Viet Nam was never on my list of countries to visit on this trip to SE Asia. I have other travelers to thank for strongly influencing me to go there, particularly Lauren and Natalie who invited me to travel with them there. I stayed for the entirety of my 30-day VISA and feel like I really got to know the country as well as one can in only a month. I don’t know if it was because I was there longer than the other countries I went to in SEA, or if it was the culture, the food, the people, the nature, the history… or most likely a combination of all those things… but Vietnam was definitely my favorite SE Asian country that I visited. Followed closely (very closely) by Indonesia. (If I had spent more than two weeks in Indonesia, it’s very possible that it would have been my favorite.)
While in Vietnam, you will frequently hear that Vietnam is the #1 coffee producer in the world. This is a bit misleading. Vietnam is actually the second largest coffee-producing country in the world after Brazil, but they export more Robusta beans than any other country. Brazil exports more Arabica beans. All of this came as a surprise to me, as I had never thought of Vietnam as a “coffee country.” Being from North America, when I think “coffee”, I think of Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, etc. But in Vietnam, the coffee industry employs more than two million people and has helped Vietnamese people rise out of poverty. The central highlands, where I did my motorcycle tour, is the coffee capital of Vietnam because the majority of the plants are grown in this region.
After doing the motorcycle day trip in Da Lat, I knew that I wanted to see more of Viet Nam from the seat of a bike. Touring Viet Nam by motorcycle is a “thing.” Lots of people (mostly guys) come here, buy a cheap bike from another traveler who has just finished his trip, and head on up (or down) the country on two wheels with their packs tightly strapped on the back or in saddle bags. One day, I will learn how to ride a motorcycle and do this trip myself. But for now, if I wanted to see the country by bike, I needed to hire a driver. Fortunately, this is easy to do, as there are dozens of companies (Easy Rider is the most well-known) that organize just this type of thing.
Sapa is a small town way up in the mountains of northwestern Vietnam. It is a popular spot on the tourist trail for its trekking, homestays, cool weather, and beautiful vistas. Even though I had heard good things about Sapa, I had a hard time deciding if I would go there, or instead to a town called Mai Chau which is not as touristy. In the end, I decided to follow some of my travel buddies to up to Sapa on an overnight bus from Hanoi.
In Vietnamese, “halong” means “descending dragon.” Legend has it that Halong Bay was formed thousands of years ago by dragons who came down from the heavens to protect local inhabitants from invaders. The Dragon Mother and her children spat giant emeralds into the sea battlefield, which created a defensive barricade against the invaders. The emeralds eventually turned into the islands and islets that majestically dot the ocean landscape off the northern Vietnam coast.
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, became my jumping off point for different areas of northern Vietnam. I stayed there a total of four nights in three different hostels. It was my hub for Halong Bay, Sapa, and back through to fly to Da Nang.
After Hoi An, and en route up to Hanoi, we decided to stop at Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park (frequently shortened to just Phong Nha). We heard about Phong Nha’s caves from other travelers and thought it sounded worth checking out. We are so glad we went.
Where do I begin with Hoi An? It is a city that makes your soul feel good. Historically a port town, the city’s architecture is a beautiful mix of French colonial buildings, Chinese temples, and an ancient Japanese covered bridge and pagodas. Then there are the Chinese lanterns that are illuminated each night and cast a romantic spell over the old town. I can’t imagine anyone strolling through the city at night, with the myriad of riverfront restaurants and cafes, street artists, floating candles, and bicycle rickshaws carting tourists up and down the street, and not falling at least a little bit in love with the place. Even when it is jam-packed with tourists, as I’m sure it always is. Vietnamese and foreign tourists alike seem to flock to Hoi An. It is like a precious gem set in the center of the country.