My experience of Vietnam - the realm of diversity
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
It was February 3rd, 2020, and it was raining. Occasionally, there was a flash of lightning, and thunder rolled through the sky. Darkness engulfed the streets of Hanoi, and I was shivering in the cold air. I have just flown in from the warm and cozy Luang Prabang in Laos. Vietnam, for now, proved to be nothing of the sort.
On the Vietnam Airlines flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, I've put on a surgical protective mask over my face for the first time during my travels. It was an apex moment - I remember thinking: "well, there is no turning back now", and I was right. COVID-19 was commencing its global march and Vietnam shares a long, porous border with China. On arrival to Hanoi international airport, we were greeted by a thermal camera and employees in protective gear, staring rigorously at their monitors. There were separate customs lines for Chinese nationals. We waited for a long time to get our visas, with each passenger's name and photo appearing on a screen to signify that visa formalities were completed. Finally, my name appeared. I trundled through the customs and located the baggage claim area. We were waiting for our visas for so long that our flight was not even listed on the baggage carousels list anymore, meaning I had to go from one carousel to the next and look for my stuff. Luckily, I found it fast and zoomed towards the exit.
No, Vietnam has definitely not greeted me with open arms and a welcoming, warm smile. It was more like a reserved handshake and a reluctant nod, like someone who is suspicious of your intentions or uneasy about your presence. We were off to a bad start, and things were about to get even worse before they would get better.
I do not have the best memory of Vietnam's capital. Almost the entire 6 days I was there, it was raining or drizzling. It was chilly. For the first time in 2 months of traveling, I had to fish out my jacket from the bottom of my bag. The air quality in Hanoi is terrible (I assume the bad weather and low air pressure exacerbated this), and especially in the night, the air literally stinks of, well, everything. Dispensed food, exhaust fumes, garbage, excrements, chemicals, smoke, and a myriad of other scents compound into the special "Hanoi aroma" which insults your nostrils. It is everpresent, and you cannot shake it off until you step somewhere inside into an air-conditioned space.
To make things even worse, my first dinner in Hanoi resulted in the only food poisoning I got during 5 months of traveling through south-east Asia. My initial plan was to stay in Hanoi for 3 days, but getting sick anchored me down for additional 3 days of staying in my hostel/hotel room, waiting for the storm in my intestines to pass, occasionally swearing and cursing as if it would make me feel better.
Before and after the poisoning, I did manage to see the main sights in Hanoi, like the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum, the Military History Museum, the Train Street, etc., all of which are very interesting and engaging. The thing I most enjoyed, however, was simply wandering around the famous Old Quarter, the heart of Hanoi. Navigating its endless alleyways, taking in the hustle and bustle of a myriad of little businesses, shops and food stands; getting lost in a labyrinth of super-narrow tiny corridors connecting the main streets while encountering curious "what are you doing here?" looks from the locals, yet always accompanied with a polite smile and never aggressive or imposing. To top it off, you can enjoy a good drink at one of the rooftop bars and overlook the busy streets below (miraculously, it was not raining that night).
Another highlight of Hanoi and its surroundings is definitely a one day trip to the famous Halong Bay. The latter is a truly impressive feat of nature, with hundreds of loaf-like islets protruding sharply from the surface of the sea, hidden bays and spectacular viewpoints. Although the weather was not perfectly clear, it was a worthwhile trip nonetheless. Surprisingly, the usual crowds of tourists were nowhere to be seen - I assume it was partly due to the weather, but partly also due to the corona-induced fear of traveling, which was beginning to seep into people's minds.
When I recovered from the poisoning, I left Hanoi and set off towards the very north of Vietnam, to Ha Giang province. The town of Ha Giang was the departure point for my most heavily anticipated adventure in Vietnam: the Ha Giang Loop. You can read more about this exciting trip in a separate post.
Vietnam is so large that, if you want to traverse the full length of it and see even just the main sights, it would take more than 3 weeks (which I had planned), especially if you do not fly. I had to be further south by the 15th at the latest, since my brother was flying in from Europe for a two week holiday. The Ha Giang loop and the unexpected illness in Hanoi shaved 10 days off my schedule, thus I had to shorten the list of planned destinations in central and south Vietnam and also omit traveling overland, scheduling a few flights instead. But one destination I was not going to miss was Hoi An: the "City of lights".
Hoi An is a little gem of a city (town, really), where one can truly relax. It is a remarkably well-preserved example of a south-east Asian port town. Dating back into the 15th century, it was a town of wealthy merchants, traders, and craftsmen. The old center with its charming streets lined with old wooden buildings invites you to explore it. Foodies will feast in the many excellent restaurants offering local and international delicacies. When the night falls over Hoi An, the Thu Bon river canal and promenades on its banks are lit up by thousands of colorful lanterns and lights. Decorated facades, houses, trees, bridges, embankments, they all sparkle in vibrant colors and offer a truly mesmerizing sight to behold. Even the river lights up with numerous lantern-garnished boats, offering a quiet romantic ride for couples, albeit not very private since it is within everyone's sight.
