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Published: November 30th 2012
We probably say this every time, but where do we start?! With only one month in Vietnam you would think we would have less to say, less to write, but that is definitely not the case. We learned so much; we saw so many things; we fell in love with the scenery and the culture; we already want to go back to see the parts of Vietnam that we missed and return to the places we loved.
Hanoi – Cat Ba Town – Ninh Binh – Hue – Hoi An – Nha Trang – Dalat – Mui Ne – HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon)
As soon as the bus dropped us off in Hanoi a wave of relief overcame us. We were back in South-East Asia! There were locals that could speak English and the number of westerners multiplied ten-fold from the amount we had seen in China. Hanoi was one of our favourite cities in Vietnam; it was so rich with history and culture (our two favourite things to discover while travelling). The French Colonial days were evident wherever we looked and the devastation of the many wars this country has fought was worn on the faces of the proud locals. We were able to spend three nights in Hanoi exploring the chaotic streets, the lake, a couple temples and the prison museum. Our days were usually filled to the brim with exciting things to do and we would go back in a heart beat to do the same thing and hopefully even more.
After Hanoi we were off to Cat Ba Island. Many people refer to this area of Vietnam as Halong Bay. Halong Bay City is actually a town on the coast of Vietnam and Halong Bay runs between the main land and Cat Ba Island; we decided to take it up a notch and stay on this island in the Gulf of Tonkin. Cat Ba Island is pretty small, there are a few fishing villages, some great beaches and part of the island is a National Park. While it wasn't quite the island paradise we were expecting, it was a fantastic place to relax nonetheless. Our days were spent riding around on a motorbike, lounging on the beach or sailing through the stunning limestone karsts of Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay. Cat Ba Town is also where we got to see a bit more of how the Vietnamese live. We made friends with a lovely local women whose restaurant we visited every day. So far Vietnam had been living up to our expectations and we continued to have a hard time leaving the places we so quickly fell in love with.
The next thing we wanted to do was visit Cuc Phuong National Park which is located about 45km away from Ninh Binh. It was sort of a whirlwind getting to and away from this area but we were happy we did it the way we did. Ninh Binh isn't an exciting city; most travellers use it as a base point to explore the surrounding area. We got to Ninh Binh late in the afternoon and as soon as we found a hotel we organized a tour for the next day. A private car took us to Cuc Phuong National Park; we got to see some extremely rare primates, hike for hours through amazing jungle scenery and dine with a friendly Vietnamese family. It was a great day that unfortunately ended with an overnight bus – our least favourite form of transportation. While our time in this area of Vietnam was short lived, it was another part of this beautiful country that we had been looking forward to explore (and it certainly didn't disappoint).
From Ninh Binh we moved on to Hue. We didn't love Hue. It was insanely hot, it wasn't very clean and seemed sort of scatter-brained. That being said, it has a lot of historical sights to explore and had we stayed there longer it may have grown on us. And the food was fantastic!! While we were there we saw a couple of pagodas, spent a few hours walking around, explored a market and were taken back in time at the Imperial City.
The next city we travelled to was Hoi An. Hoi An was gorgeous, it has an old town set along a river with wooden bridges, cobbled streets and traditional lanterns all over the place. We found our perfect beach (An Bang Beach) about 4km away from town that we rode bikes to every day. The scenery in and around Hoi An was just stunning and it was really hard to leave the easy going city with a small town feel. It was one our favourite spots in Vietnam for sure.
As we travelled further down the coast we found ourselves in Nha Trang. We were lucky to get out and rent bikes our first day in Nha Trang since it rained the rest of the time we were there. Nha Trang is a beach town with a huge party reputation that we didn't see much of. Had the streets not flooded with rain we could have had some pretty good nights there; it's probably for the better that we didn't.
After spending so much time on the coast we headed to the central highlands and situated ourselves in the quaint city of Dalat. It was a different world in the mountains with an abundance of farmland and very green hillside. Our days were spent hiking a mountain, wandering the old French Colonial city and eating some great food. There isn't really anything bad we can say about Dalat, it was a nice place to spend a few days unwinding. When our tans started to fade we decided to head back to the beach.
