This past week, my friend Ashlyn and I visited Vietnam. Since we both wanted to see as much of the country as possible while only taking a few days off of work, we decided to fly into Hanoi and spend five days backpacking our way down the country via night bus, then flying out of Ho Chi Minh.
As we are both somewhat averse to meticulous planning, Ashlyn and I tend to fly by the seats of our pants. We knew there were night buses and trains we could take, we knew we wanted to keep it as cheap as possible and we had a vague itinerary of what we wanted to do when, but that was it! The rest we discovered moment by moment.
One such discovery was that our travel plan, or lack thereof, was VERY ambitious. I mean, explore an entire country in less than a week? That’s crazy. BUT I am proud to say that, somehow, we managed to squeeze what could easily be a month long trip into our five days, and the hiccups and obstacles we encountered only served to enhance the adventure.
Here’s a brief overview of our travels:
Tuesday 10/17 – Fly from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in the evening. Sleep in the airport.
Wednesday 10/18 – Wake up super early to get our boarding passes (and Krispy Kreme, PTL). Fly to Hanoi. Arrive at 9 am and get our visas and coffee. Take public bus #7 and #46 to the My Dinh bus station. Buy public bus tickets to Ha Long Bay and get on the bus, which leaves immediately. The bus ride takes about 4-5 hours, and we stop frequently (often just by the side of the road) to pick up/drop off passengers (how do people know where to catch this bus?!) and cargo (plants, boxes, live chickens). Arrive at the Bay Chai bus station in Ha Long Bay. Take public bus #3 for its entire route (to get our bearings, see the city, and also we had no idea what we were doing!). Take public bus #3 again to the tourist area. Find a hostel (we had to go to a coffee shop to get wifi and look up cheap hostels nearby. We found a few and walked to check them out. One was an abandoned building. The next was a fancy hotel, just to see their prices – why not, right? Next, we passed a man on a motorbike who told us about his hostel: $4 a night, free breakfast, great deal! That’s where we ended up). Grab dinner at a little street grill. Wander around the closed Sun World park. Go to bed.
Thursday 10/19 – Wake up early. Eat breakfast (Vietnamese toast and pineapple jam. So good!). Get picked up by bus for our Ha Long Bay boat excursion (booked through our hostel). Explore the most beautiful and incredible place on earth by boat (seriously... Ha Long Bay is one of my new favorite places ever. The rock formations were absolutely stunning. I am still in awe!). Check out of hotel. Grab bubble tea (rediscovered my love for boba. I think I drank at least one a day the rest of the trip!) and try to figure out how to get to our next destination from Hanoi (sooo, night buses are a lot less regular than we thought. There’s usually only one or two a day. But, we found a night train to Hue that left at 10 pm). Take bus #3 back to Bay Chai bus station. Take public bus back to My Dinh, Hanoi. Take taxi to train station. Buy soft-seat tickets for 10 pm departure to Hue (pronounced Hway. Definitely botched that on multiple occasions). Walked 30 minutes to a local Vietnamese restaurant where Obama went when he was in Hanoi. Arrived right as it was closing and ordered the only thing left on the menu – crab rolls, rice noodles, and this strange, but incredible, soup that tasted like apples. Walked back to the train station – while stopping to get bubble tea and use the shop’s wifi – and arrive right in time! Get on the train (which was amazing! So roomy, the seats reclined, there were sinks to brush your teeth, and there weren’t many passengers. Definitely recommend) and depart. Go to sleep.
Friday 10/20 – Wake up on the bus to the most beautiful view – sunrise and fog and Vietnam’s countryside (the scenery was gorgeous. There were lakes and rice fields and pagodas and mountains... breathtaking). Arrive in Hue around 11 am. Evade taxi drivers and stumble upon a very helpful travel agent type man, who tells us there’s a bus that goes to Hoi An, our next destination, at 1 pm. We decide to book it (there’s another bus that leaves at 4:30, but it’s more expensive), and figure out what to do for our two hours in Hue. Walk to the Imperial City, where we figure out we have to pay to get in aaand we only have 20 minutes max, so we just take some photos outside and grab food at an ice cream/noodle place. Get a taxi back to the train station, where a man meets us and drives us to a travel agency. Get on the bus to Hoi An (such a cool bus – there were three rows of single seats, but each reclined like a semi-bed, and there were two levels. So like... chair bunk beds...?) and drive 4 hours to Hoi An. Get dropped off on the side of the road. Immediately, we are approached by the owners of several hotels. After listening to each of them make their case (mostly talking over each other), we decide to go with Mrs. Flower, who seems trustworthy, offers us a private room in her guesthouse near the Old City, negotiates with us down to $5 each and volunteers to drive us there on her motorbike. Book the last room in Mrs. Flower’s guesthouse. Sit down to figure out our plans to get to Ho Chi Minh the next day. Realize that our options are very limited and give us almost no time in Hoi An or Ho Chi Minh – there’s a night bus that takes 24 hours and a 17 hour night train, but neither are great options as my flight leaves from Ho Chi Minh at 9:30 pm on Sunday. Have an exhausted mental breakdown (just me, actually. Ashlyn kept a very level head). Figure out that we can fly to Ho Chi Minh late the next night. Decide to do it, even though it costs more than either of us were planning on – yikes! Venture out into Hoi An to grab pho for dinner and (me) buy a bag of mint M&Ms that cost more that our hotel room for the night (oops. Stress eating?). Go to bed.
