13 days of traveling are behind us and what a ride it’s been so far! Our adventures have seen us travel 10 148 km by plane, 572 km by train and 466 km by car! We have slept in 5 different beds and sailed with 3 different boats. It’s funny how when you travel time flies by, but at the same time I feel like I’ve been away from home for ages. We still have 44 days of traveling to go and I am beyond excited about the experiences that await us!
It’s also funny how you plan everything from home, but then find that once you are on the road plans almost always change and evolve, and this trip is no exception. We had originally planned to travel from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by train and then fly from Ho Chi Minh to Yangon to travel around Myanmar by plane and train. We have however revised our itinerary, due to two issues that have arisen. First of all it is only possible to get a visa for Myanmar for 28 days which would mean we would have to spend around a month in Vietnam. Though there is plenty to see, this is my third time here and I feel like I would love to explore outside what is by now becoming my second home! 😉
Also I have a fear of flying and I could feel that I was getting stressed out thinking about all the flights we would be taking during this trip. So Thomas and I have decided to change our plans and do the whole trip over land! This means we will be taking the train to Ho Chi Minh from Da Nang on Monday and then continuing on to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Mae Sot, Hpa-An, Bago, Yangon, Ngwesaung and back to Yangon to fly home. This will mean a lot of buses and trains but that will be an adventure in itself!
So wish us luck and I’ll keep the blog updated along the way. ❤
After 11 days in Cambodia it was time to say goodbye and continue on our travels. I had enjoyed my time in Cambodia, learning about the culture and meeting the wonderful Khmer people, but I was also more than ready to make a new acquaintance; Myanmar (or Burma, depending on your taste).
The road (flight) to Mandalay
We were driven to the airport in another vintage Mercedes courtesy of Viroth’s and then we were off, with Bangkok Airways to Mandalay via Bangkok. The flights were comfortable and more or less on time and we arrived in Mandalay late evening. Before even leaving the airport I discovered a peculiarity about this new country…the immigrations officer actually smiled at me and laughed when I made a joke! Now for those of you who have traveled in SE Asia, you will know this is highly unusual, so I already had a good feeling about Myanmar!
Ned Kelly Hotel and Irish Pub
Upon clearing customs we headed straight to the phone shop in arrivals to buy new sim-cards and the proceeded to find a taxi and head towards our intended hotel, the exotic sounding Ned Kelly Hotel and Irish Pub! 😉
Mandalay is a busy city and like most other SE Asian cities I have experienced, it is teeming with cars, scooters and tuk tuks. There are always differences from city to city though. For one thing Mandalay has no nightlife. Not at the moment anyway. This was according to our guide the next day, due to the fact that a local lady had been killed while drunk driving and as a result the authorities had closed down all the nightclubs. Also in our time in Mandalay we got a lot of attention from the locals. There was a lot of waving, honking and shouting…but all with huge smiles.
As the airport is roughly 60 kms from Mandalay centre, the drive took a while but upon arriving we were able to enjoy an ice-cold Guinness on the rooftop terrace of the hotel, so we were pretty happy. We couldn’t however have too many beers that night as we were to be picked up at 7 am the next morning for a very special Mandalay adventure!
7 am, we were up and ready to go. We were going on a day trip on the Irrawaddy River to see the elusive Irrawaddy Dolphins. These dolphins are special in several ways. First of all their appearance is quite unique. They have a totally oval head with a flexible neck and quite resemble swimming penises :-p … Secondly the Irrawaddy dolphins north of Mandalay have been trained for years to assist local fishermen in their work. The dolphins are trained to round up schools of fish close to the fishing boat and then signal with a tail fin splash, when the fish are rounded up. The fisherman then throws in a circular net with lead weights in the spot designated by the dolphins. When the fisherman retrieves the net and it’s catch, the dolphins then snap up the fish that elude capture by the net. A win/win situation for fisherman and dolphin!
We had booked the tour with Living Irrawaddy (www.burmadolphins.com), the only tour company that will take you to see the cooperative fishing between the dolphins and fishermen. Arriving at our boat we realized we were the only people to be going on the tour that day and our guide, Chit explained that on any given day they will only take up to 6 people to see the dolphins as they don’t want to stress the animals in any way. Also they would not guarantee that we would even see dolphins as they were becoming increasingly elusive as a result of more and more pollution, electric fishing and boat traffic. Living Irrawaddy however were doing everything they could to sustain not only the dolphins themselves but also the age-old tradition of cooperative fishing.
We sailed down the Irrawaddy River North of Mandalay for 4 glorious hours. Watching the fishermen and local traders awaken and take to the river ways, and marveling in the skill of our captain whom navigated invisible sandbanks and incredibly low tides with skill. Incidentally the boat was family owned and leased to the tour company. The father of the family was captain, the mother served fresh fruit and beverages and grandpa stayed below taking care of the baby. The family lived on the boat 24/7 and baby was even born aboard the ship 5 months ago! While none of the family spoke English we still communicated with signs and sounds and the cute baby girl brought us all together in absolute adoration!
After a tasty lunch prepared by local villagers and brought freshly-made to our boat, it was time to seek out the dolphins. Two fishing boats arrived to pick us up. One was for Thomas and I to sit in and the other was going to fish with the dolphins. Our tour guides equipped us with life vests and hats and off we went!
We sailed on the tiny fishing boats for at least an hour. Always screening the horizon for signs of the dolphins (and in my case sneaking in a little nap).
And finally! There they were! Cresting the water first in front of us, and then to all sides! They were beautiful! After some calling and signaling from the fishermen we were so lucky to see the dolphins doing exactly what they were trained to. They circled the fishing boat in ever smaller circles, finally giving the fisherman the unmistakeable signal of a tail splash and then swimming away to repeat it all further down the river. We even saw a mother teaching her calf the technique.
We sat silently in the little boat, craning our necks to see as much of the clever animals as possible and just enjoying every second of the experience! It was absolutely amazing to see this teamwork between humans and animals and I feel forever blessed to have witnessed it! The fishing continued for about an hour before it was time to return to our boat for the ride back to Mandalay! We were absolutely exhausted and in bed once again very early as we were leaving for Bagan the very next day.
It was finally time to visit the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat! I had been looking forward to this since I started planning this trip, as Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list for ages! We had decided to experience the fabled sunrise at the temple and for the first time in my life I wasn’t depressed to be getting up early! Chamrong, our guide picked us up at 5 am in a tuk tuk and we made our way to the ticket terminal next to Angkor Wat. Once there we joined some of the more than 2,4 million annual visitors, to buy a day pass for the sum of 37 dollars per person. Interestingly this revenue does not go to the Cambodian state and indeed only 28 % of the income from ticket sales goes to the care and renovation of the temples. This is because Sokimex, a private company founded by an ethnic Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman, has rented Angkor Wat from Cambodia since 1990 and manages tourism there for profit. It’s strange to imagine a site of such huge historical and cultural importance being monetized by a private company, but it really is! And imagine the income! 88 800 000 million dollars per year if all the tourists only buy 1-day passes!
