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Backpacking the Skinny Country

“Diverse, beautiful and affordable, the skinny country is every budget backpackers dream.”

A shirt, damp with sweat, clinging to my back. A cacophony of motorbikes roaring past me. Hot, fragrant soups eaten at tiny plastic tables on the sidewalk. Towering neon buildings, lighting up the tropical night sky.

When I think of Vietnam, the rush of such vivid memories stuns me.  It is a place to intoxicate the senses: heat is hotter, sounds and smells are more assaulting, the food explodes with flavours you never knew existed, and your eyes are constantly challenged by what are daily normalities in this electrifying country (think a man transporting over fifty chickens on a tiny scooter). It alters your perception through its extremities.

Diverse, beautiful and affordable, the skinny country is every budget backpackers dream. One can start the journey in the country’s capital, Hanoi. Steeped in history and communism, Hanoi is a great place to become acquainted with Vietnam and its people. I loved getting lost in the city’s Old Quarter, with its crumbling French colonial buildings and morning hubbub of squawking chickens and grumpy coffee vendors. The quiet hush of the Temple of Literature took me by surprise, and driving past Turtle Lake in the cooled evening air was a tremendous break from the dry heat of the day.

HCMC back street

A terrifying night bus drive away from Hanoi is the mountainous area of Sa Pa. A tumbling collection of valleys and peaks, it is lush and green and cool – a stark, sensational contrast to the vibrant city life of the capital. Here you can hike with one of the locals to their tribal village and embark on a homestay – essentially, as a fellow hiker aptly put it, where you pay to live like a hobo for one night. A very happy hobo, nonetheless. Nothing could be sweeter after a seven-hour hike than a laugh over a traditional meal with new friends in a rustic homestead, as the sun sinks behind magnificent mountains and rice fields.

Sa Pa hike

A few hours East of Hanoi is what is possibly Vietnam’s most famous attraction: Ha Long Bay. Named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, this overcrowded bay is littered with strange, towering rock formations rising from the blue waters and, sadly, many, many tourist boats. These boats, named junks, are the only way of seeing the beautiful emerald rock formations. I had heard horror stories of ships riddled with rats, or guides who overcharged for every bit of information they offered, and was thus reluctant to visit the site at all. However, thanks to some solid research on Trip Advisor, I struck gold with my junk of choice: Vega Travel. Our guide, Duc, was hilarious and knowledgeable, our cabins were simple and classy, and the sight of Ha Long Bay at sunset, its emerald columns drenched red in fading light, was worth every single penny.

 

Ha Long Bay Junk

Hue offers a noteworthy dip in to Vietnam’s imperial history. The palace was sadly mostly destroyed during the American war. What has been rescued, however, is beautiful. Onwards to Hoi An, the jewel in Vietnam’s crown, the stuff of Oriental dreams! As if by some kind of time warp, the UNESCO world heritage site is largely unchanged from its original form– no Maccy D’s here! Instead, there are beautiful wooden homes with lanterns gently swaying from balconies. Temples billow out incense in to the midday heat, and at night the still river is glittered with colourful candles. Hoi An is also famous for its multiple tailors and excellent regional food, and it is worthwhile getting something tailor-made or attending a cooking course during your stay there.

 

Hoi An Market

I briefly saw the white beach of Nha Trang, filled with topless Russian tourists and bright pink lilos. The bus to Da Lat was delayed, and (when it eventually came) wound slowly up in to the misty, cool hilltop town that once used to be a favourite summer hideaway for the French colonists based in Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon). Some of the old mansions remain, and glare out from various points like sad old men. Mostly, however, they are abandoned, and Da Lat had the impression of a once grand holiday spot that now exists solely because of its coffee plantations. At least it is cool – my scorched skin could scarcely accept the sensation.

HCMC post office

The bus ride down to Ho Chi Minh City is short enough, and dumps you on to the frenetic backpacker street of Bui Vien. There is that heat, that humidity, that damp t-shirt clinging to my back once again. There is that manic rush of motorbikes, that constant crush of people. Back once more in the city of heaving food markets, dirty rivers, out of place colonial hotels alongside aluminium skyscrapers and balmy rooftop bars. Even now, my emotions towards Saigon mingle and falter – it is hard to love for its gaudiness, its extremity, its overwhelming mix of sensations. But, then again, it is hard not to love for all these very same reasons.

HCMC street food two

 

Did I dream it all, those hot few months spent living in and traversing the diverse country that intoxicated and altered my senses? There is only one way to find out. Vietnam, I will be back.

Hanoi Hoan Kiem Lake

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
  • Most businesses, hotels, taxi’s only accept cash. The local currency is the Vietnamese đồng (I know, I know, it sounds like a hilarious word, I can hear your sniggers from here), make sure you have some ready upon arrival.
  • Taxi’s in Vietnam are notorious for ripping off unsuspecting travellers. I would recommend only using My Linh or Vina Sun taxi’s (you can spot them easily by their green and white branding). These are both reputed companies with meters; meaning you will get to where you want to go within a reasonable price range and, most importantly, safely.
  • Motorbike taxi’s are called xe ôm’s (pronounced “say ohm”), and are useful for solo travellers or for navigating crazy traffic in a flash. Always barter for a reasonable price, but I would not advise taking one after dark, as unfortunate motorbike accidents are most likely to happen then.
  • Before travelling to any country, it is always useful to know a bit of the local tongue. Vietnamese is a tonal language, which means it is pretty challenging for the Anglophone to master. However, here are a few words that might make you far more endearing to the locals:

Xin chào (“sin chow”): hello

Cảm ơn (“gam oon”): thank you

Bao nhiêu (“bow new”): how much?

Xin lỗi (“sin loy”): sorry

  • Street food in Vietnam is delicious, and you would truly do yourself a disservice if you avoided it for fear of contracting some violent stomach bug, or of consuming mystery meat. Most street vendors make one dish only, and are sold out by midday everyday. This means that whatever they sell is always fresh, and always expertly prepared. Not to be missed is phó, a fragrant chicken noodle soup, banh mí, baguettes stuffed with pickled vegetables, chilli and barbequed pork, and, my best, bún thịt nướng – a delicious noodle dish with caramelised pork, fresh herbs and peanuts.
  • The water in Vietnam will, however, make you very, very sick. Best to stick with bottled water.

Anna Van Dyk

Anna van Dyk is a freelance writer and photographer from South Africa. After a sojourn in Vietnam, she moved to Edinburgh where she completed a Masters degree in modern literature, with a focus on travel writing. Asia continues to have a firm hold over her imagination and she hopes to explore more of the big continent in the near future.

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