Vietnam: A journey of firsts

Stories about my first backpacking trip to the land of the Kong!

Pretty patchwork from a hill top at Bac Son Valley

A foreign land to blissfully get lost in

Not so long ago, while I was a broke student in college, I always used to fantasize about what I would do when I had some money saved away from my first job ever. The answer was always a backpacking trip. I believe one must experience this low budget, less frills way of travelling at least once in their lives. When I finally did have the money, and had to start planning where to go, I wanted to do it all!

Which I why I chose Vietnam.

Vietnam is a country with such varied and amazing experiences to offer. It is truly a backpacking paradise and super travel friendly. Diving, hiking, cave exploring, mud bathing, boat rides and cruises in the land of the Kong were amongst the many spectacular things I got to experience here.

It was definitely a journey of a lot of great firsts!

Planning it all

The planning process could seem quite daunting for a first time traveller. But the best place to start is to make a list of what kind of experiences and memories you want from your vacation. Once you have done this, inspiration can hit from anywhere.

For example, there is a sub reddit called Earth porn where you get to see photos of out-of-the-ordinary gorgeous landscapes. Crazy as it seems, a lot of the places we went to were through suggestions we found here. We began by mapping out our itinerary on an actual map. We decided to travel from south to the north of Vietnam. Once this was set , we started by booking hostels and guided tours first. Our flights and hotels were booked by comparison on all online travel booking websites.

The route taken : 10 days | 7 cities

The most useful sites for planning/travelling were-

Lonely planet
Earth porn (subreddit)
Google maps
Google translate

The most useful sites for booking hotels and other accommodations were -
Hostel world
Hostel Bookers

Blurring the line between fantasy and reality at Nha Trang Sea Star Scuba diving centre

My Secret Seven

1. Underwater adventures at Nha Trang : I got my first SSI scuba school open water diving certification at Nha Trang. The rich marine life of the ocean that you get to explore. Coupled with the feeling of calm that overcomes you when you are underwater, is something out of a fantasy.

2. The magic of Vietnamese Folk dance : If you are as lucky as I was, you might get to witness a traditional Vietnamese folk dance during your stay here. We were held captive spectators to this at a temple that was dedicated to (surprisingly) the Indian goddess Mahishasurvardini (Durga). It was performed by students dressed in colorful costumes as the five mythological animals of Vietnam — Dragon, Phoenix, Tiger, Serpent and Unicorn (yes, you read right!)

3. Alien pods at Phong Nha Caves : Phong Nha near Dong Hoi has some of the longest and biggest caves of the world. The smaller caves make you feel like you have landed smack dab in the middle of a scene from Ridley Scott’s “Alien” because of the stalactites and stalagmites shaped like alien pods.

4. Mud bathing at the Dark caves : From the smaller caves , we proceeded to zip line into the bigger dark caves. We walked, crawled and swam in complete darkness through the slippery damp caves. Finally, we reached a “mud bath” where we had a gala time floating and playing in the naturally occurring cave mud. It was a feeling like no other I have experienced before. We ended the day with more water sports like kayaking etc and a scrumptious traditional Vietnamese community meal.

Alien Pods at Phong Nha caves

5. One day in Ninh Binh : An early morning boat ride through the serene waters of Tam Coc, riding cycles on roads surrounded by green paddy fields on both sides like children, hiking upto the majestic and huge limestone dragon statue at Mua caves and being awestruck by the view from the top of the Bich Dong pagoda were how we spent our one day here.

6. Away from the crowds at Bac Son valley : If you want to get away from it all, Bac Son valley is the place to go to . The view from top after hiking up to one was the nearby hills was simply put — breathtaking. The intricate patchwork of rice paddy fields in various shades of yellow and green looked like a giant blanket stitched and laid down by Mother Earth.

7. Land of the Kong — Ha long Bay : Ha Long bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site with limestone islets scattered in the ocean with caves and party islands close by. Fun fact , “Ha long” literally means “descending dragon”. Because all the islets in the ocean that look like parts of a huge dragon coiled and moving through the ocean. 
Incidentally , this is where a lot of the shooting for the King Kong movie happened.

Beautiful sunshine and warm smiles at Bac son Valley and Tam Coc River

Travel Tip

While visiting Phong Nha, stay at the Nyugen Shack— a rustic wooden hostel with the sweetest locals operating it.

What to treat your tummies to

  1. Pho Ga: Rice noodles and chicken in a yummy broth. 
    I could eat this forever!
  2. Filter Coffee and Egg Coffee at Cafe Giang’s at Hanoi
  3. Bia Hoi: Locally brewed sweet beer , cheaper than water
  4. Morning glory: A type of spinach fried with garlic, chicken broth and soi sauce. As healthy and simple as it is mind blowing, succulent and tasty.
  5. Coconut ice cream with tender coconut pieces.
L-R : Tender coconut ice cream, fried fish wrapped in banana leaf, fried tofu with peanut chutney, rice noodles,sticky rice and local yum filter coffee

The icing on the cake

The best part of my trip though , undoubtedly has to be the people I met here and memories I made. From roaming the busy streets of Hanoi to relaxing at the quaint wooden hostels of Phong Nha.
We genuinely met some of the nicest, most helpful and happy people ever.
Sitting on hammocks or on a cruise deck, playing the Ukelele and having tons of Vietnamese filter coffee was something I will take with me always. We made some great friends, had some great conversations and cultural exchanges here. 
It’s the kind of satisfaction and rejuvenation that only travel can get you.
“Tam biet” — Until next time Vietnam!

Where do we go from here

During our diving, we befriended a guy who was a “serial diver” of sorts and has dived all around the world . He enticed us with his stories of encounters with sharks ,turtles, manta rays and Komodo dragons in Bali and Egypt. Since I got my first diving certification at Vietnam and Bali is in South east Asia as well , hopefully next trip would be to Egypt. It might take a while to save up money for that but I think the catacombs are a calling!

Mr. Dragon smiling down at us at Mua caves
View from top at Ninh Binh
Cycling with rice paddy fields on both sides on the way to Bich Dong
Swimming into the dark caves at Phong Nha
Kong Islands at Ha long Bay
Ha long bay cruises
Durga temple at Nha trang
Until next time Mr.Kong, Tam Biet !