Hanoi is a hive of activity. Nonstop traffic with no apparent order which somehow results in even more chaos than one would expect under the circumstances. The city is dense, and you feel it as you navigate its narrow alleys, congested streets, and crowded restaurants. You breathe it in the form of a smog that never lifts. You see it in the miles upon miles of apartments where multigenerational families are living in a few hundred square feet.
This flurry of activity can be overwhelming if you let it, or you can choose to dive in and get to know the people that call this city home. The swarm all around us was full of images of a people not simply content with their day-to-day, but striving to pull themselves up and create a better life and culture. We sampled this culture in the form of delicious pho, vietnamese egg coffee, and adventures to Tam Coc and Hao Lu. Over 1,000 years old, Hao Lu was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, and people still come to the temples here to light incense and give offerings. The area of Hao Lu and Tam Coc are surrounded by picturesque limestone mountains, which we traversed first by bicycle, then by boat.
We hadn't planned on visiting this area, but a monsoon kept us out of Ha Long Bay. We only had a few days to spend in Vietnam, but were determined not to let the storm get us down. We ventured out, only to be caught in the storm first on our bicycles, and then on our boat. All we could do was laugh and enjoy the beauty around us through our shivering, soaked skin and chattering teeth.
For all of this unfamiliarity to our western eyes, it would be easy to withdraw and seek out the comforts of home, but our desire to learn more about this culture and the people who create it drove us forward. They did not disappoint. In particular, Leah's conversations were very engaging as she could discuss her service to US veterans as a nurse, which brought out surprising desires in our hosts to convey forgiveness and healing to all involved in the war.
The monsoon finally gone, we boarded our traditional, and private, junk boat and began cruising in emerald green waters past 2,000 majestic limestone islands, equipped with kayaks, first class local cuisine, and bamboo rods to fish for squid.
There are villages of people that live out their entire lives in the bay among the labyrinth of limestone rocks. They gather, fish, farm oysters and pearls, buy and sell all from the water.
One such local paddled us around his "neighborhood" and let Leah borrow his hat. At night, if they aren't in their floating homes, they tie their boats together to form one large vessel and drop their anchors until morning. As for us, we went back to our private junk where our hosts put on the Vietnam episode of Top Gear!