On our descent from the hills, the valleys and sudden limestone mountains of Hoa Binh opened up below us. We had been on our motorbikes for two days, and just emerged from Cúc Phương National Park onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Vietnam defies a succinct explanation of the nature, history, hospitality, and variety that we experienced as we made our way south to north through the country. One of the more surprising truisms of our trip is that we never seem to have enough time to really appreciate any destination - even with a one-year travel window to burn through. In Vietnam, this was true even after 24 days.
We began our trip in the south, in Ho Chi Minh City (the name given to Saigon in 1976 after the end of the Vietnam War.) HCMC is reminiscent of a busier Bangkok, if that's possible. Downtown skyscrapers jut out of blocks of old colonial French buildings, their rooftop terraces overgrown with tropical vines and neon signs. Palm trees compete for space with large shade trees along the boulevards that remain a holdover from that period when the French city was built.
The enduring legacy of HCMC is its traffic. Motorbike patterns in the city would provide any chaos theorist with ample study material. Lights and stop signs act as a general guide, but it is the individual responsibility of the motorist (and pedestrian) to ensure they get to their destination in one piece. Crossing a street requires an Indiana Jones-style leap of faith that acting confidently and maintaining eye contact will divert the bikes around you and let you cross unscathed. Even so, with bikes motoring down sidewalks and against oncoming traffic on one-way streets, walking the city always managed to keep me alert.
HCMC began with the War Museum, an important stop for visitors - especially Americans - to see. Walking through the exhibits is a thorough reminder that the 'Cold War' wasn't always so cold. The museum itself is a one-sided story, and contains some elements of propaganda, but is a needed counterweight to the more sanitized history of the Vietnam War taught in American grade schools.
Some notes of interest:
- The US fought alongside the Vietnamese in WWII against the Japanese, and actually armed and trained some of the troops that would later fight in the Vietnam War (how many times have we done that?)
- John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, led the charge and was responsible for normalizing relations with the country in the 90's.
- Among other documents, the museum contains an excerpt from the US Declaration of Independence, noting that all men - including Vietnamese - are created equal with the right to the pursuit of happiness.
- 40,000 people have been killed by unexploded bombs alone since the war ended. Over the course of the war, 3 million Vietnamese - 2 million of them civilians - were killed.
- The museum gives credence to the saying that 'war is hell.' I don't know the last time I cried, but the exhibits brought me close. The images are too graphic to share here (though anyone curious may do a cursory search), but the story is told through photos. It showed that the toll continued long after the war was over - especially from the use of agent orange and its multi-generational impact on childhood development.
In spite of the shared history of our two countries, everyone we met loved America. Walking around the old town, an old man stopped me to talk and help teach me some of the older history of the country. In the Central Post Office in Saigon, a group of school children learning English stopped Dan to talk. When he asked how they felt about America, they all answered enthusiastically that they couldn't wait to visit. It only takes one new generation to begin erasing the scars of older ones.
On our last full day in HCMC, we visited the Củ Chi tunnels, a 2 hour bus ride from the city. The tunnels were used by the Vietnamese as part of the extended 'Ho Chi Minh trail' that ran supplies through the country to the communist resistance movement. The tunnels are worth visiting, if you have the appropriate context of the War Museum beforehand. Otherwise, the tour provides an oddly indulgent picture of the war that includes letting tourists shoot off AK-47's, which Dan and I abstained from in hopes of fighting at least one American stereotype.
Downtown HCMC is dotted with rooftop terraces and small local shops that offer different perspectives of the city. Unfortunately, budget travelers are often funneled into the infamous Backpacker Street that hosts many of the city's hostels. The street reminds one of Bangkok's Khao San Road - a strip of annoyingly over-energized bars and clubs catering only to party travelers, replete with sex workers and wandering hawkers. One new wrinkle was the prevalence of balloons, filled with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) that the locals would sell to tourists chasing the high. Watching people inhale these balloons and fall over themselves was enough reason to avoid the street.
