Category Archives: Vietnam

Extreme ends: Saigon to Phu Quoc

As Ha Tien and mainland Vietnam slowly slip out of view, the car ferry takes me closer to Phu Quoc Island, where I’ll spend my last three days in Vietnam. A month is not nearly enough time for this beautiful country. It took two days of driving to reach the seaside border town of Ha Tien from Saigon. My wallet and senses could only handle two nights in Ho Chi Minh City, which is quite different from the capital – more modern, more skyscrapers, more lights, more energy, and more attractive girls (namely prostitutes). I was propositioned left and right for girls, drugs, and massages in the backpacker ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao. My most heart-breaking experience occurred at the War Remnants Museum – I teared up at the sight of the extensive collection of American War photos, depicting the collateral damage from relentless bombing and Agent Orange (Dioxin). Sadly, the aftermath is still felt over 40 years later. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel or be welcomed in a land that my country literally wiped off the map. Bomb craters are still visible, amputees are a common sight, but since my interaction with the locals has been limited to mostly the younger generation, I haven’t felt any animosity when I mention I’m American. The Vietnamese I’ve met at guesthouses, restaurants, and bars, and I’ve passed in villages have been extremely friendly, and more than anything, just want to practice speaking English.

Considering Vietnam has more than 2,000 miles of coastline, it’s strange that Phu Quoc, on the southern tip of the country in the Gulf of Thailand, is my first taste of a Vietnamese beach. It doesn’t have world-class sand and it’s more developed than I’d prefer, but it’s a nice change from the mountains. I did two fun dives, relaxed on Long Beach, found a pristine “secret” beach on the north shore (an ex-pat living on the island gave me directions ), and ate some great seafood at the night market.

Coastal detour before Dalat

I’m sitting on a bench, overlooking Truc Lom Reservoir, at Truc Lam Pagoda in Dalat. This former French Colonial highland retreat is Vietnam’s main coffee growing region. With a hilltop location, I have commanding views of pine-covered mountains. It’s easy to forget I’m still in Vietnam as Western tourists walk by. The cooler climate and setting are more on par with the foothills of the French Alps.

The monastery grounds are peaceful and serene. Chirping birds, occasional bell tolls (and distant saw buzzing) are heard as I reflect. The last three days since Hoi An have been a blur – over 700km were covered. My visa expires in just over a week so I had to push it a bit. I detoured from the HCM Highway to spend three nights on the central coast with the Quebec couple. On the first night, we took our bikes to Mr. Minh’s shop in Hue for a tune-up. I needed $40 in repairs and he kept to his word by covering the cost. We drove by the Imperial Enclosure, the capital of the Nguyen emperors, on the way to Hoi An via a scenic coastal byway. Hoi An, which boasts French Colonial architecture and cobbled streets, was a bit of a letdown as it was over-run by tourists and most of the buildings sported a monotonous, yellow paint job.

The highlight was My Son, an ancient Cham temple complex, now in ruins thanks in part to American bombing. I hooked back to the HCM Highway and left my wonderful travel companions behind as I was in a hurry to make it to Cambodia. The scenic road continued to amaze until Kon Tum when human development increasingly appeared along with potholes and road repair projects. Star took a beating, especially when I wiped out for the first time on an embankment of loose sand. No serious consequences occurred, but it was a reminder to take it slow!

Dalat is a breath of fresh air. It’s got an interesting, creative vibe, wonderful scenery, and great coffee. I tried ca phe chon (weasel shit coffee) for the first time! Yes, it doesn’t sound appetizing when you consider that the coffee beans were picked from the feces of wild cats, but the taste is smooth, not bitter, and slightly sweet! And it’s the most expensive coffee in the world (I wanted to buy some as a souvenir, but the $10-a-gram price tag was out of my budget). I stayed in a dorm room at Wolfpack Hostel for two nights. The $3 communal dinners were the main draw. Aside from Truc Lam Pagoda, I also checked out Linh Phuoc Pagoda (the unique mosaic design is awesome!), learned about the silk weaving process at Cuong Hoan Silk Factory, visited Elephant Falls, hiked to the top of Lang Biang Peak (2,167m), and briefly eyed Crazy House on my way to Ho Chi Minh City.

Riding the Ho Chi Minh Highway

I didn’t bring in 2015 the way I desired. I parted ways with the Quebec couple after five days together – they followed the coast south, I returned to Hanoi to party. To sum up my NYE, I witnessed a Vietnamese man nearly kill another man by kicking him in the neck following a minor motorbike accident (the victim lay motionless for five minutes while blood oozed from his mouth), I danced mostly by myself at a club in the Old Quarter, while groups of friends around me counted down the last seconds of the year, and I finished the night with a rather unhappy ending at a massage parlor. While 2014 ended with a whimper, 2015 began with a bang. I spent the first night of the new year at a park lodge in Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s first national park. The kicker: I had the place all to myself! I was completely surrounded by lush, green karst formations, served a huge dinner befit for a king, and it was perfect aside from a nearby wedding that was blaring awful dance music. The Ho Chi Minh Road was also a welcome change from chaotic Hanoi and congested Highway 1. It’s a recently-constructed, two-lane road that follows Vietnam’s backbone from Hanoi to Saigon. It makes for terrific motorbiking! No wonder it’s considered one of Asia’s most scenic byways. Karst peaks rise from rice paddy fields. Farmers tend their fields with water buffaloes. Herders guid goats and cattle across the road. Laborers load bamboo onto trucks, cut bamboo, or lay it on the side of the road to dry. My favorite part? Most children and many adults wave or shout “hello” as I slowly pass through villages, constructed of concrete, bricks, bamboo, corrugated metal, and thatched roofs. And I can stop and go as I please with my bike.

