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After a rocky start to an otherwise amazing country, Vietnam still managed to steal my heart.
Three months into my first ever trip overseas, feeling free and rather enjoying life, I learned that sometimes it really does pay to read ahead, plan, and perhaps consult the guide book as opposed to winging it - “Oh yeah! That’s definitely a border crossing... LET’S GO.”
My travel buddy and I found ourselves marooned at the Laos/Vietnam border. After a warm goodbye from Laos; Beer Laos and karaoke at the border control, we strode across the Na Maew/Nam Xoi border as merry as can be.
We soon found ourselves in an entirely different world. The Vietnamese guards searched all our belongings and we were required to pay an ‘extra fee’ to enter the country. With screams of “NO, NO” and the shaking of heads as we approached hostels, the town folk were very unwelcoming to us new arrivals. The watching eyes, the squeals of mistreated livestock; it was eerie... there was something really hostile about the place that made your backpack feel that much heavier.
We found a hotel in the end but the owner wanted to keep our passports – fat chance! Then he wanted to keep our room key. He came to ask for it every half hour but we just wouldnt give it to him. Conscious of the need to eat and drink, yet dreading the idea of leaving the room, was a horrible feeling. Aided with nothing but a small phrase book (but no idea how to pronounce anything) and a belly full of courage, we managed to buy some outrageously over priced water and some rice, slinking back to the safety of a closed room and we waited for tomorrow.
A bus arrived in the morning and told us it’s going to Thanh Hoa. We were told it’s the only bus that’s passing through these parts all day and the owner was driving an incredibly hard bargain. Coming from a culture of non-negotiable pricing, this isn’t a great start in the world of bartering, and part of you thinks right now I’d sell my left kidney to be out of this place. So I paid too much and a wave of relief filled my body. I’m outta here!
Now, I don’t want this to put you off travelling to Vietnam because it really is an amazing place. Instead of dwelling on the negatives, I’m going to dwell on the positives. I’m going to talk more about all the things I loved about ‘Nam, but my point here is organise your border crossings. If you want to use the Na Maew/Nam Xoi crossing pre-book a bus, or crossover from Vietnam instead, because the Hua Phan province in Laos is beautiful and welcoming.
The starting point (I call Hanoi the starting point because this is where I really started to enjoy the country!). Generally I just like to enjoy the hustle and bustle of a new city, walk the streets, looking, listening and feeling. Each city has a different heartbeat, different things that drive it and Hanoi is no exception. I stayed in Hang Dao, central Hanoi; it’s quite a popular area with tourists, and I could see why.
It’s close to Hoan Kiem Lake, which is considered the centre of Hanoi, not only geographically but also socially. At dawn you can join in with the masses for the morning T’ai Chi around the Lake while near-by goateed grandfathers tug at their wisps over their next chess move.
You can continue your days walk south and you’ll find yourself in the beautiful French Quarter with its timely architecture and the smell of freshly baked baguettes. At night just to the north of the lake is the Hanoi theatre. Limited by language, I opted to watch the water puppets, retelling the story of Haon Kiem Lake, and the creation of Turtle Island (Tháp Rùa), complete with fire works and clashing music.
The Traffic! More specifically the motorbikes… I swear Vietnam must have more motorbikes than people! It’s insane; crossing the road is an endeavour. The best piece of advice I was given when I first arrived in Hanoi was “close your eyes, walk slowly and trust that you’ll make it” and it couldn’t be more true. With a consistent stream of bikes, crossing the road can seem all but impossible, but trust that the bikes will miss you and you’ll be fine. That said you still need to be cautious. I crossed the roads in a hilariously slow-old-man-shuffle fashion. I highly recommend taking motorbike taxi’s as much as possible; the experience is a total adrenalin rush. Try it once and you’ll chase the high forever after.
“M?t hai ba, yo” probably the Vietnamese expression I used most while travelling and the only one I can easily remember, translates to “one, two, three, bottom’s up”, or “cheers mate” – remember it, it will come in very handy.
Pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup, becomes a traveller’s best friend. It’s widely available, delicious and hearty. It’s the national breakfast dish! I know it takes a little getting use to having soup for breakfast but I tell you what, I absolutely loved it. I ate it everyday! Pho varies from town to town, north to south, but the premise is the same – broth, noodles, onion, thinly sliced beef (which cooks in the broth), greens and all the chillies/sauces that you feel it needs added to it. Pho for breakfast and you’re ready to take on anything that Vietnam has to offer.