All set with our passes for the day we continued through the darkness in our tuk tuk, to the entrance of Angkor Wat. A moat surrounds the temple and we crossed a pontoon bridge in the dark to get to the big grass plateau facing Angkor Wat. Straining our eyes to get that first look at the iconic towers we had seen in countless photos and documentaries, we had to arm ourselves with patience as shadows still enveloped the magical building we had come to see. However upon arriving to the spot where we would watch the sun rise behind the buildings, we were immediately set upon by a small army of salespeople and waiters trying to hock their wares. We were offered everything from noodles and coffee to flutes and postcards. It was overwhelming and did in fact seem a bit too profane for this ethereal place.
Nonetheless we found a good spot where we would be able to view the sunrise across a small lake of water in front of the temple and finally the sun began to cast it’s golden and red light across the horizon. It rose in silent majesty revealing not only the most breathtaking temple but also the thousands of other tourists with whom we shared the experience.
But little did it matter, for Angkor Wat was exactly as magical and awe-inspiring as I had expected! It exuded a serene yet powerful elegance and you could sense the whisperings of history all around, as it slowly came into view. I was overwhelmed with emotion and excitement and 1000 photos later we began upon our exploration of the temple’s interior, guided by our knowledgable guide Chamrong.
Angkor Wat is said to be the largest religious monument in the world and spreads across 400 square kilometers just outside of Siem Reap. Originally built in the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu temple, it was converted to a Buddhist temple by the end of the 13th century. Angkor Wat deviates from traditional temples of the time in several interesting ways. Firstly the buildings were constructed as a tribute to Vishnu rather than to King Suryavarman II, ruler at the time. Also the temple complex is oriented to the West rather than the East as traditionally prescribed. In Hindu tradition this direction would typically be associated with death. Additionally the bas-reliefs that adorn the temples are read counter-clockwise and this also alludes to a possibility of the temples having been associated with death and/or funeral rituals.
Chamrong led us past these beautiful bas-reliefs telling us of the stories they depicted. And the might of the once powerful Khmer Empire was palpable. They were a great people, whose empire at one point spread all the way to Da Nang in Vietnam and Java in Indonesia! We visited 3 temples in the complex during that day. Firstly Angkor Wat (the most iconic and well-known) where we learned some of the stories of the Khmer empire.
Then the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom (the most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire) with it’s many beautiful Buddha heads.
And finally Ta Prohm (also known as the Tomb Raider temple, as the movie used it as a location during filming) with it’s crumbling structures that seem like they are about to be swallowed up by nature as tree roots entwine them.
Now, we could definitely have spent a lot more time at Angkor Wat and visited many more temples. But honestly at this point we were beat! The early start, the endless walking and the blistering heat had taken their toll and after 6 hours we were soooo ready to go back to our hotel for a nap!
In conclusion I just want to say to anyone wondering whether Siem Reap and Angkor Wat are worth a visit, the answer is a loud resounding YES! I am so happy to have experienced all that I have here. The feelings Angkor Wat evoked and the beauty it provided will forever be a magical memory for me!
After three days in Phnom Penh it was time for me to head to Siem Reap and the temple complex of Angkor Wat. I booked a bus ticket and departed Phnom Penh centre in high spirits. I was beyond excited to experience Siem Reap and honestly I was also happy to leave the bustle of the city.
6 hours of driving through the countryside of Cambodia did nothing to dampen my spirits. The bus was comfortable and the roads were in surprisingly good shape. I was so happy to have chosen the bus instead of flying, as it afforded me a glimpse of life outside of the big city. Shacks lined the streets and children, animals and local villagers gave me plenty to watch!
The 6 hours flew by and before I knew it, I was meeting the driver from my hotel, the Shintana Saya Residence. The Shinatana Saya is a boutique hotel with only 9 rooms located just outside of Siem Reap. I had chosen to stay for 3 nights as I really needed to unwind and relax after some hectic days of traveling and unpacking and packing my luggage in what seemed like an endless cycle! The Shintana Saya was perfect for this, as it had a wonderful little pool, great drinks and lots of peace and quiet!
The only stress I experienced was one day while I was showering, where I grabbed the shampoo bottle and felt something move under my fingers! I screamed like a crazy person and a little gecko fell onto my wet feet and tried to swim away…I got the biggest fright, but happy to see it wasn’t a spider I quickly helped my little bath buddy to safety behind the toilet!
I have company!
The 3 days passed quickly and it was finally time to head to the airport to pick up Thomas, my boyfriend. He had traveled for almost 30 hours and was just as excited as me to begin our travels together. This trip is the first longer trip where I am not solo the entire time and while the prospect of sharing my adventures with Thomas made me really happy, I’ll be honest and admit I was a bit hesitant too! Mainly because I was worried that I had gotten too used to traveling alone and that I might not have the patience to take another person’s wishes and habits into account when making travel decisions. When you get accustomed to eating when you feel like it, exploring when you feel like it and generally following your own impulses, the idea of having to include someone else can be daunting! On the other hand however I was really looking forward to having someone to talk through the day’s experiences with and of course to cuddling, laughing, eating and exploring with Thomas! 😉
Exploring Siem Reap
Twosomeness got off to a great start as we checked into Viroth’s Hotel in Siem Reap. Viroth’s has been voted the best hotel in the world on TripAdvisor in 2018 and it wasn’t hard to see why! From the airport pickup in a vintage Mercedes, to the absolutely stunning design and the impeccable service we received from the staff, Viroth’s was an amazing place to stay. Another huge plus was that the hotel was located within walking distance of Siem Reap centre where we went every night for dinner, shopping and drinks.
Siem Reap is a really cool town. It has several amazing hotels of extremely high standard, a bustling midtown area and plenty of entertainment options. But it also has a local feel to it…it isn’t too polished or too touristy and while Pub Street is an absolutely crazy place, teeming with nightlife, beggars, salesmen and tourists, there are plenty of places where you can sit and enjoy the more authentic life of the locals. I really loved this little town!
On the first day after Thomas’ arrival we had plans to go riding in the countryside surrounding Siem Reap. Thomas had booked this adventure as a Christmas gift and I couldn’t wait. We rode out from The Happy Ranch Horse Farm (which is known for treating the horses really well) with our guide in the late afternoon and mounted on our trusty steeds Rambo and Baloo we ambled through rice fields and villages enjoying it thoroughly. It was fascinating to experience the little local villages where the children waved and shouted when we rode by, the magnificent water buffalos in the rice paddies and farmers herding hundreds of ducks across streams and fields. Everywhere we went people greeted us with smiles and waves and we of course reciprocated!
That night back in our hotel we were ready to sleep at 9 pm, tired from the fresh air and excitedly looking forward to finally visiting Angkor Wat the next day!
For my second day in Phnom Penh I had decided to visit the notorious S-21 (Tuol Sleng) and the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek). I was nervous to go, because I had already heard such horrifying stories of the Cambodian genocide. But I felt that it was important to see and experience these sites in order to gain a better understanding of the Cambodian people and their history.
A little background
Pol Pot (1925-1998) was the General Secretary of the Khmer Rouge and Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea (now the Kingdom of Cambodia) from 1975-1979. His was a totalitarian dictatorship based on a dream of the utopian communist society. In the wake of French control of Cambodia, Pol Pot hated everything foreign and dreamed of returning Cambodia to the values and way of life of the Khmer Empire hundreds of years ago. He believed in creating an agrarian society and forced Cambodians to leave the cities they lived in, to work on collective farms in the country. Pol Pot is responsible for the deaths of over 2 million people (approximately a quarter of the Cambodian population).
