Vagabonding in Vietnam Part I — Southern Sojourns

In all we spent just under a month in Vietnam.  It was enough time to traverse the long, thin nation from south to north, hitting all the major tourist destinations while leaving enough time to dawdle in some areas.  While I was not able to keep up with regular updates on each place (thereby sparing you all the details), here’s a summary of the main areas we visited in Vietnam that I did not post elsewhere.


A welcome relief from the scorching heat of Saigon, alpine Dalat in the Central Highlands was our first destination from Saigon as we slowly headed north.  After a wild ride that Paul so eloquently (and entertainingly) documented, the tranquility and cool temps of this city were exactly what we needed.

Founded as a French hill-fort town in the 1920s, Dalat soon became the most desired getaway from the steamy Mekong delta for the colonists.  The many French villas that sprung up in subsequent decades have been converted to either Party offices or hotels.  The city preserves its holiday appearance with a lake, parks and green spaces, and a lively evening market with grilled foods, clothing, and handicrafts for tourists.

We chanced upon the Peace Hotel, a backpacker haven conveniently located in the city center and right next door to the Easy Riders, known for their expert cycling tours through the region.  We had a comfortable twin room quietly facing the back patio with a nice hot-water bathroom and mosquito nets for only $10, an incredible deal after several days of Saigon city prices.  I was still heavily congested from the cold I had been battling so an agreeable room in a mild climate was just what I needed.

We met a nice young British traveler who joined us on an Easy Rider tour and we spent the day easily cruising on the empty mountain roads on rented scooters.  Our guide took us past the many flower farms in the area.  This region provides much of southern Vietnam with blooming bouquets for much of the year.

The Central Highlands is also area rich in coffee plantations which were blooming at the moment and filled the air with a lovely fragrance.  Many of the formerly nomadic hill tribes of the area were settled here by the government after the war.  We visited one of the villages only to be saddened by the acute poverty of the residents.  Their former lifestyle and customs were disrupted and they’ve had to adjust to a completely new way of life in a single generation, an extremely short time.  They now work the coffee fields and tend to small gardens to feed themselves, but it wasn’t a village brimming with energy and enthusiasm.

Many of the men seemed drunk/stoned or mentally ill, the children not clean, and a general malaise pervaded the dirt paths and ramshackle homes, unusual for a country where rural life tends to produce friendly waves and smiles. Our guide was respectful with the people we met (and even spoke some of their language), handing our cigarettes to both young and old as a friendly gesture, but it was a rueful visit.  It made me wonder if this is what our native peoples in North America experienced after the forced settlements after we “won” the West.

We later visited a large waterfall, climbing down under it (and getting soaked) stopping afterwards at a Buddhist temple as the dark clouds set in.  We made it to a small cafe just before a heavy downpour started so we sipped iced coffee while the deluge passed.

We lunched on vegetarian pho, the hearty noodle soup that is ever-present in Southeast Asia.  After lunch we visited a silk factory where the manufacturing process has not changed in probably 100 years.  The wooden looms clattered away noisily while dozens of workers boiled the silkworm pods to prepare the fine threads for weaving.  Our guide explained this is not a high-quality factory and destined for the domestic market since the machinery is so old.  But the exquisite silk fabrics sold at the factory entrance looked beautiful to me.

We next visited a rice wine distillery, little more than a mom-and-pop joint run out of a family’s home.  Paul and I could barely get the swill down (it was essentially rough grain alcohol).  This farm also had several caged weasels, supposedly used to create the Vietnamese specialty variety known as cà phê Chồn, or “Weasel Coffee”.  This is “produced” by feeding the weasels whole coffee beans which they excrete intact, leaving a “richly seasoned” cluster of beans then used for coffee.  The guide told us that this place actually doesn’t make the coffee.  The weasels are just for show and to trick unsuspecting buyers into purchasing some “Genuine Weasel”; the real weasel coffee is collected from droppings in the wild.  Needless to say, Paul and I did not sample that type of coffee our entire trip.  Not exactly our cup of tea.

Our final stop was to visit the whimsical Crazy House in Dalat, a rambling work-in-progress with themed rooms, fantastical styling, and precipitous walkways and ladders connecting the rooms.  A curious pet project of someone, it was vaguely reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gaudí architecture.  But the wet air was getting chilly and we were eager to get back to our hotel, so didn’t linger in the funkiness.

