I spent two weeks in Southeast Asia with my good friend Maddie in late August, early September, expanding my world and taking a break from the New York hustle and bustle. Here are some snippets from letters I wrote and sent back home while I was away.
Our hotel in Hanoi was in the heart of the Old Quarter, the section of the city that has existed since Imperial times. Maddie and I knew we’d be staying in the center of town, but we weren’t really sure what that would look like. After over 24 hours of travel and a moment freshening up at the hotel, we set out to find out. What we discovered outside was the busiest city I’ve ever set foot in. In the Old Quarter, streets are small and sidewalks are merely entrances to shopping and food stalls, restaurants, or hotels. Motorcycles dominate the streets–they’re even parked all along the nonexistent sidewalk–and scoot around pedestrians crossing the street without missing a beat. Our adventure on Sunday afternoon gave us a full picture of Hanoians doing their weekend thing, with families out and shop owners keeping their kids busy since it wasn’t a school day. After some time in the hustle and bustle of the main streets, we wandered over to the lake closest to the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, home to the Ngom Son Temple. Here we found some respite from the overwhelming nature of the Old Quarter and a broader picture of locals relaxing on the weekend. We saw children play in the blocked off streets, driving around electric cars and catching bubbles created by an older woman wearing a traditional Vietnamese hat, a conical hat (or “non la”). One woman in a grey ballgown passed by. Couples held hands and snacked on ice cream and fruit from street vendors.
After our Sunday excursion and a lot of rest, we felt much more prepared for a day around town on Monday. Our hotel was full of kind, helpful people who gave us amazing recommendations for food and activities. We set off after a large breakfast of local fruit, dim sum, fried rice, and the most delicious coffee, to explore the French Quarter. This area of town (also known as the Ba Dinh District) is the political center of Vietnam. It also boasts larger streets and more room for people to walk and explore. We absolutely loved it. The streets were quieter and much easier to navigate. Here we found St Joseph’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Hanoi; the Hoa Lo Prison, where McCain spent part of his time as a POW; and various embassies. We also ate the best pho either of us have ever had.
I was lucky enough to experience a bit of everyday life in Hanoi when my shoe split open halfway through the day. My Tevas are worn to death, and the at-home show glue repair job I conducted before leaving New York failed me. Before our evening activities, I asked some folks at our hotel where I might be able to repair it. She referenced “a guy or girl on the street” and circled an intersection on our map. We headed over, looking for some obvious cobbler. Having trouble, we asked another woman who was sewing a dress by showing her my split shoe. She pointed across the street, where we found an old man sitting on a stool on the street corner with tools next to him. A woman negotiated a price with me while I watched him tear off the sole of my shoe and begin working with it. “One hour,” she said. Sure enough, a little over an hour later, my shoe was ready. And it was a better repair job than anything I’ve seen my Brooklyn cobbler do on my winter shoes–& he’s good!
We ended the night talking, laughing, and drinking wine at a lovely restaurant overlooking Hanoi, both feeling like we picked the perfect city to launch our trip in Southeast Asia.
Everything from the trip back to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay to the customs process at the Luang Prabang airport went smoothly. We continued our tradition of eating pho as much as possible by getting a bowl of fast food pho before our flight to Laos (as I sit here in Bangkok writing this, waiting for our transfer to Phuket, I anticipate the next leg of our trip being “how much pad thai can we eat”).
After two days hibernating in our oasis, we ventured out to check out some other Thai islands. This turned out to be a richly rewarding part of our trip, as we got to kayak in caves (laying down on our backs so we could fit) to see lagoons in the middle of islands and even spent some time with some wild monkeys.
The final leg of the trip, to Siem Reap and Saigon, might have possibly been the most compelling. I knew I would like Angkor Wat, and I suspected I would like Cambodia. But I didn’t anticipate how much I would love it. Despite the 105 degree heat (with humidity like nobody’s business) and the exhaustion that culminated from traveling for so long, Angkor Wat and the ruins of the Angkor empire astounded me. I’ve always loved ruins—I remember being blown away by Roman ruins and can’t wait to visit them again—but there was something so unique about the temples we saw just outside of Siem Reap. Perhaps it was also such a memorable experience because I was learning so much, so quickly. Maybe it was also the dramatically different architecture and details we saw in the brick and stone. The history of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Brahmanism and the architecture and temples of the Khmer people weren’t covered in the basic World History curriculum, and if they were, it certainly wasn’t the focus. So my world expanded in Cambodia, and that’s why I count my time at Angkor as the most affecting experience I had.
Cambodia was good to us in other ways, too. Our hotel staff treated us with kindness and provided guidance whenever we needed it. Every local we met was so genuine, one of them even inviting us to their home in the country for dinner! And when we left our hotel, we received a parting gift of a traditional Cambodian scarf for good luck.
It was hard going back to Vietnam after being on such a high in Cambodia, especially because Saigon wasn’t as interesting as the other places we had visited. This isn’t to say that Saigon wasn’t an impressive place, but I think we had become so accustomed to small, walkable towns that a large city on the scale of New York gave us a bit of a shock. This, on top of really using the last of our energy in Siem Reap and having to dodge a taxi scam immediately upon arrival, sort of sapped us of our will to explore Saigon to its fullest. But we did end up seeing a good amount of the city in two days, finding some decent Vietnamese food, and practicing a little bit of self-care in anticipation of our 30-hour trip home. On Saturday, we spent the entire afternoon at a tea shop reading and consuming cup after cup of tea, after going to the Vietnam War museum (from the Vietnamese perspective, of course) in the morning. We ended the day before going to the airport by eating some delicious Indonesian food and lingering in the restaurant for as long as possible.