Vietnam has been one big, unbelievable adventure. I had several intense experiences and I honestly don’t know how the hell I survived these moments, like on the streets of Ho Chi Minh or on the bumpy roads somewhere far off the beaten track. Those three weeks forced me out of my comfort zone every once in a while, made me do things I never thought I would and found paradise where I didn’t expect it at all.
I’m not sure if there is another country in this world like Vietnam. We had experienced the big cities which are bigger than Austria (in population), admired a beautiful sunrise on sand dunes and explored the mountains of the North. Vietnam definitely has it all. Colorful markets, impressive landscapes, delicious food – you name it. There is so much to talk about, so many survival tips to share but with this first post about my Vietnam adventure I’d like to give you an overview on my journey all along the coast from South to North.
HO CHI MINH
We kicked off our tour in Ho Chi Minh which is the biggest city of the country and the industrial capital of the South, but beside the vibrant modern atmosphere of this 9 million people-city you can still sense the culture of the region.
We started our Vietnam journey on the 2nd of September and we couldn’t have picked a better day because it was National Day and the whole city was on it’s feet celebrating it’s beautiful country and it’s freedom – and it felt like a very warm welcome for us. All in all we spent 4 days in Ho Chi Minh as Christoph and I met my best friend there, who had flown in from her internship in Hong Kong, and we had a great time together exploring the city, visiting the Mekong Delta and the famous CuChi Tunnels as well as parting with some locals.
After Ho Chi Minh we stopped at the sand dunes of Mui Ne just 3h north of the city, which was definitely one of the best experiences of our holidays. We took the train to the nearest train station to Mui Ne which is actually a small fishing village but more and more tourist find their way there because of its marvelous landscape and beautiful beaches. We ended up in a backpacker hotel called Mui Ne Hills, where we also booked a early morning (this means 4am!!) jeep tour to the sand dunes for 4 dollars each and in the end we have seen the whole region, including white and red sand dunes, the village, a sand stone canyon and much more, which I didn’t really expect. It was great and definitely worth getting up early!
Another 3h train ride north of Mui Ne we stopped by at the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang, which is also called the Beach Capital of Vietnam, and more reminds me of an Asian version of Miami. Skyscraper-high hotels at the beachfront only separated from the sea by endless alleys of palms. At first I wasn’t sure what to think about this 500.000 inhabitant super city – which was totally taken over by Russians – but when we arrived at our hotel we knew that we gonna found paradise where we didn’t expect it at all. It was a true hideaway right on the edge of a big city jungle so I decided to do a separate feature on it soon.
We took the sleeper bus from Nha Trang to the ancient city of Hoi An which turned out to become my favorite city in Vietnam. It’s a small city – and of course packed with tourist – but around every corner you find another pagoda, another great restaurant, another tailor or another coffee place. The locals don’t complain about the tourist like the Viennese do on weekends when crossing Stephansplatz or passing by the Opera – they are proud of what they have to offer, they want to show the beauty of their city and understand that preserving this ancient is their most valuably treasure – which so many other Asians still don’t get.
Hoi An is a perl of Asian culture that should definitely be on every one’s to-do-list when traveling Vietnam!
The day we had to leave Hoi An a taifun hit the coast and heavy rain surprised us on our way to Hue which should have taken us over the famous Hai Van Pass, but the weather was too bad and it actually turned out that it would have been extremely dangerous too so we took the tunnel instead and a few hours later we found ourselves in Hue, all wet of the heavy rain.
The next day wasn’t much better but we went off to explore the city anyway despite 30cm of water on the streets and the lack of a rain coat. And our boldness paid off – because the imperial city was definitely one of the most beautiful palaces I’ve ever been to even though the main building has been destroyed in the Vietnam War. You felt the secret power of a monarchy that has been oppressed by foreigners so often but having the local people still having it’s back and you can experience the centuries old tradition all around. It has been pure magic and another place I wouldn’t have wanted to miss on my journey even though the city itself isn’t much worth paying a visit but the imperial part definitely is!
One flight and a night train ride later we ended up in Sapa after fighting off the Minibus Mafia and finally making peace with the endless bad weather the taifun brought to Vietnam. Sapa is definitely one of Vietnams most famous towns and in some way reminds me a bit of Kitzbühel – all the way back home. We stayed there for one night so we where kind of desperate seeing the famous rise terraces that fed all the 90 million Vietnamese and many more people beyond its boundaries – but the weather god wasn’t in our favor.
So we rented a motorbike and by recommendation of our receptionist we made our way down the valley to escape the fog and leave it all up in the mountains. This ride was one of the most exciting adventures in my whole life. The street down there wasn’t much of a street, waterfalls have taken over those remaining parts of the road that at least had some kind of a solid pavement, cows stood on the edges of the steep hillsides, locals were harvesting their rice and nature pulled all the strings. We passed through villages where everyone looked at us like we where aliens and I finally started to understand how foreigners might feel when they end up in some village far of the beaten track somewhere in Austria. After our motorbike broke down in the middle of nowhere and some locals helped us getting it up and running again we made our way back up to Sapa and took the evening train back to civilization, with a smile because we have experienced the real wild Sapa that not many people get to know.
LAN HA BAY (HALONG BAY)
We actually wanted to see the world nature heritage Halong Bay but pressed for time and not wanting to spent a little fortune to be on a overpacked cruise boat with hundreds of other tourist we decided to do it on our own and after arriving at Hanoi Train Station at 4.45 am we took the first train to Haiphong – not much of a beautiful city but the best connection to the island and national park Cat Ba where we directly booked a boat tour to Lan Ha Bay, which is actually part if Halong Bay but is already in another province so it’s not part of the official heritage of Halong Bay but equally as beautiful, if not even more, and what’s the best thing about it, is that there are nearly no people around. Only 2 or 3 Cruise Ships crossed our path and locals living on floating villages. It was definitely the best idea to visit the little sister than the overcrowded Halong Bay itself.
Our last stop. We only had two days left in Vietnam wanted to seize the limited time we’ve got and so we did. We strolled around the Old Quarter, still stunned by the amazing Vietnamese coffee culture, had Bia Hoi (freshly brewed beer for less than 20cents), visited Hoan Kiem Lake right in the center and the Temple of Literture. We had great street food as well as at modern vietnamese cuisine at one of Hanoi’s most cosmopolitan and best hidden places called the Hanoi Social Club (pay them a visit if you happen to be around) and popped by the Night’s Market, which takes place every Saturday Night in the Old Quarter, for some real authentic asian style shopping experience – so expect a lot of plastic and Hello Kitty – it was fun though.
Hanoi was totally different than Ho Chi Minh. Everything was smaller – the buildings, the monuments – but there are as many people living in Hanoi as in the southern city and it actually felt that way. It was like you try squeeze every Austrian plus another million people (on top) in a city the size of Vienna. One would expect severe damage as an outcome of this experiment but even chaos has its rules, its regularities and somehow it works. And that’s what makes Vietnam so special and most of all Hanoi.
My Vietnam trip has been one big colorful adventure, while which I’ve learned so much, got to know many lovely people and Christoph and I simply had the time of our lives. Now we are back home, back to reality but it still feels like a dream and the buzzer didn’t went off yet so there is still much to tell you about! Hope you pop by for more soon!
*pictures by Christoph and me