Choosing a tour
I had opted to book a ticket for a hop-on hop-off bus tour as I would rather explore alone than be tied to a big tour group. Also I knew that both places had excellent audio tours that would afford me to immerse myself at my own pace.
The Tool Sleng Genocide Museum
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21, chronicles the horrifying genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. An estimated 20 000 people were incarcerated at Tuol Sleng and there were only twelve known survivors, some of which you can meet at the museum today.
In 1979 the Vietnamese army entered Cambodia and toppled Pol Pot. In the aftermath of this offensive Hồ Văn Tây, a Vietnamese combat photographer, was the first journalist to document Tuol Sleng to the world. Hồ and his colleagues followed the stench of rotting corpses to the gates of Tuol Sleng and the photos he took upon arrival are exhibited in the buildings today.
Besides Hồ’s disturbing photos, many of the cells are left as they were found and the torture instruments used during the time are on display.
S-21 is by far one of the most disheartening places I have ever been, as it brings to the forefront the evils that mankind is capable of. I can’t fathom how humans can treat each other in such abominable ways! From the tiny cells where prisoners could hardly lie down, to the prisoner photos of hundreds of people who never made it out alive, to the instruments of heinous torture on display, the museum took me through a history of unspeakable evil. I found myself feeling almost shameful as I could only bear witness to the atrocities.
I walked from room to room, exhibit to exhibit but finally it all became too much and I had to sit down and collect myself in the memorial park in the middle. There I let the emotion wash over me and whilst crying, I also experienced a huge love for these amazing people that have survived and overcome such an unbelievably horrible past. But the respite was short as my next stop was one of Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields are a number of sites throughout Cambodia where more than a million people were killed and buried in mass graves under the Khmer Rouge regime. These include soldiers, civilians, women and children. The best known of the Killing Fields is Choeung Ek some 30 kms outside of Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek is now a memorial park for the thousands of victims buried there, and holds numerous mass graves, some of them visible above ground. Horrifyingly bones and clothing have been known to surface after heavy rains, due to the amount of bodies still buried in these graves. These are routinely found by visitors to the site.
After S-21 I thought I was prepared for the worst, but the Killing Fields takes your breath away. It is indescribable to walk on wooden walkways above thousands of bodies and to learn how most of them met their fate in the evilest of ways. As the regime wanted to save bullets, most of the victims of Choeung Ek were killed using bamboo sticks, iron tools or machetes. And as Pol Pot believed in killing entire families to avoid retribution, there is even a tree which guards used to kill babies by smashing their heads against it, often in front of their mothers.
In the center of Choeung Ek a memorial stupa sits in awe-inspiring majesty. It is filled with the skulls and bones of excavated victims, all separated into various scientific categories. The remains are categorized by gender, age and cause of death. Seeing the mountain of skulls, really brought home the extent of the genocide and as I removed my shoes and entered the stupa, I said a silent prayer to any and all gods that might listen, praying that such atrocities would never happen again!
The busride back to Phnom Penh was silent and a sombre mood pervaded. It was clear that everyone had been affected by the day’s experiences. But anything else would have been strange! Seeing the physical evidence of what had up until now only been a history lesson was painful and hard, but also inherently meaningful. I would recommend this experience anytime, as sometimes we have to look evil in the eye instead of trying to avoid seeing it. Only by doing so can we hope to avoid something like the Cambodian genocide ever happening again!
My first day in Phnom Penh was my birthday…and not just any birthday as I turned 40! I had been a bit hesitant about having such a big day alone in a strange city, but it was of course my own decision and in fact I have spent my last couple of birthdays by myself in Mexico and Vietnam, so I guess it’s kind of a thing now. 😉 In reality I like not having to make a big fuss about it and what better way to celebrate another year around the sun than on an adventure?
However, prepared as I was, I felt the tears coming as I sat at breakfast surrounded by Chinese tour groups and hotel staff….soon I was crying into my napkin and laughing at myself at the same time! Turning 40 is scary in a way, especially as I still feel 25! I felt quite lonely and overcome with thoughts of whether the 40 years had been well spent. But some things you can’t change and I had the choice of wallowing in it or dusting myself of and getting on with exploring this new city!
First order of business was getting a Cambodian sim-card and then I decided to just walk around and see where I ended up. The sim-card was easy to find in a local phone shop and for 10 dollars I got 10 GB. I then walked along the crowded streets of Phnom Penh, noting that although there is a lot of traffic, it is nothing like Saigon! It seemed that there were fewer scooters, more cars and of course an abundance of tuk tuks. Also for some reason I didn’t feel that the use of horns was quite as prevalent as in Vietnam. Other differences I noted were that I got a lot more attention from the locals. Nothing uncomfortable, but they seemed to notice my presence (and otherness) more and would in some cases stare at me quite freely. Also the city seemed a bit more dilapidated than Saigon and I saw several children and elderly begging on the streets.
Walking along the busy street of Preah Trasak Praem I spotted a large yellow art deco building in the distance. This turned out to be the Central Market of Phnom Penh. I entered the market to be met by an absolute abundance of stalls and wares! Everything from jewelry and watches to clothes, flowers and food could be found here and I spent a few happy hours wandering around haggling with stall keepers and sampling tasty local fruits.
Finally I was craving a cup of coffee and the chance to sit down and do some people watching, so I got in a tuk tuk and asked the driver to drive me to 136th street. I mistakenly thought it was a regular backpacker street but it turned out to be a long street of strip bars… Here I saw several scantily clad ladies and older Western men enjoying their company. At 10 am the street was already in full swing and the beer was flowing freely. I had a quick coffee at one of the bars but was disheartened by the atmosphere and quickly returned to my hotel.
For dinner I had decided to spoil myself and booked a table for one at Sik Gaek, a Korean restaurant with great reviews on TripAdvisor. I dressed up for the occasion and arrived expectantly at 7 pm looking forward to being around other people in a hopefully busy place. However to my massive amusement I was to be disappointed! The restaurant it turned out, was a very authentic place that consisted of a variety of small dining rooms that were totally closed off to each other. I was placed in one of these rooms and told to ring a bell if I needed anything, and then left to my own devices! The employees looked like they felt pretty sorry for me and one even asked if I had any friends!
At this point I was laughing so hard to myself that I had to share the absurdity with someone and promptly face-timed both my boyfriend and my mother back home. The dinner however was great and I loved the amazing Korean food!
I was ready to go back home to bed at 8.30 pm, but a friend from Copenhagen that lives in Phnom Penh insisted that we should go out for birthday drinks and I wasn’t hard to persuade! We met up at Street 308 which is really charming little bar street in the “nicer” part of the city. The rest of the evening consisted of many, many drinks, another stripbar and a lot of laughs.
I did however also see the darker side of Phnom Penh materialized in children as small as babies, lying barely clothed on rugs on the street with only their 4-year-old sister as a babysitter, presumably while their mother was at work in one of the bars. The kids were dirty and hungry and although all guides tell you not to give them money it’s virtually impossible to just walk by and give them nothing! My friend Christian had a great strategy though, where he would buy the kids a meal or a soft drink instead of just giving them cash and we concluded the evening eating fried rice with the sweetest 10-year-old girl who at 1 am was walking the streets alone.
