Three weeks through a beautiful landscape with one of the most adventurous moms a son could ask for
01.07.2012 - 25.07.2012 35 °C
As the adventure of living in China came to an end, the adventure of backpacking through Asia was just beginning. I said a heartfelt goodbye to my students and fellow teachers, sent a large suitcase of souvenirs back to Canada and left Yantai with nothing but a dusty old backpack, a travel guitar and a yearning to explore. To kick off the journey I spent Canada day weekend in Shanghai with my kindergarten partner in crime Amanda. Both Amanda and I were set to begin our travels, her in Mongolia and me in Vietnam. The weekend trip was our way of saying ‘goodbye for now’ to China and each other. We stayed in a great little hostel where we spent the majority of our time chatting with a friendly bartender named Liarrona. She was a Chinese student on summer vacation whose coolness was only outdone by her Malcolm X glasses. Amanda and I only had only two days in the big city but we made them count. We walked the bund, caught the sunset from the top of the Jin Mao and enjoyed a little of Shanghai's Canada day nightlife. Surprisingly, we managed to find a bar which was throwing a Canada day party. The Torontonian owner was so happy to have some fellow Canadians in the bar that fed us free shots all night long. We stumbled back to in the hostel in the wee hours of the morning, catching some spicy street side noodles on the way. The next morning, Amanda was off to Mongolia and I had to catch a flight to Nanning in order to get a visa for Vietnam. We said a sad, hungover goodbye and parted ways. It’s amazing how fast you can become close with people when you are living abroad, especially when they are the only other round eyes around.
The heat was stifling in Nanning and I had trouble finding my hostel. I was pouring sweat when I finally found the small stuffy building. While checking in I started chatting with another traveller who was also on his way to Vietnam. I was surprised to hear that he was not only a Calgarian but had also been living in China for the last year. I told him I was teaching in the north of China in a small city called Yantai. The city seemed to ring a bell. His face straightened and he looked me dead in the eye when he asked if I knew a girl named Amanda Hillestad. It just so happened that I was talking to Amanda's ex-boyfriend. I couldn't believe the coincidence considering him and Amanda had not communicated in months. I literally said goodbye to Amanda in the morning in Shanghai and met her ex-boyfriend randomly in a completely different part of the country that night. It was unbelievable. We grabbed a few beers that night and chatted about life in China. My visa was ready the next morning so I gathered my things and caught the bus to Hanoi to meet my mom. It was a comfortable ride through a beautiful limestone landscape. The Chinese family sitting next to me were wearing matching sponge bob square pants t-shirts but were giggling at me as if I was the one who looked ridiculous. I took the chance to practice my mandarin with the kids.
Vietnam held many surprises for me. Since the Chinese had ruled the region for almost 1000 years, I expected the country to be quite similar to China. As I rode in the cab from Hanoi’s bus station to its old quarter, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Vietnam is a very unique place. Like the Chinese, the locals sit on the side of the road at tiny tables drinking tea and eating noodle soup, but like other of South East Asians, the Vietnamese are generally more laid back. The cities are full of rundown albeit colourful shacks but have a more cheerful atmosphere. That is until you step into the war history museums. I was most surprised to see how many western tourists have overrun the small nation. Since I had faced such difficulty in obtaining my visa, I assumed Vietnam would be more closed off to westerners. After living in a small Chinese city where I was hard pressed to find another white face outside of my school, it was certainly a shock arriving in the old quarter of Hanoi where it often felt as though there were more foreigners than Vietnamese. With that said, I quickly learned why Vietnam is such a popular travel destination.
The cab left me in front of a boutique hotel in the old quarter of Hanoi. Smiling porters helped me with my bags into the lobby. Waiting in an airy hotel room two floors above was my mother. It was great to finally see her again. It had been several months since she had visited me in China and I had really missed her. In addition to providing me with wonderful travel company, she treated me to some comforts I had not experienced in quite a while.
