CIEE Week 10: Vietnam + Thailand

This week was my program’s Spring Break, so several of my friends and I headed on a whirlwind tour of Vietnam and Thailand. Our first stop was HoChiMinh City, formerly known as Saigon.
HoChiMinh city really enveloped me. As the first city of the week, I dove right in and was reminded of how much I love to travel, to see new places, try new food and meet new people. The city really just made me feel alive and was much more metropolitan than I had anticipated. Downtown Saigon today contrasts sharply with the area on the outskirts where the CuChi tunnels are. These tunnels are from the Vietnam war, and we booked a tour to see them in person. The tunnels were tiny— we walked through some that had been slightly enlarged for tourists and still had to bend over to walk or get down on our hands and knees to crawl through. The tour through the tunnels also featured examples of the traps used  to throw dogs and soldiers off the trail; To say they looked brutal is an understatement.
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In order to learn more about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, we headed from the tunnels to the War Remnants Museum. The museum exhibits were primarily photographs taken during and after the war and as such evoked strong emotions, capturing horrific detail, especially regarding victims of Agent Orange, the chemical agent used during the war. Having not read much about it before, I was very struck at how damaging the effects of the chemical warfare were, not only to those living in affected areas but their descendants, others who moved to the area after the war and even the American soldiers who administered the chemical.
We continued our foray through history from HoChiMinh city to Hanoi. Our first stop was former president HoChiMinh’s mausoleum, followed by the museum about his life. The museum was oddly structured, but I did learn that HoChiMinh actually spent time living and working in the U.S. briefly before becoming president. Unfortunately, because we were in Hanoi on a Monday, a lot of the sites were closed, but we were able to get a good feel for the city by walking around all day, dipping in and out of restaurants and coffee shops.
Hands down the best part about Vietnam was the food. One night, we ate two bahn mi’s for dinner because they were so good we literally couldn’t get enough. I will also probably have dreams about the pho we had from a little corner shop our first day in HoChiMinh and if the whole post grad career doesn’t pan out, I might just move to New York and open an egg coffee shop. Egg coffees consist of an egg yolk custard atop black coffee and while it sounds simple, it tastes luxurious. One coffee shop we went to even infused cinnamon into their custard which was next level.
From Hanoi, we hopped on a cruise with Castaways to explore Vietnam’s HaLong Bay up close. HaLong Bay is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which protects its islands and the fishermen whose lives are literally rooted in the bay. Our cruise took us by a fishing village, consisting of rafts and makeshift huts all tied together and guarded by several dogs who balanced precariously on the floating structure. HaLong Bay was the sort of place where my travel companions and I frequently looked around in awe at the life we were living. The bay was just stunning and we had such a fabulous time, soaking up the sun and meeting lots of new people.

After the boat dropped us back on solid ground, we had time for one more egg coffee and then I was off to Thailand. Getting to Bangkok, however, proved to be a little complicated. I had somehow booked my flight for the wrong day, so had to haggle with the airline to put me on my intended flight, otherwise I would be left alone in Hanoi. This whole process drained my poor iPhone 5’s already limited battery so I was left to navigate to my hostel in a foreign city, alone and phone less. Luckily, I had picked up a local SIM card (which they conveniently sell at the airport for $6 USD), so once I successfully reached my hostel I was able to navigate the city and meet up with some friends who had reached Bangkok the day before.
My first day in Bangkok started out slow and relaxed, by the pool of my friend’s AirBnB taking in the view of downtown. In the afternoon, we visited Wat Pho, the temple that houses the famous reclining Buddha. I was worried I wouldn’t be allowed to enter because I had deemed it too hot for pants and as such my knees weren’t covered. Luckily, most of the temples around here provide a wrap either for free or for rent so that people can cover their shoulders and knees out of respect when entering the sacred spaces. The Buddha itself was massive, too large to be seen all at once. The most intricate part were the feet, which have been recently renovated; in fact, according to a nice Frenchman we met who has lived in Bangkok for over 10 years, it’s one of the only aspects of the temple that has been fully renovated. The rest of the temple is restored as it wears but pieces taken for restoration are replaced with copies so as not to disturb the overall effect.
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Exhausted after an afternoon wandering through the temple, we hit up a popular local restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms. The restaurant’s decoration consists entirely of condoms, from condom lights to condom sculptures of flowers. Beyond the unique theme, the food itself is classic Thai, and I had an incredible green curry for dinner. It was so spicy and flavorful that I drank several spoonfuls of the broth on its own without any rice.

