A few days ago I returned from the United States, where I was visiting with family. That was the last overseas trip I’d been on since going to Vietnam at the beginning of May more than 2 months before. It occurred to me that I still hadn’t actually posted about Vietnam yet. This month is about to be the busiest month yet: balancing writing report cards with studying for my Yonsei Korean final exam, it won’t be easy to get it all done. I’m relying on day trips and studying in cute cafes to keep me sane.
Anyhow, back to my Vietnam account. It had never even occurred to me to visit until the convergence of two things: first, walking with one of my fellow travelers in the lava tunnels in Jeju, she suggested that if I like caves, I should go to Vietnam. Second, my friend and coworker Julia moved to Vietnam at the end of our semester in February. Both of these things together made it compelling to travel there.
On Saturday, I departed from Incheon headed for Hanoi. I got to watch some Korean movies (“My Annoying Brother” and one of my personal favorites, “Lucky”) and we were fed. God bless non-American flights. I had done the visa upon arrival that many people recommend which was pretty cheap and easy, although it was kind of a pain to get all of my things printed at the print shop before I left. A kind of creepy guy was noticing my progress in the visa line (I was doing my typical observing to see what I should be doing) and helped me out, so I suppose I’m grateful for that. I had neglected to take out US dollars as the visa website had instructed, but it turns out that the Vietnamese dong (Vietnamese currency) were okay anyway. It’s certainly not as much stress as applying for the Korean working visa, at any rate.
The busses and trains (if there were any trains to be gotten from the airport, that is… not every city is as well-connected as Seoul) had all left, so I was advised to take a minibus. I learned my taxi lesson after Japan, when it ended up costing more than $100 USD. I was stressed on the minibus: am I going the right way? Are we going to the right city? Am I about to be killed for my internal organs? That kind of suspicion is trained into you. I’m always noticing trees when I go to another place, a habit I learned from my mom. Everything in Hanoi is flat, which is a definite contrast to Korea, where there are mountains rising from the middle of the city. The boys here are cute enough but they’re even more noodley than Korean boys.
When it was just me on the bus, the driver started asking me questions too: “Isn’t it sad to travel alone?” (Not really) and “You’re so pretty,” (yeahhhh whatever.) I had thought old boy had driven me to murder street as all the lights were off and it was deserted. Even at midnight, the streets are never silent in Seoul. I had neglected to look up at the second floors, though, because I found my hostel right away once I did. The front desk guy stayed up late waiting for me, which was really nice of him. The beds were the most uncomfortable beds I’ve slept on in my entire life, and paired with the most difficult bunk bed I’ve ever had the misfortune of climbing up (with only two high-up steps and no higher rungs, you had to wedge your hands in between the bed and the wall for leverage) and a light directly outside my window shining persistently in my face, meant I slept barely a wink all night. Nonetheless, any bed is better than no bed.
The next morning, Sunday, the front desk girl made me a noodle and eggs breakfast while I jacked a Vietnam guidebook and tried to make a plan of what to do that day. While some trips benefit from being meticulously planned, like Hong Kong and Japan where things are hard to find on your own, some trips, like Vietnam, benefit from spontaneity. This trip was to be my first proper backpacker-type trip, and I only had hostels reserved and a vague idea of each city I’d be in for the day. The rest was up to chance. My list of things to do for the day was wide-ranging and somewhat unrealistic:
- Temple of literature (very near to my hostel)
- Black ice cream (I saw it on the way in, but it turns out I found some back in Seoul a few weeks later)
- Bun cha (a local favorite)
- Old quarter
- French quarter
- Halong Bay?
Anyone who has traveled to Vietnam knows that you can’t do all of these things, and certainly not the last two, in even one day. Each of the last two is at the very least a full-day trip, starting early in the morning, as they are far from Hanoi. Needless to say, I didn’t follow that list at all, but perhaps it helped to guide my interests. After breakfast, I took a wander to see if I could get to anywhere resembling a main street from my hostel. Even taking all right turns, I got horribly lost in the back alleys before somehow making my way back. My plan for the day was a relatively simple square: West Lake down through the Old Quarter and French Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, and then back to the hostel. It was not incredibly ambitious considering how much I walk any given day in Seoul, but it’s incredibly hot in Vietnam and almost nobody walks ever. If you’re walking down the street, so many people driving motorcycles slow down and want to give you a ride (for a cost, of course). I took a motorcycle taxi to Tay Ho and West Lake and saw the Tran Quoc Pagoda. I was immediately told to leave, of course, because I was wearing shorts, but I got to get a good look around before I went. I caught an iced tea in some old lady’s road side stand on the road back to the shore. I tried to walk to the old quarter and failed, but got pho at some pavilion in the market. I’m not quite sure where anything was in Hanoi, I was so lost all the time. I had a nice conversation with a girl about my age who worked at the pho place. People in Vietnam are pretty nice and are less about selling things than in Korea.
