It was crucial for me to be able to see Vietnam. I thought, it would be one hell of a journey. (And it was… Literally!) There were only two countries which doesn’t grant visa on arrival to Turkish passports in Asia: Laos and Vietnam. I really didn’t feel like dealing with two embassies at once, also seeing Vietnam felt like more important to me, so I picked there. However, today I still ask myself whether I made a huge mistake or not.
Since I heard that it was a total pain in the ass to get the Vietnamese visa from Bangkok, I decided to try my luck in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. When I entered the embassy, I was feeling quite tense. After all, you are stepping inside the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it requires a certain level of seriousness. I decided to act like I know what I was doing and without asking any questions, directly walked towards the counter where the application forms were placed. I filled out the forms and handed them over to the officer along with my passport. After taking a glance at my passport the officer headed to the back office, to ask something to his colleagues. “Alright…” I said to myself, “This is the part they are gonna hurt me…”
After a few minutes he came back and told me to leave my passport and pay 50 usd, my visa should be ready the very next day.
For days I have mentally tortured myself with the stress of this application and within 24 hours I was granted a month long visa from Vietnam. When I saw the stamp on my passport, I could have fly.
Instead, I have decided to take a bus from Kampot to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) for Vietnam. When I saw the piece of junk pretending to be our ride, I wondered how we were supposed to spend 11 long hours inside of it. The seats weren’t reclining and some had springs coming out from the cushions. In Asia, sadly no one tells you nothing about anything. It is like a one big guessing game. This is partly because of the language barrier and partly people pretending to have a language barrier because they don’t want to be subjected to the questions of a bunch of nosy tourists. Apparently that bus was just to cross the border and we were supposed to change buses after crossing the Vietnamese border.
Still, that piece of junk played its trick on us and stopped working when we were between Cambodia and Ha Tien border gate. So we had to push the bus to Vietnamese border.
INTRODUCTION TO VIETNAM 101
At the border, there was a doctor, measuring our body temperatures with a device he was holding one meter afar. What kind of device was that? Was Vietnamese medical technology way ahead of 21st century? While I was entertaining myself with the silliest questions, he charged me and all the other tourists 1 USD instantly and made quite a sum of money. Later I found out that if you show your vaccine card, you are not obliged to pay but whatever… it was the very first dollar of many those would be wasted in Vietnam.
I hopped on our rust bucket thinking “Well, it’s no big deal, finally I made inside the country…” After a few hundred meters our bus stopped and all the passengers have started to be transferred to different buses according to their destinations.
I had spent quite a long time on the road and in the border so I was feeling really hungry. My attempt to make a quick run to the supermarket near by was stopped by the Vietnamese assistant. He held my arm and pushed me inside the bus yelling “No! No!… We go NOW!” I took out my shoes and placed them inside the plastic bag they handed me at the door of the bus. Therefore, after taking out my flip flops at the doors of Family Marts and 7/11 shops in Thai islands; by taking out my shoes in a bus, the bare foot phenomenon of Asia has reached a whole new level for me.
I was hungry… The bus kept going and I was really really hungry. I could even hear my stomach grumbling. After 4 hours of ride, we stopped at a gas station in a small town around the Mekong Delta. As I jumped out of the bus, I realized a small eatery and ran towards its direction to get my first Banh Mi sandwich although I have no idea what that is back then. As I was trying to catch my breath I started to beg to the lady “Maam, exchange me some dollars. Please… Please dear maam.”
Although she didn’t have a clue what I am saying, by looking at the 20 dollars I was holding and my finger pointing my stomach she got what I meant. She wrote the currency rate in the calculator and showed it to me. I was more than willing to pay 20 USD for that sandwich as I haven’t eaten anything more than 8 hours but thankfully she was kind enough to give me a good rate, almost as good as an official exchange office and I pay 15000 dongs and left her side as happy as a puppy. I was the happiest girl alive. I had a sandwich, I had Dongs to buy water, what more could I want? Now, having some local currency to buy some water was more satisfying than to have extra budget to buy an expensive bag, I really want. Life… How much it makes one’s priorities change.
Finally, we arrived to Saigon in the middle of the night. I was hungry again of course. Anna, another traveler I met on the bus, has decided to try her luck in the hostel I book and we took a cab to our place, very close the central tourist attraction Bui Vien street. After settling down, we grabbed a late night snack and passed out in our beds.
