Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

For those of you who have read my other posts about Vietnam, I’ve had mixed feelings about my two weeks here. For some context before I dive into my overall impressions, I was initially hoping to spend this time in Myanmar, exploring a country that recently opened up to foreign travelers before it got too touristy. I had to fit the trip into specific dates before my teaching gig in China and when looking at flights, Myanmar would be much more expensive and require more plane transfers and time spent in airports. I decided I might as well see Vietnam, which eluded my prior trip to Southeast Asia because of Visa requirements, and finish off the region and visit without paying a penny for flights. So that’s why I’m here, wishing I spent the extra time and money on Myanmar. I think I would have liked Vietnam better if I was younger and less familiar with the region but this country is a well-trodden journey through the Southeast Asian backpacker trail and it was hard to avoid getting caught up in all that entails. First, the hostels are full of backpackers from the UK and Australia and vacationers from Korea.  Most travelers come here on summer break or a gap year between school, attracted by cheap booze and beaches, so the average age is around 20-22. Some of the people I saw looked barely old enough to drive a car, never mind travel around foreign countries. Since this many people’s virgin foray into foreign travel, the whole country is set up to shuttle people up or down the prescribed route from North to South. Everyone and their mother wants to sell you cheap trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, and since budget conscious people (me included!) just look for the cheapest price, I found most of the tours to be lots of people packed in small spaces with tour guides who can barely speak English and don’t even attempt to explain what you’re seeing. A typhoon in Halong Bay and my failure to just postpone the trip instead of listen to the travel agent and replace it with mediocre day tours, caused my week in the North to be back-to-back tours which are generally something I only sign up for as a last resort. Perhaps if you pay more, you’ll have a better experience. For me, traveling that way is a bit superficial and unsatisfying, however it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to get to these places if you don’t speak the language to get good taxi rates. If you have limited time, I’d recommend sticking to the North. Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi were all highlights for me and give a good sense of an urban experience as well as some of the most beautiful nature in the country. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is usually the universal favorite. It’s a cultural city with cute yellow buildings, a river flowing through it and some of the best shopping in the country but definitely touristy. I had my most powerful experiences in the South of the country with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, which is a half-day trip from Saigon. As much as read about the Vietnam war, watched travel shows about other people experiencing these exact same tours, the extensive scope of the devastation to both sides never sank in until I saw these two things myself. One of the most surprising things about this trip and knowing the history is that no one, anywhere in the country seemed to hold the slightest bit of resentment against me, being an American. Seeing photographs of people and villages destroyed and the atrocious aftermath of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) made me uncomfortable to be an American here.  It was truly heart wrenching for both sides.   I couldn’t believe the lack of lingering bitterness over something that many middle-aged or older people in Vietnam had to live through. I really wanted to get a local perspective on this but the Vietnamese couchsurfer who walked with me through the War Remnants museum and the other locals I asked, feigning incomprehension and/or dismissing my questions with “I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this” smiles. The hard to overcome cultural barriers was another reason Vietnam wasn’t my favorite place to travel. People of Vietnam are “friendly” and there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get your immediate needs met/sell you things (even in the middle of Halong Bay) but the culture is much more reserved. As much as I tried to talk to locals, I rarely got any meaningful information with three surprising exceptions: I spent...

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

Mud Sliding through Rice Paddies: The Real Story of Sapa Vietnam

After traveling most of Southeast Asia a few years ago when I spent a summer based in Singapore, my first week in Vietnam didn’t impress me much. Part of it was my fault because with all the traveling I’ve been doing lately, I didn’t have much time to do research beyond familiarizing myself with the typical backpacker route.  Ho Chi Minh City- Nha Trang- Hoi An- Da Nang- Hue- Hanoi- Sapa and/or Halong Bay…. but even after talking to dozens of travelers, that’s all anyone did so it seems like it’s a country where people don’t get off the beaten path.  The cities were crowded and loud, with only a few attractions within walking distance. Most of the things that were worth seeing required a motorbike and luckily, I could ride on the back of a bike with couch surfers braver than myself to explore the attractions of Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi but still it was a lot of temples and wading through Asian tourists armed with selfie sticks. When my trip to Halong Bay got cancelled, I was a bit bummed, especially when the replacement tours felt like something that had to be survived rather than enjoyed. But I was definitely looking forward to Sapa, the land of rice paddies and tribal minorities in the North. This trip also turned into a bit of a debacle, but in the end, quite a pleasant one. Getting picked up from our hostels was the usual hassle: we expected a sleeping bus but instead we got a crowded van with another non-verbal tour guide, so we sat on each other’s laps wondering whether we’d have to endure the 6-hour journey in a massive mosh pit. The man wordlessly checked a couple tickets, kicked two Russian girls on the street then took us down a dark alley where, thankfully, a sleeping bus awaited our arrival. The arrival to Sapa I passed out on the drive and around 4:45 AM, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot. Some fellow travelers confirmed that we arrived in Sapa our final destination. we stopped somewhere which was Sapa according to some people’s GPS but when a brave soul tried to leave the bus, he was blocked by the driver and the assistant. The driver shut the bus doors dramatically and there we sat until 6 AM with no idea when we’d be released from captivity. At 6 AM, they forced us out of the bus into a rainy parking lot where the locals tried to sell us homestays and periodically arrived with signs with names like “Tim Thom” looking for people who didn’t seem to exist. As our group dwindled, about 45 minutes later, a man with a sign with our names on it welcomed us into his van. We drove up to Grand View Hotel, which was positioned to have a great view, but fog obscured our view. To enter the hotel, we had to elbow our way through a mob of Hmong women trying to sell us bracelets and wallets. We piled into a lobby filled with angry tourists trying to change their reservations to switch hotels and alarmingly, the receptionist didn’t even seem the slightest bit surprised. When we asked to brush our teeth in an empty room, we could see why. One of my fellow travelers aptly described the hotel as something out of The Shining. It had it all from exposed pipes, unexplained puddles, punch holes in the door, grimy glassware collecting decades of dust, a funky smell and inadequate lighting. We were invited to breakfast in the next room. A woman “dusted off” our table with a duster that looked like it was designed for breeding dust bunnies and we sat down, exhausted after our night bus ride and asked for coffee. “No coffee,” the waiter abruptly replied, throwing moldly menus like Frisbees at our faces, potentially to distract us from the cockroach running across the checkered tablecloth.  After a bit of squealing, we chose our breakfast based on which food would make us less sick and decided it would be hard to mess up bread with butter and honey. Sure enough, the waiter replied to that request, “no butter”. We meekly munched on our half-roll of bread, avoiding the wilted side of tomato and cucumber, skeptical that it would fuel our 12 km “hike”. The trek After finishing breakfast and another hour of waiting and discovering new reasons to be sketched out about the hotel, we were rallied by a young Hmong girl with a baby on her back who introduced herself as our tour guide. We donned our ponchos and...

