Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale

13th Nov 2013
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 1/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 2/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
HaLong Bay
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 3/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 4/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
Biking around Da Lat
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 5/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
Biking around Da Lat
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Da Lat
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Ho Chi Minh City
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HoanKiem Lake, Hanoi
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Around HoanKiem Lake, Hanoi
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 11/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
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Mui Ne
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 13/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
Mui Ne
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Mui Ne
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 15/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
Mui Ne
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Lao Cai to Hanoi Train
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HaLong Bay
Photo of Vietnam: A Vagabond's Tale 18/18 by Mayank Shrivastava
HaLong Bay

Vietnam, in many ways, is like a fine Cuban cigar. Perfectly filled, and surprisingly consistent in dishing out subtle surprises. It has a taste that delights and an aroma that lingers, leaving you heady and craving for more. A Padrón, if you may. Delicate and famous. 

The country reclines on the easternmost edges of the Indochina peninsula, opening up into the South China Sea. With a constant stream of travelers coming in all through the year, Vietnam's tourism industry has been quick in capitalizing on its natural and historic potential. From elaborate, historic architecture to the many beaches, the country has a flamboyantly colored palette that paints an enticing picture. 

But, don't look for Vietnam in just the buildings and the bays. Look beyond all that. 

Look for it in the intricate flavors of a bowl of Phở or a decadent Bahn Mi; in the sweet pungency of a Cà Phê Sữa Dá. Look for it in the obscure beaches, hidden away at the ends of back roads lost on a map; in the textured sand that clings to your feet. Look for it on the back of a scooter weaving through sleepy hills and dormant villages; in the frequent halts for taking it all in. Try doing this and you'll see it respond in magical ways. And, then you just let it dictate. Let it show you the way. Let it create your days. Do this, and you'll be left with an experience abundant in the many stories this beauty narrates. 

