A few days before departing Kathmandu A&P asked me what destination I had planned next. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, but I really was not sure. They were heading next to Vietnam and asked if I had no other plans, would I want to join them? I had worried that I had become a bit of a third wheel – but they liked me, they really liked me. I agreed.
I flew out of Kathmandu a few days before them so that I could secure my Vietnamese visa and flights from a Khao San Road travel shop. So I did not learn that P had visited an American clinic in Kathmandu and learned she was suffering from both dysentery and food poisoning – and I likely had had the same – until after we met up in Bangkok for our flight to Ho Chi Minh.
Welcome to Vietnam! My friends A&P and I hung back at bit at the airport a bit hesitant to throw ourselves into the throng of people waiting to whisk us off. One guy in particular was persuasive so we went with him. We get to his cab and it’s not a cab. It’s his private car. Oh well, his price sounds reasonable so we put our things in the trunk. He purposely leaves the trunk open as he strides to the front door. We don’t like that – what if we stop at an intersection and someone opens the trunk and makes off with our bags – so we shut the trunk. Oops – the driver just realized his key broke off in the trunk lock. He cannot open the car doors or the trunk; we cannot get our bags out of the trunk. The guy sends a friend on a mission – he returns with superglue to try to glue the key back together…and amazingly it works. We switch to a real taxi, the friend of the first guy. We ask him if it is the same price. He doesn’t answer. He switches on the meter. We ask him again. No answer. Alright. We arrive and the meter says 48,000 dong. We pay 48,000 dong and he is upset we do not pay double. Why use the meter then? And suddenly the guy speaks English. We grab our bags and walk away. We are already tired and we have only been in the country about an hour.
Our first full day is an adventure, but not for the lighthearted. We take a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong dug some 250 kilometers of underground tunnels. We watch an old movie about the brave Cu Chi people killing Americans and winning “American Killer Awards.” We get to walk (or rather stoop) our way through the tunnels and see some innovative torturous traps build by the Cu Chi people. The tunnels are only about 40 centimeters wide and 80 centimeters high, but also join to meeting rooms, kitchens, sleeping rooms and such, as well as consisting of three levels. It is an amazing display of what people can endure to fight for what they believe in. It is also very sobering. The weapons they fashioned from recycled American weapons were clever and terrifying. Then we arrive at a shooting range where tourists can shoot a couple of rounds of an AK-47 or an M-16 or some handguns for just $1 a bullet! I decline this amazing opportunity and put some tissue in my ears. On our way back we visit the War Crimes Museum, now renamed something like the War Remnants Museum.
We had wanted to leave the following day north to Nha Trang but the bus that day was full, so we instead took that day to rest. We had also heard that people get hassled on the beach in Nha Trang so we first headed to the quiet beach town of Mui Ne for two days to rest up. At Mui Ne we stayed in tents on the beach and it was indeed quiet. Just sand and surf and a few backpacker areas.
Nha Trang was crowded. The touts were out in force. It was near impossible to relax on the beach without being pestered. I refused to take the much touted all-day backpacker boat trip. Given that I have very fair skin, do not eat sea food, a healthy fear of the ocean, and have a low tolerance for stupidity, I could not stand the thought of spending hours on a boat, likely burning to a crisp, with a bunch of boozed foreigners, swimming in the ocean and then being “treated” to a seafood lunch. Instead P and I both had traditional Vietnamese dresses made and we all visited the Cham ruins and the Ba Ho Waterfalls.
The waterfalls were cool – both the scenery and the water – but the problem of unwelcome requests, even demands, for money took away from the enjoyment. A boy started carrying P’s bag at the waterfall. He just appeared out of nowhere and we surmised he was our guide included in the entrance fee. I started to wonder whether he was going to ask for money but seeing as hour our guild for the day tolerated him, I thought maybe it was okay. But when we arrived back at the entrance the boy demanded 10,000 dong from each of us, although he had carried only one of our bags. As usual it seems a good time cannot be had without the locals asking for some money, often for nothing to do with us. And everyone is in on it from little children to seniors.
I completely understand the desire for everyone to try to make some money, not only to make ends meet but to provide extra for their families. I tried very hard to keep this in perspective, but there are times when too much of it day after day can wear down even the most generous of travelers. In retrospect, I read these complaints in my diary and recall some of them with the trigger to memory, but for the most part I forgot these annoyances and remember mostly that I enjoyed Vietnam immensely.
