March Madness First Round: Vietnam

First, I would like to start by absolutely commending bloggers who backpack travel and keep up with their blog at the same time. I need to try to master the art, but due to a lack of Wifi, a lack of concentration, relentless hangovers and far too much shopping & sightseeing, I find it works better for me to summarize my journey at the end. I decided to brake up my backpacking trip blogs by the countries I visited; Vietnam, Cambodia and then back to Thailand for an amazing visit from my American best friends and the celebration of the Thai new year,Songkran(one of most unique experiences of my journey so far). I lovingly nick named our trip March Madness, in an ode to the NCAA college basketball tournament in America, but it ended up being just that; MADNESS!

So, I will dive into Vietnam first. I was so excited for my first time leaving Thailand since I moved here 6 months ago! My bestie and travel guru (shout out to Kelsey) planned our itinerary, but tried to keep it as flexible as possible (only booking our first flight and first hostel) everything else was an approximate guideline so we could stay places longer when our hearts desired. I was all packed and ready to go the night before our trip and I decided to double-check my passport, my Visas,and my wallet…. OH SHIT! My credit card…is…where? A frantic search of my room began disheveling all of my neatly organized and folded piles of clothes, toiletries, and electronics. WHERE IS MY CREDIT CARD!? This is actually one of the scariest feelings in the world in another country, with a non refundable 2 month trip planned scheduled to leave for the airport that morning at 4:30 am. My biggest problem was it was my Thai bank account, where my paychecks are directly deposited to; I don’t use any other money right now besides my salary so it was my only lifeline. Our flight was scheduled to leave before any of the banks opened and they didn’t have Thai banks in Vietnam or Cambodia…

Tears started wailing from my eyes like a two-year-old child having a tantrum. I stormed into Jackie’s room and told them the news. Of course they offered to help me but the problem was we were all living off the same salary and we wouldn’t be back to Thailand for a month! I knew there was no way they could lend me money while still enjoying and surviving their vacation as well. I couldn’t take them up on their offer even if they forced me.So, I called my super heroes, my lifelines, the two most supportive people in the world… my parents. Of course I got a small lecture about responsibility but they luckily understood and we began to figure out options. I traveled the whole next day with next to no money, I felt so helpless and aggravated. After a lot of tears and a lot of emails back and forth with my Dad I finally got the money Western Union-ed two days later. It felt like an eternity but I was so grateful to have such amazing parents who would literally do anything for me. (THANKS GUYS). And now the fun could begin!

We began our trip through Vietnam in the capital city of Hanoi. From the moment we arrived and stepped out of the airport it felt “different”. One, it was FREEEEEEEZING. And I didn’t pack one long sleeve shirt or pair of pants. It was 100 degrees when we left Thailand so I stupidly assumed Vietnam would be the same. Then we climbed into the taxi and realized that they drove on other side of the road (the same as America) and even weirder now THIS side, the one I lived with for 23 years felt strange and foreign! Our bodies adapt and adjust so quickly it is amazing how rapidly the strange becomes familiar and the familiar becomes strange. As we drove on the highway I began to realize that the driving here was even crazier than Thailand (I never thought that was possible).

As we arrived in the heart of Hanoi I was delighted by the European influence on the city. It truly felt like I was taking a step back in time and it felt strangely comforting and “home” like. We arrived at our hostel, Hanoi Central Backpackers, and were greeted by a beautiful Vietnamese woman who spoke almost perfect English, what a relief! She also told us there was free Wifi, breakfast and beer during happy hour every night from 6:30- 8:30. MUSIC TO A BACKPACKERS EARS! (Highly recommend this hostel to anyone). We got to the room and it was impressively clean and after a quick nap we were reenergized and excited to explore the area!

Half of our time spent in Hanoi was searching for sweaters and leggings to buy because we were absolutely freezing. It rained A LOT. So we spent a ton of time exploring new cafés and restaurants, shopping, and going to local bars (Like we wouldn’t have done that ANYWAY). Hanoi was an awesome central location to take day and overnight trips from. We ended up going on three and went through the booking agency at our hostel. If you haven’t been traveling in SE Asia before, getting around Vietnam and some parts of Thailand and Cambodia is really only available to do through tour groups. Since they know tourists rely on them a lot of companies end up being scams. Using your hostel’s booking agency is your safest bet (if it’s not a shady hostel, of course). We decided on a one-day trip to Tam Coc, an overnight trek and homestay with a hill tribe village in Sapa and an overnight cruise in Halong Bay. All three were vastly different but equally as exciting; I can actually say I would recommend all three to anyone visiting Vietnam.

