Southeast Asia: Vietnam

*To read about the first part of our two-month trip, see Southeast Asia: The Philippines, Southeast Asia: Malaysia, and Southeast Asia: Thailand.

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Oh Vietnam. You are cruel, unforgiving and absolutely beautiful.

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We spent the last 14 days of our two-month adventure in Vietnam. Things were a little rocky from the beginning. The airport staff wouldn’t let us on the plane to Vietnam because the embassy didn’t send us all of our VISA papers…a fact we learned as our plane was boarding. We missed the plane and ended up spending an extra $150 to get on another flight…

Everywhere else we’d traveled in Asia hadn’t been too difficult getting around. People spoke enough English for basic communication. But nope, not Vietnam. It was a constant game of charades everywhere we went… Ordering a meal? Oh hello stinky tuna soup, we actually meant to order spring rolls.

We started our adventure in Southern Vietnam in the Mekong River Delta. We stayed at a homestay for a few days with a cute man named Thai and his family. They were all so sweet, helpful and accommodating. We had fun just relaxing at their home and exploring the area.

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Thai’s wife was an excellent cook and made us feast after feast of seafood, fresh fruit (the Mekong Delta is famous for their fruit), fried spring rolls and noodles.

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While we were there, we took a river and bike tour with Thai’s friend Ho. He was the sweetest 82-year-old who took us all over to show us the sights. He pointed out fruit trees and bought us icy cold sugar cane juice.

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My favorite part of the river tour was when it got dark and the fireflies came out. The Mekong River Delta is famous for its fireflies, and it definitely upheld that reputation for us. I’m talking hundreds of fireflies lighting up the trees like it was Christmas time.

We also spent a full day on a scooter tour through the back roads of the Mekong Delta. We ended up at a floating market, where the boats advertise their products by tying them to the end of a stick on their roof.

Of course my personal favorite was the fruit boat…

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On the way home from the floating market we stopped at an animal market where they sell any and every type of meat you can imagine. Our guide (Eie) bought us two big snakes, and Thai’s wife cooked them up for dinner that night. Besides being a little bony, they tasted pretty dang good. Beth and I ate all of it while the boys watched in disgust…

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Our next stop after the Mekong Delta was the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were built during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese women, children and soldiers lived down in the tunnels for years…we got to crawl through them and experience the cramped, dirty tunnels first-hand. No wonder the Vietnamese don’t love us Americans…

Up until that point, we’d felt very welcomed by the Vietnamese people. This all changed at the tunnels. People were straight up rude to us. They wouldn’t let us buy a shuttle pass and everyone tried to cut in front of us in line.

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While we were there, we got to shoot a M60 machine gun, which was both a cool and terrifying experience.

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Our next stop was Hanoi, where we began the most thrilling, difficult and beautiful journey yet. We rented motor scooters to drive up to Sa Pa, which was a four or five day trip. What we didn’t account for was the blazing sun, uncomfortable scooter seats and maniac drivers.

Within 15 minutes of leaving Hanoi, a cop pulled us over, took us into a little building and had us sit in chairs while he waved his baton at us. He told us we weren’t allowed to drive scooters on the bridge we were on, while Vietnamese people cruised across the bridge on their scooters. He told us he would “punish” us with a fine. It was obviously a complete scam to try and take advantage of us ignorant American tourists. When we refused to pay him, he threatened to take our scooters. We told him to go ahead and take them…

Eventually he got bored and let us go, but that was just the beginning of our adventures on the scooters.

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The first day of driving was just plain MISERABLE. I’ve never felt so heat stroked and vulnerable. The truck drivers treat scooters like ants…little creatures in their way, easily disposed of by running them off the road or just blatantly running them over…

We were truly scared for our lives. Drivers don’t look before they pull out in front of you, they don’t bother to signal when they change lanes, they run through red lights like it’s no big deal, and they pass cars around blind corners. We saw multiple accidents along the road, but the toppled gas tanker was by far the worst…

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We learned the hard way that in a battle between a motor scooter and speeding Vietnamese truck, the truck always wins. Beth and Andrew were rounding a blind corner when a giant truck came hauling around the corner in their lane while it tried to pass another car. Andrew swerved out of its way, which threw off his balance, and down they went.

Hard.

The truck didn’t even bother stopping.

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It was so scary to watch them sprawling across asphalt, their scooter skidding along beside them. Luckily there were no broken bones or serious injuries…just some gnarly road rash.

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At this point, we had no choice but to continue up toward Sa Pa. We drove slowly and were very careful around corners. We stopped for a few days in Mu Cang Chai, which ended up being one of my favorite places in Vietnam. It’s a little town in the middle of nowhere. The people there are part of an indigenous tribe called the H’mong, so they look and dress a little differently than the typical Vietnamese.

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We were the only white people there, and not one person spoke a lick of English. The struggle of finding a hostel and ordering food was comical…

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We explored the gorgeous rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai for a day or two, and then headed up to Sa Pa. The drive was incredible. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places in my life, but I’ve got to say that Northern Vietnam is a tough competitor for number one.

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We spent a few days in Sa Pa, which was much more touristy than anywhere else in Vietnam, but had a fun atmosphere, good food and ENGLISH SPEAKERS! We explored more of the gorgeous terraces on our scooters, took some hikes and met some adorable people. The kids loved Pat playing magic tricks for them. Where do those rocks disappear to?!

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We decided to take the train back to Hanoi rather than braving the 10-hour scooter ride on deadly highways…

Once in Hanoi we headed to Tam Coc for more river tours, (the women steer the boats with their feet!), scooter rides, gorgeous scenery and hiking. Pat attempted the foot-steer method and ended up taking us in circles. Apparently it’s harder than it looks.

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On our way back from Tam Coc, the bus driver dropped the four of us off on the side of the freeway and told us to walk down the exit ramp. I guess they didn’t want to bother pulling off the freeway for four Americans…

For the finale of our two-month trip, we met up with our friends Shelby and Joey for a luxurious cruise through Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. We spent the next two days kayaking around gorgeous rock formations, eating gourmet five-course meals, attempting Tai Chi on the top deck at sunrise, jamming to Karaoke (Pat has a secret talent when it comes to Karaoke…) and enjoying late night card-game sessions.

Such a fun way to end our vacation…

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Vietnam was rough to say the least. But honestly, that’s what I loved about it. It’s an untouched, hidden gem that presents an exciting challenge for the English-speaking American backpacker. The ruggedness of its culture and landscape fascinated me, and I would highly recommend putting Vietnam at the top of your destination list. Just be prepared for a wild game of charades and a lot of horn honking…

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Coming Next: How to travel Asia on a budget.

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4 thoughts on “Southeast Asia: Vietnam

    1. You should definitely go at some point! I’m predicting that it’ll start to get more and more touristy in the next few years, so go before everyone else figures out how beautiful it is. 🙂

  1. I read a lot of trip reports but those of you are very good! Not to much blabla and 10 posts for one city.
    It gives a clear view about the Country. Thanks for that

    1. Tim,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed reading my reviews! As an avid traveler, I know first hand how helpful it is to learn from those who have already been there, so I’m so glad my experiences can help others plan their own travels and adventures!

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