I went to a place called Son Café, which I remember distinctly because I spent so long there. I was just chilling enjoying my iced coffee when a little girl came up to me. She was learning English, and it’s clear from my face that I know English, so she started talking to me. She kept gifting me sweet potatoes (I hate sweet potatoes but I didn’t want to be rude) and her mom brought out some of her English books. I thought it was just to show me, but through a combination of words I couldn’t understand and gestures, she conveyed that she wanted me to teach her girl a bit (I was “paid” in an extra coffee). It was a little strange because the girl was only showing me what she’d already learned, but it was interesting to see how Vietnamese and Korean books are different. I gave her some FeelGood stickers (which I’d brought to do a bit of tagging, but oh well) and she gave me some plastic beads from her bracelet. After a few hours and the little girl going haphazardly through three different books, the girl’s mom managed to ask, with her daughter translating, if there was anywhere in Hanoi that I wanted to go. Using my maps and some advanced miming, I told her I was trying to go to Hoan Kiem lake, which was somewhere south of there. I thought she might give me directions, but it turns out we all walked there together. I would have been okay if they left me there, but the little girl had not tired of me yet. Most of our conversation was just naming different things in Vietnamese and English, but the girl was still amused. We went to the temple in the middle of the lake and the girl led me through, saying “Picture! Picture!” denoting where I should take pictures of things at the temple. We also got some coconut ice cream and sat by the lake practicing English again. The girl still hadn’t tired of me, but her mom had grown weary so she took us back to the café. I tried to walk back, but eventually gave up, getting a motorcycle taxi back to the hostel. After a shower and some recharging my phone, I drilled the front desk guy I’d met the night before while I drank a pepsi. While I chilled on the cushions on the floor (the tables were just wooden shipping pallets nailed together), some guys came in and were also talking to front desk guy. I don’t remember how this came about, but they invited me out to dinner, which was good because I was only going to sleep early that night and not do anything exciting. The two boys, both insanely tall, were Max, an 18-year-old from Australia, and Nathan, a late-20s French Vietnamese guy. We got some sort of pho with all kinds of mystery meats and Bia Hoy, the local beer (which is a lot like the light kind of beers that they drink in Korea). I learned a lot from both of them. Nathan had traveled a lot in Vietnam, and Max had traveled a lot, well, everywhere, on his gap year before he decided whether to attend uni or not. When I returned, I worked with front desk guy and he succeeded in organizing a Sapa tour for me the next day.
Monday, the next day, I woke up crazy early to leave for the Sapa tour. Front desk guy, as he’d promised only hours before (I wondered how long his hours were to have been working from the evening before), made me a takeaway breakfast and arranged even the motorcycle taxi to take me to the bus stop. I left my big bag in the hostel and only took the small backpack with me. We had a sleeper bus, but we had to wait for the 6:30 bus to leave before our 7:30 bus could come in. Sleeper buses are really cool. There are three columns and two levels of seats with little ladders up, and the seats are made to recline the whole way back. It’s very civilized compared to the seats on buses in Korea or the States.
I arrived in Sapa town and met my guide Sua (it’s easy to remember her name because my favorite iced coffee with the condensed milk is “caphe sua da”), who would take me on the trek. In the market, we got bun cha for lunch. It’s basically pho, though. We met Sua’s aunt, who is Mong ethnic Vietnamese and would be taking both of us on the trek. Sua shows me the little plants and villages along the way, and got to see the rice and other fields. Sua’s aunt does this 8km hike every day into the village, and she does it in only shower slides, no real shoes or hiking sticks. Sometimes there is only a small hold for the balls of your feet cut into the mud surface of the hill. I consider myself a pretty okay hiker but this little old lady had me beat, sometimes guiding me along princess-style because I was slipping. At the top of the mountain, after we’d heard stories of how hard Sua’s aunt has to walk each day, she somehow goaded me into buying nearly $100 worth of her hand-embroidered stuff (which was okay but just meant that I had to skip out on other souvenirs or experiences later in the trip). About 20 yards away from the homestay—I’d thus far managed to not fall down in any muddy ditches or creeks—I slipped on the muddy hillside and soaked through my shoes in mud and maybe cow dung. I ended up wearing my flip flops for the rest of the time.
