Vietnam has been high on my travel list for quite some time now and I have been counting down the days until I could finally venture my way into this phenomenal country. From the moment I arrived I knew it wouldn’t let me down. Culturally rich in heritage, traditions and history it has been a marvel every step of the way. We flew from KL direct to Hanoi, planning to start our journey in the heavily Communist North and work our way down to the oppressed but secretly liberal South.
Although we expected cooler weather, neither of us were prepared for the freezing nights of the North. Hanoi was not too bad, but we enlisted ourselves in a 3 night, 2 day trek to Sa Pa - a village even more North, almost bordering China. Luckily I bought a sweater and a huge scarf that doubled as a blanket at Zara in KL. These were probably the best buys of the trip thus far. I also had to get a second pair of pants to wear over my leggings. It was really freezing. Unfortunately, while I thought I was invincible and was yet to get sick, I did eventually fall victim to some nasty food poisoning. The timing couldn’t have been better… the food we had for dinner on our last night in KL did not sit well at all and it hit me the next morning during our travel time. Just as the plane ascended and the Fasten Seat Belt sign was switched on, there it was. Sophia and I were separated and no one could help me. I quickly reached for the Air Sick Paper bag, just in time. Lucky for me, there was a lovely Vietnamese girl sitting to my left who took it as her solemn duty to take care of me during this plane ride. She took her jumper and held it over me and then her scarf to make sure I was warm enough. She held my hair back and patted me on the back. At no point did she turn away or was she even slightly disgusted. She was just selflessly helping me. Afterwards I thanked her endlessly for her kindness and compassion. She said, “No worries. We are friends now” while smiling and with her arm around my back. I thought to myself, if this is Vietnamese culture then I can’t wait to be apart of that, at least temporarily.
I was still feeling a little under the weather so the first two days were write offs, we just walked around the city a little, exploring avenues of the Old Quarter. The communist mentality is very visible, with propaganda posters for sale everywhere. There is a certain harshness in the air, almost a depression. The people seem somewhat stressed, yet there is hardly any homelessness - something I find fascinating, that a country still developing and so poor can have so few homeless people in its city streets, a facet of Beijing also.
On the second day we booked a 3 night, 2 day trekking tour to Sa Pa, a town in North Western Vietnam, almost bordering China - famous for its Rice terraces. Lucky for me I felt a lot better by the time evening came. So we hopped on an overnight train, which was an experience in itself. My experience with overnight trains isn’t too extensive. I’ve just taken a few in Italy across country, which were great. I’ve heard terrible things about the trains in China, so I wasn’t sure what to expect here. But these trains were really great. They were right on the track so as we walked up I sort of felt like I was walking into a 1940s Russian Soviet Film. Where’s Eisenstein?
We got the soft sleeper, and it was actually really comfy! Great sleep. We arrived at about 6am and were transferred to a local hotel where we showered, had breakfast and rented gumboots for the trek. We heard it was going to be quite muddy and could only do the hike in either real hiking boots or gumboots. It was so strange to see how quickly we had left civilisation and entered this small town where the locals had their own attire. Apparently in Sa Pa there are several minority tribes which all speak their own languages and dress in their own traditional costume. On this trek we got to meet 2 different tribes - the H’mong tribe and the Red Dzay people. As we first entered Sa Pa, several H’mong ladies saw us through the bus window and waved, chasing the bus down the street, seeming fascinated by our Western faces. Perhaps they don’t get too many tourists here? Not completely true.
The actual hike was amazing. The first section was about 10km, and several H’mong ladies came with us, helping us through some of the more difficult roads. Apparently the deal is that they help you along the hike, and when you reach the next village they try to sell you something in exchange for their help. It’s currently winter in the North, apparent in the veil of mist that shrouds the mountainous fields. We stopped for lunch after 10km then hiked another 6km to get to the next village, where we slept the night in a homestay. The homestay was a wooden house (more of a shack, if you will) that belonged to a local family. There was no insulation. The house was made of a material thinner than most woods, but thicker than bamboo. The windows and doors were open. As previously mentioned it was quite cold, so when night fell the temperatures reached about 5-7 degrees Celsius I would assume. We had a great little group of 8. Mainly Australians. We played games of UNO and other card games. Then came the glorious time to home made rice wine with the family. This did not sit well with me, or one of the other girls. After 2 shots I stood my ground and refused more drinks, already regretting the 2nd shot. The boys finished 2 and a half bottles. Australians…..
