I came to Vietnam with low expectations and unsure of what I would find. Through Thailand I heard people argue passionately about their love or loathing of this country. I visited Vietnam briefly 6 years ago, and although an intimidating country I did not remember having developed any seriously negative conceptions. So I arrived with an open but unsure mind, ready for more adventure!
I met my long time friend Alyssa in Ho Chi Minh after a relatively painless flight from Thailand. I say relatively painless, because I have discovered it there is a law of science that prevents me from traveling smoothly. This time my trouble came when I accidentally re-entered the country of Thailand illegally after receiving my exit stamp. It was a little bit harrowing trying to talk my way out of that one, with immigration officials who were thoroughly perplexed by my ability to have accomplished this. After a few tears (I think I made them nervous), I was allowed to once again exit the country, this time with an escort. So, Alyssa is joining me for a brief 2 week tour of Vietnam before returning to the states for Christmas. I haven’t seen Alyssa for 3 years, but we are lucky enough to share a friendship that picks up right where it left off! She was one of my closest friends in my teenage years, and there’s a lot to be said about that.
Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon, as it is still referred to by the Vietnamese) is a big, loud, busy city. It is the most modernized of the country’s cities and acts as a hub for education, business, and politics. Here, we enjoyed a self guided walking tour of the crowded, terrifying streets; a gut wrenching lesson on the Vietnam war; and our first taste of local food and booze! Walking around the city was fun and slightly hilarious. If you have not heard, there is an art to crossing the street in Vietnam and it is not for the faint hearted. Unfortunately, until you figure it out, you’re not going to make it very far. The technique is something of a cross your fingers and hope for the best, while walking steadily and confidently to the other side of the road. The very worst thing you can do is stop or change your pace. Literally, you just have to hope for the best and GO. There is no break in the traffic and no one gives a sh*t if you’re standing at a crosswalk patiently. You just gotta go. This is usually successful because just as badly as you don’t want to get hit by a car/motorbike, they don’t want to hit you. So far so good for us newbies. After making our way across the crazy chaos of HCMC streets, we spent our afternoon at the Vietnam War museum. Though it was an incredibly biased portrayal of the events of this devastating war, it was eye opening nonetheless. Both Alyssa and I felt ashamed about how little we really knew about this travesty. Somehow it seems to always be overlooked during high school history classes. In the evening we enjoyed fresh spring rolls with some new friends from Australia, Holland, and England. The food was delicious, but a lot more daunting than some of the countries I have been in. Pig’s ear salad, anyone? We finished our day in HCMC with a few drinks on the street, before boarding a 1am bus north to Dalat. This was the first ‘bunk bed’ bus I have ever been on and it was pretty hilarious. There are literally 3 rows of bunk beds with reclining seats. Generally, they would tolerable for one night’s sleep. However, on this particular bus, sleep was hard to come by as our driver felt in neccesary to drive 1,000 miles per hour and honk his absurdly loud horn every 3 seconds. I did not exagerate any of those things. Needless to say, after arriving in Dalat at 6am we spent the next 3 hours in bed.
Dalat is known as ‘the little paris’ of Vietnam. Like much of Vietnam, it is highly influenced by french architecture and design. It is a nice town up in the hills of Central Vietnam and has a particularly unique climate. They say that Dalat typically experiences all 4 seasons in one day. I found this to be mostly accurate. Unfortunately, we only had a day in Dalat but it was a charming place and is a great base for adventure activities in the surrounding hills. On this visit, our adventure of choice was motorcycles. After advice from a friend and reading up on the famed ‘easy riders’ of Dalat, we were on a mission to find a man with a motorcycle. Well, turns out these men are everywhere in Dalat and there is no longer one established group of ‘easy riders’. Easy riders are a group of guides who specialize in taking tourists to the more untouched parts of Vietnam by way of motorcycle. In the past, this was a very well recognized ‘club’. These days there are many copy cats (the asian rule of thumb is generally- if someone else finds success, I will copy them and also find success) and it can be difficult to discern who actually knows how to guide a succesful motorcycle tour. So, with some trepidation, Alyssa and I headed out on a hunt for our easy rider. We didn’t look far (at all.) until fate intervened and we were introduced to the most perfect man. His name was Loc and his resume is as follows: he is 62 (going on 90), has 2 teeth, he smiles with his whole face, has a wicked laugh, and the most sarcastic sense of humor. He spent 7 years with the special forces of the US army during the Vietnam war, during which time he picked up a few dirty jokes and a very bad smoking habit. He has a wife whom is shaped like a square (his words) and a cat who’s name he does not know. He eats only chicken and rice, and sometimes eggs. Vegetables are the devil and as he inhales his 30th cigarette of the day he refuses to drink his soup broth because it contains MSG. This is a man who has his mind made up and his priorities straight. For Alyssa and I, it was love at first sight and we knew he’d be our guide even before he handed over his volumes of tattered, leather bound reviews authored by the satisfied tourists who had come before us.
