Vietnam from south to north
Ho Chi Minh City, still known to many as Saigon, is packed with life. City parks are full of people power walking, playing badminton, and even doing after-work aerobics classes. Thousands of motorbikes sweep through the city streets, spilling onto sidewalks. People sip beer and slurp pho at outdoor restaurants, and vendors call out to passersby.
Though we’re by no means city people, we rather liked it.
Just an hour or so south of Saigon, the Mekong River splits into nine massive branches, each with a complex network of tiny canals, tributaries, and streams. We were excited to see what the river we crossed into Laos three weeks ago had become.
Our destination, Ben Tre, turned out the be a nondescript city sprawled out along polluted water — far from the small riverside community we were picturing. Luckily, a man on a motorbike pulled up as we stood dejectedly on the sidewalk and flashed a brochure for his guesthouse, 13 kilometers out of town. Set in a sweet-smelling orchard with small ponds and plenty of hammocks, it was just what we were looking for.
We borrowed two rickety bikes and set off down the street, past tiny towns and orchards and over small bridges spanning canals. On the return journey, school let out, and the narrow street was suddenly filled with schoolchildren in their uniforms, two or three to a bike. It was an ideal way to spend an afternoon.
The following day we took our friendly innkeeper up on a boat tour around the area, which led us down narrow canals fringed with overhanging water coconut branches, and out onto the main river. Wide and muddy as the Mississippi, it’s hard to believe there are eight more branches flowing into the South China Sea.
Back in Saigon, we stuffed our stomachs and bags with French pastries in preparation for a 40-hour train journey to northern Vietnam. Yes, a plane would certainly be quicker, more comfortable, perhaps even cheaper, but there’s something in the ability to trace the curved coastline of Indochina on a map and remember covering every inch of it on the ground.
On a line dubbed the Reunification Express, trains cover 1,079 miles of track between Saigon and Hanoi. We shared a four-berth sleeper cabin with a quiet Vietnamese couple for the first 644 of them, and were quite enchanted with the whole thing. We passed the time reading, watching movies, and being pulled in and out of sleep by the rumbling of the train.
When the sun rose, it revealed miles and miles of vibrant green rice fields rolling by. Farmers in conical hats stooped to tend the rice and steered plows pulled by water buffalo. White cranes burst out of the greenery and flew alongside the train on its journey north. After passing Danang, the train tracks veered to the curving edge of the ocean. Peering down from our bunks, we watched waves crashing on the rough rocky shore, dotted with wide, honey-colored beaches.
After 16 hours onboard, we were ready for a break and Hue proved the perfect place to spend a night. Located right off the train tracks, Hue is a beautiful old city, with a wide river dotted with wooden boats and crossed by two bridges. Locals—and even a pair of newlyweds posing for their wedding photos—strolled the stone pedestrian streets along the river.
Our second overnight journey proved less restful, and after being ripped off on tickets and boarding a dirty, cramped six-berth cabin at 6 a.m. for the nine hours to Sapa, any traces of enchantment had expired. This time around, hours were passed staring at the ceiling, bickering, and voicing any and all frustrations with this sub-region of Asia. It was a new trip low. An hour late, we rolled into Lao Cai, stumbled off the train, and checked into the first vacant guesthouse.
At long last we arrived in Sapa on Monday morning and checked into the Mountain View Hotel with wide eyes. Our $15 room was huge and contained all the pleasures of the modern world— the most comfortable home we’ve had since leaving home. A steaming hot shower, fluffy white beds, fast, consistent wi-fi, a television bearing movies, music videos and the final round of the Masters, and a huge picture window looking out on…nothing. The view boasted in the hotel’s name and the one we came here to see was shrouded in mist, which grew so thick in the afternoon that crossing the street became dangerous. The next morning it was still hanging outside our window, pale and ghostly. Stepping out the door felt like being dropped into a glass of milk. Clearly, it wasn’t going anywhere.
The streets in Sapa are crowded with tourists and local villagers from the Black Hmong tribe selling woven crafts and guiding services. It wasn’t long before two women offered to lead us on a couple hours’ walk to their village. Down narrow paved roads, through tall bamboo forests, and along muddy trails, soon we were well below the town of Sapa and in the village of Lao Chai.
We were invited into one of our guides’ family home, and pulled up wooden stools around a fire in the dark interior. Young men smoked tobacco out of a bamboo pipe, and several generations of family gathered around. The small dirt-floored building was home to seven people, and it was eye opening to see how they live every day. Our childhood homes— even our hotel room— were disgustingly luxurious in comparison. It was an unsettling feeling to be here on vacation and pay money to get a tour of these people’s lives.
Outside, the mist condensed into rain and began falling hard. We purchased some of our guides’ handiwork and hopped on the back of two motorbikes for the wet, muddy ride up the mountain to Sapa.
Finally, on the morning of our last full day, the fog pulled back to reveal countless layers of rice terraces spilling off steep mountain peaks poking out of the clouds.
The low point at the end of our 40-hour train ride seemed very far away.