It was a relatively smooth ride to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) from Phom Penh with a $5 bribe to get into a country a day earlier than our visas said. Once we arrived we hopped on the back of our first motorcycles to get to our couchsurfing host's apartment. Our drivers got a little lost, but Trang and her room mates were very excited to see us and made us an amazing home cooked dinner while we rested (we were constantly being asked if we were tired or needed to rest... they really thought we were quite helpless).
For breakfast the next morning we went out for pho (a noodle soup) and Vietnamese coffee. Then Trang and her friend took us by motorcycle to HCMC's Notre Dame, the post office (it is quite an attraction here), and the War Remnants Museum. The War Museum is probably one of the most unpleasant places for an American to go. The first floor was an exhibit of all the countries around the world protesting the US to pull out of Vietnam. Other parts were many painful photos of war, data on the destruction, pictures of the effects of Agent Orange, and quotes calling the war a genocide and parts of the Declaration of Independence. Outside the museum was a small section illustrating the prisons and types of torture captured Vietnamese received. Although the museum was clearly biased, it was difficult staying proud of my country with something like this in its past and the fact that we clearly haven't learned from it. After that sobering experience, our couchsurfing hosts took us to a vegetarian restaurant (it was very puzzling to them that we were vegetarians even though we weren't religious). Here we got the opportunity to hear about how these Vietnamese students did not particularly like their government. The country is far from the communist state they fought for, but more of a one party system where the voice of the people is not heard. They were hopeful that the youth of today will bring change though.
We went to a pagoda across the street where they left us since they really don't like the rain (or the sun for that matter. Women are obsessed with covering up there skin to not get a tan or freckles and using whitening products). Ashley and I walked to the Independence Palace which used to be South Vietnam's headquarters during the war and the residence of the president. We then strolled through the central market with more aggressive vendors before meeting our host's friend to go to another home cooked dinner.
The next day we took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels where many Vietcong soldiers hid and fought from underground. While it was very interesting to see how they made their life underground, we also had to see all the terrifying traps they used on American soldiers. Afterwards we took a long bus up to Dalat. Although we were excited to be in beds again (our hosts in HCMC sleep on mats, I think they are made of steel), our hostel overbooked and made us move to a crumby room at 1 in the morning. Dalat, usually a vacation spot for Vietnamese, would have been much nicer if it hadn't rained the whole day. We walked around another market and went to the Crazy House which is part tourist attraction part hotel built in a style similar to Gaudi. Since we were short on time we hopped on another bus to Nha Trang.
Nha Trang is THE Russian vacation spot as well as a great place for beaches. All of the signs are in Russian and Vietnamese. There we took a snorkeling excursion and saw some incredible fish and coral. It wasn't as colorful as I hoped, but I'm blaming a combination of all the diesel in the water and global warming. Instead of showering we headed to Nha Trang's mud baths and mineral baths. We shared our mud bath with 3 Asian women who spoke no English but got a picture with us and thought it was hilarious how tall we were. From Nha Trang we took our first sleeper bus to Hoi An (11 hours away). Sleeper buses are unlike anything in the US. There are 3 rows of bunk beds with beds that don't quite recline all the way and were just long enough to fit me at 5'6, plus people sitting on the floor. What an experience! We made it to Hoi An in one piece except as we were checking into our Hotel/Villa we realized the hostel in Nha Trang never gave us our passports back. Since mail here isn't exactly reliable our passports had to be taken on the next sleeper bus to Hoi An. The wait was terrifying, but they arrived. RELIEF.
Hoi An used to be a big port town for Chinese and Japanese traders so we spent a lot of time wandering the old town which was preserved very beautifully and had a lot to offer for shopping. The next day we took advantage of Hoi An's beach. Ashley rode on the back of my bike while we enjoyed the water, drinks out of coconuts, and some of Hoi An's specialties like White Rose, fried wonton, and Cao Lao. After the beach we went back into town and got a cooking class (or really a demo since since our instructor was a little impatient). We finished our night with Dalat wine and watching ridiculous shows like The Voice in Vietnamese and Animal Planet's cat whisperer.
