My first days in Vietnam have given me so much to process and so much for which to be grateful. Over the past several weeks, I have spent every week in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and every weekend in a different beach town of Vietnam. Therefore, my first blog will tell the stories of these short trips, all of which were jam-packed with experience and growth.
After the first week of classes, most students planned a weekend excursion. I tagged along with a group of girls to the village of Mui Ne, about 5 hours south of Ho Chi Minh. I remember reading about cramped sleeper buses, and I mentally prepared myself for the journey. However, my five friends and I were completely spoiled with our first bus. The seats were each a very spacious, comfortable recliner.
The sleeper bus finally dropped us off on this crowded road that had an opening to a very narrow, steep alleyway. Our hostel was located at the very top of the slope, and once again, we were spoiled with the room we received! It felt as though we were in a luxury hotel, yet the cost for four beds was about 6 USD for two nights.
Immediately, I instructed the girls to put on their bikinis! We met up with six other students staying at an adjacent hostel and grabbed lunch, then finally found the beach we had all been awaiting!
Something I had not experienced before was hostel culture. Of course, hostels are very affordable accommodations and usually for young backpackers and travelers who are alone or in small groups. This lends itself to some pretty wild parties among the guests, and this hostel was no exception. After our afternoon at the beach and evening in the pool, we felt as though we were on vacation.
The next morning I peeled my face off my pillow at 4:30 to witness the sunrise on the beach. As beautiful and meditative of an experience as it was, I immediately went straight back to sleep as soon as the sun was shining bright in the sky. After a few more hours of much-needed rest, a couple friends and I decided to check out a nearby tourist attraction called the Fairy Stream.
Had I known what an incredible experience it was going to be, I would have been wound up with excitement. It was a stream that ran through some canyons carved out of clay-like dark red, brown and white sand.
The actual hiking trail was the stream. The sand was so smooth, the water was so shallow and so cool, which felt amazing under the beating sun, and the scenery was breathtaking. We took plenty of photos, but for the most part we walked in silence, taking in the experience. I felt truly connected to nature on this hike through Mui Ne’s famous Fairy Stream.
After the Fairy Stream, most of the peers I was with decided to go back to the hostel to relax. Our tentative plan was to watch the sunset on Mui Ne’s Red Dunes. However, I was already out and about and I wanted to continue to explore. Therefore, I decided to walk over an hour from the Fairy Stream to the Red Sand Dunes. A few people accompanied me, and we all agree that this walk was absolutely exhausting but so worth it. I got to see inside the homes and shops of the local people of Mui Ne. I got to see the fishing village, where people were desperate to sell the remains of whatever seafood they had caught that morning.
We reached the dunes right as the sun was about to set. Our bodies were exhausted, but we still had to climb a towering hill of red sand in order to see the landscape. Those who had accompanied me spotted our other classmates, across the dunes, atop an otherwise untouched peak. We hiked and finally reached our friends, and an immense sense of accomplishment filled my lungs.
I hadn’t felt this happy in a long time. I was dumb and playing like a child and laughing gleefully. I rolled my exhausted body down one of the dunes and got absolutely covered in sand (and probably bruises too).
Mui Ne gave me everything I had wanted out of study abroad, and it was only my first weekend excursion. It made me realize just how grateful I was, and just how excited I am for the rest of the semester.
Early the next Saturday morning, we got on a bus for Vung Tao. It was fascinating seeing the Vietnamese countryside. Rural Vietnam does not look like rural America. Preconceived notions of Asian farm life came alive: rice workers tilling their fields, wearing their pointed bamboo hats to protect their faces from the sun.
We arrived in Vung Tao, grabbed a seafood lunch, and finally got to the beach! There are two beaches in Vung Tao: the front and back beaches, and the landscape of the back beach was breathtaking. The city is almost like its own land bridge, splitting the beaches in two.
This excursion was Loyola-sponsored because it incorporated a service component. We met with a wonderful man named Phat. He has an organization in Vietnam called Chay Nhat (@runandpick). His passion project is to spread awareness about the plastic pollution in our seas, and he aspires to encourage people to quite literally pick up their trash! More information about his project can be found on his facebook page.
We each got wool gloves and an old rice bag. It was then that we dispersed and the rain started to pour. I do not think I will ever forget the hour or so I spent picking up trash in the rain. There was something truly humbling about that experience, and it brought me an immense amount of joy.
Finally, after our work was done, we shed our drenched clothing and ran full-speed into the ocean. I was running gleefully when my foot hit a rock and I fell— hard— into the stone. After swimming, most of us had bloody battle scars to show one another.
For this excursion, we stayed in an AirBnB. The next morning, we walked about 15 minutes up hundreds of stone steps to the largest Christian statue in Asia.
This was clearly a place of pilgrimage for many people, and, therefore, I was not allowed to enter the statue. The romper I was wearing was deemed too inappropriate, considering it had straps, not sleeves, and shorts.
Overall, my time in Vung Tao made lasting memories that I will never forget.
The flight to this beautiful island village was only about 35 minutes; ridiculously short. We visited a famous Hindu temple, but our clothes were, of course, not allowed. Nearby was the night market and a clothing store was open during the day. Everyone bought pants or something to cover themselves up. I purchased a dress, but ended up just tying my Tuvaluan sulu around my waist and I wore a wrap-around kimono that my friend lent me. I looked absolutely ridiculous but it didn’t matter; I needed to be respectful.
The temple was amazing. There was the building itself, but trails led to the backyard where there were several shrines with huge spiritual sculptures. It is still shocking every time I see a swastika on a spiritual symbol; I have to remind myself that in this case, it is a symbol of peace and spirituality. While I am not Hindu myself, I could still feel that I was in a sacred place. It was a great thing to experience, and it really makes one think about their own spirituality.
Next, we ventured to another nearby temple, and I believe this one was Buddhist. It overlooked the water and these beautiful, giant boulders. Of course, we climbed the rocks like children and took a lot of pictures. We also walked along the pier, and got to see the ocean, the waves, the fishing boats, etc. It was just so beautiful; words cannot even begin to describe my joy or gratitude.
We then took a cab to a waterfall that my friend had found online. It turned out to be a walking trail with plenty of sculptures and ponds, and the stone path led all the way to the waterfall. Plenty of groups of young Vietnamese and tourist groups were picnicking along the trail in these little pools of water, or on big boulders. We made it to the waterfall and took plenty of photos. On our way back, one of my fellow students, Alexis, found a completely empty pool below a smaller waterfall. The next hour was joyful; we all jumped into the pool or went under the waterfall. It was like something out of a coming-of-age movie.
My friend, Helen, woke me up early the next morning. We had to get ready to go on a private boat tour of the islets of Phu Quoc. I never thought I would be able to see a coral reef. We spent almost the entire day driving around, seeing the islands, getting pelted by hard rain drops, and wearing snorkel masks to witness coral life. It was meditative and beautiful. It made me sad, it made me grateful, and it gave me perspective.
Our tour guide, Lam, took us to Fingernail Islet, where we had the opportunity to try fishing. One of my friends caught three white fish, which Lam grilled up as part of our seafood lunch. We chose a picnic table closest to the beach, where a couple of wooden swings hung from the trees.
I had hit a peak moment. I was sitting on the wooden swing in my bikini, with a can of Saigon Bia, a popular beer, in my hand. I was looking out onto this beach in Vietnam. I was literally thriving and soaking it all in at this moment.
I have had an amazing time exploring the outskirts of Vietnam, but I have also really fallen in love with my temporary home in Ho Chi Minh. I will continue to write about all of this in my upcoming adventures!