“Stepping in to the second country of our trip (excluding layovers) we felt as though we were pros at entering countries over here and knew exactly what to expect. The hard fact is that as Thailand was an excellent stepping stone for travels in SE Asia, it also spoiled us rotten and set us up with unrealistic expectations and unfair comparisons that it took time to overcome.
This became extremely apparent the second we arrived in Hanoi, when instead of the warm smiles and kind hearts, we were welcomed with intense/angry TSA (Or Military) officers. The problem was that at least 20 people on our plane alone (coming from all over the world) flew into the country without enough money to pay for the Visa. We were not alone in our expectations that a smooth running system would have an ATM available so we could each withdraw 1,000,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong, 22,000VND = 1USD). Unfortunately that wasn’t the case so our first hour in Vietnam was spent in a holding process until they would finally escort us to the overcharging ATM outside…And thus begins the gut wrenching and exhilarating 3 weeks in Vietnam.
For the first couple of days it seemed that situations like these kept on happening. It was either blunt/rude people, scary traffic situations (Making Bangkok which had once looked like a Jungle, now look like a playground), Police abruptly shutting down the hostel lobby and yelling at residents before the city curfew…We were not impressed to say the least and kept thinking how much we missed Thailand.
It wasn’t until after the most miserable bus/ferry combo imaginable when we landed on Catba Island (Just south of Halong Bay) that we decided two things. First was that we would stop making comparisons to Thailand as they were not the same place (“Same Same but Different” as they say here), and second we would accept negative things that happen as we understand that Unlike a normal vacation, travel is an adventure, and you never hear of a good adventure story that doesn’t have its fair share of misfortune…and we most certainly want to share a good story.
From that moment on Vietnam changed for us and we started to open our eyes to the wonderful culture and amazing people. The group of Vietnamese people we met next were the owners and team at “Catba Central Hotel” where we were welcomed with open arms, given the best advice on how to experience the area, and invited to family dinner where we ate pounds of oysters, whole fish, squid, and many bowls of rice wine (Very comparable to sake). This is the absolute best way to learn and feel apart of the culture and not be the ignorant traveler who doesn’t know anything about the language or the region.
With the advice from Chung the owner of the hotel we did a one day boat tour through Halong Bay seeing some of the 7,000 beautiful limestone islands before embarking on a kayaking journey into some of the island bays through cave tunnels and seeing monkeys on the hill. Next we swam on an uninhabited beach and then ventured to Monkey Island where we saw a few more monkeys and climbed up this limestone mountain to get a 360 view of this unbelievable landscape. After an experience like this our 3 night stay turned into a full week and we got to hike the Catba national park to the highest peak on the Island and hang out on a few beautiful beaches while intaking a healthy diet of Banh Mi (Baguette filled with meat, veggies and egg, pronounced Bun ME) and Pho Bo (Beef noodle soup, pronounced pha Bo, Most people in the USA are familiar with this Vietnamese cuisine). Living off of a $3 hostel/night and $1 meals we were kings and didn’t see a rush to get back to the madness of Hanoi.
We eventually decided it was time we made our way back to the big city, and this time with an open mind. This made all the difference. We embraced Hanoi’s chaos this time around and had a great time exploring and meeting people in our most modern Hostel “Hanoi Rocks”. Taking in much more of the city, coming to understand the driving situation and walking through without fear what was referenced to as a “Motorbike school of fish” that somehow didn’t turn in to a thousand vehicle pile-up, and overall finding this land as a much more welcoming place. At Peace with North Vietnam we said our goodbyes to several of our travel companions who were staying behind to teach and headed to the south to see what else we could learn.
In Vietnam many travelers buy motorbikes and drive from North to South or Vice-Versa so that they can see everything. We opted for the $40 flight to Ho Chi Minh City to expedite the process and skip the headache of constant repairs. Once landed we found our driver from the new hostel waiting for us with a sign with my name on it (This made me feel so special as a penny traveler knowing that several months ago I might have seen this as a semi-important business traveler). This turned in to a pleasant stay in this city with so much history that would actually turn in to an intense eye opener.
Our time here was spent on pub crawls with new friends and a trip to the War Remnants Museum. Nothing to crazy about the pub crawls except getting in to the final 3 of a billiards tournament (The game was called killer which I wasn’t familiar with) and helping a fellow traveler who had lost his bearings in a not-so-safe part of town. The museum on the other hand provided a new view point on a war that America had largely contributed to and the aftermath that is still seen today. I won’t go in to detail of our exact experience, but I will say that I walked away shedding a few tears and having a better understanding of why people I had met in Vietnam weren’t as welcoming (Rightfully so) as our Thai friends and realizing that some of the individuals I had seen all over the country both young and old were misshaped because of war crimes involving a treacherous chemical called “Agent Orange”. With so much donated to this museum from America’s veterans, media, and government I strongly recommend a visit if you are ever in this part of the world.
Off to greener pastures we left for our next Ocean paradise in Mui Ne, Vietnam. Although we didn’t partake, Mui Ne is the Kite surfing capital of the world, which is almost a liberating feeling watching hundreds of thrill seekers catch the wind and fly 20 meters above the water and land with such grace (or smack the water with powerful force, also entertaining!). Mostly lounging and indulging in the best seafood we had ever had (Shark, Barracuda, Scallops, etc..), but we were able to take our first surf lesson from Michael the Dutch surf pro. Going to a college that had a surfing team and beautiful NC coastline, you would think that I would have tried it by now, but better late then never. Luckily we were both able to get up a few times and this prepared us for hours of practice to come in the near future in Bali, Indonesia.
Moving on to our final destination up in the cool mountains, we took a bumpy 8 hour bus (surprisingly more intense than most rollercoasters, at least from the back row) to Da Lat, Vietnam. This destination had a different theme as it was based around a sport I have little knowledge of called Abseiling, or repelling. Loving the thrill of rock climbing or bouldering, but not being too keen on the idea of falling in any fashion from a rock face, I had my reservations. There is a reason you are supposed to face your fears, being stronger is usually a side-effect, but once in a while it results in a experience that you will cherish for the rest of your life. This happened to be one of those. Starting slow and then working our way up to intense 25 meter waterfall descents, you develop a sense of trust for a rope the size of your pinky that you never would have imagined and a courage buried deep within that you didn’t know was there yesterday. Pretty powerful stuff to say the least.
A reoccurring theme is staying longer than anticipated in each location, and Da lat was no different. We stayed at the “Tiny Tigers” hostel here which felt more like staying at a relatives home. Leo, Hae, and their 5 year old son Tin Tin have infectious personalities that was unique even compared to the best of the best. Being a business owner at the age of 27 isn’t standard in this part of the world, and becoming close friends with Leo we learn the pro’s (Freedom, social standing, family pride) and con’s (living under the stairs, restrictive laws, harsh fines while opening a new location) of breaking the norms and following your dreams. Leo and his family have more of a plan than most people I know in there 20’s or even 30’s and am excited for them as they grow their business but know that they will face more obstacles than we would in the States. Good luck to Leo and his Tiny Tigers!
This wraps up our excursions in Vietnam and leads to a short rendezvous in Cambodia. We arrived today and have been hearing stories almost daily of the beauty, kindness, and Moto-muggings that occur here, so we are ecstatic to visit, but going to make it a short 1 week stay to limit danger. Angkor Wat here we come.
Happy almost Thanksgiving and much love from the land of the lawless,”
-The Scarf Guys