Traversing Vietnam

I have this daydream that I defer to, when my teeth are chattering with fear on one of those awful transpacific flights that we so often subject ourselves to. I pretend that the airplane is driving on the ground instead, and that I have a whole room with a flat bed to lounge on. There’s s big window and lots of interesting things to look at as I fly along the ground. It can still be a long trip, that’s ok, even overnight, but it’s soothing, even cozy.

Well, my friends, it turns out: this is a train!

Luke buys rice snacks
Luke buys rice snacks

We took the overnight train from Ho Chi Minh City (in the south of Vietnam, of course), all the way up to Danang, which is almost in the middle. It was a 16 hour ride. Sure, we had to squish a few cockroaches on our bunks, but they were only small ones. We had gotten stuck in the crappy carriage, but the bonus was that it was filled with locals, not tourists. Luke and I paid extra for the bottom bunks, and we had a couple of friendly Vietnamese strangers snoring on the bunks above us. We even got to keep our luggage under our beds! We missed the dinner food cart accidentally, but we binged on rice-based snacks and popcorn when it came by again at 6am. Luke also had a warm can of beer for breakfast, because his bunkmate gave it to him. So thoughtful.

Luke went to sleep early, because the train really was soothing and cozy. But I was just too darn excited to sleep. I was rewarded for this at midnight, when blindingly bright, twinkling fields of light suddenly started streaming past my window. It was a mesmerising sight. For minutes, I couldn’t figure out what it was. Finally, we passed a field of lights only metres away from the train tracks, and I saw that they were lightbulbs hung on cords between rows of dragonfruit plants, lighting up the weird spindly arms of the plants. They are really twisted looking plants to begin with, but throw in acres of Christmas lights on crack, and the accompanying geometric shadows, and you get quite a sight. Insider travel tip: a magical train trip is even more magical if you hang out in the bathroom and watch the night scenes pass through the open window. The smell of the pee that is understandably coating the room is more than masked by the fragrant night air.

I don’t know how people traveled before Google and mobile data. Anyway, I immediately googled this weirdness and found out the dragonfruit plants usually only fruit once per year. But, if you put light on them for a few hours each night for the few winter months, you can confuse those poor plants into flowering in the off season. More dragonfruit for all.

Various propagandas and real history
As you know, we like to learn about the history of the places we visit. Southeast Asia has been a pretty uncomfortable place to do this, and Vietnam is no exception.

A sign outside the War Remnants Museum, and an American tank
A sign outside the War Remnants Museum, and an American tank

If you go to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s probably important to go to the War Remnants Museum. Opened just a few months after the fall (or liberation, choose your own propaganda) of Saigon, it used to be called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crime. So that probably gives a good indication of the slant. But the photos don’t lie, and there are lots of them. It is really, really horrible. We couldn’t look at all of the photos, which I regret, because I think it’s important to witness and remember what happened to these people. And by people, I’m including not just civilians, but soldiers from all sides, and media folks. But we were on a direct path to nervous breakdown central. We’re sensitive souls.

In fact, we were probably saved from a freak out by running into Annie, right inside the museum. Annie is a French friend we met in Laos, whom we’ve accidentally run into four times in Southeast Asia now. We often see the same backpackers a couple times, but fate is clearly advocating for a friendship here.

dsc03457All in all, we like Ho Chi Minh City. We took a walking tour of the leafy central part of the city, which was the scene of a lot of iconic moments from the fall/liberation of Saigon. Perhaps this is because it’s also where most members of the press corps lived. There’s an exhibition on them in the War Remnants Museum, which gives them almost tender treatment. Given the slant of this museum, this makes sense. Being the youngin’ that I am, I never had thought about how influential those press people were in the outcome of this first televised war. And how they often paid with their lives for this information to reach the world.

PS, the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is unreal. As one fellow tourist shouted at me as I dilly dallied at the edge of a packed road: you just have to commit. You don’t wait for the cars and bikes to stop coming- you just walk into them, and they part like a river flowing around a rock. Hopefully.

Shingle to boggie: big fat babies 

We don’t really like backpacking. Go ahead, judge us and call us snobs for not fully appreciating our two months of extra holiday post-vehicle. But truly, it’s exhausting. Sleeping in a different bed each night isn’t too bad, but not being able to cater for ourselves is a bummer – unhealthy and expensive. It sucks to carry our stuff on our backs, though we do enjoy having so little stuff. We miss the familiarity of our car, coming back to our home every time we go for a drive.

The worst is transport. I thought the epic bus rides would be my main complaint, but they aren’t too bad now that we know how to get good companies. Our central problem is that it is almost impossible to get off the beaten track unless one pays buttloads of cash for a private driver, spends days and days taking local public transport, or rents a scooter. None of these are viable options for us to do regularly. (Money, time, safety, respectively.)