Our Easy Rider tour over for the day, we wandered down to the night market and treated ourselves to cold beers and a hearty vegetable stir-fry.  The next morning we were headed to the bus station, only to be whipped frantically by the windy and serpentine roads cutting through the mountains.  Midway through the journey, most of the locals on the bus were sick and dutifully putting the plastic bags distributed before departure to good use.  Within hours we had safely descended to the banana plantations and rice paddies of the lowlands on the coast.  Our short and sweet visit to Dalat provided a pleasurable stop in the Central Highlands on our journey north.

Nha Trang

A beach city, the package tour trappings of Nha Trang struck us a bit harshly at first. It caters primarily to Russian tourists looking for a cheap holiday getaway in the sun; basically the equivalent of Florida to many Americans.  Most restaurants list their menus first in Russian, then English, then Vietnamese.  And we saw lots of tattooed and sunburned Russians on the central tourist streets.  I met a young traveler later in Hanoi who explained that Vietnam is one of the few countries (with warm, sandy shores) that do not require a tourist visa for Russians which tend to e expensive for them.  Consequently Aeroflot has several non-stop flights a day from Moscow that are almost always full.

Nha Trang is also known as a party town for many backpackers, with a couple streets lined with bars that tend to rally on past the national curfew (in most places in Vietnam, if you are out past curfew you will be escorted to your hotel by the police).  But we were visiting in the low season so did not see much revelry, but this wasn’t a scene we were seeking either.

Despite this strong tourist presence, the long and golden sands beach of Nha Trang is surely a nice place to spend some time.  We enjoyed unhurried beers at the cafes and bars that line the boardwalk, watched the locals pass by on the beach.  I bathed in the cool, salty waters to help clear my congestion (it worked) and jogged along the boardwalk to get some aerobic exercise.

We stayed in a nice family hotel with a balcony overlooking the oceanfront, so cocktails were served each evening there.  We did a day trip in the bay on a creaky, slow wooden boat filled with fun travelers.  It was an eventful day: we toured an island aquarium, anchored to swim and snorkel diving directly from the top of the boat, feasted on spring rolls, grilled tofu, vegetables and rice, and danced to the “house” band (basically the crew) as they cranked out favorite dance hits from the globe.  A pleasant day on the water!

We also rented scooters to visit the many sights in the area, starting with the amazing Long Son Pagoda, a Buddhist temple filled with chanting women.  Apparently the women are the most active members of the Buddhist community in Vietnam.  Above the temple sits a giant seated Buddha stupa, we sat in the shade sipping fresh coconut milk out of the shell and watched the children playing beneath the serene figure.  Looking closely at the base of the stupa, I noticed some fire-ringed busts, later I learned from the guidebook that these were to honor the six monks who self-immolated in 1963 to protest the harsh treatment of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic Diem regime in South Vietnam.  Sobering indeed.

There are some interesting Cham temples from the 8th century, an early Hindu empire that conquered and settled the area from India.  The 1200-year-old red brick structures still display high detail, beautiful still and perched dramatically over the winding river that meets the sea, with mountains looming in the distance.  We scootered to the other side of town to the “local” beach teeming with families and restaurants, a livelier scene than the one near our hotel where foreigners congregate.

It was in Nha Trang where we were lucky to discover the wonders of Vietnamese baguettes.  I wasn’t feeling 100% one evening, so Paul ventured to one of the sandwich pushcarts that roam the streets.  We were instantly sold: fresh baked French bread, toasted to order so they are warm and crisp, filled with fresh-cut vegetables, eggs, “cheese” (actually Laughing Cow which is about the only cheese sold in Vietnam we think because traditionally there was little refrigeration in the Mekong region).  It took us a week to find these delectable treats, and they soon became a favorite fast food as we continued our journey through the country.

After a few days in Nha Trang, the garish tourist features of the city began to fade and its hidden charms grew on us.  We were ready to move on and I was thankful to leave in stronger health, well rested and relaxed after some pleasant days on the Nha Trang’s beach, bay and comfortable beds.

We boarded the night train to Danang in our comfortable “soft sleeper”, a 4-berth cabin which we were fortunate to have to ourselves.  Within minutes of departing, Paul had the speaker cranked, the cold beers open, and we settling in contentedly for the 14-hour journey.  We were moving again, edging closer to the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), soon to enter the solemn and unshakable northern half of Vietnam with more adventures to come.

Leave a Reply