Trip summary: Vietnam – the land of scooters and persistence

After our stay in Cambodia we got on a bus that would take us from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh over the border, into Vietnam and to the city of Ho Chi Minh – also known as Saigon. Because of my husband being Japanese and me being Danish, it meant we were one of the lucky nationalities to be allowed into Vietnam without any visas.

As we crossed the border into Vietnam, the surroundings also started to change. The letters became readable – without holding any meaning to me as a non-Vietnamese speaker. The jungle and the wilderness became far less dominant, while concrete buildings and city landscapes slowly took over. The roads became wider, smooth asphalt replaced the dusty dirt roads and the roads that once were empty was not full with life and were now occupied by a huge amount of scooters and the streets were filled with vendors and people showing more pride and persistence than we had seen in Cambodia – we had arrived to Vietnam, the last stop of our journey in South East Asia.

The first two days were spent in the city of Ho Chi Minh in South Vietnam, a city formerly named Saigon, which is also the name the locals still use, but was renamed after their beloved communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Of course the first thing you can’t help but notice in Vietnam is the almost scary amount of scooters, they’re everywhere, they’re fast, they’re noisy, they follow close to no rules and they show no mercy – like most traffic in South East Asia. We even received flyers on the hotel with advice on how to cross the street.

1. Get eye contact with the drivers. 2. Do not run. 3. Do not suddenly change direction.

I guess the final point should have been: show courage and prey that the driver wants to avoid a collision as much as you do.

I remember our bus guide saying: “have you ever seen an accident in Vietnam?” we shook our heads and started to wonder why. “It’s because if an accident happens, we make sure to disappear as soon as possible, before anyone gets involved. We don’t want the cops to take our precious bikes.”

We spent one day exploring the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh, which unfortunately didn’t have so much to offer when it came to sight seeing spots. Instead I focused on “people-watching” and it didn’t take long to notices the many differences between the Vietnamese and their Cambodian neighbors – besides their physical appearance. Even with their lighter skin and petite bodies, the Vietnamese showed an inner strength, pride and stubbornness showed in their eyes and there were a certain persistence in their actions. This was a people who got rid of the French and surely weren’t going to be ruled over again.On our second day we took a tour on the Mekong river and visited some of the small islands scattered in it.

That evening it was time for us to board the train that would take us to the next destination, 16 hours of traveling time away, Da Nang, a big city in the middle of Vietnam. We got on the train around 12 in the evening and tried to get a proper night sleep, together with two other Vietnamese people whom we shared a cabin with. But the train was very noisy, the toilet was very uninviting as expected, with it’s foul smell and unclean demeanor and we were often woken up by some of the train crew who opened the doors, shouted the next station and slammed the door shut again. Around 6 am we were then woken up by noisy music played through old, scratchy speakers – which was around that time I just gave up trying to get comfortable.

We arrived to Da Nang in the afternoon, and were greeted by a modern city, with flashing lights and tall buildings, which made the jungles of the Mekong river seem like a distant memory.

But even city had many areas I felt uncomfortable walking in during the evening time. Like both Thailand and Cambodia, Vietnam unfortunately also had certain characters of people who looked like they for up to no good and also here random people were ready to tell foreign all sorts of lies in hopes of gaining some money. Though, for with it’s worth, Vietnam seemed a bit cleaner than Thailand and Cambodia, were I had gotten used to seeing both huge rats and cockroaches roaming the streets among the garbage.

On our first full day in Da Nang, we went to the city of Hoi An, and old town, known for it’s traditional buildings, old streets and tailors who can make anything you like. I had expressed desires for a Vietnamese traditional dress for a few days, so me husband arranged for getting me a tailor made one in Hoi An, which I got to take home the same day. I also got two pairs of boots made in another shop – which was delivered to our hotel the next day.

Overall in Vietnam, it seemed like the people found the ability to speak English less important than they did in Thailand and Cambodia and we often had to go by pointing, signaling and good will.

“I would like this one” I said to a waiter in a restaurant, pointing to a dish on the menu. He looked at me for some time and then replied “no”. I looked at the menu again “I don’t want it?” “no”. “You don’t have it?” he sighed and said “no” – surprisingly. After taking our orders he went to another table, with another foreigner who expressed that he wanted the spring rolls and the answer was “no”.