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

“Imagine 2000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible” –Lonely Planet Halong Bay: UNESCO world heritage site, the top attractions in the northeast of the country and the sole reason that some people come to Vietnam.  So naturally, one of the first things I did after arriving to Hanoi and dropping my stuff at the hostel, was to arrange a trip there.  All I had to do was return at 8 AM the next morning with an overnight bag, packed to spend one night on a boat on the Bay. After booking the tour, I returned to my hostel where a Polish couch surfer, working at a local hostel, waited for me on his motorbike.  We buzzed around the major city sights in a couple hours, hitting a couple parks, a lame temple, two lakes, the fancy shopping street and Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.  Although the sites were interesting, much of our day was spent darting honking motorbikes, squeezing through Vietnamese ladies wielding long poles carrying their produce and arguing with people about parking.  All of it confirmed my readiness to get out of the city and into some beautiful nature, even if it was on a boat  (apparently the scars from my recent sailing trip didn’t take too long to heal).    As we emerged from a shady seat in the park and blinked in the hot Vietnam sun, I commented, “It’s supposed to be monsoon season but it hasn’t rained on me during the day once.”  He replied, “Monsoons are worse in the South… if you made it through that without rain, you’re probably in the clear”.  Despite both of us sweating a bit in the sun, I smiled, “Maybe I’m finally finished bringing apocalyptic weather on vacation with me”.   [If you haven’t been following my adventures, my February trip to Peru brought rains that contributed to me slipping on a rock and breaking my arm, my April trip brought snow to Jordan and atypically freezing temperatures to Cyprus, my road trip through the United States in late May brought 40 tornadoes to the vicinity of Oklahoma City the night we stayed there and a snow storm that piled 5″ of snow and freezing rain to Colorado Springs and of course, my sailing trip in the Florida Keys brought a whole new set of storms] So after a night in Hanoi, falling asleep a lullaby of roaring motorbike motors, drunken tourists and shop owners trying to sell people things, I bounced out of bed and to the tourist office, ready for the sea.  I arrived early and asked the guy at the desk if I could leave my bag, grab some coffee then come back.  He shook his head no, tried to sputter some things and dialed the phone furiously, but his English wasn’t good enough to explain why he was denying me my caffeine fix.  I sighed and sat down.  Fortunately, a few seconds later, the lady who sold me the tour arrived on her motorbike, and panted as she took of her helmet (as if she had to pedal the bike herself).  “Typhoon.  There’s a typhoon in the Bay.  First typhoon of the season.  Tour is cancelled,” she huffed and puffed.  I asked if I could postpone the trip until tomorrow and she vigorously shook her head no, “all trips for next three days, cancelled.  Big storm”.  Seeing the disappointment on my face, she offered an alternative.  “We switch your Halong Bay tour to two day trips.  Almost the same as Halong Bay”.  She explained an itinerary with boats and mountains that I didn’t quite understand but still half asleep, having been denied coffee, I shrugged in slightly skeptical agreement. Plan B, Part 1: A Cranky Bus of Hot Tourists on a Death March to Trang An & Bai Dinh Pagoda I sat in her office for awhile… waiting 15 minutes, 30 minutes beyond the  supposed “8 AM pick-up time”.  She didn’t seem surprised that the vehicle hadn’t arrived but saw that I was getting antsy so she started showing me some of her favorite music videos.  Apparently this 31 year old Vietnamese lady with two kids had a big crush on the Russian equivalent of the High School Musical Star.  She blushed as she showed me...