Vietnam is fast becoming the highlight of our trip, consistently putting smiles on our faces. We started out on Phu Quoc, a large island not too far from the Cambodian border. Phu Quoc is 90% mountainous forest; there is a small guesthouse/resort strip and a main town with some paved roads, but otherwise the entire place is remote and crisscrossed with dirt roads. We had a beach-front bungalow with hammocks for $8/night – the beaches are gorgeous, there are no crowds and the waves were wonderful. We rented a motorbike and spent an entire day exploring the north end of the island. We got caught in one downpour while passing through a village and were immediately ushered into a small bamboo hut by the guy that lived there – we couldn’t communicate via words but he was happy to have stay until the storm passed. The rest of the day was spent driving alongside miles and miles of absolutely pristine,deserted beaches and ended with indescribably fresh seafood. We really didn’t want to leave, but luckily we pulled ourselves away and headed to the next place!
Stop number two was Can tho, on the Mekong Delta. We foolishly agreed to buy minibus tickets from our moto driver – “very nice bus, fast, air conditioned!” In reality it was a large van that should have been retired years before, with one fan and nearly 20 people (someone with a bag of fish) crammed in. Within an hour we got a flat tire and it took over an hour to fix…luckily there was a bia hoi place to keep us occupied. Anyways, Can tho was a really nice little town and we headed out at 5:30 the next morning to some floating markets. We had a longtail boat with a woman to drive it down the Mekong, and it was great.
We’d done the floating markets in Thailand, but those are so overdone and exist only for the tourists. These markets are actually functional, there were few other foreigners in sight and certainly no boats selling souveniors! Our driver spoke no english, but she made incredible sculptures out of palm leaves as she motored along and took us down lots of rural, beautiful back canals where the resident kids would run out and scream their hellos – we loved it! We were back by lunch, just in time for an afternoon of thunderstorms…luckily we were blessed with a hot water shower and a wrought iron balcony (and, okay, the Discovery channel) that made our room a perfect place to spend such an afternoon.
Next, we headed to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon. We weren’t anticipating enjoying it, expecting it to be another huge, crazy, dirty city and were going to stay for a day, see a museum then head north. However, we were pleasantly surprised! We arrived at night again and at first glance, it resembled Bangkok quite a bit. Once we were settled in our guesthouse (another great, clean, hot-water and balcony room on the second floor of a sweet old lady’s house) and went out to roam around, we realized that the atmosphere was a lot nicer and the city was unbelievably clean (a rare thing in SE Asia). The traffic was impressive, but had nothing on Phnom Penh – I mean, come on, Vietnam actually has helmet laws and stoplights!
I got up at 5 the next morning to run, as there was a large park across from our place. From our back alley location, I couldn’t tell if it would be too early, too sketchy, etc, and headed out tentatively. Stepping onto the street was like stepping into a time warp! I’d expected it to be dark, quiet and to feel a bit jumpy until the world started to wake up. What I was greeted with, however, were bars still full of foreigners, breakfast soup vendors everywhere, Vietmanese men already at the cafes with their iced ca phe and cigarettes and a park absolutely packed with runners, walkers, handball games, soccer games and mass aerobics groups in the center of it all. I was the latecomer! Running around that park was akin to being on a carousel at a carnival, it was super entertaining and a perfect start to the day.
We explored the market for breakfast (and snack and lunch), where we found a mindblowing spread of new things to try, then headed to another park to sit, write and enjoy the absolutely perfect weather. Saigon is a beautiful city, very green, very clean and full of French architecture – hands down the nicest city we’ve seen in Asia. We headed to the War Remnants Museum in the afternoon. I won’t go into too much detail on it, but it was another harsh dose of reality. The photos were shocking, things you never see or hear about in history class (or anywhere else), and while it was obviously presented from the Vietmanese point of view, there’s no arguing some of the things we saw. One of the most overwhelming sections documented the effects of Agent Orange on later generations; it put me near tears and both of us felt as though we didn’t want to speak and have anyone in there hear our American accents. I have no doubt that I have learned more history on this trip than I could’ve learned in 30 years of school at home.
I was sort of sad to leave Saigon so soon, but we only have a month and time is flying; the country that began as our lowest priority has quickly become the highest and there is so much ground to cover! This morning we both went running, checked BBC for election updates, had another soup (the current front-runner) at the market, checked BBC for election updates, then boarded a bus to Dalat. Dalat is in the central highlands and the descriptions were wonderful; waterfalls, mountains, lakes, cool climate and lots of French influence – we anticipated wanting to spend a few days in such a place.
First of all, the bus was light years ahead of anything we’ve been on recently. Lots of leg room, tv, a/c, good food stops and amazing scenery. The further we went, the more breathtaking it became; mountains covered in vineyards, huge pine trees, gorgeous waterfalls. Arriving in Dalat was the climax; if it weren’t for the motorbikes and laughably cheap food/accomodation, I’d think I was in France or Switzerland!
The town is built into the mountains, the roads are steep, the buildings are French, it’s immaculately clean, the trees are huge, local wine is sold everywhere, bakeries are at every corner and it is COLD. I don’t mean that there is a chill in the air, I mean that it’s COLD! We have not experienced this since winter in Austin and finally, finally it feels like November!
We already had huge grins on our face when the bus pulled in, and they got even bigger when it dropped us in the town center instead of a distant station. We got out and a girl politely asked if she could help us (compare this to the usual onslaught of moto drivers all pulling and shouting at you). We asked about a guesthouse that was listed in our book and she offered a free ride to it, but said she had a room right there if we wanted to look- she’d discount it to make it the same, $8. We agreed to look and stepped into the hotel. She led us up four flights of stairs to a spotless room with real bedcovers, hot water, television, complimentary tea and a great view.Our grins got bigger and we moved in – cold weather, real hotel…we felt like we were on vacation from backpacking!
We went to check in and she showed us the newpaper declaring Obama as president – my grin hit its limit! From there, I needed a coat as my rainjacket is hardly protection against chilly weather. We headed up the steep streets and were immediately confronted with a bakery that had our names written all over it. We spent a lot of time gawking and drooling, then finally bought a bottle of wine ($2) and cheesecake. My grin suddenly found room to get bigger! The cake made it all of five feet from the door before it was devoured (they always give you spoons), then we headed towards the market. Coats and winter gear are the specialty in Dalat, and within minutes we were drowning in choices.
As you probably know, Vietnam is the place for clothing production, which means it is the place for bargains. There is the market, where coats/sweaters/wool hats/scarves are piled on the ground and it’s a free-for-all bargain fest. Near the market are shops with more upmarket choices, and this is where I found my deal!
There was a super nice Northface coat that I immediately saw, and Gabe, former outdoor-gear professional, informed me that it retails for at least $350. We asked the girl what she wanted for it, expecting maybe $100…she responded with “$24.” Twenty four dollars! I let Gabe do his expert inspection and it all checked out as genuine and intact, so I happily bought it and am now contemplating Craigslist opportunities…I may be buying several!
To sum this up, Vietnam is breath-taking. Thailand was great and Cambodia made what will probably be the biggest impression on me, but this place is just all-around wonderful. It’s gorgeous, there are so many drastic differences between the different regions, it’s not overrun by tourism (as is Thailand), the food is amazing, it’s clean, it’s taken care of and the people are phenomenal. There’s much more of a Chinese influence here and you can see it in the relative orderliness of things. I’m sure I’ll have lots to write after a few days in Dalat, and things should only get more beautiful from here; the grand finale will be in the far north mountain town of Sapa, where snow is a very real possibility. I have a feeling that these grins aren’t going anywhere…