Author: Kiera Reilly, C’93
I am on vacation in Spain as I write this, but during my trip I am finally reading a book that was suggested for the Penn Alumni Travel trip to Vietnam last November. It provides insight into the feeling of the country as an American journalist who was in Vietnam during the war returns as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. It brings back wonderful memories of the trip I took with a group of Penn travelers, and as we are offering this program again in February 2012, I thought I would do a quick review and mention some of the trip highlights.
Our first stop was in Hanoi and a visit to Ho Chi Minh´s mausoleum. We stood in a long line that moved at regular intervals, and then solemnly entered the building two by two, with many Vietnamese guards watching us, hushing us, as the lighting was dark. Then we slowly circled the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh.
From Hanoi, we took a full day drive (there and back) to beautiful Ha Long Bay. The scenery was gorgeous, and we all enjoyed the fresh air on the top deck of our ship and a delicious lunch of seafood.
We also visited Hue, the former royal city of Vietnam. We toured the imperial palaces, beautiful old ancient buildings. Not quite as grand or as well preserved as the Imperial City in Beijing, but with lots of greenery around, they were peaceful and beautiful in their own way. We took a boat ride on the Pearl River, right across the street from our hotel, and visited an important temple. One morning we crossed the river to walk around the local market, always a fascinating and fun part of most trips, as you see local citizens going about their business as well as the colorful and diverse fruits, vegetables and meats on display for sale.
The food in Vietnam was fresh and delicious – trying all the different courses at dinner each night was a highlight of the trip. One of my favorite dishes was the simplest – Pho – a broth with beef, chicken or pork, noodles, basil, mint, onions and as much spices as you wished. I couldn’t get enough of this simple but filling dish. Pictured here is Pho from a cafe in Saigon with cafe with milk (sweetened condensed milk). As it´s quite hot and humid in Vietnam, I preferred mine over ice.
The main form of transportation in Vietnam is the motorbike. Our guide told us all about the specific models that were the most popular, and it was fun to see everyone carting just about anything you can imagine on them – sometimes several people, groceries, and packages. The largest item I saw transported was a mattress! Even though there were motorbikes everywhere, and it seemed very disorganized and chaotic, traffic seemed to have a rhythm and moved in an orderly fashion. The big challenge for us was crossing the street. We were instructed to start out slowly and move in a straight line, not darting or changing course and the motorbikes would move around you. It took some courage, but I finally crossed the street without incident – some of the other travelers were impressed with my bravery.
We were treated to a group cooking class, and while I thought it might not appeal to everyone, it seemed that we all enjoyed chopping and cutting and making different parts of a several course meal. It was fun and there were many laughs as we judged our individual spring roll folding capabilities.
There are many more special moments and sights from the trip to share – visiting the ancient town of Hoi An and the small village surrounded by rice fields just outside it, driving by China Beach and staying in a luxurious resort just down the road, seeing the floating markets outside of Can Tho and taking a boat up the Mekong River, and the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Many in our group also took the extension program to Cambodia, the highlight being the temples of Angkor. We were fortunate that three Vietnam veterans were in our group, and it was interesting for all of us to hear about their war experiences as well as their wonder at how much the country had changed since they left.
I encourage you to consider joining our Penn Alumni Travel program back to Vietnam n February – there has been much interest in the trip since our brochure mailed, and I can personally recommend it! More details can be found here.