Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Karen Hendrickson with students and their teacher who she met in Hanoi. The students were eager to practice their English.

Kasson native thrives on travel, adventure visits Southeast Asia

Leaving Bangkok, I flew to Busan, Korea, where I had lived from 2012-13 as an English teacher, to visit friends and roam around “the San Francisco of Korea” for a week. 

Vietjet then flew me to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. A visa is required to enter Vietnam, so I had purchased mine online, printed it off, showed it to the custom’s official and passed through. 

In one of the airport shops, an attendant tried out a Vietnamese sim card in my phone so I could make local calls for free and use the internet without needing to use data on my phone or a business’s wifi. My phone was locked to Sprint, so the sim card didn’t work. 

If you are traveling overseas, make sure to buy an unlocked phone that has GSM technology (apparently most in the West use CDMA) or have your cell phone company unlock it before you leave.

On the bus from the airport to the Old Quarter were plenty of young backpackers and some locals. I could have paid $20-25 to take a taxi, but $2 sounded better and more adventurous.

I had a map showing where to get off and showed this to the bus driver. I arrived at my stop, got off the bus and wandered my way around the Old Quarter and finally found my hostel with the help of some English-speaking travel agents, who have businesses seemingly everywhere. The hostel was close to Hoan Kiem Lake, a few water puppet shows (which is what it sounds like), St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, enormous markets with everything, tons of shops and food.

There was a travel business connected to the hostel, so I took a few of their tours to see the Ninh Binh area and Ha Long Bay. While in Ninh Binh, I rode a bicycle to a temple and later a boat through caves (the ladies pedaled with their feet), climbed steep pagodas and saw the beautiful lush green countryside.

In Ha Long Bay I stayed one night on a boat and another on Cat Ba Island. I had seen karst mountains while in the Guilin area of China back in 2013, so the views were very similar. The best part of the Ha Long Bay area was getting to know my fellow travelers, who were from all around the world.

From the boat, we went to a few beaches, kayaked, ate appetizing spring rolls, noodles and vegetables, and I sang karaoke with a businessman from Taiwan and a dad and daughter from Australia.

I walked around Cat Ba with a Vietnamese gal who was on the tour with her family staying at the same motel. We ended up meeting a couple from Seattle who was on the bus the first day and had a nice evening together regardless. 

I had also booked a trip through the hostel to see the indigenous tribes in the mountains via being a passenger on the back of a motorcycle for a few days but decided I had spent enough money already. It wasn’t easy getting out of the tour, but I ended up getting all my money back.

I was very impressed with all the tours I went on via the hostels I stayed at. Check with your guidebooks, the internet and other travelers before booking any side trips as there are numerous hostels and businesses that are reputable. 

Later I found out the company I booked with did not pay their tour guides well and a few of the employees at the hostel worked so many hours they slept in the hostel overnight even though they had children and families at home. Not ok.

I walked around the lake in the evening due to the heat, which almost felt as if I were in a sauna. Thankfully there was AC in my room! 

While walking, I was approached four different times by children who asked me to speak English to them in order to practice. One of their teachers videotaped me as I listened to her sweet student read a paragraph about her life and later our conversation.

As an EL teacher, I was extremely thrilled by how willing and eager they were to converse. During the next few days I went to the Hoa Loa (Hanoi Hilton) prison and later the Vietnamese Women’s museum, which honored Vietnamese women throughout history and today. The Hoa Loa prison housed Vietnamese prisoners sent there by the French colonists and later American P.O.W.s. 

I was most touched by reading the horrific treatment of the inhabitants throughout the years yet also by how American and other prisoners came back to offer peace and forgiveness to the Vietnamese.

I also saw the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh House and museum and the outside of the mausoleum, which was closed for cleaning Ho Chi Minh’s body. Since I didn’t want to incur charges on my phone, I had people off the street or employees at the museums or restaurants I ate at call a Grab motorcycle taxi to get me around the city. Grab’s are just like Uber and are extremely cheap. It sure was thrilling to whiz down the street on a motorbike weaving in and out of fitting into traffic like a puzzle piece. A funny t-shirt regarding the traffic laws is: If there is a green light I can go, a yellow light I can go and a red light I can still go. I did see motorists following the traffic lights, but that t-shirt was correct. 

Basically, if you need to cross the street, hold up your hand, and just go for it and the vehicles will move around you.

After Hanoi, I took a night bus with my own sleeping compartment to Hue, one of the former capitals and full of numerous tombs of kings plus the site of major battles during the 1968 Tet Offensive. 

I had noticed that my head started itching and had caught lice a few times in the past, so just to be on the safe side, I swallowed my pride and asked the front desk clerk at the hostel if she could check my head. She instead called a Grab taxi and had me go to the International Hospital, where it was confirmed that I had lice. 

I was prescribed dandruff shampoo (why??) and some pills. I then got all my clothes washed and line dried (no dryers), started taking the pills, and tried not to get close to anyone.

None of that worked, so after checking out numerous temples, taking a DMZ tour to see the Vinh Moc caves where locals stayed during the heavy bombing and the Khe Sanh area (where heavy fighting with the Americans occurred for six months but now is very quiet and covered with lush vegetation), and hanging out in Hoi An for a few days, I got to Saigon (called Ho Chi Minh today) on a night bus and went to the hospital again.

 My humility was at an all time high, so I texted my Rochester student’s mom to let her know the situation. She got me into the clinic where she had formerly worked and my Israeli doctor prescribed some real medicine this time, lice shampoo.

As far as sight-seeing around Saigon, I saw the Notre Dame church, post office, city hall and had lunch with a German friend I had met in a hostel when I was in Beijing back in 2013. He had the afternoon off, so we went on his motorbike to where my dad had been stationed 50 years prior, in Long Binh. All we saw were factories with international and national businesses. We couldn’t find any remnants of what had been America’s largest army base during the Vietnam War.

That evening he dropped me off at the same Rochester student’s dad’s best friend’s home where I ate dinner and taught English to 20+ of his students.

While in Ho Chi Minh, I also saw the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong hid out, and the weapons they fashioned.  I visited the Independence/Reunification Hall where the president lived and worked until the fall of Saigon, the War Remnant’s Museum, Walking Street, the Opera House, took a Mekong Delta tour and an opportunity to sing karaoke with the German friend and his Vietnamese friends.

When I mentioned that I was from America, all I received was love and praise for being from such an amazing country with no harsh feelings from anyone. Vietnam is a popular tourist destination especially for Chinese, Europeans and Australians. 

From the unique (hundreds of Chinese doing exercise at 5 a.m. on a beach), to the cheap and yummy street food, history through thousands of years, beautiful thriving cities and countryside, and an ancient culture, check out Vietnam on your own or book a tour.

Next: Cambodia


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