Travelling South East Asia (SEA)
(29th September – 24th November)
Two countries, four weeks down, and half way through our travelling experience, it was then time to head to Vietnam. Initially I was sceptical about Vietnam. I felt a special connection with Cambodia and Thailand and I wasn’t sure I would feel the same about Vietnam. Maybe it was that I realised Vietnam would take us to the near end of our travels, or perhaps I was sad at having left our new friends behind whom were travelling the opposite way to us. Despite these initial thoughts, Vietnam was incredible and I faced the biggest challenge of my travelling journey to date (more to follow).
Mopeds and motorbikes dominated this city and I feared to ever attempt crossing the road! I thought I had seen it all already having spent time in Cambodia and Thailand, but I was shocked and quite gobsmacked by some of the things I saw in Vietnam; I never knew it were possible to carry multiple washing bags, glass window panels and live animals on the back of mopeds, and dogs & cats were regulars on the food menu.
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh, located south was our first stop in Vietnam. Another very busy city that was over-whelming. There didn’t seem to be much structure to this city, every available space was crammed with shops and buildings, and as I mentioned above, multiple mopeds and motorbikes whizzed by obliviously. ‘Vietnam Inn Saigon’ was where we set up home and upon arrival we were pleased to see the familiarity of backpackers going about their daily travelling lives. By now it was easy to spot a backpacker, not just because of the obvious backpacks, but the flip flops, the tanned skin, the wristbands, the natural glow every backpacker seemed to carry, it was reassuring and always made me feel more at ease when settling in to a new city or country.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a must see destination when visiting Ho Chi Minh. This famous landmark was created by soldiers during the Vietnamese War (1954 – 1975) with the purpose of housing troops, communicating with one another safely, storing food, and laying booby traps for the enemies (the Americans). These tunnels had many purposes and were completely invaluable to the Vietnamese soldiers during this period. I remember the tunnels being so small and narrow, and that was a huge advantage to the Vietnamese who were much smaller than their American rivals! The War Remnants Museum is also a must see destination to learn more about the Vietnamese War and the devastating, life-changing effects it had.
From Ho Chi Minh we took an over-night bus to our next destination, Da Lat. Waterfalls, hills, forests and lakes surrounded us and I questioned as to whether we were still in Vietnam. The difference between here and Ho Chi Minh was remarkable! Da Lat was developed by the French in the early 1900’s and many historic landmarks still remain, including the design and features. I also noticed that Da Lat felt cold compared to the 34 degree hot temperatures we had acclimatised to. I even had to put my jumper on! We stayed in the most beautiful hostel called ‘The Da Lat Family Hostel’, and a family vibe we most definitely felt. The owners were incredibly welcoming, even calling themselves mum and dad to us all. The mum of the house (who could cut some shapes when the music was blaring) would cook us all a family feast every evening, indulgent chocolate pancakes being the speciality (and the highlight). The Easy Riders Motorbike tour is a fantastic way to get to know this beautiful city (capital of Lam Dong Province), and a chance to jump on a moped and have some fun! Thankfully we had a guide with us for the day (which I highly recommend) who took us exploring through beautiful mountains and villages whilst making regular stops at famous landmarks; silk factories, waterfalls, vegetable farms, and plenty more. Various water sports are also popular activities many backpackers participate in!
Known for being a holiday destination with beautiful beaches and offshore Islands, Nha Trang was our next destination. We had, however, been told by other backpackers not to visit Nha Trang as there wasn’t much to offer travellers in terms of history or activities. Although we did find this to be true, we were more than happy to take two days out to enjoy the beaches and the popular restaurants, we even went to a spa for some pampering. When travelling some very deprived areas like we had done, it often felt as though luxuries such as a clean and comfortable bed, or traditional western food (that doesn’t occasionally upset the tummy) were distant memories, so when arriving somewhere known as a ‘holiday resort’ we were more than happy to indulge and treat ourselves for a short while. However, as much as we enjoyed our indulgent two days in Nha Trang as holiday guests, the backpacker/traveller life was calling us back and we were more than ready to return to what we knew and loved most.
