vietnam ii: no more motorcycle

Here are the stops and routes I took after I dropped my motorcycle back in Hanoi. The red is a small motorcycle ride from Hue to Hoi An, and the green is all the fantastically exciting bus rides I took.

When I first arrived in Hanoi, it was overwhelming. Chaos, disorganization, humidity. The smell of warm meat hit like a wave while walking down the street. Children chased each other half naked on the “sidewalks”, or lack thereof. Dogs and cats would weave in front of you, pawing through garbage. Small piles of rubbish burnt casually on the side of the road. Chickens were being hacked to pieces before my eyes and restaurants consisted of kiddy-sized tables and chairs beside stalls on the side of the road. 

At night, the music from clubs and bars would clash with street performers, balloons full of laughing gas speckled the bars and the whole time, the constant cacophony of scooter horns blared from the streets. But after I’d returned the motorcycle (a sad moment, I had grown rather attached to it), this atmosphere seemed… normal. I’d adjusted. I didn’t need a map and I knew all my favourite coffee spots. 

It’s funny how all it takes from being shell-shocked to forming a normal routine in an alien country is a grand total of a week. You know what routine means? Time to leave, pronto. So I got on a night bus (I love the night busses in Vietnam) and raced James, who was still on that weeny Honda Win, to Hue. Obviously I won. 

I rented a Honda Win for a day and together we rode the Hai Van Pass. Honestly, not worth how many times I nearly died on it -this statement applies to the bike and the pass. I can’t understand why everyone talks this pass up, when compared to the northern roads, compared to Europe’s passes, Hai Van Pass is an underwhelming hill, but add truck traffic and haze. Top Gear screwed up: they picked the wrong road. Maybe I’m being a mountain pass princess, but I recommend skipping it (notice I don’t have any photos of it since I didn’t even take my camera out) and going straight to Hoi An. 

Hoi An was my favourite place in Vietnam, and not just because I could design my own tailored dresses for cheap (I’m now carrying something like 10 dresses and 2 playsuits in my bag). Incense burned in the streets and vendors sold slightly tastier things than elsewhere. We had mango cake that had no mango in it (James felt cheated), sugary coconut and fried bananas and donuts that can’t compete with Timmy’s, beef jerky and rambutan, which I quickly became addicted to. It was colourful and the Ancient Town had no traffic. Oh, and did I mention it lights up at night?

From the sweltering heat in Hoi An, it took me 16 hours to end up in the mountains in Dalat. People might say that Dalat looks like a town in the French Alps, but I doubt those people have ever been to a town in the French Alps. I was not met with little mountain huts, no dark-wash wood… instead it looks very much like what it is: a town in the mountains of Vietnam. The skinny architecture, cobwebbed power lines and irregular city plan was prominent, and perhaps some of the nicer houses had a European twist, but why people declare it’s an Alp Twist is a mystery to me.

The best place in Dalat is The Crazy House, designed by a female architect. She actually still lives in The Crazy House. James wanted to inquire what exactly is being smoked while it’s being designed. I cannot imagine what the trades said when the plans trickled down to them: “Um… there are things called right angles and straight lines? You heard of them?”

Nope, this architect has not. And a building code? Debatable - those stairs would not fly at home. Or those handrails. Or any of it, actually. 

The next day we went canyoning, which looks simple until it’s you dangling off the end of a rope with an entire waterfall smashing into your face. But it was awesome, even for people mildly afraid of heights (me). We got rained on and the whole group picnicked soaking wet on the side of the river in the jungle on mangoes and knock-off Oreos before continuing to float our way down. We were dropped back at a hotel in Dalat and had a kilometer to run back to the hostel. It rained so hard the streets flooded and I was soaked again within 30 seconds. James gave up and walked. I slosh-jogged back to the hostel while locals stared at me from under cafe verandas: why are you running in the rain?