In the middle of the night I found myself using every bit of strength in my being to get up off the floor, out of bed and go downstairs to the bathroom. This was not the most glamorous moment in my life. Getting sick (for the second time in 36 hours) in the middle of nowhere isn’t the easiest task. Luckily I had everything I needed.
It was incredible to see how these people live. A lot of the women in these tribes have taught themselves sentences in English, just from spending time with tourists. In essence they are farmers. I guess their husbands farm rice and other local produce. We also visited a few primary schools in some of the small villages. It was one of the most interesting experienced I’ve ever had.
Another essential, while in the North is the infamous Ha Long Bay - one of the wonders of the natural world, or at least freshly added to the list, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not apting for the Hanoi Backpackers (an Australian run party hostel) tour we decided to go for a quick day tour, with our Canadian friends we met in Boracay. While we heard the Hanoi Backpackers tour was amazing, we knew that it was just a massive booze cruise, and was also pretty pricey. I thought it would probably be best for my recovery if I didn’t go on a 3 day bender. The bay was misty as all hell and you couldn’t really see much, but I guess we knew that when we signed up. It was still spectacular, but quite similar to other Asian island destinations - such as El Nido, and Phi Phi Island.
Happy Hour in Hoi An
Finally we made our way to Hoi An - a lovely little town somewhere in the centre of Vietnam. This town is absolutely amazing. It oozes French Colonial charm and is supremely European in its style and its character. This town has so much personality you can’t help but fall in love with it. First off it’s so different to the enclosed, loud bustle of Hanoi. There is actual silence in Hoi An - a much appreciated facet when traveling, especially in Asia.
Everything about this town is charming. The buildings have these wooden shutters, that make you feel like you’re in a small French village. There is also a river in the middle of the town, with palm trees and a promenade on each side. It sort of resembles a Vietnamese Venice. There are wooden boats all along the river, with elderly Vietnamese men and women offering boat rides. There is one small foot bridge that connects both sides of the river, with lovely open air and outdoor cafes and double story restaurants that fill the promenade on each side. Also, the food here was ridiculous.
We met some girls from Melbourne on our first day in Hanoi that gave us some recommendations for Hoi An. They told us to go to a small canteen run by a woman named “Mrs. Loan” which turned out to be some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had in my life. Dirt cheap too. We ended up having dinner there, every - single - night. She made the specialty dishes of Hoi An, the “White Rose” and “Cao Lao” as well as “Fried Wantons” which aren’t the regular wantons you’re thinking of. They were a large triangle crisp, with a piece of chicken in the middle. Then on top was a selection of cut vegetables in this amazing marinate and a piece of duck on top. So, so amazing. All the dishes were incredible and about $1-$1.50 per dish. Crazy, right?
Hoi An is also known as “Tailor Town” because you can get pretty much anything made here. Clothes, shoes, bags - you name it. You show them a photo, they can make it, in 12 hours or less. Sophia read that originally there were something like 70 tailors in the town, but now business is really difficult because there are over 620 tailors. If you ever go, make sure you go to “Yaly Couture”. Unfortunately for us we didn’t actually find the place until our last few hours in town. We heard of it but couldn’t locate it. You pay a little more but you get what you pay for. The quality is superb - trust me, my mum’s a tailor. They have sample dresses in the window though so I tried 2 of them on, just for funsies and lucky for me, they fit absolutely perfectly down to the T! So I YOLO’d and I bought them both.
You could spend ages here, it’s just so incredible. Also, the best Banh Mi (Vietnamese Rolls) ever. Ooooouuu! And Vietnamese Coffee. I’ve had a few so far but the one we had on the street today was just incredible. And it was only 50 cents. You really can’t get better than that!
Every night along the river little girls and elderly women sell lanterns with candles for you to let go on the river. So the river is full of floating lanterns. It’s really just beautiful - I don’t think photos could do it justice. And every hour is Happy Hour! When they try to sell you something they say it’s “Happy Hour”. Indeed it is, every hour is Happy Hour in Hoi An.