vietnam by comparison is heaven. We likely appreciated it far more than others may as we knew what a unique pleasure it was for us to enjoy people watching at a new cafe daily.
My, what a sight it was! Our neighborhood in Hanoi is the craziest traffic I have ever witnessed. This is coming from someone who has been to Bangkok. Again, a comparison for reference. The intersections of the Old Quarter are all uncontrolled. Scooters outnumber vehicles by at least thirty to one and often contain more merchandise or occupants than a flat bed truck or minivan would in the United States. Whereas horns are utilized in Seychelles primarily as a friendly tap to let someone know you can pull out in front of them, in Hanoi it is a full-on constant blast to tell people to get the hell out of your way. I pondered whether if your horn broke in Hanoi it would be the equivalent of a flat tire. You simply could not drive without it! Maneuvering traffic as a pedestrian is definitely dangerous so thankfully it was a tip I had read about and expected. The sidewalks are consumed by scooter parking and nearly nonexistent so it is vital to walk with complete awareness and confidence. Make eye contact and go for it!
The destination of coffee was well worth fending for our lives, we decided immediately upon arrival. In addition to the Seychelles comparison I am going out on a very dangerous limb as my sister works for an amazing major coffee company in the United States, and say this was the best coffee I have ever tasted. Not any one particular cup either. Every single experience we had was incredibly amazing. They are well known for their egg coffee which is an obscenely decadent dark and mildly bitter blend topped with a foamy concoction of whipped egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk. I could easily fly high for four hours after one of these and I am not generally affected heavily by caffeine other than my first cup of the morning that opens my brain waves. The other option amongst many that won me over was a frozen coconut milk topped with coffee. It reminded me of my favorite Italian affagato only this one seemed to be on steroids.
There are truly no words for how coffee alone would have made this trip a winner for us. The rich dark mocha-like essence is without a doubt addictive. We enjoyed it multiple times daily and loaded up a suitcase with what we believe to be a six month supply. This is our idea of souvenirs! Equally as entertaining is that the bill in Vietnamese Dong was just shy of a million. High currency conversions rates made it both amusing and confusing to play around with what felt like Monopoly money. A million Dong is equivalent to around forty-two dollars.
Next up was a bit of a surprise if I am being honest. I thoroughly appreciated the rich pho broth like none I had ever tasted before and the bun cha with its combination of fresh herbs, vegetables and chilis mixed with perfectly cooked noodles and succulent, flavorful pork doused in a fish sauce and lime juice bath became a quick favorite. But out of the dugout came the grand slam that made the game legendary. The bahn mi.
It was this simply perfected little sandwich for about a dollar that we did not go without a single day in Vietnam. The bread. It was everything a perfectly executed French roll should be. Crisp and flakey to the tooth and then immediately giving way to soft and chewy. I still dream about that bread. The funny thing is I am not much of a bread or sandwich fan so this was a fun discovery. I had certainly not imagined it to woo me as it did. The fillings were quite simple. A light spread of pate, fresh cucumber, carrot, coriander(cilantro), and your choice of meat. Last but not least, egg or no egg. MC could eat an egg at every meal and we often do so this was a no brainer for him. I chose to opt out but we both added chili sauce. So darn good I can almost taste it again! Deceivingly delicious!
The last gift of this journey for me was by far the most impactful. As an individual I do not support war or weapons. As an American, I am deeply saddened by the horrific human and environmental impact my country is responsible for waging on Vietnam. I had no idea what to expect in terms of how I may be treated and perhaps that is precisely what drew me there. The unknown. The need to represent in my own little way that no one is anything more than human. We are all connected if we choose to be.
What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful ray of hope. I was impressed by their calm energy and their impeccably executed cohabitation of old and new. Shopkeepers of name brands and new electronics sat on small sidewalk stools next to ladies skillfully operating tiny charcoal grills. Women pushing bicycles laden with fresh fruits and vegetables amongst the insanity of scooter traffic whizzing by. That scene the first night moved me immensely. It instilled in me a whole new level of respect for not only their ability to survive and overcome but to thrive. Perhaps on the simplest terms it provided me with a sense of relief. Perhaps I was guided there by my father, a proud Navy man and devout Catholic. It seems to be an oxymoron. Whatever the reason, I knew I was meant to see it and I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to witness the beauty of their culture.
As if confirming my intuition, the final evening while out to dinner we were approached by a young boy of no more than ten years of age. He politely requested a few minutes of our time to practice his English. I glanced up to see his proud father looking on from a table across the restaurant. What a brave little boy! was my initial thought. He went on to impress me with his questions of where I was from and had I been to Washington DC? When I mentioned that I had lived briefly in California he immediately chimed in excitedly inquiring whether I had seen the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz. At this point I was both amazed and amused. He chatted through our appetizer being delivered and we answered between bites of a dish I cannot recall. When I told him how much we were enjoying his country’s cuisine he asked what we had tried thus far and then pointed to the rose-shaped carrot garnish that was the only thing left on the plate and said, Oh we learned how to make those in school! In that moment it was the woman whose jaw dropped and suddenly she felt like a little girl in the presence of this wise old bilingual soul. We never stop learning if we choose to see the education right before our very eyes.