On our final day in Da Nang, we went to a mountain called Ba Na hills, famous for it’s fast cable cars, scenic views and a big amusement park under construction.

That evening we once again boarded a night train to take us to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, up in the north. The next day we arrived in a jumble of narrow streets, overwhelming amount of people, never moving traffic, street vendors, markets, polluted air and noise. The first evening we wandered the streets of the French quarter, now filled with shops narrowly lined up along the old streets, some “shops” took up the side walk, boating their merchandise either laying on the street or hanging on the walls of a building. The streets felt like one big maze at times and we often lost our way and while we tried to find our way back we often had to ask each other “didn’t we already turn that corner a few minutes ago?”

On our first full day in Hanoi we went to the famous Ha Long bay, a three our bus drive from Hanoi, on uneven, bumpy roads, which made us on the back seat feel like were “very shaken, not stirred” and spent a day on a boat, admiring the cliffs and the ocean.

On our second day in Hanoi and our last day in Vietnam we explored the areas of Hanoi we hadn’t ventured out to, yet. Getting slowly tired of the scooters, their honking and especially all the cars and mentioned scooters being parked everywhere, especially at places which were originally meant to be a side walk and not a parking loot, which resulted in us having to walk on the scary streets.

Also in Vietnam I seemed extremely popular among the Vietnamese, who stopped to take pictures of or with me, making other tourist stop up as well, with wonder written in their faces while in low voices discussing wether I was some kind of celebrity.

Sometimes I wondered that myself, considering all the VIP treatment I had received in South East Asia based on my looks. Treatment was soon to be over, since we that evening got on a plane back to Bangkok, spent 22 hours there and then got on our final flight to Osaka, Japan.

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Travel plans for South Asia in progress

Taking time to make plans for making plans is not that easy when you’re lazy – which is quite problematic since I actually have to plan a lot of things.
So from the end of February I’m traveling around in Asia, which I also mentioned in a previous post. My flight tickets are bought; I’ll spend around 3 weeks in South Asia and 5 months in Japan where I’ll be an exchange student at Kobe University. My husband and I have pretty much found the apartment we need in Kobe, but our 3 weeks of travel in South Asia are far from planned.
(The outline)

So far we do have flight tickets to and from Bangkok and we’ve also reserved a hotel for the first night in Bangkok. Then the plan was to rent a weekly apartment in that lively city, go on a day trip to Pattaya and spend a night at a hotel. Then we hope to go to Cambodia, first spending around two nights in Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and then get on a bus going to the capital Phnom Penh where we’ll aso spend two nights.

Then our travel continues to Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam, followed by stops in Du Nang and Hanoi. Like Cambodia we’ll probably spend two or three nights in each of the 3 cities and we’re also aware of the huge amount of travel time, which is also one of the reasons I decided to add Du Nang to the trip, so we didn’t have to travel the very long journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi in one stretch, which would either a 2-day train journey or a more expensive flight ticket. So far we have not really planned out our means of transport in Vietnam and how to get to both Du Nang and Hanoi as things are now, trains seems like the best option. We also need to sort out our dates of travel to both reserve transport and hotel as well in both Cambodia and Vietnam. We also have to look into flight tickets from Hanoi and back to Bangkok. My husband wanted to go back to Bangkok through Laos, but I, as a Danish citizen need a visa to get into Laos. We need a visa in Cambodia as well, but that can easily be bought at the border for 20USD. Both my husband and I (as Danish and Japanese citizen) are allowed to stay in Vietnam for max. 15 days without a visa. So in the end we plan to take a plane back to Bangkok, spend a night on a hotel and then the next day go to the airport and get on a flight to Osaka and there start my exchange student life in Kobe city.

I hope to update this blog a lot while I travel, but I’ll probably also have days where I’m too tired, but I’ll do my best. Traveling was actually one of the purposes I made this blog for. I’ve also created a twitter account so I can update on the “small and short stuff” so if you have twitter please follow me. The link is both in the sidebar and in the end of this blog entry.

I hope you all had a merry Christmas and happy new year. As things seems now I’ll at least spend half of 2012 abroad, which is an experience I’m very excited about. Please follow me on this adventure!  Either on this blog or on Twitter. – > My Twitter (Isabella Kayashima)