Flat as a pancake, the surroundings of Hoi An are perfect for exploring on a bicycle or motorbike, swooshing through rice fields and taking a break from it on Hoi An's beautiful sandy beaches and beach bars. The Marble mountains and the Ba Na Hills, both a short ride from Hoi An, are also worth a visit. Ba Na hills is basically a fairyland build on top of a mountain, where you are taken by one of the world's longest cable car rides, over a thick jungle canopy spreading below. It has a few quite impressive features, like a golden bridge held b huge hands. Unfortunately, on the day we were there, it was all engulfed in thick cloud cover, so we could not enjoy the view. Nonetheless, the fog and the cold it added to the experience of being in a chic medieval French mountain village, which it is an impressum of.
One of the crafts that Hoi An is famous for is tailor-made clothing. Countless tailor shops offer clothes at very attractive prices. There are so many of them, it indeed very difficult to choose which one to go to. Which ones are bad, which ones are good? After checking numerous windows and their displayed products, my brother and I were still at a loss. At that instance, a lady approached us in the street, asking if we were looking for a tailor. Used to being constantly harassed by pushy sellers, we mumbled something vague and waved her off. But she was persistent, and it was obviously clear to her that we were, in fact, looking for a tailor shop. After following us a couple of meters, chattering about her aunt's shop and decisively ignoring the fact that we were ignoring her, I gave up and talked to her - she was in fact quite friendly and not overly intrusive. She gave us some details and references and explained that her aunt's tailor shop is a long-standing and esteemed one. We thanked her for the info and said we shall contemplate it and maybe stop by later - at which point she nodded in agreement and said goodbye, with a wide smile and a wave. This struck me as a particularly nice gesture on her part: not insisting we come over immediately and not being too pushy or intrusive. We made a quick online search for the shop and checked reviews on google, and it seemed to confirm what she was saying. We went to have a look. The crowd in the shop persuaded us that it must indeed be a desirable one, and since the prices were not the lowest, it meant the customers are here due to the quality of the products, not just for a bargain. In a matter of minutes, we were being measured by two young, blushing, giggling and chattering seamstresses. Despite the playful appearance, you could see they were skilled at their job. The bustled shop was supervised and kept in check by a very austere-looking elderly lady, who was obviously the main authority. I assumed this was the "aunt" and in fact, she was. She was constantly circling around, checking, supervizing, providing advice and generally keeping the reigns in her hands. It was fun observing the seemingly complete chaos of the shop, although upon a closer look, you could see everything is in perfect order.
End result: we each had a blazer and a shirt made, and we were (and still are) very satisfied with the product. From the viewpoint of the lady who reeled us in from the street, it paid off to be a little bit more persistent.
Mui Ne is a village set on a small peninsula stretching out into the sea on the north end of Vinh Phan Thiet bay. Apart fom sandy beaches and the only sand dunes in Vietnam, it does not have much to offer in terms of attractions. Basically, it consists of a string of hotel resorts, bars, and restaurants, lined alongside a coastal road. It appeared to be a holiday destination for Russians, because virtually all signs and businesses were written also in Russian.
What Mui Ne does have, however, is a long stretch of sandy beach and strong eastern winds, which make it the most popular kitesurfing and windsurfing destination of Vietnam. You won't find any flat water here, though. The shore break was substantial and the wind was gusty, but once you're out in the open, it is a lot of fun. It was the first time I was kitesurfing after leaving home more than 3 months ago, and I was excited like a teenager in front of a strip club. After an exhilarating afternoon of shredding the ocean and launching in the air, we had a tasty dinner and caught the evening train back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
"There are more motorbikes in Saigon than there are people", explained our guide with a grin which extended ear-to-ear. Obviously eager to be asked why, I indulged him and asked what is the reason for this. He explained that Saigonese (as they call themselves) very often own two motorbikes: one is a common, battered and sturdy bike which they use for work and errands, and the second is usually the fancy, customized, and well-maintained sexy bike for the evening festivities, visiting their dearest, their lovers, their friends. The kind of bikes we saw during the day, compared to the ones you see in the evening, suggested there might be some truth to that.
I enjoyed HCMC much more than Hanoi. It is more developed (newer, of course) the air is slightly better and the weather was sunny and warm. We went on a one-day organized tour of the Cu Chi tunnels and the web of canals in the Mekong river delta. Both were fascinating trips, especially the Cu Chi tunnels, which were used by Vietnamese troops during the USA-Vietnam war. Having a knowledgeable guide (who could even speak English formidably, which is very very rare in Vietnam) really makes all the difference, so I highly recommend getting one if you visit the tunnels. An intriguing and interactive insight into this bloody chapter of Vietnam history, not to mention the possibility to crawl through a tunnel (NOT for the claustrophobic!) and shoot a variety of firearms like an AK-47, RPD machine gun, etc. What can I say, boyz will be boyz :)
The afternoon trip to the Mekong river delta was an enjoyable and instructive, too. We enjoyed a leisurely cruise around the canals, learned how they make candy from coconut mass and learned that there is actually a Coconut Kingdom and also a Coconut religion (I assume its followers are few but very devoted). We also tasted a brandy with an embedded cobra snake. Delicious! After a long day, we headed back to HCMC, tired but full of impressions.
The old proverb "all is well if it ends well" proved to be true in my visit to Vietnam. After a tense welcome and a shaky first few days, we parted as friends.
I want to add just one final note on Vietnamese food, since everyone I met who was in Vietnam cannot stop salivating about how amazing the food is. Frankly, I don't know what all the fuss is about. I mean, yeah, it was ok, but nothing to be orgasmic about. I enjoyed Thai and Cambodian local dishes much more than Vietnamese. Maybe it is just me.