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Tam Coc

A van picked up us from our hostel very early in the morning and it was pouring rain and freezing. I still hadn’t bought a sweater yet but luckily with 5 girls you can manage to borrow just about anything. The ride was longer and bumpier than expected but the iconic scenery excited us: WIDE OPEN RICE FIELDS for as far as the eye could see. We arrived in Hoa Lu to visit some ancient temples and immediately were haggled into buying ponchos and the traditional Vietnamese hats called “Nons”. Total tourist move, I know but it was raining and can you actually say you went to Vietnam if you don’t wear one of those signature hats?
We got a GREAT buffet lunch complete with spring rolls and spicy goat meat. After lunch we went for a ride down the Cong Rong river in a small wooden boat pushed by a woman paddling the oars WITH HER FEET! That’s talent. It was so peaceful, and breathtaking…until of course our driver pulled over the boat and tried to haggle us to buy souvenirs. Little did we know this was the LEAST of our haggling worries. Honestly, it was my least favorite part about Vietnam and Cambodia, if I want to buy it I WILL. You following me and standing next to me shouting “Cheap Cheap for you lady” is not going to win my heart. We ended the night back in Hanoi with sangria and MEXICAN (of course) and wandered down the local streets only to find out all the bars and restaurants completely shut down at 12/1am in Hanoi. If you are looking for the city that never sleeps, Hanoi is not the place for you!

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Sapa

Our overnight bus to the northern city of Sapa, Vietnam was TERRIFYING! It was our first experience with a lay down bus. Each “seat” is a pseudo bed and there are two levels (bunk bed style) with 3 rows. There was a man who had the hiccups for the entire 10-hour bus ride, there were Vietnamese people sleeping IN the aisles so you literally had to monkey crawl in the air to get to the disgusting bathroom. We stopped about 20 times and it felt like we were going to tip over the entire time because the twists and turns up the mountain were so steep. We finally made it safely at about 8 am and then dropped our bags at our hostel and hastily began our trek.
In the street, the Lao Chai village women, who were dressed in traditional garb, greeted us and they began walking with us. Their English was surprisingly good and they seemed genuinely interested in getting to know us. Slowly but surely, we realized that this “trek” we signed up for was no walk in the park! It was a total of 15k until we reached the village where we would be spending the night. Maybe we should have read the fine print a little more carefully. 4/5 of the girls were wearing Converse which obviously are not the first choice for hikers. Despite the cold air and the incessant mud, the views were absolutely spectacular, so we definitely enjoyed ourselves.
We reached the end of our morning portion and stopped at a visitor center for lunch. As soon as we reached the restaurant the women who were accompanying us all day quickly whipped out a bunch of “handmade” goods from their backpacks and began haggling us to buy something from them. In Vietnam, the currency is Dong but they also use USD, which actually ends up hurting travelers. They try to make it seem inexpensive because “it’s only 5 USD” but in SE Asia and on a SE Asian teacher’s salary, THAT’S A LOT!
I felt guilty because I genuinely loved my tribeswoman I was talking to, so I bought a bracelet from her and tried to run away. Her fellow villagers continued to haggle my friends and I for at least 20 minutes, even so much as following us to our lunch table and standing next to us awkwardly begging “ Please miss, Please lady, one dollar, cheap price for you”. The only tactic that worked was complete and utter IGNORING and that still took at least 3 minutes for them to get the hint.
For the afternoon portion, a new tribe was our guide through the mountains. This time we were much more weary of the friendly villagers. The women did the same thing, tried to be our besties and then haggled us relentlessly once we reached our homestay. We stood our ground this time (except for poor Maggie haha). Our homestay was with the Lao Chai tribe and it was essentially a glorified hostel run by a Vietnamese family from the village. We thought we were going to be sleeping in their huts but clearly we thought wrong.
We had an awesome crew of travelers at the homestay that night from all over the world: the U.S., Canada, Germany, and France. The woman who ran the homestay cooked us an amazing Vietnamese feast, we drank “happy water” or traditional rice wine, and then we all chatted around the fire telling stories of our travels and picking the brains of the kind village woman, Zoo. She was only 24, married, running the homestay, and giving guided tours to foreigners trekking that 15k every single day. She taught HERSELF English just from being a tour guide. She explained how she longed to see the world and how she wanted to learn to write her own name in her language or English. At first, I felt so sorry for her but I could also tell that the simplicity and hardworking aspects of her lifestyle made her into a caring and kind soul. The next day we went for a shorter less strenuous trek, visited surrounding villages and their schools and headed back into the town of Sapa. We had enough time to grab a few glasses of wine, enjoy the mountains, eat dinner and it was back on the dreaded overnight bus to Hanoi.

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We decided to take a break between Sapa and Halong Bay and enjoy some more time in the city of Hanoi. This included LOTS of PHO, egg baguette sandwiches, drinking Vietnamese beer, touring the famous attractions of the city such as the Hao Lo Prison that housed many U.S. POWS during the Vietnam War. It was SO interesting to see their perspective of the war, that they so fondly call The American Resistance, and soak up all of the history. Plus it was relatively small and easy to navigate without a paid tour guide. Of course, we spent lots of time doing what we do best, SHOPPING. Hanoi is organized so that each street has a specific item or group of items on it (i.e. Shoe street, silk street, hat street, Gadget street, etc.). You could get lost in the hustle and bustle for hours and we did!