My first stop in Vietnam after a long and slow train ride from the Chinese border crossing at Lao Cai, this capital city offers an infectious cacophony of sights and sounds that can hit you like a wave and yet hold you in an embrace. Take some time to find your bearings before stepping into the labyrinth of bustling streets around the Hoan Kiem Lake, the city's backpacker district. I loved ambling through the streets while stopping at street-side joints for a sumptuous bowl of Pho and delectable Bahn Mis. Try your hand at bargaining for souvenirs and T-shirts at the many markets spread sporadically around town. After nightfall, I headed to the infamous Bia Hoi street at Bát Đàn. Picture getting drunk on 30-cents/glass Beer while sitting at rickety squat-stools on the roadside while the city's Denizens rush past and the city revels in all its electric glory. Check out the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Hoa Lo Prison Museum and the Museum of Literature for getting a brief glimpse into Vietnam's history. The scenic West Lake area is worth a visit during late afternoon, in time for dusk. It's a nice, laid back change to the chaotic Hoan Kiem district. The much-touted Water Puppet Show didn't delight me much and could be skipped in favor of a brief sojourn to the southern part of the city, past the Hoan Kiem Lake.
Photo of Hanoi, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
This is one for gap-year students and party fanatics. I walked-in to painted faces and loud Beer-pong contests. You know you are going to have a hungover morning when you are hanging at the bar and your backpack is at the reception within five minutes of checking in. There is a Doner Kebab stall right next to the hostel for curing drunk, late-night munchies.
Photo of Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel on Ma May, Mã Mây, Hanoi, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
Born out of continuous tectonic orgies spread over millions of years, Ha Long Bay is one offspring mother Earth should be proud of! This limestone karsts jigsaw is Vietnam's prized heavyweight boxer that knocks everything else out and has single-handedly catapulted the country into travel bucket lists around the world. It's famous and it's crowded. Rightly so. The best way of banging the bay is getting yourself on a junk boat and spending a couple of days exploring the many caves and kayaking in the waters followed by scrumptious meals and late night revelries. Oh, and don't forget the sunsets you'll witness.
Photo of Halong Bay Vietnam, Hàng Bạc, Hanoi, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
We did not give Hue the attention it deserves, with stopping here for just a day. The city served as the imperial capital until the last emperor of the Nquyen dynasty abdicated the throne to Uncle Ho. The city was ravaged during the Vietnam War and most of its buildings perished under heavy bombardment by the American forces. We got some cycles from the hotel and rode along the Perfume River (Hương Giang), stopping at the Imperial Citadel (Đại Nội) and the tombs of the many emperors. The southern part of the river is the new city with a blend of local and French architecture. The city is also a base for tours into the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that divided Vietnam into two halves. Give this city a little more time and it will unravel a beauty laced in the storybook history of dynasties and wars.
Photo of Hué, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
When in Hue, stay at the Google Hotel. If you don't stay here, find it and crash your weary asses down in the common room. Why, you ask? Free beer. No strings attached. 'nuff said!
Photo of Thanh Xuan Google Hotel, tp. Huế, Thua Thien-Hue, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
Possibly the highlight of my trip, with Dà Lat coming in a close second, Hoi An was everything that I thought my Vietnamese experience would be. And a bit more. This sleepy bit of coastal decadence revels in an old-world charm with its buzzing markets, community kitchens and inviting back alleys. We got ourselves some motorbikes and zipped around town, stopping only to grab some local fare and dive into secluded beaches. You might be tempted to hang around Club Volcano after dark and pretend to offer rides to people dragging themselves out after the infamous $4 all-you-can-drink nights. Don't. The local motorbike riders will chase all that cheap vodka out of you.
Photo of Hoi An, Quang Nam province, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
The most I paid for accommodation in Vietnam ($10/bed), the Sunflower Hotel is as lavish as it can get for the budget-minded. The dorms are decent-sized and the beds are comfortable, but it's the complimentary breakfast where you get your money's worth. Plant yourself next to the Pancake station and gorge away before back-flipping into the pool and pissing every sunbathing soul off. Recipe for disaster? Obviously. Boring? Hell no!
Photo of Sunflower Hotel Hoi An, Trần Hưng Đạo, tp. Hội An, Quang Nam province, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
Da Lat was the welcome speed-breaker in my hurtling journey through the country. A reclusive town embraced within the Langbian Plateau, it was a complete departure from the coastal, tropical Vietnam we had witnessed prior to setting camp here. Till date I have never been able to put a finger on why I loved this caffeinated little town so much. Everything about it was just there. From the little coffee shops to the wafty bakeries. And lazy, winding streets to hidden, pristine lakes. I remember DaLat in the unplanned sojourns into dormant villages and the evening breeze kissing us as we rode into the hills. And in the impulsive change of routes that led us to melancholy graveyards and abandoned warehouses. It slowed me down and brought me back to a way of travel I was beginning to forget.
Photo of Dà Lat, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
The weather gods weren't kind to us in Mui Ne. Two days of incessant rains kept us indoors, but we managed to sneak a brief sojourn to the red sands and the fishing village just beyond the main coastal strip that houses most of the bars and resorts in town.
Photo of Mui Ne, Phan Thiet, Bình Thuận Province, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is like a septuagenarian on steroids. Frenzied, surprising, and amusing. It's a Vietnam packaged in modern dreams, but a minor unwrapping will expose the soul of a city juggling with a million stories. Saigon represents the Vietnam that doesn't mind shedding its old-world tag for new, flashy dreams. The city is a mix-match of opulent French architecture--best seen in the cathedrals and public buildings--and the haphazard pre-colonization neighborhoods bursting at their seams with a chaotic overdose of rickety buildings and constricted lanes. A Saigon must visit is the War Remnants Museum on 28 Võ Văn Tần, phường 6, Quận 3. The museum highlights the atrocities of the Vietnam War with a particularly graphic section on Agent Orange and its aftereffects to this date. Also, try bargaining with the shop owners at the iconic Bến Thành Market. They'll rip you off and make you feel happy about it!
Photo of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by Mayank Shrivastava