Vietnam – Kontum and Hoi An

Kontum is an inland town known for its indigenous Polynesian population. People in town clearly weren’t used to seeing many western tourists, and there was a lot of staring and pointing. In India there was also this aspect of people staring, but for some reason in Vietnam it felt more intense, maybe because I was alone this time and not with Joe, or because there were fewer people around. I can’t imagine, anywhere in the US (hopefully), someone from anywhere in the world walking into a restaurant and being stared at, not because it’s considered impolite or rude, but because we’re such a diverse country.

Sunset stroll in Kontum

In Kontum there were a few touristy things to see, but I felt like crashing. The long days of riding were catching up to me. The trip to Kontum had been easy riding, and I’d arrived around sunset. I went out for a short walk on a road under construction, along a valley of rice paddies backed by mountains in the distance. I walked past groups of children who would tentatively come up and say a few of the English phrases they learned in school before laughing and running away.

The next day, I went to see the local village. The people here came from Polynesia, and I’m not too familiar with the history, but they’ve clearly retained a lot of there Polynesian identity. I stood in a wide river at the base of the village for a while, watching kids play and enjoying the scenery. Life is simple here, or at least that’s how it looks from the outside. People seem to spend the majority of their time surrounded by friends and loved ones, living in the moment.

I saw a few other sights in Kontum, including a famous wooden church and a museum with lots of communist vibes. There were lots of communist-style billboards around, mostly illustrations of families and people working, but I felt the communist-influence very little on a day-to-day basis.

From Kontum I headed north and back out towards the ocean to a city called Hoi An.

I was especially excited for Hoi An because I’d heard great things about it from everyone on the trip, including Joe, who’d been there a week before. I arrived in the late afternoon in Hoi An, and checked in at my hostel before grabbing a banh mi and walking into town. The heat was oppressive, and I still wasn’t used to the thirty degree swings between the highlands and the coast. Hoi An was one of my favorite cities in Vietnam, but I do closely associate the city with being drenched in sweat for hours on end.

A stop along the long ride to Hoi An
The Banh Mi was a staple of my snacking experience in Vietnam

Hoi An has an incredible charm about it. It has an old world feel, influenced heavily by countries all over Asia because of its importance as a trading port until the river silted up in the 1800s. Lanterns are strung across the streets and they float down the central river, making for a beautiful sight, especially at night.

My second day in Hoi An I explored aimlessly for most of the day, but on the third day I saw most of the famous cultural sights. It was hard not to feel like I’d been transported in time to somewhere other than Vietnam. Many of the pagodas have Chinese characters on them, sponsored by merchants who passed through or lived there.

In the afternoon I biked out to the beach where I swam and lounged around for a bit before heading back to the respite of an air-conditioned room.

My trusty traveler guitar.

Vietnam – Hue and Phong Nha

From Hoi An I headed north along a beautiful stretch known as the Hai Van pass.

The pass is famously featured in the Top Gear ride through Vietnam. I was happy to count the ride among the most beautiful I’d seen in Vietnam.

I arrived in Hue at a homestay with a host family who spoke very little English. I greatly enjoyed local interactions like this–it is remarkable how much you can communicate with people who don’t speak the same language with gestures and Google Translate. It undoubtably added to the fun of the trip along the way.

I didn’t have much time in Hue. As with a lot of the planning in Vietnam, it was difficult to know how much time to spend at each stop along the route north. I had heard about so many wonderful places and I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to see all of them, so I had to pick and choose. Thankfully, I was able to see a lot of the famous Imperial city the evening I arrived. Despite being under ominous clouds for most of the evening, the rain held off.

The Imperial city was beautiful, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the gardens and buildings situated along various waterways. I walked around for hours and took a moment to watch the sun set from a bonsai tree garden outside of the main palace area.

I walked into town to do some exploration, and stopped at a roadside stand for some Bun Cha along the way.

