Since grade ten it’s been my dream to travel to Hạ Long Bay in Việtnam. It all started with an individual project for my Extended French class on the topic of any French-speaking country. Every student had their own unique country and I chose Việtnam. Historically, Việtnam was colonized by the French and therefore still contains a large population that speak French, so I was able to do my project unbeknownst that this country would captivate my dreams for a long time.
A little more than six years later, I had the opportunity to go travel to Việtnam during Winter Break. My boyfriend and I traveled to Việtnam for a little more than 3 weeks in mid-January, continuing on to a couple days in February as well. I have been wanting to go for what seemed like forever. When the planning process started I was ecstatic and nervous. So many emotions all mixed into one! I couldn’t believe that the dream was finally was coming true. So, we embarked on a fulfilling journey from the South of Việtnam, and then backpacking all the way to the North.
We started our trip by spending a few days in Saigon (Hồ Chí Minh City). It was around 33C during the daytime in Winter, but the heat wasn’t too difficult to get used to because I had been living in Taipei for about 5 months at that point. It certainly was much hotter than Taipei in January though, which averaged only 15C during the day. Still humid, so there was a ceaseless sticky feeling no matter shade or sun.
In Saigon, we enjoyed walking around the city streets, but busy isn’t even close to the right word to describe them. Scooters upon scooters upon more scooters flooded all of the streets going every direction possible in hordes! Taipei is not as hectic. I went to India once when I was younger where traffic is also chaotic, however I stayed within small villages and towns so I had not seen chaos to this extent. Crossing the streets was one of the most difficult challenges we faced. Death seemed to be looming at every intersection. Honking and the drone of waves of scooters sounded like hoards of buzzing mosquitoes. Often we’d wait for an old lady or other locals to cross and go along with them, but by our last day in Saigon we got used to the method of crossing the traffic filled streets. The trick is to keep a steady pace, don’t stop or speed up and they’ll weave around you. Still, it was scary. Especially this one roundabout that gave us a slight PTSD. It was a huge almost 8 lane roundabout near the Market, and we crossed it unaware of how dangerous and hectic it truly would be. Seeing scooters drive right past you at full speeds, so close you can feel the wind blow against you can be frightening. Especially seeing a scooter head toward you at full speeds, only to swerve away at the last second.
One of the places we visited in Saigon was the Việtnam War Museum. The photographs documenting the tragedies in the war were difficult to see, and even harder to understand how other people could commit such horrors upon each other. They depicted terrible acts and the horrible consequences due to the war. The United States government at that time is guilty for waging the illegal war killing countless citizens. Bombing cities, poisoning the land, setting up land mines that found permanently disable people, and dropping chemicals all across the country. The museum was certainly eye-opening in showing what this poor country had faced only a couple of decades ago. Pictures of disfigured people, ones damaged by the cruelties of war or crying due to their losses. I was in tears seeing pictures beyond pictures of what to me is quite unimaginable, lumps were forming in my throat as I went through all of the solemn galleries. Nowadays we see United States military intervening in other countries. I think one day we’ll look back and wonder how we ever let other recent wars happen too.
In happier news, Saigon was easy an easy to city to explore by walking. We were able to walk to every museum we wanted to see, the presidential palace, the busy Bến Thành Market, and just walking along the river during the warm evenings. It’s easy to walk to little shops and restaurants along the streets for meal as well. They’re full of homey little shops with people eating meals on sidewalks, full of the sounds of cooking and voices of many talking. It’s a lively, friendly city. It was also relaxing to go to parks and play around on the public exercise equipment and see students hanging around enjoying their day. Saigon also had a couple of scam artists targeting foreigners walking around, but luckily we didn’t fall for any there. Phew!
The food in Saigon was delicious. We tried so many local dishes such as Bánh xèo (a crepe-like dish), Bánh cam (sweet rice balls), Bánh mì (delicious sandwich), Phở (beef noodle soup), Nem ran (fried pork spring rolls), and of course we sat in cafes and enjoyed the coffee culture in Việtnam. Việtnamese coffee is definitely one of the best in the world. It’s super strong, but as a coffee lover I can handle that easily. I think every day in Việtnam I drank at least one cup of delicious coffee. Of course, my immunity to caffeine built up during my time there.
Our next stop from Saigon was Nha Trang for four days; probably one of my favourite places we visited. Every single day was blue skies and sunny. So every single day my boyfriend and I went to the beach to lie in the sun and swim in the ocean. Our hotel wasn’t a beachfront hotel (those are quite expensive), but the beach was only a two minute walk from ours. The beaches weren’t too crowded, so it was nice and relaxing. It was easy to walk back and shower after being covered in sand and salt from a fun day in ocean. It’s so gritty to walk in flipflops covered in wet sand, ick. We rode the waves enjoying the warm waters for hours on end. Every day in Nha Trang we also drank about two mango smoothies because Việtnam had the most delicious mangoes I have ever eaten in my whole life. There was a lady with a smoothie cart a couple of streets over near some restaurants who made fresh drinks with various tropical fruits. They were incredibly refreshing after a day out in the sun.