I went to bed that night thankful to be 40. Thankful to have the opportunity to travel. Thankful to be able to feed my kid and myself and thankful to be alive to experience the contrasts and beauty of this world. And honestly feeling a bit silly that I had cried about my age in the first place!
Arriving in Saigon after 18 hours of travel I found myself in the back of a taxi with a cacophony of noises all around. Saigon is without a doubt the noisiest city I’ve ever been in and for some reason I love it! The Vietnamese use their horn like there’s no tomorrow! It is used to say: “Out of my way”, “Hey, I’m overtaking you”, “Here I come”, “Hi there buddy, say hi to your grandma” and so on! Street vendors abound, all with a recording announcing their various wares that runs on a loop. Music assaults your ears from shops and cars and roosters seem to have no idea of what time of day it is.
Sitting in the taxi I couldn’t wipe the smile of my face and I must have looked like a grinning idiot! But I was overjoyed to be back in my favorite Asian city. Saigon felt like an old friend and I couldn’t wait to get reacquainted. I arrived at my hotel with quite low expectations as I had chosen a place that was centrally located but very cheap. I was happily surprised though, as it turned out to be a quaint little family-run place and though the interior design wasn’t impressive it was clean and the staff were friendly. I even had my own little balcony. The hotel was located just off Dong Khoi street, which meant that almost all the major sites were in walking distance.
Since I spent quite a few days in Saigon last year and will be returning later on, I had decided to just spend my days relaxing and getting a few practicalities out of the way. I spent the first day at the hairdresser, where three dedicated employees spent 5(!) Hours saving my dry and way too damaged hair. I ended up paying 120 dollars, which is around 50% of the price at home.
The next few days were spent on long walks in the sweltering heat, visiting the Danish bar Storm P. To say hi to Klaus the happy owner and dinner with a friend from back home. All in all not very cultural but much needed relaxation.
After four days in Saigon it was time to board the bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I had debated with myself whether to pay the 125 dollars for a plane ticket which would only take 50 minutes or to take the 7 hour bus ride for 15 dollars. In the end I chose the bus, primarily because I wanted to experience the Vietnam/Cambodia border crossing. I took a Kumho Samco bus at 1 pm and reached the border around 3 hours later.
The crossing was interesting as we had to get off the bus in Vietnam and walk through the border control. Then we go back on the bus, drove 100 metres and walked through the border control in to Cambodia and finally reembarked the bus. So the 100 metres were in effect neither country but rather a little piece of no man’s land.
Back on the bus we traveled for another 5 hours, that were pretty rough as my seat was broken and therefore stuck in a semi-reclining position that was really uncomfortable. But hey, it got me to my destination some 230 kms from Saigon, and for 15 dollars you can hardly get a taxi to drive you 3 kms in Copenhagen!
Arriving I Phnom Penh I was crazy tired but also elated to cross a new country off my list (number 41)! Not much to tell from that first night as I collapsed on my bed and was asleep within minutes. In my next post I’ll be writing about my days on Phnom Penh…including my birthday and a sobering trip to S21 and The Killing Fields.
Hi! I’m back! I haven’t written on this blog since returning from Vietnam last February. I’ve been on a few shorter trips since then (Ajman, Dubai, Bilbao) but now it’s time for another BIG one! I leave in a week. This time I will be traveling around South East Asia for two months, starting in Saigon, on to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, then to Mandalay, Bagan, Ngapali and Rangoon in Burma, back to Saigon and on to Phu Quoc in Vietnam and finally I have 18 unplanned days…so we’ll see!
I just turned in my exams for university today so I haven’t really focused too much on the adventures ahead. But after turning in my paper this morning, reality hit me. Hard! I have so many butterflies in my stomach that I can hardly sit still. It’s a mix of excitement and also a little fear. The unknown can be scary and this will be my longest trip yet. This time however will be a little different as I won’t be traveling solo the entire time. Thomas, my boyfriend will be joining me and also my sister and her family will be flying out with our boys. I am overjoyed that I won’t have to miss all of the people I love for a whole two months and I can’t wait to share this adventure with them.
The preparations for this trip have been a bit more troublesome than the last time I went to Vietnam. This has mainly been due to the fact that I’ll be going to so many different countries and places. I’ve had to apply for visas to three different countries, book a lot of flights (which has proved to be a huge hassle in Asia) and do a lot of research on the best ways to get from one place to another. In this regard however, the abundance of travel blogs on the internet has been extremely helpful. Also I’ve been using an app called rome2rio that is great for checking out travel options.
I haven’t packed yet and packing for two months in one bag seems a bit daunting 😉 . But some way or another I’ll be ready in seven days…I have to be! I’ll be writing throughout the trip and I really hope you’ll follow me. Wish me luck!
Back in Ho Chi Minh City or as I prefer to call it: Saigon. I must say that coming back here was a bit like coming home. It’s definitely my favorite city in Asia so far. It’s hard to explain why, as it isn’t as metropolitan as Tokyo or as culturally rewarding as Beijing. It doesn’t have the charm of Hanoi or the atmosphere of Ubud. But Saigon to me is magical. It is an enormous city with a population of 8,4 million people, 2,7 million more than the population of my entire country! And as such it is incredibly diverse. There are modern skyscrapers next to rickety three story apartment blocks and breathtaking pagodas alongside huge catholic churches.
You can see Vietnamese women in designer clothes chatting happily with old ladies selling street food along the sidewalks. Scooters are everywhere and there are next to no street lights, but somehow traffic still moves along in a blitz of honks and hand signs. I haven’t seen any road rage incidents even in countless near misses! The other night my Uber driver actually hit a guy on a scooter! There was a huge crashing sound followed by a crunch and I was certain the guy would be severely injured. But he just lay dazed on the ground for a few minutes, then got up (cigarette still in his mouth), dusted himself off and rode away like nothing had happened. I was deeply shocked, but my driver was unfazed. This to me embodies the soul of Saigon. As long as no one is hurt there’s no reason to get excited! After all the point is to live in the here and now and not worry about what could have happened!
Also I have felt more safe in Saigon than in any other big city. I have strolled happily around in all sorts of places after dark and not once have I felt threatened or unsafe. My favorite area so far is Hoang Sa Street which runs along the Nhieu Loc channel. It’s a small distance from the centre of District 1 but walking along the channel you can admire the beautiful landscaping and watch the locals eat dinner, exercise, fish and play with their children. I have loved every minute I have spent in this area.
My last night in Saigon and I am filled with happiness. This trip has exceeded my expectations in every way. I started out with apprehension, having never traversed a foreign country on my own. But along the way I have felt my confidence and independence grow. I have revelled in the natural beauty of Vietnam and the wonder of it’s remarkable people. I have laughed, hugged and exchanged stories with countless strangers and I have cried into my pillow and let myself feel sad without guilt. Honestly I can’t remember ever feeling more true to myself or more free than I have in this wondrous place.
