I just got back from a great trip to Vietnam! (see pictures). Let me first introduce my travel buddy, since he made the trip what it was.
Anhai Doan is a former Ph.D student of mine (he makes sure I emphasize the 'former' part, and adds it himself when I accidentaly forget). Anhai grew up in Vietnam and left after highschool to do his college studies in Hungary, and then went to the U.S for graduate studies, where he ultimately ended up at the University of Washington. He is now an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Anhai is the most well known computer scientist from Vietnam (winning the ACM Distinguished Dissertation Award in 2003 made quite a few waves in Vietnam).
I've been planning to tour Vietnam with Anhai for quite a while now, and a few years ago even decided to tell him about this plan. That turned out to be a great decision. Anhai applied his magic at every step of the way, whether it was whispering the right words in peoples' ears, slipping a well deserved tip at the right time, or shielding me with his body until I was authorized to cross a Vietnamese street on my own. Think of a combination of a (junior, Vietnamese) Godfather-type figure with the potential of some day being a Jewish mother. Since Anhai left right after highschool, he did not see much of the country, and this opportunity gave him the chance to do so.
Anhai does have a few more white hairs than he had before the trip and I take responsibility for that (but I think it's a fair trade for a signature on one's Ph.D dissertation).
We started out in Hanoi -- a city with very strong character with its Old Town full of specialty shops, French Quarter with a very appropriate feel (including the bakeries!), and the promenade around Hoan Kiem Lake at the center. In the middle of Old Town, we found the Green Tangerine Restaurant that was absolutely wonderful (French with Vietnamese influence).
We then went on the mandatory (but very worthwhile) trip to Halong Bay with its many small peaks. We spent a night on a boat there (with a bunch of Australians, the latest invadors to Vietnam). That night was a soccer game (first of two matches) between Vietnam and Thailand, the great rivalry of Southwest Asia. Surprisingly, Vietnam won, which meant the boat crew was ecstatic, and with it being Xmas eve, they started pouring free drinks (accompanied by dried squid from the bay). The second half of the soccer story occurs while we're in Saigon. The next morning, while kayaking in the bay, Anhai and I discovered that kayaking is a team sport, and we have some work to do on that front.
We then flew to Nha Trang, a beach town/resort. It was rainy there, but we still had a good time hanging out in the cafes and even had a schnitzel (I don't think Anhai will ever forgive me for that cultural experience). From there we drove (i.e., sat in the back of a car) to Da Lat, a beautiful city nestled in the mountains, and a resort for Saigonians who need to escape the heat. Also a city with a nice lake in the middle and an amazing variety of flowers.
In Da Lat I was introduced to the Vietnamese 'custom' of serving complimentary tea even when you order coffee. Speaking of coffee, it was a mixed experience. At times, Anhai managed to explain to baristas how to make my macchiatones, and in others we drank Vietnamese coffee.
From Da Lat we drove to Saigon, a much more business-like city than Hanoi and more steeped in history of the American War. The night we got there was the second of the two soccer games, and the result was a draw, meaning that Vietnam won the Suzuki Cup.
Within minutes of the game's end, the streets were flooded with happy Vietnamese. And I mean happy! Literally, you could not move amongst the people and their mopeds. Anhai got me a little Vietnamese flag and we started making our way through the crowds. Being a foreigner and on the tall side by Vietnamese standards, I drew quite a bit of attention. Every time I waved my little flag, I drew cheers and smiles -- almost as if I was the one who scored the winning goal! It was a totally amazing experience!
From Saigon we took a two-day trip to the Mekong Delta, which has now been added to my list of candidate places to retire. Imagine your life when all you need to do for lunch is go to your back yard and fish for a few minutes or pick some fresh fruit from a tree (yes, they have wifi everywhere there too!). It was really fascinating to see how life is arranged when water is such an integral part of your landscape (the delta is actually made of 9 different strands of the Mekong River).
We celebrated New Year's Eve with Anhai's highschool friends in Saigon. That was a great chance to get a glimpse of the life of young professionals in Vietnam, which brought home the point that this country has an amazing future, judging by its people's character and how far they've come in the last 20 years. I'm already thinking of my next trip there!