“It’s just sad. The struggles people have to go through,” Ankit said to me with a face blanketed with despondence. As I studied him further, I realised that he was about to cry. Just one of the many things I love about him is the way he feels other people’s pain – and he’s not afraid to show his own, either.
We were sat at Family Coffee in Da Lat – a small café that does great breakfasts. The place can aptly be described as a bit of a shack that’s been put together to house the family-owned business. The walls were decorated with paper plates that had words etched onto them by tourists from around the world who had visited before us – Israeli, British, Singaporean and Italian were just some of their nationalities. Teddy bears adorned the shelves, as well as stickers that read out “mother and father equals family – I love my family.” Its childlike innocence suggested that the family’s kids had perhaps decorated the place. And despite their lack of funds, they had made the café warm and welcoming.
What struck Ankit and I was how friendly the staff were. The owner, a pretty woman in her 40s who wore a single string of pearls around her neck, had a smile that stretched wide and was full of genuine warmth. They could not do enough for us; in complete contrast to the jaded faces of the people we encountered in Saigon, the locals of Da Lat are so genial that their kindness has affected both Ankit and I so deeply, that we were both close to tears on a daily basis while we stayed there.
Hitting the road can transform you into an overly sensitive person, it seems.
Two weeks of lessons learnt
We’ve been on the road for just over two weeks now, and I’m starting to realise that it’s been overwhelming in ways that we had not even anticipated. After living in Dubai for almost seven years, we had become insulated to the problems of the rest of the world. Life in the UAE is comfortable and sterile – you seldom encounter poverty, people with disabilities or even the elderly.
Imagine after living such a life, you then thrust yourself onto the road where you’re brought face-to-face with people struggling to make a living. An enormous contrast when you compare it to the ‘problems’ we encountered as expats in Dubai. This experience is making me realise just how cushioned our life was.
These two weeks have offered a steep learning curve. Asides from seeing how other people live and struggle, we’ve also been in a lot of personal scenarios that have made us realise just how lucky we’ve been in the past. As we leave the luxuries we grew comfortable with behind, we’re coming to terms with our new reality.
So here are the highlights and low points of our first two weeks here. Let’s get the horrible stuff out the way with first!
In Saigon, after staying in a lovely hostel for the first week, we decided to move somewhere where we would have our own kitchen so that we could cook and keep costs down. We turned to Airbnb after hearing so many people share their positive experiences; after looking at a few places, we opted for a ’boutique apartment in a local neighbourhood.’
The photos made it look basic but cozy, and all the reviews were positive, so we decided to go for it. The area was more Vietnamese than any other place we had been to and I thought this would be a great way of getting acquainted with the locals and seeing how they live.
That’s until I saw the apartment. As we entered, I realised that the place was a mess. It wasn’t clean; there was tissue on the floor, short and curly black hair on the bed, and to top it all off a dead cockroach as big as my palm under the sink. Even though it was all paid for, we decided to make a sharp exit.
Thankfully, our fears in this scenario were short-lived, as friends of friends (who subsequently became our friends) were kind enough to let us stay with them in their lovely District 1 apartment for a week. And although we have yet to be refunded the money we’re owed, I’m glad we didn’t spend a single night there.
Sleeper bus to Da Lat
The bus journey from Saigon to Da Lat, which is 300km away and in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, was quite the trip. As part of shedding our luxuries, we decided to forgo the plane in favour of hitting the road – half the price and twice the experience. Or so we told ourselves.
We caught what is known as the ‘sleeper’ bus with Phuong Trang, which is supposedly the best service to use on this route. We each had our own seat that lay down pretty much flat. You’d think that this would be comfortable, but the reality is that after almost five hours of being in this one position you start to feel incredibly claustrophobic.
Claustrophobia aside, this bus trip sealed our entry into backpacker life. The gruelling journey started at 9am and we didn’t get to our guesthouse in Da Lat until 5pm. The roads are long and winding, and what made this even more unbearable was the stench of farts that kept wafting towards us at regular intervals. As for the washrooms and restaurant that we stopped at half way? Some things haunt you forever, no matter how long ago they happened, and the experience of using these toilets is certainly one of them.