When I went to Bali I was heartbroken and expecting some sort of epiphany – a metamorphosis from sorrowful to adventurous and alive. This in no way was what happened and coming here I had no such illusions. In fact I had no expectations, other than to do my best at being brave and to enjoy and be thankful for the opportunity to explore a new culture. But sitting here five weeks later I feel I have changed a lot. I am braver, stronger and more humble than I was before and to celebrate that feeling I spent my last day in Vietnam at Tadashi Tattoo getting a wing tattooed on my ankle. The wing is symbolic of Hermes, Greek god and amongst other things protector of travelers.
Tomorrow I go back to the people I love knowing that I would be joyous to return to Vietnam and that if I am lucky I will soon be able to go on my next adventure!
“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.”
Hans Christian Andersen, The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography
After the cold and grey weather of the North, I was beyond happy to board my Vietjet plane in Hanoi Airport, bound for the island of Phu Quoc. Phu Quoc is located in the Gulf of Thailand 15 km south of the coast of Cambodia and 2 hours flight from Hanoi. It seems crazy to me that a 2 hour flight got me from 12 degrees celcius to over 30! But it did and arriving slightly delayed at 3 pm, I was met by a driver, and taken to Green Bay Phu Quoc, some 30 mins drive from the airport. I had decided to splurge on a bungalow by the beach in a resort that was slightly over my budget… 😉 as I was in dire need of some luxurious relaxing in the sun! I was not disappointed! My bungalow was beautifully decorated and the resort itself was everything I could have wished for in a tropical retreat.
After unpacking I promptly changed into a bikini and threw myself on a lounge chair by the pool with a vanilla milkshake and my trusty Kindle. In the 32 degrees heat I trotted back and forth between my chair and the refreshingly cool water of the pool. It was absolute bliss and much needed after my polar expedition to Halong Bay! ;-p
After a short while however, a few realities of my situation hit me. First of all the resort was extremely secluded and it would mean a 30 min taxiride to get to town, something that the receptionist had strongly advised against, due to the scarcity of taxis in the area. Secondly I seemed to have arrived in the land of the honeymooners…the only other people I had seen at the resort were young couples…all kissing in the pool, laughing over drinks and holding hands on the pathways. Now, while I am in full acceptance of my singlehood, it still felt a little depressing to be surrounded by all this twosomeness! This feeling was not abated by the otherwise wonderful staff constantly asking if I needed a table for ONE, ONE lounger, ONE towel etc and then looking surprised when I answered affirmatively.
I had booked 5 days at the resort and that suddenly felt like quite a long time…even surrounded by beautiful sandy beaches and the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen! But I decided not to wallow in self-pity and instead resigned myself to using the solitude and the quiet to spend some time being introspective and musing on the ups and downs of solo travel as I have experienced them on this trip.
The first thing many people have asked me since I started traveling alone 8 months ago is: Won’t you be lonely?
It’s a valid question and one I asked myself many, many times before each trip. These past 5 weeks have however proved to me once and for all, that being alone does not equate to being lonely. Sure I have had moments, even days of loneliness, but I can honestly say that I have felt more lonely at home than I ever have on my travels. While traveling through Vietnam I have missed my loved ones (especially my son!) immensely. I have longed to share my experiences with them and I have thought of them all often. But I know they are all well and happy, doing their own things and I know that I will see them again soon. That knowledge has let me explore and exist freely as an individual, but always with a strong sense of where I come from and who I love.
Another aspect of solo travel I have come to accept as a given, is the constant risk assessment that seems to become second nature after a while. After my bad experience on the sleeper train from Saigon, I opted to book a daytime ticket when traveling to Hanoi. When going out at night I was conscious not to drink too much and always made sure to take an uber when moving about after dark. During the last half of my trip I resorted to saying I was married whenever asked and found that it made things a lot easier for me in general. I also found myself becoming a little more reserved in interactions with strangers and learnt once and for all to say NO and not give a sh*t about being polite!
The necessity of having to think defensively and change how I act really, really pisses me off. I think that it is fundamentally unfair that I as a woman have a plethora of extra safety concerns, compared to my male counterparts. I am angry that the fact that I feel empowered enough to travel alone, is taken by some men as an invitation. I am saddened that my positive and curious outlook on life and cultures is sometimes used against me. But with that said, I will not let any of that hold me back from traveling and exploring and if I have to take some defensive measures to be or feel safe, so be it.
I do feel however, that I should stress that in general I have felt exceedingly safe in Vietnam and luckily the majority of people (and animals) I have met here have been absolutely wonderful!
Another challenge I have faced on all my solo trips is self-discipline. Without anyone to spur me on, I have sometimes had a hard time getting out of my room and committing to trips and adventures along the way. This was most pronounced during my month in Bali so I had promised myself to push harder on this trip. I simply forced myself to say yes to almost everything that was offered to me and that was the best promise I have ever kept! I had so many experiences that I would not have been without. I pushed against my fears (riding a motorcycle for example), my pickiness (eating new foods) and my shyness (approaching strangers and having a chat). While I did sometimes hide in my room, I definitely also got myself out there, in a way I have never done before!
So here I am now. I will be back in Denmark in 6 days, but before that I still have 2 days left in Phu Quoc, before spending my last days in Vietnam in Saigon where I started. I also have a few exciting things planned there, which I look forward to telling you about!
Arriving in Hanoi I was in desperate need of a warm bath (hot water is limited in the country), a haircut and some shopping. Naively I had only packed two pairs of long pants and one sweater for this whole trip and the weather in Hanoi is very chilly! The temperature is around 14 celcius and I quickly realized I would need to stock up on some warm clothes! But first thing was first! I had booked an appointment at EM Hair Salon in the Northern part of the city. EM Hair Salon is a Social Enterprise initiative where 100% of the profits go to help disadvantaged young women and girls studying at REACH. REACH is a local non-government and non-profit organisation which specializes in providing vocational training, career advice and job placement services for Vietnam’s most disadvantaged youth.
I had booked an appointment to get some highlights and a haircut which would cost me around 65 dollars (around 1/4 of what i would have had to pay in Copenhagen!). I was greeted by the sweetest lady Nhi, who proceeded to give me the best highlights and haircut I’ve had in ages! And knowing that the proceeds would be going to underprivileged girls and women only made the experience better!
Thus beautified I went on my way to the centre of the city in search of a big screen where I could watch Vietnam play the final of the U23 asia Cup. The fact that the Vietnamese team reached the final was a shock to everyone and Hanoi had turned into a seething sea of red flags and excited locals. I bought a couple of stickers to put on my cheeks and joined the throng of people watching the game on a big screen at The Church Bar by Hoan Kiem Lake. Brad and Willie soon joined me and a couple of ridiculously expensive beers later, Vietnam’s defeat was unfortunately a reality. The crowds slowly dispersed, but despite their disappointment being clear, there was at no point any sign of disturbances or fighting. I think people were mostly proud their team had gotten so far.
Brad, Willie and I enjoyed a quick meal of bun bo nam bo at a restaurant recommended by a friend (Thanks Amalie!) and I returned to my room to plan my next days in Hanoi.
Finally it was time for Halong Bay! Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Gulf of Tonkin, some 4 hours drive from Hanoi. It consists of around 1600 islands and islets and is not just breathtakingly beautiful but also of great biological importance.
