Winter Trip to Vietnam

I had heard so much about Vietnam that it was one of the top countries in South East Asia that I had wanted to visit. I originally had planned on doing all of Vietnam (north to south) and then going west into Cambodia. However, because of my school changing my vacation dates I ended up having to cut my 19-night trip down to 10 days!!! *crying* It took a lot of planning and was a little a little stressful to re-arrange everything, but now I can say I did it and everything went so smoothly. I cut Cambodia and south Vietnam out of my trip, opting for the central and northern part of the country. I planned this trip with my friend and fellow female traveler from Australia, Meg, who I met two years ago while traveling in Hungary. She was doing a few months in South East Asia and we agreed to meet up in Vietnam.

Crazy Traveling… Making Me Crazy

I flew into Da Nang Airport, in central Vietnam. I left work at 4:30 and took a taxi to the bus station. There was no cheap flight from my Gwangju’s airport to Vietnam, so I had to go through Incheon Airport located an hour outside of Seoul!!! The bus took almost 4 hours to get to Seoul, where I transferred to a subway and then airport by subway (2.5 hours). I had planned it down to the minute. Had I been delayed in any of those transfers or at security, then I never would have made it to the airport for my 10pm flight. Thank goodness nothing happened… However, I unfortunately would arrive very late to Vietnam. I got in at 2:30am local time. I had the forsight to have the hostel arrange an airport pick and bring me from Da Nang to the next city over: Hoi An. And thus I start my trip:

Vietnam is a great place to get your feet “wet” in traveling South East Asia. The country has great infrastructure for tourists and backpackers and the popular places to visit are well marked out. It wasn’t difficult once we got there to adjust our tentative itinerary depending on the time and things we wanted to do, booking hostels sometimes the day of.

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Standing at the entrance to the Citadel

The weather was something to contend with. When I arrived in Hoi An it was almost 80°F and sunny, but by the time we made it to Hue, the weather had turned cold, wet, and rainy. By the end of the trip, I was wearing fleece under my rain jacket. We were going at the start of the tourist season, so the weather was still quite cold in the northern region. We ended up not going to Sapa (something I was really looking forward to) due to the fact that the usually beautifully green rice fields were still frozen and it was a muddy, cold mess. The locals said that this weather was unusual even for them this time of year. I blame El Niño and maybe climate change…

Hoi An

We spent one night in Hoi An, a famous tiny town along the river, known for it’s booming textile industry and traditional architecture. They say if you want something hand sewn for you, Hoi An is the place to get it done. I never intended on having anything made for me, but Meg and I both ended up getting skirts made and I bought a jacket. So, there’s that… We rented bikes for half of the day and made our way through town, in the evening at sunset going for a nice cruise along the river. We ended up going in the boat of an elderly couple who were all smiles and more than happy to have us choose them when much nicer boats with younger people were available. We left early the next morning or a 3.5 hour bus ride to Hue.

Hue

Hue was probably one of my more favorite parts of the trip. It probably had something to do with renting a motorbike and spending the day getting lost and exploring the various tourist spots and countryside around the town. We had been eyeing the motorbikes, but neither Meg nor I had ever driven one. There were many tour buses and companies offering guided tours, but we wanted to get away from that and we’d heard that motorbike was the best way to get around. I confidently lied and said I knew how to drive a motorbike; I assumed that it was basically like riding a bike but with the capability to go much faster. That assertion wasn’t too off. After a few hair-raising starts, we were off exploring the Citadel, the famous tombs around the Citadel, and a few pagodas (of which there are many), including the Thien Mu Pagoda.

Bach Ma National Park

The French colonist started the Bach Ma National Park first in 1925 protecting the area. After the French left Vietnam in 1954 the area was soon forgotten, leaving the French colonial villa’s that were constructed at the top of these mountains to the mercy of the Jungle. In the 60’s the Americans took over this area as a strategic base for their military actions. Since the end of the Vietnam War, this area has been established as a national park. The day we went was one of the worst as far as weather. At the summit of the mountain, we couldn’t see anything. After a few hours trudging through the jungle and scaling waterfalls with nothing but a rope to hold (adrenaline rush!), we also submitted a waterfall, but at the top, we couldn’t see anything, just hear the road of the water as it fell into white space. On the plus side, we had a wonderful guide who lead us up a mountain and had a fun time breaking into one of the abandoned French mansions to escape the rain and eat our lunch.

Vịnh Mốc Tunnels & DMZ Tour

One can’t visit Vietnam and not learn about the Vietnam War (called the “American War” by the Vietnamese). There are two main places to see the tunnels. Having seen both, Meg can attest that Vin Moc Tunnels are much better. We did a tour that took us through what was the DMZ (demilitarized zone) during the War. While it was a very long day, driving out to the tunnels and the DMZ area (now farm land and jungle), it was very fascinating and informational. Any history-buff would love this. It was absolutely incredible that so many of the tunnels went more than 30 meters deep (to escape the bombs that could penetrate as deep as 10 meters), constructed by hand between the years of 1966-1972. There were “rooms” that were designated as wells, bathrooms, kitchens, hospitals, and living quarters. In fact, 17 babies were born inside the tunnels. I plan on visiting the active DMZ between North and South Korea in the future too.

Ninh Binh

I didn’t find out until I was Ninh Binh how bad the air quality was in Vietnam. I had wondered if it was just bad weather, but in the more remote part of central Vietnam, we were still surrounded by a haze that wasn’t fully clouds, nor was it haze. A local guide said it was smog. Wonderful.

