A cluster of conical bamboo hats, rows of snowy white ducks with saffron beaks, endless emerald green and huge piles of flowers of every kind…these are the most poignant memories of my Vietnam trip. In fact, I remember the flowers the most and my first Vietnamese encounter involved my battered Hanoi taxi to crash into a mountain of sweet-smelling blossoms. That was one crazy experience with lots of flowers and conical hats going helter-skelter, me screaming my lungs out and the taxi driver spending the rest of the night rescuing his vehicle from the flowery mess. Vietnam was a part of my six months Asia solo backpacking tour and I was overexcited about this mysterious, country which is full of character and history.
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Young and careless days of my Vietnam trip
It was a hilarious start of my Vietnamese (mis) adventure and that trip did not begin on a good note. I was very young at the time of my Vietnam trip and my inexperience showed in lack of confidence, unprepared travel plans, and improper dressing sense. In fact, during the entire Bangkok to Hanoi flight, I had a plane full of young Vietnamese men staring at my legs which peeped underneath a pair of really tiny shorts. Evidently, my Thailand beach hangover was still on and I had inadvertently missed the fact that Vietnamese are more orthodox and tradition-bound than their immediate neighbouring country.
Days as a very young backpacker
I also had the annoying ability to get stressed by most minor of travel issues like cultural differences, being scammed and health hurdles and was “green” enough to indulge in plenty of cultural travel faux pas.Yet there sparked inside me a zest for life, an insatiable excitement to see more of the world and to learn from my blunders. Different countries, their cultures, and the landscape totally mesmerized me and I foolishly relied more on my urges, rather than common sense when planning trips. Thus it was no wonder, that I chose to visit Vietnam during monsoon and was badly disappointed when heavy rain, with some low-intensity typhoons, marred parts of my trip.
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The first impression of Hanoi
Thankfully I had one whole month at my convenience and it was enough to struggle, learn, be prepared and explore Vietnam to my liking. My trip which started in Hanoi trailed to Sa Pa in the north after which I rode down on a motorcycle the entire length of the narrow country all the way to Ho Chi Minh city. Hanoi as a jumping off base for a first time Vietnam trip turned out to be a tough choice and I firmly echo, what is generally felt by most travellers towards this SE Asian nation. According to the travel fraternity, North Vietnamese are claimed to be more standoffish and cold than their southern counterparts and their war-torn tragic history is blamed for that. Thus, my Hanoi days were not easy, to say the least, yet I can vouch that it is one of the most exciting cities in the world.
Banyan trees, scooters, and street vendors of Hanoi
The French colonial hangover is charmingly heavy in Hanoi, and banyan trees drip their trailers down in a most romantic way. Hundreds of scooters zip in and out of that photogenic nostalgia, making crossing streets often a risky business and street vendors add an intense gritty dimension to this beautiful city. They are everywhere: on the streets dishing out cheap eats from makeshift shops, carrying piles of fruits on their shoulders on bamboo poles and on scooters tugging wooden boxes of mini mountains of flowers behind them. While most of them were very curious, friendly and polite, there were a few bad pennies who not only scammed me (and other travellers) by overcharging but also misbehaved in a harsh way.
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Needless, to say, Hanoi with its scooters, charming run-down buildings, and water puppet shows got stressful after a while and I went on a few day trips to escape the stifling environment. My first trip was to the enticing Perfume Pagoda, which is more popular among the Vietnamese visitors than the foreign ones and located 60 kilometers southwest of Hanoi, it is a beautiful complex of pagodas and Buddhist shrines. The craggy karst hills of Huong Tich Mountain (Mountain of the Fragrant Traces), which contain the shrines were accessible by a boat followed by a brief cable car ride and it was deep in the emerald green heart of North Vietnam.
Another day trip from Hanoi took me to the stunning Tam Coc village, where the natural beauty was surreal and pristine. Imagine a mystical beautiful flooded region, where a meandering river merges with lime green paddy fields and sampans float lazily between rows of tall limestone hills. The place looks cut off from the modern world and even the breeze seems to slow down in a whisper there. In reality, however, Tam Coc or the “three caves region” is extremely popular among travellers and it has a reputation of aggressive overzealous vendors, who hawk their wares from boats. Incidentally, aggressive vendors of North Vietnam stand out harshly from my Vietnam trip memories and this was one of the reasons why I fled down south.
