Sorry this first post took so long. I have been constantly brainstorming as I experience everything and try to find the best way to condense it into writing. Here’s my best shot.
Things to know about Vietnam: IT IS COLD.
It seems like every backpacker I’ve talked to was taken aback by the same surprise. Most of the folks trekking through Vietnam have plans that also include Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand- The Mekong region kind of garners its own trip and attracts a very similar breed of travelers, barely anyone is on the road for less than a month. It’s kind of a process, a calling, or just some odd desire to be here that attracts a certain type of person to this region. That said, everyone here has a very similar travel path. The fact that you have traveled through Thailand will impress zero people here. In fact, almost all the places people are going/ have been overlap so it’s really just a hodgepodge of people sharing tips for places to go and giving their own feedback on where they’ve been. Which may be the same deal all across the globe for travelers, but here it’s pretty concentrated into these four countries and seems to be its own little sub culture. It is kind of cool to be able to name drop some of these crazy cities and have everybody just nod in understanding, that probably won’t happen as much once I’m back home.
What was I saying? OH YES. ITS SO FREAKING COLD. Among those backpackers, we share the same shock. Since most of these countries, Thailand and Cambodia specifically, are pretty warm this time of year- it seems that everyone collectively forgets to check the weather when they decide to head up to Hanoi, myself certainly included. While I was goofy enough to leave my leggings and socks in Bangkok, I snagged my hoodie at the last minute- a saving grace (I don’t think I’ve taken it off at all since arriving.. zero exaggeration). With the sun out it’s not bad, but with a gust of wind or before and after the hours of 12pm-4pm, it’s rough. And warm clothing is the HUGE ticket item at the markets here, it’s like they keep their winter a secret to cash in on the unsuspecting tourists.
That aside, I have my first adventure under my belt and am only hours away from the second. After a few days hanging out in the Hanoi Old Quarter exploring the city and the markets and museums, I booked a tour out to the infamous Halong Bay (worth a google). There were two sides to this coin, I’ll start with the shiny one.
It is just like the picture. I felt like I was living a National Geographic special. I kayaked through the waters during the sunset and nearly lost my breath. It was well worth the hassles just to see something that surreal, if only for a moment.
The rest of the two-night three-day excursion was a bit more challenging. The way they have that area fenced off makes it very difficult to tour the islands without a group, without a tourist package. And as I’m on my own at this point, I figured that’s probably not a horrible way to get to know some people and chat among new friends. It was cool to meet new people. I met a spanish
couple that were so kind and friendly and even let me speak the first lick of spanish I’ve had the chance to use in over six months. They were distance runners and super quick to share some talks about cooking and running and being outside in the early morning, all my favorite things. (Obviously I hung out with this older couple instead of dealing with the twenty-somethings trying to plan their partying for the next night, they were kind of annoying).
But despite a few friends, the overwhelming majority of the group was just rude tourists. As most of the luxury, ritzy tourists head for the caribbean and the Vietnam tourists tend to be a bit rougher, I had higher hopes. And while they didn’t necessarily have high standards, when their standards weren’t met, it hit the fan.
Third World Tourism. I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll probably mention it again. It’s basically the blind faith you put in the locals to make you laugh and show you a good time. But in order to make the most of it, you have to surrender all thoughts of logic, efficiency, practicality and comfort. Life goes a different way over here, and holding it to your own preconceived notions is the number one way to have a crappy time- and ruin others experience as well.