We did a tour out of Dalat that was the most informative, interesting thing I did in Vietnam… and I can’t tell you about any of it. You’ll just have to ask me about it, or better, go do it. But I can tell you I ate a live cricket and (accidentally) rat and yes, there’s proof. There are witnesses. Huge basins of brown banana leaf rested in segmented basins; everything was crawling with chirping crickets. Kittens would jump in there and gorge themselves. James went first, managed to grab a reasonably small wiggling bug, popped it in his mouth and chewed. You know what his reaction was?

“…it’s not bad. I think a bigger one would be better.”

Are you nuts?! They actually aren’t bad… deep-fried and dipped in hot sauce, but in all fairness, what isn’t alright after you deep fry it and slather it in hot sauce?

I spent an afternoon in Mui Ne before racing to Saigon to get out of the country before my visa was up. Mui Ne doesn’t have a lot to do, but the hostel was nice and I wished I had an extra day there. 

There are red and white sand dunes, but they aren’t as extensive as all these photos trick you into thinking. Make no mistake, Mui Ne is no Sahara. These are just a few sandy hills. No trickery. They also don’t mention that the crest of a sand dune is bloody painful and may or may not completely destroy your camera and tripod. I also visited the fishing village and the Fairy Stream. The Fairy Stream is a shallow stream you can walk up barefoot. It cuts into sandstone, but I was more interested in the massive tension crack that had formed above it at one point. Just a nice slide waiting to happen… but I don’t care about trench safety these days, and apparently no one in Vietnam does either.

My visa was up in 48 hours, so I got on another night bus; it didn’t take as long to get to Saigon from Mui Ne as I had thought, and I was dropped in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City at 5:00AM, in pitch black, with a bunch of locals, 6km from the hostel James was staying at. It was probably the sketchiest situation I’d been in, but I bit the bullet and jumped on a motorcycle taxi and just kind of hoped that I wasn’t going to be taken to a dark alley to be knocked unconscious and robbed. I got there fine, but the guy still tried to charge me double what we agreed on (for the record, he did not succeed). I napped in the lobby for two hours before anyone was around. Ask anyone… there’s nothing to do in Saigon besides sell a motorbike and visit the War Remnants Museum, which is a huge whopping tablespoon of depression. Most travellers leave the city ASAP. So 12 hours after James sold his bike (yay!!) we were on a bus into Cambodia. 

I’ve seen some eye-opening things in Vietnam. I’ve seen a barefoot toddler alone on a mountain pass in the pouring rain in the middle of nowhere. I know that somewhere in the mountains, if a girl gets pregnant before she’s married (so, a 12 year old girl), the town will exile her into the jungle or burn her house down as she’s sleeping. I could write a novel solely on the things I’ve seen the Vietnamese carry on motorcycles (actually, someone’s already done this - I checked). Live pigs, dead pigs, coops of chickens, sofas, a motorbike on a motorbike, entire families, bundles on bundles of hay, huge stacks of rice… they can fit more on a bike than a North American can fit in a truck. I know I love spring rolls and Vietnamese egg coffee with cocoa, that fried noodles are always a safe bet, morning glory is yummy, and what kind of root they always cook with dog, so I won’t accidentally eat a puppy. 

I’m not going to regret leaving behind Vietnamese food wrappers, which are designed so that you need to work for your food. I will not miss the obvious pleasure I see when a vendor thinks they are going to rip an unknowing backpacker off -Vietnam needs some work in that department. I will not miss the absolute persistency of people in the market that physically will try to steer me towards their shop. I’ll miss those crazy roads in the north, the way kids wave at you as you go by, I’ll miss using chopsticks for everything and I’ll miss knowing how to order rice, vegetables and chicken relatively comfortably.

I could have spent weeks in Hoi An, eating not-mango cakes and coconut wafer sandwiches, while declining every 4-year-old selling lit candle lanterns. Vietnam is a wild mix of preserved culture and booming tourism, and now I’ve seen both sides. Although… I’m not sure 30 days is quite long enough to tear through the packaging Vietnam has wrapped itself in.

Cheers from Siem Reap, Cambodia (yes, I’m behind. I know)

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