Saigon is a loud and chaotic place to live in. There is constant noise, an often-overbearing smell, and an overwhelming blur of sights and lights to take in. While I have sincerely cherished my time in this wonderfully-electric city, I was excited to see as many other parts of Vietnam as I could.
After returning from the Mekong Delta, this travel quest began with a trip to the beach during the first weekend of February. Ten of my friends and I traveled to the coastal town of Nha Trang for three days to relax and soak up some sun on the sandy beaches of one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
In order to get there, we paid for tickets on an overnight sleeper bus. Our bus left at 9:30 on Thursday evening, and was to travel throughout the night and drop us off in Nha Trang in the morning. Simple, right?! When we showed up to the bus station, we discovered that our ride was more-or-less a modified coach bus. There were three seats in a row, with two aisles going to the back of the bus. For each row of three, there was a bottom bunk, nestled into the floor, and a top bunk, perched six feet above it. Each seat was positioned with the legs stretched straight out and a box at the bottom for one to store their bags (and rest their feet). The backs could be reclined into almost a perfect horizontal, and each passenger was given a small pillow and a blanket.
While we had all been assigned top bunks at the time of our purchase, most of my friends had seats pressed up against the windows. I, however, was not so fortunate. My seat was in the middle of the two aisles, meaning that I had to keep my belongings clenched tightly between my thighs for the duration of the trip, lest I wanted my backpack to go sailing into the faces of the bunks below me. But the real cherry on top of the trip was the speaker directly above my head. On a sleeper bus, one might expect soft jazz music, or perhaps classical selections to be played. Or, maybe, those who were trying to sleep might prefer silence! All of those assumptions were proven wrong, as blaring techno-club music poured out of the sound system.
Photos of the sleeper bus from my bunk
Still, sleep can often prove to be more powerful of a lure than combative forces. Once we all hoisted ourselves six feet into the air (without ladders to reach our top bunks) and squeezed our American-size bodies into the considerably smaller Vietnamese chairs and feet boxes, we were on our way! Even more remarkable, I managed to finally doze off around 2am.
Sadly, my rest was short lived, as three hours later I was awoken by an irritated bus driver yelling the three repeated words, “Here! Yo!! Off!”
It turns out that when the bus pulled up to its destination at 5 o’clock Friday morning, every single passenger on the bus woke up and got off…except for my entire group of American students. We all blearily tumbled down from our beds and stepped out onto the darkened streets of Nha Trang. Despite our sleep deprivation, we soldiered through several wrong turns and even more trips up and down unfamiliar alleyways to find our hostile and settle in for a few more precious hours of rest.
Finally, upon waking (a few hours earlier than I voted for), we were able to go check out the beach!
My first, and continued impression, upon reaching the shores of the East Sea (known outside of Vietnam as the South China Sea), was an awestruck “Wow.” A ring of sand was met by cerulean waves, broken apart by the mountain islands poking out against the horizon. Haloed all around the beach city lay a ring of lush, majestic mountains. A deliciously pleasant breeze kissed our faces as the sun, unobscured by a single cloud in the sky, beat down with promises of tan skin (or, in my case, a severely-toasted sunburn). In short? This beach felt like a paradise getaway worthy of a prize destination on the Wheel of Fortune…and boy, did I feel fortunate.
Photo of the beach at sunrise
We were able to spend our days lounging on the sand, swimming, sipping from coconuts, and playing one epic, yet laughable game of sand volleyball. Once the sun dipped behind the mountains, my friends and I visited hotel rooftops, dined at both restaurants and Vietnamese street vendors, and danced the nights away on the beach.
Beyond all of our fun, one fact was impossible not to notice…for the first time in over a month, we were surrounded by white people. Since being in Vietnam, we have grown accustomed to being a minority group. Even in Saigon, a popular tourist destination within the country, it feels weird to spot another group of white people. When I do see such a group, they are usually European and I have hilariously found myself looking down on them for being tourists. My time in Vietnam has been so immersive and has felt so real and connected, that I feel a protective sort of attachment. This feels like a home, in many of the same ways that Chicago is home.
In Nha Trang, there is an inescapable Russian tourism population. Because of this, all of the signs for restaurants and hotels are written in Vietnamese and in Russian. Menus are also listed in both languages, and many of the vendors at the night market could be heard speaking the two. To help shed some light on this, my sociology professor here in Vietnam sent me plenty of information on the Phan Rang base, which is just south of the Nha Trang Airport. After the Vietnam War, all the way up until the end of the Cold War in the early 90s, the base was utilized as a deep sea port and marine base for the Russian navy. Today, many of these retired men bring their families back to visit.