I had looked forward to this ever since researching my trip from home. I had once again met up with Brad, Willie and Enrico and we had agreed to go on a 2 day cruise together. So with an 8.30 am pickup, we were happily on our way to Halong Bay by bus. After one stop at a horrible souvenir centre, we arrived and boarded first a taxi boat and then the “cruise” ship we were to spend the night on. The guys had booked the cruise for all of us and hilariously hadn’t been told beforehand that it was in fact a party cruise. So we were a little worried upon embarking, as we felt we might collectively be a little older than the target age group! :-p However we soon discovered that we would only be 14 people on the ship and the age span was huge. Our happy little tour group also consisted of a veritable United Nations…The nations represented were: France, Israel, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and of course Denmark.
So off we went, sailing through Halong Bay and immediately two things struck me. First of all the absolute and unrivaled beauty of this magical place. Even in grey and overcast weather, the ancient limestone pillars jutting out of the deep green water were mesmerizing. There were so many of them and they were covered in vegetation yet still totally uninhabited by humans. They instilled a deep sense of wonder in me. With our ship moving quietly through the still waters and mist obscuring the furthest rocks in a mysterious cloak of white, I felt like I was in a fairytale kingdom of undiscovered mythical creatures!
The second thing I immediately had to face was the bone-chilling cold! It was absolutely freezing and to my horror I learned that the ship had no heating, neither in the cabins nor in the common areas. Now, I had in fact packed very warm clothes and I am also a viking, so it came as a surprise to me just how cold I was after a few hours. We had a really nice dinner which did nothing to bring me any warmth so I resorted to drinking enough beer to make me forget the cold and hopefully fall asleep promptly. I had no such luck. That night I think I slept a total of two hours and when we were woken at 6.30 the next day I was slowly beginning to lose my will to live!
I was at this point absolutely exhausted and so cold that all I could think of, was getting back to my hotel in Hanoi and having a warm shower! That was however not in my near future, so I reluctantly got into a bamboo boat with my fellow travelers to sail through a cave in the bay and maybe get to see some of the illusive monkeys that apparently inhabit som of the huge rocks.
It was all very beautiful, but I’m a little ashamed to say that after the bamboo boat excursion I was more or less just tired, cold and grumpy and all I wanted was to get off this freezing ship and back to Hanoi. One cooking class and a lot of waiting later, we were on the bus and headed towards warm water. I took all of 5 seconds to fall asleep on the bus and when I arrived at my hotel I took a long, hot shower and proceeded to sleep for ten hours!
Luckily I had a flight the next morning from Hanoi to Phu Quoc where I could look forward to sunny beaches and tropical temperatures! I must say that although I really did like Hanoi and was stunned by Halong Bay, I am a sucker for sun and warmth and the fact that the weather in the North so closely resembled the Danish winter, left me longing for the South. So here I am on the beautiful island of Phu Quoc, ready to swim, sunbathe and read. I have no adventures planned, just relaxation and I can’t wait!
It was time to leave Hoi An and journey on to the Imperial City of Hue. I had in fact planned to go by train, but the motorcycle bug was fresh in me and I hired a so-called easy rider to take me and my bags to my next stop. Besides the thrill of the ride, another advantage was that I had asked my driver to stop at the Marble Mountains just outside of Da Nang. Once there I spent about an hour exploring Huyen Khong, a Buddhist grotto carved into one of the mountains. It was a surreal experience being in a dark grotto with thousands of bats skittering overhead and a plethora of Buddhist deities illuminated by fluorescent lights.
Extricating myself from the dark I was back on the bike and heading on. In the pouring rain we made another stop at Elephant Springs, where I after a short hike got to see a waterfall lined by dilapidated huts, old plastic sheets and garbage. There were next to no people at the waterfalls which wasn’t surprising, but I gathered there had been some floods causing the usual huts and stalls to get washed down stream. Hopefully the place will get rebuilt and cleaned up, but until then I highly recommend passing on this experience!
We also stopped at a small fishing village where i got to watch the fisherman go about their work and wave at a lot of very excited kids! 🙂
Unfortunately my guide didn’t speak a word of English making communication virtually impossible, also he didn’t seem especially interested in doing the trip and drove like a madman through the mountain pass leaving me freezing and white-knuckled with fear when we finally arrived in Hue.
Hue was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors from 1802 to 1945 and home to a huge citadel surrounded by a moat. Hue is also in the vicinity of several beautiful tombs of emperors past.
But it is also the place where I hit a wall physically and emotionally. After the nerve-wracking motorcycle ride and the constant rain, my body just gave up and I succumbed to a nasty cough, that I had been holding at bay since leaving Denmark. I had no energy and I was sick of packing and unpacking all my stuff every few days. Finally after being ogled in a really uncomfortable way by a staff member in an elevator in my hotel and having to answer stupid questions about my marital status and why I was traveling alone, I kind of just gave up. I forced myself to go out to the nearest hostel bar and eat a meal, met some great people, had way too many beers and ended up staying in bed at my hotel the entire next day thus missing the sights of Hue. Stupid prioritizing I know, but I think that after close to 20 days of traveling, exploring and only interacting with strangers I needed to unplug and just have a night out!
Getting back up
As I had only planned to stay in Hue for two nights, I decided to put the tombs on my to-do-list for my next trip to Vietnam and swiftly moved on to the caves of Phong Nha to the West. I arrived at a great little homestay, run by a local family and spent the afternoon meeting up with a couple of great guys I had met in Hoi An, Brad and Willie from Canada. Brad and Willie are also traveling through Vietnam, South to North and therefore we have found ourselves in the same places several times since meeting. This time the guys had picked up another stray, Enrico from Italy, and we agreed to rent a car together the next day to take us around the area. Sharing the cost four ways left us paying only 6 dollars each for the car and driver!
Still a bit depleted and depressed I was asleep in my homestay that night at 8 pm and ready to go when the guys picked me up next morning. I woke to the view of the amazingly green Son River bathed in shards of sunlight peaking through the otherwise cloudy skies and decided that my time for feeling sorry for myself was over! And anyhow it would have been impossible to stay depressed driving from the valley up through rocky jungle vistas in good company!
We arrived at Paradise Cave and were driven in a buggy to the beginning of a hiking trail leading to the entrance. All was looking great until I realized that I would have to walk up the mountain for 540 metres or the equivalent of climbing stairs to the 54th floor! Now first of all I am in horrifically bad shape and secondly I’m a smoker…so after much whining, sweating and many stops (exclusively on my part) we finally arrived at the cave entrance! All I could think was that this cave had better be worth it! And IT WAS!
Paradise Cave is also known as Thien Duong cave and it is one of the most magnificent caves in this breathtaking national park. We walked about 1 km into the cave and being almost the only people there, only heightened the feeling of awe that we shared. The stalactites, stalagmites and amazing limestone formations were breathtaking and the ceilings of the cave, so high above us, left us whispering instead of talking and as Enrico pointed out, it was like being in a huge cathedral. We walked through the cave naming the formations and wondering out loud at the miracle of nature, that created this incredible space and emerged with a reverent feeling of happiness an hour or so later.
