I have some free time right now while I wait on my coffee being brought to my table (its already been 10 minutes, and I ordered a double shot of caffeine so I reckon another 10 more should do the trick…there’s no hurrying here in Asia!) so I figured now would be the perfect time to catch myself up on the past week I’ve had scooting about Vietnam (yes literally, sorry mum!).
As a British citizen, getting into Vietnam from Cambodia is painfully easy. Perhaps it’s something to do with our close economic and political relationships that has allowed us to gain a 15 day visa free stay in one of the most difficult countries to obtain a permit…Whatever the reason, for the 1289183th time during my trip so far I thanked my lucky stars that I landed into this word on the tiny wee rainy island that is Scotland. It’s crazy how a flash of a burgundy passport at the land border with proof of an onward flight can get you that long-awaited stamp in your passport and set you off on to your new adventure relatively hassle-free.
It’s really not so easy for other nationalities. Take my friend April for example; since she comes from Texas it’s no surprise why Americans have such trouble obtaining a tourist visa for a country they bombed the crap out of not that long ago. First they need a letter of approval from the embassy that they can only pick up on arrival at an airport, meaning that crossing overland is seemingly impossible unless you want to pay huge fees for a fast-track visa. It’s actually the reason my travel buddy had to ditch me early – she’s now off to the Thai islands to sun herself while I’m sitting with damp hair, freezing, in the trousers and jumper I HAD to buy to ward off the imminent weather-induced hypothermia in the north of Vietnam. Aye I know right, smart move megs.
So basically since the 5th of February I’ve been hopping around all over the place in order to make the absolute MOST of my free visa, and trying my absolute hardest NOT to overstay it. Rumour has it that by overstaying even by a day could land you in big big trouble – like huckled into a room and screamed at in Vietnamese whilst they rinse your wallet kinda trouble. So I’m trying to see as much of this bloody LONG country as I can without annoying the border officials when I leave for Hong Kong on the 18th…challenge accepted!
My first stop in Vietnam was Saigon (locals and tourists interchangeably refer to this bustling city as Ho Chi Minh City, but there’s really no right or wrong answer. Saigon is just shorter and easier to type and I’m feeling lazy so…). I can’t say I was overly impressed with Saigon if I’m being honest. After Phnom Penh (the cleanest city I’d been to in a while) it was a bit of a shock to come into such a crazy atmosphere right afterwards. I didn’t ever plan on staying too long in Saigon so on my first day I set out to see the sights and to plan my next moves north. I’ve bought a fair amount of clothes here actually since a set of nike sports bras and matching shorts are on the cusp between charity shop prices and shoplifting. So I stocked up knowing I’d soon be arriving in Australia, where locals tends to go for their Maccas in their activewear and Adidas boosts. Sign me right up for that!
Anyway, after wandering around Saigon for around half a day I realised there wasn’t all that much left for me to do, so just out of curiosity I hopped into a travel agents and checked out how much a flight would be to take me to Da Nang. Da Nang is the 4th largest city in Vietnam, situated around half way up the country on the west coast of the South China sea. The city itself doesn’t particularly have too much going on but it’s a cracking stopping point to see the infamous fishing village of Hoi An (about 1 hour south) most widely known for its lantern-clad streets and picturesque ports that were once the most important trade ports in all of South East Asia. Its hard to imagine this quaint little town being so prominent in the development of Vietnam and its’ trade industry. Today, walking down the market streets ogling the varieties of clothes, shoes, fruit and Bhan Mi stalls, it still retains a small-town vibe despite being crammed with the ever-increasing swarms of tourists eager to scope out the world renowned heritage site.
