I'd hate to add to the hype I’ve seen about Vietnam being a fantastic place for digital nomads, makers, bloggers and the rest of those who make their living out of a suitcase. I also wouldn’t say that it was my least favorite place thus far. My wife (Trista) and I were in Vietnam for three months, and feel that’s long enough to say, with confidence, that Vietnam is just ok.
While still in Bali, we decided to watch the 18 hr PBS documentary on The Vietnam War. Since we knew we’d be spending 3 months there, we thought it was important to learn a little about it’s history.
It’s a very sad history.
We started in Hanoi, doing typical touristy things. You know, like visiting the war memorial and a POW prison. Due to our busy schedules, we didn’t make it to see Ho Chi Min encased in glass, or to the celebrated memorial of the first American pilot shot down in the war. As I said, these are the typical touristy things in Hanoi.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all gloomy. We also did things like drink egg coffee at the place it was invented, visit a really old church and walk through the fantastically ENDLESS market streets; all named for whatever item the stores on them sell the most of. Apparently, if you can read Vietnamese, it’s very easy to navigate. We, on the other hand, couldn’t have been happier getting lost there.
Our favorite thing about Hanoi was the co-working spaces. There are TONS of them, all with a free day-pass for those interested in signing up. After visiting a few, we decided on Toong. Ergonomic chairs, good wifi, free coffee (espresso if you know how to use it), and no distractions. The chairs were the most comfortable we’ve sat in in 6 months. It’s the little things you miss the most.
After about a week in Hanoi, we visited Halong Bay, which was one of the most fantastic places either of us had ever seen. Thousands of little islands popping up from the water in every direction; floating villages where some people spend their entire lives; cave systems inside some of the islands that go on for what seems like miles…it was truly spectacular. We went on a boat cruise that took us on a tour of the islands, the caves, a little cove where we went kayaking and, finally, to a grueling hike up a staircase that made us wish we had a slinky.
The most surprising thing about our time in Halong Bay, unfortunately, was the sheer amount of pollution in the air and water from all of the boat traffic and factories. Our last day there was the first that we were able to see more than a few islands from our waterfront apartment. Tourism has had a tremendous impact on this part of the world.
All in all, our first few weeks in Vietnam were good. We saw some cool things, met some nice people, spent some quality time together and had plenty of time to work on our various projects while tethered to the fastest cell network in the world.
There, now you learned something too :)
After Halong Bay, we hopped on a train - because romance.
Since the popular thing to do is copy Top Gear by doing a Northern trek from Saigon (HCMC) to Hanoi, we figured we’d go the other direction. This was our first experience with sleeper trains and, let me tell you, it was unforgettable. From the squatty potty that sloshed with every turn of the track, to the two cockroaches killed within our first hour, it wasn’t the “romantic” experience our insta-fabulous traveling peers made it out to be.
After our unforgettable train ride and a short trip in a cab, we ended up at our next stop: Hoi An! “The City of Lanterns” - “ The Venice Of The East” (Seriously, this is what people call it). We were pretty happy about this destination. Not because it’s hyped up as a photo-bloggers tourist destination, but because, in reality, it’s a quiet place to spend a while, and that’s exactly what we needed after the busyness of Bali and Hanoi.
On our second day there, we found this great little villa (link to airbnb) in a local neighborhood on an island about 5 minutes from town. It didn’t have a kitchen, but it had a pool, a desk and a king-sized bed - score!
We found a small diner across the bridge that instantly felt like home. From the local expats swapping travel stories every night to the fact that everything on the menu was amazing, we enjoyed spending several evenings there just sitting and watching people go by. It sounds boring, but it also happened to be on the corner of an intersection that had a two way street that dead-ended to a (mostly) walking market, and a bridge that crossed to a one-way street. Unless you’re a scooter, or you just really feel like going down it, or it’s before noon; or something. The rules of the one-way were really confusing. Neither locals nor tourists knew what to do; making for the finest people watching we’ve ever experienced.
When walking around Hoi An, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re a walking dollar bill. From the diners and cafes, to tailor shops, people selling pancakes and boat rides along the canal, everyone asks you to spend something; at least three times. This was a great reminder that timing is everything. Eventually, we went on a boat-ride through the canal, ate banana pancakes, got some massages and had some things tailored. Persistence pays off - no matter where you are :)
On weekends, we tried to get out and explore a bit. Our first weekend blew our friggin minds with a trip up the Hai Van Pass. For those who didn’t see the Top Gear episode, that’s the place they called “one of the best coastal roads in the world”. It did not disappoint!
