December 29th, 2014: Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
My first ten days in Vietnam have been a memorable amalgam of all the incredibly different traveling locales this massive, diverse country has to offer. Here's a map of my exploits since leaving Laos.
It took me 25 hours of traveling and 23 hours of bus riding, but I finally arrived in Nha Trang, a beach town looking out onto the South China Sea, at 6am after a fitful night's sleep on the night bus from the border crossing town of Kon Tum. Nha Trang was a particularly confounding introduction to Vietnam as the city contained more Russians tourists than Vietnamese locals or Western travelers. Despite the poor beach weather during the current rainy season, the view from my hostel dorm took in the sea and it definitely felt great to relax for a few days and take long walks on the city's 6KM crescent-shaped stretch of sand.
After a brief stay in Nha Trang, I booked a bus to Dalat, a larger city set back into the Southern Highlands of Vietnam. Dalat is serene yet simultaneously bustling with a vibrant economy; the city serves as a central meeting point for many surrounding towns and villages. There is something eerily familiar about the city, but it takes me about 24 hours to put my finger on it.
Maybe it's the surrounding hillsides, dotted with colorfully painted row houses. Maybe it's the lake just a few blocks from the city center. Or perhaps it's the unrelenting clouds and misty fog that encompasses the surrounding area. It could just be the wind, driving a chill that makes inhabitants bundle up at night. It's undoubtedly the culture; there are coffee shops, bars and restaurants that wouldn't feel out of place in contemporary towns across America. Whatever it is, there is something about Dalat that brings my soul back to my hometown of Oakland, California.
Dalat, at this point in my journey, is an opportunity to enjoy traveling slowly, riding around the surrounding hills in my motorbike then warming up on cloudy, windy days by drinking Vietnamese tea and eating Pho for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The coolest aspect of Dalat was how the main city centre bustled with motorbikers weaving through intense traffic during the day, then rapidly transformed into an expansive walking city in the evening. The night market contained everything you could ever hope for in a shopping experience: cheap eats, a plethora of clothing shops, and everywhere you turned - soy milk carts, one of the city's specialties.
The surrounding area around Dalat is incredible scenic and offers great outdoorsing opportunities, including trekking to waterfalls, canyoning, and hiking the highest peak in the province for a great panaroma view.
Finally, Dalat serves as an opportunity to simplify - upon departing I purge my pack of everything I haven't used on my trip yet. If I haven't needed it once in the last 7 weeks, then I won't ever need it!
Christmas Eve in Saigon
On December 23rd, I boarded a night bus from Dalat headed South to spend Christmas Eve with Greg Murray, a friend from Cornell who is teaching English in Saigon. Even though the bus station told me I'd be arriving around 7AM, I was shaken awake at 4:10AM to be informed that we were already at our final destination. Slightly apprehensive and incredibly groggy, Christmas Eve began being hassled by a fleet of Saigon's taxi drivers arguing over my business. I found one who spoke halfway decent English and we set off en route for Greg's apartment. Luckily, Greg was a complete lifesaver and picked up my call to let me in around 5AM. We each embraced in the comforts of seeing an old friend halfway around the world.
After a few more hours of sleep, I spent the rest of Christmas Eve closing my eyes and praying for safety on the back of Greg's motorbike as we raced through a real-life video game: Motorbiking in Saigon. The city is massive and simply more chaotic than anything I've ever experienced before. With 10 million people but no public transportation system driving is potentially disastrous, but Greg was spectacular maneuvering us through hordes and performing weaves in traffic circles. We hit up some of Greg's favorite sights, including a delightful Tea stand where the employees marveled over our height and an indoor market packed from floor to ceiling in apparel.
Phu Quoc Island
For the last four days, I've been posted up on the beautiful remote island of Phu Quoc, off the Southern coast of Vietnam.
Motorikbing is again the locale's preferred mode of getting around, and I explored the vast majority of the Phu Quoc's highways, dirt roads, and national park areas on the back of another steel horse. However, the island's calling card is ultimately its abundance of pristine white sand beaches. The best way to explore is to just slowly take a self-guided tour of the island, weaving through dirt paths and stumbling upon long stretches of deserted beaches. Once at the beach, the rules are pretty simple:
- If you're too hot, go swim in the ocean
- If you're too wet, go lie on the beach
For the first four days I stayed at a backpacker hostel, which was a great place to meet people but not as highly recommended if you're interesting in sleeping or cleanliness. Yesterday, I finally packed up and deposited myself at a nicer resort on the remotely populated Northwest Corner of the island for my last night. After almost 2 months of constant traveling, I am sorely in need of creature comforts and time to recharge.
Travel truly feeds the soul, and my time here is the perfect combination of reading, writing, and relaxation. The week between Christmas and New Years is a natural inflection point for me, as I always enjoy taking extended periods of time to reflect on what's important in life. The beach has been the perfect way to close this chapter by reflecting on all that I've learned and experienced this year, then mentally and physically prepare myself for a year of exponential learning and growth in 2015.
"Remember this, that very little is needed to make a happy life." - Marcus Aurelius