“It all began while watching a Top-Gear special edition shot in Vietnam”
The episode featured a journey on a two-wheeler through the country – from the insanely busy Saigon to the quaint city of Hanoi. The destination was too captivating and I instantaneously knew that I have to visit this place. Without much planning and with the sheer desire to experience the new culture and smell the new land, I set off to Hanoi, in the northern part of Vietnam.
When I felt like a millionaire!
My Vietnamese adventure began at the currency exchange counter at Hanoi’s airport. With a mind boggling exchange rate of VND 20,000 for each dollar, it required a lot of calculations and recalculations on my part to ensure that I was being handed the right amount of money! I walked out feeling like a millionaire! Outside the airport, a beeline of mini-van drivers persuaded me to take a ride with them. However, with no common language, it seemed like a complete communication breakdown. Finally, I managed a ride for $2 to take me to the city. Apparently, I handed the driver VND 400,000 instead of VND 40,000 that I owed him. Thanks to an Italian co-passenger for helping me choose the right notes! Lesson learnt: be careful with the zeros. Otherwise it could be difficult to sustain yourself for even two weeks here even if you thought you were a millionaire!
Locating backpacker’s lane
I came across a narrow lane that leads to the backpacker’s hostels. A plenty of budget hostels are on offer, that are inclusive of breakfast and PCs with Internet. However, it is not the ideal place for you if you are not comfortable sharing the space with the opposite sex. But it is a great chance to know other backpackers and hear their stories. Perhaps, you can find a travel partner too. I have always found staying in hostels and homestays much more enjoyable than staying in hotels and lodges. Moreover, for budget travellers like me, this was a great option.
The karst wonders
The next day was spent strolling on the streets, sipping café-sua-nogm (hot milk coffee) and chatting with fellow travelers. In the evening, I booked myself a three-day cruise on the Halong Bay, Vietnam’s major tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bay has about 2,000 extraordinarily formed limestone karst islands and it’s quite a scene to behold! A three-hour ride from Hanoi on pretty ordinary tarmac takes you to the Halong Bay. You could choose anything from a range of one to three day cruise that would typically have about 15 tourists onboard. While cruising through the unusual karst landscape and stopping over a limestone island to explore the stalactites and stalagmites, I could witness the geological wonders of mother nature! The sunny day offered the perfect setting to lie back on the deck and spend some time reading or simply gazing at the magnificent landscape!
The French connection
From the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, I headed down south to the country province of Ninh-Binh, for another rendezvous with the beautiful karst landscape, but this time on land, touched by crisscrossing canals. A local bus ride for about $3 takes you to Ninh-Binh. I joined an hour’s boat ride on the river, crossing river caves. It was during this ride that I came across the first signs of the French colonial influence.
“Within about five minutes on the ride, the lady in-charge of the boat broke into: “Monsieur, vous parlez francais?” (Mister, do you speak French?)”
For the first time, I found a familiar language to interact in. I learnt from her that almost everyone from her generation speaks French in Ninh-Binh, especially women. The. fact that a lot of French tourists visit Vietnam, their knowledge of the language helps them earn that extra buck by delighting the tourists with their French greetings. We conversed for a while, talking about the economy of the area and the important role that Vietnamese women play in it. At the end of the ride, she sold me a finely embroidered t-shirt to keep as a souvenir!
A taste of the countryside
The next day, I went hiking in the Cuc-Phuong National Park, about a couple of hours drive from Ninh-Binh. I decided to take a pillion ride on a Xe-Om, a hybrid of a bike and a scooter. The driver doubled up as my guide! The park offers a couple of long treks to the tribal village, but that requires elaborate arrangements. Hence, I settled for a small trek inside the park. Honestly, it turned out to be quite a damp-squib, besides the fact that I met a couple of interesting trekkers en route.
On our way back, we stopped by a Buddhist monastery set in the beautiful countryside. The pentatonic notes from the monastery lured me inside. The guide, accompanying me, explained that the occasion was ‘Celebration of Life’, where music and colorful costumes are an integral part and the devotees pray for a better life. It’s customary that the priest distributes money to the participants. Well, you guessed it right! I was left a few Dongs richer and yes, perhaps, blessed with a better life as well!
The imperial hues
From Ninh-Binh, I headed towards the imperial city of Hue, another World Heritage site. Hue is a charming city.
“Although the imperial city has nothing great to offer, the other parts of the city are a street photographer’s delight, especially given its characteristic slow paced life”
Walking is the best way to explore this place. The Hue river meanders through the city and adds a certain character to the overall cultural aspect of the place. There are myriad cultural boat trips during the evening that also offer some Vietnamese music. One of the instruments that I played on a river cruise looked like a two-stringed banjo. It defined the typical sound of oriental music.
