I spend the few days I have here riding the scooter into small villages, managing to keep away from the trekkers and venturing into different lands. The locals give me looks that are sometimes curious, sometimes cautious. Up into the mountains or down into small parts of the valley, I observe villagers work or chat, and an incredible amount of children who run around and play
The very south of China awaits me in its many greens. The banana trees and local birds are a clear evidence of my being on the way to more tropical sceneries. Hekou looks like what I imagine of Vietnam and it somewhat robs me of the surprise. Impatient now, I make my way to the border under an intense sun that showers everything in light and heat.
I cross both the Chinese and Vietnamese immigration desks without the slightest hassle. I had made such a big thing of Chinese customs, in mind. It is almost disappointing. Regardless, I follow the few merchants who seem to be pushing their trolleys between two countries everyday, and exit into Lao Cai. I cannot help but wonder what kind of permit these merchants must have, though I suspect it is more informal than I imagine.
The harassment I had left in India catches up with me now. My first fifty meters in Vietnam are a parade of people offering me to “change money?!” My old habit of saying “no thanks” over and over again comes back to life quicker than I thought it would, but I still make a quick escape towards the Sa Pa bus.
I reach Sa Pa, which is obviously crawling with tourism. There is no doubt that Vietnam is a lot more touristy than China. No surprise there. The city is nothing impressive, it will merely be a stop for the night, before I head into the valley. I have heard great things of the Sa Pa valley, and I feel well impatient to see the rice fields. Unfortunately, the rice is collected earlier in the year, but I have no doubt it is worth seeing anyway. Traveling for a year is logistically very complex, and you have to grieve some sights.
The following morning, I rent a scooter from a reluctant hotel owner. Typical of the tourist spots! We start negotiating what seems to be his unsure approach to deposit. He mentions passport and amounts of money, as I try to reason with him. Finally, we come to an agreement and I ride off into the street of Sa Pa. Not far. On the edge of town, I stumble upon what seems to be a security agent of some sort. He stops me and claims I should pay an access fee to venture into the valley. Taxing access to public roads or certain parts of towns is nothing surprising in Asia, at this point. I pay him the access fee, only to learn later that the locals of the valley are not even informed of this access fee. Besides, the state of the road clearly shows the absence of any investment into the valley. Frustrating!
I bump up and down onto this road, all the way into Ta Van: a village where I have booked a room in a homestay. The village is a fast growing stop on some of the popular treks into the valley. The amount of homestays have increased exponentially over the last year, and cafes pop up here and there. At the homestay, I am welcome by a family of four. The mother runs the place, the father disappears for a mysterious job every day, the six-ish year old boy attends school and the two-ish year old girl watched videos or hugs the cat to near-death. It takes a good two minutes after settling in for the street merchants to show up. They are handicraft women who patrol the streets, stalking the many backpack-wearing prays. They have perhaps the most aggressive selling skills I have come to see. They are not shy to step into hotels and homestay to harass the tourists they eventually put off. You might be having diner with a lover, stepping out of the shower, or only just getting out of bed, it doesn’t matter:
“You buy from me?”
“OK maybe you buy later…”
“No, I don’t want to buy anything.”
“Ok, later you buy from me."
In a restaurant, I meet Indie, a young woman from Hanoi who is in charge of running the place. She explains having moved here because of her interest for the cultures of minorities in the valley. She tips me on a few places to venture out of the tourist tracks. I spend the few days I have here riding the scooter into small villages, managing to keep away from the trekkers and venturing into different lands. The locals give me looks that are sometimes curious, sometimes cautious. Up into the mountains or down into small parts of the valley, I observe villagers work or chat, and an incredible amount of children who run around and play. One evening, I stumble upon a spontaneous football game between the youths of different villages. The next, I stop on the road to observe a nine year old direct a group of buffalos with a stick. Overall, I spend a fascinating four days observing the locals who have a simpler lifestyle but seem so happy. There is an incredibly positive vibe everywhere, and in me a feeling strikes out: this is the first place I am visiting where I envy the locals for their way of life.
On the other hand, I cannot help but be taken aback by the locals. I cannot seem to read them. In the small villages, I am given both smiles and cautious looks. I struggle to make out if they are being shy, or have had about enough of Pasty McWhite walking through the village with a camera. I am hesitant and feel stuck for a few days. Only the children are easy to approach, they approach you.
These few days in the valley have been most enjoyable, and through the homestay family I have seen a little bit of the life of the Vietnamese. I would return in the evening to find that they are throwing a party next to the guest rooms, maybe the father is having a karaoke session by himself in the kitchen the following day, and definitely the kids burst into my room all the time to play. Nothing is a big deal, and I feel like I have a lot to learn from this state of mind.
