Travels in Vietnam

I can’t believe over a month has passed since I last posted on here. Time seems to have been an illusion the past couple of weeks— I traveled to Vietnam, my brother and sister visited, and Urban Light is busier than ever as our new staff and team took charge of some awesome projects and events. The rain has been consistent every day and I am amazed at the force it comes down at times. A foot of water in the streets is a common site these days. It’s raining right now and the sun is shining brightly over the mosque that sits on my soi— there’s a rainbow out there somewhere!

Vietnam was my first solo traveling experience and I was nervous about how it would all pan out. My nine-hour overnight bus ride to Bangkok to reach the airport (it’s much cheaper to fly out of Bangkok) could have been more comfortable, but I got lots of writing and reading in. Sleep was impossible; the uncomfortable seats weren’t entirely what was keeping me awake though. My twin brother, Darryl, had just arrived in Africa a week and a half prior and as a twin, the separation does get the best of me. We had our last hoorah in Thailand at the beginning of my journey and I was off on my first trip without accompaniment.

Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnels

I luckily had arranged to stay with a family in Ho Chi Mihn city, of which I was connected with on— this website is amazing for people who want to get a local experience, wherever traveling in the world. My roommates and I hosted several couchsurfers from Europe while we were in Baltimore, and I knew I wanted to give it a go while traveling in SE Asia. And it was the best decision. I was picked up from the airport by my internet acquaintance (“Wii”) and his girlfriend (Phieu) (young 20 and 22-year-old college students— no worries, Couchsurfer requires identity verification, past surfer reviews etc. allowing you to make an informed decision on who you stay with) and my first experience on a Vietnam motorbike was had. The honking on these streets is ridiculous and the “every man for himself” attitude is in full play.
Some of my tamer rides in Saigon:

From what I had read, I was expecting Saigon to be an unpleasant eyesore, but I saw a lot of beauty in the streets. The French occupation’s influence lingered on every street corner, as baguettes overflowed on street carts and European style architecture lined the rivers, with decks richly covered in vines, trees, and other plants. I found it all brought a charm to the city, which means a lot coming from this once “Cham City” resident. My adoptive Vietnamese family gave me my own room with an attached bathroom (which a coveted hot shower was had in— my first in three months), wifi, and a fan. Awesome accommodation.

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When we went out to the streets, I was never so scared of being robbed, as Wii and Phieu constantly reminded me that there were many thieves everywhere. I wore my backpack in the front as an added precaution. My hosts were eager to practice their English skills, a main reason they had decided to join the couchsurfer network. It was great to have people interpreting for me and teaching me Vietnamese phrases which brings a much stronger comfort level and interactiveness when traveling. They accompanied me on my excursion to the Cu Chi tunnels, a northern stronghold near the south’s capital during the Vietnam War. An incredible 250 km of underground tunnels provided the Cu Chi with cover and strategic advantage during the war, and many of their tactics are infamous— bamboo traps and various other devices previously used to catch game had been employed in the war efforts. We had the opportunity to travel into some of the tunnels, and it was, well, a bit of a claustrophobic experience.

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Armed with a headlamp, Wii and I entered a domed cave that allowed the Cu Chi people to watch all occurring outside, a huge advantage to unsuspecting enemies. After looking through the peep holes to the outside I had a close encounter with a cave dwelling spider (my only prior experience with these creatures occurred while watching Fear Factor— I’ve been mortified since, and watching one crawl around was unsettling). I looked up, saw a bat, and had enough. Out we went.

