From South Africa I had a one hour layover in Abu Dhabi and then headed straight to Ho Chi Minh City (aka: Saigon). After getting over some issues with my Visa (apparently you need a letter from your embassy to travel to Vietnam), I was given an “emergency visa” at a price that hurt my little hobo heart. Once in a cab and heading towards my hostel there was one and one thing only I noticed about Vietnam: MOTORBIKES! This place was swarming with scooters that weaved in and out of each other in NO order whatsoever and somehow they didn’t crash. If Vietnam has any traffic laws at all they must be thrown out the window the moment people get their licenses because it was absolute chaos. It felt like I was playing frogger every time I wanted to cross the street.
After sleeping in the following day I decided to wander the streets in search of a place to do my laundry. I took everything in the hopes that the grubbiness of camping for 40 days could finally be washed out of my clothes. I also found the backpacker road which had some great spots to eat and some fun shops. This leads me to the second major thing I noticed about Vietnam: A HOBO’S PARADISE! This place was incredibly cheap…. like mind blowingly cheap. My entire 11 days came to under $500 and I wasn’t particularly skimping on things.
So after I delighted in the prices of Vietnam my next mission was to plan what I was going to do during my stay in Saigon. I opted for the War Museum one day and the CuChi Tunnels another day. I would have liked to have taken a trip out to the Mekong Delta to see the floating markets but I didn’t feel I had enough time.
The War Museum cost $1 and in my opinion it was very graphic and very anti-American. I didn’t know too much about the Vietnam War before I travelled to Saigon but between the War Museum and the CuChi Tunnels I feel like I now have a better understanding. The War Museum was littered with pictures of people who had been deformed due to ingesting the chemical Agent Orange. The photos were really sad and the captions pointed the finger of blame squarely at the Americans. They believe that the use of Agent Orange and other chemicals was a war crime. I’m still unclear as to why the USA joined the Vietnam War. Perhaps any sort of growing communism was a major threat at that time? After spending a few more days in Ho Chi Minh I did notice an alarming number of people with deformities which I am assuming are still side effects of Agent Orange chemicals. I also noticed people’s relief when they asked me where I was from and I said Canada. Automatically people assume I’m from the USA because of my accent and appearance. Maybe I should throw an, “Eh” in at the end of every sentence just to make people feel more comfortable.
The following day I took a tour out to the Tam Giao temple and the CuChi Tunnels. The Tam Giao religion is isolated to Vietnam. It is a combination of Buddhism, Confucianism, Mahayana, and Taoism. The reason the religion was invented was because when the French were attacking Vietnam in the late 1800’s religious places were off limits. So they created a new religion with a giant temple so they could hide in there.
The temple was interesting but the highlight of the day was the CuChi Tunnels. The Vietnamese used guerilla warfare to fight. They would work in their villages all day as civilians and at night the women would dig the tunnels and the men would fight intensely for about half an hour. The Vietnamese were extremely resourceful people; they made traps out of anything and everything. Most of the traps were holes dug in the ground with spikes attached to folding chairs or other household items.
Aside from the traps, the Vietnamese had a huge network of tiny tunnels. I went inside one and my hips barely fit. There was a 20 m tunnel that the tourists could crawl through but they had to double to size of it so the westerners could make it through. Even with double the size my claustrophobia kicked in so I have no idea how the Vietnamese handled it. Since the network of tunnels became so intricate air was sometimes sparse. They disguised air holes as giant termite mounds and they would surround the air holes as well as the entrances to the tunnels with chili pepper flakes so the army dogs would lose the scent of humans.
Aside from using nature to create weapons, the Vietnamese would disassemble grenades or bombs that didn’t explode so they could reuse the explosives inside for their own homemade weapons. These people were survivors! Another highlight of the CuChi Tunnels was my chance to shoot an AK-47. I felt slightly guilty about how much I enjoyed shooting it, but it was really fun!
