Just when the 102 degree heat became unbearable, we made plans to get out of the city for a while. Without much thought, we knew we needed two things: breezy mountains and a body of water.
Our first trip was to a town near the Chinese border called Sa Pa — home to the Flower H’mong and Red Dao tribes and some of the most breathtaking scenery in Vietnam. After a rocky bus ride through the night, we were thrilled to be greeted by cool air, lush mountains, and a steaming bowl of phở.
We arranged to do a homestay in one of the Red Dao villages that evening. Our host, Mayla, met us for breakfast, and just passed 6AM, had us on the trail to begin a 7-mile trek through the mountains to her home. Within minutes of leaving Sa Pa town, we were surrounded by acres of rolling green hills draped with thousand-year old, seemingly endless rice terraces. Yes, I said thousand. As we walked, Mayla educated us about the descending terraces and the ancient methods of rice production in Vietnam. Around every corner was another jaw-dropping landscape dotted with water buffalo, children running down dirt roads, and more shades of green than I knew existed.
After stopping for coconut fried rice on the side of the road, we saw clouds roll in and knew we’d be hit with a storm. This was the point in the trip when I became the proud owner of an enormous blue poncho that followed me all through Vietnam, upping my fashion game in a serious way. With that thing on, I was ready for anything. Poncho secured, we continued trekking through thick fog and rain as the thunder clapped overhead. It felt ominous and magical all at once.
Drenched and tired, we finally made it to Mayla’s home, where we were greeted by her husband and sweet son, Thien. After drying off, we all sat by the fire drinking tea and watching the storm from a safe distance. Mayla prepared a lovely meal for us, all with ingredients harvested (or slaughtered) right in her back yard. The star of the show was most certainly the rice. It was the perfect sponge for heaps of stewed tomatoes, morning glory, tofu, and fried spring rolls. We finished it off with a seriously stiff glass of homemade rice wine (er, moonshine) that Mayla and her husband keep in an enormous jug in the kitchen for special occasions. In true Vietnamese form, we chanted, “mot, hai, ba, vo!” before clanking our glasses.
A few days in the cool, wet mountains helped us reset, but in no time had us yearning for the beach. So we made plans to visit the ever-popular Ha Long Bay just east of Hanoi. Overnight cruises are how most travelers experience the thousands of limestone karsts that jut from the emerald water. In an effort to make the experience less touristy, we booked one night on a cruise to see the bay in earnest, and then arranged two nights in a bungalow on one of the hundreds of tiny, nameless islands tucked along the bay.
It was the perfect contrast. One night sipping cocktails and jumping off the side of a boat at sunset with a group of rowdy Kiwis, followed by a few nights on a serene island where the only sounds we could hear were of birds humming and our own voices echoing off of the limestone cliffs.
By the end, we were buzzing from all of the incredible sites we’d seen and people we’d met. On the bus ride back from the bay, I felt a love affair beginning with Vietnam.