Quite frankly I could have stayed in Hoi An a little longer but with the Chinese New Year coming up I knew I had to keep moving before the small towns, public transport and locally run businesses would begin to close down for the festivities. It’s an amazing time to be in Vietnam to witness the atmosphere surrounding the Tet holiday from locals and holiday makers alike, but at the same time its a bit of a pain in the neck when you’re trying to arrange hostels and overnight buses that are all fully booked, as locals return home to their villages and close up shop from the 14th-18th. Not really ideal when I need to fly from Hanoi to Vietnam on the 18th and public transport doesn’t even start running again till then! HELP! After a couple of beers I decided that the places in the north I wanted to see, I would day trip them from Hanoi instead of staying overnight. Meaning I would be where I needed to be maybe a little earlier than I intended but I wouldn’t have to compromise and miss out anything along the way.
So I left Hoi An in my rear view and made my way to Hue over the Hai Van pass. For the top gear enthusiasts out there, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when I say pelting over the hai Van pass on the back of a motorbike is one of the most exhilarating experiences I think I’ll ever have. Now I already know what my mums face will look like as she’s reading through this part. She made me swear that I would never get on the back of a bike…but you’ll be glad to know I was the only one to hire a driver (a very good driver actually) to take me to Hue safely.
See I’m spontaneous but I’m not a complete idiot. The fact I fall over standing still is enough to realise my balance isn’t all that great, and driving my own bike over one of the most dangerous roads in Vietnam would probably be up there with the most stupid things I’d ever do. So I didn’t. I paid a bit more and hopped onto the back *SO much better as I could freely look around me without worrying about tipping off the side of the mountain* and I made it to Hue safe and sound with some of the best memories, photos and videos of the world famous road carved into the Vietnamese mountainside. So far it’s my favourite experience of Vietnam getting to see the tiny fishing villages built atop lagoons, stopping and having lunch on a beach that looked like it belonged on the front of a Thomas Cook brochure and zipping through the streets of Hue, weaving in and out of the hundreds of other bikes on the road, catching yourself smiling away for no other reason other than you’re having the time of your bloody life !
So far, Vietnam has been absolutely insane. From the minute you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City you can immediately tell you’ve arrived in a new country. The locals are fantastic – always willing to stop and give you directions or recommend their favourite places for you to go check out. The food is brilliant (and cheap! – 10k for a Bhan Mi from a street stall UFT) and its the first time I’ve ever tried Pho (a beef with noodle soup mixed with green veggies, mum you’d love this!). The hostels have also been a massive step up from the ones I experienced in Cambodia & Thailand. There’s always a party, or a pub crawl, or if you want a quiet night there are ample places to sit with a book or like I’m doing, catching up on your blog with a coffee en route. It’s still not here yet by the way…Whatever you’re looking for, I 100% guarantee you will find it here. Except from a needle and thread apparently. Ive been looking for one for around 3 weeks now and I’m still no further forward. Boogying a little too much in my Thai elephants pants led to a rip in the most unfortunate of places so you can imagine I’m eager to fix that up as soon as possible!
Now don’t get me wrong, everything is absolute chaos. That kinda wild, unapologetic, mind-blowing chaos that almost has an order to it. Like everyone is living and working together in an anarchic harmony. You don’t look both ways when you cross the street, you just walk and they WILL avoid you. If eating in a group, don’t expect to be served your food all at the same time. It’ll come as it’s made & don’t ask how long it’s going to take, that’s just how it is. Get over being the only one eating. Stop looking at your watch, you’ve got nowhere else better to be. Western food? Forget about it. Throw away your inhibitions and get down and dirty with the locals. Learn how to use chopsticks. Stop ordering chicken burgers and chips. Try the questionable meats. Walk blindly without consideration. Take too many photos and ask too many questions. Put your phone away and try using a paper map for a change. Walk till your feet get sore. Walk til’ your trainers wear out. Buy new ones. Argue. Debate. Learn about others. Learn about yourself. Appreciate the different cultures. Stop comparing it to back home. You’re here. You’re living, you’re breathing and you’re on the other side of the world. You’re really doing this. You’re ALIVE.
WELCOME to Vietnam.