It’s Sunday in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.
The windows of our Airbnb are wide open and a flurry of almost soundless rain is washing the horizon. Through layers of mist, the Bái Đín Pagoda towers in the distance.
Why are we in Ninh Binh? What the heck is a pagoda?
Firstly, we came to this rural northern town on a recommendation from someone back in San Francisco. Also, we needed an escape from the entanglement of motorbikes, noises, and large crowds of other tourists. A pagoda is another term for a tower built somewhere in Southeast Asia, most commonly to practice Buddhism.
We dropped our belongings here yesterday, and it’s been nearly three weeks since arriving into the country from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Dense vegetation, a looming pagoda, roosters clucking, and a cyclist donning a conical hat just peddled nearby. It’s a peaceful sight in what has been a beautifully chaotic experience so far in Vietnam.
It’s hard to connect the dots between the last blog post and right now because a lot has transpired. Because of this, the story of Jack’s and my time in Vietnam will be divided into a few separate chronicles.
Ho Chi Minh City
In 1975 the United States evacuated their embassy in Saigon, officially marking an end to the Vietnam War. On January 31st, 2019, Jack and I set foot in this urban sprawl which has since been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
With eight million inhabitants in a Communist country where the national median age is about thirty years old, Ho Chi Minh City is in the south of Vietnam.
Fifteen minutes was all it took before being confronted with the racing face of death, also known as crossing the street. We soon learned that sidewalks and crosswalks are more symbolic than actually serve a purpose. Crossing streets are like asking a hungry hyena to a romantic dinner. Trust in some higher force is imperative for avoiding a collision. Finding gaps in traffic, followed by no stopping or changing of pace was the key to preserving our bloodlines.
We wanted to be in Vietnam to experience Tết, also known as the Vietnamese New Year, which coincides with the Chinese New Year. 2019 is the year of the Pig. We anticipated a large party, similar to how the lunar calendar celebration is started back home. We learned that this was actually not the case, and for ten days almost every business would either be closed or have oddly determined hours of operation. The decorations, however, were beautiful and we saw people buying bonsai-style trees as a symbol of good fortune.
Our five-day stay in Ho Chi Minh City was luckily pre-Tết, so we didn’t have to worry about sudden changes. By pure coincidence, we booked a hostel (Suite Backpackers Inn) located next to Bui Vien. This street is similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. With the help of the hostel owner, Lin, and another friend we made named Anthony, Jack and I managed to take in various nighttime events without getting trapped in the neon lights and invasive sounds of this hectic street.
The highlights of Ho Chi Minh included shopping for vintage shirts at Mayhem, an introduction to Vietnamese coffee, exploring the wonders of Banh Mi and Pho, while also meeting some interesting people. Banh Mi’s are sandwiches with French style baguettes and Pho is a noodle soup that comes in delightful variations. Another somber yet vastly necessary place to visit is the War Remnants Museum. It sheds light on an opposing perspective of the Vietnam War, calling Americans “henchmen” and the former Southern Vietnamese government a “puppet”.
Da Nang is a coastal city in the center of the country. We were faced with two choices: Hop a fairly priced flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang that would last about an hour, or pay for an outrageously affordable bus ride that would take seventeen hours. We valued our time, and more importantly our fragile sanity, so in the end we headed north on a Jetstar plane.
Besides a crying baby, water hoarding flight attendants, and a fake landing, we enjoyed the journey. During the final descent, we were greeted with fireworks. At first I thought, “how did they know that Jack and I were here?” but then I remembered that it was Tết eve, so this was all part of the yearly holiday tradition.
Staying at the Travellers Nest Hostel, we met some friendly folks ranging from the Vietnamese staff to laid-back weed growers who claimed to be programmers. We didn’t have much of an agenda for Da Nang, as it was Tết holiday, but we ended up with one of the best experiences of our trip.
During the evening of Tết, we wandered the empty streets of Mỹ An and discovered an eating gem. The woman who runs Banh Mi Phan Tic is a wonderful person. The majority of travelers who come here make a visit to The Golden Bridge of the Ba Na. We, on the other hand, opted for a more independent activity and rented motorbikes in order to wander around the neighboring San Tra (Monkey) peninsula. It’s here where one can encounter the 236 foot tall Goddess of Mercy (Lady Buddha) statue. This is part of a pagoda named Linh Ung. We took photos here and then explored nearby San Tra Mountain on motorbike, a destination for spotting endangered Red-Shanked Douc monkeys.
We took a forty-minute shuttle to Hoi An, a former trading port that sits along the estuary of the Thu Bon River, a bike ride’s journey from the South China Sea. Nowadays, Hoi An is a tourist magnet thanks to its well preserved historic quarter, culinary scene, world-class tailors, leather goods, and trademark Lantern Festival.
When we arrived, the city was still recovering from Tết festivities. The streets were swarmed with visitors, both Vietnamese and from other countries. Hoi An isn’t an oasis from motorbikes, as honks serenaded us along most corners. It felt like we were in a city of aspiring social media influencers because there wasn’t a wall where someone wasn’t posing for a photo. The energy and motion of every street felt like my hometown of Sausalito on performance-enhancing drugs. Overall, Hoi An truly is a visual site to behold even with the vast numbers of crowds.
The fellow backpackers at the Tribee Kinh were fun and the staff there was also really nice. Vietnam has an infatuation with lemon tea, and we tried our first one at Mót. We found perhaps a new favorite food in Cau Lao, a thick noodle soup with pork. Finally, we started our quest to follow in the footsteps of the late great Anthony Bourdain by visiting restaurants he ate at during the filming of “Parts Unknown”. We started our hunt in disappointment because Banh Mi Phoung, in Hoi An’s old quarter, was closed due to Tết.
We eventually hugged Hoi An goodbye and booked a plane to ___________________.
Well, this is probably a good place to say farewell! Hopefully this post was a nice distraction for five minutes.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, it truly means a lot! Another one or two posts about Vietnam will be coming soon.
Have you been to Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hoi An? How was your experience there?
I’d love to hear about it. Take care and lots of love.
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