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The Missing Update

After roughly two months of silence, it’s time for another long overdue update. It covers our stay in Vietnam, or the period from end of July until end of August.

Having spent some time in Taiwan and Hong Kong, we were curious to explore Vietnam, a country that’s supposed to be a bridge between the Chinese world and Southeast Asia. We arrived in Hanoi and I instantly liked what I saw: chaos, street food, old colonial architecture and more street food. Not to forget the bia hoi, delicious (and cheap) beer which is brewed daily. While the traffic is at times insane, Hanoi is a very likable city, featuring some great cafes, excellent food and nice old French houses. Unfortunately a typhoon stopped us from going to Halong Bay, but the Perfume Pagoda made for a nice day trip too.

While many travelers in Vietnam opt for the cheap “Open Bus Ticket” from Hanoi to Saigon with various possible stops in between, we felt like going for a more authentic travel experience and took the night train instead. Alas the sleeper compartments were booked out, so we spent the entire 12 or so hours sitting among Vietnamese families on their way to the beaches further South. Not the best night of my life, but I really enjoyed our destination, the old imperial city of Hue. It’s a lovely town, and while quite touristy, it’s easy enough to get away from it all and enjoy normal Vietnamese life. I also celebrated my birthday there, and the lovely folks of the Moonlight Hotel (yes, we spoiled ourselves there) gave me a super cute Doraemon cake. Thanks guys!

Our next stop was Da Nang, a popular destination for Vietnamese tourists, but apparently not that popular with foreigners. We ended up staying in a suburb close to the beautiful China beach, where English wasn’t really spoken, but people were very curious about us and really helpful. Like many Asians the Vietnamese prefer white skin, so we basically had the beach to ourselves until almost 5pm every day.

We then took the local bus to Hoi An, which is a great little place, that could be so much nicer still if the pretty old houses weren’t all covered in merchandise. It’s still a very nice and likable town though, and we ate some of the best food in all of Vietnam there (check out the Little Menu, it’s a really nice restaurant). For me the best parts where the surroundings though, which we explored on the free bikes our home-stay provided. Cycling through green rice paddies to the beach is among my best memories of our time in the country.

Having made our way back to Da Nang, we embarked on another looong train journey to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s most popular beach destination. We originally had thought about skipping it, but I found a great looking diving school there, and since getting an Open Water license was part of my plans for this trip, we decided to go after all. What can I say, the place is as bad as I imagined, full of obnoxious tourists, construction sites, generic backpacker hangouts and a general air of seediness. Anyway, I got sick, the diving didn’t happen, and while I found that quite annoying, I also was rather relieved to get out of there.

After a relatively short and scenic bus ride we arrived in Da Lat, a pretty little town in a rather picturesque mountain setting. We stayed at Dream Guesthouse, which was a great place and featured one of the nicest breakfasts I ever got in a hostel. They even had Marmite! While the sudden drop in temperature that comes with altitude was slightly annoying at first, the town’s pretty setting and relaxed atmosphere really make up for it. Definitely a place I would go back to!

Since we wanted some more beach time, our next stop was Mui Ne. Getting there was quite a pain in the ass though, as our minibus was filled to the brim with over 30 people and various packages that were dropped off at various destinations on our way, making this dreadful ride even longer. But all is well that ends well, and we had a great time on the beach. We also bumped into some guys we first met in Hoi An and had a fun night out with them and their Austrian (apparently some of us DO travel after all) travel buddies. I also signed up for a kite surfing course, but unfortunately the wind stopped about 30 minutes in and didn’t really make another appearance before we left. Sports just didn’t happen for me in Vietnam… Anyway, Mui Ne was super relaxing, we extended our stay twice and ended up spending almost a week there. I’d almost be tempted to feel silly for that, but we met several other people who did the same.

Our last stop in the country was Saigon, a very different beast from Hanoi. While I seem to prefer the food in Northern Vietnam, I definitely have a thing for the people from the South. They just seem a lot more friendly and open and we had a couple of good random conversations during our stay. We also visited the Cuchi tunnels, but instead of doing it with a boring half-day tour, we did it using public transport, which took about twice as long, but was way more fun (take bus #13 from the terminal and #79 from where it drops you off). I really enjoyed Saigon, it felt a lot more relaxed that Hanoi.

Writing this made me realize just how much I enjoyed Vietnam. Before we went I was curious about the type of experience we’d have, since many people seem to find it a pretty hard country to travel in. However, I found it no harder to deal with than many other places I’ve visited over the years. Sure, some of the sellers are rather pushy, but it doesn’t take too much to get rid of them. And in all fairness, they bother other Vietnamese people even more than they bother tourists. You also often hear that nothing in Vietnam comes at a fixed price and that foreigners often end up paying a premium, but once again I found that they do the same to Vietnamese domestic tourists too. Also I don’t mind paying a couple of cents more every so often, especially when they mean a lot more to the seller than to me. My advice, forget everything you’ve heard about Vietnam before you go there, and approach the country with an open mind and a positive attitude. I’m sure you’ll have a great time!

Oh, in case you wonder, I wrote this in Bagan, Myanmar, but I’m afraid it will take a bit longer before my updates have caught up with my whereabouts…