It’s simply fascinating to watch people do their simple craft, which required hard work and dedication. For example, my bike broke down 60km from Pho Chau on my way to the world’s largest cave system – Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. My mechanic easily disassembled my motor, replaced a broken piston, and welded a new bolt to secure my engine better. It took one hour and cost $15. I observed with interest and it gave me a new level of appreciation for my brother’s mechanical talent. After the repair, Star (yep, that’s her nickname) ran like a charm. The next day, I rolled into the cave park with the company of the Quebec couple, who spotted me snapping photos on the side of the road!

We spent 2 days touring Phong Nha Ke bang, a UNESCO World Heritage site. As each of the major caves has an entrance fee, we opted for Dark Cave. Unfortunately, the package entrance fee was a mixed bag. A tour guide is necessary to enter the cave, which is fine, but I didn’t care for the zip line entrance, being herded through like cattle, and the short kayak ride at the end. It was too kitsch. Although, playing in the mud bath inside the cave was highly entertaining!

We had two choices upon leaving the cave park, heading south: take the well-traveled eastern route of the HCM Highway or the extremely remote western section. We topped our tanks (and put extra gas in empty water bottles), filled our camel backs, and made the 260-km journey to Khe Sanh, using the western route. For most of the way, it was just us, the road, and endless switchbacks through jungle-clad mountains. Aside from a few ethnic villages, there was no human development. If you want picture postcard perfect Vietnam without the tourists, this slice of road is for you.

Driving without a headlight

It’s been an action-packed three days on Cat Ba Island. An 18-km hike through a national park was followed by a day of kayaking. The natural scenery is simply stunning; like the karst peaks of Guangxi, but surrounded by water instead of rice paddies. Naturally, the tourist hordes flock here, but I managed to avoid them for the most part. The jungle trek was great – the Quebec couple (Vincent and Audrey) and I had the trail to ourselves, aside from two other couples. The highlight was kayaking alone in a secluded area of a lagoon a two-hour boat ride north of Cat Ba Town. The tranquility, karst peaks, and cries of birds and monkeys (sadly, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the Gold Headed Langur – the rarest monkey in the world) made for a surreal experience. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur had poked it’s head from the dense vegetation. The I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening moment occurred when we caught a boat back to town after our hike only to discover my headlight isn’t working, along with Vincent’s. The sight of two motorbikes driving with one flashlight would have terrified oncoming traffic in the West, but in SE Asia it’s a common occurrence.

Stranded between Hanoi and Cat Ba Island

It’s been raining all day so my plan to finish riding to Cat Ba Island has been put on hold. I’m sitting outside under an overhang of the entrance to my $5-per-night nha nghi (guest house), watching the tourist buses, trucks, and motorbikes pass by on a major 2-lane road connecting Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. I expected to reach my destination yesterday, but a late start, a slow countryside detour, and a problem with a travel companion’s bike forced the three of us to call it quits at dusk. Avoid traveling at night and in the rain at all costs. I dreaded spending the night at a cheap road-side inn, but it made for an unexpected experience. The owner welcomed us with open arms, treating us to dinner, followed by lunch (I ate dog for the first time!) today. TripAdvisor mentions no nearby attractions, which isn’t surprising as the tourist trail bypasses this area completely in favor of world-renowned sights. Nonetheless, I experienced two traditional Vietnamese meals with locals, while sitting on the floor without shoes according to custom. I was invited, not coerced by a tourist hawk, to enjoy a free, authentic moment. This is why I travel, and motoring on my own two wheels allowed it to happen.

Training wheels

I’m on a Hanoi-bound flight from Guangzhou, flying high and feeling high. The past year of teaching English in China has flown by! Ok, enough with the flying metaphors. I feel at ease, confident, and excited about what lies ahead in the coming three months. I haven’t traveled solo since I backpacked through Columbia in 2012; it feels good to be back in the saddle again. I’ll spend Christmas and welcome the new year in northern Vietnam. The big challenge, aside from the obvious language barrier, will be learning how to ride a motorcycle. Baby steps. First, rent a clutch-less scooter. Next, upgrade to a clutch. Finally, buy a used motorbike and conquer SE Asia! Throw caution to the wind! Translation: I will drive like a grannie and slowly travel from Point A to Point B, with a solid helmet.

Well, I ended up jumping in the deep end two days later. While enjoying a coffee at the Hanoi War Museum, I casually struck up a conversation with an ex-pat because I noticed her bike helmet. She bought her scooter from Minh’s Motorbikes, located outside of the tourist-saturated Old Quarter, where I was staying. I called the number, received a free scooter pickup, and was learning to drive a Honda Win 110cc up and down a back alley before I knew it. It took a good 30 minutes of rough acceleration and stalling before I felt comfortable entering the madness that is Hanoi traffic. I bought my very first vehicle for $260,  and received the necessary Vietnamese registration and a verbal guarantee from Mr. Minh that my bike could be serviced for free at his shop and affiliated shops in Hue and Ho Chi Minh City. As a bonus, I met a laid-back couple from Quebec that was headed my way so we decided to travel to Cat Ba Island together on Christmas. Strength in numbers, right?