The ZiZi homestay looked quaint and humble, but when they showed me up to my bed, there were outlets there and wifi, even though we were at the top of a mountain. I was so tired that I took a nap until dinnertime. In retrospect, I wish I’d brought another shirt, at least, because I was feeling really grungy and gross by this time. Dinner was a massive barbeque outside with all kinds of kebabs, lettuce, cucumber, cilantro, and more. I’d gotten a beer but it disagreed with me so I just set it down and committed to water for the rest of the night. There were kids and dogs running around everywhere and it felt like a really cool place that you could stay at for a long time. The other travelers at the homestay came from all different countries, and one of the ladies had stayed there for weeks just because it was so comfortable. I didn’t really click with anybody, though, and went to bed early because I was tired and stinky.
The next morning I headed out early. There wasn’t much in the way of breakfast and I probably got scalped when checking out (I could have sworn I paid for this homestay when I left Hanoi the day before). One of the most terrifying times of the whole trip was taking the motorcycle taxi down the mountain. There were hair-raising turns, steep hills, and rocky roads threatening to throw me off the bike, and I was holding on for dear life. I survived, but it was still terrifying. Again, I wasn’t quite sure I had the right bus, but they took me back to Hanoi alright. I got a car-taxi back to the hostel, the TV playing some kind of Vietpop which sounded like a tacky, canned version of k-pop. I felt much better after changing clothes and cooling off. I got a new bus ticked to Dong Hoi (where Julia lives in Vietnam) and also got the motorcycle taxi to the stop settled. The bus didn’t leave for a while so I was going to just chill at the hotel when suddenly, French Nathan reappeared! We went out to get an iced coffee, talk, and chill on an air-conditioned porch (it turns out I’m a sucker for his French accent). It took ages for the bus to come to the stop, and this one was a longer trip and made longer stops. I was just anxious to get to Julia’s and sleep. However, I had discovered that I unequivocally like the top bunk of the sleeper bus better.
I arrived in Dong Hoi at 4am. I borrowed a taxi driver’s phone to call Julia (this is one of those backpackery things that would drive my mom nuts but I somehow pulled it off), and sure enough she came through and drove me to her house. Julia has very sporadic hours, so she had just three classes that day, one early in the morning and one a little later. I slept while she went to her first class, we got banh mi sandwiches and iced coffees for breakfast overlooking the market, and then she went to teach her second class of the day. I tried to walk to the beach (attempting to remember the “map” she’d described to me as we drove around that morning) and failed, though I came pretty close. I got more coffee at Riverside Café to use their wifi, mainly. I headed back to Julia’s house, then we both went to a place called Gemenai Hotel (I promise this is how it’s really spelled) for lunch and to meet Julia’s friend and coworker Byron, who is really cool.
We all headed to a place—which proved to be my favorite part of the trip—Beachside Backpackers hostel/bar, where Julia promised there would be hammocks and beach hangs and beer if I wanted it. There was some oldschool country music playing and I got another coffee (a constant theme in my life is my battle against my need for coffee), although in moving my backpack over to the hammocks, I broke the coffee cup. I always feel 200% worse about breaking glass things than the actual owner of the glass thing ever does. Plus, it’s scary having broken glass where there are lots of barefoot people. Julia had to take off for her third class, so I played around in the hammocks, went swimming, and visited with Byron more (I was lowkey being babysat a little, but it’s understandable) because he didn’t have to work until later.
