(Note: this post was written over a series of days, hence why at the beginning I'm writing from Hoi An and by the end I'm writing from Sapa)
We've just arrived in Hoi An, Vietnam, after 20 hours of travel via train and bus, and I can't explain my relief to finally be out of the busy city life. But first, we should rewind and pick up where we left off - leaving Bali.
On December 1st we were up early, despite our flight not leaving until 2:30pm, we wanted to be at the airport with plenty of time to deal with any crowds that may have accumulated over the previous days with the airport closures and thousands stranded on the island.
Surprisingly, though, we encountered few problems; breezing through security, checking in, and making it to our gate in no time! So I give the airport a huge amount of credit and appreciation for handling a difficult situation efficiently and effectively! With that being said, and while we were lucky to have experienced no problems, we know that many travellers just like us were not so lucky. However, as I said on Facebook, while we arrived at the airport and were able to leave, we must remember that we are lucky to have the option to do so. Many of the locals living near Mount Agung have been out of their homes for months now, living in shelters (literally poles and tarps or a close equivalent) and without their basic comforts. So it would be hard to complain about any "inconveniences" that we could have faced, should the situation have unfolded any differently.
After landing in Singapore we caught the shuttle into the city and arrived at our hostel just as the sun was setting. As we made our way through Chinatown (where our hostel was), our bellies rumbling fiercely with each step, we saw a big sign that said "DIM SUM" - uh let me think about that for not even a millisecond - HELL YES (if ONLY we had read the fine print *from 11am-2pm). We barged our way in there like a SWAT team looking for a prison escapee and were promptly sat among large tables of Chinese families, standing out like, well ... white people in a Chinese restaurant. We were handed menus and our mouths hit the table. We were in for an expensive meal. But like, how do we leave at this point, you know? WE WERE IN TOO DEEP! So we swallowed our meals (and an expensive bill), then made our way towards the Singapore harbour, BEHOLD!
*click on the pictures below to enlarge and scroll through
All in all, we walked 10km around the Garden City and were back at the hostel by 11:30pm. A night well done.
The next morning we were up...and Singapore wasn't. Almost anything that we were thinking of doing didn't open until 11am; Central Perk (yes, a cafe dedicated to FRIENDS), and a cat cafe right next door to our hostel. How are two places that serve coffee, not open at a reasonable hour? Despite not being able to get IN to Central Perk, we walked over and enjoyed it through the windows anyway. From there, we headed back towards the hostel and waited for the cat cafe to open, because ... duh.
We were at the airport with enough time to fill our bellies with some expensive burgers and head to our gate. Arriving in Saigon later than expected (due to taking off almost an hour late), we were slightly nervous to hit the streets in the dark with our lives literally on our backs. But before we worry about that - we go through the hell that is the Vietnam tourist visa. A two hour process that will have you nearly pulling your hair out.
Prior to leaving New Zealand we completed some of the first steps of our Vietnam visas; completed the online application, got passport photos taken, and printed off our paperwork. Once arriving at the airport, we see a decent sized line up of people with their paperwork in hand and photos at the ready, while the other side of the room was filled with sweaty, cranky, tired travellers that had been waiting for their visas for who knows how long. This looks promising ...
Eventually we get up to the window, pass our paperwork and photos through to the sour faced man on the other side, he requests our passports, packages all of the info together, and shoos us off to the other side of the room where people are literally about to lose their minds. We find a seat and sit patiently while we wait for our names to be called...over an hour later. Finally through that hell, we made our way to the passport control officer. He grilled James on our plans while travelling through Vietnam, sceptical that we could truly be here for 18 days (like, what? is this unheard of?) After assuring the officer that we wouldn't be jumping any borders, he waved his invisible staff and allowed us to pass.
Catching the bus outside of the airport, we made it into the city centre and walked about a kilometre before arriving at our hotel. All along the way taking in the bustling city of Saigon; lights, horns, scooters, smells, people, shops, dancing, drums - truly sensory overload.
The next morning was a chance to take in the city during the day. We walked through Ben Thanh Market and my eyes have never been so busy; watches, fruit, fish, dresses, coffee, paintings, crafts, flowers, there was probably even a fire breathing dragon in there - literally anything that you could ever want is located in this market. From there we made our way to the War Remnants Museum, an incredible collection of photographs and memorabilia from the Vietnam War. I'll be honest, I wasn't prepared for some of the photos that are on display and could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. It can be easy to turn a blind eye to the devastation that war causes, but when you're looking at images of burned bodies, decapitated soldiers, and families begging for their lives, you can't help but think - how could we, or even still to this day, do this to one another?
After taking it all in, we decided some drinks were needed. Off for lunch, drinks, and to explore the hustle and bustle.