The next day, we took down the streets with the joy of finally making to Saigon. At first sight, the city resembled any other capital which has giant streets, tall buildings and big parks. It was a huge metropolis with thousands of motorcycles hovering in its streets and leaving you no choice but to develop acrobatic skills to cross over.
But strange enough, once you enter its narrow alleys resembling to a labyrinth, you could think you were actually in one of the cities described in Italo Calvino’s epic book called “Invisible cities”. Looking and feeling surreal these alleys, as wide as only two people standing side by side, host houses of the locals. All the doors of the houses are open and you can see people dining or watching tv inside or kids playing just outside their doors. It’s like you are not in the capital of Vietnam but in one cute, small town.
It feels like you have discovered a secret city within the city. Like unfolding the one big layer of concrete jungle, as I walked around, as those alleys connected to each other I forgot to pay attention where I was. That very exact moment when I was trying to digest this surreal sight and watching around with my mouth open, a young guy came behind me running, grabbed my phone I was holding in my hand, continued his way full speed. For a few brief seconds my brain couldn’t get a hold to the situation. The shock did not let me understand what has been happening but as I realize that I was being mugged, this time the first reaction came from my legs and they started to chase the guy, me without realizing. Gosh, so hard to chase someone with flip-flops on your feet. He, on the front; me, at the back we started a chase as good as any action movie. As I run, I was yelling “Thief! Get him!” But none of the locals understood English so as I passed by them, they were staring at me blankly. If someone just held him, he or she would have saved me from a lot of trouble.
All my banking applications and confirmation text messages were flying in front of my eyes as I run behind him. Losing my phone meant losing my control over my bank accounts. Losing my phone meant being stranded thousands of kilometers away from my home. As I tried to contain the tears coming from my eyes, I lost him out of my sight and found myself in a big, busy street.
Anna caught up with me, running. She had no idea what had happened. “Everything happened so fast. He was running and then you started running…”
We went to a café, I locked my phone remotely from my iPad and started looking for a police station.
Surprise! The English level of the police officers in the station located in the busiest touristic street of Saigon is as good as a preschooler. Under the blinking fluorescent light and accompanied by an inmate smoking with his free hand, the other handcuffed to the prison bars I tell them what has happened a minute ago. They wrote a report and hand it over to me. At midnight we made a ride to “the crime scene” with a car, its sirens turned on, I pointed out where it happened, the officer took some notes and that was it…
The next day, when Rafa – my friend whom I met in Thailand and traveled with for a brief amount of time – arrived to join me I was pretty messed up. On top of everything my digestion system which wasn’t fully recovered since Cambodia failed me with the help of the stress I encountered and nailed me to bed in a shabby hotel room for 3 long days.
Luckily I survived the phone situation thanks to my precautious side and having one of my best friends authorized on my financial accounts before I left Turkey. Thanks to her, I was get a hold on to my money and thanks to Rafa’s credit card I was able to buy a few plane tickets for upcoming travels.
Before all of these had happened I only had one full day to discover Vietnam and I had the chance to visit Vietnam War Reminiscence Museum and the former Presidential Palace. On a day that I was feeling a little better I had the chance to visit the Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel. After days spent eating only bananas and rice finally the charcoal pills Rafa brought from Thailand works and I feel better to travel further north. Before hitting the road, I had the chance to see Izzy and her boyfriend Tim, two great people I’ve met in Udaipur, Shashi’s cooking class, now working as English teachers in Vietnam. Sadly, I could only have fresh coconut juice since I wasn’t feeling like eating but it was ok. Our reunion was the only thing that mattered. Aside from this dinner, Saigon will always remain in my memories as the starting point of many misfortunes I have encountered in Vietnam.
Dalat, being called as Vietnam’s Switzerland is a tiny mountain city, successfully living up to its name. Because of the high altitude the evenings were quite cold which was a refreshing break from South East Asia’s hot, humid weather. The city is famous with its strawberries, again you don’t have the chance to see in many places. Fresh strawberry juices sold everywhere managed to quench my thirst to the Mediterranean climate a little bit.
The waterfalls located around Dalat are the best attractions you can experience. We preferred to visit Datan La, located 10 km outside the town and Pongour, located 50 km away and enjoyed a nice, refreshing swim in the lake situated by Pongour falls.
Another great thing about Dalat is, having dairy production. The cheese wasn’t really to die for but still I appreciate the effort and salute this small city where maybe we enjoyed the most in Vietnam.
