Arriving in Hanoi was a shock to say the least. Far from a negative however, it was instead just different, unfamiliar and far from what any Westerner is used to seeing on a day to day basis. Nothing could have prepared me for the wild roads, the constant noise, the humidity or the motorbikes piled high with large furniture items casually being transported across town. While for the first day this was daunting and crossing the road or even just walking down it terrifying (have a look at a Hyperlapse video I made), I quickly absorbed the city and tried to become one with its madness. Like anywhere in the world, if you can’t do this then your lack of connection and confidence with the environment will soon lead you to trouble.
Hanoi, my favourite of the two big cities, had so much character it was impossible not to be charmed. The small bustling streets in the Old Quarter never lack something interesting to see, hear or smell, and while the constant calls from motorbike riders asking if you want a ride can be frustrating, you learn to ignore them. It can be easy to get lost, a lot of the roads look the same but this didn’t put me off exploring. A walk to a nearby residence where I saw no other tourists for about three hours was great and many times local students wanted to make conversation with me or in one bizarre case, help them with the ice bucket challenge. There’s great food to be found everywhere, the trick was to find somewhere that the locals ate and I was almost certain to get a good meal. Many street food sellers only serve one dish, so you don’t even have to choose anything, you sit yourself down on a little foot high stool and have them bring you over a bowl of something they’ve probably been cooking and perfecting for years.
One evening I took a break form the street food and enjoyed one of the nicest meals I’ve ever eaten. You can check out my review of French Grill on the blog, but with the restaurant not opening until 6pm, we had some time to kill and Chef Szurek kindly offered me a tour of the 400+ room hotel. During my taxi approach I gawped at the architecture of the hotel which Raphael informed me was the work of Carlos Zapata Studio. Located next to the Vietnam National Convention Centre, the hotel is surrounded by construction projects in what is evidently a quickly developing part of the city, we agreed that the hotel will be a great place from which to witness the evolution of this part of Hanoi.
On the lower floors of the building are three restaurants; located nearby is an overwhelming amount of meeting and event space, thousands of square metres of it. At this point, Raphael took me through a door signed, ‘Staff Only.’ It felt a little like I was entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and some of the delicious sights I saw back there certainly made this a little more possible. I can’t imagine how many oompa loo… I mean staff they have working at the hotel but there’s certainly a great deal of work going on behind the scenes 24/7 to keep the place running like clockwork. A quick elevator trip took us upward to some impressive views and the executive suites. One floor more and the views grew even more impressive, up here was the spa, fitness and pool area. The pool was probably the most impressive part of the tour, it is located on a large hanging ledge that shoots out of the top of the hotel, it really is phenomenal. Raphael regaled me with a story of massive amounts of liquid nitrogen being emptied into the pool during a particular event, the effect of which I could only imagine. I reckon the pool area also has the best view in the hotel, unless of course you found yourself on the roof.
The journey to Phong Nha was my first experience with what would become one of many overnight sleepers that transported me from North to South. In my soft sleeper carriage I was joined by a Vietnamese couple, an ageing man and two cockroaches, all of whom were friendly and seemed to find sleeping far easier than I. I spent the majority of the loud and uncomfortable journey reading from my Kindle. However my time in Vietnam would not have been the same without this journey and my time spent in Phong Nha. It was here that I met my eventual Dutch travel partner, Mark; watched the catching, killing and cooking of a chicken that tasted better than any I’ve ever had; and spent a day mud bathing in a cave and zip lining into a river. Oh, and in the middle of all of this, the completion of a two day cave and jungle trek became one of my greatest challenges and accomplishments. Hours of jungle trekking in the Vietnamese heat and humidity presented a physical challenge like no gym trip had before, it was joyous but daunting to break up these treks with cool swims through enormous pitch black caves, lit only by five small head torches. Walking in at one entrance and magically swimming out of another, only to begin trekking once again in order to make it to camp before darkness.
A sudden small storm and heavy rainfall provided an intense cathartic moment not long before we reached the campsite, greeted by an amazing meal cooked over a fire by the heroic porters who had soldiered on ahead in order to set up. Following this, only under the influence of home-brewed rice wine did anyone stand a chance of getting some sleep in their claustrophobic hammock. I think I caught an hour or two before breakfast and a second day of even more intense trekking.
My journey went from one I was making alone, to one I was making as a group. Between Hue and Ho Chi Minh, there was never less than three of us traveling together. People joined us, people left us, people crossed paths with us and people met us all over again. I quickly learnt how easy it is to meet people and make friends while travelling, everyone shares the same mind state. People smile; they say hello; they ask if you’d like to join them for a drink or even better, a drinking game; they introduce you to their friends, who they themselves have probably only known for a couple of hours. But so much happens while travelling in a short amount of time that the concept of time itself changes. It’s easy to feel like someone you’ve known for a few days has been your friend for years.