The next morning we opted for a 1 hour flight instead of a 20 hour bus ride to Hanoi. Hanoi was very hot and humid so we made our way to the air conditioned women's museum. Vietnam isn't particularly creative with their museums opting mostly for dry captions, pictures, and a few artifacts and displays. From the women's museum we walked to the prison museum also known as the Hanoi Hilton. Originally the prison was used by the French to jail Vietnamese revolutionaries which is the majority of the exhibits. The last 2 rooms displayed how the prison was used for American POWs which included John McCain's uniform and pictures of prisoners enjoying recreation time playing basketball and celebrating Christmas... this was also fairly biased. Finally we headed to the night market which full of a lot of junk, but we had an awesome hot pot dinner and hid out from the rain for a couple of hours.
The rain just didn't seem to stop after that. We were picked up in the AM by bus that took us to a boat where we would be spending the night in Halong Bay (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The bay was covered in hundreds of giant limestone rock formations and we stopped at one to explore its caves, another to go on a small trek, and finally a floating village to go kayaking. Back on the boat we had dinner (you know it was a tourist trip when the majority of the food was fried, they served french fries, and forks instead of chopsticks). Following dinner, our guide desperately tried to get us to do karaoke which is huge all over this part of Asia... it did not go so well.
In the morning we were taken to Cat Ba Island where we trekked to the top of the mountain in the rain for some cloudy but lovely views. We then had lunch before we were taken by another boat to our own private beach and bungalow for more swim time, dancing with crazy Brits, and dinner. Our last day was one long day of many boats and buses (one of them broke down temporarily) back to Hanoi. Once back our new American friend (one of the few we met) showed us a spectacular vegetarian restaurant. That evening we met up with Chi, an international student that goes to Clark from Hanoi! She showed us around her city, used her excellent bargaining skills, and treated us to ice cream. It was great to see her in her own element especially since I remember first taking her around Clark when I was her Peer Advisor.
On our last day, we found another vegetarian restaurant (it was called the Loving Hut which they also have in Worcester!) on our way to Ho Chi Minh's complex which included where he worked and lived. Unfortunately we missed out, on seeing Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body since its only open 3 hours a day (the Vietnamese really love their former Communist leader). Afterwards we got pretty lost, until we finally found our way back and got super cheap manicure/pedicures (well they tried to overcharge us and we got cursed at in Vietnamese... eek.) For our last dinner together, we went to the Hanoi Social Club, a cafe/restaurant that were huge promoters of Vietnam Gay Pride which was very exciting. So we stayed awhile to enjoy cocktails and board games (they had a game called the game of charity with the object being to give away all of your money haha). Aside from reading about the exotic foods on the menu like pigeon, every animal part you can think of, cats, and dogs, we were content with our vegetarian selections.
On our last morning together, Ashley and I got our last amazing Vietnamese coffee (they're so strong and perfect with some condensed milk). I am so unbelievably grateful to have found a best friend that I can spend 4 weeks 24/7 with and come out of the experience closer than ever. Parting was definitely not as easy as I left for my flight to Kuala Lumpur.
It was about a 3 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur where I had a 6 hour layover. Just enough time to get a taste for the city. They have an express train that goes directly from the airport through a lot of plantations to the center of the city. I walked through Chinatown's night market (a lot of fake stuff and more of the same). The highlight of that was getting to finally try a Dr. Fish pedicure where lots of fish supposedly nibble off the dead skin on your feet and make them smoother. I don't know if it worked, but it felt so odd. Afterwards, I took the metro to see the Petronas Towers which are the tallest twin towers in the world and quite impressive. Finally I got some street food for dinner and prepared myself for a 13 hour flight back to Holland. Here I am for the next week, enjoying being back biking and finally enjoying some Dutch sun. It's hard to believe in 1 week my 8 month adventure abroad will be coming to a close...
For pictures of Cambodia and Vietnam go here!