After a 12 hour over-night bus ride from Nha Trang, we finally arrived in Hoi An. I instantly felt comfortable and at ease when we first arrived. The sun was shining and everything seemed less populated, from the people to the amount of shops and traffic. It was a relief. Just like Da Lat, Hoi An is heavily influenced by the French history with beautiful themed bridges and rivers, yet a Japanese/Chinese theme was very apparent too. ‘The Japanese Covered Bridge’ dominates a small part of the main town, and Chinese lanterns and wooden townhouses swamp the small, colourful area. Hoi An is renowned for its tailoring and many people visit to customise their very own shoes, bags, and clothes, all for a very good price. You can be sure that whatever you have made, it will be preened and perfected by the talented locals. At night time the town lights up. Gorgeous fairy lights and lanterns hang effortlessly whilst guiding its visitors to the pop up market stalls selling food and souvenirs.
The Hai Van Pass (Hoi An – Hue)
Approximately 21 kilometres of road that stretches through picturesque mountains and coastal roadways, the Hai Van Pass (Vietnamese for ‘Ocean Cloud Pass’) is a famous motorbike trail that runs alongside the South Chinese Sea. Riding this roadway (with my co-pilot Amie on the back) was the biggest challenge I have ever faced, and under the hot, beaming sun we set upon leaving Hoi An to ride to our next destination, Hue. 5 hours’ worth of motorbike riding was absolutely exhilarating and hand on heart I have never felt so care-free and happy than riding that motorbike through mountains you only ever imagine seeing in glossy magazines and posters, never believing that they are actually real. We stopped off at various landmarks on the way to explore and to take in the beautiful nature that surrounded us. I mentioned briefly above how challenging this journey was, and I also mentioned how crazy and dangerous the roads (and drivers) are in Vietnam. Passing through huge lorries on narrow roads whilst on the side of mountains (peeking 496 metres) was petrifying and I admittedly had some very near misses with the deadly road rage drivers. I counted my many lucky stars that somebody was watching over and protecting me that day. My heart jumped out of its chest multiple times, and with a passenger on the back of me too, I felt under pressure to keep us both safe. Thankfully we arrived in Hue in one piece, albeit exhausted, sun burnt, and with very numb and sore bums. The sense of achievement I felt from that ride was the very reason I decided to travel; to challenge myself, to learn, to grow, to seek adventure. I felt so proud, and for one of the first times in my life I sensed myself growing in confidence and blossoming into the person I knew deep down was itching to spread her wings, she just needed to believe in herself, and that day was the beginning of her doing so.
Located centrally and pronounced ‘Hway’, this historical part of Vietnam has many temples and museums for travellers to explore. Unfortunately the weather was pretty horrendous and on our first morning we were greeted with hailstones and horizontal rain. This meant we didn’t get to do much here in terms of activities, but when we did eventually brave the heavy downpour we took some time getting to know the city, exploring the local markets and even taking a trip to a supermarket. I was over-joyed to discover that the supermarket sold the biggest, juiciest, pink lady apples. Another home comfort that I missed and was so excited to find. It surprised me just how excited I got when stumbling across home comforts, no matter how small, from an apple to a comfortable pillow, I was so grateful for whatever it was that it made me realise just how much I take for granted without realising. My most memorable memory about Hue was the amazing friends we made and the awesome Halloween party we went to. Face painted and decorated backpacker style, we partied the night away with our fellow travellers and Vietnamese locals.
Our last stop in Vietnam and the capital of this wonderful country, Hanoi was the biggest eye-opener of them all. The smell was over powering with a mix of food and overpopulation. I was horrified to see dogs, cats and birds crammed into tiny cages awaiting their fate to be eaten. I was also horrified when tucking into a chicken breast at dinner time for it to start bleeding. Safe to say my hunger suddenly disappeared after that. Ha Long Bay, located northeast of Vietnam and a few hours away from Hanoi is where most backpackers will explore having spent a day or two in Hanoi. Ha Long Bay (Vietnamese for ‘Bay of the Descending Dragon’) is made up of approximately 1969 islands sheltered by limestone pillars and historical caves. Most travel shops in Hanoi will sell boat trips & expeditions offering the chance to explore this beautiful part of Vietnam, and the chance to take part in activities such as rock climbing, fishing, different types of water sports, and to explore the hidden caves. We kayaked through the clear, smooth sea whilst the hot sun radiated happiness and positivity through the clouds. I remember thinking, this is nature at its absolute finest; peaceful, beautiful, and soul fulfilling, and I remember thinking, this is what contentment and freedom feels like.
To be continued…