It’s not a surprise that one of the highlights in Vietnam has been the food. To summarise, we’ve had amazing vegetarian for less than $10 at Hoa Sen in Da Lat, the most delicious chicken baguettes at L’Usine, as well as ridiculously delectable Indian food at Ganesh in Saigon. As for coffee, the Sand Dune at Café Runam – a mouthwatering concoction of espresso coffee, Baileys and Kahlua – will remain in my memory for a very long time.
We were also extremely lucky to be able to try loads of different homemade Vietnamese dishes while we were staying with our friends in Saigon. Their cook, Lan, who is from Vietnam, makes amazing food (including the best Vietnamese fresh spring rolls that I’ve had to date). She was also kind enough to buy us some small gifts before we left!
Bus to Nha Trang
In complete contrast to our bus trip from Saigon to Da Lat, the journey from Da Lat to Nha Trang was a much more enjoyable experience. This time round we were only onboard for three hours, which halved the discomfort level. Plus, it was a normal bus, so we could sit up properly.
The highlight, though, was the stunning view that we were treated to while on the road. Luscious green landscapes, towering cliff tops and mountains, and waterfalls made this one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve ever been on. From pine trees to coffee plantations to rice paddies, seeing the transformation of the landscape as we made our way down the mountains was breathtaking.
The guest house owner in Da Lat
During our stay in Da Lat, we stayed at the Tuan Pham guest house, which was slightly out of the centre of town. We discovered that the owner had been left in charge of running the place because his wife, who usually deals with guests, was in Saigon with their young baby, who was very sick in hospital. This explained why every time we had a question he’d call his wife and she’d answer for us.
Despite the fact he couldn’t speak a word of English and that his child was ill in hospital, he still did everything he could to make sure we felt welcome. When we sat outside to work, he’d bring us hot tea to help keep us warm. One evening, he tried to make conversation by talking the universal language of football.
“Arsenal? Chelsea? Manchester United?”
My exclamation of ‘Arsenal’ earned me a thumbs up, although it transpired that he was a Chelsea fan. I won’t hold it against him, though.
He wasn’t just going through the motions of being friendly because we were paying guests – you can usually tell the difference between genuine warmth and the forced kind, and you can find that difference in someone’s smile. We really felt welcome at the guest house, and his kindness in the face of his own personal adversity really affected Ankit and I.
Cozy Condos (and Nha Trang)
We arrived in Nha Trang last night. After our nightmare Airbnb experience, we’ve become even more cautious about the accommodation that we book. Ankit came across ‘Cozy Condos’ during his research, and after studying the pictures, reading pretty much every review on tripadvisor and making a phone call to the building’s owner/manager we decided to risk it. Thankfully we didn’t have to pay until we got here, so we knew that if it was another nightmare abode we could do a runner!
Cozy Condos did not disappoint. We love this place! We really wanted a kitchen, as it is time for us to start cooking and limiting our visits to restaurants, and to our delight this place is fully equipped with a cooker, oven, microwave and all the pots and pans that we need. The building is centrally located and yet down a quiet street away from the bustle, making it nice and tranquil. The apartment itself is a great size, complete with a living area, dining table that overlooks a lovely partial sea view, and a TV. The owner is also fantastic and helpful.
As for Nha Trang, too soon to tell, but we already really like the vibe of the place and look forward to writing more about it soon.
Flower Park in Da Lat
In all honesty, there’s not much to do in Da Lat, so we were a bit stumped on how to spend our time. A lot of the attractions are quite far out of the city, and as we only had a few days there we couldn’t really see much.
Despite the fact that Flower Park had mixed reviews on tripadvisor, we decided (mainly because of our mutual love of flowers and plants) to give it a go, and we actually had a lovely time. We practically had the place to ourselves, so we were able to really enjoy the space. We took many photos and enjoyed a few hours of being horticultural geeks!
Conclusions on our first two weeks
Although it’s too soon to tell what lessons backpacking has taught us, I’ve already realised that it’s bashing us into less uptight versions of ourselves. I for one can confess that I can be high maintenance, but you quickly figure out while you’re on the road that there’s little room for brat-like behaviour. If you want to travel long-term, you have to learn to roll with the punches, even if that means potentially sleeping in a cockroach-infested room or having to smell someone else’s farts for six hours in order to get to your next destination.
And if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and ready to pack it all in? Remind yourself of the people you’ve met on the way and their struggles, and you soon find yourself feeling rather thankful for the ‘shitty’ situation you’re in.