After spending almost a year to date traveling exclusively around China, I took a leap of faith into another Asian country: Vietnam! David’s passport was with the Chinese government getting a new visa, so he couldn’t leave the country. To be honest, I decided on Vietnam mostly because of the reasonable airfare and overall prices in this country during the Chinese New Year. 2/3 of China’s population migrates from big city to their hometowns during the 2-week long Spring Festival in early February, so prices double and triple for transportation and accommodation during this period. I had also heard many friends extol the exciting cities and beautiful beaches found in Vietnam, so I planned a very last-minute trip that went as follows:

Day 1: Arrived at Rendezvous Hostel in Hanoi after midnight, day Tour of Hanoi, sleeper bus to Sapa Valley
Day 2-3: Sapa Valley Trekking, sleeper bus back to Hanoi airport, flight to Hoi An
Day 4-5: Hoi An Beach Town in Central Vietnam
Day 6: Motorbike Ride from Hoi An to Hue, night in Hue
Day 7: Early flight back to Hanoi, Spa and Relaxation Day
Day 8-9: Halong Bay
Day 10: Early flight back to Beijing

As is typical traveling around Asia, my trip started off with a transportation bang! I was seated on the plan next to two rowdy Russians, who were constantly reprimanded by the flight attendant for not putting on their seat belt, failing to turn up their tray table, walking around during turbulence, etc. They asked for three different drinks each time we were served, and made a fuss about putting their bags through the security check! They also thought I was Russian at first, and were slightly offended when I didn’t respond…I had no idea they were talking to me! Anyway, I got a kick out of them and the group of three Chinese families whose kids studied English in their hometown of Guangzhou and spoke remarkably well. By the end of the flight I exchanged information with the Russians and had the kids on my lap.

I had some apprehensions about traveling alone for the first time in a country where I didn’t speak the language (I have traveled alone previously in Spain, but I speak Spanish and am a little more used to European culture), so I decided to play it safe and book a taxi from the airport to my hostel. After getting my on-the-spot Vietnamese visa, I met my driver easily and talked with a nice German girl in the cab. Although I booked a bed in a 6-bed dorm at the hostel, I only had to share with one other person, who turned out to be a really nice Italian guy and we chatted in the dark for about a hour before falling asleep. It was pretty bizarre, since I saw his face for the first time the next morning!

After a free breakfast from the $7 a night hostel, I joined a bus tour of the city. Although David is opposed to tours like this and prefers to discover a city via map only, I thought it was a great deal. My group included a group of young Israeli girls who had just finished their mandatory army time, an IT guy from Austria and another American turned Beijinger who actually wrote the critically acclaimed book The 8th Promise! We saw all the hotspots without getting lost, which included the Ngoc Son Temple, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Residence, The One Pillar Pagoda, Hall of Literature, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Lake of the Restored Sword, and A Ceramic Factory on the outskirts of town. I’m a sucker for the lotus flower, so I really loved the One Pillar Pagoda and its resemblance to a lotus. Ho Chi Minh’s complex with its French-inspired canary yellow buildings were really stunning, and it was neat to see the actual cars he used to drive around and his simple mountain house on stilts. It was very clear from spending just one day in Hanoi how beloved Ho Chi Minh is by the Vietnamese people for his dynamism and ability to be a man of the people.

I also got to try my first taste of authentic Vietnamese, which was nice! I like the staples of Vietnamese cuisine, which include pho noodle soup, spring rolls and chicken dishes. They use much better cuts of meat for the chicken dishes than the Chinese, and I really liked some of the curry and lemongrass sauces.

After resting a bit back at the hostel, I packed up my things and headed north for my first overnight train ride into Sapa Valley. I turned 26 on the overnight train, and felt pretty proud of myself for making the journey.