This was not my first time in ‘Nam. I’ve done two tours in the past – but I don’t like to talk about it. However, this time was very different because my trip started with me visiting several friends living in Hanoi, all of whom I first met while living in Korea. As a solo backpacker, I can say being met at the airport by one of them was a great feeling and immediately made this part of the trip stand out. I wasn’t going to see Hanoi as most backpackers do, I was going to see it as an expat. The difference in terms of what that means started right away as my good friend was able help me navigate the treacherous and notorious airport cab situation in Hanoi. (See my last travel post for more about Vietnam’s dangers and annoyances.)
First arriving in a country and trying to make your way to your hostel is the most anxious time of any trip for me. Being able to relax during this time and just catch up was something I really appreciated.
That first day I was also able to meet up with my two other friends living there, and we all had dinner on “Chicken St.” The food was excellent and the beer was very, very, very cheap: something like 25 cents. We followed that up by jumping on the back of scooters (all the expats seem to have one there) and heading to a bar full of foreigners from all over the world. All of them were so stylishly dressed they couldn’t possibly be mistaken for backpackers. There was not a person in fishermen pants or a Chang beer, or tubing Vang Vien singlet anywhere to be seen. Indeed, even by Seoul’s expat community standards, these kids were well-put together and the whole atmosphere, which included the awesome French colonial architecture of the bar and surrounding buildings, the good music and the very hip interior decor made it clear that this expat community was a bit more sophisticated than that of Seoul’s, and so my nonstop comparison of the two began.
While I’ll hold off sharing all the ways I found the two to be different (I might save that for a later article) I can share some of the biggest differences. One was that not everyone was from the English speaking world. My friends in Hanoi, all of whom were Americans, assured me that Americans were in fact a very small part of the community unlike in Korea where Americans make up more than 40% of the expat population. Another big difference was that everyone wasn’t a teacher. There were people there doing non-profit work, internships with major international corporations and countless other jobs all of which made the “What do you do for a living?” conversation much more interesting than it is in Korea. Lastly, their houses…..I cannot say enough about the apartments and houses these expats were living in. They were huge and nice and the rent was inexpensive. While it seemed common for people to have roommates there, it certainly would not have been an issue for me given the truly immense size and quality of the these apartments. One apartment I went to had a bedroom with a full bath, a large office and a walk-in closet. That one room was nearly twice the size of my first apartment in Korea, and I was told apartments that nice in Hanoi were far from uncommon.
Along with having friends to show me around town and take me to some really good places to eat, they were also able to help me navigate Hanoi’s pain-in-the-ass party scene. Hanoi has a “strict” midnight curfew, but there are also many bars that pay the cops off and turn the music back on as soon as they drive off. I went to a few of these places and would bet good money I was the only backpacker there because without the aid of someone living there, it was very unlikely a person new to the city could have found them.
After a few days of simply enjoying the feeling of being in an actual home, the friend I was staying with and I took a trip to Halong Bay. Despite the easy-to-find negative reviews about the place online, we had a good time. This was in no small part due to the fact that I had gotten a good tip on who to book my trip with from two other friends I met up with from Korea who were also touring ‘Nam and had just come back from the same trip the day before. (For those of you keeping track, this puts the number of people I’ve met up during my trip from Korea at six.) The blue-green water of the bay is full of towering, massive jagged rock formations rising straight up out of the water. And even in heavy fog, the views were amazing and other worldly. We spent one night on a boat with a tour group of people who were mostly around our own age. This was lucky because it can easily go too far in one direction or the other from my understanding and can either make the tour a nonstop party or a senior citizen snooze fest. We were somewhere in the middle, which was fine by me. The next night we stayed on a private island that had just one resort on it. We were two of what couldn’t have been more than 12 people on the whole island and our hut was extremely nice. The only tips I can give for booking are do your research and take the time to shop around for good prices, decide if you want it to be a party trip or a chilled-out trip and spend an extra few bucks to upgrade for nicer rooms and private bungalows (best 20 bucks I’ve ever spent). All told our trip worked out to about 95 bucks each, but some people on our trip paid more than twice that and didn’t even have the bungalow upgrade.
After Ha Long Bay, I spent a few more days in Hanoi before I was back on my own and back on the road heading south. I took a 12 hour sleeper bus down to Hue, about a third of the way down Vietnam’s 1,500 mile long coastline. For those of you who don’t know about sleeper buses, they are a form of transportation developed by the Vietnamese to punish large foreigners for years of war and colonial rule. On these buses, seats are replaced by narrow, short, firm “beds” that most Westerners cannot hope to fit into comfortably which is to say nothing of the fact that laying down for hours on end in an awkward position isn’t that comfortable regardless of your size. But it’s nothing that a few Valiums or Tylenol PM’s can’t help you get through. Just make sure you don’t get a seat in the back “cave,” as I like to call it. While most of the beds on a sleeper are not next to anyone, the back row is five beds next to each other with no barriers between them. You will be lying next to a stranger who might very well try spooning you at some point while they’re asleep. If you find yourself stuck back there, claim a religious belief that would prevent you from laying next to someone of a different gender. It’s the easiest way to avoid a heated fight over it.