Halong Bay

Halong Bay is said to be one of the Modern Natural Wonders of the world. Despite the cold and rainy weather we were extremely excited to experience it! We signed up for a 2 day-1 night party boat cruise. Please, do not picture a cruise ship from America… these cruise ships looked like they were built in the 1800’s and that they could possibly sink at any moment. We arrived on the cruise ship and realized that we had a very young, seemingly fun crew on our boat for the night. We were right! The day flew by cruising through the many kersts of Halong Bay, climbing into the famous cave inside of one of the kersts, kayaking but essentially freezing our asses off. Our night included overpriced drinks, smoking tobacco with the Vietnamese workers out of a bamboo bong, the Circle of Fire with hilarious rules from our home countries, and lots of laughing. In the morning we learned how to make spring rolls and ate a nice lunch, recalled stories from last night and cruised back to shore with a rickety old Vietnamese cruise ship full of friends from all over the world! Mark all three down as a success. Despite the weather and the scary travel experiences, they were unique and beautiful places I am happy I got to experience.

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Our last day in Hanoi was St. Patrick’s Day, which due to growing up in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood, is a day I take very seriously. We decked ourselves out in green, ate some Pho for lunch and headed to the one and only Irish pub in Hanoi, Finnigans. We arrived at about 2pm and the bar was already PACKED, decorated with Irish flags and leprechauns reeking of Jameson and Guinness. Needless to say we proceeded to celebrate like Irishman, no matter what country we were in or what country we came from. It is a St. Patty’s Day I will never forget!

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Next stop: Ho Chi Min City: all that stood between me and Ho Chi Min was a 2 hour flight with a SCREAMING baby. Not just casually crying once in a while, he was wailing to the point where I had to plug my ears and I could still hear it. It lasted all 2 hours. We arrived at our Budget Hostel (the actual name that suited it well), which was in the middle of a backpacking mecca of bars, restaurants, and countless businesses that opened their sidewalk for business each night. In Vietnam it is this crazy tradition to drink beers sitting on the sidewalk with your friends with miniature sized tables and chairs. Sometimes you got just a tarp or placemat to sit on. We were too tired to partake the first night and crawled into our wobbly bunk beds after dinner.
The next day we explored the city taking it all in, went to some of the famous markets, and visited the beautiful landmarks such as the large Cathedral and the Opera house. For happy hour, Kelsey discovered an awesome roof top bar called Chill Sky Bar that we could go to get a beautiful view of the whole city. There was a dress code so we knew it was going to be super swanky. And it was, we could definitely only afford ONE happy hour drink on a backpackers budget, but the view was TOTALLY worth it. After a classy glass of wine we switched gears and went for beers & dinner at a pizza place we walked by earlier claiming to have “NY style pizza”. I am so skeptical of any pizza in SE Asia because it is never up to par, but boy was I wrong! If you are in Ho Chi Min City and you like pizza go to Espy’s Pizza, I promise you will not be disappointed. We went there 4 times in the next three days! Then we discovered what Ho Chi Min nightlife was about, and it was awesome. There is a wide variety of rooftop bars/restaurants, clubs, outdoor bars, sports bars, etc. We made sure to test out at least one of each.;)

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Traveling started to take a toll on us so we treated ourselves to manis and pedis the next day and that night took an awesome tour of the city on five little personal carriages driven by cute old Vietnamese men. The city is so fast paced and so large and diverse it was the perfect way to experience a feel for the city without spending a lot of money or time. The next day we went on a day trip to the Mekong Delta; which I also highly recommend. It was a very diverse day with boat rides, visits to the floating villages, holding giant pythons, a sneak peek at how the community made unique products such as snake alcohol, coconut candies, rice wine, rice paper…really rice ANYTHING. We had a shitty provided lunch by the tour company and then ended our day by riding bikes around the island and taking a quiet long tail boat down the delta back to shore. It was a hot and sweaty day, but it was jam-packed and a very memorable experience. It was finally time to say goodbye to Vietnam so we ate one last bowl of Pho and waited on our night bus to Cambodia while drinking beers on the sidewalk. And I think it’s safe to say I made it out of Vietnam without tasting their local delicacy/ symbol of good luck, dog meat! At least that I know of! The night bus, as always, was an adventure in itself and I got stuck next to an old, tan Australian man who loved Snickers and Valium. Never fear 17 hours later we arrived safely in Cambodia, with lots of fond memories of an exciting country that is so closely intertwined with the recent history of our own. Cheers Vietnam, I hope to see you again someday!

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