Moving on to the next cave
We drove back and had som lunch in the little town of Phong Nha and then Brad and I proceeded to the riverside, where we boarded a small boat entirely crewed by women, to sail to the Phong Nha cave located around 40 mins ride down the river. Brad had already been to this cave the day before but decided to go for a second time because he had enjoyed it so much. I very quickly understood why. The trip down the river was absolutely beautiful, as the sun came out for the first time that day and the deep green water soaked up the light, turning it an emerald shade. The river is bordered by small huts and houses, that are set against a backdrop of mountains covered by lush jungle. The movie Kong: Skull Island (2017) was in part filmed here and the place really did feel like a prehistoric and forgotten valley.
The Phong Nha cave itself was a bit underwhelming following Paradise cave but it was exciting to sail into and through it, and the boat ride made the whole trip absolutely worth the 9 dollars that the trip cost.
On a train again
Once again exhausted with impressions and hiking, I was asleep by 9 pm and ready for my 8 am taxi ride to Dong Hoi some 60 kms away. In Dong Hoi I caught a train to Hanoi and braced myself for the 11 hour ride. There were very few people boarding the train with me and I prayed for nice roommates following my bad experience last time!
I wasn’t disappointed. Karma had dealt me a great roomie, Minh Trang, an absolutely stunning woman who was returning to Hanoi from a business trip in the country. Although there were a few language barriers, Minh Trang was quite good at English and Google translate did the rest! After the obligatory selfies with each other, we arrived at Hanoi Station at 8 pm. Minh Trang insisted on accompanying me to my hotel in a taxi and insisted on paying for the ride. She was so sweet to make sure I got there safely and once again proved the unrivaled hospitality of the Vietnamese people!
So here I am in Hanoi. Happy to be staying in the same place for 6 days, hoping to get my laundry done (I have no clean clothes left) and looking forward to exploring the capital of this wonderful country!
Another magical day in Vietnam exploring villages and temples on a motorbike! I am officially hooked on this amazing country!
Today I went on another motorbike tour with Vinh and Bin from Onetrip. I absolutely love doing tours with these guys. Onetrip differs vastly from other tour companies in several regards. First of all, the guides are primarily young students with a passion for their country and it’s history and culture. You get to experience things one on one with these laid back and fun people. Secondly Onetrip tours take you to villages and homes which would not be accessible in a big tour group. Best of all they support the local community by taking you to visit small family-owned businesses and local families, letting them showcase their handicraft and their daily lives. I have felt more like a guest, visiting these wonderful people, than a tourist.
The clay village
Our adventure today started as always, with a delicious bowl of steaming hot noodle soup at a street food stall in Hoi An and soon we were on the road heading to the village of Thanh Ha. This small village specializes in clay ware, made from clay from the river by which the village sits. We took a walk around the village, admiring everything from whistles to lanterns and bowls, all handmade in clay. Finally ending up at a small workshop, where I would get the chance to make my own clay pot or bowl. To the unending amusement of the lady of the house I tried and failed several times in producing anything remotely resembling anything useful! But with a little help I made a cute little bowl and Vinh made an ashtray.
Making music from war
After many laughs and smiles we bid the village farewell and continued on our way to Phuoc Kieu bronze village. Here we visited a family that melts down old bomb fragments and bullets from the war and transforms them into instruments such as gongs and drums. The father of the family, Uncle Thuan, greeted us with enthusiasm and not only showed us how they produce these instruments, but also engaged us in a little jam-session to the amusement of the rest of the family, all working side by side in the workshop. The beautiful symbolism of transforming products of war and destruction into instruments that bring people together is so telling of the people of Vietnam and their capacity for healing and forgiveness.
I could happily have stayed all day with Uncle Thuan and his family but we had much more to see, so on we went! Driving along small country roads we crossed a VERY narrow railway bridge and took a break to walk down the tracks and admire the view. These tracks are the only ones to connect North and South and are the same tracks I will be traveling on, when I leave Hoi An to continue towards Hanoi.
Around midday we were approaching the My Son temple complex, but before that we stopped to eat lunch in the home of a local family. This family doesn’t normally cook for other people but Onetrip approached them and asked if they would be interested in serving a home cooked meal to their guests when passing through. This meant that I got to taste the food that this family eats themselves and there was no doubt as to how much love was put into this tasty meal!
Full and rested we arrived at the My Son temple complex in the early afternoon. My Son is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is recognized as evidence of a now extinct Asian civilization. Built between the 4th and 14th century AD it is a Hindi temple complex erected by kings of the Champa kingdom. The ruins were extensively bombed during the war but are still remarkably well-preserved.
We wandered around the ruins with Vinh and Bin telling me all about the history of My Son. There weren’t many tourists and these beautiful temples nestled in a lush green valley surrounded by misty mountains left me in awe. There was a serene feel about the place and I felt so privileged to be able to explore it.
Once again it was time to hit the road, this time heading back towards Hoi An and my hotel where a hot shower was calling me! Stopping only for a quick banh mi, we zipped through interchanging sceneries of villages and farmland, dodging the occasional hen or water buffalo and arrived back in Hoi An just before nightfall. Writing these words after my hot shower, I can feel my eyelids are heavy and my heart is soaring. Beauty and friendliness abound in this place and it feels truly magical. Tomorrow I will cross the Hai Van Pass on the back of a motorcycle again, this time traveling on to Hué and new adventures.
Today was one of the best days of my solo travel life! I went on a motorcycle trip through the mesmerizing Hai Van Pass that connects Da Nang to Hué. I feel lost for words to describe the experience, but that’s not gonna stop me from trying! 😉
My guide Vinh picked me up on his motorbike at 7.30 am and proceeded to drive me through a sleepy Da Nang to a small food stall serving Bun Bo Hue, a beefy noodle soup filled with herbs and vegetables. It was absolutely delicious and thus well-fed we embarked on our trip to the Hai Van Pass.
Bun Bo Hue
Before starting to climb the winding mountain roads however, Vinh had planned a stop in a small village where we would visit a family that produces Vietnam’s exceedingly popular fishsauce. Fishsauce is used for more or less every dish here, but as Vinh explained, the production of the sauce has been largely taken over by big factories, leaving only around 50 families in the vicinity of Da Nang to produce it the old-fashioned way.
We arrived at a small house with a yard filled with clay jars that contained fish and salt, which is left to ferment for a year(!) before being filtered several times and finally bottled for sale. The family invited us in for tea and sugared ginger and despite not being able to speak English their smiles and gestures made it clear that I was very welcome and that they were proud to show off their business.
Fish and salt fermenting
Upon leaving these wonderful people a comical episode occurred when I asked the wife if she would take a picture of Vinh and I on the bike. She misunderstood and thought I was asking to take a picture with her wearing a helmet! I didn’t know how to explain my real intent so here you go:
Leaving the little village we began driving up the mountain roads and it would be an understatement to say that the views were amazing! On my left the verdant green mountainside reached towards the sky and on my right were several secluded beaches against the backdrop of modern highrises in Da Nang far away in the distance. Sitting on the back of the bike was exhilarating and I felt totally safe with Vinh driving.
Almost too soon we arrived at our first stop in the mountains, a small coffee stall with the most amazing views and more happy and welcoming hosts. We took in the view of the valley leading to the ocean and a cup of steaming hot Vietnamese coffee later we were on our way again.
