It’s hard to believe it has been almost three months since I returned back to the Land of Smiles from my solo trip to Vietnam. Yet thinking back, everything is still fresh in my mind and is still bringing me such joy to recall all the greatness I experienced in those weeks traveling throughout such an amazing country. From trekking to various homestays, volunteer teaching and helping at an orphanage, exploring hidden gems with the locals and partying with new friends from all over the world, I saw some of the most beautiful views in the most serene places and had some drinks in some of the wildest.
I could literally probably write a book on my experiences throughout Vietnam alone. Making the most out of each new day, I am beyond grateful for all the new places I saw, foods I tried, conversations I had, and friends I made. While I may never get the chance to return to some of the places or cross paths with some of the people, each experience is one that I am eternally grateful for, as they leave me with a such a special memory, each happening for a reason.
My journey throughout Vietnam started in the north and ended in the south, traveling by planes, trains, and buses throughout. While I mostly had an idea of where I wanted to go, I know plans always change, and all that really mattered was I catch my flight back home from Saigon. Starting my adventures in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, I was quick to notice the immediate differences between Vietnam and Thailand. Thailand is such a slower pace of life, while Vietnam is quite the opposite. Things seem to go at a much faster pace there, which was easily seen just by looking at the busy streets. With hardly any street lights, crossing the street can give you quite a bit of anxiety. I quickly learned the best way to attempt this enigma was to keep my head down and just walk at a steady pace, with my fingers crossed that I didn’t get hit by a car. Luckily for me, this strategy worked out well.
On the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital
From Hanoi, I traveled onto Sapa which was one of my favorite places in Vietnam and quite easily one of my favorite places I’ve seen throughout the world. I had planned a 2 day trek in which I would hike almost 30 kilometers throughout the beautiful rice paddy fields with a local man from the Hmong tribe as my guide. I was also lucky enough to enjoy a homestay where three generations of family from the Red Dao tribe welcomed me into their home. Here I played with the adorable babies and helped one of the ladies with her daily chores. It was during this time that I found such pure bliss, thinking about my breathtaking hike from the first day and enjoying the simple way of living with this family. I find it so beautiful that while we cannot always communicate with people due to language barriers, there is the undeniable ways of communicating through one’s actions and love we can share. While I wasn’t able to speak much with the family, we still shared so many laughs and smiles. During my homestay with the family, I was really taken in and treated so wonderfully. Since the Red Dao are known for their expertise in herbal medicine, as well as usage of plants from the land to treat many illnesses, I found myself lucky enough to enjoy a herbal bath in a wooden barrel made up of their various herbs. The family also prepared for me an amazing homecooked meal consisting of spring rolls, tofu dishes, and lots of rice wine!
Drinking rice wine with a local family
I really cannot express enough how beautiful Sapa was. Two days hiking through rice paddy fields, up and down through the rolling hills, across creeks and villages, standing on top of these peaks and looking down into some of the most beautiful views imaginable, there were moments where I stood silent with tears in my eyes. Pictures of this place cannot even do justice. If anyone has a chance to go to Vietnam, do not miss this amazing place.
Hiking through the rice paddy fields in Sapa
Another one of my favorite places in Vietnam was Ninh Binh. It’s a place that is on the off-beaten path where you will find hardly any tourists and just peace and quiet. After my two day hike, this was just what I needed. I spent my time in Ninh Binh riding a bicycle around to explore the small villages and various caves. I enjoyed time on a small boat that took me along the river with limestone cliffs surrounding me and through tiny caves. In my three days I spent in this small town, I stayed at another homestay where I was also fortunate enough to teach English to some local children. It was an incredible experience, and it is one that I will never forget.
