Tạm biệt Saigon

When we started our trip through Southeast Asia, our itinerary was wide open. We filled in cities as we went, revising when things didn’t work out, and staying in each city till we felt like moving on. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, was our last stop. (We had booked our flight back to America from there months earlier.)

We initially wrote it off as a big, hot city and planned to spend as little time there as possible before flying out. For about the 97th time on our trip, we were wrong.

Our night bus in from Dalat was a dream (especially compared to the sketchy night bus we had from Hoi An to Dalat). Our room at the hostel was ready as soon as we arrived, so we checked in hours early and had time to recharge before exploring. We also connected with a friend through the couchsurfer we met in Hue, who invited us to a swing dance jam session that night. It was a blast (even though I don’t know the first thing about swing dancing properly).

Saigon itself was cool too. I created an amazing free tour for Susan, and at least half of the information I gave her wasn’t made up. It included a stop at the Notre Dame Basilica, the very cool Central Post Office, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, and of course, Dunkin Donuts. (The tour was technically free, but Susan tipped in bagels.)

The War Remnants Museum was my favorite stop. It was intense, and very compelling. I thought it was really well done. (They refer to it as the American War there.)

We decided to skip a trip the Cu Chi Tunnels, where tourists can see up close what the tunnels in the Vietnam/American War were like. I had initially considered making the trip out of the city to see them, but I found the description a bit horrifying. It wasn’t the talk about the conditions during the war, the booby traps, or anything historically relevant that bothered me. It was that sections of the tunnels had been enlarged to accommodate (mainly western) tourists. They also have a shooting range where you can fire assault rifles for $2 a bullet. That settled it for me. I passed.

We only had two days and they went quickly. We ate more street food, sat in more tiny plastic chairs, sent more postcards, and took in one last sunset from the rooftop of one of the city’s skyscrapers.

We were ready to try to wrap our minds around getting back to America (emphasis on try), but we had one more stop before that happened. As luck would have it, the cheapest flight home included a 12-hour layover in Tokyo. 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Bring on the sushi and ramen!

 

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I like you Dalat

Before I tell you what a treat Dalat was, I have to start by thanking my lucky stars that we A. arrived safely and B. I had a seat on the bus.

Overnight buses in Southeast Asia have mixed reviews and if you Google too much, you might get yourself worked up reading about drivers falling asleep and terrible crashes. So I did the smart thing and did zero research before buying my ticket because you know, ignorance is bliss and all that.

When we got to the bus (a trip which started by cramming 15 people in a 10-passenger van “only for two kilometers” said the driver), it already looked pretty crowded. I assumed that we all had tickets, so what’s the hurry, and let another group in front of me since they were traveling together. I took off my shoes, bagged them (standard overnight bus protocol), and hopped on, only to find zero seats/beds left. I did a full lap of the bus and then asked the driver, who kicked out some locals to make room. I felt weird about this.

I felt even worse when my water bottle went flying from the top bunk on a hard curve and thunked the head of one such local about 20 minutes into the ride. (I’m the worst.)

I would imagine that I paid a higher price for my ticket as a foreigner, and that’s why I got a seat, but I still felt pretty bad that several people were laid out on the floor of the aisle on kindergarten nap cots. Also, the drive was awful. I don’t know if the driver was trying to break his speed record or just hated his job, but if I hadn’t been strapped in, I would have fallen out of my seat.

But we made it, so whatever.

I loved Dalat. It’s nestled near a number of mountains and waterfalls, and had the coolest temperatures of our trip. We lucked out and connected with a couch surfer who invited us to visit her English class, and then gave us a tour around town. We were the first Americans her students ever met, and they were adorably shy, but fun to hang out with. She also took us through the college where she teaches, and we chanced upon a group of students sap dancing (traditional dance with bamboo sticks), and they gave me a quick lesson. (I was a naturally, obviously.)

