According to the Happy Planet Index report, we have a lot to learn from Vietnam. Not only does the South East Asian country have great food and warm weather, it is the fifth happiest place in the world. The report is based on how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives. So, it should come as no surprise that Vietnam is also a place where life’s best lessons can be learned. Here are seven I picked up on my recent visit there
Day 1: How to take a leap of faith
Taking a leap of faith is better than taking leap of doubt. These words by Zimbabwean-born philosopher Matshona Dhliwayo could not be more apt than for anyone attempting a leap of faith. If this is you, and you are wondering if you are ready to take a leap of faith, I suggest crossing a street in Hanoi as a spirit-building appetiser first.
There is one simple reason why this is an act of courage in itself: swarming scooters. My eye-popping introduction to Hanoi scooter traffic came during a cab ride from Hanoi international airport to the city. While my travel buddy Hosnieh and I shared the severity of our coffee cravings after the 15-hour flight from London, our chatter was interrupted by the sound of hundreds of scooters swarming passed our taxi, beating their horns to alert cars and trucks. The swarm grew thicker as we got closer to the city and the deafening honking turned into a symphonic mash up, making any conversation almost impossible.
About five million scooters transport entire livelihoods into the city every day, from large wicker baskets of fruit and vegetables, to families of four on a single scooter. For most Vietnamese people, whose average wage is 3.2 million dong (US$150) per month not only are scooters ideal for getting around, they’re also small businesses on wheels.
However, their loud cacophony and street cred were no match for our caffeine cravings. So on the recommendation of the friendly hotel staff we set out in search of Coffee Street. We walked passed open shop fronts, where small coal fires on the pavement grilled meat, seafood and vegetables. We continued to wander down the street, passing by eateries with tiny plastic stools outside for diners, until we got to our first main intersection.
With hundreds of moving scooters filling the street, we surveyed our chances of crossing in the absence of any traffic lights. If we stayed on the corner waiting for the mayhem to die down, we would have never got to the other side. If we took another route we would have probably gotten lost. However, crossing the street in Vietnam for the first time is scary which is why you need a friendly arm to guide you through.
With this local philosophy we took a leap of faith. Thankfully we also remembered a Tripadvisor review with some tips for crossing the streets of Hanoi: as there are no pedestrianised traffic lights to cross the street you need to step forward into the traffic and it will go around you. Whatever happens, do not step back.
So with arms linked we began to move forward into the middle of the road and froze with fear as the scooters came hurtling towards us. We moved forward slowly and then, as if by a miraculous force field, they rode around us. We moved forward again and paused, before finding the right moment to step forward again. This took a few moments and then, screeching with excitement, we leaped to the other side of the road.
With this new found confidence, we comfortably navigated our next intersection and finally found what we were looking for. An ally way leading off Coffee Street led us to an open door which gave off the comforting aroma of caffeine. Cheerful waiters led us inside the humble brick dwelling, making us feel at home. In the café, locals sat on low plastic chairs, sipping on egg coffee, while checking their Instagram feeds. At last we were in a secluded sanctuary, away from the noise of the scooters and comforted by the happy smiles of the waiters.
On the surface it would appear that the locals have little to smile about. Dilapidated buildings, crumbling roads and poor amenities are part of daily life in Hanoi. The electricity supply is also a sight to behold, with live wires hanging across the streets and collecting on the corners in a medusa-like mess. Despite appearances Vietnam seems to be doing well. The number of people living in poverty fell from 58% in 1993 to 10.7% in 2010 and it’s GDP of 6.98% between January and September 2018 tells a good story. And the warmth and mutual respect of the locals were reminders that it’s not about what you have but who you are because of it that defines you.
From lively street markets selling local delicacies to hidden coffee shops, Hanoi offered a range of pleasant experiences. We just needed to take a leap of faith in order to explore them.
Day 2: Look for enchantment in nature
It’s the dim haze of mystery that adds enchantment to pursuit. If you’re wondering what this quote by 18th century French writer Antione de Rivarol has to do with Vietnam, then a trip to Ha Long Bay should satisfy your curiosity. This UNESCO World Heritage site, with its emerald green waters and limestone citadels, captured our imaginations with its authentic beauty on the second day of our trip.
We began the day with a two-hour drive from Hanoi to a port where row upon row of junk boats where moored, ready to take groups of tourists around the bay. It was here that a cruise boat, The Genius, welcomed us for an adventure.