In Ninh Binh on a boat traveling past limestone cliffs and caves
From Ninh Binh I went onto Hue where I met some amazing people, had some delicious food, and caught up on a lot of Vietnamese war history. Afterwards, I traveled to Hoi An where I fell in love with the small city, wild nightlife, inspiring locals, and beautiful beaches. I extended my time here because it was absolutely incredible. From the lanterns that hang in the trees lighting up the night to the stunning sunsets on the beautiful beaches, there was so many little things that made this place so memorable. I spent my days crab fishing in a traditional bamboo boat, snorkeling off some of the most amazing beaches, volunteering at an orphanage, and exploring new parts of the city with a local who showed me not only his favorite secret spots of town, but shared with me his horrific, yet inspiring story.
I met this incredible man while eating at this amazing vegan restaurant close by my hostel I was staying at. He walked over to my table and gave me a flower origami he made. I invited him to come eat dinner with me and offered to buy him a beer. We talked and laughed, and he offered to show me around town the next day. I met with him early in the morning back at the same vegan restaurant for some coffee before hopping on the back of his motorbike and driving off to the largest organic farm in Hoi An. From there, he took me to his favorite private beaches on our way up to Danang. We visited the Lady Buddha statue situated on the top of the mountains where we took in the beautiful views of the miles of beaches that lay beneath us. We sat inside of the temple where this man then shared with me his incredible story.
There are many hidden truths that we often don’t hear about from the Vietnam War. Terrible, hidden secrets that are still affecting people to do this day because of things that occurred in this country. You see, Danang, which is so beautiful nowadays, has an ugly past. While I rode on the back of this man’s motorbike to the top of this mountain, I noticed these beaches to my right that are known for being some of the most beautiful in this world. But to my left, I also noticed this ugly, deserted land with no vegetation, no green. It almost looked eerie, which was so strange because to the right it was so astonishing. But soon, it all made sense. I came to learn Danang was heavily affected by Agent Orange. Majority of Americans probably have no idea what this even is because I sure didn’t until hearing his story. During the Vietnam War, we decided to spray Agent Orange into the air and onto fields, forests, and villages in hopes of driving out the Viet Cong. Agent Orange contained some of the strongest chemicals known to man. What we didn’t know were the effects it would have on people, not only then but for years to come. This chemical infected land (hence why vegetation still isn’t growing in these areas) and waters, which in turn contaminated the fish people ate unknowingly. The devastating effects of this chemical are heartbreaking. I saw photos in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Museum which brought me to tears, and here I was, witnessing a man who was also directly affected as a child. He had developed Parkinson’s Disease as a result of living in this area while its forests were sprayed. While his story was sad and not uncommon, it was also very inspiring. While at the Lady Buddha, he brought out an instrument he made from a bomb fragment from the Vietnam War. While you would think someone might want to block out all connections from something that has completely changed his life, this man chose to make something beautiful from it. We sat at a temple and played music for a long time, and it was truly inspiring to me. I am truly grateful for getting to meet this man and letting him shine such a light into my life.
Playing the instrument the man made from a bomb fragment from the Vietnam War
After Hoi An, I flew down to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, a very unique city with a lot of history. It is absolutely huge and full of life at all hours. I got to experience a lot of history through the various museums I visited, eat some of the most delicious food, and drink some of the world’s cheapest beer. I also got to go to a brewery that was incredible! I spent time with some wonderful people and shared memories I will forever cherish. Saigon is so chaotic, but full of life, and while I definitely enjoyed my time there, it was nice to head back to Bangkok to simply relax after spending a few days in the chaos and the long vacation throughout Vietnam.
Throughout my time through Vietnam I was reminded how great it is to appreciate the simple things in life. We are so fortunate for so much in our lives, and we often take them for granted. I was also reminded how lucky I am for my health. I am blessed to have two feet that can carry me to all these amazing places, for my eyes to see the beauty that lies in them, for my mouth to speak, laugh, and smile with all the wonderful people I meet along the way, and for my ears to hear the stories these people have to share.
Appreciate yesterday, and live today. Live simply. Love generously. Learn constantly.