After some more fabulous and cheap Vietnamese food and a visit to the night market I made my way from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi which is in the North of Vietnam. It was here that my friend Leigh and I met up at the airport. We stayed for $12 each in a fantastic hotel in the centre of Hanoi with a balcony and a delicious breakfast. The lady at the front desk was amazing in helping us to plan out our time in Hanoi and the surrounding area. First we opted to go on an overnight cruise to Halong Bay. The next day we drove for almost 4 hours to get to the harbor where we boarded our vessel. Our ship was very nice and modern and it only had 12 rooms. We took a scenic tour out to the bay admiring the beautiful ancient mountain tops that peeked out of the water after being flooded years ago.
When we arrived at Halong Bay we took smaller boats out to floating village. The people here and in the surrounding area literally lived on floating homes or in some cases, in their bamboo boats. We went for a tour in the little bamboo boats all around the town. We saw the school and houses and the spot where everyone comes to sell their fish. I tried rowing the bamboo boat and it was tough! What was even more embarrassing were the locals rowing by using their feet and doing a better job steering the boat than I was.
Later we docked at a beach where we could climb up to the top of one of the mountain tops to see the surrounding view. We ended our day with a 7 course meal traditionally served to royalty. The presentation of the food in Vietnam was so intricite. One grilled fish was covered in a “net” that had been carved out of one entire carrot. Our spring rolls were stuck into pineapples shaped like little birds. They were very artistic with their food presentation. Following dinner there was the option to do some less than okay karaoke or go squid fishing. We opted for the squid fishing but didn’t catch anything. The next morning we had the option to do Tai Chi before breakfast and then we went to visit a cave full of giant stalactites and stalagmites. It would have been nice if the weather had been sunnier for us but it was still a scenic and relaxing few days.
When we got back to Hanoi we didn’t have much down time because we had to hop on the sleeper train to head to our next adventure; a trek in Sapa! Sapa is in the North of Vietnam only a few kilometers from the border of China. Many of the Sapa people descend from tribes that lived there years ago. They make their living by growing rice and weaving hemp clothing dyed indigo with plants found in the area. If I had one word to describe the trek I would say, “MUDDY”. My first hint should have been when they offered to rent us rubber boots for $1 a day. That was one of the best investments I made this trip!
We were followed for 7-10 km through the muddy paths and rice paddies by some Sapa Sisters. Basically these are women from Sapa who follow you all day and assist you through the mud if you need help in the hopes that you will buy something from them at the end of the day. One lady was so old and wrinkly I have no idea how she made the trek into the middle of nowhere then out again every single day in the mud. They were very strong women!
We got to our homestay around 4 that afternoon. We took turns showering then enjoyed a fantastic home cooked Vietnamese meal followed by way too much rice wine (also homemade). It’s rude to turn down a drink in the Vietnamese culture but the rice wine tasted awful! We got really creative with ways of discarding our shots so we didn’t have to take them.
The following day we continued our stroll through local villages and paths leading to remote waterfalls. The scenery was so beautiful and lush and our local guide Mya entertained us with stories everywhere we went. After our lunch overlooking the misty hills we drove back to the town of Sapa. Leigh and I opted to spend our few hours of free time getting $10 massages. To our surprise they played children’s nursery songs paired with Gangnam style in the background. How soothing!
Before we knew it we were back on the sleeper train. Now, I didn’t describe the sleeper train before so I’ll take a second to touch on that now. Picture a train from the 1950’s with the interior décor of the 1970’s (I’m talking major wood paneling and orange everywhere). Each compartment has 4 beds. The beds are held up by chains attached to the wall. So you have to decide carefully, “If this chain were to snap, what would be worse? Falling from the top bunk onto someone else or not falling off your bunk but potentially being squished by a stranger falling from above?” These are the types of questions I’ve had to ask myself over the past 70 days of traveling, haha. There is no spot to store your bags on the train so you sleep curled up with them. You also need to be a semi-pro gymnast in order to vault yourself from the tiny foothold sticking out from the wall onto the top bunk. Sleeping on the train feels like sleeping in a hammock, it sort of rocks you to sleep. That is until it squeals to a stop to let people off. Anyway, we survived the sleeper train (twice) and made it back to Hanoi. From there we had a quick shower, repacked our bags and hopped on a flight to our 24 hour layover in Singapore.