As I briefly mentioned in my last post, I took a short trip to Vietnam from the last week in December to the first weekend in January to Hanoi, Vietnam. Other than getting back to Taiwan, I never really put much thought into visiting other Asian countries until one of my friends from Cheb, Czech Republic, David, told me he would be in Hanoi for a few weeks in December. Anxious to see him again, I quickly got my plane tickets, applied for a visa (as in necessary for Americans), and began looking forward to the trip and the friend reunion. David’s family is Vietnamese, so some of his grandparents and extended family still reside in Vietnam, but he hadn’t been there in thirteen years.
In fact, there is a rather large Vietnamese immigrant population in the Czech Republic, especially within in the Karlovy Vary region near Prague and in Cheb, the town I called home last year. According to a 2012 second quarter survey on the number of foreigners residing in the Czech Republic, 57,914 foreign citizens were Vietnamese, that population only smaller than Slovaks (83,481) and Ukrainians (116,371)*. In my experience in Cheb, there were many high school age Vietnamese students that I saw and made friends with. They could speak Czech, Vietnamese, AND even English–talk about hardworking! Many of their parents and families owned small convenience/food stores (called potravinys) along the streets, and in Cheb there was even a separate Vietnamese market area and shops where more traditional Vietnamese foods could be purchased. I often saw Vietnamese people in the foreign agencies that dealt with issuing visas for residing in Czech, as I frequented those places more than I would have liked to last year.
More to the point, this was my only interaction with Vietnamese people, that is to say, it was in Central Europe and far removed from Southeast Asia. I had never even technically been to what is considered that region before. A week before I was to leave, my friend’s trip was unexpectedly cancelled. We were both EXTREMELY disappointed. I wrestled with whether or not I should go ahead and go, and he thankfully informed his aunt in Hanoi (who had worked in the U.S. before) of the situation. She agreed to help look after me while I was there, going above and beyond being a hospitable hostess. When arrived, she had prearranged a taxi to meet me at the airport and drive me to her home, she arranged a place for me to stay at a nearby hostel, she took me around Hanoi by scooter to many tourist sites, she made sure I had dinner each night (sometimes sharing her cooking or taking me out for dinner), and she let me borrow a cell phone while I was there so we could keep in contact if I was touring around on my own. All this without ever having really met me before!
Let me just stop and say right here that I am continually amazed at the generosity of the people I have met during my travels.
She even prepared a suggested itinerary for my stay! It changed somewhat according to what I wanted to do, but here is a brief overview of my trip.
I left at 4 am to head to the airport in Taipei, and arrived in Hanoi around 10 am. The cab ride was about another two hours (due to traffic). David’s aunt, Thu (pronounced ‘to’), helped me settle down in my room and I took a much needed nap. Then Thu took me to walk around the streets of the Old Quarter. We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, and over a beautiful red bridge ( The Huc Bridge) to a Buddhist temple and museum. I was surprised by the number of foreigners I saw there; I suppose I wasn’t expecting to see many considering how far away Vietnam has always seemed to me. Then we went by scooter around the city, stopping at a few other lakes and the Tran Quoc Pagoda by West Lake. We went past Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, and I got out and snapped a few pictures. We enjoyed some coconut flavored popsicles while we walked, and I had traditional noodle soup with beef (Pho) for dinner.