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Back at the very same hotel in Hanoi where we stayed before, Việt and I immediately fell asleep, exhausted from hiking the past three days. Early the next morning, we organized our bags and met his cousin, Thanh and her friend outside.

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We spent the afternoon foodhopping yet again, trying new signature dishes of the north like bún chả (noodles with grilled meat in fish sauce) and phở cuốn (rolling noodles). Motorbiking between each restaurant, we got a better feel for the city while passing by several historical landmarks.

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Trà chanh and hạt hướng dương (Lemon iced tea & sunflower seeds)

Trà chanh and hạt hướng dương (Lemon iced tea & sunflower seeds)

As soon as Thanh started posting photos of me on her Facebook, her friends grew increasingly curious, asking questions and requesting more photos. It was definitely an interesting experience trending online as a Westerner and luckily I had Việt to translate.

As soon as Thanh started posting photos of me on her Facebook, her friends grew increasingly curious, asking questions and requesting more photos. It was quite an interesting experience trending online as a Westerner. Việt and I laughed as he translated her friend’s comments about my “fair skin.”

When we had first arrived in Hanoi I learned that many regions in Vietnam were separated by the stereotypes of other people from different regions. Although nearly every country has regional stereotypes, it was rare to observe them as clearly as I did in Vietnam.  As an American, I was always prepared to face rude behavior or attitude from local people but instead I was treated with extreme kindness no matter where I went in the country. Việt on the other hand explained that he needed to adjust his accent to a “northern tone” when speaking in Vietnamese to avoid being pointed out as a southerner. He spoke slowly repeating several words until I could hear the difference in accents. With my “Western” smile and his adapted accent, we navigated the city with ease.

In the evening we met up with some of my friends who happened to be in Hanoi: the friendly Germans who I celebrated Christmas and New Years with a month and a half earlier at the homestay I was working at in Bangkok. We caught up over bia hơi, Hanoi’s famously inexpensive beer, before Việt and I had to rush off to catch our bus. We hugged everyone goodbye, especially Thanh, since it was my last time seeing her before I left the country, and Việt wouldn’t be seeing her again for two months.

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Taxi bike waits for his next client

Mototaxi waiting for his next client

Tào phớ (Sweet tofu)

Tào phớ (Sweet tofu)

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Situated on the bus, the real journey from the north of Vietnam to the south began. Due to Tết aftermath (family and friends traveling back home following the holidays), a direct route wasn’t available between the cities. Instead, Việt managed to book us an alternative route. We’d arrive the next morning in Huế, spend the entire day and one night there, then take another bus to Hội An for a two hour layover before continuing on to Saigon. All in all, the actual travel time was a little over 24 hours but at least we’d be making stops along the way. Việt also hadn’t visited the two cities yet either so we were both excited to cover new grounds.


Huế

Sunlight filtered through the bus windows as the sunrise began. A half hour later and we arrived to a fully lit sky of a new day in a new city. We grabbed our bags and started walking to our hotel to check in, finding a motorbike along the way to rent.

Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

With our bags secured, we ventured back outside, got on the motorbike, and rode it to grab breakfast: bún bò huế (spicy beef soup) another signature local dish Việt insisted we try.

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Holding back temptations to continue eating more soup all day, I plugged in the coordinates of an abandoned water park which I had researched prior to arriving. Việt was also interested in exploring it so we began our journey, about a twenty minute motorbike ride out into the woods.

Approaching the main gate, we bribed two guards the equivalent of $5 USD to let us in and avoided patches of unpaved road as we entered into the overgrown grounds. After passing the initial odd sculptures at the entrance, we took the left leg of a road, around a bend and discovered the massive, iconic dragon statue of the park in the middle of the lake.

Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

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Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

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Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

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Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

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Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

After spending an hour roaming around the overgrown gardens, empty aquariums,  observation hallways, utility rooms, and even the throat and head of the dragon, we jumped back on the motorbike and drove along another bend, pausing to watch a group of crazy Australian bros scale the head by climbing up the back. We watched along with an older Vietnamese man who had come to fish, as most Vietnamese people did there. He muttered to us about how they were going to die just like the last people who tried. They didn’t.

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Việt and I were surprised to find the park was far from abandoned, at least in terms of occupants. Not 1 but 2 wedding photo sessions were taking place while groups of Vietnamese friends and foreigners from nearby hostels explored the remains.