The bus from Sa Pa leaves me in a fairly sketchy part of Hanoi. Men with cheeky smiles send me in different directions and their goal seems to be confusing me until I accept a taxi-bike ride. Thankfully, a young woman who studies in the neighborhood comes to the rescue and puts me on the right bus. Off I go to the Old Quarter, and I reach the hostel soon enough.
Upon arrival, I realize where I have ended up. The hostel is a Westerners base where cool-wannabees drink and party. I meet people who talk about a mysterious party and how they have to keep an eye on the guy who agreed to take them, because “he would flirt with a girl and forget us when he heads there…” Other times, I talk to someone who “has been to Hanoi three times already” but has not a clue about the most obvious of historic sights. Quickly, I let the staff know I will be cutting my booking down from five days to two.
I spend two days among this crowd, which makes me realize how decadent we can sometimes be in the West. A fair amount of the guests return to the hostel completely drunk, and get high on laughing gas in front of a staff who surely find them embarrassing, yet they are too self-absorbed to notice it. A man from a small village near Ninh Binh is working as security. His name is Tam and I strike a conversation with him. He tells me about his moving to Hanoi to make a living until he has the necessary credentials to be an English teach back home. We chat about things of Vietnam, as well as his experience among the Westerners. I apology for my people and congratulate him for making such a sacrifice. It is clear, the move to a big city by himself was not an easy one..
Hanoi is a place of morning markets and coffee breaks. The famous Ca Phe, for which the country has grown to be the world’s second biggest producer of coffee beans. I walk around and observe the day-to-day of people. I join some for tea on the sidewalk stools and buy fruits from the many women walking the streets with baskets. When the morning has been filled with fruit and coffee, I visit the National History Museum and the Hao Lo prison which was built by the French to lock and mistreat Vietnamese rebels under colonization. The prison was later used by the Vietcong to imprison American soldiers, under more human conditions, it would appear.
Hanoi is a place of morning markets and coffee breaks. The famous Ca Phe, for which the country has grown to be the world’s second biggest producer of coffee beans. I walk around and observe the day-to-day of people. I join some for tea on the sidewalk stools and buy fruits from the many women walking the streets with baskets
The man offers me tobacco and alcohol, he laughs in a contagious laughter. We sail and sail around the bay and its floating village. The cloudy weather makes it all look mysterious
The time for my early departure from Hanoi has come, and I am heading to Cat Ba island. I have been told that the Ha Long bay is too disrupted by tourism, and that I should visit the island instead. Unfortunately, I suspect the weather will not be on my side, but we’ll see.
Cat Ba is a fishermen’s island surrounded by different bays with a similar geological phenomenon as can be found in the Ha Long bay. On Cat Ba, the most famous is Lan Ha bay. I arrive in Cat Ba town with little of a plan but a few days to spare. My only plan is to venture inland the first day. I grab a quick diner which indicates that the island’s food is likely touristic-island standards, and head to bed. I wake up with a slightly upset stomach, and do a usual mental inventory of the things I have eaten. Regardless, I head to the national park and hike to the top of a small mountain. The view is spoiled by the low clouds that are putting the whole island into a foggy look, but the spot in enjoyable nonetheless. Later, I continue my visit of the island at the Hospital Cave, which is fascinating. During the war, the Vietnamese army -with support from China- has built a hospital into a cave on the island, sheltering the wounded from further bombing. The cave was also open to the inhabitants of the island who could find temporary shelter when the bombs were dropping.
The next day, I wake up with the nausea still, and a growing feeling of exhaustion. I decide it is wiser to take it easy and rent a scooter to drive to a small village in the North of the island. I reach the bay up North and observe the small fishing boats that take trips to and from the small fishing houses across the water. I find myself falling asleep on the concrete of the dock and realize it is time to head back. When I reach Cat Ba town again, I make a quick stop to see the fishing port, where rows and rows of fish is laid to dry in the process of making Nuoc Mam.