Dalat was home to one of our favorite hostels of the trip, because we met a number of hilarious new friends. We checked out the maze bar (100 Roofs Café), which was overpriced, but pretty neat to explore. (We may have gotten legitimately lost on the way out.) We also spent an afternoon at the Crazy House  (Hang Nga), which looked like a collaboration between Gaudi and Tolkien, with its funky towers and staircases and hobbit hole rooms. It also offered great panoramic views of the city. We even went out to a night club, where we were not dressed up enough, but had a ton of fun. The dance runway (because that’s what it was) was mostly separated by gender, which was interesting. My only gripe was that the DJ wouldn’t take my request to play Beyoncé. You don’t need to speak English to understand Beyoncé. She’s universal.

My favorite day was spent on the back of a motorbike, cruising on curvy roads to the Elephant Waterfalls. (There were no elephants or elephant shaped features, so the name remains a mystery.) We hiked down to the bottom and on our way back up, a bride and groom were making their way to take some (sure to be) stunning photos. I’m not sure how the bride made it in her heels, but I was impressed.

Our whole trip through Vietnam had been a bit play it by ear and informed by recommendations, and I was glad we ended up in Dalat for a few days. Ignoring our harrowing night bus experience from Hoi An, we booked another to get us to Saigon, our last stop in Vietnam. What could go wrong, right?

Pro Tips:

-Get on a motorbike at some point in your travels. I would have loved to rent one for the trip. Many people buy one and after a few months of travel, sell it to the next traveler. Next best thing? Make friends with someone who has one and chip in gas money for a day trip.

-The Crazy House is worth the admission for a fun afternoon, with great views.

-It gets colder in Dalat, so make sure you have some layers. It was the only time in the trip that I wore long sleeves.

-Dalat has a great coffee scene. There are also several coffee farms outside the city, including one where weasel’s poop out the coffee beans. (Just as weird as it sounds.) I passed on that, but the rest of the coffee was great.

 

Banh Mi, Banh Mi, Banh Mi

Our stay in Hoi An was full of wonderful surprises. It started with a one bus arrival.

Up until that point, we had bought bus tickets that really meant a tuk tuk, van and bus, back of truck to bus, or any combination of transportation options. But never just one mode of transportation.

The second wonderful surprise was my maps.me app getting us from our drop off point to Little Leo’s Homestay successfully. (Seriously, so worth it to download for travel.) And then — my favorite surprise – after dropping our bags we were invited to join a neighborhood block party celebration of the end of Chinese New Year.

No one at the gathering spoke English, but I learned how to say “cheers” in Vietnamese from our couchsurfing friend in Hue, so we bonded immediately. (The informal version translates to “One! Two! Three! Go!” and it’s just as fun to say as it sounds.) Our new friends cleared a place at a table spilling over with family-style dishes, handed us chop sticks, and kicked some of the beer cans out of the way on the ground for our feet.

They had a microphone hooked up to a sound system and were blasting traditional music in between karaoke from different guests. I loved it.

We enjoyed our first full day at the beach, and I couldn’t have been prouder of Susan who agreed to take advantage of our homestay’s free bike rental to get there. (Remember that Susan learned how to ride a bike on empty dirt paths in Laos. Driving in traffic? Kind of scary.)

But then, the great illness of the trip struck. Susan got super sick and spent a few days out of commission. Our sweet homestay hosts checked in on her and gave me all kinds of side eye every time I left the hostel, but Susan and I agreed it was both unhelpful and creepy for me to watch her sleeping all day.

So I took the solo tour of Hoi An, including checking out the Japanese Covered Bridge, which dates back to the 1500s. I also happened across a carnival (which was probably related to Chinese New Year, but I don’t know for sure).

With no real agenda, I just wandered around town, enjoying meals around town at the classic tiny plastic tables and chairs, and taking in the market scene. Hoi An is famous for tailoring clothes – many people end up filling a suitcase of beautiful suits and dresses, but my backpack had no extra space, so I stuck to postcards.

