In 10 days, we traveled from southern to northern Vietnam making stops in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon), Da Lat, Da Nang, Hoi An, Hanoi, and Sa Pa (just 7km from the China border). We took four internal flights, two sleeper bus rides, a cable car, a historic train ride, a minivan, a few taxis, bike rides, waterfall hikes and treks, and a lot of walking. It was really hot in the south and quite cold in the north, with some neutral temperatures in between. The bigger cities of Saigon, Da Nang and Hanoi are very crowded with traffic that will make your head spin and crossing the street is a risky adventure. I’m sure there are legit traffic laws, but it’s hard to understand them when there are no clear lanes and drivers can travel just about any direction they feel like, including on the sidewalk. The key is to respect the pecking order (buses, vans, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians) and once you step into the street, don’t stop. Just say a little prayer and weave your way through the madness and horns – it helps if you use a local as your human shield when they cross. The honking is constant in the big cities, but it’s not the sort of honking you encounter in the states, rather it’s just a little honk honk, beep beep to alert drivers of their proximity to each other and a possible indication of their next move, whatever that direction may be. Needless to say, it can become quite deafening after a while, so it was a nice treat in the smaller towns of Da Lat, Hoi An and Sa Pa where there is less traffic and noise.
Da Lat is a romantic town where the Vietnamese honeymooners go, so we enjoyed watching all the couples taking selfies and strolling around town. We hiked waterfalls, took a cable car ride to a monastery, rode an old train to a pagoda, toured the Crazy House, dined at Le Chalet Da Lat and stayed at a hostel in a private room above a pizza joint (which actually had fantastic breakfast and good pizza). Hoi An was one of our favorite places, so much so that we ended up staying two extra nights and skipping our trip to Hue. We truly had a local experience with our homestay hosts who took us on the back of their motorbikes to their favorite coffee shop, and took Danica out to dinner with their friends (I wasn’t feeling well, so after they returned from dinner, our hosts made me rice soup and ginger tea). While in Hoi An, we toured the Ancient Town, did a bike tour around the Duy Vinh islands, went to the beach, hiked Marble Mountain, and ate a lot of really good food, including many local dishes such as Cao Lau, a regional speciality in Hoi An. We had quite a different homestay experience in Sa Pa where we had no heater and lots of rain, but warmed ourselves with loads of ginger tea and heavy comforters after a full day of trekking the terraced rice fields and local villages through dense fog. Our host was not as welcoming, but he did serve up some great food and we met a lovely artist from London who paints while she travels.
Danica was set to leave Vietnam two days before me to meet up with her boyfriend George, who was coming to travel with us in Myanmar for two weeks, and I was going to spend one night in the old quarter in Hanoi and take an overnight cruise on Halong Bay the following night before flying out to meet them. However, the cruise was cancelled the afternoon before (likely due to weather and low booking as a result of the fog and rain, although I was told it was because of mandatory government testing), yet somehow I managed to get on Danica’s flight to Yangon, book a room at a quaint hotel a few buildings down from their sold-out hotel, and board the flight even though there was a typo on my visa that had to be approved via email by the immigration office in Yangon before my ticket would be issued (about an hour before the plane took off!).
One of the highlights from our trip was at the start in Saigon where we met up with an expat named Eric who owns the condo unit next door to the one I was renting in Santa Monica before I left on this trip. He has lived there for the past five years with his wife and son, and is a wealth of knowledge about the country, and traveling in general. He took us to The Old Compass Cafe for lunch, where we dined on the day’s set menu: vegetables, pork meatballs, mushrooms with garlic, steamed rice and amaranth soup. After lunch, he spent two hours out of his Saturday afternoon giving us a tour that included many historical buildings that were prominent during the Vietnam War, such as the Rex Hotel, Caravelle Hotel, Continental Hotel, Park Hyatt, and the Royal Palace. One of the things that stuck with me was our discussion about the younger Vietnamese generation and how they don’t really know or learn much about the war, and that most of the older generation doesn’t really care to discuss the past, they just want to move on. I think this is evident by the recent name change of the War Remnants Museum, which was formerly called The American War Crimes Museum (tough to see, but a must), and the newly offered e-visa to increase tourism, which saves about $100 for foreigners from select countries (US included) and a long line at customs. During our tour, Eric explained to us, “the Vietnamese think like they drive; they never look back, they always look forward”.