While backpacking, it often feels incumbent on me to be a good ambassador for my country. Wherever we travel, I want to leave a positive impression of Americans with a part of the world that doesn't get much real exposure to them. This can be as simple as cleaning up and stacking plates at the end of a meal out, or helping someone struggling with something on the street. Sometimes though, you see people who don't share that orientation and it's impossible to subdue the deep, visceral sense of shame in watching another westerner treat locals terribly.
Trading stories from the prior night over breakfast in HCMC one morning provided two of those moments. A few nights before, a local hawker had brought her young (around 10-year old) daughter while we were having drinks at a sidewalk bar. We played games with and made faces to entertain her for about an hour before her mom took her home to go to bed. Over breakfast, I learned of a large drunk Scottish man who had seen the girl with her mom the next night, gone up to them in some drunken stupor, and kicked her in the face. The same night, one of the men I met at the hostel walked back into his room to find three intoxicated and undersexed Brits taking advantage of a drunk Bangladeshi girl who was traveling alone.
The road provides anyone with the ultimate opportunity to become themselves. Free from colleagues or reputations, backpackers have the freedom to be who they want to be. Unfortunately, just as there are those who reap the benefits of personal development as they travel, there are those who unmask the darker realities within themselves that may have remained hidden in their prior lives. As vexing as it is, there is nothing you can do to change the fact that terrible people travel too. It always leaves me with a deep feeling of embarrassment to hear about or see these travelers who come to another country only to leave it worse-off.
Our next trip from HCMC was taking an overnight bus to Dalat, known as the Paris of Vietnam (and which even has its own Eiffel Tower.) Dalat was a small vacation village in the mountains for the French during their rule of Vietnam, and still retains much of the feel of a small Swiss chalet town. The town itself was sleepy and rainy when we visited, but home to one of the best places we've stayed, the Dalat Family Hostel.
The day activities, from tours to canyoning to visiting waterfalls, start early in the morning in Dalat. When Dalat Family guests return, they have a huge communal dinner waiting for them at the hostel. There are many ways that hostels try to bring guests together, the most frequent type being a pub crawl, happy hour, or other drinking activity. Having a large dinner with your roommates was a great change that let us actually talk to and meet people. It was in Dalat that we start to put together a group of friends that would eventually become the VietFam.
Canyoning is a great way to meet new people and then look ridiculous in front of them as you alternate between falling into a river and getting waterboarded by said river. I highly recommend it. Our trip included sliding headfirst down rock waterslides and absailing straight into a waterfall known as the Washing Machine.
Leaving Dalat, we took a 16-hour bus ride to the stop meant to be the highlight of our time in Vietnam, Hoi An. As the bus made its way through a stopover at Nha Trang, our driver stopped on the side of the road in the middle of the night to pick up some cases of beer from a truck stopped in front of him in a dark sea of rice paddies. We may never know whether we were all unknowingly part of some drug or exotic game smuggling ring.
Hoi An, set squarely on the beach in the middle of Vietnam, is meant to be the most picturesque town in the country. I say 'meant to be' because it was flooded. The architecture, a cross between that of the Dutch and Japanese colonies that first established the city as their southeast Asian trading port, is spectacular I'm sure, but for our stay it was mostly underwater.
It was in Hoi An that Dan and I finally met up with Sarah, to complete our travel year group. It was also in Hoi An I received notice of my rejection from Harvard Business School (leading me to enroll at Insead.) This, strangely enough, came as a big relief. For the first time since I had begun thinking about business school, I finally new what my next destination would be. That morning, my friend Hetta and I went for a run that would turn into an hour-and-a-half mini marathon as we found out that we were stranded on the wrong side of the river from our hostel. After running through fields of cows and water buffalo, past bemused locals and smiling, waving kids, we finally made it back completely exhausted, but exhilarated and happy. These are some of the small moments that I hope I'll keep with me when this trip is over.