Interestingly the shops in Hanoi are grouped by products and services. Each street had a theme. One whole street will have multiple stores just selling shoes, or jewelry, or hats. One street sold inflatable pool toys. I purchased a Tom and Jerry ring that travelled the length of the coast, like my own personal “in the tubing VIETNAM”
For the more historically minded, don’t miss the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which has Uncle Ho preserved and laid out under glass for display in grand Communist Style, resembling the Mausoleums that hold Chairman Mao, Lenin and Stalin (all in the top five communist dictators…)
Before leaving your hostel be sure to take a moment to review the long list of dress and behavioral requirements for entering the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Cameras and bags are not allowed in the Mausoleum and must be checked in at the reception. No shorts, tank tops or hats. And oddly, you’re not allowed to put your hands in your pockets!
Despite the rocky start our courage and zeal were restored, largely thanks to a week in lovely Hanoi and the rejuvenating properties of pho! We were ready to delve further into the country...
We headed out to Cat Bar Island, in the south west of the Ha Long Bay area. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes. We came for the island feel and stayed for the coconuts. We had a little hut on the beach, and slept to the sound of the ocean. Depending on the level of your adventurous spirit there’s an array of trips to do around the area, from gentle boat cruises to canyoning. Otherwise just enjoy the relaxation of water front views, that book you’ve been lugging around, a cold beer and a little conversation.
Everyone travels differently and I’m usually one for long periods in random places. For the whole of my month in Vietnam I think I visited a whole eight town/cities, so skip one quarter of the country, add a overnight train trip and I found myself in Da Nang. The city itself is really unattractive but catch one of those amazing motorbike taxis I was talking about, add 30mins and you’ll find yourself at Hoa’s Place, China Beach, half way between, Da Nang and Hoi An.
Hoa’s Place is almost a cult amongst travellers. It became popular because people told people, who told people, who created a Facebook group. He got published in different travel bibles, but this hasn’t change anything about the service, only the amount of people who access it. Hoa’s Place is run by Hoa and his wife. It’s a small guest house seemingly in the middle of nowhere. With beach access, nice food and a deck of cards, Hoa loves a good game of poker and most days start with a gamble. The locals all hit the beach around 5am, yes before sunrise! The whole family will be there, children playing in the shallows and adults doing the most unusual of exercises. Early morning and late afternoon are the only times you’re going to see the locals who are avoiding the full heat of the days rays.
If you want to do the trip into Hoi An, Hoa can organise a motorbike hire (usually from a mate) - just remember they drive on the right hand side of the road!
It’s a really amazing place and I really recommend it to anyone looking for something chilled and a little different in Vietnam. It beats Da Nang hands down…
Clothes clothes clothes! You can get anything and everything made overnight - shoes, clothes, bags – absolutely anything! The quality is proportional to the time and money spent. I had a whole lot of stuff made and little of it I actually wear but boy, was the experience worth the funds! I was like a giggling school girl looking for my graduation dress. I browsed the streets of Hoi An, talking to different makers, looking through the fabrics on offer; oh it was wonderful... Even if you only get one thing made it’s nice to pamper the designer ego inside.
If you’re really not interested in having anything made, Hoi An has lots more of offer - food, cooking classes, beach access, markets, night life. I had friends who absolutely loved doing the cooking classes, and I wish I had done one or two. Next time I guess.
In true Hannah style I skipped the remainder of the country to wind up in Ho Chi Minh City. A month goes quickly and I think we only had three days there.
We did a little bit of exploring and wandered the markets. We did a day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels which were used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The tunnels were used for a variety of purposes, such as hiding spots during combat, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for the numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems are mostly destroyed now, but they have preserved some for historical purposes (and expanded them so tourists can fit inside). It was fascinating to see the tactics and trickery that ultimately secured military success for the National Liberation Front (NLF).
So, after a tumultuous beginning I was at the end of my journey in a country that I still wanted to explore. I had barely grazed the surface, but time is always pressing and I have to remind myself that there is always next time. As for Vietnam, I’ve included to my ever growing list of places I still want to visit - the Mekong Delta and Sapa....
Still, Cambodia is calling, and who can resist?
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Ever wanted to see Ha Long Bay? Or get a suit made in Hoi An? Maybe even try drinking snake heart vodka? Alright, maybe not that last one, but you can do it all on our Trails of Vietnam tour and a bunch more. You'd be crazy to miss out on this beautiful country!
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