Lets just say our tour had a lot of mishaps. I stopped counting after the fifth time that our bus broke down over the course of three miles. And laughed when I saw the wooden construction of planks that was to be our “luxury cruise” (certainly not the image in the brochure, or maybe a shipwreck-revived version). It was cold, which made people cranky, in addition to the vietnamese hoops we had to jump through. And anytime something went wrong, nobody would translate the problem to us, so people got crankier. I was really disappointed with tourism, even if I shouldn’t use one group outing as my reasoning. Almost everyone on the cruise complained and the ones that became friends bonded over their shared disbelief for the state of affairs. It was rude. People were yelling and cussing at the guides, and never once bothered to see the situation from the other perspective. Albeit the guides were a bit crazy, their job is to herd and please these white folks with only third-world resources at their disposal- add sleep deprivation and poor weather to the mix, it’s a tough job. I think the main reason I can empathize a bit is because of my years spent camp counseling. These tourists were basically just big kids, and you please them with booze instead of candy. So I’m glad I had that experience to understand a bit, but overall I kept to myself. It wasn’t the worlds best cruise, but if there was one thing that tainted my experience the most, it was the international company, far triumphing the questionable “boat” and even the frigid temps. (Of course, that’s not exclusive, there were some friendly folks that I really enjoyed amongst the rest).
After the first night of icicles and a strike staged by the passengers that did not feel comfortable handing over their passports
(I GET that, nobody ever wants to risk losing that, but accomodation here holds your passport collateral for the room, that’s just how it goes), I was convinced that group travel was not going to happen again for me. The previous plans I had quickly morphed into a trip south to soak up some beach sunshine and surf before I head back to the winter wonderland of Blacksburg.
But Day Two held different plans. No different from Sri Lanka, I experienced a full spectrum of thoughts and emotions over the course of my waking hours. Reflecting on the positives, the trip itself had some highlights. I was able to do a short hike to an incredible viewpoint, and had a run through Cat Ba island that was incredible and beautiful and the perfect port-town exploration. Complete with a half-hour gaze into the sunset sesh. The rest was mostly just waiting. Taking a boat ride, taking a bus ride, punctuated only with my first Vietnamese massage from the “blind masseuses” that seem to be all the rage (not to be repeated, it was comparable to having stones dropped on my back for a half-hour, my intensity preference is much happier under the “traditional thai” style).
The bus ride home was pensive. I was greeted by the ever-familiar nostalgia of home life, which is getting stronger with Christmas around the corner. It’s the first time in 22 years that my family has been split up on December 25th, and while that’s not exactly a bad thing (it’s just a day, there will be more) it is a change and I do miss being with everyone for all the get togethers. The upside to that though, is that once Jan 3rd rolls around and everyone is all stuffed with holiday food and taking down the tree and getting bummed out by the winter, I’ll be fully recharged and maybe tan and probably less nostalgic when the time passes. ANYHOW, as per use, I got back to the hostel and pulled a 180. Suddenly I decided to listen to my gut and take the trip to Sapa. Another group trip, to an especially frigid part of Vietnam. I can’t tell you why I felt that gut voice to go, but I can tell you it was one I shoved down for a while because it sounded so unpleasant. But I eventually conceded, bought some earmuffs and a jacket, and am headed north to do some trekking, and spend Christmas Eve night with a family in a homestay.
And I was feeling so recharged that I strolled out into the city to tackle the night market. Currently grabbing some fruit and tea (and Taro Ice Cream that came after the pic but was worthy of calling THE BOMB- best ice cream I’ve had in so long), and feel great. Maybe it’s all the gut decisions I’ve made. Maybe it’s just the juxtaposition that always seems to follow my moments of low energy. I don’t know, but it always seems to hide just around the corners.
I don’t even know why I’m typing this, my plans are changing like the weather, but here’s for sharing. After I return to Hanoi from Sapa, cerca the 26th, I’ll head south for real. Da Nang I think (it may be the best hope for surf). Flights to Ho Chi Minh City from there are a mere 30 bucks, so I think I’ll do that, perhaps spend a few days there, then hustle back to Bangkok to grab my gear before I am USA-bound. I think crossing via land, through Cambodia, will be a bit impractical for this trip. That said, whoever is up for a trip through Northern Thailand and Cambodia/ Laos in the next few years- consider this your invitation :)