Vietnam: The Unexpected Highlight of SE Asia (Pt. 2)

We nearly missed it... We almost skipped Vietnam and missed my favorite country of South East Asia. All we read in preparation were blogs warning of the scams and the poor treatment Americans received there. We went anyways and LOVED it. Not only was it historically important to us, but it was also unbelievably beautiful, culturally rich, and intellectually and emotionally challenging. There was so much to process, I had to split it into 2 parts. Part 1 can be found here. So here we go, Vietnam Part 2:

Part 2: The Breathtaking Beauty of Vietnam

We were mildly unprepared for the drop in temperature as the motorbike slowly climbed up the steep and winding mountain road, becoming enshrouded in a cloudy fog some 1600 meters above sea level. We had just made a short stopover to climb a waterfall and the mist from the cascade felt cold against our skin as the air temperature fell gradually: 20°C, then 15°C, then lower to 5° (That's 70°F down to 40°F for Americans...). We had rain jackets with minimal insulation and had shipped our warmer jackets home weeks ago, certain they would be unnecessary on our tropical SE Asia trip and took up far too much precious space and weight in our bags. We shivered as we neared the top of the pass and finally began the winding descent towards the warm valley below. Although the fog surrounding us limited visibility to 10 meters or so, we were unworried about traffic as the road north from Sa Pa, Vietnam is relatively untravelled by anything other than motorbikes due to the lanes being too narrow and grades too steep for the masses of buses and vans filled with tourists seeking overlooks of pristine terraced rice paddies against the rugged mountainsides.

We opted against these convenient guided tours, instead renting a 125cc Honda Wave motorbike for the day for $4, determined to reach the small village of Lai Châu some 135 km away. We learned that although the guided buses have brochures showing vast terraced rice paddies, rugged mountains, and untouched Vietnamese countrysides, the routes they actually travel go south from Sa Pa--away from the most pristine views--due to the difficulty of driving the roads northbound, which is exactly where the majority of the beautiful spots are located. It did not take us more than 10 kilometers outside of town to realize we had made an excellent choice! The views across the mountain range left us breathless. Beneath the wispy clouds, we marveled at green rice paddies along the mountainsides which tiered downward to the river valley below, while the towering Phang Xi Pang mountain touched the heavens above us. The day warmed as it progressed and we took our time cruising through the untouched Vietnamese farmlands, braking occasionally for water buffalos to cross the road ahead of us. We rode for 2-3 hours along the valley floor and finally reached our destination, grabbed a cup of coffee in a very strange "cafe" (ask me about this story sometime... I won't write about it here, but it is one of our favorites...), and turned around. We saw one other western couple on the road with us throughout the day and often found ourselves at the same overpasses taking pictures multiple times through the day. Naturally they became friends, and we shared a meal together back in Sa Pa, with hopes of reconnecting in their homeland of Belgium in January. This was easily my favorite day of the trip, partially due to the absolute freedom of motorbiking with my girl off the beaten path, but also due to the completely unexpected brilliance of the scenery and experiences we shared along the road.

Perhaps we should have been more aware of the unbelievable natural beauty of Vietnam, particularly as we had already been in the country for two weeks and seen our fair share of world-class locations, including the UNESCO World Heritage site and former "7 Wonders of the Natural World" winner, Ha Long Bay. We took a cruise one night through this marvel of a place: over 3000 limestone islands shooting vertically a thousand feet from the turquoise water. Kayaking beneath these majestic spires was as humbling as it was beautiful, and a short climb through a cave and onto the top of one of these islands provided views we will never forget.

Even earlier still, we found ourselves in Hoi An, Vietnam. This small city is on the central coast, with a charming old town on the river where colorful paper lantern adorn the streets and stretch between the quaint French architecture buildings. The cobbled walking street was lined with beautiful shops, restaurants, and markets, complete with a bustling custom tailoring center. We found ourselves riding bikes here each day and strolling the river, releasing candles on the river at night in honor of our mother's birthdays, and getting several custom clothing items tailored. We enjoyed the artisan feel of this area, and found several neat coffee shops to enjoy the atmosphere, including the Reaching Out Teahouse, which is fully staffed by the deaf, requiring complete silence and ordering creatively using stamps on paper. We felt inspired that a company could be so honoring and empowering of those with disabilities while simultaneously creating an atmosphere so inviting and enriching.

These are merely the highlights of the natural beauty and rich culture we experienced, yet I could write another 3000 words on the motorbike frenzy of Saigon (5 million motorbikes in a city of 10 million people...), the cultural experiences on the Mekong Delta, the Marble Mountain and cave temples of Da Nang, and exploring the historic city of Hanoi. To put it plainly, we found surprising beauty at ever stop throughout our time in Vietnam and it made for my favorite leg of the entire trip thus far. The abundance of positive and fun experiences and the culturally enriching perspectives gained surprised us in the best of ways and left us with fond memories of a place we almost skipped. I could have spent another month exploring so many areas we missed, but perhaps I will simply need to return for a long North-to-south motorbike trip another time.

I love stumbling into beauty unexpected, and perhaps this is where my fondness for Vietnam stems from. I had anticipated a country whose infrastructure was still recovering from war, would act hostile towards us, and only had mediocre attractions to visit, and I was wrong on every account. Thank you, Vietnam, for the change in perspectives, the cultural intrigue, and the blow-your-mind kind of beauty! We will meet again another day.