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Warm People, Jaw-Dropping Scenery: Why I Love Vietnam

Ann Hillers travels to Vietnam often and will lead our NextTribe trip there in November. Here, she tells us what keeps bringing her back.
The first time I went to Vietnam, China Beach—the R&R spot for US troops in Danang—was a hidden crescent of white sand reached on foot through an overgrown canopy of mangrove trees. This was 1995, as soon as the war embargo was lifted and Americans were free to travel to the “heart of darkness.” As vacation destinations go, it was pretty rustic.
Author Ann Hillers will be taking a group of NextTribers through Vietnam in Nov. 2024. We’d love for you to join us. All the details here.
It was another 20 years before I returned, this time with 23 kids under the age of 16 and 19 parents (what could possibly go wrong??) We covered the country from Hanoi to Hue to Hoi An and Saigon, stopping in Danang en route.  As we stood on a seafront promenade lined with high rises and luxury hotels, I asked the guide where we could find China Beach.  He said, “You’re looking at it.” The country had emerged from the tragedies of the “American War” as a vibrant, youthful, and productive powerhouse in Southeast Asia.  In just two decades.  After that, it was love at first pho and I went back every chance I could. 

Falling in Love with Vietnam

Bicycles are the main form of transportation in Vietnam and you never know what you might see on the back of one.

Without question my liveliest trip was leading a group of women like you—curious, adventurous, fun-loving and in this case, all Vietnamese “virgins.” We traveled top to bottom for two weeks on boats, bicycles and buggies.  We learned the origin of “fish wife” when we watched women fighting over boatloads of silver fish at a riverside market at dawn. In Saigon we had a dance party that ended up with all of us in the pool—fully clothed!—on the rooftop of our hotel.  
The country had emerged from the tragedies of the “American War” as a vibrant, youthful, and productive powerhouse in Southeast Asia. 
Another evening, one of our women got separated in Hoi An as we were walking back from dinner. While we discussed fanning out to find her, she arrived beaming on the back of a motorcycle, having been offered a ride from a helpful stranger.
In the frenetic, high octane city of Hanoi wstarted our own list of The Things They Carried, a magical, melancholy contemplation of war by Tim O’Brien, who served in Vietnam. On the backs of motor scooters, the primary form of transportation throughout the country, we saw locals carrying: seven-foot rolls of bubble wrap, crates of chickens stacked fivefeet high, enormous glass mirrors and thick stack of banana palm leaves, massive piles of fruits and flowers heading to market, an electric stove, kittens in a cage, and a family of five with the kids straddling the handle bars and standing sandwiched between mom and dad.  

The Joys of Hanoi 

The author reacts to a very generous seafood dish.

Hanoi is a sea of energy and a hive of activity. No one is still (except perhaps the clan of men sitting in openair bars drinking cups of coffee and eating dishes of peanuts without a woman in sight). It’s also an assault on the senses: the scent of jasmine from flower arrangements in hotel lobbies, the distinctive blend of lemongrass and roses in every spa, the waft of broth in a savory soup bubbling on the sidewalk.  
Hanoi is a sea of energy and a hive of activity. No one is still.
Did I mention the cuisine? Street food is what everyone eats, on small plastic stools a few inches from the floor in front of low plastic tables. One of the best meals is a banh mi from my favorite vendor on Ly Quoc street in Hanoi or the bun cha served with an enormous mound of fresh herbs and greens and bites of pork spring rolls to dip in the broth.
Or you may find yourself as I did, getting an iced coffee made with condensed milk and espresso, chatting with a 17-year old boy who taught himself English by watching YouTube videos.  He wanted to practice so we sat together sharing a drink and talking about my sons who were his age. He wanted me to correct him if he said something wrong. He was nearly perfect. Like so many Vietnamese he was industrious and striving. 

Vietnam, Mon Amour

The author (standing, third from left) and the group of lively, curious women she recently led through the countryside of Vietnam.

The word “Vietnam,” for many, conjures visions of rice paddies, helicopters, war, beaches, and  GIs. But those who haven’t visited this enigmatic, beautiful country are in for a surprise. Nowhere will you feel more welcome, feel more like your preconceptions shaped by old movies and the war-era press are wrong. The Vietnamese are quintessentially kind and welcoming.  And we’ll have the chance to meet many of them as we explore in depth the riches and natural wonders of Northern Vietnam.

We’ll explore the wonderful world of local ethnic minority groups, such as the Hmong, Dao, and Tay people.
We’ll start and end in Hanoi, visiting rural communities in the lush Red River Delta, then travel north to the hill tribe town of Sapa. Here we’ll find breathtaking landscapes, including terraced rice fields, lush valleys and rugged mountain peaks. We’ll also find the wonderful world of local ethnic minority groups, such as the Hmong, Dao, and Tay people. November is a magical time in this region, cool, dry and devoid of the humidity that can blanket the region in summer. It’s perfect weather for bike riding in the countryside, trekking in the mountains, plying the waters of the river No Dong in rowboats, and visiting local markets to shop for textiles, handmade crafts and clothes.
Vietnam is bursting at the seams with wonderful stories, lovely interactions, and cultural experiences.  Please join me to discover this land for yourself.  I’m certain you will feel like I do: itching to go back.
By Ann Hillers


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