Let me tell you something about Vietnam – there is no shortage of beauty throughout this country. Maybe besides the trash problem, if you look close enough, you can find something magnificent. Think of Central Vietnam as the axon that connects the dendrites of Southern Vietnam to the nucleus that is Northern Vietnam (hahah NERD). But forreal, Central Vietnam is the skinny part of the country that lines the coast but is also rich in mountains and jungles. You could also consider Nha Trang & Hoi An part of Central Vietnam as it is actually located in the South Central region of the country. During Dec. 11th-23rd, I decided to visit Hue, Phong Nha, & Tam Coc/Ninh Binh. It was quite the whirlwind of a week, but I'm finding myself thrilled by the constant challenges I'm being faced with. While they’re not really difficulties, I am constantly faced with a decision. Where do I eat? Which hostel should I stay at? Who do I share my time with? Should I go left or right down this cute street? Do I rent a scooter or take a bike?
Getting to Hoi An from Nha Trang was a turning point for me. Originally I wanted to learn how to drive a Moto and take the Hai Van Pass on my own. But due to inclement weather in the foreseeable future, I was encouraged to take a Hue Freedom Rider to experience the Hai Van Pass. Well, obviously with the lack of my knowledge in motorcycle riding and impending bad weather, it didn't take much to convince me that having a guide was a great idea. So the day comes and I'm greeted by a gentleman named Quang. The beginning of our ride was taking some back roads through local fishing villages and scenic views. This was probably the moment I became incomprehensibly grateful to be in such a beautiful country. Watching the homes, banana trees, rice fields, fishing crops, and villagers whizz by gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to be Vietnamese. I already knew what industrious people they were, but when you see the hard work up close, it's a moment of realization. Maybe not necessarily efficient (in some ways), the Vietnamese are undoubtedly and comfortably self-sufficient.
Our first stop was at Marble Mountain (pictured above), located between Hoi An and Da Nang, and I excitedly embraced the activity of walking up a bunch of steps (200) and maybe climb over some rocks after not having much real physical activity in my first two weeks. The temples were sweet and the energy there was really strong. This was my first encounter with caves in Vietnam. I was amazed at the arrangement of various Buddhist statues and wondered how someone ever got them inside the caves?? Some of these statues were over 10ft tall and undoubtedly weighed a ton. I walked from cave to cave, constantly in awe until at one point I broke down and started crying. Up to this point, I don’t think I had really allowed myself to be too emotional. Yes, there were a couple times when the realization that I am on the other side of the world dawned on me and I was overcome with gratitude, but this time was different. It was this feeling like, “Wow. I’m in a country 8,600 miles away from home and I feel safe, nurtured, present, and joyful. I’m blessed that my life path has led me right here, right now– and is exactly where I am meant to be. What more can I ask for?” I took a moment of pause, documented the moment, unashamed that tears were flowing from my face in front of the tourists walking by, pulled myself together and explored the rest of the mountain. Feeling satisfied with my experience, I met back up with Quang and off we were to the Hai Van Pass, but not without first stopping at the Golden Dragon bridge in Da Nang for a quick photo.
The twisty roads of the Hai Van Pass are absolutely unforgettable. Almost immediately, you’re greeted by lush forests filled with banana and papaya trees and various vegetation. The ocean rides your right while the forest is on your left. Quang informs me that Highway 1 aka Hai Van Pass runs parallel to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, one of Vietnam’s most successful tools during the 45 years of wars. We get to a look out point and warm our bodies up with some ca phe sua and jasmine tea. It hadn’t started raining yet, but the open air had us a bit chilled. Quang and I discussed American politics, life in Vietnam, the wars, our families, and some aspirations. In this reflective time, I like to believe we created a respectful bond for one another. We got to peek into each other’s lives, dig a little deeper and find some common ground. This would end up being a theme for a lot of the conversations I had with native Vietnamese (refer back to how incredibly kind the Vietnamese are). When you travel, you realize pretty quickly that regardless of where someone is from, y’all are a lot more similar than you would immediately assume.