I set out early the next morning to see the remaining sites in the area before heading out to Phong Nha. I visited a beautiful pagoda in the morning, and arrived right as they were having a Buddhist service in a temple there. After the service, three women came out to the front of the temple with three cages full of sparrows, and released what must have been a hundred birds into the air. It all happened so quickly so early in the morning, and I just stared in amazement watching dozens of birds leave their cages and fly off.


I enjoyed a couple more sites before having my bike worked on a partner garage to the one I rented from in Ho Chi Minh city. With the bike all polished up and ready to go, I set out north.

A much needed tune up

Phong Nha is most famous for its national park filled with caves. I hadn’t originally planned on stopping there, but it is almost impossible to head north and not pass through the town. I arrived at sunset, and watched it dip behind a church on the opposing side of a riverbank.

Those who have seen pictures Ha Long Bay probably have a sense of the geography in Phong Nha, except in the case of Phong Nha, the peaks emerge from the land instead of the water. The caves were beautiful, and best of all, they were a respite from the heat outside.


I spent the rest of the day roaming around the forest via motorbike.

Being able to explore at my own leisure on my own vehicle was one of the reasons I enjoyed Vietnam so much. It was an all around lovely stay in Phong Nha.

Vietnam – Cua Lo and Moc Chau

From Phong Nha north began what was probably the most off the beaten path part of my journey. From from Phong Nha until Hanoi, there weren’t many popular tourist destinations—that stretch is often traveled by an overnight bus. I was excited to see what it had in store. My first stop along the way was a beach town called Cua Lo, a few miles away from a larger city called Vinh. There really isn’t much in either place for tourists, and the results on Trip Advisor and Hostelworld in this region came up empty. So when I arrived in Cua Lo in the early evening I set about walking around town, trying to find a decent rate on a decent room.

More than anywhere I’d been before people were surprised to see a western tourist. People would wave, and one group of men gestured for me to sit with them, so I sat for fifteen minutes, taking a few shots with them and eating some kind of strange wet peanuts. One of the men tried to speak English, but I couldn’t understand him and I shook my head and smiled, indicating I had no idea what he was saying. His friends laughed.

At night I went into town trying to find a place to eat. It had been pouring rain that evening with strong thunder and lightning. I thought I had found a decently reviewed place, but it was raining so hard that I had to give up early and I went to the first restaurant I could find. I ate some fried rice there but the rain was just too torrential to leave once I was done. Two of the guys who worked there were about my age, and they gestured to pull up a chair and sit with them as they smoked their tobacco pipe and watched the rain flood the street.

The three of us did our best over the next hour to communicate through Google translate. We continued to talk as the rain poured outside. The amount we were able to learn about each other was pretty remarkable, all facilitated by technology. I worked on Machine Translation at Etsy, and it was a good reminder of why the technology is so valuable.

It was a lovely night but as it grew longer, I realized the rain wasn’t going to stop, so I said my goodbyes and headed off through the knee-deep puddles and pouring rain back to my hotel.

The next morning I was happy to be on my way again, heading north to Moc Chau, another city I knew very little about.

By this point I was on route to Sapa, a place I had heard great things about from so many people, including Joe, who had been there a week and a half before. I originally wasn’t planning to visit Sapa because it would add around 700 miles to the overall trip, but by this point I was happy to ride for long stretches, and I came to enjoy riding for a meditative seven or eight hours in a day.

I arrived in the early evening in Moc Chau.

I spent a good part of the next day relaxing, but left in the afternoon to explore the area.

The Moc Chau tea bushes are organized in these beautiful patterns.

At night, I was looking for a place to eat when I saw a Manchester United game playing on a TV in a restaurant near where I was staying. Ordering at the restaurant was a challenge, though. The restaurant was oriented around hot pots and grills in the center of the table, defying the limited food vocabulary I had picked up along the way. While I was struggling to order, a Vietnamese girl around my age came up and asked if she could help.  She started helping me order before suggesting instead that I join her at a table with two of her friends. I readily accepted.

It was wonderful to finally meet some locals. Fewer people spoke English in Vietnam than anywhere else along the journey, making it hard to have full conversations with folks other than tourists. Hearing about their lives in Vietnam was great, and we feasted for an hour and a half before saying our goodbyes.