Loc and his friend Do picked us up at 8am the next morning. I settled in to my seat- squeezed comfortably in-between Do and my plastic wrapped backpack, which found its home bungee corded to the rear of the bike. With Loc and Alyssa in the lead, we were off on our 4 day adventure of the Central Highlands! This turned out to be one of the more incredible experiences of my lifetime. If any of you (at any age) find yourselves in Vietnam, an easy rider tour is not something to be missed. I do have both Loc and Do’s contact information… if you’re ever in the area. Our 4 days were filled with backroads, beautiful scenery, every farm/factory/craft shop tour you could imagine, surprised locals, and delicious although slightly suspicious appearing food. Loc was the boss, but Do was the Vietnamese encyclopedia. I learned SO much about the country, its people, and its history. There is such a rich culture here. I have little experience with motorcycles, and spending 4 days on the back of one was about the most fun I could imagine. What a unique way to see a country! After day 1, we didn’t see another tourist and we were truly immersed in Vietnamese life. The people we met were so friendly and a bit taken aback to see 2 really white girls cruising down the street. I swear a few people went off the road trying to get a good look at Alyssa, who stuck out in stark contrast to her dark skinned, well weathered chauffeur who was at least 2 feet shorter than her. The people in this part of the country were some of the friendliest I have met; inviting us into their homes for tea, complementing our pale complexions (not something to envy), and laughing with us about who knows what. Some of my favorite stops included: a silk factory (I even ate a silk worm. ew.), a weasel poop coffee farm (you read that right), the Ho Chi Minh trail (an amazing place to step foot, given it’s history), the dirt trails surrounded by miles of rice paddies (and as a result, a limitless supply of potent rice wine), a minority village’s weekend market (here, I was made to feel like Angelina Jolie- people literally just wanted to touch me), more than one breathtaking waterfall, and the many hole in the wall food establishments with highly questionable meat dishes (it’s hilarious I started this asian adventure as a vegetarian). This would have been the ideal journey to have strapped a go pro to my head, but alas I was only armed with an iPhone (apparently knock off Nikon products purchased in Thailand work only for a few days, lesson learned.) to document this unique perspective. These are a few of our amazing moments:
We completed our journey in the horribly hedonistic beach resort town of Nha Trang. Upon arriving we were immediately relieved to have bus tickets arranged to leave just a few hours later. We spent our short time here with our toes in the sand, getting cheap back rubs and succumbing to the persistent hawkers selling handmade jewelry. The more obnoxious these vendors are, the more you are generally willing to pay them to go away. A sales technique they have perfected. We boarded the bus and made a significantly more comfortable overnight trip to Hoi An, about 10 hours north. This driver must have had a screw loose or something, because he actually drove under the speed limit and neglected to use his horn. I was confused.
Well, for now I will stop here and share more on our northern adventures later. Hope you all have survived your Christmas shopping. It’s been a little bit more fun picking out presents on the streets of Vietnam than my usual last minute battle at the mall. I will say that there is no lack of Christmas trees in Vietnam. Plastic of course, but beautiful nonetheless! Unfortunately (but understandably), the Vietnamese have not adopted the holiday cheer that is felt so warmly in the States at this time of year. I do miss it and might actually be forced to download a Mariah Carey Christmas album just to fill this holiday void. Ho Ho Ho! (Chi Minh)!