Vietnam was like a long slow intro to South East Asia – getting blasted by the heat as I moved down south, the cheap prices, the bold rats, the slow speed of travel, the hassles, the different pace of life, and the people. I hadn't planned to stay as long as I did – over 2 months – but then I hadn't planned anything at all, and my need to make sure I covered all the key stops combined with a lack of desire to be constantly on the move added up to a lot of time in a country that hadn't been at the top of my travel list.
I haven't really summed it all up yet. Sapa was definitely a highlight, a volunteer opportunity of the kind I would have hoped to find but wasn't expecting to, especially relatively early on in my travels – combined with big green mountains, a dreamy fog and postcard perfect terraced rice fields. Paradise Cave was another stunning sight, while watching the coloured paper candle lit lanterns float down the river at night through Hoi An was almost prettier than the walking through the lantern-hung streets during the day.
There were memorable places and transport worth remembering to get there – riding the rails with Mario on the way to Sapa, and taking the luxury train on the way back, where my fears of being locked in a small cabin with a group of men overnight were put to rest as the guy in bunk above me start to play Silent Night on his flute while we left the station. His friend told me about the traditional folk songs from his village that are famous across the country, and showed me a video from one of the songs, which I heard performed later at the Heritage Festival in Hoi An. On the bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh I was crowded in with the locals, on the day train from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi I thanked the travel gods that I missed getting a ticket the night before, and thereby didn't get stuck trying to sleep in a dingy cabin on a mattress an inch thick, but instead was able to conk out in a seat after watching A Bug's Life on the tv screen hanging across the aisle. Riding a motorbike in the rain to Phong Nha, where my driver stopped for a phone call along the side of the road, as the clouds approached. The mini-bus from Phong Nha to Hue where the driver blasted his horn at everything in his path from the time he could see it until we'd barrelled our way passed. The day motorbike road trip from Hue to Hoi An. The short and painless flight to Saigon, and the bus ride from Binh Minh back to Saigon, where I dropped my sunglasses in the toilet at the rest stop. I covered a lot of ground on almost every form of transport, from North to all the way south.
Getting the hang of being on the road – finding my way around, learning how to bargain, feeling the wind and appreciating the scenery from the back of a motorbike, indulging in mango lassis until I realised they were all made with condensed milk and sugar and didn't balance out my french fries and pizza – these were all important discoveries. I had trouble with the rampant littering – cigarette butts tossed over the side of the boat outside a cave of national historic importance, water bottles dropped at the foot of famous pagodas, napkins from my dinner plate tossed by my waitress into the gutter – these were some of the many shocks to the system, and couldn't help calling a comparison to Japan, where garbage seemed to magically disappear even though there were few bins to be found. The more aggressive swindles and outrageous doubling, tripling (and even quintupling) of the prices got on my nerves, and so did the heat.
There was a lot to see, but I think what won out the most was all the people I got to know – old and new – starting with couchsurfing buddies on my first night in the country, the crowd of teachers and students in Sapa, Ottawa friends welcoming me to their home in Hanoi, making friends in Phong Nha, meeting up again with Sapa friends in Hoi An, new friends in Saigon, and my old high school friend in Binh Minh. That was time well spent.