When my best friend showed up in Vietnam, I knew it was going to be a wild ride. We had fourteen days to cover the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and an ambitious itinerary of city-hopping, mountain climbing and cultural exploration planned.
Possibly to make up for a childhood of picky eating, Ian is now a total foodie and couldn’t wait to try the insects and blood soup Vietnam is famous for, while I, on the other hand, had no intention of eating anything more adventurous than pate in a banh mi sandwich. Unfortunately, my worst fears were realized when…but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
After traveling solo for almost two months, I was looking forward to having a travel buddy, especially one I had known since age two. On the perks-of-having-a-travel-buddy list; being able to leave your backpack and go pee, staying at basic guest houses instead of in a hostel bunk, and having someone to laugh with when sh*t hits the fan.
After meeting up in the airport in Hanoi, Ian and I grabbed a few hours of sleep in a hostel bunk room and then headed for world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay.
Since we’d booked a budget tour, Ian and I weren’t expecting anything fancy. Our rickety boat had barely left the dock when the server accidentally poured fish sauce all over one of our shipmates, who absolutely hated fish…we couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. It was a rollicking two days of leaky kayaks, questionable sanitation and hilarious British stereotypes come to life. Despite the tour ending with an ugly standoff as the crew held a passport hostage (two of the passengers refused to pay for a tour they hadn’t booked), Ian and I thoroughly enjoyed our time on Ha Long Bay.
After our transportation from Ha Long Bay to Hanoi broke down, we barely had time to eat a quick banh mi dinner from a street vendor before hopping on an all-night bus to Sapa, a mountain town near the Chinese border famed for trekking, artisan crafts and scenic terraced rice fields.
Our first Vietnam night bus experience was a memorable one…we were seated next to a very chatty Buddhist monk, who introduced himself by apologizing that he hadn’t showered in awhile. When the 6’6″ guy crammed into the upper seat ahead of us got virulent food poisoning, we knew if was going to be a long night.
Despite the rough start, our trekking experience in Sapa was wonderful. We had the perfect guide and met a fun group of fellow travelers at our homestay. I loved that the trekking guides were mostly female…these strong mountain women were doing one of the most respected, highly paid jobs in their community and they were proud of their skills.
I had high hopes of getting stunning photos of the rice terraces, but I soon realized my mistake. It was dry season in Vietnam, meaning the rice terraces were brown instead of green, and the air was hazy with smoke from the burning fields. I put my camera away and enjoyed learning about traditional village life and seeing all of the beautiful indigo dyed handicrafts made by the local women. Thanks to a bit of rain, day two of the trek was an absolute mudbath. We slipped and slid our way along the trail, providing comic relief for the villagers who ran by us in rainboots and flip flops.
Over the next few days, we explored the caves and temples of Tam Coc, Ninh Binh and Phong Nha. Tucked into the mountains, Ninh Binh is an incredibly scenic region in Vietnam’s Red River Delta that offers natural beauty and stunning historic architecture, including the wonderfully named Bich Dong Pagoda.
From the misty mountains of Phong Nha National Park, we made our way (by night bus, of course) to Hoi An, an ancient merchant city renown for tailoring and handmade silk lanterns. The pedestrian-friendly and atmospheric city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The food in Hoi An was also outstanding, making this city a must-do on any Vietnam itinerary.
Hoi An was photogenic in the daytime, but it was enchanting by night. With colorful lanterns illuminating the streets and floating lanterns set adrift on the river, it felt like we’d fallen into a southeast asian fairy wonderland. We could have stayed beyond the three days we had planned here, but the mountains were calling.
After Hoi An, we hopped a 17-hour night bus to Dalat. Set on a lake high in the mountains, Dalat had French-influenced charm and a laid-back atmosphere. We were welcomed into the funky, communesque Dalat Family Hostel with open arms.
The next two days were spent sight-seeing around Dalat, including waterfalls, a silk worm factory, a cricket farm, local markets, a night out at bizarre Maze Bar, a coffee plantation and nearby villages.
It was here, in a remote village outside of Dalat, that we were welcomed into a humble home where one of the local women offered to let us try her traditional food and homemade liquor. A bucket of rice porridge was mixed with a pinch of mysterious dry seasoning. It tasted salty and a bit like garlic, but not unpleasant.
I swallowed just enough to be polite, while Ian put it away with a bit more gusto, followed by a deep swig from the rice wine jug.
“What’s in the seasoning?” someone asked.
The woman pulled a dried, flattened rodent from a shelf and waved it at us.
“It’s rat,” our guide translated. “Would you like some more?”
The woman smiled and broke off several bite sized pieces of dried rat, munching on them like Chex Mix.
I choked. I had already eaten seasoned crickets that morning, and figured my adventurous eating was done for the day. So much for that idea!
Ian just grinned and took another bite.
Epilogue and other notes: After accidentally eating rat in Dalat, we took another night bus to Ho Chi Minh City, where we spent Christmas Day before boarding a flight to Myanmar. You can read about our adventures in Myanmar here. If you’re planning a trip to Dalat, send me a message and I will provide more information about how to book this secret tour, rat not guaranteed.