We've been forced to see stupid ugly stuff like this dumb thing
We’ve been forced to see stupid ugly stuff like this dumb thing

So, we are pretty much destined to the city-to-city tourist path, with a couple package tours here and there and a private car for a few hours now and again. We miss just rolling into an unsuspecting village, or pulling over in a nice quiet roadside spot. We miss making our plans by what sounds amazing, not by what we can reasonably access. So that’s our first world problem of the day.

A Tale of Two Medium Sized Townships in the Mekong Delta

Luke gets a haircut in Ho Cong. It turned out just like Ho Chi Minh, I shit you not
Luke gets a haircut in Go Cong. It turned out just like Ho Chi Minh, I shit you not.

One of the times we took a private car was to see Go Cong, a small town on the Mekong Delta. It’s nothing out of this world, but it was fantastic to walk around a pleasant, pretty town with zero tourist infrastructure. People were insanely friendly. We confused the tour companies with our request to go there, and they insisted there were no busses going that way. There are, of course, just not ones that ever take Westerners.

A tourist trap, but a pretty one.
A tourist trap, but a pretty one.

We then moved on to My Tho, a Mekong town with a definitive tourist infrastructure. We took a boat ride (private, but only due to lack of other customers). We were taken to three islands, each with stands of souvenirs and a different product for tourist consumption (honey, coconut candy, tropical fruit). It was indeed beautiful, and I binged on them products, but still.

The new Vietnam 

Much like my experience with China, Luke barely recognises Vietnam, and he was only here 10 years ago. It’s way more developed. There are way more cars, firstly, and less bicycles. Everything is newer. There’s a heap more English being spoken – he reckons because the kids who were being taught English in school when he was here last are now old enough to be working in cafes and hotels.

We talked to an Aussie cafe owner here in Hue (just north of the DMZ) who said that when he first went to Hoi An in 1998, it was mostly houses. A few cafés dotted here and there, a few shops. Now, as we can attest, there are about 100 tailors, we estimate. Every building on the main streets is either a restaurant, guesthouse, or shop, or has been preserved and converted into a fee-for-view attraction. It’s beautiful still, and charming, but it’s different.

The new Hoi An
The new Hoi An

I’m happy for the locals, I think. They seem to appreciate the change. The dollars that flow into that town, and many others like it, provide disposable income, education, and opportunities. As our tour guide in Hoi An said to us: everyone used to live on their boats with their whole families, fishing for a living. Now, pretty much everyone lives in a nice brick house on land, and almost everyone goes to university in Danang, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hanoi. In her case, her parents are rice farmers. Now, she’s a tour guide, one of her brothers is an engineer, and her other brother is the primary school teacher on the island they grew up on.

Sappy Life Lessons: Part I

I suppose a rather large piece of news is that we are going home soon. We have flights to Australia on February 2, and we’ll be flying back to the US in mid-April. Folks invariably ask us how we feel about this, which is kind and thoughtful. The answer is: we’re totally cool with it. Getting happier about it by the day, actually.

You see, we have a list. Luke and I are people who are much happier when we have a list, or, better yet, multiple lists and a list of those lists. In this case, these lists detail the ways that we want to spend our time and live our lives when we are back to a more *stationary* lifestyle. We’ve learned the secret of why we love to travel: it pleasurably forces us to plan things we love into each day. Things we love are pretty much the only things we do, actually. But, there’s no reason that we can’t plan things we love into each day at home, too. Sure, there are more mundane responsibilities that come with earning a living rather than spending the fruits of that earning as a full time job. But intentionally building joy into our schedules is the most significant change we want to make after this year.

As Luke says, he loves to sit in a hot tub, but he also likes to get out of one.

I told you half a year ago that Luke had his Moroccan linen and was ready for some self-discovery; so there you have it. We’re waxing philosophical on the regular these days, so just you wait for more jaw-dropping insights in our few remaining posts.

First and foremost: the silly faces of Khai Dinh’s tomb

Ho Chi Minh City 

Go Cong 

My Tho

Hoi An (plus the train ride)


3 thoughts on “Traversing Vietnam”

  1. As always, your blog is wonderful. It was lovely to see the places I had been with your parents through your eyes, and it sounds as though you share some of our thoughts as well. Everyone will be so happy to have you back, but I will miss your travels and incredible photos.


  2. My remarkable Felice and Luke – Words cannot express how impressed we are by you and this fantastic adventure you have had. You have traveled this world and done so with your eyes wide open, ready to learn, and with such grace and joy. The way you have represented Americans and Australians to the world makes us so proud. We love you!


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