Julia’s 2pm class got canceled so she was just napping and Byron took me back to her house. I remarked to Julia about the oldschool country music and we ended up reminiscing about early 2000s country and singing little snippets of what we could remember. Julia’s apartment is spare, but you don’t really need much when you can eat out well for very cheap and don’t spend much time at your house. We got a food called banh loc xian, basically Vietnamese pierogies with spicy fish sauce to dip, and brought it back to beachside. We took up residence at one of the tables there, and many people joined us. Julia’s friend from back home in Canada, Becca, and her fiancé Laurent, their AirBnB guests, a random Scottish guy who wandered in from the beach, other hostel guests, and hostel owners Anh and Mikayla (and their adorable baby, Sophie) all came by our table to visit. Drinking nights are frequent in Vietnam but they don’t last long, because apparently people work almost 7 days a week.
That night, we had intended to get some snacks and Netflix a movie at Julia’s house, but when we got home we discovered a literal grapefruit-sized spider in her house. It was a group effort to get the door open and Julia got her neighbor to come kill it. The craziest thing about that is the neighbor picked up this massive spider in his hand and took it away like it was nothing. I’ve been to Australia and this is still the biggest spider I’ve ever seen, hands down.
The next day in Dong Hoi, Julia had to work again in the morning, and I had intended to go out and explore, but I just slept instead. For breakfast that day, we got banh mi again (definitely my favorite food in Vietnam) and drank coconuts!! I’m not a fan of eating coconuts but drinking them was pretty fun. We had intended to go to the market, but it was closed for siesta, so we had a swim at Beachside instead. Julia showed me her favorite café, which I had seen on Instagram and expressed my interest in visiting, and I was not disappointed. Vietnamese cafes are often outdoors and many have plastic chairs and umbrellas, so you are mostly chilling in the shade. Julia said something about the Vietnamese coffee that really resonated with me: that it’s an exercise in patience. You really have to wait for something that good. Much like Australian coffee, for good things you’ve got to wait and set aside enough time to properly enjoy it.
My phone charger had broken so I got a new one, followed by pho (my other favorite food in Vietnam) for “lupper” (a term in my family that means a late lunch/early dinner after which you might eat a late night dinner). The to-do for this day was a barbeque at Beachside, and there was so, so much food. Anh kept the food coming and you could have just eaten it for hours if you didn’t get full first. After some soul rapping we went home and I got to call my mom and tell her I hadn’t died. Every trip I go to a beach and collect some sand for her, and that day I collected some from Beachside.
The next day, the day I had been looking forward to the most out of the whole trip, was our trip to Phong Nha caves. I’d had big plans to book a big tour, a multi-day trek with camping and rappelling and headlamps, but when I went to book it, my credit card wouldn’t work on the website. Could I have gotten it to work? Yes. But I took that as a sign to do another tour. This one was through Julia’s friend Becca, and ultimately ended up being just what the doctor ordered. We were picked up from her house early, and we had a very multicultural group, Hong Kong, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people. Our guide explained about the caves and the region as we drove. The region looked very primordial, which was a good thing because that was where they filmed King Kong. (Nowadays it might be a great place to film a Jurassic Park movie, too). The national park was of historical importance, too, people coming through the caves to try to deliver supplies to the occupied north. Nowadays, there’s no farming or logging allowed in the park, so the tourism to the caves supports the regional economy.
We went to Paradise Cave first. I’ve been in many caves, (including Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest cave system in the world), but this one is probably the biggest one I’ve seen, volume-wise. As caves age, the stalactites build up, become too heavy, and break off, and form again, and you can tell these are very old caves in that way, many layers of detritus from old stalactites forming towering piles on the cave floor. In this cave, it was pretty touristy, with raised pathways and good lighting for selfies throughout, but only for 1 kilometer. You can walk up to 7km in this cave but from the first km, only headlamps and spelunking from there. Lots of the cave looks like a coral reef (or like the underground caves in Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind); I could have looked at the formations for hours. It’s lucky we didn’t have hours. Julia’s friend Becca works for a tour company and she had brought a go-pro camera to film a promotional video, but we found out later she dropped the go-pro down a pile of rocks near the entrance and had to go retrieve it somehow.
The Phong Nha park has only been open since 2003, some sections (like Paradise Cave) have only been opened as recently as 2010. So it’s a very new park. The largest cave in the world is Son Doong, and that cave can be found in this park. Only one tour company is licensed to go in this cave (not Becca’s company), and you must sign all kinds of waivers and pay thousands of dollars to go. You take a several-day expedition and a team of porters and assistants to help you. They call it a once-in-a-lifetime trip, such that I made myself a promise that that’s the kind of thing I’d want to do on a honeymoon.
