Although it’s a lovely country, for me Vietnam was so much more about the people I was travelling with and less about the places I visited. I had entered this country seriously on guard. It seemed everyone I met along my journey had some kind of story that headed a warning about attentively watching personal belongings or being aware of scams whilst in this country. It gave me a perception that I may have difficulty relaxing, settling and really enjoy myself – but (thankfully) I most definitely did not. I reunited with old friends, deepened my spirituality, drank some unbelievable coffee and gained at least 5 pounds of pastry-loving, noodle-craving, banh mi-savouring tummy weight.
From the moment I crossed the border from Laos into the beautifully lush Vietnam countryside I must admit I felt a difference in quality of life. This did not feel like a third world country, and even as I parked myself on the thirteen hour overnight bus to reunite with my special friend in Dalat, the ‘cushiness’ was definitely noted. The night buses in Vietnam are amazing; individual pods with recliners and great high speed wifi. Tv’s, free drinking water, warm face wipes; I’m telling you, any airline would consider this to be first class. For me, the eleven dollar bus ride was a real treat and it would become my first of many over the next month as I explored the of southern half of the country.
My first hour in Dalat was both terrifying and relieving at the same time. To start, I arrived via the night bus at 3am and was dropped off on the side of the street with 1% battery remaining on my phone. I had been told in broken Vietnamese-English countless times by the bus driver and the hostel owner that this was a safe town and the walk would be less than five minutes. I put on my (super fake) super brave face, threw my backpack over my shoulder and began to speed walk in the direction I was told. Lucky for me, you can get free wifi (and therefore maps.com) absolutely everywhere in Vietnam and I had the hostel address screenshotted on my device. Unlucky for me, the nightbuses don’t have adapters to charge and I completely lost my battery before the map could load. I wandered up and down the empty street, occasionally wiping the nervous sweat from my brow, for about twenty minutes before the panic completely set in. I needed help. I took my backpack off to sit on top of, closed my eyes and practiced some deep breathing. The next time I opened my eyes everything looked different. The street was surprisingly well-lit and incredibly peaceful, and really not that empty at all. I saw lights on in multiple dwellings and so I knocked and asked for exactly what I needed. The nicest man who, like most of the Vietnamese people I met, spoke little-to-no-English knew not where I was to go but took the time to contact the hostel and find out. He then proceeded to give me his helmet and drive me up the street on his motorbike to exactly where I needed to be (pretty freakin’ magic if you ask me). I walked into the dorm room and gave my sweet, sleeping friend the biggest squeeze of her life. And, although we had only met a few months prior in Nepal, I was immediately overcome with all the familiar feelings of love and comfort that I associate with being ‘home’.
Dalat turned out to be the perfect city for Brenda and I to reconnect and Easy Friends Hostel was the best place for us to stay. It was easy-going, relaxed and everyone staying seemed to be on the exact same wavelength; a collection of like-minded people with a lot of gifts to share with one another. We’d all go out and experience the city by day and come together at night to eat, share stories, and play games. The hostel owners cooked us breakfast every morning (this is where my over-consumption of baguettes began thanks to the delicious local honey and strawberry jam they put out) and I developed a serious addiction for Vietnamese coffee.
It’s funny how you can live separately from some people, but when you come together again you feel like you never left each others’ side. Within moments Brenda and I were able to pick up exactly where we had left off months earlier in Nepal. We participated in a world-wide meditation experience, played Yahtzee over breakfast, and at night we’d cuddle in one bed to look through all of SARAH’s amazing pictures of our Annapurna hike (laughing and reminiscing about those magical days on the trail).
We Face-timed mutual friends, choked down rice wine shots with locals, bravely got haircuts in a foreign country and indulged in the best vegetarian food imaginable (visiting one particular restaurant so often we began getting ‘friend’ perks from the hilariously sarcastic woman who owned it).
We decided to spend a few days at a beautiful monestary up on the hill in the countryside of Dalat; surrounded by well-manicured gardens and picturesque lake views. We ate, meditated and slept with the nuns in an experience I feel so grateful to have shared with someone so special because it’s virtually impossible to put any of it into words. Surreal. Heavenly. Once-in-a-lifetime. Is probably as close as I’ll ever be able to come to conveying it all.
