Arriving in Vietnam from China, I was hit with unexpected culture shock. I think the shock came from 1) seeing many backpackers 2) seeing a lot of white people and 3) the highly visible Vietnamese tourist infrastructure. Items #1 and #2 were not a part of my experience in China. Infrastructure for tourists is present in China but it is targeted at domestic travelers, not international visitors.
Also in contrast to China, each travel decision I make in Vietnam feels easy. There is an obvious banana pancake trail here (present in the next few countries I will visit too) most visitors follow. Store fronts advertising tours with large color photos abound. Hostels can book bus tickets for onward travel one night in advance and also offer package tours to the various sites in the area. There are even specific bus services for tourists called open ticket busses that operate a hop-on, hop-off service. Travelers can journey between cities by bus, private car, on a rented or purchased motorbike, or on the back of a motorbike driven by a local Easy Rider.
The other reason travel in Vietnam feels so easy is because there are essential two routes: north to south or south to north. In hostels I reconnect with people I met earlier in Vietnam and the people traveling in the opposite direction are happy to share stories and advice.
Because onward transit can be booked on short notice, I have a loose travel plan that shifts as I talk with others. The spreadsheet calendar is not the tool here that it was in China. I miss the challenge of traveling in China where there was less English and fewer western travelers. I have adjusted though to the experience in this country and by selecting less common destinations and hostels not known for their parties, I continue meeting great people.
My first bus journey in Vietnam was a 6pm – 6am adventure from Haiphong City to Hue. This was not a journey on the nicer tourist buses. I spent most of the night thinking I would fall out of my top bunk bed and listening to horn honking. There were three other backpackers on the bus so I had some company for eye-rolling. Not captured is the smell of the toilet. It was a rougher journey.
Hue is the former capital city of Vietnam. The Imperial City in Hue, like the Forbidden City in Beijing, was home to Vietnam’s ruling class from the 1800s to the 1950s. I toured the area with June, a friend from my hostel. We had gorgeous blue skies and 90 degree temperatures. I was a sweaty mess.
There is a moat and perimeter wall around The Citadel with impressive gates at two of the entrances. Conservation and restoration work is underway in the Imperial City with founding from UNESCO and foreign governments.
Stunning corridor in the ancient city.
From Hue I took a day tour to visit the DMZ or the Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ is the area near the 17th parallel in Vietnam that separated North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (called the American War when in Vietnam). We visited sites including the Khe Sanh combat base which witnessed one of the many bloody battles of this war. Now there is a museum at the site and a few remnants from the war.
The tour also visited the Vinh Moc tunnels, an area next to the South China Sea. These tunnels housed villagers from the bombardments of the American forces. Schools, medical facilities, and social areas were built underground. People lived for up to 10 days in these tunnels. The weapons I am standing next to were on display at the Vinh Moc tunnels. The tombstones were unmarked graves of North Vietnamese/Viet Cong fighters who died in the war.
Visiting these sites was thought provoking, great learning, and sad. I will continue to learn about this war while I am here.
To travel from Hue to Hoi An I booked a tour. Along with 6 other people we rode in a large minivan and stopped at various sites including Marble Mountain and the Hai Van Pass.