As interesting as it is, I quickly start heading back. I find it harder and harder to feel excited, which is a concerning feeling. Ever since I left Hanoi, I have had a growing feeling of exhaustion, and now the blues have settled in. Am I travel weary? I decide to look into accounts of travelers who have felt the same way, and find that it is a common issue. The constant moving, the fleeting social interactions, the ever changing climate and diet, all these contribute to make you what I can best describe as travel weary. I read accounts I can easily relate to. They talk of tiredness, confusion and loss of interest. The advice is to settle in a place for a few days and create a routine. You do miss a bit of stability…
The plan is obvious, I will push through in Cat Ba and make a small temporary nest in Ninh Binh, my next stop. On my last day in Cat Ba, I will finally visit the Lan Ha bay. The hotels offer tours but I am all too aware of their capturing most of the business and leaving little chances to the locals. Instead, I go to the port where locals offer you rides in their small taxi-boats. It doesn’t take long for them to find someone with a big enough boat to take me around the bay. The man of a certain age offers to go around for less than half the price of the tour, and I accept. Soon, we head out to sea and sail along the island. The man offers me tobacco and alcohol, he laughs in a contagious laughter. We sail and sail around the bay and its floating village. The cloudy weather makes it all look mysterious, and the decreasing temperature makes us give an early end to this great visit. That is enough for me anyway, I am ready to leave the island.
“Ninh Binh is the Ha Long of the land” is something I have heard several times. Apparently, the geological phenomenon of the Ha Long bay happens near Ninh Binh as well, giving the region some of the famous round-shaped mountains. I am heading to Tam Coc, a small touristy village near Ninh BInh. In the village, I have found a nice homestay and plan a few days of rest and stability. Also, I have realized that my Cat Ba misadventures were related to dehydration and I have to be a little wiser with my water.
I arrive at the homestay to be greeted by the loveliest family. They have arranged a nice garden along the river, and I spend some time looking at the locals rowing tourists along the river. It doesn’t take long for the father to offer me tea. He is sitting with a few of the neighbors on the terrace, where I join them. At their homestay, I spend a first few days going about my business, buying fruits or cycling to Ninh Binh for a movie. The family offers me a seat at their lunch table and tip me on places to go for diner. They are really kind. In Tam Coc, I spend time sitting around the main square and observing the rowers hustling tourists into their boats. Come lunch time, the school children cycle their way home across the village, in races and laughter. The locals have something striking. They are all greetings and smiles, and I feel like I have ventured into the famous land of Vietnamese hospitality.
After a few days of food and relaxation, I have no choice but to do the visiting I have been putting off. After all, there only is the one day left. The family rents me a scooter and I head to the viewpoint, where I catch a great view over the mountains and the river streaming through the valleys. The tourist-loaded boats are now little dots on the river, and later I am one of them. In fact, I follow my visit of the viewpoint with a sail on the river. We row among the many boats and discover the many caves through which the water has carved a way.
It is now my last day in the Ninh Binh area, and I couldn’t be happier with my visit. I have encountered people that truly gave me a glimpse at the legendary hospitality of Vietnam, especially the homestay family, and now I look forward to exploring the country further. I am heading back to the homestay and will gather my things for a night train. Though I want a last moment with these locals, and so I stop in a small village, at a time when kids are out of schools and parents return from work. I am shown around by a group of boys who were playing with sticks. They ask me to take pictures, they show me a dog here and a duck there. They’re proud of their little village, and in turn it is me they show to the elders in the street.
In Tam Coc, I spend time sitting around the main square and observing the rowers hustling tourists into their boats. Come lunch time, the school children cycle their way home across the village, in races and laughter
Generally, Hoi An is very touristy and its streets are flooded with Westerners. Like most UNESCO heritage site, it is slowly being ruined by mass tourism.
Next stop: Hoi An. One of the places I have been most impatient to see, and yet I arrive with a heavy heart. One of my closest friends had arranged to meet me there, only to be snowed in at a Canadian airport. To top it all, I have been warned of a lot of rain and floods in Hoi An. Needless to say, I am heading there with little enthusiasm.
As it turns out, the weather is not that bad. There is little rain, and the flooding has gone down enough. At least I can enjoy the bright colonial architecture of the city in full sunlight. Hoi An is an ancient important merchant port in Vietnam, and notably it is known for affordable tailoring. I meet Tuan who has moved from Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An and taken a job at a tailor shop, where he is offered classes to learn and make clothe. His objective is to acquire skills and, eventually, work in the fashion industry on a bigger scene. Tuan shows me around a few sights of Hoi An, and tells me about the tailor industry here. He would call it fast before qualitative. Eventually, Tuan leaves for work and we arrange to meet later for a beer. I am curious to learn more about this young man who has decided to leave everything behind and learn the handicraft of tailoring at the shops directly.
The following day, I visit a near-empty History Museum where I learn more about the Vietnam war. I am waiting for Ho Chi Minh city to forge an opinion, since it is there that the most information is, though I have a growing feeling at this point anyway: what was France and America doing in Vietnam anyway? The old story of imperialism…
Later, I visit an ancient house, for which Hoi An is famous. Unfortunately, a fair amount of space in the house is being used to sell products to the tourists and it spoils the experience a little. Generally, Hoi An is very touristy and its streets are flooded with Westerners. Like most UNESCO heritage site, it is slowly being ruined by mass tourism.
