During my usual lodging investigation upon arrival to a new city one evening in Vietnam, I asked a group of people who had just walked out of one of the hotels listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook what the place was like, how much the rooms cost, and if they liked it. One of the guys responded that the indoor pool [practically in the hotel lobby] was all right because he could just sit next to it and drink beer all the time. A few others raved about the huge breakfast that is included with a stay, and everyone noted that they were paying only around $7/night for a dorm bed, but that there were definitely cheaper places around. Standing in the middle of the road with my backpack still strapped around my shoulders and hips, I asked about private rooms and said that I’m not really looking at dorms. The first guy immediately enquired, “Oh, so what are you–a flashpacker, then?” I kind of laughed, responded that I just had some work to do, and thanked them for the information.
While I had heard the term “flashpacker” before, I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. One of the definitions I found online is the following: “Flashpacking is a term used to describe backpackers who upscale their travels. They travel with a backpack but they stay in nicer digs, carry fancy electronics, tend to be a bit older, have a bit more money to spend, and don’t cook in hostels every day. They are backpackers with means.” While I wouldn’t say that I have met all those qualifications during every part of this particular trip and I certainly do not have much of a disposable income at this point in my life, during my time in Vietnam, I would definitely agree with that guy and say, “Yes, I am totally flashpacking right now!”
While traveling, most people are faced with decisions they have to make based on the question, “Do I have more time or money right now?” Or, the flip side: “What do I have less of–time or money?” In my case, by the time I arrived toVietnam, I knew I was running out of time and was therefore willing to spend a little more money for private rooms, restaurant food, and flights from city to city as opposed to hostel dorm beds, street food, and overnight bus or train rides. A very long country with an area of 329,566 square kilometers, Vietnam has a gigantic population tallying up to nearly 93 million people now. I was actually surprised and impressed at how advanced and systemized the Vietnamese society is considering how many people there are. I moved quickly through the major cities and attractions in only 12 days, but was delighted at what I saw and experienced along the way. By this point in my journey, my main concern was wrapping up my project, therefore, I did not dig deep into Vietnam the way I had been delving into other countries during this trip so consider this just a glimpse.
SOPHISTICATION among an enormous POPULATION
Just a few weeks prior to my arrival in Vietnam, I was communicating with a family friend back home who was going to be traveling in Asia for a couple weeks while I was still here. Craig has known my family since I was a wee little girl as he and his wife have attended the same church as my family (on my dad’s side) probably since before I was born. I have always admired Craig as a traveler because he has seen so much of the world and the stories he has shared are relatable. He was excited for me and supportive when I joined the Peace Corps (although worried, I recently found out–like most of my family and friends, I gather), and when I told him I was going to be traveling in Asia, he was so happy because Thailand (and Bangkok) are some of his favorite places. I always thought it would be fun to travel with him so when this opportunity came up, I was all over it. Comparing travel plans and options for travel scheduling, it turned out that Vietnam was going to be where our paths would cross.
I am glad I made the decision to wait until the end of my trip–after I had fully decompressed while island-hopping–to visit Vietnam, which is back on the Southeast Asia mainland, because the place can be overwhelming. Knowing that I was going to be traveling with Craig made me feel relieved and ready to tackle this big beautiful country! Also, I didn’t have much of an agenda for Vietnam besides just being there to hang out which was perfect because Craig had exactly the same thing in mind so we spent most of our time just walking through the city streets, hanging out at coffee or ice cream shops, ignoring any advertisement for touristy activities, and having some great conversations. We both had work to do so we balanced each day very well, allowing each other free time and space in big chunks so we could each stay focused on our projects, then reconvening to share meals, walks, activities around town, and–of course–more conversation.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon)
We met in Ho Chi Minh, a gigantic city in the south of Vietnam positioned around rivers with skyscrapers spanning across the landscape. Craig arrived a day ahead of me and told me he’d meet me at the airport. (What a relief it was to have someone meet me at the airport and pick me up!!!) Craig had already settled into a fabulous hotel…way out of my budget, but because I was traveling with him, he made sure I had access to some of the perks at the hotel such as business lounge on the 30th floor fully stocked with snacks and beverages and with a panoramic view of the city. Talk about spoiled… The small hotel I had booked was literally right down the street from where Craig was staying so it made meeting up very convenient.