The most important thing that happened in Hoi An was my discovery of banh mi, the greatest sandwich of all time. I’d never really eaten Vietnamese food before, so every meal was a new adventure. I loved the banh mi at Madam Khanh’s so much though, I ended going back there every day we spent in Hoi An, probably eating 10 sandwiches in total. (No shame.) It’s the only thing on the menu because they make it perfectly. (They can also hold the meat and make it only with egg, which made my vegetarian heart sing.)

Once Susan was feeling better, I took her immediately to Madam Khanh’s. She agreed it was worth inhaling two sandwiches a day. (She was still recovering, so I took one for the team and finished her sandwich, because I’m just that selfless.)

Hoi An had a little bit of everything with great marketplaces, cafes along the water, clean beaches a short bike ride away, and the greatest banh mi in all the land. With bellies full banh mi, we boarded our first overnight bus for Dalat. Goodbye, beach. Hello, mountains!

Pro Tip:

  • You can save a few bucks by booking a hostel/homestay that has a free bike rental. We picked a place halfway between the beach and the “downtown” area.
  • Join a free bike tour or just cruise around and make sure to go by the rice fields. You never know when a water buffalo will be waiting to say hello.
  • Go to Madam Khanh’s and enjoy.
  • They charge you to walk through the Japanese covered bridge, but you can get a great view just walking around it for free.
  • Many cities have night markets, but Hoi An is known for beautiful lanterns, so a night time stroll is worth it.

 

Oh Hey, Hue

Hue and Mr. Lac may have been my favorite part of our Southeast Asia adventure.

I know. That’s a bold statement considering how much I loved Don Dhet in Laos, and my serious connection with the chicken that rode across the border into Vietnam with us.

But Hue (pronounced Hoo-Ey) was very cool. When we got to our hostel, it was just us and a lovely guy from Ireland who had just finished the Camino trail. (Adding this to my travel bucket list ASAP.) He was killing time in the last few days before he met up with his girlfriend, a lovely American girl who he met on the trail. (Stahp, right?) We talked him into exploring with us and we were all rewarded with torrential rain the moment we left the hostel.

Luckily, that rain stopped about 35 seconds after we purchased ponchos. (From a woman who cruised up on a motorbike and undercut the shop we were in. Smart business really.)

We spent our day checking out the Imperial City, which was pleasantly empty after the rain.

After our fill of exploring, we found a restaurant (Lac Thien) advertising vegetarian fare right outside the gates. That is where we met Mr. Lac. The restaurant had a sign that explained it was run by deaf staff, and Mr. Lac was one of owners. As we finished our meal, he stopped by our table with a book of photos and trip options, which he clearly communicated without saying a word. We were instant besties.

Susan and our new friend Daran decided to head back to the hostel, but I signed on for a $10 motorbike tour with Mr. Lac himself. We spent the afternoon cruising around the city, on back roads, and seeing all kinds of interesting temples, structures, and landmarks. My favorite was an old building shaped like a dragon in the middle of a lake. I mean, temples are cool, but I got to climb into the mouth of the dragon. Just call me khaleesi.

We also met up with a couchsurfer, who gave us some great insight into life in Vietnam and Hue, and introduced us to a friend who offered to take us swing dancing in Saigon. (Love these fun connections.)

It was a great first impression of Vietnam, but we were excited to get on the bus for Hoi An, where the beach was waiting.

Pro Tips:

Lac Thien, because Mr. Lac is adorable and it’s a reasonably priced place to hang out near the fortress.

Motorbike Tour, because $10 for Mr. Lac’s company alone was a steal. Motorbikes are a great way to see the city.

Xin Chao, Vietnam

We thought the hardest part about leaving Laos would be tearing ourselves away from the 4,000 Islands. Not for the first or last time on our trip, we were wrong.

Don Dhet, and all of the islands I’d imagine, have a sort of Shangri-La gravitational pull. A short vacation easily turns into a long stay, which then gives way to a new home. (And there are vacationers turned locals all over the island to prove it.) Don Dhet remains my plan B if I can’t find work in the states. It was that great.