We didn’t go to Son Doong, obviously. Our second cave of the day was called Dark Cave, but first we had to eat some lunch. We had an assortment of barbeque meats, sticky rice, veggies, herbs, noodles, rice paper, and peanuts, and together we made all of these into neat little rice paper wraps. In Dark Cave, you must wear headlamps and lifejackets. You zipline down to the cave entrance, swim into the cave, and then alight on the sandbar. The light filtering into the mouth of the cave was absolutely unreal, like something out of a movie. Once the light goes away, you understand why it’s called Dark Cave. You must crawl through narrow crevasses and over rocks and things, which is more fun, somehow, in the dark. Eventually we arrived at a room which is entirely flooded with muddy water (“chocolate party,” as the guide called it), and playing with buoyancy in the water was really fun. Like the Dead Sea, it’s so easy to float with no effort it’s almost disconcerting. After that, going down the mud slide was supposed to be fun, but instead many of us ended up scraping our butts up on the way down (the slide was more sandy than muddy, you see).
We were supposed to kayak back to the shore, and I do love kayaking, but instead I swam back with Julia and Becca. It wasn’t drastically faster or slower than kayaking, anyway. There were ziplines and an American Ninja Warrior-style obstacle course of hanging things to jump off of into the water. It was just a hanging zipline, so I went off it and instead of flipping or dropping gracefully into the water, I did a terribly painful backflop instead. After changing, there were bottles and bottles of rum and coke to “celebrate” a job well done. Julia had to get her motorbike fixed that evening, so she dropped me at a cute café to take some wifi while she went to find a mechanic that would still be open at that time. She had been invited to a hen party, but decided against it, and we went to a restaurant called Red Pepper instead to get pizza. We ran into the Hong Kong people from the caving trip and met the prettiest couple from Holland I’ve ever seen. We had another talk at Beachside and a cocktail and then headed back.
The next day was my trip to Hue, so I woke up, packed up, said goodbyes, and shipped off. Being friends with other travelers is weird. You might not see them again for a long time, or ever, but you know you’re always welcome in each other’s homes. Social media keeps you connected. I love this modern age sometimes. Julia dropped me at the train station and had to go to work, but it turns out that my ticket we’d bought was for the next day instead. I was politely told to leave the train and pouting on the bench, when the train conductor man (on the sly) told me to get back on the train anyway. I was still stressed the whole ride that they would throw me off the train at any time, but they didn’t. From the food trolley lady I got some mango and chili salt to dip it in.
When I got off the train, some boy named Thanh cornered me right away and tried to sell me on a motorcycle Hai Van Pass tour. After getting kind of swindled in Sapa, I had just enough to make it until the end of the trip with bus tickets, hostel fees, and food, so I really didn’t have that much money to play around with. I had considered doing this tour, but at 2 million VND I could only afford half of that. He did manage to haggle it down to 120k but I really didn’t have enough. Thanh wouldn’t take no for an answer, so he succeeded in arranging my bus to the next city (although he probably scalped me, too) and invited me to a party and going out drinking. The story that follows is one that definitely would have skeeved out my mom, but I managed to get out alive.
I went to my Hue hostel, Why Not (I booked it because of the name, you can’t argue with that logic), which was western-themed. The beds were so big and comfy that I regret a bit that I couldn’t have slept in this hostel the whole time in Vietnam. (Side note: Vietnam hostels are so cheap that it’s impossible to choose one. The bad ones are $4 USD per night, and the good ones are as low as $7 USD, so it’s really not expensive to get a good one like this.) The hostel was in a really hip area of town and I was planning my day’s route walking around. I planned to walk to the Imperial City on the other shore, which was not far on the map but felt far in the heat and owing to people accosting me at every turn to get a motorcycle taxi. I got iced coffee and wifi at some eerily deserted outdoor café with bizarre cobalt tablecloths (seriously this place was so big and looked like it was set up for a wedding, but it was just a regular café). I had brought my sketchbook but hadn’t used it until that day, but sketching the imperial city was so relaxing, even in the stifling summer heat. Much of the palaces have been destroyed by time and wars, but what remains is still impressive—and still being rebuilt. The reading pavilion was my favorite part, a wooden structure set in a little lake, very quiet and surrounded by flowers.
