Vagabonding in Vietnam Part II — Creeping Northwards

Hoi An – Graceful and Genial Town

We had high expectations long before arriving in Hoi An.  Many travelers we met previously raved about the place and from the get-go the town did not disappoint.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town packs in an impressive assortment of historic temples, bridges, merchant homes, picturesque alleyways, grand French colonial buildings, and creaky wooden boats along the riverside docks.  Paul and I were happy to be in the thick atmosphere and elegance of this stunning town in Vietnam.

Once a thriving port town, the Thu Bon River silted up in the late 1800’s basically turning Hoi An into a ghost town, its old quarter effectively locked in time for a century.  After the economic rebound of Vietnam in the 1990’s, Hoi An was well positioned to gain restoration funds for the historic buildings and a flood of tourists followed suit.

Today Hoi An is a heavily touristed town but it fortunately maintains a delicate balance between the needs of visitors and the laid-back locals.  The old quarter consists of a relatively compact area, filled with monuments and buildings worth visiting.  Another highlight of Hoi An is its culinary richness.  We were immediately smitten with the food offerings in Hoi An, remarkable in a country celebrated for delectable food on every corner.

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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.

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The Roof of Indochina: Atop Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng) in Vietnam

Mt. Fansipan, Vietnam

I always enjoy a good climb so the prospect of summiting the highest mountain in Vietnam (and indeed all of Indochina) more than piqued my interest.  Mount Fansipan, or Phan Xi Păng in Vietnamese (we referred to it as “Fancy Pants”), is part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range and the easternmost end of the Himalayas.

When I learned this I was sold — to stand at over 10,000 feet atop the last major Himalayan peak before the ocean proved too hard to resist.  And the weather was improving in the region so Mt. Fansipan, which was hidden in clouds earlier in the week, was now starting to show its face.

Objective: The top of Mt. Fansipan in Vietnam

I learned from local agents in Sapa that the climb is not extremely technical but is strenuous and steep so most trekkers opt for a 2- or 3-day ascent.  I was feeling strong from our rigorous valley walks so shopped around for a guide that would do the climb in a day which I was assured is reasonable if starting early.

Unfortunately there were no group 1-day trips leaving (which would have lowered the price) so I engaged a private guide for $65 which I thought was fine, especially given that the National Park entrance fee costs $20.  So $45 for a private guide, transport to/from the trail head, and all food/water I figured this was quite a deal.

I ate a hearty pasta dinner in preparation for the trek.  Just before bed, I glanced at Mt. Fansipan from my hotel terrace.  Its cloudless silhouette under a starry sky filled me with anticipation for tomorrow’s lofty challenge.

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Getting High on the Villages, Valleys and Views of Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam

After a long, restless night on a cramped “sleeper” bus from Hanoi, at 5 AM we pulled into Sapa, Vietnam as the rain poured down on us.  We drowsily slipped into a cafe to warm and caffeinate our bodies.  When the sky brightened for a moment we were off to find a hotel in the mist-ensconced mountain town tucked high in the northern highlands, not far from the Chinese border.

This was not the most ideal introduction to Sapa, but after a shower and quick nap we soon experienced the many wonders of this town.  It attracts tourists mostly for its rugged alpine landscapes with soaring mountains and for the many hill-tribe villages of H’Mong, Dzao and Tay ethnic minorities not far from town.

With less than a week remaining of Paul’s vacation we had wanted to get partway into Laos but the realities of time sank in and instead we opted for Sapa as our final destination together.  He would be just an overnight train ride away from Hanoi and could easily fly to Hong Kong for his return home.  Getting to and from Laos would be a much trickier (and rushed) matter.

And we were more than pleased with this choice: within a day the rain stopped and sunshine lit up the valley.  Our remaining days were filled with excellent and interesting walks, fine meals and relaxation in the friendly and outdoorsy town.  Restaurants offer delicious local specialties, such as H’Mong sticky rice (roasted in bamboo stalks), roasted vegetables from nearby farms, grilled fresh-water fish, and delicate soups and hearty stir fries brimming with indigenous mushrooms from the hills just outside of town.

And the climate is especially agreeable: days in the 70’s and low 80’s with dry air and afternoon valley breezes, and chilly nights (often requiring electric blankets).   Occasionally dark clouds would roll in and produce a gentle rain or downpour, usually not lasting an hour and soon sunshine would return.

This constant cycle of washing rain and dry mountain sunshine lends Sapa a cleansed, refreshing feel dissimilar to the hot, dusty feel of the lowlands.  I would soon journey to Laos and Cambodia where temperatures are hottest in April reaching 100°F with high humidity.  So I enjoyed the ideal Sapa weather of mild days and cool nights while I could.

The vibe of Sapa town is great – a healthy mix of travelers (lots of backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts) and good-natured locals.  And the plucky hill-tribe vendors from the valley villages ply the streets with their textiles, beautifully hand woven and embroidered in the style of their particular tribe.  For example, the H’Mong wear darker clothing with subtle yet colorful patterns that identify their specific tribal group: Black H’Mong, Red H’Mong, White H’Mong, etc.  Dzao women shave their heads above the forehead and the sinuous lower locks are tied around bright red hats.  Most younger hill-tribe men wear western clothing, while the older men still dress in the traditional long vestiments of their ethnic group.

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A Farewell to the Best Companion Ever

Fond Farewell to my Favorite Travel Buddy

Yesterday was a sad day for me.  My travel companion and mate, Paul, left to return to the USA.