In Hoi An we stayed at the Sunflower Hotel, a fantastic hostel with a pool in back that we may have properly appreciated were it not for the torrential downpour. One night at the pool bar, an aggressive drunk Australian - whom we had previously seen berating our shuttle driver for not understanding English - came up and threatened to fight our group of 15 if we didn't socialize more quietly. The threats soon turned empty when our (large) friend Ahmed stood up from the table and the Aussie suddenly remembered something pressing he had to attend to. It confuses me to meet people people who travel the road in the way of backpackers with an antisocial disposition. Meeting people is often the most rewarding experience of travel; what can be out there for travelers who are so closed to making new connections?
The town is well-known for its large industry of tailors, who produce great clothing for a fraction of American prices. Naturally, Dan, Sarah and I took advantage of this opportunity by purchasing matching tailored banana-pattern outfits.
Out last big-city stop in Vietnam was Hanoi. A backpackers' Vietnam trip normally follows a south to north or north to south route, between the two major hubs of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. The beauty of Hanoi is that it provides a central jumping-off point for many great regional trips, such as the mountains of Sapa and Mai Chau, the boating at Halong Bay, or the natural parks of Ninh Binh. The city itself is also fascinating - at times, the old town feels more like a European capital than an Asian one, due to its legacy of French design and cooler climate.
I could burn through too many words describing how much I loved Hanoi. I got the opportunity to stay in the touristy old town as well as the expatriate community in the north, lined with craft breweries and foreign restaurants. For my last three days in the city, I rented a motorbike and took it exploring all over Hanoi. The photos below capture some of what I discovered there.
Little moments and small observations from Vietnam:
- There are offerings of food on the altars of every temple, which often include chips or cookies, drinks, and even liquor bottles and shots for the spirits of the altar. Homeowners and shopkeepers in rural areas also purchase their own mini-temples to be personal altars, with varying levels of decoration (something echoed across SE Asia.)
- Everywhere you go, children on the street shout "hello!" and wave to you. English education, hit-or-miss with older generations, seems to be almost universal with children.
- People are crafty problem solvers; one gets a sense that the Vietnamese can fix anything. When my motorbike shattered my laptop screen (for a rare laptop), I took it to a man in Hanoi who ran a small electronics shop on the side of the road. I almost had an anxiety attack watching him take apart my laptop with his bare hands. He had it replaced for $50 in under an hour.
- Late at night in Hoi An, two friends and I came back to our hostel to find the banh mi stand on the street closing up. We convinced the woman to let us go behind the counter and make banh mi's with the remaining ingredients. We thought we were gourmet chefs until she began shouting instructions to us as we butchered her signature sandwich style. (I had never eaten a banh mi before Vietnam; on my last day I got 3 banh mi's just to cope with the separation anxiety.)
- As anyone friends with me on social media may have seen, I did participate in ladies night, where women and the men who dressed like them drank free. The walk from our hostel to its brother hostel (part of the package) gave me a newfound sense of empathy for girls going out at night. Men would grab for you as you walked down the street and whistle. Old men turned around on their motorbikes to drive back and yell 'ladyboy.' I had no pockets to store my phone and wallet... Suffice it to say a night on the town is much easier as a guy.
Throughout Vietnam, we had been slowly acquiring a group of travel companions that started in Ho Chi Minh City and made it up to Hanoi with us. Watching the holidays back home was perhaps when homesickness hit the hardest. We remedied our Christmas blues by renting a group house in the expat neighborhood north of Hanoi's west lake and cooking a large Christmas dinner for our 14-person group of Americans, Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, and even a Canuck - the VietFam.
Using Hanoi as our local hub, we got the chance to take three trips to the surrounding area: motorbiking Ninh Binh and the Ho Chi Minh trail, boating in Halong Bay, and scootering around the Thay & Tay Phuong Pagodas and Hanoi.
For our first trip, Dan, Sarah and I rented motorbikes and headed south to Ninh Binh.
The loop we took included a very boring straight shot down an industrial highway (left blue line) south to Ninh Binh, a smaller city surrounded by national parks, as we learned the joys of Vietnam traffic and driving conditions.
Tam Cốc national park, one of what feels like 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam, does not disappoint. Tourists can take rowboats, piloted by women who row with their feet through the park, around towering limestone hills and valleys, through small caves that are often pitch black at parts.