But Susan and I had already booked our trip home and Vietnam awaited. We didn’t book tickets from Don Dhet, because as you can imagine, bus tickets are a bit more expensive on an island. Instead, we took the advice of some local friends and got tickets for our first boat and bus to Pakse, a hub city, where we would purchase another ticket for transit to Vietnam. Or so we thought.

Our travels very rarely started at bus stations, and this trip was no different. We got dropped off at a travel agency office, and they informed us that they didn’t have any trips to Vietnam planned for days, but we might try at the bus station. We tuk tuk’d there, found the station closed and no future Vietnam buses posted for weeks because of Chinese New Year.

We tuk tuk’d back into Pakse and found the same answer at ever tour agency we stopped at: no buses until after Chinese New Year.

If we were wandering with no schedule or timeframe, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Since we had flights booked out of Ho Chi Minh City, this was indeed problematic.

We tracked down a reasonable hostel and got to work figuring out how to get across the border. Susan started searching for flight options, but found them to be outrageously expensive. Apparently there are price hikes since everyone is flying home to celebrate – you guessed it – Chinese New Year. I took a walk down the street to see if there were any tour agencies we missed, and ponder how to convince Susan that hitch hiking might be our best option.

Luck was on our side and I found a man who had seats available on a van going to Hue the next morning. He guaranteed our passage and said he would personally pick us up in front of the hostel the next morning.

Sure enough, just after 4 a.m., our knight in shining mini van arrived and loaded our travel packs. We drove a few minutes down the road, and he stopped to drop us off with another waiting passenger. He explained in the limited English we shared that the actual van would pick us up there. At this point, we had come to accept that it’s never just one vehicle. The van before the van. The tuk tuk before the bus. It usually works out. So we waited.

A few other people gathered, and then a pick-up truck pulled up. The one other passenger who had been there when we arrived waved us over and pointed to the back of the truck. It was our ride.

Our one English speaker had departed, so we charades our way into confirmation that we were supposed to hop in the truck and go. So we did. Driving down the road in the pre-dawn hours, I wondered if this was how we would cross the border.

It wasn’t. We stopped in a parking lot, where a kombi (oversized van) was loading. Our guide waved us over and motioned to bring our bags. We hopped in the van and hoped for the best.

It was us, seven men, one woman, and a chicken.

On our way to the border, we stopped for a lunch that must have been included in our ticket price, because no one brought us a bill. I couldn’t identify what was in several of the bowls on the table, but our fellow passengers kindly pantomimed how to construct our bowls of broth, noodles, and toppings. It reminded me of the early days in Macedonia before I knew much of the language and smiled my way through meals.

Soon afterward, we reached the border, which was our easiest crossing of the trip. With our visas already secured, we just waited for our passports to be checked. No extra fees. No questions. (So I guess the annoyance of getting visas back in Bangkok was worth it.)

The chicken in the van did not appreciate being left alone during this process however, and was quite vocal about his protestations. We theorized that perhaps he had forgotten his chicken passport and was worried about getting caught, or maybe he had been scorned by a hen in Laos and was anxious to get into Vietnam.

We never solved the “why did the chicken cross the border” mystery, because no sooner had we arrived in Hue, we were dropped off on the side of the road. The driver pointed at the ground and said, “Hue!” which served as our confirmation of arrival. Our friends from the van waved us off, the chicken waved a wing (I’m guessing), and we headed off to our next hostel and next adventure.

 

Sah-bai-dee, Laos

We almost missed out on the best part of the trip. 

The visa delay in Thailand (and the required return trip to Bangkok) meant cutting our original plan to head to Vietnam through northern Laos. We said goodbye to our plans to see stunning waterfalls and cross the border by boat, deciding that Angkor Wat and Cambodia would be our substitute. Thankfully, the patron saint of our trip, Anne (who we met at that hostel in Bangkok), suggested heading toward Vietnam via the 4,000 Islands in Laos. 

