Vietnam has amazing variety in a small area. Jump on an hour-long flight, and you go from rainy north to sunny south. Grab the train, and you see the rolling countryside and glistening coastline. Take a boat, and you can get lost in islands jutting out of the sea. We got to see a few of them on our travels on various mechanized people movers (sadly, no cyclos) as we did our own travel through Vietnam.
Road trip through Vietnam’s countryside
Our favorite was our trip from Hue to Hoi An (motorbikes were a popular alternative – here is one that was highly recommended). Instead of a scenery-deprived bus, we chose a day-long trek. We left majestic Hue, replete with its temples and palace ruins, to head through the countryside. There, we saw farmers tending their crops, fuzzy ducklings bathing in the rice paddies, and oblivious buffalo sitting in the road.
Only minutes later and we were slowly climbing the mountain, turn by sharp turn. Heat turned to cool, sun to cloud. Then, there it was: the Hai Van Overpass, a tree-clad summit replete with clouds flowing overhead. Dilapidated US Army forts lay nearby, ghostly reminders of a bygone era. “My father fought for the Americans,” our guide notes calmly, reminding us that the era is far from forgotten for the Vietnamese.
Then on the descent, beaches stretched far and wide as we approached Da Nang. The area, known for its marble work and beautiful China Beach, has a fascinating Marble Mountain that we visited. Overlooking the city of Da Nang, the top of the Marble Mountain is a beautiful oasis high above the dusty streets, complete with caves, pagodas and lush greenery. On we went to the romantic Hoi An with its magnificent silk work, quaint streets and the best bahn mi in Vietnam.
Cruising through the dragon’s den
Vietnam’s waterways were just as interesting as its roads. To get a taste, we took a cruise through Ha Long Bay (“Descending Dragon”). Legend has it that dragons, charged with protecting a nascent Vietnam, descended upon the bay to stop an invading flotilla. The dragons called the islands forth to smash ships in their paths before departing in slumber, leaving the bay behind.
The area is a geographical marvel. Limestone islands (karsts) rise steeply from the sea and end in green-capped islands. They are filled with caves, hollowed out by rain and seawater, each with their own stalactites and stalagmites, like the famous Sung Sot, (“Surprising Cave”). Enterprising fishermen also call the bay their home, living in floating villages among the islands.
The overnight train
Not wanting to feel too comfortable, we decided to forego a 45-minute flight for a 12-hour overnight train from Hanoi to Hue. Part of the fun is that you see the country fly by, but much of the experience is in the journey itself. There are two options for overnight trains: the comfy “soft sleeper” (read: bed with mattress) or the minimalist “hard sleeper.” One word of advice: book the soft sleeper early if you value not having a sore butt.
The ride was definitely an experience. The bunks, so packed that you can’t sit upright in one, were basically planks with a thin mattress. You and five of your closest friends try to sleep as you barrel down the tracks, trying to hold it all in to avoid going to the… rustic… bathroom. Ok, it’s not as bad as I’m making it sound, but it was different experience.
All in all, we loved our travels through the country. Often, the destination was only half the fun. The journey, be it by sea, track, or road, and the people we met along the way, was what really made the trip unforgettable.