In Nha Trang we went to go look at Buddha temples, old Champa temples and ruins (they’re much bigger and much more exquisitely detailed in person than they look in pictures!), got scammed out of luckily only a small amount of money (don’t let anyone ask for money to see a Buddhist temple! — it’s a trick), and went hiking in the jungle. The hike consisted of us finding a small forested pool with clear blue waters where we could swim near some waterfalls. It was possible to cross the river to continue hiking even further into the wilderness too. We played in the pool and enjoyed our moments in paradise. Aside from tripping on a rock and falling into the river unharmed when we wanted to cross, it was fun. However, both of our shoes that I was carrying got wet… Rocks are slippery underwater, especially in bare feet! So we enjoyed an hour sitting, listening to the sounds of the jungle, out on a rock in the sun waiting for our shoes to dry so we could head back.
The next stop on our journey was Hội An. It’s a smaller city which is famous for its old town. At night, along the river in the city, candles are sent away on colourful paper lotuses as wishes. The whole city lights up as hundreds to thousands of paper lanterns are lit on houses, restaurants, bridges, and all sorts of buildings. It’s a really beautiful sight along the river. Also in the ancient town there’s many old houses, temples, shrines, and even an ancient Japanese-built bridge to see. It was a historical and educational visit for the short amount of time we were there. It really felt like we traveled back in time in some of the old houses, or at night when the only light were the lanterns. It was also in this city we tried egg coffee and had the best Bánh mì ever. Yum!
Other places to visit nearby included a beach, but it was much too cold and windy to swim. As we traveled North, the weather wasn’t as tropical. The walk to the beach was enjoyable, about 30min on a country road past farms and rice paddies. We saw chickens and water buffalo in the fields alongside women in the iconic conical hats. At the beach we enjoyed running away from the waves as they came crashing in, seeing how far we could into the ocean before sprinting away from the cold, salty water. I guess we’re both children no matter how old we get.
From Hội An we had a driver take us to Huế. The journey was memorable enough! First we stopped at the marble mountains where we hiked for a couple of hours, enjoying the views, the pagodas, and the caves. The natural beauty of Việtnam is amazing, with mountains, jungles, and oceans juxtaposed beside one another. From the top of the mountain, on a spiraling hike, we could see the countryside, the ocean, and some far away cities surrounding the marble mountains. Afterwards, we drove along the Hải Vân Pass which was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. If anyone watched Top Gear (BBC version!), the gang drove through here as well. It was a mountainous and coastal route which took us high in the mountains into the clouds, as well as along the shore, swerving through winding roads. The sights of tall mountains beside ocean is definitely one of my favourites. We even saw a couple taking their wedding photos there on an old military outpost on the mountain top. On our way down we were also stopped by a couple of cows crossing the road. How cute! I guess this is one of those cases where the journey is more important than the destination.
Huế was an ancient city full of many historical monuments to see. It was the ancient capital and heavily bombed during the Việtnam War. This historic city had a lot of sights and information to offer its visitors, including the Perfume River which flows through it. My boyfriend and I took a bus tour to visit some of these places such as the imperial tombs near the city of Huế. These were the emperors of the Nguyễn dynasty and all of them have very elaborate tombs. Their burial sites were hidden for a long time but now some of them are open to tourists. We had visited the tomb of Emperor Minh Mạng , the tomb of Emperor Tự Đức, and the tomb of Emperor Khải Định. Each was unique with the setting and the types of architecture. Minh Mạng followed Chinese architecture and was constructed in the 1840s. Tự Đức was the most beautiful with a peaceful lake and lots of forests surrounding the tomb as it integrated nicely with the nature around it. Khải Định is the most unique, as it follows more of a European style of architecture with monochrome exterior. The interior was coated in beautiful gold tapestries and artifacts though. It was constructed in the 1920s-1930s. We heard interesting stories, some of the emperors had over 300 concubines, whereas another was supposedly gay. I enjoyed visiting the tombs to understand some more of the history behind this beautiful county.
Afterwards we visited the Forbidden City where we saw ruins from the Việtnam war. The Forbidden City was where the royal family lived during their rule, alongside servants and concubines. During the war, bombs fell and destroyed much of the city. Destruction was beside untouched buildings. Some of the walls with bullet holes were still standing, almost as perfect memorial of the cruelty and carnage of war. Other places within the Forbidden City had broken walls kind of outlining where a building once stood. It can be difficult to face a tragic history, but it should never be forgotten. It stands a message to all people the reality behind war. However, there was still a lot of buildings intact to visit and learn from in the Forbidden City. The grand citadel was intact and acted as a huge fortress and gate to pass through to enter the inner city. Rooms where royalty once lived their daily lives and worked enlightened me about life in the past. I felt special to be able to stand where once emperors and empresses once stood, overlooking their great kingdom.
