Sapa to Saigon: Solo-traveling the length of Vietnam. Part I: Hanoi

5:46 AM Jessica Montgomery 0 Comments

     The flight from Phnom Penh to Hanoi was a deep breath peppered with the familiar excitement of traveling alone. I've traveled alone twice before in Japan, but I knew that Vietnam was going to be a very different animal. But, just as I was being swept up in the mild grief of losing my travel partner and letting my mind wander to romanticize a wild Vietnam, a group of younger-than-I "travelers" sat down behind me. I eavesdropped on how wasted Julian got last night and how they almost missed the flight.  They were loud, coming down, and I begged them to be Canadian. I was slightly annoyed, but just as quick, my spite turned into unforeseen admiration. "We're not traveling.", one of the girls blurted, "We're on vacation!" They laughed. And I laughed with them to myself. "Dude. I know. This is fucking easy.", maybe it was Julian who replied(?).  But, it is. It is easy. I admired their honesty as it blew the smoke off of my own illusion. I, like countless others, expected to chase this travel dream to enlightenment. There is no doubt that travel is still an invaluable tool to learn, expand the mind, and become more worldly and self-aware... I have learned lessons about myself and other on the road that I challenge any classroom to teach. But.  It's easy to romanticize. It's easy to glorify to some extent. The fallacy of 'roughing it', only to return back to our warm, coddled, existence, clad in Cambodian made sportswear was unravelling just as quick. Travel, in many cases, is relatively easy and 'seeking out' the exotic, in many ways, is an illusion. Romanticizing a destination is the quickest route to being pick-pocketed.
Their Sophomore banter, and curtains-drawn open outlook, on this flight over was a palette cleansing reminder. The tourist is catered to unlike any time before us and to deny this is just plain silly. But, of course, these are real places. With real problems. Your guard must be kept up just as much as your sightseeing eyes are open. I've learned to evolve both. The bangles dangling around my ankles represented true, personal experiences and a newfound ignorance. Not a totem of new worth or enlightenment.

     I departed the plane and joined the cue for my visa-upon-arrival. I fidgeted with my passport.
"Don't worry,", a guy in front of me turned to say, "you have an American passport. They're not going to mess with you again."
"Again?", I asked. I was a bit startled and already had my solo-travel wall up.
"You know, the Vietnam War! They won't mess with us again! Ha!", he laughed and made a bomb dropping noise. I blurted out a combination of Ohhh GAWD! and sigh. I threw him a revolted look out of instinct and went back to busily thumbing through my passport.


     I arrived at my hostel and climbed into my top bunk. I was feeling exhausted. And this exhaustion quickly turned into some sort of stomach flu. I was in that top bunk for the better part of two days. (I guess Cambodia hates me for leaving! I ended up in the hospital the last time I left Cambodia.)
I had no appetite, which in itself was depressing because Vietnamese food is incredible and incredibly cheap. So, with what little energy I had, I forced myself to at least walk the streets a bit.

     I walked to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and encountered festive preparations for Hanoi's 60th anniversary of independence from France. Hoan Kiem lake was lined with locals, dressed in their best, taking photos next to flowered wreathes and banners. Even though I myself knew little about the country, I couldn't help but feel warmed by the sense of national pride. Perhaps it's the American in me (wink). I walked around the lake and was greeted by swarms of flowers and vines reflecting in the lake's water. I crossed the bridge and noticed some lore iconography carved into it's side. Swords and turtles depicted the creation of Hoan Kiem Lake and the "creation" of the Vietnamese people. Legend has it that the Vietnamese are descendants of a Dragon and a Fairy. I live for details and "clues" like these.

     There was to be a huge fireworks display on the lake that night and my hostel invited me to tag along with them. Apparently all of Hanoi was going to be there. I did my best to save my energy to go, but ended up cuddling up with a bottle of water in bed instead. The fireworks went off around 10pm and each blast resonated through my cement dorm room, punching my already delicate stomach.

Hanoi at night.

     My appetite was gone. And, in a city of street food: That is hell. Smells, not all good, attacked me from every angle. I decided, post bathroom battle, that I could go for some mild fruit. Ah, yes. Fruit. I think I can eat that? I walked down the street and found a sweet older lady selling some melons and grapes off the handles of her bike. She spoke zero English, and I spoke zero Vietnamese, so our exchange was very difficult. She held up her fingers to tell me how much and I responded with a bill. She shook her head, smiled, and held up her fingers again. I blushed and remembered that not all hand signals are universal. In China, if you hold up a fist that means the number 10. (It also didn't help that Vietnamese currency denominations are in the hundreds of thousands!) I offered another bill and she shook her head again and smiled. Both of us didn't even bother with spoken language because we knew that was in vain. Another bill. Another smile. Finally she went into her purse and showed me which bill she wanted. I ended up with a bag of grapes and a pomelo (though I didn't know it was a pomelo at the time). She was so sweet that I asked to take her photo. She seemed shocked and excited and immediately swept off her palm-leaf hat, brushed back her hair, and smiled proudly. Fruit success.
[That pomelo ended up traveling with me to Sapa because I couldn't make myself eat it. I named it Wilson since we shared a mini-adventure together.]

