When Megan and I booked our road trip through the Balkans, I felt I was doing something unexpected. Who leaves their job and travels to the former Yugoslavia? I took pride in the notion that this area of the world is largely unexplored. However, it furthered my excitement by not truly knowing what our first few months were going to look like. I felt like an adventurer who took a leap of faith on six countries and found myself leaving them with a whole lot of knowledge, a sense of perspective, and a love for a region I will remember forever.
As we headed for our stint in Asia, I was a bit more apprehensive. Will I find something as special as I did in the Balkans? In a place that has been so well travelled, will I find my own experience and tap into the beauty that I’ve heard so much about? Everyone goes to Asia, what did you expect?
Our first month in Thailand was eye opening. I felt as I was pulled between two different worlds existing together; an age-old Thailand and another that wanted me to feel comfy as a traveller. We had an amazing month exploring Thailand and we pushed ourselves to find the root of why it is so special but I was still waiting for that “This is Asia” moment.
As our time in Thailand ended, I was anticipating our time in Vietnam to be very similar. I figured there would be the noticeable cultural differences, but the experience as an outsider would be relatively the same.
A month after we arrived in Vietnam, I am happy to say I am in love with this country. Vietnam has surprised me in so ways that I almost feel bad for doubting it. Please forgive me, Vietnam!
Knowing how much I loved it here, Megan asked me to recap my favorite memories during our time here. I had a hard time coming up with concrete examples of why I loved our time in Vietnam but here they are.
I present to you my 10 best experiences in Vietnam.
1. Motorbiking through the mountains in Sapa
Riding a motorbike will never get old. I know this as a fact.
We’ve ridden a fair amount of motorbikes during our time in SE Asia. Once we got the hang of it, we reveled in the freedom it provided us; to be able to hop off and hop on whenever we like to take pictures, eat food, grab a smoothie, etc. Throughout Thailand, we felt comfortable in the chaos of the city and along the long stretches of country roads.
My love for motorbikes was finally put to the test when we rented them for a day in Sapa. Sapa is located in northern Vietnam and is known for being a place where you can experience all four seasons in a single day. The weather can change on a dime and given the topography of the valley, you can experience winter on one side of a hill and summer on the other.
If you are wanting to experience more of the region, you have to either hike for hours, book a tour, or rent your own motorbikes. We opted for our preferred mode of transportation and set out one foggy and dismal morning with two pretty crappy motorbikes and a vague plan on where we were going. We took the main road west of Sapa in hopes of seeing the wondrous views of the rice fields the area is so well known for. What we were met with was fog.
As we drove, the fog thickened. As we wound through the mountain pass, there were times we couldn’t even see the cars and trucks in front of us. In addition, it was absolutely freezing. The wind swept across the across the road and there was absolutely no escape from it; our bodies huddled on our bikes as we began to curse our decision to leave our cozy hotel room for an “adventure” in the Sapa countryside.
“Should we just scrap it?” We kept asking each other. “Just a bit further to see if it lets up.” We would halfheartedly mutter under our frozen breath. After about 1.5 hours of hopeless frozen riding through twisting mountain roads, we noticed a slightly less grey patch of sky ahead of us and we decided to press on. What we were met with was this.
2. VR in Hanoi
What I love about traveling is the unexpected. After our arrival in Hanoi, we followed our routine of tracking down a nearby vegetarian restaurant and meandering our way while we take in the local sites. After our amazing meal at this 100% vegetarian restaurant (hard to find but a welcomed treat!), we walked passed an internet cafe called Neverland. Since gaming cafes are a very popular with the younger crowds here, they don’t typically stand out, however, there was something about this place that stood out to me. They were advertising that they stocked an Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
For those of you who don’t know (probably most, since I’m the gaming nerd) but these two devices have been recently released as the best and most cutting edge virtual reality devices on the market. I’ve read about them for a very long time and even daydreamed about purchasing one once I won the lottery.
However, I’ve never actually gotten my hands one.
