Hi friends and family!!
I am officially half way through Vietnam! I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hoi An, and I am writing to you from Hue. Even though I have the entire northern part of the country left to explore, I believe it’s safe to say that Vietnam already has a special place in my heart. From the bustling city to the open fields of rice paddies and profitable fishing villages, you’re never without an incredible sight. The people are as kind as ever and love approaching me about my height, fair skin, and freckles – or just to practice their English! I am constantly in awe of the industrious mentality of the Vietnamese. They are absolute hustlers. On every corner you can find some variety of food stalls, moto repairs, juice bars, and simple tchotchkes for sale. Women young and old line alleys with baskets and bowls of fruits and vegetables, as well as ”freshly” caught fish and meats. While intimidating, especially to this green traveler, I find a lot of charm in these communal spaces. The women chitchat and bring each other lunches, each giving their own pitch to buy items from their stall as you pass by. But none of this is new to those who have walked through open markets. While the items and specialties change, by and large they all function the same.
My first week was a whirlwind on its own! Prior to even getting on the plane, I had a whoooole documents ordeal that pushed back my departure date. So not only was I now delayed 2 days, I had to pay a hefty but merciful bit for reservation changes. After a 20h journey, I arrived in Saigon shortly after midnight and went straight to an ATM to grab cash. I was feeling confident and alert, ready to take on anything that may come my way. I was mentally prepped to shake off insistent taxi drivers and just make it out of the airport in one piece. So I grab my money and head to the taxi area, looking for only the green and white Vinasun taxis. I grab my cab, give him the address and off we are. I successfully arrived to my hotel, excited to be sleeping in a capsule, pay for the reservation change and head up to my pod. Once settled and having touched every button possible, I shower and head to sleep feeling grateful for arriving safely and curious about what the next couple weeks will hold...
I wake up in a throbbing haze, starving and ready to get the day started. As I’m prepping for my day out, I come to the startling realization that my debit card is no where in sight. As the panic starts to creepily heat around my chest, I take a deep breath and close my eyes. Holy shiiiiiiit. This is not actually happening. But with that breath, I reassure myself that it’s going to be alright. I had taken cash out last night, the last time I saw my card so most likely where it’d been lost, and I have enough to at least get me through a week and a half. Comforted by this, I face the next task of getting my new card. Almost $20USD and a day of planning my next two weeks later, my card is guaranteed to meet me in Hoi An – okay, itinerary and money source squared away. Now to enjoy myself! I spend the next couple days adjusting and doing some solo sightseeing. The malaria profilaxis makes me woozy for about three days, but later gives me no troubles.
Moving to a hostel was by far the best choice I could have made. Immediately I’m greeted by people coming from South Korea, Phu Quoc island, Cambodia, Singapore, Australia. Each one with their own story of where they came from and where they’re going, a colorful array of answers. Multiple languages in one room definitely puts a new perspective on your reality. I’m no longer in the United States where English is the dominant language. Among the Vietnamese, I am a minority, an outsider. Even more-so since I don’t speak multiple languages. Again, I kick myself for not taking high school Spanish seriously, immediately feeling a sense of inferiority to those who speak several. I make quick friends with a girl, Z from Great Britain, and we decide to do a half-day Cu Chi Tunnel tour together the following day (which ended up being the beeeest decision as it was 8am-4pm, aka a full day to me). Luckily I landed myself in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City by walking down Bùi Viện and into a block party concert by some guy in a high tower. Simultaneously, everyone around me is watching Vietnam win the semi-final game against the Philippians and erupting at any given chance. As soon the game concludes, the streets are flooded with motos and people celebrating by blowing horns and carrying Vietnamese flags, dressed in red and gold. The madness goes on for FIVE hours, well after I’ve exhausted myself and changed into my pajamas. I might add that I’m pretty sure there was no damage done to public property (this includes the celebration following the final championship game a week and a half later)... looking at you Philly!!
The next day, I wake still jet lagged, ready to get some free gruuuuub in my belly. Z and I make our ways to the Cu Chi Tunnels and I’m wondering if my thighs will survive the several hours of humid touring. As a lifelong sufferer of chub rub, these are the things I think about!!! Thankfully, I survived without needing to reach for the chafe stick but vowed to myself I’d wear long pants the next day- haha oh well #real. The tunnels were another great reminder and lesson about America’s impact on Vietnam during the wars. While our physical presence was mostly during the Vietnam war, it was the American taxpaying dollars that fed at least 45 years worth of war in Vietnam. In order for Vietnam to claim their independence, they were forced to move most of their operations below ground and deep into the jungles (Ho Chi Minh Trail). This circles back to my absolute respect for the Vietnamese people... despite constant strife, they have successfully risen above it all. And while one might argue that Communism isn't "successful," to each their own. My impression, after many a conversation with native Vietnamese, is that people are pretty happy here.