I arrived in Hue as they were preparing for a big annual festival. We’ll call it Hue Day since I don’t really know what it was about. But it was big, colorful and lively. Hue itself is a small unimpressive city except for the fact that it used to be home to some imperial emperors and still has a large citadel and a few imperial tombs around. They were well-worth seeing, but it only took two days to cover pretty much everything.
While in Hue, I started running into a lot of “Lad’s on tour,” British guys who were either motorbiking or partying their way through Vietnam, usually both. While I was fine to pass on the heavy drinking many were engaged in, I did envy them for biking. It was something I certainly had debated over and over again in my head, but driving in Vietnam is just too dangerous. In my first 24 hours in Hanoi, I saw three accidents. That combined with all the stories from the expats and travelers I had met made me feel like it was too much of a risk to take. No matter how cautious and careful I was as a driver, I couldn’t make up for the abundant number of extremely wreckless drivers I had already seen in the country. Still, it’s said the best part of the motorbiking in ‘Nam was the pass between Hue and Hoi An, I was well up for this, but couldn’t find anyone who wanted to leave the same day as me, and I decided to skip the four hour drive since I had no one to go with and I couldn’t wait an extra day to leave with the Lads because I had to get to Hoi An to meet up with yet another friend from Korea (that makes 7).
The last time I went to ‘Nam in 2012, I traveled as far North as Hoi An before having to rush my trip to make my flight out of Hanoi. From this point on, much of what I was doing in ‘Nam was a repeat which made for some lazy traveling since I didn’t have much left on my must-see list.
Since chilling out was an option, I did just that. I stayed at one of the most talked about hostels in all of SE Asia, the Sunflower and just hung around the pool for a few days. The Sunflower was like nothing I’ve ever seen before in traveling. It was a hotel sized hostel which meant it had four or five times as many backpackers in it as any place I’ve ever been. Add to that a pool, a bar and a free breakfast buffet and you have the makings of a pretty wild party spot that sometimes seemed like it needed some adult supervision. It was entertaining to see especially around 3 am when everyone was coming back from the bars. Insanity.
The only other things I did in Hoi An was spend an evening with my friend from Korea, walk around the amazingly cute city center to check out their Lantern Festival and bike halfway back up to Hue to see some of the coastal highway. I didn’t get any clothes made there this time, which is a highlight for many people visiting this famous tailor village. But it was fun to see scruffy backpackers rock up to a bar at night wearing their new tailor-made, and often times flamboyant, suits and dresses.
Nah Trang- Mu Neh
I group these two stops together despite them being very different in terms of size: Nah Trang is a city and Mu Neh is a smallish town. However, they are both on the beach and they are both Russian dominated. The beaches there are fine, nothing too special at either. But for me, the most interesting part is the Russian factor. While many Westerns seemed thrown and confused that there would be a place that caters to Russians, I see it as no different than the way the rest of SE Asia accommodates Westerners. Money talks and there are plenty of Russians who have a lot of it. A traveler should never fool themselves into thinking that a country catering to you as a tourists has also formed a loyalty to your culture. If thousands of Chinese start showing up with money to spend in half the places I’ve been too in the world, those places would start putting up signs in Chinese the next day. That’s just capitalism 101.
Still, it must be said that Russian culture is as fascinating to me as it is intimidating. Seemingly everyone I know who interacts with Russians seems to have the same reaction afterwards. They are left confused and not really sure what just happened and are often left only being able to shake their head while and mumbling “Russians!?” under their breath as they try to make sense of what they just saw or heard. Despite having dated a couple of Russian girls, I still find the culture and especially its men to be the hardest to read in the world. You never know if they’re laughing with you or at you, assuming you can even venture a guess as to why they’re laughing in the first place. And when the men aren’t making you feel awkward with their laughter, they come off as deadly serious and a lot scary……Russians!?
All this said, I like Mu Nah. It has a good night life, there are amazing sand dunes to see and an old fishermen village. It’s also great for kite surfing if you get there at the right time of year.
Delat is high up in the mountains and the ride getting there was awesome and full of amazing views. You can literally watch as the treeline goes from tropical plants to pine tree forests. Historically, this was a place the French would come to holiday and escape the heat during the summer months and there are still plenty of chalet-styled homes and buildings in the town which gives it a bit of an Alps feel. The main attractions here are motorbiking out to a number of different waterfalls or doing some hikes in the surrounding mountains. The cool weather was a great break and for the first time in my 10 weeks of travel, I actually encountered heavy rain. It of course occurred while I was out on a long motorbike ride, but it was nice to see and smell all the same.
I have been to Saigon three times before, and since I clearly have an aversion to big cities in developing countries, I limited my time there as best I could. I spent all of 15 hours there during which I booked my passage to Cambodia…kind of and ate at several of my favorite food stalls. Even though my time there was brief, it gave me a chance to see how it had changed. Like so many of the other backpackers districts in SE Asia, there was just more of everything: more stores, more places to stay, more places to eat and everything was nicer and fancier than before. I also noticed the hostel trend was present here too as they were now plentiful where just two years ago they had been almost nonexistent. I can only imagine the businessman who first discovered that gap year kids would be willing to pay nearly the same price for a bed in a six person dorm as they would for a private room just for the more social atmosphere.