Vietnam, oh Vietnam. Where to start with the vibrant, virulent, verdant, vexing vortex that is Vietnam? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times? I think someone used that before me, but it remains no less apt. Of the many lands I’ve traveled to on this great adventure, Vietnam was near the top of my list of those I was most excited to explore, though I can’t really pinpoint the reason why. There was never a dull moment, that’s for sure.
It started off tamely enough, with a civilized immigration process in a proper airport, rather than the loosely controlled chaos and confusion I’ve grown used to at land border crossings. I picked up a SIM card at an airport kiosk and took an exorbitantly-priced (yet oh, so comfortable) taxi into downtown Hanoi, where Kelsey had already secured us a room for the night, and we went straight to bed. In the morning, we went off to do a little exploring while we waited for Tracy and a couple of her friends to join us. After the sleepy languor of Laos, the frenetic madness of Hanoi was quite a shock to the system. I thought Bangkok was bustling, but it ain’t got nothing on Hanoi. The streets are smaller; twisty, narrow lanes clogged with millions of motorbikes and encroached upon by tiny stores whose contents can’t be contained within the walls and spill out onto the tiny sidewalks.
Every street crossing involves risking life and limb, there are people and vehicles and animals coming at you from every direction and no rhyme or reason to any of it. In short: awesome. We had been told by fellow travelers along the way that there wasn’t much draw to staying in Hanoi, and so had planned to depart straightaway once the whole group was assembled. I regret this now, as I think I could have happily spent several days getting lost in the alleyways, eating exotic foods and drinking in the chaos. As it was, all we had time for was a little bit of wandering and a visit to Ngoc Son Temple, an odd little temple sitting in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake where, legend has it, an ancient emperor used a magical sword to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the battle was won, a giant golden turtle took the sword and took it to the bottom of the lake to return it to its divine owners.
Soon thereafter, Tracy arrived with her friends Megan and MJ, a pair of awesome Canadian ladies, and the 5 of us made tracks for bus station and were off to Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba sits up near the top of Ha Long Bay and is a beautiful oasis, worlds away from the frenzy of Hanoi. Neither MJ nor I had ever ridden motorbikes before, but allowed ourselves to be talked into a day of scootering around the island. Oh, and a great day it was! We got the hang of the bikes pretty quickly and then set off to explore the all the jungly corners and sweeping seafront vistas of Cat Ba. We found a set of stairs carved into a hillside and climbed to the top, earning breathtaking views of the ocean, dotted with tiny karst limestone islands. Later, we went for a hike in the National Park, eventually making it to a tiny hut at the tip-top of the mountain. The jungle was steamy and I don’t think I’ve ever been so sweaty in my entire life, but it was all worth it once we made it to the peak and looked out over nothing but green as far as the eye could see.
Overall, it was shaping up to be a perfect day as we headed back toward “downtown” Cat Ba. Then about a mile from our guesthouse, as I took a corner on my bike, another biker turned right into my path and I experienced the inevitable crash like it had happened in slow motion. Next thing I know, there’s a crowd around me and I’m peeling myself off the pavement, all my nerves humming while blood dripped into my eyes from a gash along my browline. Some kind stranger picked up my bike from the street and parked it along the curb, while others gathered around, offering bandaids and wetwipes. I’m sure it made a nice spectacle for all the passers-by. Ultimately, there wasn’t too much harm done, along with the face cut, I had about the worst skinned knee of my life, a few more little scrapes here and there and that was it. Once I got my nerves (and the bleeding) under control, I was able to get back on the bike and drive it the rest of the way into town. Sad to be the living embodiment of a cliche — Gringo Tourist Crashes Motorbike in Vietnam! Film at 11! — but at least it makes for a good story, right?