Now warmed up and feeling more like friends than clients, we zig zagged through Highway 1. The road is lined with little shrines for protection and you’ll absolutely see the occasional cow or goat munchin away at the roadside vegetation. You’ll be looking at cliffs and forest for a good couple minutes until a turn comes and the scene opens up to a beach on my right and a waterfall on my left and my breath is taken away. We travel up the mountain and into the fog where the visibility is only 30ft ahead of you and then back down to more sweeping green landscapes and ocean. Twisting and turning and bumping along as drizzle starts to coat our rain gear but Quang never falters. For 4/5 hours, there was never a moment when I was afraid. From the get, Quang made sure I was comfortable and drove safely- 12/10 recommend! We pull up to a fishing village and pause for lunch.
Admittedly intimidated by the frightening food poisoning stories I’d heard before my departure, I hadn’t yet eaten any seafood. But where else would you have your first time if not at a fishing village?? I order grilled oysters and prawns, not forgetting to order a beer with it as well. Again, I find myself in overwhelming peace while I sit at the end of the dock and watch the winter ocean crash against the wooden frames. It would be remiss for me to brush over the (obvious) fact that the Ocean is my home. It’s a part of me and always will be. No matter how angry she is, I know I’m safe. I’m reminded of this as I watch her power come in quick sets of 5. Again, tears. I blame some of it on PMS to be quite honest!!
Lunch was incredible and Quang and I suit back up in our damp gear to get back on the road. Now is the longest haul of our trip and my butt is a lil sore. Again we twist and turn and I’m over the fact that it’s an absolute downpour and we’re soaked. We’re on our way into Hue and a truck hits a puddle and Quang and I are both splashed with a wave of water- gat dayum! But we laugh it off. Finally we arrive in Hue and I’m shivering, sore, and ready for a scalding shower.... only to find out my bag is 2 hours behind me and I’ve gotta wait in my damp clothes. No bother, I took this time to hit up the ‘gram and update my people.
Hue is rainy, ohhhhhh so rainy. So rainy, in fact, that it rained for a straight 36 hours!!! But I made a friend in my dorm and I’m faced with a new challenge- we don’t speak each other’s languages. My new friend, M, has traveled from her small village just a couple km from HCM where they mainly produce Durian. She’s on her way up to Hanoi and it was her first time visiting Hue! How did I gather this much information you ask? Google translate of course!!! We type away in silence, waiting for the others response, smiling and giggling our way through it. The translations are trash but it’s enough to get the point across. We end up spending the next 24ish hours together getting dinner, going to the market, and sharing stories. We run through the usual conversation of where we’re from, do I have a boyfriend, what’s our family like, have I tried this or that dish, do I enjoy Vietnam? In our silent conversations, we grow quite fond of one another. We link arms as we walk around, a common sign of close friendship in Vietnam, and barter with vendors for various fruits. She has me try melons and bananas, both of which were absolutely delicious. As she is on her way out, I thank her for her immense generosity and gift her the lantern I made in Hoi An. A perfect way to reduce my load and show my appreciation for our time together. M leaves and is replaced with an American dude from LA and a couple other random travelers. I spend my next day in rainy Hue reveling in a good work out, hanging out at a 420 friendly pub, and checking out the Imperial Palace. The palace doesn’t fall short of elegant, but I was exhausted at this point and was ready to leave after seeing mostly the left side of the estate. I finished off my stay with a Hue family dinner that I thought would be a cooking class, but was more of a "come have dinner with us and help make the dumplings!" Regardless, it was cute and I enjoyed my time sharing a meal with some locals.