This presented a unique mix of emotions for many of us on the trip. Although our weekend getaway was relaxing and so delightful, I noticed a deep longing to return to the familiarity that Saigon presents. Upon deeper reflection, I missed not feeling like a tourist.
I recognize that I don’t reside in Vietnam permanently, and that in a few (all-too-short) months, I will be on a plane headed back to the United States. But Vietnam, and Saigon in particular, is so much more than a place I am “at” for a few months. It is a place I go to school at, and a place I want to learn about, and a place that has impacted me on such a deep level. It is more than a place I live…it’s a place I call home. With that being said, I also recognize that I am still positively impacted by my privilege as a white person, and as a Westerner. But there is so much to be said about observing and immersing yourself into a culture, rather than visiting for a weekend.
So, our time at the beach was magical and relaxing (although I don’t believe my sunburn will ever stop peeling). But I was glad I wasn’t there for longer than a few days, and it was all too nice to return to the humidity and bustle of Saigon that Sunday evening.
….At least until four days later, when my roommate, Anna, and I left for a weekend girls trip in the mountainous town of Đà Lạt.
In Vietnam, the biggest holiday of the year is the Lunar New Year, known as Tet. Decorations line city streets and shop windows, children get a few weeks off of school, and everyone goes back to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. The entire country has been preparing for it for months, and we were all too fortunate to be visiting when it happened. This year, Tet landed on February 16, which meant that we would have almost the entire month of February off of school to travel and observe.
After our classes completed on Thursday, February 8, Anna and I took an overnight limousine service from Saigon to the central highlands city of Đà Lạt. Known as the City of Flowers, Đà Lạt was everything we had both been missing about home. It’s nestled into the central highland mountains and looks like a quaint little San Francisco with the way the roads curve up and down and around the hillsides. The air constantly smells of the forest, and the temperatures reached down into the 50’s in the evenings.
For Anna, who’s from Northeastern Pennsylvania, being in Đà Lạt was like being back in the mountains of her home state. And for me, it was like visiting the Black Hills of my beautiful South Dakota.
We spent four days hiking through the mountains, taking pictures at waterfalls, and looking at some truly stunning architecture. Cute cafes, cable car rides through the forest, massive flower gardens, massages, and breathtakingly peaceful pagodas rounded out our experience in this magical town.
Interestingly, there were plenty of tourists in Đà Lạt, and we saw our fair share of white people. But, maybe since the sheer volume of white tourists was nowhere near in Nha Trang, we didn’t feel as uncomfortable with our tourist status. Or maybe it was because we were so soothed to be breathing in the forest air that we couldn’t spare a worry that direction. Either way, Đà Lạt left us relaxed, rejuvenated, and craving more!
It’s endlessly fascinating to me how dynamic a country can be. Even with the short time I have been in Vietnam, I’ve visited four distinct locations and regions. For anyone who is considering studying abroad sometime in their collegiate career, I am begging you to go for a semester at least. Do an entire year if you can! Never again will you have the chance to truly immerse yourself into another country with the type of time and energy that you’re afforded as a student. Allow yourself the opportunity to fall in love with a new home. After all, this world is home to so many of us. Wouldn’t it be exciting to experience what someone else’s life looks like? To step outside of your comfort zone and see beyond what the tourists witness? No one’s personal bubble is so amazing that they should only want to experience their own. I have found that the more I learn about new people and places, and the more I am willing to listen to their stories, the more I learn about myself.
Being a tourist is fun. It can be a blast to get away and have fun on a beach or in the mountains for a few days. Furthermore, having the juxtaposition between two different outlooks (a local, street-level perspective and an outsider’s vacation perspective) has been so helpful to truly understand the day-to-day interactions of Vietnamese people. But if these two getaways have led me to any conclusions, it would be this: it is so much more rewarding to be connected to a people, than to have fun in a place.
I was enamored with Đà Lạt, and Nha Trang left me breathless. But as I FaceTimed my mother on the rooftop of my hostile, against the backdrop of a Vietnamese sunrise, I only began to cry when I thought of the people I have met here, that I will have to leave behind in a few months. How blessed am I, to be creating relationships with university students and professors from across the world? Those are the true gifts that study abroad gives you. The chance to not only experience a perspective outside of your own, but to forever carry memory of the people who helped you experience them.