On the other side of the pass, we came across a mostly deserted beach resort and killed some time there before hopping back on the road to get to one of the tallest statues in the world outside Da Nang.
The next weekend, we took a fellow traveler’s advice and headed to a lesser known area of the beach just outside Hoi An. Either we didn’t find the spot he was talking about or our versions of beautiful beaches aren’t exactly aligned. Either way, after a long walk on some tube thingamabobs, we ended up finding our version.
Hanoi was just what we needed. We got to spend a good amount of time exploring, Trista had a blast drinking all the coffee and I was finally able to finish building some new tools; instead of only doing more coursework. We may not have been living "on" the beach, but the people, the food and the beauty of the old city were tough to beat.
Sometimes, you come across a deal on Airbnb and go: “There’s no way that property is that inexpensive!”. Sometimes, you talk yourself in to the possibility that, since you’re one of the first bookings, the discounts and everything add up to the perfect savings recipe. Sometimes, you show up to the property to be greeted by a nice retired couple, who you soon find out you’ll be sharing a two-bedroom apartment with for the next month. Sometimes? Well, that’s what happened to us. Trista cried while I scoured Airbnb for other accommodations nearby. After about an hour, we decided that we’d treat it as a learning and growing experience and just go with it. And we’re glad we did.
It was a little difficult at first since Hang and Vinh didn’t speak much English. We’re talking “Hi”, “I’m fine, how are you”, “Thank you”, and not much else. Needless to say, we got out a lot more often. There was a little cafe on the ground floor of one of the buildings in our complex, which we spent a lot of time at! It reminded us of a place in Coeur d'Alene called “Bakery By The Lake”, but it overlooked the ocean; which seemed better.
We were staying in a quieter area just North of Nha Trang called “Hon Chong”, which is quieter and cleaner than its southern counterpart. The waves outside our place looked like normal clear ocean waves, but the Russian tourist trap that is Nha Trang had ocean waves made of chocolate milk; at least that’s what we keep telling ourselves.
The complex we stayed in had four buildings, all with shops on the ground floor that looked out over the water. Within a short walk, we found several cafes, eateries, and the freshest and most reasonably priced sushi bar in the world. Our typical day involved waking up early, eating breakfast, heading to the cafe, doing some work, getting some lunch, going home, walking the beach, working some more and eating lots of sushi. It was a simple life, it was a good life.
One of our very first weekends there, we took a trip to Ba Ho Waterfalls. It was about an hour north of town, and included a beautiful drive along a coastal road, through villages, rice patties, coffee farms and the jungle. There was a dirt parking lot part-way up a mountain that we dropped the bike off at before continuing on a short hike that ended at some of the most beautiful swimming spots we’d yet seen. It was a great place to just swim and relax for a few hours.
The next weekend, we decided to head to Nha Trang and see the markets. They have a normal mall, an outdoor market and a two-story market building that houses your typical souvenirs. Everything from fabric to clothes, shoes, sunglasses, canes, purses, watches, wallets, electronics, and other totally real name-brand things. We started at the mall and walked to the market building, which perfectly summed up our time in Vietnam in a single walk. It was beautiful, it was wildly unbalanced, and it was sad. Our walk started at a Venice-Beach type shopping center, with marble floors and all of the name brands. The further away we got, the poorer the area became. From marble and glass hotels to sheet metal and plywood houses, clean streets with empty sewers to narrow old roads with puddles you DON’T step in, people in suits to shoeless children. We bought a few things at the market, but wished we could have done more.
Our only other day-off included a trip to a really old local temple and a knockoff market that had all of the best knockoffs we’ve seen. Even with no copyright laws, they still misspelled big name brands and had misquotes/prints of everything you see elsewhere.
Just before heading out of town, we took advantage of low tide to walk out on the promontory we looked out on from our apartment every morning. When open, it's FULL of Chinese tourists, but if you're early enough and security doesn't stop you, you can have the whole place to yourself; like we did.
All things considered, our time in Hon Chong was nice. We worked a lot and grew a lot as individuals, and as a couple; we got to see some cool areas and meet some great people; and our roommates even made us a traditional Vietnamese dinner one night, which was wonderful.
This has gone on a while now, so I'll tell you all about Dalat and HCMC in the next post.
Thanks for reading!
Till next time,
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