By Katlin Smith
Vancouver, WA chapter leader
Why do we travel? Pico Iyer, the esteemed travel writer, says “We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.” Certainly a Dining for Women trip does just that.
After a full first day, culminating with dinner and a water puppet show with the 13 sweet girls, age 4 to 16, of the Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam foster home, we started the second day slowly with a rickshaw ride. Each of us eased into our own cyclo powered by a driver with strong legs and only one gear. (Fortunately, Hanoi is quite flat.) You could reach out to touch the motorcycles and buses skirting us and no doubt frustrated with our turtle-like speed. In spite of a light rain, it was lovely to observe and soak up, in more ways than one, the Old Quarter as our drivers peddled us through the historic streets.
Afterwards we stopped by the elaborate Ngoc Son Temple, observing Hanoi residents offering flowers and fruit, paper money and bags of cookies to honor their ancestors. We finished the morning by honoring Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, by visiting his elaborate mausoleum where he lies in state. The complex includes the presidential palace and two simple homes of Ho Chi Minh as well as a botanical garden. Nearby, we visited the One Pillar Pagoda.
Give a group of inquisitive women an afternoon to explore and the adventure begins. After lunch, trip participants wandered through the Old Quarter, a labyrinth of narrow streets, back lanes and every product from bamboo to wedding invitations. Motorcycles line the sidewalks which makes for interesting walking. Sidewalks are also sites for impromptu restaurants serving Hanoi’s famous pho soup. Above the busy shops, French colonial architecture is abundant and reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter. Hanging plants and birdcages and intricate ironwork decorate the balconies.
Each traveler’s experience of the Old Quarter was unique. One person found balancing dragonflies for her granddaughters. Others drank weasel coffee (an unusual way of processing coffee beans) and bought papercut cards. Still others spent their time nearby at what was known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. The Hoa Lo Prison is now a museum.
Crossing streets is an art, albeit a little terrifying. Just go slow and don’t stop, they say. This is a group with good karma. Gratefully, and perhaps miraculously, we have no casualties to report.
As the saying goes “all that wander are not lost.” It was a wandering afternoon with all found at the end of the day and looking forward to visiting groups supported by Dining for Women and a Day 3 trip to the stunning Halong Bay. More to come!