Thought I would take advantage of a little downtown (and the hot afternoon) to post quickly a bit about what I've been up to this past week! Unfortunately I forgot to bring the charger for my fancy iPad charger which means I can type about half as slowly as usual, so this post may be less eloquent than usual. Bear with me!
I did an overnight tour of Mekong Delta from Saigon last week, which was fun although REALLY touristy. We left early from Saigon, drove for a while, stopping to see a few big Buddhas at a pagoda, then hopped in little boats and paddled down a canal for lunch, then bigger boats where we cruised to other islands to see coconut candy being made and to drink honey tea and watch a musical performance. Fun, but like I said, definitely a touristy experience where you feel like you're being trotted out to see "Vietnam" in a kind of inauthentic way. After the tea, we were back on the bus and drove further south, where those of us who'd opted for the homestay got to get on tiny little boats and traverse a canal in the dark with bats swooping overhead to our riverside bungalows for the night. Definitely my fave part of the experience! Probably because it was a little daring and crazy feeling, which I am missing from my days in Cambodia. At the homestay (probably not a real Vietnamese home but still), we got to help make dinner and feast on homemade spring rolls and the best tofu I've ever had (fried and topped with a yummy tomato sauce) and some delicious fresh river fish. The next morning we were back on the tiny boat and motored to My Tho, where we got off and wandered around the city market while the homestay owner looked for our connecting boat.
We rejoined the group and took off for the floating market of Cai Be, which was cool to see but also felt pretty touristy, as evidenced by the abundance of people selling coconut drinks. And by selling I mean being really, really persistent about buying fruit and drinks to a point where basically everyone caved and bought something.
We got off the boat in Can Tho and had lunch before getting back on the tour bus and heading back to Saigon. Ultimately it was a fun trip, mostly because a lot of other nice, fun people had signed up for the trip which made the whole touristy aspect of it a lot more enjoyable.
In Saigon I headed to my hostel for the night -- I had done a look at my finances and concluded I needed to tighten the purse strings, so to speak, so joining the twentysomething backpacker scene has been a bit of a necessity. I stayed at a nice hostel in Saigon for the night and had a full day to hang out, spending a lot of it at a nearby cafe chatting with two girls from the hostel and wandering around. I flew to Da Nang that night where the hostel in Hoi An had arranged for a ride for me.
I arrived at the hostel around 10 and joined some people for a beer and headed out to a bar 15 minutes away, filled with young backpackers from all over America and Europe getting drunk on the cheap. I've actually kind of enjoyed watching the whole thing with a bit of detached amusement; I mean, I lived it up backpacking around Eastern Europe in 2001 and teaching English in Spain. And I would have LOVED to travel here when I was in my early 20s and would have been just as enthusiastic to hop on the dancefloor and down a shot and have a generally raucous good time. But definitely at age 36, I can definitely say I've been there, done that, and feel a kind of happiness watching "the kids" have a good time. Although when watching a Swedish girl stumble out of the club and fall on her face, I definitely do not feel the need to join the scene with reckless abandon! Nor when watching some newly-formed "couple" have a drunken fight a few feet nearby. Mostly I just feel a bit like I am some older, slighly wise observer of a chapter of youthful history.
The hostel in Hoi An turned out to be a great place though; even though most of the people staying there were in their early 20s, I enjoyed talking to them about their travels and lives, and wondered if I could write-off the experience on my tax return next year as "research" on millenials. (It's not the horrible hangovers that let you know you're old, it's being abroad and thinking about strategizing on your taxes!)
I also just LOVED Hoi An. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site after all, and for good reason. Tiny little streets packed with ancient homes from the 16th century, with lots of Chinese and Japanese influences in the architecture. Plus there's a million paper lanterns everywhere -- strung across the streets, dangling from awnings, and packed in storefronts, where they shimme in the river at night -- which just adds to the romantic feel.
I got to spend 3 full days in Hoi An, which is maybe a lot but I found no shortage of things to do, especially because by "things to do" I mean aimlessly wander around taking photos and eating street food. Somehow between that and checking out the museums and old homes, the three days just drifted along. On my third night there, a group of ventured to Da Nang to check out the International Fireworks Competition, which was a super fun outing as well. Unlike Hoi An, Da Nang was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and was entirely rebuilt so it is modern and filled with tall buildings covered in flashing lights.
Anyway, because I am terrible at planning, I have wound up in Vietnam during their biggest holiday time of year and found myself trying to travel while the ENTIRE rest of the country is (they've had the entire week off). I wanted to take the train from Da Nang to Hue because I'd read there was a pretty stretch along the coast you can't see any other way. That meant I had to go on one of the oldest, slowest trains that serves as a local train between the two cities which means a distance that should take about an hour in the US took about four hours. The train was also packed with locals taking advantage of their holidays and so I was something of an anomaly, one of only a few Westerners on the entire train. However, as much I have enjoyed some time spent with The Backpackers, I do appreciate getting off their beaten path and seeing life a little more how the regular people are living it. (The backpacker hostels could literally plan your entire trip for you, and you'd get to spend it literally with other backpackers, which could be fun, but for me feels a little bit like I'm missing out on getting a chance to interact at all with the peole who actual live here.)
I'm in Hue now and about to head back to the Citadel/Imperial City for the rest of the afternoon. I wandered around yesterday and was glad I'd be able to have a second day to take it in again. My plan for SE Asia has been to either get up early and go do stuff, then relax during the hottest part of the day and head out again in the later afternoon .... OR, like today, sleep until 10, eat my free hostel breakfast, then sit at a cafe and drink strong Vietnamese coffee for hours on end, and write this blog post while no one else is in the hostel restaurant! Such are the joys of travelling for such a loooooong time that I feel like I can fritter the hot day away.
Tomorrow I'm off to do a tour of the Demilitarized Zone, then take the train from Dong Ha to Dong Hoi, where I'll spend the night, then head to the Phong Nha Caves for two nights. Then it's back to Dong Hoi to take a sleeper train to Hanoi. Not sure how that's going to go ... Wish me luck!