     A few days later I was well enough to go on the crown jewel tour of Vietnam: Ha Long Bay. I was picked up in a van in the early morning, like many tours before, and was taxied around the city to pick up others at other hostels. I got a nice little roundabout tour of the city and watched as shop keepers set up their stalls in the early AM. Hanoi is beautiful. And I quickly realized that two weeks wouldn't be enough time to do all of Vietnam, let alone Hanoi. I wasted two days already!
Tropical trees sprouting out of cracks in old balconies in the city centre, old men smoking out of what looked to be an actual pipe (as in, plumbing), and the French-Indochine architecture was enough to keep me enthused for weeks.
Our guide's name was Tom, but in Vietnamese his name meant "snail". It's common in Vietnamese culture to give babies an "ugly" name when born and to later change it once they're an adult. Why? Because of high infant mortality rates. An ugly name is given in hopes that the gods will pass over their child and not "take" them: AKA, let them live. Morbid, yet interesting. Tom was a pretty decent guide and made our bus introduce ourselves one by one. Through this, I found three other people who were also expats in Korea: An army couple on vacation and Charlie, a British girl whose father runs a non-profit, bomb-disposal, organization. He was just in Papua New Guinea disarming sunken WWII bomber planes that had crashed off one of the island's coast. Amazing. In true backpacker fashion, all four of us joined together once on the boat bound for the bay.

     Thoughts on Ha Long Bay: Unmistakably beautiful and mysterious. But. I wasn't as awe-inspired and blown away as I'd imagined I would be. My life wasn't changed. And I didn't have a moment of zen or "I've made it!"-relief. Perhaps it was because the view was mottled with cruise liners and my stomach was just getting used to having things in it again. Either way, I was looking but I wasn't feeling.
     It did though, install a new sense of fun and adventure in me. I wanted to climb that. I wanted to jump off there. I wanted to swim out to it. And that's how the day proceeded. My group of "Korea friends" and I partnered up in kayaks and made our way through a smaller part of the bay. We tunneled through caves and saw beaches that can only be seen from inside the rocks themselves. We marveled at abandoned fishing boats and spotted jellyfish blubbering about our kayak. Overall it was a great experience. I'm not going to go all Anthony Bourdain on you and tell you to skip it. No. Just expect it to feel like a packaged tour and make the most of it. Talk to the guide, enjoy the food, and realize that this is how it is.

Ha Long Bay. Check.

     The next day in Hanoi was the last before I headed up North to Sapa. My body was back and I got up early to make the most of it. I walked through side streets to the Temple of Literature. This walk alone instilled in me the need to return to Hanoi. It's winding streets, it's yellow stucco, sidewalks lined with coffee shops and restaurants and their patrons sitting on the ground outside enjoying their meals. I even enjoyed the streets zinging with motorbikes. Building up the courage to walk through them flying by at furious rate is a travel badge of honor. Hanoi was alive. Wild vines growing and pushing through the cracks of buildings echoed this heart.
     I finally was able to enjoy my first sidewalk pho and have missed it since. Succulently seasoned broth with fresh chilies and cilantro prepared communally in a big, outdoor, pot by an elderly woman on her cellphone. She could do this in her sleep. Maybe she has? I sat (err squated rather) on the street and enjoyed every last peppery spoonful. I was also able to finally enjoy my first of many Vietnamese coffees. Dark and rich, this coffee is unlike any I've ever had. Get to the bottom of the dark abyss, and you're greeted with a thick, viscous, dose of condensed milk. And I thought Korea loved their sweets.

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     That night I boarded my first night bus in Vietnam. It was an eight hour bus ride to Sapa so I curled up in my mini-sleeper seat, put my headphones in, and buried my head in my hood. This bus was very unlike any of our Cambodian buses. This bus was new, air conditioned, and %100 full of young tourists like myself. We were even given bottled water.

     I was unsure of what to expect in Sapa. It was a last minute travel choice honestly. I usually like to plan far ahead, but this decision may change that bug in me forever. Sapa was, and continues to be, one of the most incredible travel destinations I've ever been to.

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