Despite this sad revelation, it didn’t fully detract from the gorgeous geography and a stunning landscape of striking limestone outcrops that rise suddenly from the rice paddies below. Having braved and survived renting a motor bike in Hue, we rented motorbike again for one day and bicycles another to explore the rural area and see various sites like the grotto and Tam Coc. We also woke extra early to take one of the first boats out on the river that wove through the rice paddies and through several caves. It was rice-planting season, so instead of beautiful views of lush green rice paddies, we got an up close and personal view of the back-breaking, labor-intensive, communal process of planting rice.

Cát Bà Island

We originally were going to visit Halong Bay, but after talking with fellow travelers we decided to change plans to visit the less-touristy, but just as beautiful, Cat Ba Island. It’s the largest island in Halong Bay which you can only get to by a ferry that ran three times a day while we were there. It’s part of the large national park, however, like many other areas of Vietnam, it is struggling to balance eco-tourism with the development of resorts and infrastructure. Sadly, we could already see the beginnings of over-development that will in the near future transform this peaceful escape into a gaudy, typical resort area.

We spent the first day exploring (again, by motorbike) the island. Other than hiring a guide to drive you, motorbike is the best way to see as much of the island in as little time as possible. And the views were amazing. Some of the best and most breath-taking views came from our trek up and down a few mountains to reach the summit at Cat Ba National Park.

We also took a boat tour which I both loved and hated. It was an interesting experience to get out on the water to see the different grottoes and alcoves of limestone islands, however it was also an insight into poverty. One thing I didn’t find very tasteful was the tourism surrounding “poverty-visiting” (appropriately dubbed by me). This was the second time we were guided into a very poor area to snap photos at the improvised lifestyles and ogle at people going about their business. I also am dubious about how much of the money from the tour (if any) goes towards these areas.

While it was fascinating to see these boat villages, the amount of trash in the azure waters was awful. Piles of garbage could be seen among the rocks and along the beaches. People could not clear it away fast enough before more garbage replaced it. Sickening. They offered us the opportunity to go swimming in a more enclosed beach, but after seeing all that garbage floating in the water not a half a mile away, I declined. It really makes you see the awful impact that humans have on the environment and the problems with pollution and waste disposal. Cat Ba was one of the places where I saw the worst waste disposal by locals and by tourists (even more enraging). Since water isn’t potable in Vietnam, we had to buy plastic water bottles every day. The amount of empty water bottles left hither tither was infuriating. We were at the peak in the national park and there was one tiny trash bin overflowing with largely plastic bottles. Someone had even wrote a very stirring, but ignored, message about carrying trash in and out of the park.

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View of Cat Bà Bay

Hanoi

Hanoi was the last stop, as I was planning to fly out of the Hanoi Airport the following day. We met up with a few other Fulbrighters who I knew were in the city at that time as well. We stayed in the ‘old quarter’ where the architecture was very reminiscent of European architectural styles. Since we didn’t have much time, and it was much too dangerous to rent a motoror bike in Hanoi, we traveled the city on foot seeing a few of the closer landmarks and doing last-minute shopping.

Poor Travel Planning – Time to Go Home

While the time traveling in Vietnam went very smoothly, getting there and away was not. Well, I should say it went smoothly, despite my awful planning. I realized how awful my trip back to Gwangju would be after I had to race from Gwangju to Seoul to get to Vietnam at the beginning of my trip. Now I had to do that in reverse.

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The major problem was that since my school was so strict with my vacation dates, I had to desk-warm the following day. When I was buying tickets a month earlier I did a rookie travel mistake and didn’t consider the time difference between Vietnam and South Korea (+2 hours), nor calculate the time it would take for me to get to  and from the airport. Fortunately there was buses that run directly from Inchon Airport to Gwangju, so I could avoid the hassle of dragging my luggage through the subway and dealing with time-wasting transfers. However my flight got in at 8:30pm. After doing some mental math, if I took the bus (4 hours, last one left at 11:00pm) I would get into Gwangju around 2:00am. However, as I had feared, after getting through immigration, customs, and baggage claim, I arrived at the ticket counter too late. All remaining buses were sold out!

Plan B was to go to the KTX (high speed train) station, but that would take me an hour and a half just to get there from the airport. I would never make it before the last KTX left for the day. Plan C was then to go to the KTX station and sleep there to take the first train out in the morning (5:00am) so I could get to Gwangju by 7:45am. Then I would go right from the train station to be at the school by 8:45 to desk-warm. However, I disliked the idea of sleeping in the freezing cold station, much less trying to find a jimjilbang (Korean bath house where you can also find beds…kind of like an old-fashioned YMCA) near the station. So I went directly to Plan D: hustle my way all the way to Gangnam Express Bus Terminal (2 hours away) to take the next bus to Gwangju. I would sleep on the bus and sleep when I got to Gwangju to wake up at 7:00am to go to school the next day to bus warm. I ended up arriving in Gwangju around 4:00am. I slept two more hours once I collapsed into bed. And woke in time to be at my desk by 8:30am so I could nap the rest of the day. #deskwarming

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Despite the craziness of getting to and from Vietnam, the major pollution problems, and the constant traveling from place to place, it was a fantastic trip with some amazing company and wonderful memories. (I also only spent about $30-50 a day, which is actually more than the average backpacker spends when traveling there.) After my experiences (and lessons learned), I plan on returning to travel more of South East Asia in the future.

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