Backpacking and Banh Mi’s – Training the length of Vietnam

Photo by Richy Ainsworth.

In early 2015, after a year of working and traveling across Australia, my partner, Richy, and I packed our backpacks and began the journey back to our respective home countries–the US and Scotland. But first, we took a three month detour through Southeast Asia. This post highlights one of our favorite parts of that trip.

Inside the train car a few hours out of Saigon, I ate pitted grapes Richy had bought from a train vendor and watched bright patches of green roll past the window. The triangle non la hats of the rice paddy workers poked out here and there, little mountains broke through the flat land, and the closer we got to NHA Trang there were glimpses of  shimmery blue South China Sea. This land we were traveling felt so very different from our bus trips through the dusty country of Cambodia and a lot tidier than the overpopulated Mekong Delta.

From that daydream state we were dumped onto the train platform and into resortland. NHA Trang was a beautiful spot, but it could have been any high-rise beach town in the world. The highlights of our two-day stopover were visiting an island water park (nothing like taking a break from tourist obligations and picking an attraction that’s only purpose is for having fun) and playing fascinated observer to the hordes of Russian vacationers who somehow call NHA Trang their own. We didn’t find much reason to extend our stay here, so two days later we were back at the train station bound for Danang. This next stint was an overnight, and I had my first experience in an old-fashioned soft sleeper car. We shared our cabin with a vagabond-type man out from England, and, after a night of good chat, shared our breakfast at a Danang café with him, too.

Vin Pearl Island

Vin Pearl Island looking back on NHA Trang, Vietnam. Photo by Richy Ainsworth. 

On to Hoi An by a quick hour bus. We were now halfway up the coast and ready to put our bags down for a while. The lovely World-Heritage tourist town proved to be a great spot to camp out for six days. We spent our time biking around between the beaches, river, rice paddies, and Hoi An Ancient town, diving into one of the best street food scenes on our trip (heaping plates of Com Ga–chicken and rice–at an alleyway tiny-plastic-chair café became our favorite dinner), drinking Bia Hoi (fresh glasses of preservative free daily-made beer) for 4,000 Dong/20 cents, and SHOPPING.

The town has become known for its hundreds of tailors catering to tourists. Richy had a three-piece suit, two shirts and a wool jacket made, and I ended up with a maxi-dress and bathing suit. The clothes are beautiful, but the process of working with the tailors was even more fun. Mine, a talented girl named Mie who was recommended by a friend from home also out traveling Asia, came to our hotel every evening, whipped me around on the back of her motorbike to more fittings, and, on my last day in Hoi An, took me out for a Vietnamese iced coffee to say goodbye.

We took a day trip up to Danang, if only for the excuse to finally rent a motorbike. The road up the coast was easy, and I settled in on the back to enjoy the view as Richy tested his driving skills. We were heading to China Beach, the old R&R favorite for American soldiers during the Vietnam war, in the hopes of a breaking wave. It was the only spot left along the coast that could possibly deliver some surf, but that day the ocean had nothing to offer. Instead, we went for cheeseburgers.

I had heard of Tam’s Pub & Surf Shop online and, just like reviews said would happen, the tiny Vietnamese woman cooked us up two loaded burgers then pulled up a chair to tell stories. The walls of the shoebox café were covered in photos of American soldiers from the war. I told her my uncle had been stationed nearby with the Marines, and she launched into her tale. As a teenage girl she worked around the soldiers selling them Coca-Cola’s, then later with them as a translator. The young soldiers always took care of her and the local villagers, and her stories directly contrasted what we’d read in the War Remnants Museum back in Ho Chi Minh. We sat with her for three hours. A few travelers and expats came for lunch or to return surfboards, but for the most part we were Tam’s priority. By the time we left it was too late to continue on with our sightseeing, but Tam had been enough of an experience.














Inside Tam’s Pub, photos of American soldiers during the Vietnam War cover the wall. 

Vietnam as a whole took us about three and a half weeks to travel through, but we squeezed so much in that it feels much longer. Our next train was a short three hours to Hue, taking us over the Hai Van pass and through the most scenic and isolated part of Vietnam that I would see. I had an urge to jump out of the train, roll down the hill, and camp out on one of those beaches. After a few months of being constantly surrounded by crowds, that coastline looked to me the most peaceful place in the world.

We had one night in Hue city and one night at a hot springs resort that proved a little less luxurious than the photos on its website, especially when hundreds of Vietnamese school kids showed up the morning after we arrived. I woke to what sounded like a flock of a thousand seagulls descending on the resort. No, just little Vietnamese children fighting to the death as they pushed and squeezed into the kids splash zone. As the only Western guests, we became their amusement. (“Hello, Mister!! What your name?!!”) We zip lined, soaked in a hot spring on an 80-degree day, drank a terrible bottle of Vietnamese wine, and laughed at how things rarely turn out the way you expect them to in this part of the world, a quirk that made the trip all the more worth it.


Kayaking in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo by Richy Ainsworth.

Our fourth and final train, a 14-hour overnighter with a lovely English girl and her mother to share our cabin, brought us the rest of the way up the coast. We were officially in the north now, and you could feel the change. The weather for one: it was the first rain I’d seen since my birthday in Koh Rong. The people seemed different here, a little more hardened. But we stayed long enough to get beyond those iffy first impressions, and I came to like the city and its gruff personality. We took a two-day trip out to Halong Bay: one night on a junk boat, one night in a bungalow on a limestone island, two days spent exploring caves, kayaking and motoring through the fog heavy, haunting waters just beyond the southern reaches of China.

Back in Hanoi, On our last day in the city, Richy and I made a trip to a cycling shop  in a far part of the city for a few souvenirs and took a long walk back around the gray Ho Tay. Then we made a final stop at our favorite Bia Hoi corner. It was noontime on a Thursday and office men were on their lunch breaks. Instead of going to finer establishments with adult-sized furniture, here they were surrounding us, all seated in the same tiny plastic chairs, wearing suits, chatting loudly, sipping on 5,000 Dong beer. The staff out front goofed off in the street. Every now and then one would try half-heartedly to swing passers-by inside. When a new patron would turn up on his motorbike, another would take the bike, write a number on the seat in white chalk, and haul it off.  Bia Hoi joints had valet.

Maybe it was the help of the beer, or the reflective walk around the lake, but watching everything that was happening on the street–the old lady vendors selling their fruits, the shoe shine guys, the white collar workers, the four-way intersection where no one ever stopped, the noise, the smells- suddenly gave me a resurgence of energy and enthusiasm for being out in the world, and a pang of sadness knowing that my time, at least for now, was up.

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