After a month, our time in Vietnam finally came to an end. Had we not had 30-day visas, we definitely could have stayed longer. Vietnam was when the “real” traveling began for us, and we will always remember when we transitioned into the heart of SE Asia.
I expected Vietnam to be a messy and disorganized place, and I wasn’t wrong. There were points during our time in Vietnam when I literally asked myself: “How can this country function like this?” The more time you spend in Vietnam, however, the more you realize that there is a certain beauty in chaos.
Vietnam was a bit of a shock (both in terms of culture and infrastructure) coming from the highly developed countries we were traveling in before. We constantly needed to keep our guards up and watch out for scams. Everything had to be extensively researched and double, triple checked. All of that made Vietnam exhausting to travel in, especially since we haven’t had to do any of that on our trip before.
However, with high risk comes high reward. Vietnam felt real, lively and exciting, a constant adrenaline rush. A simple walk in the streets of Old Quarter in Hanoi was like a roller coaster ride. Sidewalks packed with food stalls, fighting for space with hair dressers. Tour companies, restaurant owners, random guys on the street trying to get your attention. I’ve never felt this before: this mix of caution and excitement intertwined. It was a thrill.
There were so many sides to this country. Not only were the landscapes highly contrasting, each city had its own distinct culture and food. The surreal limestone mountains in Ha Long Bay were absolutely breathtaking. The old but charming town of Hoi An brought us noteworthy experiences like its infamous tailors. The bustling financial center of Ho Chi Minh City was a reminder of the developed world, yet steeped in a war-filled past.
Speaking of a war-filled past, we spent a considerable amount of our time in Vietnam learning about the events that have shaped the country into what it is today. Visits to the War Remnants Museums in both Hanoi and HCMC showed us the atrocities humankind is capable of and how it affects not only past and present, but future generations as well (Agent Orange still causes defects in newborns today!). A walk (more like squat) through the Cu Chi tunnels was a personal glimpse of what it’s like to be in war. All of these experiences are of extreme importance to remind us of the damages a single action can have years from now, and hopefully help us eradicate these mistakes in the future.
Vietnam could not be better describe in my mind than a great example of beauty in chaos. Everything fits together and in the grand scheme of things, it works out well. Motorbikes pass by without hitting you, food stalls serve amazing food and shady tours turn out to be one of the coolest things you’ve ever experienced in your life. There were moments where I feared for my well-being; but that was immediately followed by the joy and disbelief that I was here in Vietnam in person, not just reading about it. Once I got past the initial shock, Vietnam was an incredibly amazing country to explore.
Vietnam was the first country on this trip where Chinese was not widely spoken. While Carlos has been mostly clueless since the trip started, I suddenly went from knowing a lot of what was going on to knowing nothing. It took some adjustment. At least the English alphabet is used in Vietnam, so we could still recognize names and Googlemaps worked surprisingly well (better than Taiwan, actually).
One of the main goals of this trip was to give ourselves enough time to take a deeper look at how the locals live, not just the cursory glance that the average tourist gets. Vietnam offered us some of the first (of many to come, I’m sure) groups of people who live completely differently from how I’ve lived and will ever live. From the rice fields of Sapa to the waters of the Mekong Delta, I observed daily life that I could not have imagined. I’m amazed by how adaptable and creative humans can be.
Food and drinks in Vietnam were original, delicious, and extremely affordable. I had pho pretty much every single day, even though it made me sweat like mad. I tried dishes I had never heard of before, and I enjoyed every bite. Hue and Hoi An were particularly great for characteristic cuisines. I learned how to cook Vietnamese foods (or just experienced Vietnamese cooking, to be more accurate). There is no better place for both a cheap beer as well as tasty coffee. I found eating and drinking on the streets of Vietnam to be especially memorable, both for meeting fellow travelers as well as just people watching.
Our month in Vietnam has undoubtedly taught us to be smarter, more independent and confident travelers. The scam culture was a huge beast to tackle. While we by no means beat the beast, we gave it our all and more. Through the process, we became better negotiators, faster researchers. We learned to trust our instincts and follow our gut reactions which turned out to be astonishingly good. Our first tours were booked, our first hotels negotiated on the spot. Day 1 in Vietnam, we were tourists depending on trustworthy information and laid-out routes from others. Day 30 in Vietnam, we became tourists traveling our own path, on our own terms. I was incredibly proud of how we took the local bus.
I’m glad we took the time to explore the entire country, north to south. Even after a full month, we missed a few places like Da Lat, Mui Ne, and Phu Quoc. We missed activities such as riding with the EasyRiders and rappelling down the Marble Mountain caves. More reason to come back in the future!