We spent hour time in Hanoi wandering the old quarter, a maze of colourful and chaotic alleyways that manages to maintain an old weathered feel despite the myriad of tourist shops and travel agencies. We ate, we drank and we caught upon each others lives. After a couple nights in Hanoi, we took a minibus to the coast to board a luxury cruise through Halong Bay. The boat was luxurious, the cabin comfortable and the onboard food fantastic but the real treat was the scenery. Halong is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. We visited some caves enclosed in small limestone islands, relaxed on some lost beaches and caught a vibrant pink sunset over the higly pigly horizon. Over various delicious seafood meals, we chatted with a honeymooning Australian couple. The husband was a geologist and gave us some context for what we were looking at and how it came to be. Luckily, out tour company had an entire section of the bay rented for their boats only so we were able to avoid the crowds.
We caught a bus back to Hanoi the following morning to spend a night before boarding an overnight sleeper to Hoi An. On a map, Hoi An does not look very far from Hanoi but we had no idea how long the journey would take. The Hotel staff gave us estimates ranging from twelve to eighteen hours. Twenty-four hours later, we finally pulled in to the Hoi An bus station. Despite the length, the ride was actually quite nice. The bus was outfitted with full beds which allowed us a few hours of sleep and my mom got a little taste of the backpacker experience. She told me it brought her back to her days of traveling Asia, however, I'm sure she has had much rougher travel experiences than this relatively comfortable bus ride. Our accommodation in Hoi An was cushy to say the least. We stayed in two fantastic spots, an old colonial style hotel in the town center and a massive beachside resort outfitted with a fancy pool. My mother had really gone all out with hotel reservations. The rooms in which we were staying in Vietnam were the nicest I had seen in almost a year and the nicest I would see for many months to come.
We must have arrived in Hoi An on the day of a festival because the streets were swamped with both domestic and foreign tourists. But the following day the streets were comparably barren. We spent our time exploring Hoi An’s ancient alleys and boutique silk shops. One night we met with a woman who was seated next to my mom on her flight from Canada to Vietnam. Just like my mom, this woman’s daughter was teaching in Asia and had met her to travel Vietnam for a couple weeks. We all met for dinner at a fancy tourist restaurant in center of town. The night started in a very civil manner with a nice meal and pleasant conversation but soon descended into a drinking contest filled with beer, shots, rum and shitty wine. We polished off the evening with a drunken game a doubles pool which lasted only until mom and mine's taxi arrived to return us to the hotel. On our final day in Hoi An we took a cab out to Ang Bang beach, a famous stretch of coast characterized by bright white sand and warm water. It was one of the nicest beaches I had ever set foot on and yet not terribly crowded. We returned to resort tanned and well-rested.
Our next stop was Da lat, a breezy mountain town situated in a refreshingly cool high altitude climate. In many ways, Da lat seemed like it would be more at home in the French Alps rather than South East Asia. It’s got a European mountain village feel. The town’s main attraction is a wacky old guesthouse which looks like something out of the Wizard of Oz. However, we found the expat owned music bars to be more fun. Each night we would end up sipping European beers while watching old expats belt out American blues and rock tunes. Da lat is also the alleged home of the Easy Riders motorcycle gang, an old group of blue vested Vietnamese men who offer tourists the opportunity to tour Vietnam by motorcycle. Unfortunately, there are so many blue vest wearing motorcyclists offering rides its pretty difficult to determine who is a real Easy Rider and who is capitalizing on their popularity. We found a couple of guys that seemed legitimate and organized a trip from the high lands of Da lat through the lush countryside to the coastal town of Mui Ne. The scenery was spectacular and the guides full of interesting information of which only a portion was spoken in good enough English for us to understand. The roads were smooth and we never really felt unsafe. That is until we took a break on the side of the road and watched our guides drive off around a bend. A local man passed by and yelled something obscene at us in Vietnamese. Our hearts sank for a moment as we realized that we may have just let two men leave us in the middle of nowhere and drive off with all of our valuables. After ten anxious minutes of walking down highway, however, we were relieved to find our guides smoking cigarettes a few kilometres down the road. I still don't understand why they felt the need to drive so far away just to smoke a cigarette. I guess they wanted some privacy. We jumped back on the backs and after an hour or so we could see the bright blue ocean ahead.