Ho Chi Minh is a very active place. A “big city” in every sense. There are buildings and neon lights and music and motorbikes and people all over the place. There is constant commotion–it’s one of those cities that never seems to sleep. Craig immediately observed that Ho Chi Minh has a conspicuous outdoor culture. People sit on their porches or on the streets and sidewalks in the evening to socialize over meals, playing games, or just chit catting. While the daytimes are busy in the city, once evening rolls around, it seems like everyone hits the streets. Traffic is horrendous with motorbikes jamming in everywhere and even riding up along sidewalks. Yet somehow everybody seems to abide by some unspoken system and they all get to where they need to go.
I wish I could share more about Ho Chi Minh, but I lost our one full day there to stomach sickness. It was funny because I had just been telling Craig how I have a pretty strong stomach and I rarely puke and that I hadn’t had any serious tummy issues in the 13 weeks I had been traveling in Asia, and then the next day I was humbled into fetal position where I remained curled up on my bed in between visits to the porcelain god in my restroom for several hours. We figured that it was caused by all the fresh greens I had so eagerly devoured the night before at dinner when Craig and I shared some “pho,” a typical Vietnamese soup of thin noodles, meat, and some herbs/greens, at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. While Craig didn’t go near the fresh lettuce, mint, and other greens, I didn’t even think twice about it because I was so distracted by my excitement over having a companion to hang out with again. Craig was great about it, having had lots of experience with stomach sickness while traveling, and he encouraged me to continue resting my achy body throughout that day.
From Ho Chi Minh, Craig and I flew north to Nha Trang, a beach town, or city rather, on the beautiful coast. Nha Trang isn’t exactly a “beach getaway” that most people dream about as it is more along the lines of a commercialized resort theme with tall buildings and hotels [blocking the afternoon sun] and busy streets packed with motorbikes and tourists. It wasn’t really my style, nor Craig’s, but we were happy to be there to explore the place and we found a variety of entertainment options that included walking through parts of town that were beyond the tourist tracks, riding Craig’s rented motorbike up and down the main strip along the beach road, searching out the best local restaurants, and making fun of Russians. (Russians have a dominating presence in Nha Trang and the Vietnamese really don’t like them. Not only do Russians make no attempt to speak English, but the majority of them are very cold and unfriendly–quite the opposite of the Vietnamese. Craig said that there are 4 daily flights from Moscow to Nha Trang now so the Russians just pour into the place and take over.)
In Nha Trang, Craig again stayed at a fancy Sheraton hotel (and allowed me access to the executive lounge again, this time on the 25th floor with a view of the spectacular crescent-shaped golden beach line and blue water), but I hadn’t booked my place ahead of time so he got to join me on my “lodging investigation” this time which was an adventure in and of itself. I picked a tiny boutique hotel down an alleyway after searching unsuccessfully for three other spots recommended by the guidebook. The selling point for the hotel I chose was Mai, the lady working at the front desk who talked to us on the street and showed us the rooms. She was sweet, helpful, and welcoming. We actually became good friends with her and spent more time with her during our time in Nha Trang (next paragraph). In addition to all of our other shenanigans, we did manage to get in a solid beach day lounging around doing nothing but swimming and enjoying the sun.
On Halloween, our last night in Nha Trang, we made plans to go out to dinner with Mai and her fiancé, Quan. We got a little “dressed up” (as best as we could for traveling and being in such a warm, humid environment) and followed them on their motorbike through town to a nice restaurant overlooking the river with local food. They were so excited to show us Vietnamese culture and food. In three years working at the hotel (her uncle’s business), Mai said that this was the first time she accepted an invitation to go out to dinner with hotel guests. (In the past, she had only been asked by single male travelers and she always turned that down; I think it made a difference that I was female and Craig and I were not a couple. She felt very comfortable with both of us.) Dinner was fabulous and we had a lot of fun goofing off and playing with our food. They both spoke English relatively well, but we had to speak slowly sometimes to ensure understanding. We ended the night getting dessert drinks on the rooftop of the Sheraton, looking down at the glittering lights along the main strip and admiring the nearly full moon. I think it’s safe to say that that night out was the highlight of our time in Nha Trang.