We ate a ton of food too. A specialty of Huế, Bún bò Huế (a spicy beef vermicelli soup) was delicious and filling, especially as it was colder in the North already compared to the South. Another activity we were able to do in the ancient capital was ride on a boat on the perfume river which was flowing through the city. During the day, the tut-tut of many motor boats riding up and down the river filled the air, and the gently rode the peaceful waters beside more traditional paddle boats. We took a boat to a small pagoda on one end of the river during the sunset for a tranquil end to a busy day visiting tombs and the Forbidden City.
The next city my boyfriend and I visited as we traveled further and further North was Hà Nội. If we thought the traffic in Saigon was bad, then Hà Nội was terrible. It was difficult to believe but there were even more scooters on the streets which had even less organization. Crossing the street here was definitely a hazard. Another hazard that the city itself faced was smog pollution. Perhaps it was the city itself with its many gas motors due to the tremendous amount of scooters and cars, or maybe the smog drifted South from China. Either way, our days in Hà Nội were welcomed with grey clouds covering the sun. It didn’t stop us from going out and about to see some temples and the hustling city. We’re quite unstoppable.
Regardless, this Northern city had a lot to do and much to see. I really enjoyed spending time at the Women’s Museum in Hà Nội. The exhibits ranged from marriage, to the ethnic tribes including their customs and clothes, childbirth, women in the war, and modern women. The exhibits contained many stories told by the women about their lives, their challenges, and showed many heroes throughout Việtnam’s history. I found it incredibly inspirational as a young woman myself. I loved to see and relate to the struggles of other women in society, sympathize with their tribulations, and pay my respect to those lost. It’s also nice and heartening to celebrate the successes of others and the lives of women, especially when many cultures have unique rituals and customs for this other sex.
Hạ Long Bay
The last place we went was where I’d been waiting around six years to see: Hạ Long Bay! The landscape took my breath away, seriously! The limestone mountains rose from the blue waters in numerous groups of mounds, definitely looking like an undulating dragon’s back. They towered over the bay as I imagined they would, except full of more life than I thought. I was here, I couldn’t believe it. I think my eyes were full of tears of joy and happiness when I first saw the beautiful Bay. It was what I was working towards for so long, and now it was finally time.
My boyfriend and I went on a three day cruise around the Bay. We visited a small village where the population lives in house boats constantly towered by the karst topography. It’d be difficult to adjust to life from land to sea, I think. I’d probably fall into the water pretty often for the first little while if I moved there. We also went kayaking in the bay and even saw some monkeys climbing around in the small forests of the limestone rocks. It was amazing! I did dragonboat for three years, so I love any chance to paddle. Kayaking definitely was a highlight as I was in the Bay, interacting with the Bay, and exploring nooks and crannies in the area. I was so close to the rocks, I even gently touched them!
Then, we went to Cát Bà island on a day to visit their small community and go biking on the island along its coasts and through the small jungles. I love biking on trails, it’s another way, like kayaking, where I feel as if I’m part of the environment in which I’m visiting. Travelling along, stopping when I want, and exploring first-hand. I truly feel alive in those moments. The community had its own protected organic gardening program to locally grow their own vegetables without pesticide. I thought that was fascinating! Locally sourced food is always healthier and it’s important for any community to be self-sustaining. We enjoyed the views from the boat, as well as venturing into one of the larger caves in Hạ Long Bay. It was certainly memorable and dreamlike. I am truly grateful.Back on the boat, we went squid fishing as well, but only saw small squids in the waters and we never caught one. I don’t know what I’d do if we caught one. Tentacles really scare me…
The bay, even though is a UNESCO heritage site, still needs to be protected. Along the shores, closer to where the boats dock before they embark, there is a lot of pollution. This damages the fragile limestones and the species that live in this amazing habitat. It’s easier to say it needs to be protected than to actually help and create a plan, I suppose, as pollution is often a result of many problems in a country. It’s always a complex situation, and the blame can’t be put on one thing or one county, it can often be a systemic problem. It’s not just this site though, in Australia the Great Barrier Reefs are dying, in Canada the Great Lakes need more protection as well. I just hope one day that we all will contribute to protecting our own communities as a start to one day keeping our whole planet clean and respected. Hopefully in the future, I can help with environmental policies or protection in order to keep our world a little greener. I want this Bay to last for future generations so others will be able to see and enjoy it as I did, and so grandchildren won’t need to ask “what happened? how could you let this happen?”. And to start to help, look in your own communities for sustainable initiatives to partake in! Or find a charity organization that you trust to donate to.
The trip to Việtnam sure was adventurous. Every single city we went to we met wonderful people, saw amazing sights, and ate delicious food. When you work so hard and want something so bad and then it finally comes true can lead to strange feelings. It’s odd but I still can’t believe that my dream has been achieved. That I’ve traveled to Việtnam, that my memories are real. That all that work was for this… Wow. But now that time has passed. It’s a mix of complicated emotions and even harder to explain, but overall I am truly grateful and happy. I am overjoyed that one of my dreams was accomplished. Best of all, I was able to go travel there with one of my best friends. Maybe one day I’ll be able to go back!