A&P and I parted ways for a few days as they had a week longer in Vietnam than I did. I headed from Nha Trang to Danang of China Beach fame, then the lovely and quiet Hoi An with its unique Japanese covered bridge and on to historic Hue. There I took a tour on the Perfume River visiting three royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty, a temple, and Thien Mu pagoda.
Next I took an overnight bus from Hue to Hanoi. We departed at 7 pm and it was to take us some 14 hours to get to Hanoi, or so the brochure said. I wondered about our two drivers, it seemed only one was a driver and the other one had the job of keeping the driver awake as he seemed too young to have a license. That should have given me pause, and well it did, but not enough to get off the bus.
At some point in the night, around 4 am we were all jolted awake with some pretty loud thumbs and crashes, some screeching breaks, and finally our bus falling into a large ditch in the middle of the road. It would seem there was a road block of sorts set up for repairing the road, but the driver (and his assistant) were a little too tired and/or the road too dark to see the several “road closed” signs and we crashed through several barriers before landing in the two to three foot hole. We were lucky no one was seriously injured!
We all climbed out of the bus to survey the damage but it was pitch-black, middle of the night, and little could be seen. As luck would have it a small road side restaurant happened to be just across the street from our accident site – and even at that early hour was open. It was simple, coffee and tea, very basic bathroom facilities, and once 6 am came around they offered simple Vietnamese breakfasts that involved French bread, eggs, rice, and the like. During our forced rest stop, the driver, assistant, and some random locals worked to free the bus. It took several hours and it was probably 8 am before we were back on the road again. However, the driver must have been keen to make up time and he barreled down the roads, emboldened by daylight and coffee. I was exhausted but a little afraid to fall asleep. Just as I was doing so the driver plowed right into a dog on the road. There was no hesitation, no reduction in speed; he did not swerve at all. I just wanted off that bus.
Once in Hanoi I booked a three day, two night trip into Halong Bay. This was a fairly big deal for me as I knew I would be trapped on a boat with some party-types for some period of time but it seemed the best way to get out to the bay.
Yesterday before the five hour trek through Cat Ba National Park we stopped at a cave which had been transformed into a base of operations for the Viet Minh. The cave was built into a bunker with the help of the Chinese from 1960 to 1964. Inside the cave we had a local guide, a man who had served in the war. He sang us a military song and demonstrated how he took out enemy planes by shooting his arm up and down toward the ceiling while making blast noises. I realized though that he is a veteran of war just like any other veteran; he is probably pretty happy retelling his stories of valor and excitement to foreigners.
What I recall most of the Halong Bay adventure was the giant black and white mosquitoes I referred to as Zebras who buzzed and bit relentlessly during the hot and sweaty five hour hike. I also remember that the swim in the bay was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated and I got in and swam despite my fear. I thankfully forgot how much travel time the whole thing took – at least a four hour drive from Hanoi to Halong City and then a four hour boat ride from Halong City to Cat Ba island.
Back in Hanoi I reunited with A&P – we rendezvoused to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chin Minh and to see a show of the traditional Vietnamese art form of water puppets. We saw Uncle Ho and the Puppets and decided should we ever form a band that this would be an excellent name. It was kind of creepy to see Uncle Ho because he has been dead for 30 years, but it looks like he is just taking a nap. The puppets were enchanting and really unique.
We also visited the Ho Chi Minh museum, Quan Thanh temple, and the Temple of Literature.
And then it was time to depart; it was not only the end of my three weeks in Vietnam but it ended my eleven months of travel from Finland through the Baltics, then Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans, to North Africa and finally to Asia. So many border crossings and currencies and cultures. Planes, trains, boats, buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cyclos, camels, horses and elephants, and lots of walking long distances on my own two feet. I was swindled and threatened; I was the subject of a lot of male harassment; I was attacked by dogs; I developed a lifelong intestinal condition; I had food poisoning. I also made friends, heard some incredible stories, saw amazing sunrises and sunsets, visited places of extraordinary history and/or beauty, fell in love, and pushed myself physically and mentally on a remarkable journey of a lifetime.
I did return to Bali for two more weeks to collect my things, do some final shopping, and make some promises I could not keep, then it came time to head to Monterey, California to begin graduate school and start the next chapter.
Thanks for this series – I really enjoyed it! Reminded me of some of my own central Europe and SE Asia backpacking adventures :-). And got some ideas for some new travels (decidedly less backpacker-y I think these days, though!).
Thank you for reading! It is good to hear these are fun to read and gave you some ideas. I really enjoyed going back through my pictures and journal and few emails to piece these back together. I too am rather less backpacker-y these days. 15 years, a government job, and a child have a way of changing travel habits – though I still have some backpacker tendencies. 🙂