Today is our last day in Vietnam and we are half way through travelling. Two more weeks of exploring and eating and laughing and living out of a rucksack before going home to England, and life couldn’t feel more surreal…
Ho Chi Minh City
This was mine and Lexi’s first stop in Vietnam, immediately indicating that this intoxicating and strange country couldn’t be more different to Cambodia. For us, Vietnam has a lot to live up to. We are Cambodia devotees and at any mention of it, our ears prick up and hearts pang. For the record, I did try to come here with an open mind, but I also had reservations. I wondered how a richer and more developed country could maintain the respect and friendliness that makes Cambodia so special (and the best).
As our bus pulled into HCMC, the first thing we laid eyes upon was a headless dog being spit roasted on the street. The big city is crazy, there are millions and millions of people that you can’t escape from wherever you go. But despite the chaos, we did some people watching and slowly started to see that everyone is just normal and going about their business. Ho Chi Minh is home to ambitious and fashionable young people, happy families with adorable babies, toothless and frustrated old women. After seeing this, I began to embrace rather than grit my teeth at what I had perceived as the rude or pushy traits of the Vietnamese people.
So Lexi and me began to explore this completely new world, being proud that we view travelling as an opportunity to make the absolute most out of every day. We went up a skyscraper to see the intense city from above, visited the war museum to try to understand the hugely confusing and futile fighting that happened in Vietnam before, and spent time enjoying the green parks (something we never had in Cambodia). We ate Pho, marvelled at incense filled Taoist temples and annoyed several moto drivers with our flailing attempts at crossing roads. I felt inept because we were outside of our Cambodian comfort zone (I suck at Vietnamese and can’t get my head around using the Dong currency).
We then got the train to Nha Trang, a town about 6 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City. The train took us through lush green fields and mountains, which is a massive visual change from the dusty orange of rural Cambodia. I sadly had to sit next to Lexi, who was hyperventilating throughout the entire journey because of the precarious rocking of the ‘death train’ (I didn’t notice).
There is really only one thing to do in Nha Trang, and I had no complaints. We lay on the hot beach all day, occasionally moving to eat or turn over in the sun. Here it felt that we were on holiday for the first time, the children another chapter in our lives, and we both started to unwind.
From Nha Trang we got the hellish sleeper bus to Hoi An, which is a fair distance going upwards into Vietnam. I woke up several times in a panic as the bus veered round steep cliff faces giving a glimpse of imminent death in the sea below. One reason that I have been loving travelling is that after a few days we move onto the next place. After lingering (obviously in a good way) in one place for the whole year, it’s refreshing to change scenery.
I genuinely couldn’t believe it when I saw the streets of Hoi An for the first time. Losing my bearings in rows of stunning buildings and under magical lanterns became such a beautiful thing to do. The next best thing to happen to us was two becoming four, when we saw the lovely faces of our friends Charlotte and Esme again as they finished work at their project in Cambodia soon after us.
There are a lack of attractions in Hoi An, but having nothing to do was a blessing. It gave us the chance to laze about and wander around the town that was pretty much made for Instagram. We rode bikes around, spent hours having conversations over long lunches and top class Vietnamese coffee (it was a dream), and ended up all four of us in the basket boat of an old man singing national anthems on the river.
It’s not really worth mentioning Hue and we were thankful that it was just an overnight stop off on our journey to North Vietnam. We felt mislead when we discovered that the city was more of a mismatch of average restaurants and dismal streets rather than a must-see highlight. I dragged everyone around the world heritage imperial city, but it was really a load of run down ruins.
So Lexi, Charlotte, Esme and me got ourselves to Hue train station. Little did we realise what we’d got ourselves in for as we boarded the sleeper train to Hanoi for the painful fourteen hour journey. With stiff backs and sleepy eyes we were thrown into Hanoi. After seeing so many Vietnamese towns in quick succession, the capital seemed characterless and a bit similar to the moto chaos and crammed shops of Ho Chi Minh. The best thing we did here was our boat ride around Halong Bay. Google it if you want to. The rocky islands covered in jurrassic jungle are unreal, with the mist making everything so dramatic and peaceful in a sinister way.
Vietnam has been an entirely new world, and although it’s been so interesting to learn about, it’s also been a stressful experience. We’ve encountered quite a lot of hostility and sometimes have really felt that we are annoying and unwelcome Westerners. When trying to rationalise this, I’ve been thinking about two things. Firstly, we haven’t actually got to know any Vietnamese people. Unlike our understanding of Cambodian people, we don’t know about the culture or what behaviour is like beneath the surface of the busy roads and tired street sellers. In addition, there could be an element of history in general Vietnamese attitudes towards us. After being subject to so much destruction and being walked all over by American aggression, it’s perhaps easier to see why tourists aren’t so popular.