Once I saw this sign on the outside of Neverland cafe, I knew I had to try it. I had convinced Megan that it was only a short experience (roughly 30 minutes), cost pretty cheap, and we could switch off in order to both experience it. We played two games, my favorite being one where you shoot arrows to defend your castle another where you fended off hordes of zombies. It’s difficult to explain, but what makes VR fun is you feel you are INthe world. Using the two handheld remotes, you notch the bow, pull back the arrow, and release. There is much more going on the screen (and your mind to make the environment to seem real) but the experience is unlike anything I’ve had before. As words are seemingly failing me, here is a video of Megan defending herself against zombies.
Anyway, as we finished I simply thought, “I just experienced VR in a Hanoi gaming cafe.” And that’s why I love traveling.
3. Rice field hike in Sapa
Sapa is nestled in the northernmost region of Vietnam, close to China. I knew very little about the region prior to us booking our stay there, but I was excited when I learned that Sapa hosts the idyllic rice field hills that I’ve long associated with Vietnam. Since our previous three weeks were spent in Hanoi and on a remote island, we were hankering for some hiking to balance out the thousands of mai tais and mojitos I had.
We strolled outside of town along the chaotic road filled with motorbikes and found a non descript dirt path. As we continued to walk, we passed numerous rice fields and the houses of the families that worked them. We often wondered if we were trespassing but were eased by the friendly smiles and waves from the farmers as we tip toed passed their homes. As we hiked, we marvelled at the beauty of these hills that have been cultivated for hundreds of years. Animals of all kinds; pigs, chickens, waterbuffalo, ducks, dogs had all recently had babies which made the experience that much more adorable.
We had booked our stint in Sapa the last minute and were unaware we were visiting during the offseason. While this may have its disadvantages poorer weather, chillier etc. it proved to be ideal for hiking such a popular spot. We were completely alone. Not once did we intersect another tour, which added to the feeling that we were someplace special nobody from the outside has witnessed.
4. Ice Coffee and Banh Mi
I’m not a huge foodie. When I find something I like, I tend to stick with it until something better comes along. This led to several weeks where my main staple was a banh mi and an iced coffee. Banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich that traditionally holds meat pate, pork, vegetables, soy sauce, chili sauce, occasionally an egg and a few added garnishes in a mini baguet. Everyday we would search around for a stand that appeared to have large amounts of vegetables and eggs so our bahn mi’s weren’t just bread and soy sauce. Once we selected our stand, I would casually and in a non threatening manner, step behind the stand and direct which foods I wanted on my sandwich. Each stand owner responded differently to my act of sharades and basic english commands but the women tended to laugh it off and roll with it.
Ordering coffee was lesser of an ordeal once we learned the proper way to say ice-coffee-milk. This small but delectable drink is consumed on a daily basis.
5. Floating markets in Can Tho
There are two main markets you can visit near Can Tho and we settled on one that was a bit closer and knew nothing about. All of us had heard this was a great way to spend your time here but we had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had imagined hundreds of little boats tied together selling manufactured goods to tourists that have come to visit. I left that in my mind and decided to not look into it further.
We asked our airbnb host the best way to get to the floating market in Cai Rang and she nonchalantly said she would call us a cab for 4:30am, which is when the vendors begin their day. Since we all wanted a bit more shut-eye, we settled on 6:00am. There were many boat operators welcoming us when we arrived at the pier and given the early hour, none of us tried to haggle or compare prices. We arrived in our taxi and were moving up the river within roughly 3-5 minutes.
The river itself is quite disgusting but the activity on the water is something to marvel at. As we arrived to the market, a small boat approached ours and the vendor yelled, “Ca Phe? Ca Phe?” Our half awake selves treated this man as our savior and ordered four delicious Vietnamese iced-coffees.
Our driver then slowly drove us around the different boats and we simply watched humbled as vendors approached each other, kindly shared words, and begun exchanging goods. The beauty of it was that they all went about their business as if we weren’t even there. This was a market for them and not for us. We just had the simple joy of watching all of this happen while we sipped on (several) iced-coffees and munched on pineapple.