Traveling with Craig made me realize a lot of things. Our travel styles and mentalities are very different, although we are both much more interested in having “local” experiences as opposed to “touristy” ones and we made great travel companions because we communicated, respected each other’s space, and ditched any agendas (besides some necessary work time). A person’s initial travel experiences can shape how they travel for the rest of their lives. Craig has mostly traveled in Europe and Asia and a lot of it has been for business and work, whereas my foundation for travel comes from getting by on very little money as a single female in Latin America. While Craig and I were together, I had a lot more speculation about people and I was much more wary than he was of any behavior that might indicate someone trying to take advantage of me/us; these things hardly ever crossed Craig’s mind. I sometimes assumed the worst and was often wrong about it, but I am accustomed to having my guard up initially, then slowing letting it down. And while I am a natural negotiator and excel at bargaining to ensure a fair deal is met, Craig said that that behavior is not easy for him. It was funny to me to see how differently we approached certain situations and it became obvious to me that Craig has to worry much less about being taken advantage of. (I guess it helps to be a tall, white guy with 25-30 years of career success and world travel under his belt!)
I really appreciated being with Craig and felt at ease because I trusted his travel ability and decision-making. It is always nice to travel with a companion, and in my case, with a male companion because it takes so much pressure off of me for having to be on high alert all the time and also for dodging invitations and unwanted attention from creepy men. Also, Craig was the closest thing to a piece of home that I had gotten in over 3 months so that made me even more excited!! We shared so many wonderful conversations and I felt completely spoiled, traveling “in style” with my backpack. From Nha Trang, we flew together back to the Ho Chi Minh airport and then we said our goodbyes and parted ways–Craig got on a flight to Bangkok and I took a different flight to Hoi An, a small town on the central coast of Vietnam.
By the time I got to Hoi An, I felt I had developed a good general sense of Vietnam: it is a place infused with subtle flavors, delicate art, and gracious people. Hoi An was a reinforcement of all of this when I was greeted by polite, smiling people everywhere I went. This was the town where I was labeled a “flashpacker” upon arrival and, true to form, I passed on the place with the $7 dorm rooms and opted for a spacious private double room with a long desk in front of a tall window that opened up over my very own balcony with a street-side view for $26/night at the boutique hotel next door. Environment makes all the difference. It even had a big bathtub.
Hoi An is such a delightful town and is definitely my favorite place in Vietnam. The air was cool in early November so I felt like I had a tiny glimpse of autumn while I was there and I even wore my jeans for the first time since leaving San Francisco back in July. The town itself is pulsating with French influence that can be seen in the architecture of the buildings in and around Old Town, tasted in the French bread from the local bakeries, and heard in the street language that seems like a mixture of French and Vietnamese. (There are also street signs and shop advertisements that are written in both languages.)
Hoi An, although located just inland from the central coast, definitely has more of a “river town” feel than a beach vibe. Old Town lies right at the river’s edge and consists of two or three long parallel streets that are closed off to motorized vehicles so only pedestrians and bicycles can enter. The street are lined with all kinds of shops and cute restaurants and in the evenings, strings of hand-made silk lanterns–the symbol of Hoi An–illuminate the walking streets overhead, creating a very romantic and whimsical atmosphere.
There is one particular Vietnamese dish that can only be found in Hoi An. It is called “cao lao” and it is a soup-like dish made with noodles, sliced meat, greens, and broth–it sounds exactly like “pho,” but the difference is in the noodles which are cooked with water from a special well only in Hoi An so they end up with an al-dente texture and they are kind of chewy. One afternoon, I set up shop at a place called “Mermaid Restaurant” just so I could try multiple local dishes over the course of several hours. Cao lao was one of them–while its spiciness surprised me, it was delicious and unique. I also had “white rose,” a delicate soft dumpling filled with chopped up, seasoned shrimp, and fried shrimp-stuffed wontons topped with fresh crab. I was there for three hours and stuffed by the time I left, but very satisfied with my foodie indulgence.
Something that I found very charming about Hoi An was that many of the local people I came across initiated interactive experiences with me. First, I was wandering down the street and passed a shop selling tea that I was interested in buying; the girls insisted that I sit down and taste-test each tea that caught my attention so I could be sure I was making the right choice.
Then, when I went back to the lantern shop I had scoped out to pick one, the girl working there, Viet, (whom I had met the day before–the reason I picked that shop out of a hundred others) told me that she hand makes each lantern; she proceeded to show me how she does it, and then invited me to try. The shop owner was there with us as well and we all laughed and bonded, then I ended up purchasing two lanterns, but we bargained a fair deal first.