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The cons of Hanoi as a jumping off base for first Vietnam trip
Northern Vietnam was rain washed at the time of my visit and typhoons were also wreaking havoc. I remember having to remain holed up in my hotel room for two days since a huge storm was looming over Hanoi. Weather officials declared Halong Bay unsafe for visit and the storm nearly tore up the city. It was a raging tropical storm, full of strong winds which rattled my hotel room windows all night and uprooted trees, disrupting power supply. The rain, when it came, poured endlessly like a waterfall from the sky making the frenetic pace of Hanoi to come to a standstill. By evening, however life in Hanoi resumed in its quintessential chaotic cacophony and rivulets of water poured from the plastic sheets housing street vendors. A fine drizzle still misted the cityscape, when an outrageous attempt of being double charged by my hotel owner set me scurrying to the railway station. There was clawing frantic need to lash out at Hanoi for its misdemeanour towards travellers and I hurriedly bought a ticket to Sa Pa to get out of the city.
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Hills and minority villages of Sa Pa
The northwestern frontier of Sa Pa was a healing balm on my young travel weary lacerated soul. Perched beautifully on the western edge of a high plateau, the town of Sa Pa faced the hazy blue peak of Fan Si Pan, and photogenic villages of ethnic minority groups surrounded it. The rain affected it much less than the hot, dusty plains and nearly every day was full of sunshine. A cool, refreshing climate, an almost alpine landscape of rolling meadows, dazzling green terraced rice fields and blooming flowers soothed me and I spent some very happy days relaxing in the hilly town. Though, based out of the haphazardly built clumsy town, I explored the surrounding on a rental scooter and often spent hours at my favourite cozy nook amidst leaning bamboo forest. The spot overlooked a valley which was full of coiling lush rice fields and a young river tumbled through it. A smattering of village houses and some European styled roofed villas were tucked in between the paddy folds and it was a sight which never failed to mesmerize me.
The local life of Sa Pa
There was something refreshingly soft and pastoral about Sa Pa and its surroundings and every day were filled with colours. These came from the local women coming dressed in their finest best, with the most striking being the Red Dao. They stood out proudly in their scarlet headdresses festooned with woolen tassels and silver trinkets and were more conspicuous than the Black Hmong people. I loved watching them, going about their daily lives, shopping and gossiping in groups and often gave a couple a ride on my scooter. My little Vespa also brought me endless joy and it gave me the freedom to explore beautiful Sa Pa at my will. Riding on the waterfall splashed mountain roads past nonchalant water buffaloes was one of my cheap thrills and I could never have enough to the big, scary looking gentle beasts.
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Central Highlands was the highlight of my Vietnam trip
The quintessential water buffaloes are yet another poignant Vietnam trip memory along with dragonflies and they both have a very interesting linkage with the rural culture. I discovered more about them, during my long motorcycle ride from Hanoi to HCM via Da Lat and that was one trip to remember. Though a rash decision made based on impulse rather than sensibility, that motorbiking experience was the highlight of my entire Vietnam trip. In my opinion, if you wish to get off the beaten track in Vietnam, this is the place to do so. While the Central Highlands is not much in comparison to the scenic beauty of the north, the entire region holds a lot more local experience, which is mostly untouched by tourism. Bordered by the (not easy to cross over) Cambodian border in the west, the region‘s fertile rich soil produces a host of agricultural products like flowers, coffee, tea, silk, and hardwood.
The home and cottage industries of Central Highlands of Vietnam
This lead to a rush to mint the riches of the lands and much of the hilly areas are badly denuded by mining and lumber industry. Pockets of forested areas still remained at places and these were interspersed with small villages centered around quaint monasteries. The most astonishing part of the ride was the smooth road all along the journey and the massive industriousness of the people of that region. Medium, small-scale to home industries abound the Central Highlands all the way to HCM and these were mostly run by women. Silk farms, coffee and tea plantations, brick making kilns, mushroom farms, etc were thriving with work and even the women monks were busy making incense at the monasteries. Nobody seemed to sit still there and the energy was full of hope and lust for life.
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Exotic meat, raccoon poop coffee, and red earth of Central Highland
Of course, the weather too turned warmer, with less rain and more of smiling blue skies. Patches of fluffy white clouds floated on them and these created temporary shadows on the kiwi, dragon fruit and jackfruit orchards in the plains. I enjoyed this part of my ride the most, and went through obscure towns, happily skipping the coast. Somewhere along the way, the lovely old colonial French town of Da Lat passed by and it was the last bit of rainiest part of my Vietnam trip. After that, it was only blue skies and sunshine with an occasional rainbow spanning the horizon in vivid seven colours.