Mui Ne sits on a spectacular coast line surrounded by beautiful countryside. I had hoped this small fishing town would be somewhat protected by the crowds of westerns but the beach was really just a string a fancy western resorts. Not that I had too much to complain about. We had a fantastic bungalow style room foot steps from the ocean and spent most of our time drinking, eating, swimming and developing a tan. One day, in between afternoon cocktails, we had a cab driver take us to Mui Ne’s famous sand dunes. These imposing white hills made me feel as though I was in the middle of the Sahara while only a kilometre from the coast. I don't understand how a white sand desert can exist directly next to the ocean but I was there to enjoy myself, not ask questions. We took an ATV out into the tunes for a joy ride. At one point our 4’8” guide took me directly over the edge of a steep dune. The beginning of the drop was near vertical and more terrifying than any amusement park ride I had ever been on. My hat was lying in the sand and my hair slicked straight back by the time we came to a stop. It took a few drinks back at the resort before finally I stopped shaking.
The following morning we were off to Saigon, my mom’s last stop on our Vietnam tour. She certainly ended her trip in style. We were booked into the Majestic, an old luxurious French hotel on the river and Saigon is more up class than any other place we had been in Vietnam. It’s a very interesting city. While Hanoi acts as the historic and cultural center of Vietnam, Saigon acts as the center of style, progress and money. It’s full of boutique restaurants, chic bars, fancy high rises and partying foreigners. During the days we walked the city and enjoyed the city’s many classy joints. We also visited the Cuchi tunnels just outside the city limits to see how the Viet Kong lived underground during the war. We even spent ten minutes in the tunnels themselves which is a feat if you consider the limited space and high temperatures. I don’t understand how people were actually able to live down there. In the evenings we sampled some of Saigon’s international cuisine and drank at some chic rooftop patios. Then, after a couple short days, it was time for my mom to go home. We really had a fantastic time in Vietnam. I can’t thank her enough for making it happen. We had fun, we relaxed, we ate some great food, and we experienced one hell of a beautiful country together. I was sad to see her go but it was time for me to continue the adventure alone.
Once my mom had left for the airport, I took a long bath in the nicest hotel room I would see for many months and packed my backpack. I still had four days to wait until my visa was processed at the Chinese embassy so I checked into a hostel and booked a tour to the Mekong delta. I am certainly not the tour taking type but the Mekong delta is a difficult place to navigate and the tour was cheaper than booking my own bus tickets and accommodations.
I was right to be weary of a cheap tour. I was packed onto a bus with twenty five other tourists, few of whom were backpackers, and shuttled from attraction to attraction with hardly enough time to get a decent picture. Nonetheless, the tour operators did show us a few interesting areas that I would never have found on my own. We spent half a day in an island village where they made rice paper and snake whisky. The tour’s highlight was a large chaotic floating market where all sorts of goods were exchanged twenty four hours a day. The wide river was packed with farmers and merchants on rusty old longboats throwing money and bags vegetables at each other.
Instead of staying in the tour’s recommended hostel, I chose to sleep at a home-stay a few kilometres outside of Can Tho. The home stay owner picked me up in the center of town and rode me into the countryside on the back of a motorbike. I stayed with a local family in a river side home. Most of the family was gone since the eldest son was getting married in a neighbouring village. When I ventured into town it became clear that I was the only foreigner in a village of no more than a thousand people. I just drank Vietnamese coffee on the side of the street with the locals and laughed at jokes I didn't understand yet were clearly made at my expense. A cool experience.
I returned to Saigon late in the evening to find that the hostel had accidentally given away my reservation. This was a problem since Saigon was in peak tourist season and there was little vacancy. When I complained to the desk clerk she arranged to have me sleep in a female dorm. It was in this air conditioned six-bed white walled room that I met Dana, a Dutch traveller who had just ridden a motorbike from Hanoi to Saigon. Dana and I would end up traveling together for quite a while. But those stories are for another post. For now I can say that we got a good taste of Saigon’s crazy night life and cheap fresh beer before catching a bus across Cambodian border.
Overall, I enjoyed Vietnam. The crowds of tourists were unexpected and difficult to swallow at times but the country is truly one of the most naturally beautiful I have been to. The French influence added a unique dimension to the experience and the contrast between modern Saigon and the traditional countryside was interesting. My adventurous mother and I traveled in relative luxury and I able to experience a cushy side to Asia I was not used to. It was a great way to unwind after the crazy end to the school year in China.