For a 16-year-old Brisbane teenager travelling overseas there are three big questions that must be answered. Will there be WiFi? Can I charge my phone? Will the food be 'normal'? Questions that seem so important before departure but, surprisingly, not the high priorities I thought they’d be when I arrived at my destination.
The streets of Hanoi
For a start the sheer buzz of traffic and people in Hanoi is a shock as millions of bikes, of all descriptions, and pedestrians share the streets. A waiter told me I hadn’t seen Vietnam until I’d been hit by a scooter, and it wasn’t long before I found out what he meant. While I was wandering through the chaotic old quarter, distracted by all the sights around me, I was nudged from behind by a scooter as it was weaving – very slowly – through the congested traffic. I wasn’t hurt, just my pride a bit dented and a bruise to remind me to keep a lookout while I was walking the narrow streets. I felt I had passed my first rite of passage, like getting a tattoo, something to tell my friends about later.
We had come to join a small group tour for my first adventure in Vietnam, far from my world of school, homework and going out on weekends. Instead I was in a foreign country where English isn’t commonly spoken, at least where we were going. Trying to make myself understood in shops and restaurants was a challenge but exciting, too. I discovered communication skills I didn’t know I had, using my hands, pointing and shaking my head, finding ways to make myself understood.
If Hanoi was a test in being alert to the surroundings, then our first physical test was hiking to the hill town of Sapa, 380km by train north east of Hanoi. The first part of the two-day hike took us down into the valley, along walking trails that had been used by locals for generations, around steeply terraced rice fields and passing children and cows at their leisure on the way.
After a 15km trek that took more than four hours following our local guide we were happy to reach our homestay for the night, a large home on the hillside and a balcony with views over the valley. Cold drinks were waiting and dinner was a generously prepared feast of rice, pork dishes, soup, fried fish and sautéed vegetables prepared by our host family.
Bed was a mattress over a wooden frame with a mosquito net and, as I had every night so far, I fell asleep quickly without the distractions of screens or television.
The next day was a three-hour ascent back to Sapa along slippery mud trails and a small but beautiful bamboo forest. My phone was proving good for one thing: photos!
Kayaking Ha Long Bay
From Sapa, we travelled by bus and train back to Hanoi then buckled in for another four-hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Vietnam’s most photographed destinations. The bay is well recognised for its 1600 limestone islands, carved by the tropical climate over 20 million years and it’s filled with tourist cruise boats, all trying to find ideal anchorages for the night. But still they couldn’t dim the wonder of it for me. We boarded a boat for a two-day cruise and after lunch paired off into double kayaks for a leisurely paddle on the bay’s still waters, navigating our way through a limestone tunnel that opened out into an amphitheatre of limestone peaks, the only entrance in and out.
Kayaking is the best way to see Ha Long Bay because you can paddle right up to the base of the limestone karsts and touch them, you can see the beautiful plants that grow along the waterline and hear the drip-drip-dripping of water as it finds its way out of their cracked interiors. We paddled off on our own for a while, enjoying the quiet, listening to every drop.
Now on the streets of Hội An
The next morning, after a night floating under the stars, we returned by private bus to Hanoi before setting off the following evening on a 680km overnight train ride on the ageing, creaky Reunification Express to Hue, then from Hue through Danang by minibus to Hội An, a city whose cultural values, influences and beliefs have been preserved by the locals and left largely untainted by outside influences.
We were warned by our guide that you can spend a lot of money in Hội An without realising it (400 tailors, 100 shoe stores, chic restaurants), a warning I suspected might have been directed at me, the teenage shopper of the group, but I wasn’t fazed. One of the things I loved most was the shopping. Fake VANS, Adidas and Nike goods were everywhere and perfect-looking copies cost just a few dollars. It was a once in a lifetime chance for me to stock up on my wardrobe – even create a whole NEW wardrobe – I bought shoes, shorts, t-shirts, a bluetooth speaker and a fake Under Armour bag to carry it all in. And every store I visited I got better at bargaining! Knowing it wasn’t costing a lot made it even more fun (plus, it was Dad’s money!)
During the day we wandered the streets, dawdled around the markets and scouted out where to have our evening meal. Trays of seafood, vegetables, frogs and frog legs (grilled with lemon grass and chilli), chicken feet, entire baskets full of bugs such as crickets, and squid teeth, even hot vit lon (boiled duck embryos) are for sale at the evening street markets. Back home I have eaten lamb’s brains, but I couldn’t bring myself to try the hot vit lon, slurped straight from the egg.
At around 7 o’clock the shutters of riverside cafés begin to open, waiters usher you in their direction and lanterns begin lighting up the streets and river with their warming glow. I liked exploring the nooks and crannies of Hội An, going off the beaten track and seeing it without a plan.
At Anantara Hoi An Resort I was given a one-on-one lesson in Vietnamese cuisine with a professional chef and produced a dish called Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaf. I kneaded minced beef with herbs, lemon grass, crushed peanuts, curry powder and shallots then wrapped it all in a betel leaf and char-grilled it for six minutes. The dish was then served to dad and I under a cabana overlooking the Thu Bon River. I felt a great feeling of satisfaction for what I had just created.
Encounters with a water buffalo
On my birthday, our group cycled for an hour or so through rice paddies near Hội An until we arrived at a small lake where a local farmer was waiting with his adult water buffalo. Before I knew it I was hoisting myself up onto the buffalo’s back behind the owner, then gripping him tightly around the waist while we made our way out into the middle of the shallow lake! The buffalo’s back was smooth and slippery and tucking my feet up as far as they could go while balancing myself on its back seemed like the longest 10 minutes I’d ever spent, no easy task but I made it out and back without falling.
Water buffalo are everywhere in the fields here – Vietnam has three million of them – used to plough fields for rice and vegetables and are considered so valuable they are thought of as members of the family.
Cu Chi tunnels
The day before we were to fly home we visited the Cu Chi tunnels, a 250km-long underground network of narrow tunnels and bunkers north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) that the North Vietnamese used during the Vietnam War to hide from and ambush the Americans.
They form an impossible maze for anyone who doesn’t know the secrets to navigating them. We lowered ourselves down into one of the tunnels and, stooping awkwardly we walked single file along the dimly lit passageway. With my head centimetres from the roof we managed our way through a 40-metre long section of tunnel in complete darkness and it felt very claustrophobic. We came out further along the tunnel into a large area used during the war as a medical room and it felt good to emerge again into the light. This was the ultimate tunnel adventure, better than anything I had experienced.
Sitting at Ho Chi Minh airport I smiled to myself thinking about the highlights of my trip; kayaking in Halong Bay, wandering the tranquil streets of Hội An and, of course, clinging to the back of that water buffalo. I had just spent two weeks off the grid, happily ‘lost’ in Vietnam.