I took a motor taxi back to the hostel, and I saw Anh and Sophie walking by while I was waiting for Tranh. I’d been considering not going, but I figured, what did I have to lose by it? Tranh picked me up in a taxi van. I’d pictured this party being at some sort of club, but it turns out it was a party that was the 1-year anniversary of one of his family member’s deaths. This is usually a family event, and all the aunts gathered looked at me like I was the one who killed their relative. We did the bowing and putting up incense. Tranh had promised me there were some American friends to talk to, and his friend Kyle/Bao was nice enough. “We don’t go home until we’re drunk,” Tranh explained, and there was so much food on the table. They did their best to get me drunk with shitty light beer with ice in it. They didn’t succeed, and I was bored enough to go play with the cats and little kids. There weren’t many people for me to talk to. After that, we went to some kind of rooftop café, and in moving the glass tables together Kyle-Bao managed to completely shatter one of the glass tables. I have no idea how he did it. I got cut by it, which I also have no idea how it happened. It looked like a much more dramatic cut than it actually was. Tranh took just me drinking after with his creepy old man friends. After this point I begged off by saying I was sick and going to throw up all over him. That was enough. After I got back, I went out to the night markets briefly, had a shower, and then went to bed.
The next day I had to head to the next city, Hoi An. I had a breakfast ticket at Why Not so I got a baguette and jam and coffee. Tranh had promised that his friend would come pick me up in a motorcycle taxi, but when a shuttle van pulled up asking for a group of one person to go to Hoi An and accepted my ticket, I accepted. The other people the van picked up were incredibly late, but I got on the sleeper bus okay. In Hoi An, I took the motor taxi to the Little Leo Homestay, only to find out that I’d booked this hostel for the night before instead. Luckily, the homestay matriarch let me stay anyway. I rented a bike and got a map and went around exploring the Hoi An old town. It reminded me a lot of Venice in a way, a town with rivers and boats and yellow-painted flower-filled houses. It wasn’t that fun having a bike, though, because once you’re in the old city, you just want to ditch your bike and walk. It’s just too inconvenient. Most of the temples and tourist sites required tickets and I was just trying to figure out whether I had enough money for dinner and to pay for the hostel at the end. When it became too much, I got a cane juice and banh mi from a roadside stand. I returned to the hostel to get some wifi, and met a Korean friend, Ella. We went out that night to explore the night markets, and Hoi An is stunning at night with all the lanterns lit up (especially for the Lantern Festival). We got dinner of Xao Lau, a Hoi An specialty, and then walked back to the hostel to shower and drink a whole lot of water. There, we met Finnish friend Heidi who had been staying at the homestay for a long time. Both Ella and Heidi had really interesting stories as to their world travels and it was cool to meet such seasoned travelers.
The next morning was my last day in Hoi An and also Vietnam. We had breakfast at the homestay, some fried noodles and “white coffee,” and then I packed and checked out. Even though the homestay matriarch had wanted to charge me for the extra night that my bed went unoccupied, she decided against it. Even with only one night charged, I ended up not having enough cash anyway and had to use my card to pay for everything. I, Ella, and Heidi rented bikes and went to the beach. While I loved chilling at the beach in Dong Hoi because of all the experiences surrounding it, An Bang beach and ocean in Hoi An are objectively more beautiful. We got juices at a stand (so that we could park our bikes there “for free”) and then went down to the beach, where we got beers (or an avocado smoothie, in Ella’s case, so that we could use the chairs “for free”) and chilled in the shade. The water was beautiful and warm and it was the perfect way to finish out my trip. Heidi had met her Finnish kitesurfer friends and continued to chat, but I had to head back, shower, and change. At Danang airport I got one last pho while I waited for my flight. At my transfer in Ho Chi Minh City I got a banh mi and fanta for dinner, and then it was back to Seoul at 6am.
I didn’t mean to write 6,000 words, it just kind of slipped out. I know that I’ll be telling stories from this trip for the rest of my life. I learned a lot, too. Mainly, that trust is important, even when it’s trusting strangers, and when you give yourself over to chance, great things can happen. Or at least, you’ll have a great story to tell.
A toast to going with the flow.