On the top of the world
We drove further and further up the mountain towards a sky of never-ending clouds atop the treelined peak, finally arriving at the Hai Van Pass watchtower separating Da Nang from the Hue province. There were a lot of tourists (and a bridal photo-shoot) at the tower so we only stayed for a few photos before continuing on our way.
Hai Van Pass
Driving down from the mountains I leaned back and just let the joy of the moment engulf me. The breathtaking forests and beaches seemed so pristine and beautiful and I drank them in while the wind whipped my hair and the sun kissed my face. No words! Just no words can describe the feeling.
Upon leaving the mountains we drove towards Lang Co. Along the coastal road an abundance of nets and fishing boats made the area’s dependance on the ocean clear. We stopped to see some local oyster fishers sort through their catch and Vinh promised me I would get to taste plenty of local seafood at our next stop.
Our next stop turned out to be a restaurant by the sea with views of the lagoon of Lang Co. Here there were buckets of live seafood; everything from crabs and shrimp to mussels, fish and eel. All alive and kept in these buckets until you ordered them, thereby guaranteeing the freshness of the food. Now, I’ve gotta say it felt a bit weird knowing that when I pointed at a crab it would die. But that kind of mindset I feel is a product of the Western way of acquiring produce. I go to the supermarket and buy my food in neat packaging and in most cases no longer resembling what it actually was to begin with. But really, every time I choose to eat meat I am indirectly pointing at an animal and choosing it should die. So I decided to embrace the experience and pointed hesitantly at the huge shrimps and the oysters.
Very fresh seafood
The meal that ensued I can only describe as the best meal I have had in ages. The shrimps were grilled to absolute perfection and served with an amazing form of spicy salt that brought out the sweetness of the meat. The succulent oysters were also grilled and served in a spicy tomato and scallion salsa. YUM!
At this point I could have happily slept an hour or three in a hammock! But soon we were on the road again, back over the mountain and heading towards the countryside outside of Da Nang. Vinh had promised me a ride through a rural area, so I could see how the locals really live away from the tourist areas. I wasn’t disappointed! The breathtaking farmlands were abundant with rice paddies, sugar cane fields and a multitude of farm animals frequently blocking the road! There were cows, water buffalo, goats and of course dogs and cats wandering all around. The locals were clearly unaccustomed to seeing tourists in their villages and greeted us with waves and shouts of “hello”. I felt like a minor celebrity and kind of enjoyed it! 😉 Deep into the valley we stopped on a bridge overlooking the river and just sat in silence and awe at the natural beauty.
Secluded valley view
Another 1 1/2 hour drive and I was back in Da Nang. Totally full of impressions and with a seriously sore butt! I will probably repeat this sentiment a lot, but only one thing eclipses the beauty of this country and that is the warmth and friendliness of its people. Vinh was the best tour guide and exhibited a genuine pride in and knowledge about his country and all the people we met along the way were full of smiles in a way I have never experienced in any other place. Now seated at my favorite coffeehouse and writing these words I feel blessed and thankful for the privilege of experiencing all that I have here. And I can’t wait for the adventures to come!
…and had my first #metoo moment as a solo female traveler. I am luckily fine and was never in any real danger, but it was extremely uncomfortable none the less. But let me start by describing the journey from the beginning.
I had booked a bunk in a 4-bunk compartment on the night train from Saigon to Da Nang. The trip was scheduled to take 17 1/2 hours and left Saigon Railway Station at 7.30 pm. Booking my ticket was extremely easy as I did it online via 12Go.asia. They sent me an e-ticket within a day and I was good to go! The ticket cost 50 dollars.
If I had flown to Da Nang it would have cost me 26 dollars and taken 1 1/2 hour, but I decided I wanted to experience the slow route and was expecting breathtaking sceneries once the sun came up. Also I thought that the trip might afford me the opportunity to meet some locals…and boy it did!
I had chosen the bottom right bunk and upon entering the compartment I was pleasantly surprised to find that the supplied sheets looked clean, although the rest of the train was quite worn and a little dirty.
The toilet was a bit grimy, but luckily my good friend back home had supplied me with toiletseat covers and honestly it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. 🙂
Meeting the locals
I fell asleep easily, despite the bumping and grinding of the train and slept like a baby for 8 hours, waking up at 6 am to views of an abundance of lush green rice paddies and cloud-ensconced mountains in the distance. As I awoke I made eye-contact with a happy looking Vietnamese man in the bunk across from me. It was a really strange feeling, to wake up to this guy staring intently at me while I slept. But Lien as he was called had such a happy look on his face that I immediately felt at ease. He started chatting merrily in a mix of English and Vietnamese and bombarded me with a million questions; Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you like Vietnam? Do you eat chicken?
As the train rolled into Dieu Tri station 6 1/2 hours from Da Nang he jumped off and ran to a makeshift stall to buy two chicken and rice meals to share with me. I told him I would pay, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He then proceeded to pull a bottle of water and a toiletroll(?) out of his luggage and presented them to me as gifts. We ate happily and although the food looked quite bland it turned out to be really tasty!
Unfortunately Lien had to get off the train an hour or so later, but we hugged goodbye and he made sure to write my name on the back of his hand so he would remember it.
Replacing Lien in the bunk across from me was another Vietnamese man who did not speak a word of English. I sent him a smile as he entered and he seemed just as friendly and outgoing as Lien before him. So I relaxed and when he asked if he could take a picture of me I happily agreed. He took a few pictures and then suddenly stood up and came over to my bunk, where I was still under the covers. He sat next to me and asked for a selfie of the two of us, and again I obliged. This however was when things took a turn for the worse.
The guy abruptly grabbed my shoulder and pulled me in, trying to kiss and hug me. I was suddenly confronted with my “good-girl” upbringing and just froze, not knowing how to react. Luckily I snapped out of it and gave him a hard shove and said “NO” as loud as I could. The guy just laughed and grabbed me a bit harder. At this point I began to get a little frightened as we were alone in the compartment and I had no idea who would hear me if I screamed. By now I was shoving and he was hugging, when he suddenly looked at me and said “You have husband?”. I grabbed the lifeline and said, “Yes! And he’s waiting for me in Da Nang!” I pulled out my phone and showed him a picture of a friend of mine to illustrate the very tall husband waiting for me at the station. This seemed to work and the creepy guy went back to his own bunk looking disheartened. I was relieved and also belatedly pissed! Why is it that some men only take no for an answer if you “belong” to someone else? He was, in backing down, not showing me respect but rather my imaginary husband! I would have launched into a long speech on the subject at that point, had he been able to understand me! 😦
Anyway, crisis resolved we journeyed on for 4 hours in awkward silence and when the train pulled into Da Nang station he insisted on carrying my luggage onto the platform and walking me to the entrance of the terminal. I of course hurried off before he got the idea of hugging me goodbye!
I made it!
So here I am in Da Nang at Christina’s local branch. Enjoying the ocean and fresh(er) air after the chaos of Saigon. And despite my one unlucky experience I would definitely recommend the train journey for anyone with the time, as I am sure my creepy guy was an exception to the otherwise amazingly friendly and hospitable Vietnamese. 🙂