Hanging with locals is most advantageous when in search for the best eats— and did we eat. Street food was fantastic. I am blown away by the street food in Thailand, and was equally impressed with what I had eaten in Saigon. My favorite dish, which I insisted to have a second time before leaving, was called bột chiên, small cubes made from rice flour, fried with an egg, and topped with papaya— the sauce was a feature. Never would I have found this dish which was served on the stoop of a small alley house. Glorious 25 cent coffee (5,000 Vietnamese dong) started my morning, afternoon, and nights. I couldn’t get enough. One night I was taken to a seafood restaurant where we ate everything from sea slugs to delicious clams and oysters, but the most challenging thing to eat came when I saw four eggs brought to the table— I knew exactly what they were and immediately refused to eat it. These eggs are known as baluts, or developing duck embryos boiled and then eaten directly out of the egg. After being encouraged by my hosts telling me how good for my health this particular dish was, I reluctantly cracked the egg, sipped the liquid inside, and spooned my first bite— hot sauce definitely helps along with avoiding a direct look at what is scooped onto the spoon. I think I’m ready for Cambodia’s fried tarantulas after successfully finishing the balut.

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Of course I needed to experience some of the city’s nightlife, so I was taken to the Yoko Bar (John Lennon’s portrait set as the backdrop for the stage) for a taste of the local music scene. Funk and blues started the night off, but I was particularly impressed with the band that closed out the evening.

It’s a strange feeling going into Vietnam as an American. I have heard of this country all of my life, but only from the context of the war. The destruction Vietnam experienced because of the it was incredible, and the fight back home on the validity of the war separated our citizens as well. I couldn’t imagine being welcomed with open arms like I had been on this trip. Visiting the War Remnants museum, Cu Chi Tunnels, and Reunification Palace were stark reminders of the horrors of war and the reality of it all.

I finished my stay in Saigon with an awesome home cooked meal with my host family. Vietnamese pancakes were on the menu and I even got to give cooking a go! My 17 hour  train ride to Da Nang was to leave at 7pm and I didn’t manage to get on the road to the train station until about 6:30. Didn’t film that motorbike ride….

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Da Nang and Hoi An

I got off the train a little after noon and met my lifelong friend from 4-H Camp, Chloe, at the Da Nang train station. It was so refreshing getting out of the molded sheets and packed train cars and seeing a familiar face. Trains in Thailand are much cheaper and the accommodations more hospitable. I walked out of my cabin several times during the night and was greeted by many people just sleeping on the floors of the cars. I tip-toed my way to the restroom, knowing that I should be happy to have the moldy mattress and sheets. My friend’s father is doing work with USAID on program implementation for those disabled by agent orange exposure, while she is spending her summer volunteering at a school for children with disabilities.

Da Nang is growing fast. Over the past decade, three major bridges, many high rises, and other large projects have been constructed. This city is clearly aiming to be a must see spot in Vietnam, and I was definitely happy I made it a pit stop along my journey north. From the fire-breathing dragon bridge, a traditional Vietnamese concert, great food, and the many sites and attractions just a cab ride away, I was thoroughly impressed with what Da Nang had to offer. Seeing a city expand into a whole new realm is something I have never seen in my lifetime. Da Nang, along with its China Beach, have long been attractions in Vietnam, but the new direction the city is taking with its infrastructure projects, I can tell a lot is in store.

Dragon Bridge:

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I ended up purchasing a đàn bầu at the end of my trip in Hanoi, inspired by this concert I saw in Da Nang. I’m looking forward to incorporating this into my music back home in the states. It comes with a pickup and jack— I’m looking forward to amplifying this thing and making some cool noise:

Just ten minutes away were the Marble Mountains, a network of caves and shrines used during Hindu ceremonies, in addition to the unexpected “Hell Cave” full of ghouls and depictions of human sacrifice and torture. The Cham people, who once called the area home, mined marble from the mountain and were notorious for their intricate sculptures. All of the marble carved at the base of the mountain is now imported from China to preserve the current state of the site.

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I was fortunate enough to be in the area for the Full Moon lantern festival that takes place every month in Hoi An, a small city just south of Da Nang. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its rich history as a trading port along with its wide variety of foreign influenced architecture. I arrived in Hoi An the day of the festival and could not find a single hotel with vacancy (poor planning on my part). The hundreds of lanterns floating on the river was a beautiful site and well worth the visit. The following day I did a scenic motorbike tour starting in Hoi An and was able to see some beautiful rice paddies, fishing towns, and much more of the local side of the Vietnam countryside. When I travel, I want to experience how the locals live, eat what they eat, and do what they do— this was a good opportunity. I find that I get the most enjoyment out of a trip by connecting to the local side of things, rather than seeing all of the popular tourist attractions.