Venice of the east
It was time for me to head farther south and gradually the cooler climes gave way to a hot and humid weather. From Hue, I decided to head to Danang, a popular holidaying destination among local tourists. Although I didn’t find anything worthwhile to do in Danang, it served as a base for my drive along the beautiful winding Ghat road leading to the Hai-Van pass. Overlooking the China Sea, the drive to Hai-Van pass is nothing short of truly spectacular. Once you cross the pass you would reach the timeless harbor city of Hoi-An. Driving all the way to Hoi-An is a much better option than returning back to Danang, but you would need to get your luggage as well. Hence, plan your journey in advance to avoid the alternate route through the tunnel. Moreover, there’s also a beautiful train journey along the coast, that takes you to Hoi-An.
A former harbor town, Hoi-An was an important trade center during the Cham rule. Vietnam’s Tourism department is pitching Hoi-An as one of the cultural hubs of the world, along the lines of Venice. The journey from Danang to Hoi-An took about a couple of hours with a stop en route at the Marble Mountains. The old town of Hoi-An, another UNESCO World Heritage site, has a lot to offer. From well-preserved pagodas and cultural sites, arts and crafts shops selling wonderful pieces of work to wonderful international cuisine and over 300 tailors to sew your favorite dress, there is not even a remote chance of boredom seeping in.
The charming Cham
At some distance from Hoi-An is My-Son (pronounced as me-son in English), the religious center of the Cham people. It will remind you of one of the Old-Quartiers from Paris. Though the center doesn’t match the grandeur of Angkor-Wat in Cambodia, it is still spectacular because it is nestled in some wonderful forests and highlands. We had an efficient guide, a son of a Vietnamese soldier, who fought in the war. He kept us engrossed with some gripping war anecdotes. It was quite amazing to learn how the Hindu culture had spreads its roots in this faraway land long ago. The guide was well-conversed with the Hindu mythology and kept the international visitors enthralled with his stories about Hindu deities – Shiva, Brahma, Nandi, etc. Most of the temples were destroyed during the war and bomb-shells can still be found. Hence, visitors are advised not to deviate from the marked path as it’s believed that the forested area could still have land-mines! The preservation and the recovery of the destroyed structures are ongoing. However, scientists world over have failed to recreate the method that the Cham people used to build these structures. The contrast is very evident as the renovated portions are covered by moss, whereas the original sections still remain unaffected by the heavy rains. It’s quite sad that the heads of almost all the statues were taken away by the French archaeologists.
Later during the day, we visited a fishing village near Hoi-An, and observed fishing boats being constructed. A sumptuous meal at one of the restaurants of Hoi-An helped my taste buds to come alive. Vietnam is a sea-food lovers’ paradise, but a vegetarian like me had the occasional challenges to maintain a proper diet. Vietnamese filter coffee helped me stay alive. Hoi-An, with its international cuisine was surely a welcome change.
In the kite-surfing capital
With three more days in hand before I head back home, I chose Mui-Ne as my final destination. Mui-Ne is located farther down south on the coast. This was the longest journey that I undertook during my entire Vietnamese escapade. Left with a few thousand Indian Rupees, I had to judiciously spend! All the hotels here are located on a long stretch of the beach, so you can be sure of having your private space on the beach. However, I chose to stay by a friendly Vietnamese family, which a fellow traveler had suggested during my stay at Hoi-An. It proved helpful as I didn’t have to pay exorbitant tariffs!
Ferocious winds have carved a really interesting piece of land around Mui-Ne and transformed it into the kite-surfing capital of the world. I rented a Xe-Om during my stay here as the distances are significant. Photographing the red and the white sand dunes proved to be quite a task as the strong winds combined with the sand made it really difficult to keep the lens safe. But it was a worth all the effort!
You can hire a sand scooter for fun rides, but you can’t climb the dunes with it. Children also offer plastic boards to enjoy a slide down the dunes for a small price! Surfing and kite-surfing schools have mushroomed on the beach, but you have to pay a pretty penny for the lessons. Moreover, planning a longer stay will be beneficial if you intend to seriously learn the sport.
Calling it a Tschuss
Although the last leg of the journey from Mui-Ne to Saigon was quite uneventful, it was time to rewind the experiences of the past few days! And the Oriental music played in the bus aptly served as the background score. I remembered the people that I had met during the journey.
“It’s strange how a Man becomes nostalgic about a land once completely unknown to him!”
Interestingly, being on a tight budget facilitated me in better understanding the culture, the people and the ethos of Vietnam. One of my traveler friends had once aptly put, ‘a true traveler never seeks comfort, rather experiences.’