Arriving in a country without its visa is never fun. And as fate would have it, our first lapse thus far happened to be in Vietnam where not producing this document garnered such polarizing looks of confusion and disappointment, it was similar to that of someone letting one fly on your flight and you can’t figure out who dun it. So needless to say we felt terrible. But apparently between the time we left in January and our arrival in May, a visa is required to travel within Vietnam. There’s certainly not much leverage you have when your options are to either fly back to your last destination, in our case Singapore, or shell out $320 (in CA$$$H) for a couple of emergency visas. So without hesitation they took Leah’s birthday money and allowed us to stay in their country for the next 14 days.
After said debacle, we grabbed our bags, booked it outside and immersed ourselves in the wool blanket that awaited us and found a taxi driver to whisk us away to our hotel. This guy was exactly what we needed.
First, his soundtrack was impeccable. Shifting from ‘N SYNC to Brittany Spears to George Michael’s “Careless Whispers” with an encore of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” He sang along while admitting he had no idea what he was actually saying. All of this while moving about traffic and multiple lanes as if they were one, flashing his brights so often and in such varying intervals, you would think he was navigating by Morse code.
Our journey to the hotel was pretty mesmerizing, passing through an incredibly vibrant city, so awake and full of life it seems doubtful this place ever sleeps. Finally reaching our destination, Skyler offered the driver a tip that was rejected in favor for a more sizable bill, even though we’d paid in full upfront. I guess there’s a first for everything.
Sure it was approaching midnight, but this place showed no signs of slowing down so we sprang for a quick dinner amongst a street filled with hawkers, tourists, motorbikes, the young and old taking naps on cots on the sidewalk and a game of Frisbee.
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!
On our first full day of site-seeing we thought a history lesson was in order and attempted to hoof it to the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. As if just getting there in the sweltering heat wasn’t enough, navigating through the hectic motorists, not to mention the jungle of electrical wires hanging above our heads, we endeavored to cut through a park, but were bombarded by a young man insisting to fix Skyler’s flip flops. After multiple attempts at saying no, his sandals were being forcefully removed and bathed in leather conditioner, glues and practically re-soled while we just stood there and took it. Sensing our weakness, he brought his cobbler buddy over and Leah’s sandals were the newest victim to the “repairs.” We managed to run away from the eager sandal cobblers and made it to The Royal Palace. Although it wasn’t the war museum, we did get a great debriefing on a more positive side to the U.S. and Vietnam relationship.
A few hours and lots of walking later, we made it to the infamous museum and solemnly walked through a shocking account of the Vietnam War. From propaganda displays from around the world against the USA, taunting images of wartime and stories of how this country is still affected today, the day we spent at the museum will forever have a lasting impression on us. Seeing and learning about the Cu Chi Tunnels added to our eye opening experience and it was a heavy feeling to be on the same soil that saw such a tumultuous time.
On a recommendation from a friend, we anxiously decided to rent motorbikes upon our arrival in Hanoi and ride to Sa Pa, a really sweet mountain town located in Northwestern Vietnam. All in all, we would be riding for 5 days and covering over 910 kilometers, while staying in country villages along the way. We were scared, but there was no turning back now! We packed our bags and flew to Hanoi where the rubber would hit the road.
The alarm hit 6:30am and we met up with Quinn, our guide/translator/eating and drinking buddy for the ride. We headed for the bike shop to get fitted in our gear and acquainted with our dirt bikes. Keep in mind that Leah has some experience from back in her teenage years, gallivanting through the sand dunes of Arizona, while Skyler's experience stretches as far as Excite Bike on Nintendo some decades ago. Doing a couple practice rounds through a surprisingly quiet neighborhood, we learned the gears, how much power our bikes had and where to access our horn, turn signals and brakes. After about 20 minutes of this butt-sniffing stage, we were thrown into the deep end. If you can imagine thousands of scooters, motorcycles mixed with cars, bicycles and pedestrians jockeying for position in a limited amount of space, then you have a fantastic idea of what it was like getting out of Hanoi. The adrenaline was pumping so much that any other option, but to navigate our way safely through this sea of metal, dust and density, wasn't something under consideration.
We had a long 220km ride ahead of us through the mountain clad countryside of Phu Yen, so we sprung out of bed at 6:45a, met our guide downstairs and chowed on some beef pho and bbq pork before jumping on our bikes to start our day. Today’s views were full of terraced rice fields dotted with farmers in traditional straw hats. The roads were under construction, which meant we needed to maneuver through massive boulders and steam rollers on our dirt bikes. We dodged busses, dump trucks and water buffalo up and down the winding mountain trail like Pekaboo Street on the Giant Slalom. Of course we can’t forget the customary honking at every blind corner to alert whatever oncoming traffic was beyond the bend. The country villages were filled with H’mong people dressed in colorful skirts that led their goats, ducks or water buffalo with little ones at their sides. The children were the cutest faces we’ve ever seen and waved as we zoomed through their towns that smelled like smoky wood, cinnamon, fresh spring Tide or cedar.