Wow. 

There have been lots of moments that felt familiar along the way. Smiling to myself as the train to Chiang Mai passed rice fields that reminded me of my favorite running route in Orizari. Watching a grandmother fuss over her little one the way the babas do. But the 4,000 Islands, outward appearance aside, felt like home. 

Sure, Orizari is surrounded by mountains instead of other islands, but the feel was the same. It was the relaxed, if the bus is late, we wait. There’s always more time for another drink, or a few more minutes to sit and chat. I loved it. 

We had the kind of trip there that people complain about on the way and brag about later. We got picked up in Cambodia by the wrong tuk tuk to meet our bus. Backtracked. Then the right van took us to meet a bus. The bus drove for a few hours and dropped us at a gas station, where the driver said, “Wait. Another bus will come.” So we sprawled around the gas station reading, snacking, and wondering how long and if a bus would show up. Two hours later, another bus pulled up across the road, honked, and waved us over. Another hour and one of the staffers asked for extra money to take our passports for us through the border. We declined. He smiled and took our bus tickets. 

We walked through the border and met a guy from England who has lived on Don Dhet for six years. He ushered us through like baby ducklings. 

We paid the bogus $2 stamp fees, but still netted a savings from what the helpful bus man wanted to charge. One of our friends asked nicely and said “please” and they didn’t charge him. The man who took our bus tickets sneered. 

The bus drove 30 minutes more and dropped us off at an intersection, where we loaded into the back of a truck, backpacks piled high. (Our fifth transportation change of the day, btw.)   

Down a bumpy, dirt road for another 20 minutes and then we traded bus tickets for boat tickets. But that cranky man from the second bus took ours. Thankfully, with about 10 other people in the same boat (lol. punny.), the woman with the tickets let us on anyway. 

Then we walked down to the long, wooden boat, filed on two by two, and wondered how we were so lucky to enjoy a sunset arrival. 

We didn’t have a place to stay, so with our new friend (who was seriously our mother duck) leading the charge, we wandered down the path till we found an open bungalow. $2.50 per person. 

Somewhere to sleep secured, we walked back to the restaurant/bar/guesthouse spot where our new friend worked. 

We never left. We played cards, made instant, incredible friends, enjoyed Beer Laos, ate shakshuka for breakfast with new Israeli friends, compared travel stories, ate plates of rice and noodles, laid in the hammocks reading, tubed down the Mekong River, barbecued on the beach, walked around the island, biked to see the waterfalls, laughed a lot, sat in awe of sunsets that streaked the sky with new colors every time you glanced away, said sa bai dee (hello) to everyone, high-fived the kids running by, loved on all the street dogs that wandered in and out of restaurants to cuddle up at their leisure, drank fruit shakes, built bonfires on the beach, watched for shooting stars, lost track of what day it was, and felt at home everywhere. 

In a few days, we were greeting familiar faces strolling down the main path and we were settling into easy routines, always eating at the same place because the food was always good and we were always there. 

We met a few people from around the world who had visited once or twice and then never left. One year. Two years. Six years. It only takes about 10 minutes on the island to understand why. 

We had a hard time pulling ourselves away, but we had to reach Ho Chi Minh for our flight home eventually, so reluctantly, after five days of bliss, we strolled down the path one more time, saying ‘sa bai dee’ to all those familiar faces and getting on one more boat. Until next time, Don Dhet. 

Angkor Wat sunrise

Getting to Siem Reap from Bangkok was the deal of the trip. 

The train ticket was 48 baht, and thanks to incredible info from Seat61.com, we were ready to navigate through the fray when we got off near the Cambodian border. (Can’t recommend this resource enough.)

We went from train to tuk tuk, and 20 minutes later, walked across the border. We were warned about lots of people trying to scam you and overcharge for passport photos or medical checks (photos you need; medical checks you don’t btw), but it wasn’t bad. Maybe we just had a slow day at the border. 

