It had been almost 10 years since I last set foot in Vietnam, so I was long overdue for a return. The only other time I had visited the country was a month-long family trip to Ho Chi Minh City — known locally as Saigon — when I was only 14. Consequently, my travels consisted of being dragged from one previously unknown relative’s house to another.
This time around, I’m 10 years older (but not necessarily that much wiser) and able to gallivant the country on my own accord, and gallivant I did. In a fortnight, I visited six cities (and one bay), but it never seemed as frenetic as my tour of Thailand. After landing in Hanoi, the itinerary looked like this: Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, and back to Saigon to catch my plane home. I made entire trip (other than the venture into Ha Long Bay) via bus; by my rough estimate, I spent nearly 70 hours on the road during my trip — an average of 5 hours per day. On this trip alone, I saw more of the country than my Vietnam-born parents have.
I did manage to fit in a little bit of sightseeing between the bus rides. Because each of the cities had its own distinct charm, it’s hard to put any of the cities as my favorite over the others. Saigon is the business capital of the country and clearly the busiest. Hoi An is quaint reminder of the many cultures that have passed through the country — and only four kilometers from the beach. Hue gets its points just for being my mom’s hometown. Nha Trang, a growing city with a population of more than 300,000, exudes the air of tourist beach town — something Mui Ne epitomizes. Hanoi is the political capital, but its history is its signature; it’s the Chiang Mai to Saigon’s Bangkok.
Despite their quirks, none of the cities really had an exclamation point landmark (except maybe Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter) that symbolized it. They all felt like…Vietnam. It’s hard to explain, but I think it was harder for me to differentiate the cities than I would in other countries. Like my trip to Thailand, the trip’s most interesting points came from the people I met, but this time instead of meeting other tourists, I was able to meet the locals. Growing up in a Vietnamese household allowed me to overcome the usual language barrier and talk to everyone I met.
The Vietnamese people seemed to be generally very friendly, but they might’ve bumped it up a notch for a Việt Kiều — a Vietnamese person who resides in another country. Most of whom I met seemed simply intrigued by an outsider who spoke fluent-ish Vietnamese. Instead of past travel tales, I heard the voices of the cities — insight into how Vietnam really ticks. The locals pointed me in the right directions and gave me tips they wouldn’t normally be able to communicate to a foreigner; many times I even got a discount for being Vietnamese.
Being able to speak the local language made this experience completely different from my time in Thailand and in Korea. While I find each of the latter places quite interesting, I never felt as comfortable as I did in Vietnam (for obvious reasons). Maybe it’s because I’ve been gone for so long, but at points I felt even more at home there than I did in the States.
Vietnam (read: Saigon) is definitely a place I can see myself living for a short while. The traveler in me wants delve deeper into more sights of this country, but the Vietnamese in me wants to take in Vietnam and really understand its culture, and subsequently my background, better. Even though it’s much different than 20 — even just 10 — years ago, Vietnam still has a lot to teach me about myself.
 The number is a bit skewed by the supposed 20-hour bus ride from Hoi An to Saigon. It ended up taking 25 hours. I was not happy with this development, and I’m sure my aunt wasn’t either since I had no way to tell her we were going to be five hours late. [back]