The day comes for me to move onto Phong Nha and my American roommate and I happened to have booked the same train heading that way. We had gotten to know each other over a flavorless dinner (TripAdvisor & Lonely Planet, you gotta amend Mandarin Cafe as being one of the best places to eat- it’s not) but I have to admit that I was a little put off by this dude. He was awkward and just seemed like he didn’t have his footing on life, what I would call a bendito. This would end up being another lesson in making immediate judgements and a smack in the face to myself. I had tried avoiding him after the somewhat uncomfortable dinner, not wanting to send wrong messages. But when I found out we were on the same train, I knew it would be inevitable that we would be spending the day traveling together. We grabbed lunch with a German girl I had befriended over breakfast and things became less awkward. I asked if he wanted to split a cab to the train, he agreed and we were on our way. He ends up paying for it, as a pay it forward/pay it back for the dinner I covered before, and I’m grateful. We get on the packed train and some Vietnamese people realize we’re together and let us sit as so. Early on he asked me if I had arrangements to get to my hostel in Phong Nha as the train stop is in Dong Hoi, about 30’ away. I mentioned I hadn’t but would figure it out. As we’re pulling up into Dong Hoi, I ask if he wants to split a cab with me again and he replies that he already made arrangements to his homestay... but would I like to join? Wow, wow wow wow. This is the face slap moment. Here is this guy, who I had quickly passed negative judgement on, and he’s been an absolute gent. I kick myself for being an asshole and make a silent promise to check my judgements here-on out and hop in the van.
Phong Nha is drop.dead.gorgeous. Here lies the National Park that is a UNESCO World Heritage site to some of the most spectacular caves in Southeast Asia. On arrival, I book a 12km trek called the Abandoned Valley Trek through my hostel for the next day. This trek includes two caves, Dark Cave and E Cave. Dark Cave is a dry trek into the cave over rocks and boulders. When you get to the back of the cave and turn off your headlamp, your senses are challenged by the darkness that encapsulates you. You’ll try to look at your hand in front of you and won’t be able to see it. You’re only reminded that people are sitting next to you cause of our nervous and amazed chatter. E Cave is a black and white granite cave that you have to swim into in order to explore. This was my highlight, obviously! Named after a mistranslation, E Cave has become a popular trekking stop for many tours. Here my group settled for lunch, swam in the blue waters, and learned how to make spring rolls till we were content.
Throughout the trek, I made friends with two British lads who were there on a family trip. With our guide, Messi, the four of us scrambled through the jungle at a breakneck pace, only stopping to let the rest of the crew catch up and sometimes to catch our breath. The trek was made more difficult by the recent rain, leaving the path muddy and slippery. But I enjoyed and embraced the challenge, doing my best to follow behind Messi’s sure footing. The Brits, Messi, and myself chatted about our homes, Vietnamese wedding traditions (Messi is getting married soon!), travel, football, and music- all of which helped pass the time on a trek that literally took an entire workdays worth of time. Despite the over-extended duration of the trek, I felt like I was on cloud 9 as I sipped on my well earned Huda at the end. We made it out before sunset and managed to avoid mosquito bites and poison ivy rashes- all checks in my book! The next day I decided to rest and relax, taking that time to reconnect with the writing I had neglected thus far. Once finished, I mozied around the main strip of Phong Nha in search of food. It was a beautiful day and I had spent most of it dancing to myself in the sun, soaking in that Vitamin D. Maybe it was my positive mood that brought on the next event but you could also call it travelers fate...
Walking back to my hostel, I cross the street and run into a guy who had clearly just come in from out of town. With his moto helmet in hand and looking deliciously windswept, we locked eyes and he immediately took the opportunity for conversation. Don’t get me wrong, my heart skipped a lil beat when I saw this sexy ass dude watching me get within conversational space. Somehow, I convinced him to stay at my hostel and agreed to hang out later... but I didn’t give him any of my info. I went back and hid in my room, planning the rest of my month in Vietnam and also intentionally hiding for God knows what reason. That evening, I emerged for food and end up striking conversation with an enthusiastic and elaborate storytelling Brit right outside the hostel. Secretly, I was really just waiting to see if the moto man would pass by and happen to see me. Then as if it were a 6th sense, T, walks out of the hostel front doors and I can read the confusion and hesitation on his face when he sees another guy there. Quickly, I make space and invite him into the conversation. We spend the rest of the night sharing skeptical looks over the Brits embellished stories and sipping on Saigons. The night slows down and it’s just the two of us getting to know each other. He tells me stories of crazy life experiences and I immediately feel boring to his colorful life. How can I even compare to someone that pretended to be a backstage worker and stole Mick Jaggers golf cart?! The end of the night comes and well... let me put it this way, it shook me to the core how swiftly we connected.