Another thing I realize is that there is really not much to see or do in Hoi An. I am happy we did not plan more days here. I spend the little time I have left walking the lantern market at night or stopping for coffee in the day. Eventually, it pays! I stumble upon a small handicraft shop where they sell beautiful ceramics. Their tea sets and table utensils are made by differently abled people, allowing them to make a living for themselves. The lady selling the ceramics says they also have a tea house, where hearing-impaired waiters serve you tea and coffee in the company's cups and utensils. Without a doubt, it is the perfect ending to my visit of the city.
I have popped up in Penang, Malaysia for a week. Christmas break, visiting a friend who lives there for a year. Now the break is over and I am headed to Ho Chi Minh City. The city used to be (and still is to some extent) called Saigon, the post-war government reclaimed it symbolically through the leader’s name.
I have three days to spend dodging the countless scooters of the busy Ho Chi Minh traffic, though like everybody I am chocking on their fumes. The city is the economical heart of Vietnam, and modern buildings are popping out on a regular basis. Nightclubs flash a hundred lights at the top of these buildings, and around the many Western shops one can still find a lot of local street food. My luck had me meet Hung, a student of the city, originally from Hue. He works a part time job as a scooter-tour guide, and offered to show me some of the city on his free time. In return, he gets to meet a stranger and practice his English.
Hung shows me the main sites, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral which was build with materials from Europe. Across the street, we stop by the famous post office, blend of colonial architecture with subtle hints of Asia. Hung introduces me to a few street food stalls, by day and by night, as we visit the streets or go for a beer. All the alien food is easily deciphered when I’m around him. And besides, he shares a few funny stories of his tour.
In Ho Chi Minh City, I enjoy a mix of historical visits and modern conveniences. It quickly strikes me as the place to live, shall I ever move to Vietnam for any reason. But the thought is irrelevant. I decide to focus on my visit and, on Hung’s offer, we go to the War Remnants Museum. The place is truly the highlight of my time in the city. More than ever, I realize the horrors and injustice of our politics in the West. But, perhaps more importantly, I learn about the complexities of the war, and the thriving of the Vietnamese as a people.
In my three short days here, Hung has shown me the city but not only. With the warmest of smiles and a cunning sense of humor, he has shown me a glimpse of his life as well. Through the many conversations we had on life and ambitions, through his humility and contentment, I have once again seen how some of our Western concerns can be futile. The young man seems to be happy with what comes his way, and shows a patient ambition to create more opportunities for himself. No small thing seem to be a big deal, in his eyes.
The city is the economical heart of Vietnam, and modern buildings are popping out on a regular basis. Nightclubs flash a hundred lights at the top of these buildings, and around the many Western shops one can still find a lot of local street food
We reach the floating market in no time, and sail through the bigger boats selling bulks of fruits and vegetable. This spot of the market is for bulk, though we manage to find a merchant willing to sell us a few pineapples. We are off to a good start!
I leave Saigon with the feeling that I could easily have spent a few extra days there. Except, I have no time left but the one day I kept for a visit of the floating markets in Can Tho, before I fly out to Phu Quoc island. The journey to Can Tho is a strenuous one, with the five hours commute turning out to be seven and a half. Typical.
I arrive in Can Tho and am offered a ride by a man on the bus. He says I am welcome to jump onto his scooter and save the taxi fair. He is from Can Tho so it would not be any hassle for him... I take the offer and ride on the back of his motorbike, only to realize that he has no idea where we are going. He seems to be confused with the streets and keeps going round and round, asking direction to people on the side of the road. He is well eager to help, and will not give up, though his helping is progressively turning into a handicap. He doesn’t seem to realize the simple fact that we are on the wrong side of the river, and when I wrap my head around the map at last, he will not listen. “How typical” -I think to myself- “wanting to help so bad even when you are actually not helping.” Regardless, I can appreciate the gesture and focus my energy on trying to work with him. We make it eventually.
At the hotel, I am welcome by a local guide who is offered accommodation by the owner, for bringing in the guests of his next-day tour. As we chat, I realize that joining his tour is my best option to see the market. I head to bed after diner, for we have an early rise if we want to catch the market. Waking up is tough, though we soon embark on a lovely boat with breakfast, at the back of the hotel. The sight of coffee helps already. We reach the floating market in no time, and sail through the bigger boats selling bulks of fruits and vegetable. This spot of the market is for bulk, though we manage to find a merchant willing to sell us a few pineapples. We are off to a good start!