After HCM, I decided to take a ~9 hour train ride up to Nha Trang, which is well known as an escape spot for Russians trying to get away from the cold winters. As you walk the streets, you will find signs with a combination of Russian and Vietnamese with a sprinkle of English. The beaches are mostly clean, beige sand with rolling cloudy blue waves (also remember I'm here during the "rainy/almost winter" season in Vietnam), filled with beach chairs and the occasional vendor trying to sell bracelets, water, and fruits.
I took the first day to get myself a proper base burn at the beach then enjoyed the night with a sweet lil party at the hostel with my roommates, two sisters traveling from Australia. Day 2 I decided to keep out of the sun and relax after the constant movement I had going on in HCM. That day I had the most magnificent Indian meal (was able to save for dinner too!), got my laundry and nails done – all for just about $15, which mostly accounted for the lunch and was my complete spending for the day.
Day 3 I spent visiting the Thap Ba Pagoda and Mud Baths! I had my first experience of Vietnamese asking for a picture with me cause of my height, which I actually found kinda cute. Trying to cut costs, I decided to walk to the Mud Baths about 30 minutes away. Well, it was hot as balls and I found myself having to take a break halfway there. After giving myself time to chill, I was off to the baths! I opted for the private experience and mineral bath that totaled to 500kVDN (about $21).
The baths were nothing short of absolutely awesome. I don't know what was about the mud, but being in the tub was like being in zero gravity! I enjoyed the spa time on my own, but noticed there was an English speaking tour group doing the same experience as myself. At one point, I asked one of the girls to take a picture (cause you GOTTA document the moment) and we struck up conversation! Turns out she's a New Yorker traveling with a multi-cultural group through Vietnam on a 3 week tour. She invited me to hang out with them, which I happily accepted! They were incredibly kind and shared stories of their experiences coming from the North. After a day of serene relaxation and a million sight-seeing suggestions later, I decided to make my way back to the hostel to catch my sleeper train to Da Nang (will make a separate post about transportation through Vietnam later).
A 10.5h overnight train later, I arrive in Da Nang and catch a local bus to Hoi An, the cheapest way to travel the distance between the two towns at 30kVDN. It should have been 25k but I didn't have the balls/energy to haggle the guy when he insisted, which left me kicking myself later cause I need to stand my ground!! Lessons, man, lessons. Arriving in Hoi An, fully knowing that the rain was consistently intermittent throughout the day, I decided to hit the pavement and trek the 3 miles to my hostel. What should have been a 35 minute walk turned into about an hour and change due to the stop and go nature of the rain. While an arduous walk that left me feeling exhausted and a little defeated, I enjoyed walking the main strip of Hoi An and understanding the lay of the land. Hoi An is mostly known for their custom tailoring and it's Old Town, a remnant of the strong French influence during the early 1900's. I stayed at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel, a great mid-price range option for young travelers looking for a party, and decided to stay in an all female dorm. Easily the best choice cause these girls have became my closest relationships thus far. 20 minutes into getting to know each other, we were already discussing the nitty gritty of our travels!
Together we decided to do a bike tour through Hoi An the next day that included lantern making, a free tour at the Ancient House, biking through the Old Town and wide ranges of gorgeous rice fields, ending at their sister resort by the beach for beers and burgers.That night we decided to keep the party rolling and hung around for the 6pm free beer Happy Hour that turned into a night of various games and activities to get us all acquainted then ending the night at Hair of the Dog. This is about the moment when I realized that I am not cut out for the constant partying that comes with these sort of hostels. The mixing of alcohols, the smell of cigs, and abundance of "Hippy crack" (laughing gas balloons) is the perfect combo for having your clothes smell more putrid than Ho Chi Minh (which didn't actually smell that bad, but left your clothes with a distinct funk). While I enjoyed getting to hang with the hostel fam, I definitely was not a fan of the smell and stomach ache that came with it all. Hoi An was pretty rainy during our time there and M, my new Danish friend, and I spent the next day getting caught in and out of the rain while exploring Old Town. Don't get me wrong though, even through the rain, Hoi An is absolutely adorable and I'm pretty sure I fell in love with it's quaint town and rich history.
.... this is only the beginning of this journey and I still have SO much to share! But I've decided to divide my journal into the three regions of Vietnam for the sake of journal length and readability. I hope you've enjoyed my journey through Southern Vietnam as much as I have :)
Some activities not mentioned, but I had a GREAT time doing!
- Massage with Helo Spa, full body that also included a cucumber peel mask