This past month we spent practically every moment together.  We shared meals, enjoyed amazing sights, dealt with frustrations and moments of hilarity, entertained each other on long bus and train rides, watched countless sunsets, hiked/cycled/paddled through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, looked out for each other as we made our way through city after city, sat together over coffee and beers, helped each other through illness and injury, planned logistics and shared the mundane burdens of travel, and kept each other sane and grounded day in and day out through Vietnam.  His company will be sorely missed in the weeks to come as I move on to Laos and Cambodia.

I look forward to the freedom and independence that solo travel entails, and I know from past experiences that this is surprisingly satisfying for me.  But I will at times pine for the comfort and companionship of being with a travel partner.  And as partners go, Paul is the best there is.

Thanks, Paul.  You made our superb journey through Vietnam a sunny and gratifying joyride!

Easy Rider in the Northern Highlands of Vietnam

On the saddle of a Honda 125 in Sapa, Vietnam

One of my goals in Vietnam is to learn how to ride a motorcycle.  Since rentals are so simple and cheap (no paperwork or license required, just hand over $8 for the day), I figured this is as good a spot to learn.  Most motorcycles are small (110-150 cc) and maneuverable and I had been riding a manual scooter for a few weeks so was familiar with the gears.  But best of all, I had Paul as a seasoned rider to help me along.

Picturesque valley of hill-tribe villages and terraced rice paddies

So our first day in beautiful Sapa in the northern highlands of Vietnam on the Chinese border, I was off and running (after a few stalled attempts!) with my Honda 125 cruising down Highway 152 to the valley from the hilltop town of Sapa.

The landscape was stunning since Sapa is perched high in the mountains just beneath Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng), the highest point not only in Vietnam but of Indochina as well.  The valley is sprinkled with terraced rice paddies and hill-tribe villages of the colorfully attired H’Mong, Dzao and Tay peoples.

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The Great Outdoors of Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Open-air excitement in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

A bit weary of the cramped chaos of Hanoi, a bustling yet very absorbing city, we were eager to strike again for the coast, this time towards Ha Long Bay.  Famed for its remarkable limestone karsts generously dotting the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, this area of exceptional beauty was recently named one of the new “Natural Wonders of the World” and deservedly so.  95% of tourists opt for one of the 2- or 3-day cruises in the many wooden junk boats that ply the bay, but from the descriptions from our guidebook and after the advice of fellow travelers who had lukewarm experiences, we decided to skip the all-in-one tour and instead choose to DIY.  This would give us maximum flexibility while avoiding the groups, regimented schedules and quasi-“cultural” trappings of a package tour.

Cat Ba Island seemed the logical place to start.  Long the domain of backpackers, this largely unpopulated island is just south of Ha Long Bay and boasts its own La Ha Bay, equally majestic but far less visited than its well-known sister.  Additionally the sleepy seaside town of Cat Ba was an ideal place to kick back between the many outdoor offerings in the area.

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“American War” Museums in Ho Chi Minh City

Reunification Palace ~ Victims of My Lai Massacre ~ North Vietnam's Side of the Story

A United States citizen in Ho Chi Minh City cannot escape the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as it is known locally.  Saigon was the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam, the city where hordes of US special agents and advisors and GI’s invariably journeyed through during the war years.

Painful ghosts from past abound and confronting these fraught-filled years is unavoidable in Saigon.  There are two Vietnam War must-see’s in the city itself: the Presidential Palace (now known as Reunification or Independence Palace) and the War Remnants Museum, a propagandist and somber North Vietnamese account of the war.

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Dispatch from Paul: Mr Toad’s Wild Ride… Vietnamese style.

Pit stop along the harrowing road to Dalat

If you are seeking that adrenaline rush which traditionally is only available at a theme park there is now another alternative. No need to hand over thousands of dollars to Mr Disney for an amusement park getaway… now you can just take an 18 hour flight over to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and then take a bus ride up into the mountains. It would probably be cheaper in the long run given that one could easily subsist on $50 a day in Vietnam and that modest sum would be almost impossible to spend in one day there whereas in the theme park one would hardly be able to even purchase lunch.

Our particular bus ride was an eight hour journey from Ho Chi Minh City up into the Central Highlands to a town called Da Lat, a charming alpine town catering mostly to Vietnamese tourists looking to escape the heat of the city. The driver seemed at first glance a nice enough fellow although he did run over someone’s motorbike whilst pulling into the boarding area… red flag missed!

Funnily my mother being a bit nervous about my travels to Vietnam continually warned me about the undetonated land mines still scattered about the countryside here. What she didn’t warn me about however was the much bigger threat for tourists: the bus rides in Vietnam. That would have been much more useful information to me. Just to share a statistic with you it seems that approximately thirty people die from vehicular accidents in Vietnam everyday. After boarding the bus I did a rough count of the passengers as I walked down the aisle looking for my seat. I came up with about thirty or so of us. Just wonderful I thought. So after our bus careens off the side of a cliff we will fill the quota on accident fatalities for today.

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Ho Chi Minh City (née Saigon) – Metropolis of Market Socialism

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is a metropolis on the move

Crossing into Vietnam airspace from the South China Sea with the infamous Mekong Delta below us, our flight from Hong Kong landed easily in sizzling Saigon. After waiting an hour for our visas to be issued, we breezed through customs and immigration and soon were afoot in Vietnam.  Still it was hard to believe:  Vietnam… VIETNAM!

This country, looming so large on my childhood and all of America in the 1960’s and 70’s, this city Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Viet Cong’s successful capture of the South Vietnamese capital).  Unreal.  Yet here I was, extracting Dong bills from the ATM, purchasing an iced tea, freely walking outside of the airport.

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