“Voluntary discomfort” was a primary theme throughout my study abroad experience. I purposefully enrolled in and in fact paid for opportunities to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I find that trying new, unique, and rather challenging things helps me better understand myself, as well as the broader environment around me.
On February 28th, I flew from Hong Kong to Da Nang, Vietnam. For the first time in my life, I was traveling alone. Solo, international travel was an enlightening experience (one that I would highly recommend to people seeking new perspectives) that inspired me in a variety of new ways.
My rough, 5-day plan encompassed three cities: Da Nang, Hoi An, and Hue.
Luckily, as an American citizen, I was able to pick up my single-entry Vietnamese Visa on arrival at the Da Nang Airport for $6 USD. I arrived late at night.
Da Nang is home to over 1 million people and is the fourth largest city in Vietnam.
Most things in Central Vietnam — meals, transportation, etc. — are extremely affordable:
List of prices in Da Nang (Vietnam) for food, housing, transportation, going out, and more on Aug 2018. Compare the…www.expatistan.com
Lunch will cost you roughly $4 USD.
A driver from my hostel — Tribee Cotu — picked me up from the airport and drove me to Hoi An (a 30 or so minute drive from Da Nang). The hostel was awesome. For $20 USD a night, I had a spacious, clean, private room perfectly situated near the ancient street. In hindsight, I recognize I definitely could have saved a few bucks here or there on hostels…but it is what it is. I emphasize that I really liked this hostel! There were dozens of free activities, as well as necessities like drinking water.
I woke up early, my first morning in the city, and wandered aimlessly around the foreign neighborhoods.
I read a bit about the history of Hoi An — it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th…whc.unesco.org
The famous canal and ancient street were refreshingly calm (in stark contrast to the rush of mid-day traffic). I consider Hoi An, especially at first glance, to be the “Venice of Asia” — peaceful, romantic, and quite touristy. While I was inspired by the unique city-center of Hoi An, which runs brilliantly along the canal, I definitely wanted to venture into neighboring villages and see more of the countryside.
I signed up for a countryside bicycling tour (which was recommended by my hostel).
This tour will take you to discover how wooden river boats are made, learn the secret of weaving the colorful straw “Hoi An” sleeping mats Try the renowned Vietnamese basket boats . You will spend the day with first-hand contact with one of the rural inhabitant of the region, far from the usual tourist circuits. At lunchtime you will be invited into the home of a local Vietnamese family for a traditional Vietnamese meal, and learn their customs and traditions. After you have relaxed for a while under the shade of a mango tree, you will Begin your return towards Hoi An, which will take about an hour.
Biking across dirt paths and Vietnamese farmland was really fun. We saw lots of animals and traditional Vietnamese homes.
We also took a ride in a basket boat:
And tasted rice wine (which was something like 70% alcohol concentration). The tour guide literally poured a shot and lit it on fire (where the flame stayed for like 10 minutes).
And saw how Vietnamese mats were made:
All-in-all, though perhaps a bit fluffy, the bike trip was a great way to see lots of aspects of Vietnamese culture.
After my biking excursion, I spent the rest of the day walking around and trying lots of foods.
Banh Mi Phuong serves perhaps one of my favorite dishes I have ever had in the world. Their Banh Mi sandwich is unbelievably good and I say that without exaggeration. I ate two in one sitting. (Each sandwich only costs like $1).
That night happened to be the “lantern festival” in Hoi An:
The Hoi An Lantern Festival is a monthly event that celebrates the full moon. The full moon is one of the most sacred times in the Buddhist calendar.
It was amazingly beautiful:
And, of course, more food!
I really liked the Ancient Town of Hoi An…but thought that two days was enough for me. So I ended up booking a hostel (the Seaside Bungalow) about 20 minutes outside of the city-center. The rooms, I thought, would be really cool …
But they ended up being very humid and full of mosquitoes (because they had open windows). Honestly was a really rough night sleeping in a mosquito net but you live and you learn.
The big positive of this place was that the hostel was a 1 minute walk from the beach and neighbored the Four Seasons Hoi An (one of the nicest hotels I have ever seen).
I spent the day strolling along the beach and bicycling between villages..
My next mission, after spending 3 days in and around Hoi An, was to travel to Hue. I had originally thought about taking a bus or train…but ended up signing up for a motorcycle ride, where I sat on the back of a driver for the all-day journey:
This was one of my favorite experiences of abroad and I would highly recommend it. The landscape was unbelievable and I got to stop at many of Central Vietnam’s most famous sites.
Marble Mountains (Vietnamese: Ngũ Hành Sơn; lit. “five elements mountains”) is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located in Ngũ Hành Sơn District, south of Da Nang city in Vietnam. The five mountains are named after the five elements: Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). — Source
The Hai Van Pass
Truly amazing roads, landscapes, and beach views.
You can book through VM Travels and you don't even have to pay in advance. Yes it is recommended to take the car either…www.tripadvisor.com
The Hải Vân Pass ( Vietnamese: , IPA: [ɗɛ̂w ha᷉ːj vən], "ocean cloud pass"), is an approximately 21 km long mountain…en.wikipedia.org
I extended my “tour” and had my guide also show me around Hue. Hue is famous for their ruins, temples, and imperial city.
The history of Hue is super fascinating and I recommend reading:
Huế originally rose to prominence as the capital of the Nguyễn lords, a feudal dynasty that dominated much of southern…en.wikipedia.org
I spent the rest of my time in Hue eating and wandering around…
I caught a train from Hue to Da Nang early the next morning. The train was fine…a bit dirty…but a relatively quick ride where I could get some work done.
I stayed at a “homestay” near Da Nang beach which was clean and a good location. I walked around a lot — probably 4 miles — throughout the city after I arrived.
Though there is actually quite a bit to do in Da Nang, I was really tired so relaxed for the next 24 hours before catching my flight back to Hong Kong.
And that was my trip to Central Vietnam! Overall, I thought it was awesome and writing it all down now…it feels like I got to see so many things! It was not all beautiful — especially that night near the beach in Hoi An (attacked my mosquitos) — but definitely a trip I will remember forever.
A few thoughts on solo travel…
As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I went alone on this trip! For me, this was a big deal. Traveling alone was big because a) I had never ever done this before and b) it forced me outside of my comfort zone.
It gave me the freedom (and responsibility for that matter) to decide what to do…what to eat, what to drink, what to wear.
I did not have to participate in anything that I did not want to care about. If something was boring, I could just stop and leave. There was no pressure of any kind.
I really do like traveling with friends — they too can push you to do new things! — but I highly value this type of experience.