New Year’s resolution #173: Write more articles for DearSusan. So this one comes straight from my archive. I tried to avoid travel bucket lists and focus on inspirational personal anecdotes instead. Tell me if that works for you.
It’s the 30th of December 2010. We arrived in Hanoi with 18h delay due to a missed connection flight in Paris. It is my second time in Asia and my first time in Vietnam. All I know: We have a return-flight from Bangkok in about four weeks and a room in a small hostel for the next days. I’m super excited about this trip and our new way of traveling.
Our hostel picked us up at the airport. That is usual for Asia, specifically for Vietnam, because the owners want to make sure you arrive at their venue and not at some rip-off with the same name.
We spend the next days strolling through Hanoi’s old town and French Quarter, amazed by all the narrow alleys, buzzing street life, exotic markets and tasty local cuisine. Winter in Hanoi means cloudy sky and temperatures below 20°C. The grey-in-grey weather fitted greatly to the atmosphere of the old city.
At night, we set our further travel plans. We wanted to travel down the coast via Huế, Hội An, Nha Trang, Đà Lạt to Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon. In a time before Airbnb, booking.com and Agoda (the Asian booking.com), and when broadband internet connection was not broad at all, we relied on our Lonely Planet guide, asked our current hostel to call the next one, and used local vendors for tickets and tours. We chose a two-day tour to the world-famous Halong Bay, a ticket for the night train to our next stop Huế, and flight and accommodation for Phu Quoc Island in the South (a recommendation from a friend). Luckily, a friend of the shop owner just recently opened a Eco resort in the north of the island, far away from the usual tourist locations. Fake or not, we’ll see … At worst, we just lost $250.
A couple of days later, we were picked up for Halong Bay (that worked already). Tours for the famous rock formations are very touristic because everyone wants to go there. And they’re amazing! Unfortunately, the weather is always an issue. In winter it is cold and foggy. In summer it is warm and extremely sticky, and mosquitos kill you. Choose your battle.
Returning to Hanoi, we should be taken to the train station and meet the driver in front of the travel shop. After 30 min of waiting, the owner came back from lunch, surprised to see us still waiting. No five minutes later, we were sitting on the backseats of two of his friend’s mopeds (including baggage) and rushed through Hanoi’s afternoon traffic.
We must have looked quite confused on entering the station but only 5 m into the hall, someone approached us, took our tickets and hand baggage and guided us outside to the tracks, to a train and to our compartment.
In our cabin were two more people: An elderly Vietnamese lady and one Canadian backpacker. The woman was accompanied by her daughter who told us that her mother is visiting her family in Huế but can only speak French and asked if we could take care of her during the trip. Of course we can but our French is very limited. Nevertheless we managed to use hands and feet for conversation, she showed us photos of her family, we shared sweets and watched the passing landscape. The Canadian dude, however, came right off a home stay in Sapa and smelled like a campfire. Sapa (or Sa Pả) is a famous region in the northern mountains known for is beautiful rice terraces and several ethnic minorities. But in winter, temperature drops below 0°C, and we didn’t wanted to carry extra winter clothes but travel light instead. Next time. He told us, he recently quit work, now travels the world alone, and showed us a video of him drinking fresh snake heart right before departure — that kind of guy. Later, right after I climbed into my bed and turned off the light, the air conditioning went on and blew icy, smelly air right into my face. I buried myself under my blanket … That’s gone be a long night.
But somehow I managed to fall asleep and woke up only minutes before arriving Huế the next morning. My girlfriend and the old lady were already watching the new landscape. As we arrived the station, a drizzling rain set in but our pick-up from the hotel told us it would be over in a matter of minutes. The rain didn’t stop for the next two days and the forecast showed it will stay that way for some more. Furthermore, it was also colder than it already was in Hanoi. And the cold, my girlfriend brought from Germany, was now in full effect — and we didn’t had tissues! Buying tissues is not something you just do in rural Asia. Pro tip: Always carry tissues when traveling. Seriously!
So I spend the days in Huế alone, weary wandering around the Citadel and Imperial City. Enough is enough! We have to get to a warmer place, asap. So I went to a travel shop and exchanged our train tickets for the next possible flight to Ho Chi Min City, which fortunately was the same evening — for the price of a Berlin taxi ride.