Mui Ne was added to our itinerary as a last minute stop and we were SO happy we went there. We were able to find a nice hotel with a pool that we could lounge around all day and night. The orange sand dunes nearby occupied us for a day and it was yet another place we could have stayed if we weren't running out of time.
With three days left before our visas expired we were off to Ho Chi Minh City. What chaos!? HCMC is pretty crazy but we loved the intensity of it. We spent a couple of days learning more about the war; it was a real eye-opener. Some of the places we went in Vietnam barely hinted at the struggles Vietnam went through a few short decades ago but HCMC oozed historical culture. It was really cool and a little unnerving.
On the very last day of our visa we were off to Cambodia. We left behind a country that taught us so much, a county that we hope to see again and learn even more from.
North vs. South
Along our way fellow travellers were always mentioning how much of a difference they saw between the north and south of Vietnam. We kept trying to find obvious differences but couldn't really point any out. A common complaint we heard was that the north was much ruder. Perhaps it's because we came from China and were so happy that people spoke English we didn't notice, but we can't say the north was rude at all. The people all over Vietnam were really helpful and friendly – maybe more so than we had expected. As we travelled south the food changed. From the amazing street food like noodle soup and banh mi in northern Vietnam to the fresh herbs used in so many dishes in the central highlands and the seafood or fried noodles in the south. Other than that nothing really stands out for us to differentiate what used to be two separate countries.
Hanoi vs. HCMC
It's really really hard to decide which city we preferred but the trophy goes to Hanoi. We LOVED Hanoi. The architecture, the lake, the old quarter. It seemed to have a bit more character. HCMC is much more commercial, there are lots of skyscrapers and corporations. Hanoi was a bit simpler and definitely more laid back. Of course, both cities are huge and we can really only base our opinions on what we saw. The tourist district in Hanoi is set in a really lovely part of town. In HCMC the tourist area seems to have been plumped on a street near a park where a bunch of hotels decided to open up. While we still loved HCMC (it has a completely different vibe), Hanoi was warmer for us.
Motorbikes in Vietnam are about as close as you get to having wheels attached to your body. Everyone is so loose on them. We would watch them drive around in awe at how easy they made it look and how trusting everyone was that the other drivers were equally as confident. There was very little car traffic and while buses are everywhere - for public and travellers transportation - the number of motorbikes on the road is insane.
It's a bit hard to talk or write about the war. We weren't there, we don't really
know what they went through, how they were treated and how they treated other countries that invaded their land. Obviously it is a bit of a touchy subject and we didn't get a chance to bring it up with a local who had lived through it.
Overall, the sense of pride is extremely evident. They deserve it. Again and again people have tried to take over Vietnam – for one reason or another – and they lost, they retreated, they surrendered.
Some facts about the war with America: 3 million people died, 2 million of which were civilians. Agent Orange was so harmful that there are currently 3 million people suffering from the side affects it causes (in Vietnam, there are many Americans dealing with affects as well). That means at least 6 million Vietnamese lives have been cut short or disabled by the war. When it comes to Agent Orange, the number of affected people seems only to grow. The disabilities get passed down through generations and they are still finding traces in the soil. There is nothing that can be done yet these people continue living normal (or as close to normal as possible) lives. It's one of the most upsetting and inspiring things we have ever come across.
We just said it. They are inspiring. No matter what, they are happy; many of them live lives so challenging that we can't even begin to imagine what a day or a year is like for them. There is still so much poverty, so much pain. However, they continue to work hard and do the very best they can.
On the other end of the spectrum, Vietnam is in a great place right now. Many people seem to be thriving and in the next few years big things are going to happen for this country. Hopefully their government can make the right decisions for the people so that everyone can flourish together.
The Vietnamese are by far the best sales people we have come across. They literally had a response for whatever reason we would give to not buy something. They are grabby, they are persistent but after some hard bartering usually they make a good deal.
What a diverse country! Our high hopes for Vietnam were met and it was really sad to leave knowing that there is so much more to explore. The 30 days we spent there absolutely won't be our last. Some day we will make it back.
-Tyler and Rebecca
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