Lastly, when I went to buy some fruit as a snack from some ladies on the sidewalk, they were completely cracking me up trying to put a whole bunch of fruit from each of their baskets into my bag and then charge me an arm and a leg for it all! I put most of it back and worked out a price I was okay with (probably still more than I should have paid), but I asked to take of photo of them which they agreed to, but then one of the ladies jumped up and put her baskets across my shoulder and offered to take a picture of me! Despite a slight language barrier, we laughed and laughed. It was fun for all of us.
One more thing Vietnam is known for–especially in Hoi An–is its superb tailors. In Hoi An, the streets are lined with tailor shops back to back to back. I don’t know first of all how people choose a shop among all of them and, secondly, how they all manage to keep their doors open! I’ve never been to a place where the tourist activity of choice is to hang out at a tailor shop. I did it, too. When I was leaving Bali, Wayan had given me a piece of beautiful gold Balinese fabric as a gift. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it so when I heard about the tailors in Vietnam, I knew they could help me solve the issue so I found a spot called Kimmy Tailor (recommended by the reception ladies at my hotel) and showed up with my fabric and some photos of dresses I had seen, then I sat down with Kimmy and another lady and we designed a dress that would work with the material. They took my measurements, set appointments for me to return for three fittings, and sent me on my way. The following afternoon, I picked up the final product of their work and was very pleased with my new custom dress.
Despite the fact that everybody always raves about how cheap everything is in Vietnam, by this point, I felt like I was dropping money everywhere in nearly $50 increments at a time! “Here you go, Tailors, here’s $50 to make me a dress.” “Oh, and Hotel Receptionist, of course you can book my flight for me and arrange my transportation to the airport–thanks for asking! Here’s $50 for those tickets.” And when I went to the post office to send a package home since I was shopping so much and collecting heavy gifts: “Ok, Post Office Lady, you need $50 to send my 6-pound package back to the United States? No problem!” Yeah. That’s how I rolled in Vietnam. I was very sad to leave Hoi An and I wish I could have stayed longer, but it was probably better for my wallet that I left otherwise I might have ended up with another dress or something!
Hanoi and Halong Bay
When I left Hoi An, my flight to the capital city, Hanoi, in the north was an easy one hour trip. I didn’t have much time in Hanoi–I mainly went to access my next adventure in Halong Bay–so I can’t say that much about it except that it is also a bustling, lively place. There are SO many motorbikes parked all along sidewalks that people have to walk in the street with the traffic. I also noticed that there are many chic places to hang out with retro-style coffee shops, flashing lights, museums and other capital highlights, open park areas, a beautiful lake accessible to the whole community, and specialty restaurants.
I found a “health food” restaurant/cafe called Hanoi Social Club near where I stayed: my first time there I had an avocado mango wild rice bowl and four days later when I went back again, I devoured a plate of roasted pumpkin topped with lentils, tomatoes, feta cheese, and a mustard balsamic vinaigrette. I know it wasn’t really “Vietnamese” but it was in a capital city, and typical capital cities tend to be progressive, open, offering a lot of variety, and on the front end of technological advancement in their countries. I need to figure out how to make that pumpkin dish…
Now for Halong Bay, Vietnam’s crown jewel. Halong Bay is made up of nearly 2,000 limestone rock formations that are “islands” in the sea. These islands have been covered by nature’s greenery and so they literally look like emeralds speckled across a large body of water. Halong Bay is recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site so it attracts tourists from all around the world. The only way to experience Halong Bay is through tour companies and taking a 1, 2, or 3-day cruise through the area; if locals are caught showing tourists around, they will be fined which means the cruise companies have a complete monopoly of Halong Bay tourism.
After researching online reviews, hearing some horror stories about cheap cruises gone bad, and referencing my guidebook, I knew I would have to drop around $200 for a quality 3-day cruise. I booked through the hotel reception and ended up on the “Silversea Cruise” steel luxury liner–one of the newest, nicest cruise ships on the bay. Most of the other boats are smaller, wooden ships called “junk boats,” however they are designed very well for luxurious touring of the bay. In any case, the more expensive tours are extremely well run despite the sheer number of visitors to Halong Bay. The place was swarming was people, yet somehow all the guides from the different tour operators managed to keep things on a tight schedule and coordinate boat location, activity times, and transfers so that different groups and boats are not overlapping. The guide we had on the first day said that he only has two days off per month–he runs a crazy tight work schedule.