Despite that one little hiccup, we all had an amazing time on Cat Ba and I think everyone was feeling a bit misty and nostalgic on the ferry as we sailed away for Ha Long Bay. Sadly, those good feelings weren’t to last very long. From the pier, there were ranks of taxi drivers vying for our business and so the girls dove into the negotiating fray and got one driver to quote us a price of 120K Dong. We tried to insist that he use the meter in the cab, but his (feigned or genuine) lack of English made that a losing battle. We hadn’t booked a place to stay yet and so asked him to take us to the tourist center of the city. The communication was very poor and at one point, he phoned a friend and had me speak to him to say where we wanted to go, and the friend (supposedly) relayed that message to the driver. We passed through an area full of hotels and shops, but the driver kept on going and we eventually ended up on a bridge. Remember now that there are 5 of us (plus all our luggage) in the cab, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the car’s suspension didn’t do so well going over the bridge and started making unpleasant noises. We could all see that the driver was becoming visibly more and more agitated — he kept muttering what sounded like curses under his breath — and we collectively hoped that we would be leaving his company very soon. Things went from bad to worse once we exited the bridge and drove deeper into what was clearly not the tourist center of the city and many miles away from the hotel area we’d passed through earlier. After a while, the driver pulled into a crowded market and we all piled out of the cab and retrieved our bags from the trunk. As the driver had never turned on the meter, we collected the agreed-upon 120K and had it ready to hand it to him. The driver, however, held up bills totaling 320K, indicating that that was how much we owed for the ride. We attempted to argue, but the language barrier continued to frustrate all of us. At a loss, Tracy simply handed the driver the 120, which he looked at for a moment, then flung the money on the ground and started screaming his head off! I picked up the scattered bills while the other girls kept trying to argue with the irate driver. Soon, a man in uniform came over to investigate (cop? mall cop? uniform surplus store afficionado? I guess we’ll never know) and the driver started gesticulating wildly in our direction. From what I could gather, the cop(?) went to look at the meter to see if it indicated what we owed, and when he picked it up off the dash, the wires weren’t even connected to anything! The cop(?) shrugged at this and eventually wandered away, leaving the cab driver to continue his wailing and carrying-on to a crowd of mostly disinterested Vietnamese people. The situation had become terribly uncomfortable and none of us were sure what to do. Finally, I just set the collected money on the trunk lid and we all started to walk away. The driver ran over and yanked Kelsey by the backpack, at which point, pint-sized Megan flew into a fury, stabbed her finger toward his face and shouted “NO! You DO NOT!” The driver seemed (rightly) shocked by this 5’2″ of rage, and backed off. We grabbed our stuff and disappeared into the market as fast as we could go. This was our first (but sadly, not our last), experience with a local’s aggressive attempt to cheat us, a practice we soon dubbed “getting ‘Namm-ed.”
We twisted and turned through the aisles (I, limping along as fast as my gimpy leg would allow), hoping that the lunatic wasn’t following us, and eventually came out the other side. We were all pretty shaken up by the whole thing, but it seems we’d lost him. Though now we were pretty lost ourselves and started trolling for a hotel or somewhere that we might be able to find some assistance. We eventually happened upon a tourist information office and the super sweet ladies inside were able to call us a (metered!) cab that took us back over the bridge and dropped us off back in the hotel zone, which was clearly where we should have ended up all along. We found a suitable guesthouse in short-order, and carried our burdens up 5 long flights of stairs to our room.
We’d all been told that an overnight boat cruise around Ha Long Bay was a don’t-miss in Vietnam, so that was our next mission. We booked a night on a ship called the Black Pearl, which was well-reviewed on Trip Advisor. We were told the price included unlimited drinks, as well as a return bus to Hanoi in the morning. Once on board, it all started to unravel fairly quickly. First off, it was not the ship that we had seen photos of, but rather another boat run by Castaway Cruises. Halfway through the evening our group was also made to move from that boat to another, leaving behind some really awesome people and gaining a decidedly less fun bunch. We were also informed that the free drinks were only from 7-10 pm, and our choices were warm beer or warm vodka/coke (ice cost extra). Adding insult to injury, the “unlimited” drinks ran out within 40 minutes and complaining to the boat crew was utterly futile.
The upside was that the scenery was stunning and we enjoyed a sunset like I’d never seen before. In the morning, we returned to the pier to discover that the bus to Hanoi was also not part of the package and we were on our own. ‘Namm-ed again!
Our next destination was a city called Hue, from which we planned to rent motorbikes and drive to Hoi An. We managed to get seats on an exorbitantly priced sleeper bus from Ha Long City, for a ride that was supposed to take 15 hours and include a meal. Can you guess what happened next? The promised meal never materialized, of course, and the ride ended up being 20 hours. There was also no toilet aboard the bus and the drivers could only occasionally be persuaded to pull over on the side of the road to let us find a shrub to pee behind. There was a crowd of Vietnamese men hanging in the front of the bus with the driver, and at about 5 am they decided to turn the bus into a nightclub by blasting techno music. It also looked suspiciously like the whole group (driver included) were up there drinking beer and having a grand old time. We finally limped into Hue around noon and, rather than doing the sensible thing and staying the night in Hue, we grabbed a quick bite, rented motorbikes and set out again. The rental place provided us with a “detailed” map and said the trip would take 4-5 hours, with us arriving well before sunset.