The border agents threw in a few extra charges, which online accounts had warned about, and we just paid. It was a situation where everyone knew it wasn’t a legit fee, but you just had to go along to get the stamp in your passport. (It was only an extra few dollars when you converted and it’s pretty hard to argue with someone in possession of your passport.) 

After the border, we found the free shuttle to the bus station for the next leg in the trek. (We were skeptical, but pleased to find the shuttle really was free.) At the bus station, we got a lousy rate to convert money and realized that US dollars are accepted across the country. (But not coins. They told me this after I counted out the correct amount in quarters. Sigh.)

We boarded an oversized van with about 12 other people and after the obligatory roadside stop (because every driver has a friend whose business they are trying to buoy), we had an uneventful drive to Siem Reap.

We go dropped off, far from the center of the city, in a crowd of tuk tuk drivers all vying to take us to our hostels. Since it was our first stop in Cambodia, I had no idea what a fair price would be. 

And then I discovered maps.me.

A couple from our van pulled out their phones and said they were walking the 20 minutes to the center if anyone wanted to follow. We took them up on it and despite a hot walk, it felt good to win, just once that day, when someone tried to rip us off with an unfair price.

(On Maps.Me: I ended up downloading the app, which works offline without data or a cell plan. Oh, and it’s a free download. Not bad, right?)

We had a great hostel, but Siem Reap was a little overwhelming. More than anywhere else on the trip, it felt like people were up charging and looking to rip you off. (Which I guess is a product of a tourist grown town.) It was one of the stops on our trip where we saw the most visible poverty, which contrasted the overpriced restaurants and bars on every corner, catering to tourists with fat pockets and waistlines.

We had gotten a lot of recommendations about how to see Angkor Wat best, with people suggesting we needed six days. We decided to take one. 

The length of our stay was also cost prohibitive on our post-Peace Coprs budget. The one-day ticket to visit the temples was $20. Three-day tickets were $50. That didn’t include meals or transportation, which easily doubled or tripled those numbers.

We did a little Google homework, bought snacks, and made arrangements with the driver recommended by our friend Anne in Bangkok. His price wasn’t the best in town, but it was fair and gave us the flexibility to go at our own pace without a group from the hostel, and we felt good supporting someone that came recommended. His story is all too common in Cambodia; his family suffered as a result of the war. He was very kind and spoke strong enough English to talk about life in Cambodia, a welcome change from the other locals we met who were just looking to sell something. 

Meeting locals has been a travel priority for Susan and I, coming from our Peace Corps mindset of integration and understanding. The sunrise over Angkor Wat was stunning, but we were put off by the scores of people clamoring to tilt their selfie stick at just the right angle and the inconsideration that abounded.

We got our beautiful view and got out of there. Bik, our driver, took us around to the other temples where for a few hours, we enjoyed minimal crowds as we wandered the ancient grounds. By the end of the day, the temples started to blend into each other, and we were glad we had only booked a one-day ticket. The main temple and that sunrise view was worth seeing, but we were happy to be heading to Laos in the morning.

Siem Reap Pro Tips:

  • Seat61.com is useful in all countries and all situations. The site is a wealth of knowledge for not only transportation routes, prices, and accommodations, but also includes a collection of first hand narratives and instructions for border crossings.
  • Maps.me is a free download, and from there you can choose to download the city or country of your choice. It works offline, without data, quite accurately, and includes search options for food or other amenities.
  • You can still find great street food at great prices in Siem Reap, so don’t be discouraged by the pizza shops and burger joints. We ate at the same shop for several meals, enjoying $1 plates of delicious noodles.
  • If history and temples are your thing, consider getting a guide or a longer-term ticket for the Angkor Wat complex, but for the average viewer, it’s easy to get templed out.
  • Appropriate dress for women in temples is covered shoulders, and no, a scarf over a tank top won’t cut it at the main temple. Apparently their standards have gotten stricter due to a rash of idiot tourists taking nude photos at these sites. (I wish I was making that last bit up. Google it.)