That adventure began the moment we boarded the boat and headed out into the openness of the 1,553 km2 bay of Ha Long, which means “Descending Dragon”. We watched the green water with intrigue as the spray lightly tickled our skin and the towering citadels guided our path. With senses enlivened we moved inside and continued to enjoy the unfolding scenery over a set course lunch of spring rolls, prawns, beef with chilli, ginger, spring onion in a sweet sauce, sticky Vietnamese rice and exotic fruits. Then, with appetites sated, we headed back to the deck and enjoyed the scenery and the misty spray from the water as we ventured towards Thien Cung Caves.
We approached a boarding post where much smaller boats waited to take us closer to the caves. Once inside, our tour guide enlightened us about the legend of the caves: the Dragon King and his wife May lived here in magical Thien Cung, or “Heavenly Home” where they had 100 children, occasionally flying among the islands of the bay to protect fishermen and farmers and defending them from invaders. In 1993, in a big storm, fishermen came here to avoid the storm and accidentally explored a large cave about 25-metres above sea level. Stalactites inside resemble the shape of dragon, a phoenix, and Four Pillars, which made them think about an imperial palace.
Cobble stones led us through the 10,000 square metre cave and transported us into a magical fairy-like grotto. In the middle of cave was a turtle, one of the sacred creatures of Vietnam signifying luck. We touched the turtle’s head for luck and continued to follow the stones through the caves. They were a story teller’s dream and for a moment I could not resist pretending I was Dorothy following the Yellow Brick Road toward the wonderful Land of Oz.
Alas our cobble stone adventure came to an end and we headed back to the small boats. Soon we were reunited with the Genius which welcomed us back with dragon fruit, jackfruits and watermelon and a glass of wine to reflect on the experience. The day trip had taken us to completely unfamiliar places, with dragon-like mountains and ancient mythical kingdoms. But no destination is ever reached without a journey. In this sense, the hazy waters of Ha Long Bay were the perfect prologue to the fairytale-like caves, enchanting those who sail on them.
And every enchanting story needs an epilogue: the day trip to Ha Long Bay triggered the imagination with dramatic features resembling a fairly-tale world. And as I remember the caves in this blog I cannot help but also remember the words of another legend, ‘Ol Blue Eyes himself, who sang: Fairytales can come true, it can happen to you. If you’re young at heart.
Day 3: “Do small things & big supports”
If you are ever in doubt that your small gestures actually make a difference, then the road to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc in the Ninh Binh province will reassure you. Compared to the previous day’s experience of mystery and enchantment in Ha Long Bay, this day was one of spirituality and finding happiness by focusing on the happiness of others. It began at 8am with a private tour vehicle. We drove outside of Hanoi and stopped at a souvenir shop where we witnessed that you don’t need grand gestures to make an impact.
But it was no ordinary souvenir shop. This modest brick building with a corrugated iron ceiling is home to a charitable foundation, where clothes, ornaments, bags and paintings are made, displayed and sold, all in one place. The creators severally disabled as a consequence of the Vietnam War, reminding us that the effects of nerve agent and bombs were visible not only in those who lived during the war from 1968 to 1975, but for their offspring too. But despite disabilities, they worked meticulously and proudly on weaving cushions and bags and producing other works of art in the shop.
I watched them for a while and then wandered over to the clothes to see what else they had made. Amidst the colourful selection of handbags on display, my gaze zoomed in on a red shoulder bag with intricate beadwork of black flowers on either side. It had a unique handmade quality and feel which is hard to find on the high street so I bought it for my sister to brighten her daily commute.
I walked over to the till to pay for the bag when a large sign with the words “Do small things & big supports”, caught my eye. The sign drove home that I was not just buying a beautiful bag, I was supporting a disadvantaged, yet hard working group of people. And the smile on the cashier’s face showed it.
After visiting the shop, we drove away towards our ultimate destination: a harbour alongside a river in Xa Ninh Hai, where a rowing boat waited to take us for an adventure on peacefully still waters. A small Vietnamese girl rowed us down the river, using the strength in her feet to manouvre the two oars while her smart phone occupied her hands. We passed small brick houses along the river side and sailed further on the river.
Within a few moments our gentle meander was accompanied by the rhythmic knocking of the ores against the side of the boat. The sound was similar to that of a train rocking from side to side, easing its passengers into a state of relaxation. Amidst the stillness, I focused softly on the serene and endless water, with no other distractions apart limestone mountains and luscious foliage. I relished the moment and the accompanying slowing of the heartbeat. It was a brief escape from the pace of the life that I know and a perspective of how things could and should be.
After the languorous boat ride, we dined on goat meat and steamed rice for lunch. According to our tour guide, the former is good for fertility and sperm quality. By this logic, he said, it also brings happiness – or blissful happiness – otherwise known as Hahn Phuc.
