Vietnam Part 1 | Travel Diary + On Finding Joy in Being the Outsider
I am not even sure how to start writing about Vietnam. My mom and I spent a little over two weeks traveling and working in this stunning country and we did so much in that short amount of time that I am still trying to wrap my mind around it all. However, I wanted to share some of the experiences with you now, while at least it is still fresh and vivid.
I have decided to break these posts down into 3 parts so as not to overwhelm you (actually, more not to overwhelm myself in trying to write everything in one go). I split it naturally into the three things our trip really consisted of- our traveling itinerary, the food + coffee (obviously deserving of its own tribute), and the work we did in the South Saigon International School. Let’s start with the trip itself. A summary of the travel diary I kept the whole time, scribbled with notes and the details of what we did that I want to stay in my memory.
It is interesting how traveling in Vietnam made me realize how comfortable I had become in a certain part of the world. With Morocco as my base, Europe feels close enough to home and I never feel too extended outside of my comfort zone in terms of language, culture, or flavors. Vietnam, however, was a different case. So many things about it were completely unknown to me and I loved that. I felt to ready to be a sponge, soaking in every experience, every sound, flavor, and sight and absorbing it all into my being.
Adventuring with my mom, who is also a willing and open-hearted traveler, was incredible. We found that one of the lovely things about being a mother-daughter team is that it makes us quite approachable as people to meet and chat with. We made several new friends with other travelers in cafes and with locals we met along the way. I quickly found that the other foreigners we met fell into two categories, perhaps like travelers anywhere in the world. Those who were wide-eyed learners, excited about being in a different culture, and those who criticized what they saw based on the imposition of their own beliefs and way of life. Naturally, we both gravitate towards and identify more with the first group. It made me start to think about how people react so differently to being the outsider when traveling to a new place. You can choose to accept and embrace it, finding joy in the otherness of it all, or you can choose to fear that feeling and put up your defenses.
It made me think of this quote by Albert Camus that I found on Brainpickings: “Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” I was sad to come across travelers in Vietnam who embodied this. Certain people told us that Ho Chi Minh City was too dirty and chaotic, that Hoi An is like Disneyland because it’s so colorful and packed with tourists. People complained that food was too spicy, too few locals speak english, etc etc. They were all attaching their happiness to the standard comforts of home. We chose not to believe a word of it and stay open to whatever came our way, trying to find joy in every little moment.
I want to start every new adventure as a completely blank canvas. No previous judgements, just ready to take on the colors and shapes of wherever I am and let it all inspire me. I want to allow myself to be humbled by being the outsider in the face of a new culture instead of being afraid of it. We should take everything as an opportunity to grow. Isn’t that what travel is all about at its core?
And oh, how I felt myself grow in Vietnam.
As I mentioned, there is a lot that I am still processing, writing about and sketching out, but while I go through that post-travel decompression, I will share with you an overview of where we were and what we saw.
Since my mom and I were working for half of the trip in Ho Chi Minh City, our time to travel and explore was limited to one week prior. While I am absolutely sure that there is so much more to see and discover in Vietnam, the diversity and beauty of the little that we did visit was awe-inspiring. Each place was a completely new experience, adding on more richness to the trip as a whole. As briefly as I can muster, here is a recap of our travels:
Day One - Da Nang
Dizzy after the 11-hour direct from Paris, my mom and I both felt in a haze and were literally in a haze as the early morning smog began to burn off of the city. We had less than 24 hours in Da Nang, but we sure made the most of it. In general, I got the feeling that due to the international airport and lack of flashy tourist attractions, this tends to be more of a passing-through kind of city than a destination, but we absolutely loved it nevertheless and wished we had had a bit more time. We found some of the best cafes and places to eat, visited the local beach, and walked the infamous dragon bridge.
Day Two - Son Tra + The Marble Mountains
We spent the morning doing some last wandering and breakfasting in Da Nang before heading out on a little expedition. Our very sweet Airbnb host arranged a driver to take us first to the Son Tra Peninsula for beautiful views and a visit to the Chua Linh Ung Temple and Pagoda.
We went on to the Marble Mountains where we toured the caves, hiked along the mountainside gaping at gorgeous carvings and statues, and climbing until our legs shook. Curious, I later checked my phone’s step counter and found out that apparently we had climbed the equivalent of 51 flights of stairs.
Days Three-Five- Hoi An
After our tour, we drove to the infamous town of Hoi An where we settled into yet another lovely Airbnb that was just 2 km outside of the old city, unpacking a bit for a three-night stay. We walked into the city center and saw the bustling, lantern-lit riverside by night and were instantly in love, as everyone says you will be upon visiting this historic place.
On the first day there we took an eco cooking class (to write more in-depth about later since it was such an amazing experience by itself), then went into the city again in the evening for dinner and more wandering.
The next day we woke up at 5:30am in order to get into the city by 6ish, which I almost wish we had done daily. The city in the early morning is absolutely magic. Misty, pastel-hued and yet already buzzing with the beginnings of activity. There are motorbikes loaded with market-goods weaving in and out of the small streets usually packed with tourists, shopkeepers heaving open heavy doors and sweeping off the stoops, and a handful of bridal photoshoots, catching the golden dawn light. I love the way every city is different in the early morning- you get to catch the real and raw energy of a place.
We took a long bike ride through rice paddies for the rest of the day, did some souvenir shopping, and crashed back at our homestay, in wonder at all that we had already done in a short time.
Days Five-Six - The Mekong River Delta near Ben Tre
We flew from Da Nang back to Ho Chi Minh City and were then driven down to the Mekong Delta where we had booked an Airbnb for three more nights. As we approached our homestay, our driver kept saying “Wow. Wow. Wowow.” under his breath as the car went deeper and deeper into jungle-like vegetation on tinier and tinier dirt roads. Once we assumed we were thoroughly lost, getting out of the car and being told to walk down a single-lane walking path with our luggage, we finally came upon a cluster of bungalows amidst a flourishing garden. We had arrived at the Quoc Phuong homestay and felt like we were in the garden of eden. Our host, Y (pronounced Ee) was lovely and industrious, having built the whole complex himself and telling us endless stories about his life and his family. While staying in our little cabin on the river, we took his boat tour, met other travelers staying in the huts, and borrowed bikes to explore the neighboring villages.
Day Seven - My Tho
What was supposed to be our last night in Ben Tre turned into a bit of an unexpected adventure. Because of a booking error, Y apologetically asked us if we would mind moving to a hotel in the nearby town of My Tho, since somehow his place had been over-booked. We didn’t mind and actually liked the idea of going somewhere new for our last night of vacation. My Tho ended up being a bigger city than we expected, full of river-side industry and empty of tourists. We were some of the only foreigners walking around and felt incredibly conspicuous, but tried to enjoy it anyway. We found some delicious vegetarian food, fumbling through a menu without translation, and working it off by trying the public exercise machines in the park.