Vietnam Part 1: The South

May 26, 2016

I’ll admit that although I didn’t know much about Vietnam before I went, I was relieved when I finally made it to Ho Chi Minh City. My week in Cambodia was less than stellar for a variety of reasons, and the promise of cooler temperatures in the north, and eating noodle soup for all of my meals lured me to Vietnam earlier than I’d anticipated.

As I do when I first arrive in most countries, I spent my first days walking and walking and walking and taking everything in. Ho Chi Minh is busy. The streets are crowded with motorbikes and people are walking and working and moving around everywhere. And it’s vibrant and alive, with an amazing food scene and interesting street life, it made for a good introduction to Vietnam.

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I spent only two days in Ho Chi Minh, and while it was mostly uneventful, I immediately felt good about Vietnam. I can’t put my finger on what it was that I loved from the very beginning, but all I know is that I wanted to experience everything there that I absolutely could.

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After getting my feet under me in Ho Chi Minh, I hopped on a bus to Dalat. Everyone I’d met who had already been to Vietnam raved about Dalat. It’s not as popular a tourist destination as most other places on the trail in Vietnam, and it’s in the mountains, which means it’s cooler. That last part alone would have been reason enough for me to go straight there. By early April, I was so tired of the heat.

Dalat was everything everyone had said it was, and more. The air is cool, the city is relaxed, the surrounding landscapes are gorgeous. I ended up getting stuck there for four days (though “stuck” probably isn’t the right word because I enjoyed every minute of it). A combination of good weather and the best hostel in the entire world made me never want to leave. I stayed at the coziest little spot fittingly called Cozy Nook Hostel. Each night, we paid $3 for a delicious dinner that everyone in the hostel shared around a big table. We would all squeeze around the table and drink and eat and laugh. I met some of the best people there.

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I actually spent half my time in Dalat relaxing at a wonderful coffee shop I found that served killer food and smoothies. It was nice to chill out for a bit and figure out my plans for the next three weeks. In Dalat, though, you need to get out of the city to really appreciate where you are, so I spent one day on a tour with an Easy Rider, a local guide who lets you hop on the back of his bike and drives you around the countryside. Easy Riders are all over Vietnam. You can take one from city to city or just around an area of the country. In a dream world, I would be more like the badass people who buy a bike in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, and ride the entire length of the country. That’s the dream. But alas, my motorbike skills aren’t the best, and the thought of sharing a two-lane road with suicidal Vietnamese bus drives didn’t really appeal to me. So I rode around all day with a guy who calls himself “Eagle.” Johanna, a Swede who I’d met at my hostel in Ho Chi Minh, joined me and followed on a motorbike with a guy from France named Leo.

I really love driving motorbikes, but riding on the back of one is just as good. You get to take in all the views and take all the photos without focusing on the road. It’s pretty nice, and I had the best time on the back of Eagle’s motorbike that day. We toured a coffee plantation (I found out that Vietnam is the largest producer of coffee in the world), explored a waterfall, saw the Happy Buddha, and ate crickets (they’re not awful, I might add).

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The following day, I joined a Canadian guy I had met named Derek to ride to Pongour Falls. He had his own motorbike, which is necessary to make the hour’s drive to Pongour. I hopped on the back and we started on a day-long journey that proved to be way more difficult and exhausting than we initially thought. Our drive to the falls was stressful, to put it lightly. That’s how I felt, and I wasn’t even the one driving. We drove for an hour down a busy road under heavy construction. Derek was the best, even though it was more than chaotic. Somehow, we finally made it to the falls and relaxed and enjoyed watching the water and said, as I’ve found myself saying so many times on this trip, “Earth is so cool.”

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We took a different road home, but not before checking out a giant temple structure we saw from afar near the falls. We finally made our way back to Dalat after a very long journey down some dirt roads that were slightly less stressful than the first road we took, but still, uh, not perfect. Regardless, it was a more scenic drive, and I was happy to be enjoying Vietnam’s views from the back of a motorbike again.

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I had a hard time leaving Dalat, but if I wanted to see the rest of Vietnam, I really had to go. And I was really excited to see the rest of Vietnam. About four days into my trip, I decided to completely cancel my plans to go to Laos at the end of April, and extend my time in Vietnam to four weeks. Vietnam is tall and skinny, and there’s a pretty tried and true backpacker trail from bottom to top. You can start in Hanoi and make your way south or start in Ho Chi Minh City and make your way north. In a way, it’s nice that the tourist trail doesn’t vary much, because if you’re going north, you’ll meet people who are heading south, and they can tell you what to do when you head north. Or vice versa. In those first few days, I asked everyone who had been in the north what I should do.

One thing I knew was that the 16-hour bus ride from Dalat to Hoi An (a must-see in Vietnam) was not something I was interested in. A few people suggested a little beach village half way between Dalat and Hoi An called Bai Xep, and once I looked into it, I was determined to go there. The only problem was that it wasn’t exactly easy.

Luckily my Swedish friend, Johanna, decided she was keen to join me for the adventure. I won’t go into all the details about our journey, but it was a pain in the ass, and we finally arrived in Bai Xep at midnight, after nearly 18 hours of travel. Thankfully, we awoke to a pretty spectacular view of the ocean the next morning.

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The beach we were on was beautiful, but I foolishly thought I could lay out for an hour and ended up getting a really nasty sunburn. For the next two days, I did nothing but lay in a hammock and read, which really wasn’t that bad. But between the sunburn and the remote location and the sun, I was feeling pretty homesick, and was ready to move north.

Getting out of Bai Xep proved to be as difficult as it was getting there. We were told we’d easily be able to grab a bus to Hoi An, that it was never full, and of course, that bus and the backup bus were both full. Johanna and I ended up in a local minivan and spent six hellish hours crammed in the backseat watching our crazed driver speed his way to Hoi An. It was really unpleasant, and I was so happy to be alive when we finally arrived in Hoi An. And this is when Vietnam started to get really, really good.

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