The next day, we made our way up to Cúc Phương national park, for what we anticipated would be about a 4-hour ride back to Hanoi. In what seems to be a recurring motif for the trip, we were badly off in our estimate of time and things that would go wrong on the way up.
We had heard of Cúc Phương referred to as resembling a landscape out of Jurrasic Park. Biking down the one road through the heart of the park, it was easy to see how it invited such a comparison. Still, the park was at the end of the day somewhat underwhelming.
As Dan wryly noted, growing up in California spoils one for natural beauty in a way that makes it hard to visit other national parks. Still, the park did have a tree that began its life before the Magna Carta was signed, as well as a prehistoric cave dwelling, which was something.
The real beauty came when we emerged from the park onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail highway that winds its way back north to Hanoi. My photography can't do justice to the epic scenery of the ride (though it appears as though I'm in good company.) The expanses of fields and rice paddies wedged between the towering limestone hills made for an amazing sight as the highway snaked northward. The photo at the beginning of this post is of a small pagoda sitting in front of one such hill on the drive.
It was when dusk began to settle and we were still three hours out from Hanoi with no food in our stomachs that we began to suspect we may have misplanned our route. Fortunately for us, we came across a nice man grilling what we suspected was Vietnamese food and drug inspection-agency approved high-quality duck meat. It was when we purchased 3 - of whatever they were (we think liver) - that we realized we were once again wrong. The dead giveaway came when he and his friends stood watching us eat and his dog looked us over inquisitively, as if wondering why we were eating his dinner.
Fortunately, we made it back in one piece through our night-time ride weaving into and out of Hanoi freeway traffic. Though he hid it well, I'll bet our motorcycle rental owner was enthused to see us.
Our second trip out of Hanoi was to Hạ Long Bay, yet another UNESCO world heritage site. The name Hạ Long derives from the Sino-Vietnamese word for dragon, and the legend holds that dragons sent to protect Vietnam from invaders spat out jewels and jade that became the islands. It's not hard to see why.
(p/c for all of these to Sarah Hoffman)
In Hạ Long, we spent three nights on a small island owned by our hostel's parent company, and spent the days tubing and kayaking around the rock formations there. Not much else to report, except that it's possibly the most worthwhile destination for anyone in northern Vietnam. And one with a bar tab that almost broke us.
Hanoi and the Thay & Tay Phuong Pagodas
My last adventure in Vietnam was splitting off from our group while they went west to tour the rice paddies of Mai Chau so that I could do some solo motorbiking around Hanoi and visit its nearby pagodas. (In an attempt to convince myself I was not yet suffering temple fatigue.)
One of the best moments came when checking out a Vietnam War memorial in between the two temples. The little old man, on guard at the front in a faded military uniform, seemed incredulous to see a white person visiting the memorial. He stood up to enthusiastically shake my hand when I pulled in and offered me some of his giant tobacco bong (a generous offer, but not one that was hard to refuse.)
There are innumerable reasons to visit Hanoi, but my two favorite were the West Lake and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum.
The tomb, which closes to visitors every morning at 10am, combines elements of the propagandistic and the creepy. It's worth seeing the immaculately-preserved body of Ho Chi Minh himself, which is flown every year to Russia for retouching to maintain his 'youthful' demeanor. For over 100 years old, I have to say, he looks great. (Apparently, Ho Chi Minh's will was to be cremated and have his ashes scattered across three parts of Vietnam. However, his followers, sensing the revenue opportunity, had other ideas and instead had him essentially embalmed for posterity.
The West Lake lies just north of the Old Town and boasts a small road that runs around the coast, offering great views of the lake and the city skyline against it. On a nice day, with the small cafe's and markets that run along the road, it almost feels like a Mediterranean coastline. It's well worth renting a bike to take around and then over the large suspension bridge north into the suburbs.
As our month in Vietna drew to a close, and learning that we had some college friends who would be in Siem Reap for New Year's Eve, we headed for our seventh country on the trip: Cambodia.
Nik / 1.10.17