After this Hahn Phuc meal we visited another Hahn Phuc place: the ancient temples of Truong Yen from the Dinh Dynasty (968 -980). Inside the temple foods were laid on the shrine and incense burned to welcome and adore the Gods and the spirit of Dinh Bo Linh, emperor and founder of the second Vietnamese dynasty. The intensely spiritual place gave me a feeling that a higher being was watching over us.
From one peaceful place we went to another, a small harbour on Xa Ninh Xuan River, where a paddle boat waited for us. We paddled out onto the emerald waters, which welcomed us with their tranquility. With my focus on the still waters I again felt at peace as we navigated past towering limestone citadels and my focus anchored softly on the green eternity before me. The simple yet dramatic beauty of the salubrious surroundings left us with a sense of what it’s like to be truly present in the moment.
The journey to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc started with “Doing small things and big supports”, and ended utopia. And by tuning in, I found a moment of Hahn Phuc, where calm and inner piece are within reach. I just have to close my eyes and picture it.
Day 4: There was never a night or problem that could defeat sunrise or hope
After a bad day we can easily forget the hope that a new dawn brings. However, it’s a sobering visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, where 3,000 Vietnamese lived and hid from bombs during the Vietnam War, that makes one truly appreciate the real significance of seeing the light of day.
In order to experience this historic site we first had to circumnavigate the traffic of Ho Chi Minh city where 7.43 million scooters transport 8.43 million people around each day. Scooters travelling in different directions met in the middle of intersections like a swarm of bees. We rode alongside them in our tour bus, across highways and into suburbia where a few locals waved to us from their scooters. It was hard to believe that these people endured a war and yet remained peaceful and happy.
But they knew how to survive and smile. With air strikes and cluster bombs falling on Cu Chi in the South on a daily basis during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese living there dug a sophisticated tunnel network system – stretching 270 kilometres – to hide and live in. The tunnels offered very little in the way of air, space and natural light but they were the only chance of survival for the villagers, who’s average height was around 151 centimetres (5ft), who hid in them.
The Viet Cong would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops, or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time.
A 100-metre makeshift tunnel on site gave tourists an idea of what it was like to pass through the tight narrow space in complete blackness with no air. Feeling claustrophobic I opted out of the guided tour. Instead I watched a brief video showing life in the tunnels and how they were built, and how shrapnel from bombs and leftover ammunition were used by the Viet Cong to make explosive booby traps or punji stick pits. Other resources included termite mounds with carefully disguised holes to allow the tunnel dwellers to breathe fresh air during the day time while US forces looked for them.
After that sobering visit, we headed back to Ho Chi Minh city in rush hour scooter traffic. We arrived back at our hotel two and a half hours later, feeling emotionally heavy from the day’s experience. But it showed what people are capable of under fire and seemed to prove English philosopher Bernard Williams’ famous quote that “There was never a night or problem that could defeat sunrise or hope”.
Day 6: Find simple pleasures
Simple pleasures come in many different forms. For some, it could mean a perfect train commute when you make all of your connections while for others it could be when you see someone accidentally drop money and you pick it up for them. A boat trip to the Mekong Delta holds a mixture of simple pleasures that I discovered with company called Saigon River Tours.
The first of them was a light breakfast of croissants, tropical fruit and coffee as we headed out towards the Delta. We enjoyed another simple pleasure as we sat back and watched the simplicity of life of the local citizens living along the river banks on the Saigon River.
We passed humble brick dwellings, where people ventured out onto rafts to sell fruit and other fresh produce and livestock or to collect water to boil. This market place of river boats was a source of livelihood for many. But not all of it was immediately visible from the water’s edge. Some of the Saigon River’s gems required us to venture inland through the shrubs in order to discover them.
One of these gems was a bee farm which produced honey comb slabs. On the reassuringly forceful instruction of one of the local farmers I stuck my finger into one of the bee-covered slabs for a taste. It was honey suckle sweet and delicious to taste. The farmers then gave us another taster sensation: delicious honey tea.
And just when I thought river bank dwellers could not be any more resourceful, we were taken to a coconut candy factory. Here, about several different things were produced from a single coconut, including candy. In this rudimentary production line, every part of the coconut that was left over from the candy-making extraction was turned into something useful or edible: refreshing coconut meat, soaps, creams and juice. Not a single piece was wasted.
As the saying goes, waste not, want not. And, on this river, locals believe that everything has it’s uses and they seem to want for very little. Even snakes are used for their ability to improve health and virility. To demonstrate their reverence for the snake, the coconut candy factory workers had infused a whole python into a large jar of rice wine to prepare ‘snake wine’. The curled up reptile had likely assumed an attacking position before dying, suggesting that it had a fighting spirit.