Well. The map was anything but detailed, and the trip stretched long into the night. At one point, we discovered that we’d been traveling for about 40 km in the wrong direction and had to turn around. Luckily, I had bought that SIM card for my phone so we were able to access maps to get us back on the right track, but we’d gotten way off schedule. By the time we reached the mountain pass — the whole draw of the trip, as the views are supposed to be incredible — it was full dark with no moon. The road was full of twists and turns and I, fresh off my low-speed collision on Cat Ba, couldn’t manage to go much faster than 40 kph without freaking out and I had to slow way down for every turn. This didn’t help our forward progress either, and by the time we finally reached Hoi An (after quite a few more wrong turns), it was nearly midnight and we were all exhausted and filthy. The 5 hour ride had taken more than 10, and let’s just say, if I never ride a motorbike ever again, that would be A-OK with me.
In happier news, that was definitely the low point of the trip and things only got better from there. Hoi An is an adorable little riverside city and we really enjoyed our time there. We ate exclusively in little family-run “restaurants” tucked away here and there along the roads. It seemed to us that each place served only one kind of dish, and so we’d just sit down, hold up 5 fingers, and 5 bowls of surprise would be served. Usually, it was some variation on Pho, the classic Vietnamese noodle soup, which was always tasty and always cheap, coming in at 30K D, or about $1.50. Otherwise, we’d get Bahn Mi sandwiches from roadside stands, ranging from 10-20K apiece. Cheap and delicious!! Hoi An is also famous for its tailor shops and having clothes made is almost required as part of the visit. I thought about having a suit made, but then I remembered that I never want to go back to suit-wearing life, so I scrapped that and had two dresses made instead. (Kelsey, who can’t be dissuaded from her plan to attend law school in the fall despite my best efforts, got a beautiful navy suit).
Tracy, Megan and MJ headed back to Hanoi to catch a flight and Kelsey and I stayed another day in Hoi An and took a Vietnamese cooking class with an outfit called Thuan Tinh Island. It started out with a market trip to pick up all our ingredients, and then a boat ride down the river through the fishing villages. We then changed from a powerboat to a paddle boat and made our way further downriver to the cooking school in a big, open-air hut with a thatched roof. Our teacher, Hon, was excellent, and we had a blast making delicious fresh spring rolls, rice pancakes, beef noodle salad and beef pho. They also give you unlimited passion fruit juice during the class, which was a huge bonus.
Then it was back on the sleeper bus and onward! The bus ride was horrible, as we’d come to expect, but I arrived alive (if a little banged up from the incredibly bumpy roads and frequent hard-braking, which occasionally sent us and/or our stuff flying into the aisles). Kelsey was headed to Ho Chi Minh City, but I decided to stop over in Nha Trang and do a little diving. Upon arrival, I found that I’d arrived in the Waikiki of Vietnam, all manicured palm trees and swank resorts. The diving was pretty good, there wasn’t a lot of sea life, but the water was clear and warm and the coral was beautiful. I stayed just one night, then moved on to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
The bus arrived at 5 am, but I was able to get into the lobby of my guesthouse and catch a few hours sleep on the sofa. At check-in time, the lovely woman who runs the guesthouse apologized profusely and told me that the person who was supposed to be checking out was ill and couldn’t leave, so she didn’t have a bed for me. She felt really bad about it and fed me a huge breakfast to apologize, as well as found me a bed in another nearby guesthouse. I only had one day in the city and so decided to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels where many local people (and Viet Cong) lived underground for years during the war. They showed us an old propaganda video, proudly describing the acts of valor committed against the evil American invaders. The tunnels are tiny, with barely enough room to walk hunched over. It’s hard to believe that whole communities lived, gave birth, ate, and slept in those cramped spaces. I spent about 5 minutes down there and decided I’d had enough. On site, there are also all sorts of displays of the various deadly traps created and placed throughout the jungle that were used to kill and maim unsuspecting soldiers. On the whole, it was a decidedly uncomfortable experience and I was glad again that I’d decided to be Canadian for the duration of my time in Vietnam.
I spent my last night wandering the streets, sampling street food and observing the controlled chaos. Ho Chi Minh City has a very different feel from Hanoi, and I liked it a bit better. As with just about every place I’ve been, I would have liked to spend a little more time there, but alas, I had to keep moving.
Overall, I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about Vietnam. I had a great time there, but I also had some of my worst experiences. Some of the local people I interacted with were absolutely lovely, but so many others were wretched and dishonest. I loved the food, but there was very little variety. On balance, I think the good outweighed the bad and I can see it as a place I would return to, if for no other reason than to drop a whole lot of money in Hoi An on a new custom wardrobe 😉