The big payoff this day was finally getting into Sa Pa! The roads were steep and winding out of Than Uyen and just about the only thing that brought us comfort was the fact each kilometer we rode up, the temperature equally fell to a much more humane climate. Along the way we stopped at some unbelievably scenic lookout points, with Heaven’s Gate being our favorite. Layers upon layers of rice paddies and rolling hills graced the backdrop of this majestic view. After picking our jaws up from the floor, we hopped on our bikes and finished the last bit to Sa Pa. This mountain town is fantastic. The comfortable climate and bustling energy made for a great stopover. This experience was a complete 180 from what we experience in HCMC and Hanoi. Sure there was as many motorbikes as would fit on the streets, but the appeal was definitely superb. The view from our hotel balcony was as well. And to top off our stay, we treated ourselves to $5 foot rubs that our road weary legs enjoyed.
Excited to have reached the peak of our journey, we were now on the descent back down to reality. Riding our breaks so as not to let our bikes get out of control, we unwound the many kilometers we had just climbed the very day before, which was bittersweet, but we knew we had an exciting evening at our first homestay of the trip in Ngoi Tu. Arriving to our accommodation in a picturesque village we were greeted by a super warm and friendly family who made us feel, well, right at home. After a quick minute to catch our breath we headed out on their longboat to take a dip in Thac Ba Lake, which was created years ago when a new dam flooded a village that now remains underwater. Relax, no one was hurt in this exercise as everyone was well informed of the apparently much needed reservoir. A great way to wash off the day in bathtub-temp’d water, we enjoyed a striking sunset before returning home for a ridiculously tasty home cooked dinner.
The patriarch of the family, Boi, ate with us and shared his homemade rice wine that he distilled himself. Straight out of a movie—this guy was a character. His only English, at least the only words he let us in on, were ‘cheers,’ ‘one more’ and ‘OK, last one.’ All in reference to the rice wine shots. He was easily one of the highlights of the trip. Lights out came shortly thereafter where our wide open room, which was shared by the entire family of seven, awaited us. We never thought sleeping in 90 plus degree heat with relentless humidity could be done, but thankfully the nine fans they gave us did the trick. Oh yeah, and the 14 shots of rice wine.
Wow, after all the time on the road our riding was finally coming to an end. We had our last stretch of 200ish kilometers left to bring us back full circle to Hanoi and we were ready for a/c and some clean clothes! This trip had been one of the best experiences of our entire trek so far. The smiling country kids chasing us and waving “hello!!” along the way tugged at every heart string each of us have. The sense of accomplishment riding through intense traffic, construction, heat and mile-high mountain passes felt good, really good. We had blended with the locals, eaten village dishes and stayed in four different cities throughout our 565+ mile journey and as we immersed ourselves in the hectic traffic that welcomed us in Hanoi, we started to relax our shoulders again.
Tuckered out and ready for some serious kickback time, we took it easy in Hanoi. And just to make sure we’ve made this clear, it was HOT! We toured the local temples, peeked at the local night market and shopped the busy streets. To really cap off our trip, we were hurdled through the streets on a rickshaw ride and couldn’t have had more fun had we been at Six Flags.
To sum up our experience in Vietnam, we learned very early on that this is the kind of place where most anything goes. The way it appears the locals live, it’s more about the present than any other culture we’ve seen. Every person, albeit a small sample size, we’ve asked about having ever left this country has replied in a resounding ‘No,’ and there aren’t likely any plans to do so. Instead, it’s about the day-to-day and getting from A to B while surviving the best way they know how, whether that’s selling goods, services or food. Often times you walk by a shop that houses any number of items the people are selling, which also doubles as their home.
It’s like the traffic here. There is absolutely zero regard for anything on the road other than what the locals are driving and where they’re going. There are no yield or stops signs. Everything just moves forward with a steady and heavy dose of a horn. No one ever stops, though will slow down when absolutely necessary. And the bigger vehicle you have, the less acuity is exhibited when driving. But in this mayhem and in this introspective conundrum of what everyday life looks like, there is a sense of beauty to the organized chaos on the streets and on the roads.
Sure people here want the latest iPhone, but the materialistic elements we see in so many other places don’t carry over; especially not in the villages. Things are just simple, which is an art from that seems so far removed from memory that unless you’re forced to look at it in person, you don’t fully comprehend the bliss that appears to grace the faces and lives of the people here. You see elderly riding scooters, weaving their way around as if there’s a checkered flag at the end of every street. You see those same people carrying their weight in goods and food with nothing but a bamboo stick anchoring two baskets on either end like a see-saw. Kids are playing in the 104 degree heat with enough humidity to act as a city-wide sprinkler system of scalding mist, with nothing but joy. And in the villages where they seem to have even less than the people in the city, these same kids have the biggest smiles on their faces and were so enthused to wave and say the words ‘Hello’ in perfect English to us as we drove by.
The 4,000 years this civilization has roamed the earth and developed their land and lifestyle is vastly different than anything we’ve come across. While this way of life isn’t something we’ll completely replicate, it is one of the many experiences we were looking for when designing this trip. A dynamic obverse to what our way of life was and a wonderful perspective the people here unknowingly gave us.