6. Island hopping off of Phu Quoc
With Dan visiting us when he turned 30, we wanted to book something special that would allow us to see the beauty surrounding Phu Quoc. We found a highly rated, expat run tour company called Jerry’s Jungle Tours and decided to book through them. Due to an unfortunate case of food poisoning, the birthday boy was forced to stay home in bed while the three of us ventured out with Jerry.
We left our hotel at 8:00 in the morning and drove to the southern tip of the island where Jerry had his boat captain waiting. We boarded a small, nine meter boat and set off into choppy waters to our first destination on the third island from Phu Quoc called Hon Thom. We pulled up to Paradise on Earth and Jerry ordered three coconuts for us to sip on while we pinched ourselves.
The entire day was filled with smaller islands where we swam, snorkeled, drank cold beer, and we even enjoyed our lunch in a locals home as we waited out a torrential downpour. Our tour guide Jerry was also half the fun of the day. He told us his life story of how he ended up on Phu Quoc and pioneered tourism on the island. He was open to any and all questions as we berrated him with inquiries about the locals, life in Vietnam, his favorite hidden spots, and everything inbetween. As the day came to a close we were exhausted, our faces were sunburnt and our lips were salty. We took in so much beauty above and below the water that we all slept soundly and dreamt of paradise.
7. Riding motorbikes on Phu Quoc
This memory is simple. There is absolutely nothing more enjoyable than exploring an island on a bike with your wife and two best friends. Nothing.
8. Walking around Hanoi
We arrived in Hanoi after a very long day of traveling from Thailand and we were welcomed by chaos. It’s hard to convey the reality but imagine the busiest intersection of motorbikes, cars, buses and trucks, and then take away every traffic law that exists.
During our trip from the Airport to our Airbnb, I quickly learned that very few rules apply here. The traffic lights are completely ignored, many drive onto oncoming traffic, pedestrians dip and dive in a realistic version of Frogger, sidewalks are used as alternative routes, and everyone uses their horn. EVERYONE. In addition to the traffic, alleyways and sidewalks are flooded with locals dining, drinking tea, socializing, buying goods, tending to chickens, and simply living their lives as Vietnamese.
9. Markets in HCMC
I have a love/hate relationship with markets. I love the energy they exude accompanied by the feeling of finding a gem but I often hate how utterly exhausted I feel after a short period of time. With that said, if there is a market that is a must see, like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I will suck it up and drink lots of coffee.
Our friends had just arrived in HCMC and the next morning Christie, Meg and I took a cab to see the Ben Thanh market. When we arrived, we loaded up on fruit and headed into the main market to peruse the shops. I tend to go to markets to simply look, but on this day I wanted to see if they sold this Chinese chess set I’ve seen the local Vietnamese men play everywhere. I found an empty storefront and walked in to take a gander. I was immediately targeted and approached by the female shopkeep. I told her what I was looking for and she eagerly showed me her stock of Xian Gqi (the game). She set the price ridiculously high and I calculated in my head the conversion to USD. I hadn’t intended to barter with the women but five minutes later, I had talked down the price and walked away with the set at 65% off. She didn’t seem too happy with my resilience to her counteroffers, but I shrugged her attitude off and we left to explore more of the market. We were quickly exhausted and decided to grab beers and chat. My love for markets grew a little bit.
10. Our Final Sunset
Megan and I were giddy with anticipation of Dan and Christie’s arrival. We had a miraculous week of catching up, exploring, and experiencing Vietnam together and before we knew it, it was over. On our final evening together, we rode our motorbikes to one of Jerry’s special spots and grabbed two lounge chairs along the waters edge. As the sun began to fall, we had intimate conversations about life, friendship, and traveling as we cheered often to simply acknowledge the once-in-a-lifetime week we had together.
I sometimes don’t realize how lucky I am to have friends like Christie and Dan. The four of us share a mutual love of life and I feel blessed to be able to explore the world with them. As always, we talked until well after the sun went down before we decided to head back to our hotel. You often don’t realize when you are in a moment that you will hold it closely in your heart forever but as we rode on our motorbikes in the darkness, I knew I just had one of those moments.