Việt and I were surprised to find that the park was far from abandoned, at least in terms of occupants. Not one, but two wedding photo sessions were taking place, other Vietnamese people fished around the lake, and groups of foreigners tipped off by their hostel’s staff also explored the property. It was quite the crowd for an “abandoned” space…

Attempting to beat the Australian bros to the rest of the park, we sped along over the deteriorating path. Around the next bend we found partially filled pools along with playgrounds, slides, a lazy river, and more.

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Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

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Luckily, our timing was excellent as we had finished taking photos right when the bros arrived. Onward we drove through several more bends until the road brought us nearly all the way back around the lake to a massive stadium. With the lake reaching out into the horizon, a monstrous and rusted water fountain system was left in the foreground, submerged under rain water. Enormous palm trees surrounded the perimeter and dual colored seats lined the stadium steps.

A Vietnamese man fishing

One of the many Vietnamese men fishing around the lake

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Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

Photo by Việt

Việt trying on my sunglasses

Việt trying on my sunglasses

Back on the main road, we drove out of the park and returned to town. On our way, Việt suddenly stopped and as soon as I saw what was on the other side of the street, I knew exactly why: his sweet tooth.

On the other side of the street, we sat down to enjoy a refreshing glass of sugarcane juice, one of his favorite drinks. I eventually realized that he could never resist the urge to get one if he’d see a stand.

After dinner, we walked around town, exploring the area nearby our hotel. We went to sleep early, taking advantage of sleeping in a bed since we knew we’d be without one for the next 24 hours. In the morning, we grabbed breakfast before returning our bike and heading back to the bus station. We only had days left before my visa expired, the race was officially on.

Man attempting to sell us lottery tickets

Man attempting to sell us lottery tickets


Hội An

About an hour before arriving in Hội An, Việt checked his phone to find that a friend of his, Khoa, was also there with his girlfriend. He immediately gave him a call and by the time we arrived and left our bags secured at the bus depot, Khoa had pulled up beside us on a motorbike and gave us a lift to The Central Market to meet up with his girlfriend. Inside was a large building whose interior was full of food vendors. We sat down and talked over lunch.

Bún thịt nướng (Grilled pork vermicelli)

Bún thịt nướng (Grilled pork vermicelli)

Prior to rushing back to the bus station, both Việt and I grabbed chè bắp (sweet corn pudding) to go and ate it as we sped walked through the old town of Hội An. On board our second to last bus, we began the drive to Nha Trang, the city where I had spent the holiday with Việt and his dad’s side of the family just a few weeks prior. When we arrived there, it was very late at night, and we hopped on our final overnight bus, past Dalat, en route to Saigon.

It was a long journey, and we stopped several times along the way. One restaurant we stopped at during the night had each dish written above the checkout counter. There were typical Vietnamese dishes, but one we couldn’t help but notice was “Beep Soup,” an unfortunate misspelling of beef which both Việt and I found extremely entertaining.

To occupy time on the bus, Việt and I watched movies, caught up on shows, talked, slept, read, or wrote on the seemingly endless ride. At one point the next day, I could tell that Việt and I were sleep deprived and in need of sugar so I went across the street from where we had stopped to pick up ice cream for both of us. Suddenly morale was high and only hours remained of the journey.

I couldn't complain about being awake early enough for sunrise as we drove further south on the bus

I couldn’t complain about being up early to catch sunrise while driving further south on the bus


Saigon

As we pulled into District 1, the very same spot where I had departed a few weeks prior, I realized just how different the past few weeks had played out compared to how I envisioned them to be when I first entered the country. Instead of traveling an additional week and a half, working in Hanoi, venturing into Laos, seeing Northern Thailand, and catching my mid-March flight to London, I had slowed down and really taken the time to understand one country rather than jump to many. I had celebrated Vietnam’s most important holiday, explored different climates, environments, and cities of the country, tried ridiculous varieties of new foods, hiked to the country’s tallest peak, spent time with similarly aged and like-minded Vietnamese people, gained a local perspective of each city, and of course felt incredibly lucky to have had this all come together entirely because of a simple swipe right to Việt.

Grabbing our bags from the area I had dropped mine off at weeks prior, my time in Vietnam felt like a full circle. Being back in Saigon felt right and I was excited to continue exploring what I had missed while living in the center with Việt. We took a mototaxi back to his apartment, left our bags, got on his bike with my passport, and drove to extend my visa. With two days remaining until it expired, the extension office ensured it wouldn’t be a problem as I filled out the required paperwork. Back on the bike, we were overjoyed to return to Việt’s apartment, a shower, and to a real bed. With about a month left until my flight to London, I couldn’t begin to imagine how many more spectacular experiences I was soon to share with Việt.

Every Vietnamese post header image features a shot on film by Việt during our time together.