Saturday 10/21 – Spend the day enjoying Hoi An! Grab breakfast (pineapple pancakes and Vietnamese seafood pancakes). Walk to the Old City and explore – art galleries, the famous Japanese covered bridge, souvenir shops, coffee cafes, the marketplace, pagodas. It was so cute and fun! Go to the beach and relax. Walk back to town after a few hours and stop at a local restaurant on the way. Also stop for more bubble tea. Arrive back to our hotel and get picked up to go to the airport, which is the next town over in Da Nang. Get on our (delayed) flight to Ho Chi Minh and land at 2 am. Walk to our pre-booked hotel (only a 15 minute walk from the airport) and realize that it is not where Apple maps says it should be. Wander the streets of Ho Chi Minh, ask workers at other hotels and finally get a vague direction from someone and find more accurate directions on Google maps. Finally arrive at hotel and crash HARD.
Sunday 10/22 – Wake up early, but not on purpose (someone is hammering, and this hotel is a concrete echo chamber). Get ready and grab a taxi to the War Remnants Museum, where we spend a few hours (more on that later). Walk to the famous Lunch Lady, a very local restaurant popular with ex-pats. Arrive. Are unceremoniously ushered to a tiny table, asked a question in Vietnamese that we don’t understand, nod our heads yes and are promptly served a Vietnamese feast (so much amazing food! Huge bowls of pho, spring rolls, salad rolls and fried prawns). Walk to the Emperor Jade Pagoda (at first, we couldn’t find it, because it’s not as big of a tourist spot. It’s very local, and we observed many people worshipping there. It was beautiful, and unlike anything I’d ever seen! I expected it to be more like the Thai temples, which generally only have one room in the center for prayer. But this pagoda was two stories, with many rooms and passageways, all filled with incense and statues and paintings and symbols. It felt very sacred). Walk 30 minutes for bubble tea (it had become an obsession). Use the last of our Vietnamese Dong to get a taxi back to our hotel. Walk to airport. Say goodbye to Vietnam, and fly back to Bangkok. Go through immigration and find a place to sleep.
Monday 10/23 – Wake up in airport. Check in for flight, and grab Krispy Kreme (again). Fly back to Chiang Mai. Get a taxi home. Sleep for an hour, shower and go to work.
An exhausting and amazing trip!!!
More on the War Remnants Museum: I was absolutely wrecked by what I saw. The museum is amazing, well thought out and extremely powerful. I even shed a few tears.
The most poignant and heart wrenching exhibits were those on the US war crimes and Agent Orange, the chemical toxin sprayed across Vietnam. I never realized how absolutely brutal this war was – villages were massacred, down to the children. Innocent natives were tortured. And it wasn’t even that long ago – many of the children that were killed would’ve been my parents’ age. The ___ referred to it as a genocide on the Vietnamese people.
I don’t understand how this kind of violence can even happen. It blows my mind that people are capable, either through brainwashing or our own fallen nature, to dehumanize someone else to that extent.
The effects of the war are far reaching and long lasting as well. Even as recently as 2003, unexploded landmines were still killing and injuring locals. Agent Orange has caused genetic mutations and disabilities over four generations of people (US citizens included). It’s devastating. How long will it take to rebuild and recover from something like that?
The thing is, I don’t remember learning much about any of this stateside, in high school history classes or otherwise. I’m not sure if it was just because all my teachers ran out of time towards the end of the year to go into detail (the Cold War, Vietnam War and Korean War all kind of blurred together), or if our society simply refuses to widely acknowledge itself as an imperialist power capable of such destruction and devastation. Maybe a little of both? Either way, I’m glad to have seen it from the Vietnamese perspective.
One last story – while I was reading an exhibit on global activism against the war, I was approached by a young Vietnamese man. He asked me, in hesitant English, what I thought about the war – was it justified? Why did it happen? I explained that I didn’t agree with it, and was horrified by the senseless violence. He nodded his head and looked relieved. He told me he agreed – he didn’t understand either. He then introduced himself, asked me my name and told me he was a law student in Vietnam. He asked me where I was from, and when I said the US, he looked apologetic and a little uncomfortable. I waved my hands and tried to explain “it’s ok! It doesn’t mean I agree with the war!” We’re on the same side.
He looked relieved and we continued chatting. At the end, he told apologized for his English, and said that this was his first conversation in English with a foreigner. I was honored! Then he gave me a piece of Vietnamese candy, and we parted ways.