At midnight we arrived Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) at a cozy 34°C outside … Here we go! Again, pick-up from the hostel … and here’s something to know: When it comes to cheap city hotels in Vietnam (and maybe elsewhere), you can usually choose between two types of rooms: with and without windows. “Windows, of course!” Well, not so fast. In Hanoi we had a room with window. The alley behind the window was so narrow you literally could not open it, except maybe 10 cm — not to mention sunlight. Our first hotel in HCMC had a room with no windows. That means cool and quiet. When we returned a few days later, we had another hotel with a window room and a beautiful balcony view but all the noise and heat of the city around the clock. Just that you know …
Ho Chi Minh City is very different from Hanoi, a modern, bright city, same bustle and street life but different, more laid-back. The streets are wider, you see more Westerners, a small art scene … and it’s warm and you have palm trees. As you may have noticed in the photos, the sky is always overcast and it is very humid. Can’t imagine what it’s like in summer. And we also found tissues: Deeply buried inside a cosmetics booth in Ben Thanh Market we found an original German package of Tempos — for an insanely high price. My girlfriend recovered within days and we planed our further travel: Next up is Phu Quoc island and for our trip to Cambodia we found a great three-day boat tour on the Mekong River all the way to the capital Phnom Penh. We also booked a day tour to the colorful Cao Đài temple north of HCMC and the Củ Chi tunnels, the tunnel system used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
Flights for Phu Quoc depart from Ho Chi Minh International Airport. This airport is your regular international airport, and as we drove through all the large planes in the airfield bus, I spotted a small propeller plane near the edge. And I thought it would be really great to fly with one of them, until I realized we were directly heading to it. It was a small plane for 20-something passengers. I stuck to the window and enjoyed the whole shebang. My girlfriend not so much as you feel every air gap in these small low-flying aircrafts. After less than 45 min we landed on a very small airport in the midst of a jungle. The terminal building was literally no more than four walls and a roof. They pushed the baggage through one hole and that’s it.
About two weeks ago, we paid some guy in a small shop in Hanoi and when we left the terminal, our pickup was already waiting with a small bus and a big smile. We were taken to a small resort in a calm bay in the north of the island, far away from the touristic, surrounded by thick jungle. It was as lovely as described. We spend the next days totally relaxing, reading in hammocks, enjoying fresh fruits and local dishes, snorkeling and kayaking over the beautiful coral reef right in the bay and discovering secluded beaches nearby.
One day we decided to increase our action radius and rented a moped. I looked at the map, saw about 5 roads in the whole island and we decided to head to the Northwest coast, which was like: Follow the road, and on the crossway turn left. In reality, there were more than five roads on this island and, unfortunately, side roads were indistinguishable from main roads. A couple of kilometers into the jungle, we saw a car with a driver on the side. We stopped to asked if we were still on the right track. Unfortunately, the driver didn’t speak English at all, but immediately called his boss who translated. Yes, we were still on track but the road was much longer than expected. You can’t go fast on an unpaved road and keeping an eye out for potholes is very exhausting.
At some point we made it to the crossway. But that was only halfway and it was already afternoon. I didn’t want to be out here after sunset. So we turned right instead, heading south and then have a round trip. As it turned out, the main road was still in progress and almost the entire stretch was a single, kilometer-long construction site. Just at sunset, we made it back to our resort and I noticed my skin was completely red. OMG, I burnt myself so hard! Luckily, after a refreshing jump into the sea, all redness was gone. We were just covered by red dust all over.
After a week or so we returned to Saigon (I really prefer the old name), spend some more days there and finally set out to our three-day boat trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Now, don’t get me wrong, but I watched movies like Apocalypse Now as “preparation” for our journey. And I had this picture of me in my head, standing at the prow, cruising along the river with dense jungle to the side… And then reality hits hard: The Mekong River is the number one thoroughfare in the Mekong delta and for the 8 million capital HCMC. It is a dirty, muddy brew and frequented like the Berlin city highway with self-made boats of all shapes and sizes.
For the first night we docked in Cần Thơ and had the opportunity to visit the local floating markets the next morning. What you see in the picture are the bigger boats, that are the sellers, approached by smaller boats, which are the local buyers. And each seller has this long bar which they use to display what goods they’re selling, like pineapples, melons, potatoes, etc. A picturesque scene like out of a NatGeo reportage.
Further on, as we were heading closer to the Cambodia border, the scenery changed. The jungle grew thicker, cities became towns became villages and at some point only isolated houses. Small children were playing on the waterside and people waved us while our boat slowly fought against the current. Deep inner peace settled, and we witnessed the most spectacular sunsets sitting on the bow of the ship.
On the third day, we crossed the border to Cambodia … and how we traveled there and finally made our way to Bangkok, Thailand, is left for a future (shorter) post. Stay tuned, dear reader.
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