Upon infusion in the jar of rice wine, the fighting spirit is then enjoyed as a strong spirit by the Vietnamese. So I knocked back the highly alcoholic drink along with the bits of snake skin that had collected at the bottom of the shot glass. With the strong spirit in me, I went merrily back to the boat and sailed on to another happy place.
We docked at the Mekong Delta in Ben Tre Province and enjoyed some tropical fruits. The charming and friendly locals welcomed us with traditional music of Southwest Vietnam, most notably made by the unusual yet distinctive rhythms of the Dan Gao (coconut shell lute), a two stringed vertical violin with coconut resonator accompanied with intervening pauses by the foot clapper.
After this musical interlude we caught a ride to the Cong Doan rowing boat dock by horse cart. We boarded a rowing boat and soaked up the peaceful atmosphere while meandering along small canals lined with water palms, passing thatch and bamboo houses all nestled in the lush orchards.
The fresh air and earthy smell from the shallow waters filled our nostrils as we rowed down the canal and our solitude was tempered only by the light tapping of the oars against the row boat and of boats passing by.
We ate an island lunch of regional dishes, including a scaly grilled fish, and on the boat ride home we enjoyed a further simple pleasure of passing time with new friends. This tour to the Mekong Delta was about happy people and happy places, imprinting nothing but happy memories of the day that was.
Day 7: Love more. Hate Less.
What we do today will echo in eternity. If this well-known quote feels somewhat intangible, then a trip to the Vietnam War museum will bring it to life in a way that leaves nothing to the imagine. And no matter how many films you have watched about the war, the harsh reality is here in this building.
The first floor shows how the War began. A glass case housed the official US government notice declaring that America was intervening in the civil war with military force against the communist Viet Cong forces. Next to that were letters of support from political parties in hundreds of countries claiming solidarity with the people of Vietnam against the unlawful invasion.
War does not determine who is right - only who is left
Photographic evidence showed the full impact of the war. In the two years from 1966-1967, each year, 155000 soldiers were sent to the south on average, equivalent to nearly 13000 soldiers per month, to drive out the communist government allies of North Vietnam. The number of US soldiers in South Vietnam was 181,000 on January 1st 1966, and 497,498 by December 1967. 58, 220 of them died. The average age of a US soldier during the war was 18.
The number compares with three million Vietnamese, including two million civilians, who died. One of the photos on display told of an eyewitness account of a women cowering outside her village home shielding her children from US soldiers. The eyewitness recalled how seconds later the woman and her children dropped to the ground like dominoes after being shot in cold blood.
In another photo, a group of US soldiers posing next to dead bodies that were blown apart by bombs and machine guns. A caption described the futile nature of the soldiers’ predicament: “The above picture shows exactly what the brass want you to do in the Nam. It’s up to you, you can put in your time just trying to make it back in one piece or you can become a psycho like the Lifer (E-6) in the picture who digs this shit”.
However, the guns and bombs were only part of the impact. Photos depicting the effects of nerve agent, or Agent Orange drove home the brutality of the Vietnam War. One of them was of Tung (pictured right), a nerve agent victim who could not speak and could only eat and drink with the help of others. Yet, observed the photographer Doan Duc Minh, his eyes gleamed with the thirst for life of a normal person. There were important lessons to be learned about life from what could be seen in his eyes, said Minh. Sadly, the agent not only impacted the war victims themselves. It’s latter effects on the gene pool are an uncomfortable reminder of humankind’s destructive history and how what we do today will have an undeniably visible mark on the future.
And after that reminder, we left the museum, feeling as though someone had switched the lens and we were seeing an alternate version of reality from someone else’s perspective. And perceptions can change in an instant when you are seeing the world through another person’s eyes and living in his skin. No matter what we think we know about the Vietnam War it’s story needs to be told over again for future generations. That’s because we can only move forward once we’ve seen it from the perspective of the locals and can accept the discomfort that that perspective might bring.
In the end…
The war museum was the last of the tourist sites we saw before catching a plane to Nha Trang to relax on a beach and reflect on what an enriching place Vietnam is. The country wakes up the senses and affords its visitors the peace of being in the moment.
And it’s in those moments that leaps of faith are taken, comfort zones are stretched and relaxed happiness is found. Whether it’s being in the peak traffic of Ho Chi Minh city while softly focusing on the scooters as they swarm by or feeling the relaxed happiness of Ninh Binh as you dreamily sail down its waters. This is the essence of Vietnam, of being here, in the present moment, where life’s lessons can be learned or re-learned.