His original plan was to leave early the next morning to get back on the road, but ended up staying for breakfast and then the full day to explore Phong Nha together until I had to catch a sleeper bus that night. After critically watching the Notebook and other such romance movies, I scoffed at the idea that it was possible to fall for someone in 24 hours, but here I was, in lush and absolutely stunning Phong Nha with my arms wrapped around a guy I had met only hours before and we were on our way to Paradise Cave, a UNESCO protected site, and I could feel myself falling every time he kissed me. It was the under the table knee touches at breakfast, the reassuring gesture of touching my hand grasped at his waist, the sexy and sly looks that were followed by passionate makeouts in the middle of the worlds largest walk in cave- and I hate PDA. My head was buzzing. How did this happen?! How am I so at ease with this fascinating human? Why does it feel like we have spent a small lifetime together in just 24 hours? We laughed, we kissed, we lived in the moment without anything holding us back. We shared intimate stories and facts of our lives. T and I were inseparable that day to the point that we were almost always touching– eye roll level of gross but soooo fucking cute as my inhibitions had long disappeared. He stayed with me until the very moment I boarded the sleeper bus for Tam Coc and it was with a passionate kiss and a swat from the driver that we parted ways. To say I was a bit heartbroken would be an understatement. A girl named E from Canada would later ask me what the deal was with that, to which I would respond with a sorrowful sigh and chalk it up to a beautiful 24h relationship. It would also be neglectful for me to leave out that I was pretty torn up about it for a week or so, especially after running into a couple that had also fallen madly infatuated with each other in a similar way just a day before my arrival to Tam Coc.
While Tam Coc was beautiful and had its own extraordinary experiences, like driving a scooter for the first time and climbing up 500 steps to see my first sunset of Vietnam, it was clouded by my thoughts for T. I recognized my passive attitude while we were on the slow boats at a site I can’t even remember the name of. I looked at the beauty around me and it had lost its shine. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I let my heart run too wild. I knew what I was getting myself into when I met T, I knew it was temporary such as all things are when you travel. But as the saying goes, the first one hurts the most. T was my first travel love and I will cherish that forever. Now, about 3 weeks removed from it, my sight is clearer and my perspective focused again. Thank God. Besides the love hangover during my stay in Tam Coc, I managed to enjoy my time there and soak in as much as I could. I met these dope Kiwi girls who are making their own blog & vlog on #bikepacking and being traveling vegans, having instantly bonded over our mutual 420 love over drinking. I met the couple, both from the States but opposite coasts, one traveling solo and the other traveling with the Kiwis. And finally, on departure, I realized I had spent the last two days at the wrong hostel!! This only further solidified my notion that the Vietnamese are incredibly kind people. Cause as we rolled up at 4am, the host was more than accommodating and gave us beds to rest our weary heads without question.
Central Vietnam was an absolute thrill to travel through. The lush vegetation, the constant back and forth between rain and high humidity, and mountains leave you feeling the magic that is Vietnam. You grow to appreciate the mostly untouched beauty of the industrious country and respect the hardworking people who never cease from their days work, maybe only for the occasional hammock nap in the mid-afternoons. You’re left with a stronger respect for those who trekked the jungles to gain their freedom and embrace the sweet smell of fresh, open air. You fall in love and out of love, but never stop loving Vietnam.