Every week during our eight-week trip across Southeast Asia, I plan to post a handful of snapshots and stories from the week just gone.
We sped into Vietnam, literally, in a minivan, mere minutes after being hurried through the border by our Khmer driver, who insisted we were about to miss our connection (an air-conditioned coach with functioning seatbelts, we’d been assured) to the Mekong Delta. We waved a flustered goodbye to the three Dutch women we’d befriended on the coach from Kep and ran, backpacks bobbing, across no-man’s land, into the waiting minivan. Which waited. And waited. And waited. And then, materialising like a mirage on the horizon, our Netherlanders re-appeared and, laughing as they caught sight of us, walked towards the vehicle and hopped into the van. What followed was one of the giddiest moments of our journey that day, high on new friendship and our shared experience, the van hurtled – and I mean hurtled – through the town of Hà Tiên as we chuckled and chattered, giggling at Dutch Girl #1’s refusal to pay $1 for a ‘health check’ with a border guard. “Corruption! Pure corruption!” she laughed. We’d all laughed too when she’d snatched her crumpled note straight out of his money belt and marched the four of us decisively out of his clutches.
Our much-anticipated cool, inviting and safe coach turned out – and, oh, how we should have known – to be a minivan without seatbelts, crammed with Vietnamese locals, an impossibly small space in the very back row reserved for me and my 6’2 boyfriend (and his very long legs). And with that, we were in, we were off, speeding to the delta city of Cần Thơ, laughing at our misfortune (as we so often found ourselves), for what else could we do? Good morning, Vietnam.
Cần Thơ is Vietnam’s fourth-largest city and an important centre of commerce, but it felt like a breath of fresh air, just hectic enough, free of tourists, home to some of the friendliest people we met from north to south (and the Vietnamese are, by and large, incredibly friendly).We grew fond of the place, which seemed free from pretension. Just a city going about its business. No airs, no graces. The highlight was our sunrise visit to a nearby floating market on the delta, in our own rickety sampan, guided by a university student majoring in English. In quiet moments, as our deft female driver navigated the river’s turns, I caught him sneaking off texts and checking Facebook. I don’t know why, but it made me fond of him.
After two nights in the delta, we hot-footed it to Hồ Chí Minh on the nicest coach you could dream up (FUTA buses, for future travellers–fully reclining seats! free water! cold towels!) where we spent most of our time eating, being massaged and playing with our AirBnB’s adorable, furry residents… (We’ve both been before, hence no need to ‘see the sights’ this time). But more on that another time…
Then, the sleeper-and-then-some train to Đà Nẵng, 600 miles in one fell swoop. The lengthiest nonstop journey I’ve ever taken. Sixteen hours, upped to eighteen by the rail replacement bus service we so happily (and unexpectedly) transferred to at 7am on Saturday morning due to typhoon flooding en route. The hours passed in a smudge of fitful sleep, boiled eggs greyed in their yolks for breakfast, stinking toilets, swollen rice paddies, the country’s looming, lush mountains and coconut palms rolling on and on – one long green fingerprint dragged along the windowpane.
We just missed Donald Trump in Đà Nẵng, but found (and avoided) a bar plastered with his picture, clearly set up in haste in his (questionable) honour. Took a free walking tour with English students, wandered around the dystopian seafront, tried and failed at renting a motorbike, tried and failed at ordering vegetarian bánh xèo, moved hotels, got sick, got scammed. Still, we enjoyed its breakfasts, its pizza, its markets, its mountains serrating the sky in the distance.
And then, another infuriating bus ride later, we arrived in Hội An, city of glassy, golden light and mustard yellow stucco. City of lanterns and looms and sampans and selfie sticks. But I’ll save that for next time!