Steve Parker is one of our expert, Japan-based tour leaders – but he’s had plenty of experience travelling all over Asia, including Vietnam. He recently stopped off in Vietnam after a trip home to the UK, hoping for a little downtime before the busy summer hiking season in Japan!
Having worked on the road for 12 years as a tour leader: a job that requires me to know (or at least pretend I know) every street corner and side street; all bus and train times; opening days, times, locations and costs of every museum, gallery, temple, park, garden and cathedral; and how to safely and smoothly navigate mountain trails, I sometimes find myself in need of a little wandering sans direction.
When on the job these days, I often visit some of Japan’s finest tourist spots, including several of its wonderful World Heritage Sites. I love the privilege of calling these my office on any given day, however, when it comes to travelling somewhere for my own pleasure, I feel the need to drop the planning, organisation and itinerary, opting for a laissez-faire attitude laced with spontaneity.
And so my fifth visit to Vietnam was in many respects a low-key affair, which still, as always, managed to throw up wonderful interactions and unexpected experiences, that this great country seems to offer around every corner.
I started out in the cabled chaos of District One in Ho Chi Minh City – it was great to get a hit of street life – the food, drinks, vendors and fascinating people-watching. However, my draw for my week in Vietnam was the relatively unknown (to foreigners) resort town of Vung Tau. I was in need of an adventure, so my girlfriend and I decided that Vung Tau was the easy access place to head to.
To get there, we took the high-speed Vina Express river ferry out of Ho Chi Minh for about £7. In a mere 80 minutes we were at the coast, and after a short taxi ride we were at our rather splendid Malibu Hotel, sipping poolside cocktails.
Vung Tau is a resort for Vietnamese tourists, so you are very unlikely to come across more than a handful of foreigners during your time here. It boasts friendly, laid-back locals, a glorious beach and its own hilltop Jesus, dominating the skyline over the city. I have decided therefore to nickname it the “Rio of Vietnam”.
The Rio of Vietnam
Given Vung Tau’s low profile on the foreign tourist’s radar, I certainly attracted a lot of attention on my first day at the beach. First off I was urged to play in a full 11-a-side beach football match – somewhat challenging when all players were dressed in a multitude of t-shirt colours… Which way am I playing? Are you on my team? Khong? After 50-lungbursting minutes of action (these guys take their beach football seriously!) everyone drifted off to the cool of the shade, while I decided to try and absorb a little colour into my pallid complexion.
I thought that I would be left alone for the rest of the day as I crashed out in the sun, shattered from my sporting efforts on the sand. I lay back, closed my eyes, but in no time became conscious of whispers, scratching at sand and the gaze of curious infant eyes upon me. I sat up to find three Vietnamese children digging holes right next to me. On a beach with enough room to land a Boeing 747, this was their subtle way to hide their curiosity at a flabby, pale, bald whitey like me.
I was initially a little uncomfortable at the intrusion into my personal space, but once the children’s parents had come down from the covered beachside decking to request photos with me, I felt more at ease. Subsequently, I spent the whole afternoon playing like a ten-year-old in the sea, chugging copious “Ba-Ba-Ba” (333) beers, munching on huge prawns, and having gesture-heavy conversations with my newfound, mutually unintelligible friends.
This was the kind of wonderful unplanned interaction that I really enjoy, and I certainly felt a million miles from the workplace. My girlfriend, meanwhile, was pretty much ignored, which is as she would prefer it (she’s Japanese – but I guess they all thought she was Vietnamese). She was mildly amused that I had been employed as a) the foreign beach clown for the kids, and b) the local UK ambassador to Vung Tau parents. A great day, if a little alcohol hazy by the end of it.
The following day we decided to up the level of adventure a little, hiring a scooter and heading northeast to… wherever. Our only condition was that we made it back to the hotel sometime that night. I headed out early to hire a mean machine for a mere peanuts. I don’t ride in Japan, so I had to test my motor-scooter-driving skills along the beach road before heading to the hotel to pick up my girlfriend.
Our road trip started in the spearing rain of mid-morning, taking us onto the small town of La Gi – two hours directly northeast, but a good four-hour task for us – too many photo opportunities offered themselves as we passed manioc farms, rice plantations, tiny beach hut resorts, roadside villages, swamp-submerged water buffalo resting in the muddy cool, and kids playing football on makeshift Wembley Stadium turf, Vietnamese style.
We had purposefully taken no map, just giving ourselves a target destination, so the need to confirm the route was relatively frequent – pulling into the curbside on numerous occasions to ask passersby. The directions were often contradictory to the point of hilarity – but we were on holiday, after all, so why stress?
On one such occasion, we stopped to drink tea and take a hammock break under a roadside canopy, sending the local women into cackles of laughter and the local men into expressions of utter confusion. Had we lost our buffalo? Had our rice planter bust? Which planet had we landed from, and why of all places had our craft landed here?! These are the true travel experiences that stick in mind – I guess they are the ones that emphasise that difference is fascinating, to be embraced, and can prompt the widest grins imaginable.
When we eventually arrived at our destination, it did not disappoint. Our time in La Gi was a fleeting yet marvellous experience – our every move observed, hawk-like, by curious, shade-hugging grandparents and excited kids, who ran out into the street to high-five us as we slowly chugged through the town’s shore-side residential area.
After my unsuccessful performance of the previous day I even found myself asking to join kids playing football, in a semi-submerged pitch, among the palms and rice paddies. The buffalo looked on nonchalantly, but these kids, in their mix of shirts, old kits of yesteryear, and of course, the inevitable one lucky lad with his Messi Barcelona shirt, were playing for the World Cup, as far as they were concerned.
Such was our enthusiasm been to mix with as many people as possible in La Gi that we found ourselves facing an evening return to Vung Tau, zipping along the highway, peppered by small insects in the tangerine light of sundown. My stinging eyes then had to adjust to the lack of street lighting, with the sudden full beam of trucks heading in the opposite direction (thankfully on the right side of the road) and, more alarmingly, the scores of kids riding their bicycles along our side of the highway, completely camouflaged in the warm night air.
It was a little hairy, and next time I will be sure not to let my wanderlust force me into such a situation, but after two hours the welcoming lights of Vung Tau came into view. In no time, we were pulling into our hotel with a sense of relief and the need for a stiff drink.
Our adventure was only a day trip, but what a way to just get lost in rural Vietnam.
I don’t recommend hopping on a bike in the madness of Ho Chi Minh City, nor rural riding after dark, but there is no better way to go into the green yonder than to experience a freewheeling, hop-on/hop-off scooter tour! When you get to Vietnam, you will inevitably be drawn to the hot-spots of this great country – Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay. However, if you want a little “indie” adventure, don’t discount this charming little corner of Vietnam.