Situated in the north east of Saigon, Nha Trang is a coastal village and could be easily skipped on our itinerary, if you ask me. Almost all the tourist population of the town is Russian and even the menus in the restaurants are in Russian. Full of concrete, tall rise hotels, all the services are designed for the needs of Russian tourists. If you are Russian, then it is great, but if you are not then you can be a little annoyed. Well, if you insist on visiting Nha Trang, I can suggest you to visit the mud baths located right outside the city. Costing you 20 USD, you can enjoy your mud bath in giant tanks and then swim in the pools filled with natural spring water.
One of the most scenic places in Vietnam, Hoi An is also known of “the city of lanterns.Thanks to thousands of lanterns lit, at night the towns looks magical. Being the trade port of South East Asia between 15th and 19th centuries, the architecture of the town is a combination of Chinese, Vietnamese and western influences. These ancient houses made Hoi An a member of UNESCO World Heritage List and it’s a delight to visit these places where most of them are turned into museums. If you want to explore more, you can make a 1,5 hours ride to My Son ruins belonging to Champa Empire and take a glimpse to Vietnamese history.
Hoi An is also very famous with its tailors where you can have a dress, made just for you. After taking your measurements, the tailors deliver your suit or dress within a few days.
Yet again being one of the most touristic towns, you can feel the aggressive manners of the vendors the most. If you happen looking at something, because of the language barrier, failing to express themselves, they mostly yell at you “Hey you! Buy something!”
This attitude being far from encouraging, usually makes you feel like leaving the object you are holding and run outside as far as you can. Spending 4-5 days in Hoi An feels enough and we hit the road to go to Hue.
Hue was so damn hot, it made us feel not going out your hotel room. Still we pushed ourselves to step outside and rented a motorbike and blend into the busy traffic to visit the famous Hue citadel and the tombs of the emperors. These glorious structures belonging to the Nguyen dynasty are definitely worth seeing. Still the weather over 40 centigrade degrees and the excruciating humidity overwhelmed us and after 2 days spent in Hue, we took a plane to Hanoi to travel to Ha Long Bay, hoping the north would be much cooler.
HA LONG BAY
Well, that is where shit hit the fan. Right after we checked in to our hotel, a tour operator sitting in the lobby approached us and asked about our plans. Of course, he knew that we were there to make a Ha Long Bay tour and he started to tell us how he always made business with our hotel, how reliable he was and the other tour operators weren’t and they are most likely to charge us unnecessary amount of money. We were already sick and tired about getting ripped off in Vietnam, so we decided to hear him out. He offered us many boat options from cheapest to most expensive, explaining us that the price changes due to the luxury and comfort level of the boat. (Later we found out that it was a lie and all the boats on the bay were similar. So paying 60 or 150 wouldn’t matter, you’d still end up in a very similar boat. This is the first step of the rip off)
Of course, he trashed the cheap boats but he recommended us a medium budget boat as we were backpackers. When we realized that there is only 20 USD difference between 1 night and 2 nights of stay we decided to go with 2 nights stay (which turned out to be the worst decision) and paid 80 USD each. Before shaking hands, we asked for a discount since we were two people but he refused us by saying he would arrange a two stars’ hotel and our dinner would be really nice. If he was to give us discount, he had to compromise from the quality of the hotel. Well, you can’t argue with a valid excuse so we fell for it.
The first set back, happened right after we step on the boat. Our guide told us that the tour company overbooked and there was no room for us since we ordered two separate beds, other people already settled in so we had to spend our first night on the Cat Ba island, instead of next day. We didn’t wanna cause much trouble so we say “ok” without giving much thought and this decision made us to use the public bathrooms as a changing cabin since we didn’t have a room on the boat before going to kayaking. Minutes after kayaking we were dispatched to the harbor with wet clothes to catch our bus which was take us to the center of the island. “Our” bus turned out to be a Chinese tourist bus and apparently we were embedded to their group for a 1,5 hours ride. Finally arrived to our hotel, feeling a little annoyed by the continuous jolly singing in the bus, we were surprised to find out that the hotel wasn’t informed about our arrival and no dinner arrangements were made for us.
When we stepped inside the room, we started laughing out of frustration. It turned out to be the worst hotels we have ever stayed in Vietnam as the ceiling was full of mold, there were stains on the sheets and the fan was as loud as a helicopter. (No, seriously. I have never heard a fan this noisy.)
