I'm a retired Mayo Clinic surgeon. Now in my second life, I write and travel and spend most days gardening and taking photos of my grandchildren. Back when I was doing my medical school rotations, I was exposed to many returning Vietnam war veterans. I had never visited the country and the soldiers wouldn’t talk to me about their experiences, so Vietnam just seemed like a far-off country I would never experience. Luckily, this turned out to be false.
My wife and I had always been ‘foodies’. I was always happy to try any exotic dish. After retiring from work as a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, I was determined to become a better chef and a more adventurous eater. I wanted to travel somewhere that would challenge me gastronomically. I loved hamburgers, pasta and European cuisine, but would I be I brave enough to try balut (hard-boiled duck embryo in the shell)? I knew that by touring and trying food, I could also learn about a foreign culture.
My wife signed us up for a two-week food tour of both North and South Vietnam, and I was eager to see if there would be a huge difference between the communistic North and the democratic South. The tour had nine people, and was led by a Vietnamese guide who had come to the United States at the age of thirteen. The rest of the group included a range of people, from chefs to foodies, and nuns to Vietnam war vets.
My wife and I arrived at the Hanoi airport, and after making it through customs, we hurried towards a tour guide who held a sign with our name, misspelled. We joined the a gabbing group of globetrotters and boarded the tour bus to Hanoi. Our introductory lunch threw us in at the deep end, with most group members turning down the roast dog main course. After this, our guide suggested a scooter tour of town, with local drivers.
I donned my helmet and crawled on the back of my ride. The driver spoke very little English, and I spoke even less Vietnamese. I cavalierly didn’t hold on to the scooter as my vehicle pulled out to lead the pack. But as we began to weave through hordes of traffic, I quickly clutched the shoulders of the driver. Hundreds of scooters weaved through busy lanes of tour buses, cars, and city buses. Our two-wheeled vehicle darted into spaces a fly would have had trouble fitting into! I often felt my knees brush against the vehicles we sped past. By the time the scooter tour ended, my legs felt shaky, and from the safety of the curb, I marvelled that most Vietnamese travel by scooter every day. We saw four-person families traveling on a single scooter, as well as giggling schoolgirls, women riding side-saddle, and hundreds of people transporting anything you could imagine: screen doors, ladders, bamboo poles, durian fruit, and even refrigerators. Still, every scooter driver and passenger laughed, smiled and waved at our group of American tourists as they passed.
Traffic proved to be a window into the bustling Vietnamese culture. Traffic signs throughout the city meant nothing to anyone. Scooters took short-cuts, going the wrong way down one-way streets, zooming down narrow alleys and even finding their way onto sidewalks. Once, our tour guide brought the group to a busy intersection, where he pointed out brave pedestrians walking into the street without even looking for oncoming traffic. Vehicles simply swerved around them, never making contact. All the locals understood that they should never stop or slow down on the boulevard, but simply plough forward. Like the particles in a vigorously shaken snow globes, on the streets of Vietnam everything interacts wildly, but never touches. The city is constantly in motion. People moving, weaving in and out of traffic, but with few fender-benders and no road rage ever seen. The streets of Vietnam are full of energy and color, as is the cuisine and the culture.
I came to Vietnam for the food. I left with the flavor of happy crowds, in both North and South Vietnam. Everyone and everything was in constant motion. I'm delighted to have finally made the journey.
Scott’s story proves that you can expand your cultural palate well beyond retirement! There’s no upper age limit for getting curious and exploring the world, and whether you travel alone, or in a tour group, the world is waiting to be explored. Scott’s story also demonstrates how foreign cultures can surprise us. He traveled to learn about food, but some of his strongest impressions are of the atmosphere and bustle of Vietnamese life. We hope Scott gets to do much more traveling. If he is searching for food and culture we suggest branching out to India or Latin America to try some new flavors. It’s never too late to explore the world!
For any 50+ travel hopefuls (or anyone with parents and grandparents who could use some inspiration), check out these great articles: