I think that when I decided to go to Vietnam, I envisioned myself travelling EVERYWHERE. I quickly realized that this would be impossible. Asia is huge and visiting different places requires time, money and energy. That being said, I saw a lot of places this year and feel that I got a nice taste of South-East Asia. Here is a quick summary of the places I went:
My first quick trip was to Cat Ba Island, a five hour drive from Hanoi. It is a beautiful island just off the coast and has a mountainous landscape formed of karst rocks, like humongous dinosaur eggs jutting up out of the ground that is common in this part of Vietnam. What is interesting about the island is you can rent kayaks and explore the karst coming out of the water up close. Unfortunately, there was huge storm when I went and no boats were allowed out. Instead we rented a motorbike and drove around the island, exploring its lovely landscape.
My next trip, I went to Cambodia. I decided to save money and fly to Ho Chi Minh City then take a bus to the capital Phnom Penh. I don’t really know what to say about this city, but I couldn’t deal with it. I was alone and felt really depressed; the effects of the recent genocide here, and the aftermath – rampant poverty, homeless children, and a general sense of despair – made for an emotional trip. Things felt a bit different when I arrived in Siem Reap, where temple tourism seems to have made life a bit lighter in this small Cambodian city. The temples are amazing, and could take years to see properly. I’ll never forget the feeling when I saw the first temple, a huge mass of rocks appearing in front of me. I feel very privileged to have been able to visit them and will never forget the sense of awe and inspiration that they evoked in me.
Bangkok, Thailand: A trip I had to make in an emergency visa run situation (it’s a long story) and I could only stay a few days. I feel like I need to go back to really get the feel for this massive city, but in a nutshell: temples, river, boats, car traffic, sky train, shopping, pink taxis, jazz club, spicy food, and an amazing massage!!!
Over Christmas, I was invited by friends to go to Ninh Binh, Vietnam a two and a half hour train ride from Hanoi that has a similar landscape to Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay. The small town is quiet and peaceful. You can climb up one of the rocks and see the view, which in the December weather was downcast, foggy and beautiful. We took a rowboat to visit caves and temples along the water. The landscape was breathtaking and calm despite the numerous boats of tourists that were there. The highlight of the weekend though was sitting around in a café (with heating!!) playing Saboteur (a card game) and drinking wine. Merry Christmas everyone!
Têt holiday/lunar New Year is very big in Vietnam, and most foreigners leave during the two-week celebration to have the chance to travel while everything has shut down in Hanoi as well as to escape the cold of February. I decided to go to Northern Thailand and Laos. I flew to Bangkok then took a train ride to Chiang Mai. This trip began with a deep breath and a prayer, when I found out that all the sleeper beds on the train were sold out (you can’t buy your tickets online, and so things are complicated) and I was to do the fourteen-hour ride on a hard bench seat… But with my new attitude of “I can do anything!” I embarked on the train.
Tired, but on the other end of those fourteen hours, I was in Chiang Mai, a peaceful little city that I found immediately pleasing with its laidback atmosphere and charm. The next couple of days I met up with friends, played Saboteur, ate great food, drove up to the mountains, celebrated lunar New Year with some locals and slept in a traditional stilt house. I had a great time.
After Chiang Mai, I headed north to Laos. Getting across the border was a disorganized mess that took FOREVER. I ended up missing the one boat that leaves per day to Luang Prabang and had to take a thirteen-hour bus ride instead. The route from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is around 500 km. However, the road goes through the mountains and you go along at a pretty leisurely pace taking in the beautiful scenery and local life. We made numerous stops along the way, picking up other passengers and buying or picking up market items, lottery tickets, parcels and whatnot. I learned that this is how things are done in Laos and foreigners need to relax and lean into the slow pace of life here.
Once in Luang Prabang, I met up with a friend from Hanoi. Together we walked the quiet streets of the city, exploring its markets, cafés and river view. We rented a motorbike and drove up into the mountains, along winding roads and through a village during lunchtime, seeing all the school kids on bicycles going home to eat. This short stay in Luang Prabang where all is quiet and peaceful was a perfect end to my Têt holiday during which I felt like I had been transformed into a more relaxed and flexible person, since my plans never quite worked out, but everything ended up being better than expected, #themotherwillprovide. And so this trip was a turning point for me.
I saved most of my travelling around Vietnam for April. The trip took place in different sections: First, we took the train to Hue, a picturesque quiet city in the middle of Vietnam. We explored the old citadel and drove to the countryside to visit an emperor’s tomb. Next it was on to Da Nang, located on the coast with its busy streets and shops downtown, and its many beaches. One day was spent driving to Hoi An, to explore and go to different beaches. Hoi An is known for it’s tailor culture, people used to come here specifically to get a new wardrobe made. It has now become a tourist destination. Its cute streets and quaint feel were pleasing nonetheless.
Next, it was onward south, and we flew to Buon Ma Thuot to meet up with other friends. We hired a tour guide and visited the sights in this area, the highlands of Vietnam, where coffee and cashew nuts are grown. We drove through the landscape, visited a famous waterfall, stayed in a traditional village (a place built for tourists) and visited a national park. Since we went in April, it was almost the end of the dry season; it was extremely hot and somewhat unbearable. It was interesting to see life here as few tourists come this way.
Returning to Hanoi to work, I was unexpectedly asked to accompany some UNIS students on a trip to Hue for a few days. And so it was back to the center. This time, accompanied by Vietnamese speakers, I saw a different side to Hue and discovered some of my new favourite foods: bánh nậm and bánh bèo.
With the arrival of more friends, we headed back down south to Ho Chi Minh City, exploring the streets of this massive metropolis, with its more capitalist feel, night markets, and slightly tamer traffic than in the north? I think? Next it was a bus ride south to Ben Tre and a luxurious homestay. We took a boat ride down river to Cau Ke, passing palm trees, boats and stilt houses. Cau Ke in Tra Vinh province is an interesting area because it used to belong to Cambodia, and most of the people who live here are of Khmer descent. People speak Khmer and monks can be seen walking the streets doing their alms. While we were there, we got to have lunch with a friend at his family home. We ate a traditional lunch of hot pot, with the meat placed on the rim of the pot. When you want to eat it, you cook in the soup. It seemed odd to be eating such a hot meal in fifty degree heat, but the spiciness caused the sweat to come and cool us all off. Finally, we finished our southern Vietnam exploration in Can Tho, meeting up with students wanting to practice their English, who took us to the local sights and to the famous floating market. Boats come down river transporting various fruits and vegetables. Locals come to buy goods to sell at the market in the city. All of this happens between five and seven in the morning when the heat of the day is more bearable.
My final trip before heading back to Canada was to Myanmar. I had made a promise to a friend before she left Hanoi in May that I would meet up with her there, and I’m so glad she dragged me out of my travel burnout to visit this lovely country. After traveling quite a bit this year, especially during my April Vietnamese traveling bonanza, I was struggling to find the energy to go on another trip. We met up in Yangon, which I found to be a very peaceful and laid back city despite the amount of cars and traffic. It was so interesting exploring the different neighbourhoods like China town and little India, riding the train out to the countryside, and going up to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, where locals who are all quite Buddhist, enjoy a peaceful stroll and a prayer around the sacred grounds.
It was then on to Bagan, in the north, where temples are EVERYWHERE. So interesting to visit, going from one temple to the next by e-bike, the day’s heat at times unforgiving. One thing that really struck me on this trip was: I have really gotten used to life in SE Asia. Markets, street life, traffic, ESL conversations, landscapes, the heat, the sounds and the smells have become so familiar. As I walked through the streets of Yangon, taking everything in, but comfortable, I was blown away by how much I have changed and adapted to life here. It is a great feeling.