Neither Rafa’s nor my nerves were strong enough to endure Vietnam any more and both of us were in the desire of leaving the country as soon as we could. We were sick of being ripped off, being pushed and pulled around and patiently sit through 8 hours long bus rides enhanced with Vietnamese karaoke. We spent a sleepless night in that -2 stars hotel and once again hit the road to visit Cat Ba National Park at 8 am. After a long, exhausting trek we made back to the pick up point right on time and started waiting for the guide to pick us up.
We were told to be there at 11 am sharp… Surprise! No one showed up until 1 pm. When this happened we also lost our chance to visit the beach of Cat Ba as our pick up supposed to be at 4 pm back to the boat.
At 4 pm nobody shows up. Are we surprised? No… Then it becomes 5 pm. No one…
When we spoke to the receptionist, he really didn’t want to bother with us and told us that they’d eventually show up. Waiting with our bags in front of the hotel, a by passer sees our miserable faces and decides to help us. Thanks to his efforts, we understand that they had forgotten us on the island. Poor guy helped us to get a public bus to the harbor and spoke to the guide to pick us up from there. We hopped on the bus and it was past 6 pm when we arrived to the harbor. By the time they finally showed up to pick us up it was 7 pm. We tried to complain but really, nobody cared.
The next day, the minute we made back to Ha Long town we called the tour operator and asked him to arrive to our hotel. First he dragged his feet but once the owner of the hotel calls, he arrived to the reception. We told him about everything and show the pictures of our spectacular hotel. He offered us to pay a 5 usd refund which made us laugh really hard. When I told him that we wanted a full refund, that kind guy left out the window and replaced with a screamy, scary dude. The minute I saw him yelling at my face, I realized that I could take no more shit and unleashed the beast inside me. Although it happens very very rarely, let’s say 4-5 times during all of my adult life, once I unleash the beast it doesn’t go back to its cage. I started to scream at the top of my lungs, retaliating his attack and demanded a full refund otherwise the online world would know about his name very well. Including the ministry of tourism and other Vietnamese authorities. After an hour of yelling and screaming, my beast joined forces with Rafa’s furious demon, we only managed to get back 20 usd each. Tired of fighting, we said “f.ck it” and headed to our next destination, Mai Chao hoping to rest our heads for the upcoming days.
Mai Chao is a small mountain village located north west of Hanoi. After we settled in our hotel, we swore not to move one inch until our day of departure from the country. As I shut myself in the room and enjoyed reading books and streaming tv shows, Rafa preferred to take small hikes around the village to kill our time here. We dined in our hotel as well and tried to rejuvenate our spirits by resting, napping, reading, listening to music. Being thankful for not having any major issues until the very last day, we pack our bags and get on the van that will take us back to Hanoi. Me, being bound for Manila and Rafa, to Bali, we were more than happy to end our Vietnam adventure here. Alas, the last minute score, Rafa realized that our driver had fallen asleep while driving on a very curvy road by a cliff. All 12 travelers in the van, yelled, shouted, clapped to wake him up and he woke up seconds after the steering wheel started to head on to the cliff. Within 5 minutes he fell asleep again and we insisted him to pull over. We bought him coffee but he refused having it, complaining about it hurts his stomach. That became the tipping point and we unloaded our backpacks from the trunk of the vehicle and refused to ride with him. I remember, feeling so frustrated yelling at him “I survived Vietnam for 30 days, I am not going to die on my very last day!” Of course, he had no idea what I was saying. This, been recorded as our last set back in Vietnam we managed to find another ride to take us to Hanoi.
After finally making to Hanoi, since there is still time for our planes to leave we decided to explore the city a little bit and headed to a café that we found on trip advisor to try famous “egg coffee” It is made by pouring raw egg yolk to hot coffee and tastes a little like crème caramel. After achieving this ambition of mine we took a stroll in brightly lit streets among crazy motorcycle traffic before to hop on a cab to take us to the airport.
As we say farewell and hug, Rafa and I thanked each other for enduring this chain series of unfortunate events together and promised to meet somewhere around the world more easygoing and less stressful.
When I got on the plane which was about to take me to Philippines, I thought these 30 days spent in Vietnam was the most unique experience I have ever had in Asia. You may fall in love with some countries and you hate others but you always leave them with unforgettable memories. My Vietnam trip passed like a cardiac attack, the excitement level was always high but I can say it was definitely worth visiting.