For the remainder of the morning, we sail along the Mekong and disembark to visit python farms and papaya fields. Our guide is over-enthusiastic, and he seems more concerned with making friends than sharing information on the market, but he means well. He sings us songs and shoots videos of the trip, and eventually we reach the hotel again. Time to pack my bags and go already. I feel like I could have easily planned more time to visit the Mekong Delta, but it is what it is, and I am hopeful to see Mekong sceneries when I visit Cambodia. “For now, I need to find a way to reach the airport” -I tell myself. That’s when our guide, Tho, offers me a ride on his bike. I grab the opportunity and, after a quick stop for lunch, he delivers me to the Can Tho International Airport. Goodbye Tho, Goodbye Can Tho!
An hour on a plane separates me from Phu Quoc island, a nice little stop before I leave Vietnam behind. My family has arranged a stay on the island for me, through someone they know. This expat of Phu Quoc greets me at the arrival hall.
For a few days, I will be visiting the many beaches of the island and taking boat rides to small islands with him. We ride scooters through the jungle and stop at some of the pepper farms for which the island is famous. On my own, I venture around the day market or its night, more touristy, equivalent. The few days are a relaxing break on this great island and my expat friend is a kind host who makes sure I have the grandest of times. He deepens my knowledge of the Vietnamese, giving me the perspective of someone who has worked and socialized with them for a few years.
Phu Quoc is a fairly big island in the Bay of Thailand. Geographically, it is closer to Cambodia than Vietnam, which offers me a nice opportunity for my traveling further. The island is fairly touristic, though it is nothing close to the Thai islands. “Phu Quoc is Phuket twenty years ago” - I hear. It seems right enough. Resorts are popping up all over the place, and dirt roads through the jungle are slowly being turned to cement. There does not seem to be a middle ground in the development of tourism here, and I give the island no more than a good five years before it is ruined. In any case, I do enjoy my stay. The beach, the food, what more does a man need?
The few days are a relaxing break on this great island and my expat friend is a kind host who makes sure I have the grandest of times. He deepens my knowledge of the Vietnamese, giving me the perspective of someone who has worked and socialized with them for a few years
I look back at one of my first diners in Ta Van, when I strike a conversation with an expat who is on a weekend break from her Hanoi job. “If you could make one observation of the people here in Vietnam, what would it be?” - I asked. Little did I know, she would give me an answer that already summarized the feeling of my five weeks among them: “I guess I would say that they are happy, unless they really have a reason not to.”
I am boarding a ferry for the mainland and will be into another country by the afternoon. I take a seat in the speed boat and wonder what awaits me. What lies beyond Ha Tien, the Vietnamese town on the Cambodian border? In my mind, I speculate on the scenery and people of Cambodia, already. Though, I carry a mix of feelings, for as much as I look forward to the next adventure, I leave Vietnam behind. This one is not an easy goodbye.
The five weeks I have spent in Vietnam were fascinating. After China, it has definitely stepped up the game of tourism, though as much as I have been embarrassed by my fellow Westerners, as much as I have suffered dehydration and travel weariness, Vietnam will remain a great memory. To me, it is forever the land of happy folks, and the first place giving me a real desire to stay. I have observed a people who is content with little things beyond togetherness, a people who simply smiles and thrives. I look back at one of my first diners in Ta Van, when I strike a conversation with an expat who is on a weekend break from her Hanoi job. “If you could make one observation of the people here in Vietnam, what would it be?” - I asked. Little did I know, she would give me an answer that already summarized the feeling of my five weeks among them: “I guess I would say that they are happy, unless they really have a reason not to.”
The cautious looks of the Black Mong, Red Dao, Day and Tay minorities in the Sa Pa valley will make you freeze for a bit and hesitate. Perhaps you will wonder were you have ventured but it will not be long before you encounter a shy smile or hear the “HELLO! BYBYE!” of children. Later, you will befriend strangers who are as happy for meeting you as you them. I think of Indie, Tam, Tuan and Hung. I think of their sharing such happy moments, effortlessly. Once again, I feel grateful for the friends I have met along the way. A collection of smiles, recipe for a happy life.
Vietnam is a place of running children and happy smiles. Here, fresh food, good humor and a bit of sun is enough to make a man happy. You will analyze the life of locals, their culture and their family structure; you will meet the people and wonder how can they be so content? Paradoxically, the thing they will teach you is that you do not need an answer to that question, for there might not be one anyway. If someone ever asks me what makes the Vietnamese so happy though, I will answer karaoke and cheeky children. The tunes and giggles.