Learning to live like a local in the Central Highlands
In retrospect, I believe that ride made me grow as a traveler and a person and I slowly started gaining confidence in wandering off the beaten tracks on my own. Those were some very beautiful days of exploring little villages of E De, Jarai and Bahnar minority groups, staying at their homes and dining with the locals. The Central Highlanders exuded a genuine warmth unsurpassed anywhere else in Vietnam and I happily gave Hoi An, Hue and the seductive coast amiss. There were still sights and cultural shocks which left me either gagging or numbed and from dog meat, bear paws, raccoon poop coffee to snake wine, Central Vietnam revealed them all.
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Monasteries for the trafficked women of the Mekong Delta
The culinary shocks numbed me so much during that ride, that I often opted to spend my nights at monasteries rather than homestays. This was mainly to stick to safe vegetarian food and one of my biggest fears during my Vietnam trip was to consume a slice of exotic meat. The monasteries were yet another chapter of Vietnam which struck me hard and they sheltered mostly abused women from the Mekong Delta. Famous for their beauty, these women came from impoverished families who sold off their daughters to men living abroad, as far as Hong Kong. Being not considered as wives, these women were often traded off with/without their children by their buyers after a few years and they passed several hands, before returning to their villages in the Mekong Delta.
Restarting life all over again
While some got lucky in life and started life afresh with a local man, most of these socially ostracized women stayed in Central Highland monasteries with their offspring. I met a few of the ladies during one such monastery stay and their calm forgiving attitude towards life, which had been so unkind to them, humbled me. Lively, gracious, and still full of love, they spent their days making incense or weaving baskets, while their children studied in the monastery schools. Their duties were happily fulfilled without complaint and one of them took me under her wing to teach me some vegetarian Vietnamese dishes.
The other side of Maldives, the life of the locals of the paradise islands
Till I return to Vietnam
Whiling away my days in the company of such kind, welcoming people drew my Vietnam trip closer than expected and I rushed to HCM just a day before the visa ended. Thankfully, everything from the night ride to HCM, brief hotel stay, and quick transfer to Moc Bai (immigration and customs area) worked smoothly and I crossed over to Cambodia, without spending even a day in the great Ho Chi Minh city. Today, when I sit back and think about those foolish days of my Vietnam trip, I see an awkward teenager learning, growing, hurting, and improving in her ways about the world. Despite, making mistakes, cultural faux pas, being perpetually shocked, stressed or both, she was eager, full of innocence and impressions.
Travel is more than a social media post
Those were days before selfie sticks and Instagram posts when travel was truly relished through a mixed bag of experiences like the ones mentioned above. Those days I used to write a journal every night before going to bed and while thumbing through it, saw one line, which cannot get truer than that. “Did not get to visit Hue, Hoi An, Mekong Delta, Mui Ne….., will have to return soon”. And I will return to Vietnam soon, though wiser, stronger, and sadly more jaded.
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Visa and my itinerary
Indian passport holders are eligible for a Vietnam visa on arrival provided they fly into an international airport with a pre-approved authorization letter from a Vietnam tourist agency. I used Vietnam-visa.com and have been very satisfied with their service. During the time of application, one can opt for single or multiple entry visas. I flew Vietnam Airlines from Bangkok to Hanoi and it remains my choice of airline for internal and outbound Vietnam flights. My itinerary included Hanoi – Sa Pa – Hanoi – Pho Chau – Kon Tum -Pleiku – Buon Ma Thot – Da Lat – Bao Loc – Ho Chi Minh city. I used Da Lat Easy Rider and have been more than happy with their excellent service.
Best time to visit and money exchange
It is best to avoid the rainy season to visit Vietnam unless you are on a tight budget and your highland experience will depend enormously upon when you visit. The dry season is from November through to April, but to experience the glistening green beauty of Vietnam, the wet months of May to October are the best. Be careful when changing money to local currency in Vietnam since due to the exchange rate one often ends up with a lot of cash. Count several times before accepting and be aware of the rate of exchange. Vietnamese Dong fluctuates quite a bit and it is best to carry cash in USD. Border crossing to and from Vietnam is possible from Laos and Cambodia and e visa requirements do not allow land crossing to enter Vietnam. Tet or the Vietnamese New Year is the main festival of Vietnam and book ahead if visiting during that time.
Highlights and culture shocks
The highlights of Vietnam are Hanoi, Sa Pa, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, HCM and Mekong Delta, but there is more to Vietnam than these places. For those with squirmish stomachs, it is best to stick to vegetarian or vegan food in Vietnam, though this is quite difficult to find in the countryside. Be prepared to see exotic dishes and meat in Vietnam and many street vendors use them in their food. Avoid them, if seemingly offensive to your senses, while being respectful of the cultural differences.
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