Vietnam was the country that offered me probably the craziest two weeks of my entire trip, the good and the bad and the beautiful and the ugly. It’s not the easiest country to write about and I could just put some photographs here but no, Vietnam’s worth more.
Coming to Hanoi was an experience. It was late and after my taxi driver’s efforts to bullshit me like double the prize from the airport and after having a terrible argument with him (and winning, hah) I made it to my hostel but I already got a bad vibe about the city. To put this really short, I just didn’t learn to like it and I tried. It was too noisy, chaotic, big and, at least while I was there really polluted which just made everything look really grey. It’s famous for its traffic and for a reason, crossing the road became an art form where you basically just don’t wait, walk slowly and most importantly, in any circumstances don’t stop walking. I hated walking on the streets or what was left of them from being just parking areas for motorbikes and looking like I do (woman and very Scandinavian) and being alone I just attracted a lot more attention than what was comfortable. Not that I would have ever felt unsafe, absolutely not, most people were just really curious and friendly but I just don’t like feeling like a circus animal which I often felt. In Hanoi I got my first proper meltdown: what the fuck am I doing here and why am I alone and why do I dislike this so much? Looking back, I wouldn’t change Hanoi though because it taught me a lot. How do other factors influence your liking/disliking a place? What if I had had a friend? Or known a local? Or stayed in a different place? Or come there as the last place on my trip? It would have been a different place really, better or worse, I don’t know. Uncomfortability pushes you and toughens you and I think I handled places a bit like Hanoi much better later on on my trip.
Anyway, my attitude is that you cannot like everything and if I don’t, I change it. Enter Halong Bay. Many Halong Bay cruises are notorious for being full of scams, especially the cheapest ones, and I had heard my fair share of horror stories of rats, unusable toilets, boats that weren’t even there etc etc. I had also heard that it has become so popular that more often than not you see more of other cruise boats than actual landscape. So again, I thought I’d do some research and I found this eco tourism company called Ethnic Travel and booked a trip with them to Halong Bay. Since it was the low season, there were only four guests with me on the boat. Then we had maybe a 4 person crew plus our super cool guide. Eveyone kind of got to know each other and it reminded me a bit of those cool school trips overnight somewhere. I’m so glad I spent a tiny bit more money and went with this one, it goes to the area where there isn’t that many other boats, in our case, no one.
The boat was somehow so cosy and there were so few of us that every once in a while I could have the whole upper deck to myself where I could just lay and listen to the sea. Everyone on the boat was so nice and the food was the best I got in Vietnam. And our guide was very young and spoke good English so we chatted with him about everything from Vietnam’s politics to whether young Vietnamese use tinder or not. And the absolute silence and tranquility felt so good and needed at that point of the trip. Since it was the low season the weather isn’t often sunny and it was pretty cloudy and chilly, but I didn’t really care that much, the experience was still so mindblowing since Halong Bay has been a dream of mine a long time. It feels like out of this world, not an actual place. It feels good to get out of this world every once in a while.
From Hanoi I caught a night train to Hué, the old imperial capital of Vietnam. I stressed about the night train probably more than I had about anything during my trip that far. I had heard that it could be good or then it could be bad, but I guess I was just nervous since I was going alone. I had booked the most comfortable sleeping option from the train, which in this case meant the tiniest cabin I had ever seen with two bunk beds. But it was clean, had a mattress on the bed and even had a window so I was happy. This is where being small really comes in handy, the bed was actually comfortable enough. Being the bad sleeper I am, I had put two hours of sleep as my goal. With me on the cabin were a Vietnamese mom and her adult daughter who spoke maybe two words of English, just enough to ask me where I’m from, but by the looks on their faces they probably hadn’t heard of a place called Finland before. But they gave me gum which I took as a friendly gesture and thought they were reliable enough to sleep with my backpack under my bed. To my great surprise, I slept well. I woke up at maybe 8 and the Vietnamese women had gone and there was a new person, who turned out to be a young Vietnamese doctor who was really friendly and curious as to where I came from and my travels. ”You are very brave” he said to me when I said I’m traveling alone. ”But also mad, mad girl”, he added and I just laughed.
When I got to Hué after a good 13 hours of travel or something, it was pouring. Like bad. The whole town was so wet and grey and the river running through looked yellowish and everything was so foggy, it looked almost like the end of the world. You can do some trips from Hué to for example the old DMZ zones but the weather was so crappy I thought I’d leave the next day down to Hoi An which I had heard only good of. In Hué I just decided to ignore the rain and went to see the Imperial Citadel which is pretty impressive, and it had a different feeling to it when I went around closing time. After heavy rain it was almost empty and a nice place to wander in.
I went to Hoi An with an Australian guy I met in Hué. We rented a motorbike and sent our bags in a van (magically they actually made it there) and drove this famous route along Vietnam’s coast to Hoi An. It was super rainy, again, but it’s still a trip worth taking if you ever should find yourself in the middle part of Vietnam.
They say Hoi An is the most beautiful town in Vietnam and I could not agree more. Its old town is marked by Unesco and while it hasn’t got many attractions the town itself is what people come to see. It’s surrounded by countryside and there’s also a beach nearby so it feels so different than a lot of the chaos elsewhere in Vietnam. The old town is mainly lit by lanterns and that’s what it’s famous for and walking there at night time is just really breathtaking. It will be hard for you not to like Hoi An or stay longer than you expected and it definitely became my favorite place in Vietnam.
For Christmas I flew to Ho Chi Minh City to the south, to see my good friend who was there on a holiday. People have so mixed opinions on whether Hanoi or HCM is nicer and I liked HCM more. Again, having a friend there could have something to do with this but it is more organised and maybe more like a big city I was used to. Christmas was the weirdest I’ve seen. It obviously isn’t a traditional holiday there so everything they did was to attract western tourists which was just at least for us the funniest thing to watch. Pink reindeer decorations, doormen dressed as Santa Clauses and Vietnamese remixes of traditional Christmas songs were just ridicilous but gave us so many laughs. I also swear if I had heard All I Want For Christmas Is You one more time (19th time, I counted) I would have gone crazy. We visited the war museum which is really really interesting especially if you’re into military history like we both are, and just walked around in the centre. I also crashed my friend’s nice hotel’s rooftop pool way too many times.
I had 15 visa free days in Vietnam but it wasn’t enough to even properly start to understand the country. It’s so old and new and very poor and very rich and you can see so many contradictions every day. The contrast between the cities and the countryside is probably the most striking I’ve ever seen. It felt like it’s really hard trying to keep its traditions and yet at the same time constantly move forward and be modern, and for me, it felt like the pace of that sometimes seems to be a bit too fast.
Vietnam threw pretty much everything it had at me and never have I had such a wide range of reactions to a place than there. 15 days, going from the north to the south, felt like seeing nothing. Towards the end I started to realize that the country had countless layers and I had only unveiled one thin one. For me, it was a place that needs your time to be understood and I didn’t have enough and now I just hope I can return one day with nothing but time in my hands.
I had both my most challenging and uncomfortable moments on my trip in Vietnam, but also the ones where either the stunning scenery or nice people were just so disarming you could not help but love them. Sitting on a kayak in Halong Bay, almost getting run over by a water buffalo in Mai Chau (yes it happened), spending Christmas Eve on a rooftop while watching the quiet chaos below in HCM and getting lost in the tiny alleys in Hoi An are moments that didn’t belong to any travel itinerary I had and now are something I will never forget. And once you realise the worth of those kind of moments I believe you can reach a whole other dimension of happiness.