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Another short excursion away was the BaNa Hills resort, which sits on top of a mountain nearby Da Nang. To get to the top, visitors ride an amazing tram which holds three Guiness World Records as of this year:

  • Highest difference of height between point of departure and destination at 1,368.93 metres
  • Longest non-stop cable at 11,585 metres
  • Heaviest cable roll at 141.24 tonnes

The 17 minute ride to the top was definitely the highlight of the visit. At the top we were greeted by a theme park designed to look like a European castle along with several French influenced structures. This place is frequented by higher class Vietnamese and Asian tourists, which was definitely a different side to many of the things I had previously seen while in SE Asia.

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Da Nang and its surroundings were a definite treat to visit, and my next stops to Halong Bay and Hanoi did not disappoint either.

Hanoi and Halong Bay

I picked up a cheap flight to Hanoi and a reasonably priced excursion to Vietnam’s must see natural site, Halong Bay. There was no way I would be enduring another 17 hour train ride north. One was plenty for me. I met an awesome family of five from Philly and immediately jumped in to show the kids card games or other forms of entertainment. I was super impressed that mom and dad were traveling with a two, five, and six-year-old. The challenges of traveling solo are enough, but with three young kids, more and more pile on. They handled it all great and the kids were a lot of fun to be around. The family is currently staying in Singapore but will be back in the states later in the next year. I hope to reconnect with them in Baltimore, as the kids expressed their love for the going to aquarium, much as I did when I was younger. I was happy to spend time with a family and help out in any way I could.

Halong Bay is definitely an amazing site to see. The karst cliffs jutting from the sea are remarkable— I can only imagine what it looks like when the skies are clear (we unfortunately were met with cloudy skies and a bit of rain). Mai bpen rai (no worries) though, I still had a great time exploring the Giant Cave and hanging out with the crew at nighttime. Everyone on my ship went to bed early, but I stayed up for the happy hour (from 7-10) enjoying my Jack and Vietnamese beers as me and the crew shared cards games and eventually poker games. We used chess pieces to signify different denominations of Dong (Vietnamese currency). The crew particularly liked the game “Guts,” a game I haven’t played in years but fondly look back on as memories of playing cards with my cousins and grandma flood through my head.

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After a night in the bay, we headed back to shore and to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city. I had read of 25 cent locally made beer along with great food throughout the city and I was eager to indulge. I didn’t have a local tour guide and got to know the area by using several maps and walking around for a few hours my first night. It is quite difficult finding things in Vietnam. I longed for a 711, something I never thought I would until moving to Thailand where they are the most convenient store to go to.  Since this was the last stop along in my trip, I planned on getting a lot of shopping done— the first time I have almost completed Christmas shopping before December 24. I won’t divulge what I purchased in order to keep an element of surprise for December 25th.

I eventually was able to find a place to load my phone up with minutes. I hadn’t spoken to Darryl or my parents in a while and got the chance to on Vietnam’s very cheap rates. Calling Tanzania from Thailand is much more expensive as I have recently found out. Bia Hoi was a definite treat. Four beers for under $1– can’t beat that!

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Closing Thoughts

What an amazing trip and experience in Vietnam. From the people to the food to the beautiful scenery, Vietnam has so much to offer. I was welcomed with open arms wherever I was and made some great friends along the way. I actually just received a Facebook message from my friend “Wii” in Saigon with a picture proudly displaying the sticker I gave him on his bike. He is happy to say he is the only one riding around with it (we can change that easily, though!). I’m so fortunate to be doing what I am doing and hope to make the most of the next four months!

To more adventures and experiences along the way!

Urban Light sticker being driven around Ho Chi Mihn City! So cool!

Urban Light sticker being driven around Ho Chi Mihn City! So cool!

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