Most good travel stories begin with delicious food and drinks. Mine started with prawns, fish and snake wine in Hanoi. Yes, Vietnamese enjoy a dead snake or scorpion inside their bottles of liquor. It was strong like rum; I couldn't take more than a few sips.
I sat on a stool, chop sticks in hand, looking at the never ending wave of tuk tuks and two wheelers on the street. The food was good, but the bill in the dong currency was extraordinary.
"4 lakh dongs."
I almost had a heart attack. Spent the next twenty minutes calculating. The restaurant owner watched me with amusement. I converted the Vietnamese currency to dollars and then to rupees, and then double and triple checked.
The amount came to 8$. Vietnamese currency is inflated like an air balloon. One dollar equals 20,000 dong currencies. All travellers take time to adjust to this exchange rate and lament that time during childhood when they didn't pay attention in math class.
I was officially a slum dong millionaire in Vietnam. Possibly the only place in the world where I would feel like Bill Gates.
Exploring Vietnam with lakhs of the dong currency
The right way to explore Hanoi is to take a walk across its streets, and the right place to stay is the Little Hanoi Hostel. The receptionists greet guests with a smile and warmth and the rooms are clean and spacious.
I started for the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first national university, with a street map in hand. It seemed like the right place to begin an adventure, especially for an aspiring writer.
This temple was built in 1070 AD in honour of Confucius. The names of scholars who passed the rigorous royal examinations are immortalised on 116 statues of carved blue stone turtles. The king himself took part in conducting these examinations. The Vietnamese honour talent and hard work. That can never be a bad thing.
I saw an old man standing behind his desk and drawing Vietnamese characters on a sheet of paper. He had small hands, a slim figure and pants tied way above his waist. He was devoted to his art. Enjoying the creative process. I hope to grow old like him. Still creating. Still enjoying it.
It's in the evenings when the breeze sets in that the city comes to life. The squat-stools and tables come out on the pavement and the aroma of Pho noodles – the local's favourite dish – takes over. There is no dearth of barbecue joints along the streets to enjoy their version of mouth-watering spring rolls along with alcohol. Men and women get together in the parks, dance joyously and spend time with family.
I spend most of the next day learning about the history and culture of Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum close by is a good place to understand the foundations on which this country was built.
The mausoleum is a big and regal granite structure with the name of Vietnam's hugely popular president and revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, inscribed at the top. Uniformed men guard the entrance and people prostrate. Men perish, buildings collapse, but legacies are forever. If I ever doubt what a single man can achieve, I will think of Ho Chi Minh.
Whether you are a tourist or a traveller, any trip to Vietnam is incomplete without experiencing the Halong Bay. And what an experience it is. Halong Bay literally means the place where dragons descend.
It takes you back in time. Not the 1980s or 90s, but centuries ago to the time of dragons when man had limited means and an unlimited spirit. Halong Bay is where imagination takes flight.
The sunset at this Unesco World Heritage Site is worth any sum of money. It takes place between two mountains over the sea, and you get to witness the sky turn orange, purple and grey. Sit beside your loved ones silently and watch in awe.
Halong Bay is not about kayaking and cave exploring and any other activity that they show in crisp cruise liner brochures. It's about being alone in the middle of the ocean under the stars. Nothing can compare to that.
The last stop on my itinerary was a charming town called Hoi An. I instantly liked the pale yellow-coloured walls and the warmth of this place, tucked around the muddy Thu Bon river. It wasn't bright; it wasn't dull. The town wasn't noisy, but it wasn't silent either. Motorboats were passing by in the river nearby. Time stood still.
Hoi An is a coastal paradise with clear skies, still water and serene clouds. It felt like a place where I could be happy.
It served as the port town between 15th to 19th century and it continues to welcome people of all hues and colours. It has much to offer: finely tailored clothes, footwear, delectable food and souvenirs.
The Rugby World Cup was going on during my time there. I don't think the Vietnamese understood the R of rugby. But every bar offered a live telecast and every local followed the game with interest. Every traveller becomes one with Hoi An and Hoi An becomes one with them. A never ending party.
I stayed at a youth hostel, Sunflower, teeming with backpackers. It was a melting pot of nationalities. Conversations and booze flowed freely next to the pool and at the snooker table. Most of the backpackers were too drunk to remember each other the next morning or even care.
Every girl here in Hoi An looks stunning and dresses in colourful clothes. Every man appears cool.
Hoi An is a quaint town sweet and sinful, just like a cocktail. In Hoi An, you don't want more from life. You don't want less. You feel content.
I concluded my journey at Ho Chi Minh. Sat on the rooftop bar of my hostel, took a deep breath and soaked all that I had seen and experienced in Vietnam. It will take a few days, maybe weeks before the memories of this country fade into the dark corners of my memory.
Were you shocked by the difference between the Indian rupee and the dong currency? Share your funny story below!
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