My stops along the coast while travelling South were short but never uneventful, it was of course the fault of my fellow travellers that most nights involved the consumption of alcohol. In the day however we visited beautiful deserted beaches, had suits tailor made, explored the towns and their sites, and ate plenty of great food, the question, ‘are you hungry?’, became a running joke because we were, always hungry. The most unforgettable leg of the coastal route, from Hue to Hoi An, took us along the much talked about Hai Van Pass on small and nippy but unreliable motorcycles. As a responsible son who doesn’t want to worry his parents, I still haven’t told them about this journey, but there really is no other way to travel it. The views are stunning and the bike gives you the option to stop and really enjoy them. A group of three turned into a group of eight over night and we set off the following day like a backpacking motorcycle gang, to the delight of the local villages and towns we rode through who waved and shouted, “Hello!”.
A late arrival in Dalat led me to perhaps the most hilarious and crazy place that I stayed. When we reached Dalat Family Hostel we received the warmest welcome imaginable from our two grinning Vietnamese hosts, who we would soon discover go by the names Crazy Mama and Crazy Anna. They without a doubt lived up to their names. Before we knew it we were sat down with warm tea and in conversation with the other guests. Over the next couple of nights we watched people being welcomed in the same way we were, the surprise, confusion and uncertainty on their faces unforgettably funny. One memorable night a group of Dutch backpackers played a series of Dutch songs new and old, dancing ecstatically with our crazy hosts. The bizarre scene is difficult to describe but the two cultures certainly came together in an interesting way as I attempted to keep up with the energetic Dutch dance moves.
The highlight of Dalat was without a doubt canyoning, abseiling down two cliffs and two waterfalls was thrilling, however an 11m cliff jump into the water below provided the biggest adrenaline rush. After about fifteen minutes of plucking up the courage to attempt the jump, clear the rocks below and hit the water, I took the run up and flew. Sadly a superman style dive meant I landed straight on my front, apparently there was a joint, “ooo,” from everyone watching and I was left winded, however it was short lived as I embraced my accomplishment.
One eventful night in the city of Mui Ne took place after meeting the two owners of a hilltop hotel in a club the evening before. With a personal dinner invite at their restaurant we apprehensively approached the acclaimed spot, unsure of whether they remembered their drunken promises. To our delight we dined with the couple and were treated to a 3 course meal overlooking the sea view. Talk of the wild parties they once threw at their hotels involving over one thousand guests (check them out), some travelling in from other cities just for the night, led to the consumption of many glasses of wine and six bottles of local rum. A little walk around their developing complex took me up to a balcony overlooking the pool and beyond that the sea, dotted with the lights from boats. In a slightly intoxicated moment of sentimentality, I took a few minutes to ponder the bizarreness of the situation, questioning, ‘how did I get here?’ over and over in my head. With Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Under the Bridge, playing in the background and the sea breeze cooling my skin, I tried to absorb everything around me and really appreciate another unexpected opportunity and experience.
Ho Chi Minh or, Saigon as it was originally named, made me feel uncomfortable for the first time, multiple friends being robbed within a couple of days and just the presence of some shady characters who seemed to target the backpackers area, made the most developed city on my journey a little less enjoyable. I did have the best Pho I’d had in Vietnam here and continued to meet some really great people, one who managed to persuade me to take an unforgettable trip up the Bitexco Financial Tower from which the city views were stunning and one could take some time out from the bustling streets 49 floors below.
I really didn’t want to leave Vietnam, there were places I didn’t have the chance to visit or spend long enough in and people I wanted to spend more time with. I loved the country and I’d grown close to so many people, I’d become so used to travelling with them that arriving in Singapore by myself put me on a bit of a downer. While I highly suggest travelling alone and doing some things by yourself, it’s really the people you meet along the way who make things more interesting. You’re never really alone if you stay in the right places and make just a tiny bit of effort, it’s in sharing your experiences with these people that you’ll really find a love for travelling. In Singapore there really wasn’t the opportunity for this, there were no hostels bustling with interesting backpackers or friendly people to get to know. While I did eventually settle into Singapore and the change, it wasn’t the same. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, right? Well I wasn’t sure I could get much fonder of Vietnam but distance has certainly proved me wrong. The country will most certainly hold a place in my heart forever and will always be remembered as the place I began this epic adventure.
This was far from the end of my journey, in fact I wrote this while sipping from a fresh coconut on the beach in Bali. You can check out more from me and my travels my Instagram.