Although my trip through Vietnam wasn't blowing my socks off I had hopes for my last stop, the only iconic thing that I was looking forward to, a trek through the rice terraces of Sapa. I skipped a visit to Halong Bay to give myself enough time, money and energy to devote to Sapa, the rice terraces, and minority villages. Instead of joining a pre arranged trip from Hanoi I decided to do the visit on my own, I booked my overnight sleeper train after only one full day in Hanoi and was soon on my way. Everything about the train ride was straightforward and easy, as far as night travel goes, but the second we arrived the negotiations started. I heard from multiple sources, including fellow travelers that the minibus from Lao Cai to Sapa should be a flat 50,000 dong, no problem. Not sure where these people got off the train but the guys were starting with offers of 100,000, had one down to 80k when I ran into a group of 3 other women negotiating with a group of drivers. They were adamant not to go above 60k, so I decided to join ranks. Eventually, we settled on a fair, but not really, 70,000 dong so we packed in for the 45-minute ride through the winding hills up to Sapa.
After I zipped my way through the country including 4 days on the Mekong, cool days in Da Lat and beauty in Ninh Binh, I found myself in the countries capital, Hanoi. To be honest I had nothing on my 'To Do' list for the city, but then again I don't tend to stay in the big cities for all that long. True to my nature I began making my exit plans almost as fast as I arrived. To be fair though it was 1 million degrees in the city and I was ready for some alone time.
With Saturday afternoon upon us, Andrew and I packed up our bags and prepared to leave the hostel in time for our 6:30 pm, overnight train. As we were getting ready, the hostel owners (both Vietnamese) asked us where we were headed. They must have expected the answer of Hanoi or Ha Long Bay because their heads turned with surprise and a bit of confusion when we replied "Ninh Binh". They asked us why we were going there with equal parts doubt and curiosity in their voice. Andrew and I explained our plans and they still looked at us with blank stares which were slightly disheartening. I didn't want to let their ignorance destroy my anticipation so I decided to ignore their reaction and look forward to what was in store.
Although I had enjoyed my time in Hoi An I was feeling a bit burnt out and ready for a change of pace, just not sure where to find it. Not wanting to throw myself onto an overnight train I decided that I'd spend one night in Da Nang and see what the city had to offer. If nothing else I could tell my grandpa I paid a visit to his old temporary home from when he served time as a Marine in the Vietnam war. Annoyance couldn't be avoided when my motorbike driver dropped me at the train station after asking another (local) driver where my hostel was. As I got off the bike and paid this other driver insisted my hostel was very near but then tried getting me on the back of his bike. Nice trick jerk, but no thanks, I'll walk. Thankfully the hostel was near but I was still dripping in sweat by the time I arrived, afternoon sun and humidity in Vietnam is a recipe for disaster.
Although the beautiful weather and friendly hostel owner of Da Lat could have kept me there for quite some time I wanted to make my way to the North of Vietnam. I booked myself an overnight bus ticket to Da Nang and crossed my fingers for the best. The bus ride wasn’t terrible despite the fact that I was the only foreigner and was stuck in the middle aisle between two very curious old men. After arriving in Da Nang my adventure was far from over. First, I had to fight off the motorbike drivers that literally were begging to drive me to the bus terminal, a destination I could see from where I was standing. Once there I had to negotiate my fare for the bus to Hoi An, a notorious ‘scam’ where foreigners are asked to pay 50,000 when the going rate is 15k ($.75). Apparently, I had a real cheeky driver as he first quoted me $10 but eventually walked away happy with 30k.
On my second day in Da Lat, I had grandiose ideas of renting a motorbike and trying to get myself lost. But when I woke up I had second thoughts and spent a good hour going back and forth in my head about what to do. I'm a bit indecisive if you didn't know already. Eventually, I decided it wasn't the best idea, given the road conditions (drivers) of Vietnam and opted for another day of random exploration. I was on my way to the Crazy House when a motorbike pulled up beside me. Knowing exactly what he was about to propose I was prepared with my 'no, not today' standard response, but for some reason that's not what happened.
After the fun of my overnight bus adventure, I arrived at a wonderful hostel and was greeted by the friendliest guy I'd met so far in Vietnam. I hadn't actually made a booking so when I called and probably woke him up at 6am I was pleased that he was so pleasant. After unlocking the gates and showing me inside he simply asked if I wanted the mixed or female dorm, told me the number and said 'see you later'. This couldn't have been more perfect as I was in desperate need of a few more hours of sleep and sure enough when I went back down to the lobby at 8:30 Peace was just as pleasant.
Somehow during my roughly 60 days in Thailand I managed to avoid any overnight buses, of course, I had my fair share of interesting train rides, but I escaped the bus. This all changed when I got to Vietnam, after my adventures in the South I decided it was time to head north. Thanks to the recommendation of Mr. Kim I altered my plans a bit and instead of the beach town of Mui Ne I booked my ticket for the central highlands city of Da Lat. The town is apparently popular with Vietnamese newlyweds, but the promise of greenery, mountains and some cooler temperatures peaked my attention.
After three action packed days on the back of a motorbike, in boats, exploring cities and sweating a lot with my tour guide Mr. Kim, it was time for our adventure to come to an end. The final day started at 7:30 as Mr. Kim and I decided it'd be a good idea to try and beat the heat. The plan for the day was to ride bicycles around the small village of Ben Tre, exploring and observing the local way of living.
Having slept like a baby I was up early and able to fit in a bit of AM yoga before Mr. Kim was knocking at my door. Like dinner, I was once again eating alone (why Mr. Kim had to sit with me I do not know) but breakfast was less than appetizing. I guess they assumed I couldn't handle Asian breakfast of noodles or rice so instead I was given an entire baguette with some incredibly sweet jam, accompanied by some incredibly sweet coffee. Thankful to not be in a sugar coma I packed my bags and jumped back on the bike, it was time for us to move on to Can Tho.
I was warned that I'd either love it or hate it. For some Vietnam is a food and adventure paradise while others just can't seem to find their grove. With a turbulent history and remains of division between north and south, it's an interesting place to say the least.