We went back to where it all began and decided to hike to the top of Lang Biang Mountain one afternoon. It’s amazing what a day of walking in nature will do for your soul. We hiked the entire 2169 meters above sea level to the apex to enjoy the stunning view with a couple of good books and some delicious fruit. Our descent perfectly coordinated with the sunset; we sat in silence admiring the sky as it ignited pink and orange over the endless strawberry fields in the distance.
I channeled my inner adventurous one afternoon and tried my hand at canyoning while in Dalat. I repelled down waterfalls (some as high as 18 meters) with just a harness and a rope. We reached a high rock cliff at one point during the day and the only way down was to jump into the cool blue/gray waters below. My heart began to beat quicker as the adrenaline pumped through my veins, and I briefly acknowledged the feelings of fear combined with excitement before I lept from the ledge. It was only a 20 foot drop but it felt more like 20 meters to me with the hang time, and after I had surfaced (feeling so refreshed and invincible) I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the afternoon.
A serious craving for the sun, surf and sand led us to Vung Tau, a beach town located an hour or so outside of Ho Chi Minh city. We spent two days on what felt like miles of our own private beach, discovered that jackfruit is the most delicious thing ever created, and visited the pastry shop beside our hotel multiple times daily for the most delicious bread and coconut tarts.
The Song Lam Hotel owner is probably the kindest man I met in Vietnam; cutting our fruit into little patterns for us every morning, organizing our transfer back to town, and going out of his way to ensure I got my clothes back from the hostel I accidentally left them at 12+ hours away. Vung Tau was a nice getaway, and although I’m sure we had both been to more beautiful beach towns with nicer vibes, it was exactly what we needed for those few short days.
From the beach life to the city life; there’s just no other way to describe Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) other than to say it’s another world. The traffic! Oh my the traffic!! Scooters (sometimes five people to a bike) in every which direction and on the sidewalks; it was (dis)organized chaos! I was so intimidated to even walk across the street that I planned my first days to only include things on the side of the road my hostel was located on; making right hand turn after right hand turn similar to the UPS man.
Brenda and I stayed in the ‘backpacker district’, which I must admit reminded me a lot of Koh San Road in Bangkok, but with more people (imagine!) and cheaper beers. Restaurants became clubs as the evening hours crept in, and thousands of tiny chairs lined the crowded street to be filled by drunk tourists. We enjoyed a rooftop cocktail at one of the plethora of sky bars in the city and then coat-tailed a massive pub crawl for an awesome dance party later that night. The true test of friendship was the following morning when we were both running on empty from the combination of a late evening out and absolutely no sleep from the street noise outside our window until 6am!
Surprisingly, it is easy to find peacefulness in this hectic city though. Between the immaculately well-kept parks on every street block and the beautiful atmosphere at the coffee shops we discovered (the Morning Cafe in district 1 is absolute MUST! We sat in this eclectic paradise for hours savoring every sip of the delicious espresso and coconut green tea) I completely forgot I was in a city of close to seven million.
A trip to Ben Thanh Market became a daily routine for us; walking around shopping for anything and everything knock-off, sampling dried fruits and nuts, and enjoying the cheapest (most delicious) cafeteria-style lunch in the city.
We made our way to the Vietnam War Museum one afternoon which proved to be a very somber but informative experience. It’s something I would definitely recommend going to see, but be prepared that it is quite an emotionally draining experience (I don’t think we spoke a word to each other for a few hours after walking out of the exhibition).
And just like that, as if no time had past at all, it was time to say farewell to my sweet friend. There were no tears or sad goodbyes as we shared a taxi to the airport (Brenda home to the Netherlands and myself to the island of Phu Quoc) because we both knew our chapter three would come soon enough in some other magnificent part of this big world. So we plugged in our playlist to the cab stereo and sang at the top of our lungs for the entire thirty minute drive to Tan Son Nhat International Airport ( getting so into one Jason Deurulo song that the taxi driver scolded us for ‘shaking’ his car too much with our moves). Haha. And it was all smiles as we squeezed each other for the very last time in Vietnam, knowing that distance really means so little when someone means so much.