Up bright and early the next morning to explore the Mekong area; we bussed, templed, boated, walked, ate, boated, ate, and bussed our way all around and back again, making it a full 10 hour day.
The next day was a travel day.
Con: an 18 hour train ride
Pro: we didn't have to be out of our hotel in Saigon until noon and the train left at 2:40pm, so our timeline was pretty straight forward without too much hopping around. Second pro, the cost of the train was $75 CAD for the both of us, which provided us with not only our transportation, but a bed for the night. Not too shabby. We arrived in Da Nang without a hitch and caught the next bus to Hoi An, a bustling tourist hotspot with an old school vibe.
Our time in Hoi An was fairly low key. Our first night we decided to take in the nightly market in Ancient Town. Candle lit lanterns float down the river, lights hang from roof top to roof top, dimly lit restaurants and tourists fill the ancient streets, providing the perfect mix of old life with some modern sass like nothing we've experienced.
In the morning we took our time starting our day as I had developed a sore throat, headache, and stuffy nose overnight - UH OH! I immediately popped some Tylenol, vitamin c, and H2O, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. We rented a scooter and zipped over to the Marble Mountains, filled with incredible carvings, pagodas, and shrines covered in daily offerings.
Buzzing back into town, we made our way back into the Ancient Town to see its magic during the daylight and grab some much needed food and coffee. As the day wore on, I faded quickly and was in need of a nap and some more meds - ugh.
After a night of restless sleep (shoutout to our neighbours that can't use their inside voices at 2am, much appreciated *hard eye roll), we weren't excited about heading into the busy coastal city of Da Nang for the next three nights, but we piled into the shuttle bus and off we went, tissues in hand.
As we arrived in Da Nang, we knew our hotel was about a block away from the beach and the shuttle driver had made his away along the shore line and dropped another couple off only a few blocks from where we needed to be. We hopped out and tried to grab our bags, but he sort of shooed us away and told us to get back in the bus. We were confused but almost sort of optimistic that maybe he was dropping us at our hotel - wait, did we tell him where we're staying? NO. Aaaaand into the city he goes. With my head aching, my nose running, my belly grumbling, and a lack of sleep, I was the biggest ball of snotty nosed sass - "But we're further away now! And now we have to walk further!" James, the patient soul that he is, reminded me that getting upset over it doesn't change the fact that it is what it is, "so buck up and we'll find something to eat and get to the hotel." Humph ... ok.
And after all of the fuss, everything was ok in the end, even Da Nang! A beautiful stretch of beach and a city under major growth and construction, we're betting that in another five to ten years Da Nang will be a heavy hitter in Vietnam. There is plenty to see and do in the area, most involve day trips here and there, but the city makes a great base to explore Hoi An, Marble Mountains, My Son, and the Buddha that overlooks the city (almost like a small Rio de Janeiro).
We left Da Nang early in the morning (yesterday, Monday the 11th), catching a flight to Hanoi at 7:40am. From the Hanoi airport we caught a bus and made our way into the city centre. Once again, we found ourselves among the busiest of cities, mazes of streets filled with shops, people, and scooters. I found myself feeling very overwhelmed.
I'll be honest with you, (and excuse me while I digress) Vietnam has taught me a lot, it has challenged me a lot, and it has shown me a lot. I came here with an idea, or an expectation, I guess, of what I thought Vietnam would be like, and it has been very different than any of that. While we have been here I've done my best to absorb everything around me, and take it in for what it is, but at times it has really overwhelmed me, overwhelmed me to the point of tears. I'm still working through my thoughts and feelings on Vietnam, so perhaps once we're home I'll be able to organize it all and write about it in a more succinct way. After all, we're not done here yet!
Our time in Hanoi was short and sweet (for now), as we were only there to catch a bus and head for the hills. A six hour bus ride brought us to the north-eastern town of Sa Pa (Sapa), a small area near the China-Vietnam border, and the eastern-most point of the Himalayan Mountains. A cold and foggy start to our time in the north, even the guys checking us in at our hotel were wearing their jackets and ear muffs last night!
This morning we were woken up by horns honking and scooters whizzing by, the Vietnam alarm clock, I call it. With mist and fog clouding our window, we laced up our hiking boots and hit the town, making our way through the fog and into Cát Cát Village (~2km away) and back into Sapa for some lunch. Tomorrow we will be tackling the walk to the base of Vietnam's highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, and we might even shell out a fist full of dong to catch the gondola to the top.
On Thursday we are off to Halong Bay for a two day, one night boat cruise (I'll be bringing by own vomit bags because I don't have a great track record with boats), and a couple of nights in Hanoi before heading to the Philippines. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!