There were nearly 40 people on my particular cruise ship from all over the world, but mostly Europeans–and of the Europeans, German was majority. It kind of felt like I was on Survivor and if we had to vote people off in the first 20 minutes, it would have been the Spaniards who complained immediately that this wasn’t the ship they had signed up for. (When the crew drove them to the ship they HAD signed up for, a smaller, less fancy one, they opted to return to our boat.)
Strangers on a boat, we immediately had to make friends as we were shoulder to shoulder for all the scheduled activities including a cave tour, swimming in the bay, karaoke night, squid fishing, tai chi, kayaking, and even a quick trip to a pearl farm–all squeezed into the first afternoon and the following morning. Most of these activities were “optional” but our guide was very strict with movement and schedule for those who did participate. “Okay everybody, fifteen minutes for swimming–go now!” followed by, “Excuse sir, don’t swim so far away from the boat.” Then, on the speaker system linked directly to all of our rooms, “Ladies and gentleman, please come to the dining room area for dinner in 5 minutes. Thank you very much. Ladies and gentleman, please come to the dining room area for dinner in 5 minutes. Thank you very much.” Yes, he repeated everything twice–on high volume. Some people compared it to cattle herding, but the best way to handle it was to just go with it and laugh because it really was very entertaining.
I noticed multiple times while I was in Vietnam that the Vietnamese really love to stick to their schedules–no flexibility allowed! It seems that there are structured systems that have been worked out somehow and every Vietnamese person will adhere as best as possible to the system he or she knows–and usually without communicating what is going on in their head. In some cases, I was even physically pushed in order that I arrived to the exact position that the “pusher” wanted me in. It wasn’t ever a mean or harmful push, just a “hurry up, I need you there, I don’t have time to give you instruction” kind of push. Rarely was there an explanation. This cultural tendency was directly opposite from the one I encountered just before Vietnam in the Philippines where the people are so direct and verbal that they can sometimes come off as intrusive and make people uncomfortable. The Vietnamese will avoid confrontation at all costs if it means they would make someone uncomfortable–they are WAY too polite to do that (even though lack of communication can lead to frustration for the other party involved).
Anyway, the cruise package was better than I expected (but I went in prepared for the worst) and the meals were AMAZING!!! All three lunches and both dinners were full 10-course meals–some dishes were served individually while others were family style, and the breakfasts were amazing as well. The first night we slept on the boat (I shared a room with an Indonesian lady because no singles were available), and the second day we were dropped off at Nam Cat Island resort where we had an entire free afternoon for beach activities, swimming, kayaking around the bay, and just hanging out until we all retired to our bungalows on the island for that night. When we were picked up in the morning, a different guide did a “cooking demonstration” of how to prepare spring rolls, then people all got to have a shot at it. The best part, of course, were all the other people sharing the same experience. While most of the people were just temporary acquaintances, there was one, maybe two, with whom I’ll keep in touch.
As for Halong Bay itself? Mystifying. Besides the traffic in the bay from all the other cruise boats hanging around and, consequently, the pollution in the water due to the high volume of people and boats, the limestone islands were beautiful, especially when the sunlight hit them from varying angles. Every time we circled an island, a new string of rock formations would appear. We also passed “fishing villages” on the water in certain areas where local people have built their houses on floating foundations so they both live and work on the water. My favorite time in Halong Bay was definitely dusk because as the sun faded away, the layers upon layers of islands stretching out in front of us also disappeared like phantoms escaping into the night.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Vietnam. I traveled so comfortably that I didn’t really feel like I was backpacking much. I was definitely more than a little spoiled by Craig, but the rest of the trip was just as delightful. The cities in Vietnam were lovely and alive, and it was pretty easy to get around. I enjoyed the cities so much that now a big mystery lingers in my mind as I wonder what the villages are like. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to get off the beaten path in Vietnam! I think I have enough friends in Vietnam now that it would be easy to do if I came back, but I’m about ready to tuck my backpack away for a while–maybe let someone else borrow it…
TRAVEL TIP: When you are taking public transportation, shuttles, or even taxis while traveling, request to sit in the front seat. Most of the time, these spots are not reserved for anyone in particular so if you can snag a shotgun seat, chances are that you will have more personal space, leg room, access to the A/C (if there is one), and overall comfort. I caught on to this idea when Allan used to make this move in Laos and Cambodia, and then again when Craig would make specific moves for that extra space and comfort in Vietnam. Of course, both of these men are over 6 feet tall, but still–it’s a good tip to know. The good spots don’t just get handed to you–you’ve got to be proactive about it!
Daydreaming with a satisfied smile,