The next day, I met up with another friend from my program in China who was staying at my same hostel. Our first stop was a solid golden Buddha. We spent the rest of the morning wandering through Chinatown to find a pier and a ferry to cross Bangkok’s Chao Praya River. I never thought I would miss Chinese but it was surprisingly comforting to be able to read shop signs and hear words I recognized float by. After several failed attempts to find a cab willing to turn on its meter rather than haggle for a price up front, a friendly tuk tuk driver finally pointed us in the right direction to catch a boat across the river. The wind and water spraying helped us cool down from the intense heat, and it was neat to see the city speed by on our way to Wat Arun. Wat Arun is known for its tall spires but what really stood out to me were the intricate carvings and paintings around the temple. Not only were they still in relatively good condition, but no two statues were exactly alike. I can’t imagine the man power and time that went into building this monument.

From Wat Arun, we hopped in a tuk-tuk back to our hostel, where we cooled down by the pool. I love the eclectic mix of people you meet at hostels; one girl we befriended goes to UBC and happens to be good friends with Alexander Vuckovic, the one guy from my high school who goes there whom I’ve known since I was little. The world can sometimes be so small it’s unreal. At night, a group of us walked to Khao San road, a few blocks from our hostel. During the day, the street is simply a market, but when the sun sets it becomes lively and bustling, with many restaurants and lots of music, even crowds of people dancing in the street. In that way, it reminded me a bit of New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
The next morning, for our final day in Bangkok, my friends and I got Thai massages, which definitely live up to the hype. The massage felt like a combination of yoga and massage, as the masseuses would stretch out different parts of our bodies. Julia described it as being kneaded like dough versus being straightened out as is more typical in massages back home. I have never felt so stress free as I did after the massage; it was like all the muscles in my body had been unraveled from several knots. Concerned it was about to rain, we ducked into the hostel for a quick Thai green papaya salad before heading to the floating market. The salad was spicy, tangy and garlicky; the perfect appetizer for the Phad Thai and Thai tea we ate for lunch— after all, we couldn’t leave Thailand without sampling some of its most iconic dishes!
We capped off the week at Bangkok’s Terminal 21: a mall where each floor is designed after a major world city. The concept was really neat and the execution was pretty spectacular, complete with red telephone booths for London and a mini Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco. While not distinctly Thai, meeting up with our friends at Terminal 21 before heading to the airport felt fitting in a way, reflective of all the places we had been and all the places we have yet to go.
Backpacker culture is fascinating. As my friends and I moved from city to city and hostel to hostel this past week, we met so many interesting people who quit their jobs or were taking several months, in some cases, years, to just travel. Some of them were focusing on South and Southeast Asia or just Vietnam, others were following an itinerary similar to ours in reverse, and a few were just trying to see as many places as thoroughly as they could in the time they had. Most of them were in their mid to early 20s but from all over, although a large portion called the UK, Canada or Ireland home. In the past, I hadn’t had much of an encounter with this subset of travelers. While I had stayed in hostels before, I don’t think I was old enough to understand the appeal of dropping everything to wander but now I definitely appreciate the lifestyle.
If I had the option and the means, I’d love to spend a year just traveling like many of the people we met this past week. Unfortunately, I’m not quite there just yet, as class started back on Monday 5 hours after our flight landed in Shanghai, bringing me straight back to reality.
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