a four-hour flight and one layover, I was in Vietnam. I had been thinking about this segment of my trip off and on, not seriously enough to get emotional. I had come back to see my roots, my heritage, but I had no expectations. I didn’t come to Vietnam with an ulterior motive. I just wanted to see the country, experience the culture, and visit my old orphanage. Perhaps this nonchalance attitude helped me appreciate the beauty and adventure of Vietnam even more than my other travels. On the other hand, it could easily be the stark difference of a luscious environment from Mongolia’s desert steppe land. I am starting to think I would take the dry heat over the humid heat, but the vibrance of the fauna and flora is breathtaking.
My first full day of in Vietnam consisted of a tour to Halong Bay. Have you seen the pictures of island rocks jutting heavenwards? I’ve been there. I didn’t do much research prior to my departure. This may not be the best strategy for a traveler, especially one going it alone. Most people I’ve bumped into have a Lonely Planet that they religiously carry around, which by and large is an excellent idea. Why did I not? I have no idea. I just simply winged this entire summer and fortune was on my side to have it turned out so well. On a side note, my future travels will be requiring a companion.
The road trip to Halong Bay took three and a half hours by minibus where people from Italy, Spain, Germany, and Japan crammed in for the ride. It was a great way to see the countryside of Vietnam. The Old Quarter of Hanoi looks exactly like the pictures – maze streets filled with vendors and people in conical hats selling from baskets hung a wooden pole carried on one shoulder. The other areas of Hanoi are more modern and sleek (much more westernized than Mongolia). But to get a true taste of Vietnam, one has to venture further than the tour bus and the hotel. Behind the large tracks of land dedicated to rice paddies, coconut trees lining partially paved roads, and banana trees, is the Vietnamese population living through the daily grind. Nestled between the jungle of emptiness, housing ruins that draw massive amounts of European tourists and the habitable land above the water level, are small Vietnamese people carrying loads twice their size on small motorbikes with their conical hat protecting their faces from the hot, humid atmosphere.
It’s not always a pretty picture, but the emerald green mountainsides and palm trees make it easy for the tourists to be transported to paradise, forgetting the trash and polluted waterways, the slums and undeveloped areas that Vietnamese people live in, behind the façade of commercial tourism.
Halong Bay was my tourist escape. I was picked up with a tour group of people from Italy, Spain, Germany, and Japan. I was the only American tourist. Not many American tourists come to Vietnam, but Southeast Asia holds a special intrigue for our European counterparts.
After a three and a half bus ride through the countryside, we arrive at Halong Bay. It’s exactly like the tourist pictures you see of Vietnam. It’s a long bay with rock islands jutting heavenwards. I ate a seafood lunch with my new Italian and Spanish friends as our boat cruised out to wear the rock islands clumped together like schoolgirls.
Everything seems so vibrant in Vietnam, but I just did spend three months in Mongolia with its desert/steppe terrain.
We docked at a rock island and climbed it to the cave. It’s no the most impressive cave I’ve seen, but still a fun adventure. The best part of the trip was kayaking around the rock islands getting into water fights with Italians is a losing battle. Cristian and I paddled into a cave, helped his Italian friends from downing after they capsized their kayak, and won the race back to home base!
We ended the evening with a hotpot dinner in the heart of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. I could not have planed for a better start to my Vietnam Tour. My anticipation grows as each day brings me closer to my visit to Dong Nai Orphanage.