Go ahead. Bookmark this page now, and file it under “Trips I’d like to take one day.” But I’ll save you the trouble of thinking about it. Here’s why…
Baltimore couple Scott and Pam Gorsuch traveled from Shanghai to Ho Chi Minh City this spring, March 27 through April 17. The trip took them from big cities to rural towns, beaches and jungles, bringing the pair in contact with colorful souls and exotic local cuisines. Scott Gorsuch shares photos and details of the trip with The Darkroom, answering questions over email.
HOW DID YOU PLAN YOUR TRIP — THE LOGISTICS OF WHERE YOU STAYED, HOW YOU TRAVELED, CITIES, ISLANDS AND TOWNS YOU VISITED?
We started by thinking we wanted to see Asia. We got some books on China and the Mekong (Laos, Thailand and Cambodia). We knew we wanted to see Shanghai as it’s one of the most advanced cities in the world — a huge metropolitan city at its peak. This was based largely off the recommendation of my boss, David Miller, who had recently traveled there. We wanted to see Vietnam as Pam’s father was a veteran of the war, so there was a large part of us that wanted to understand an impactful part of his past. As for particular cities and locations, we got some travel books from the local bookstore and realized all of the types of things we wanted to see we could find in Vietnam. Beaches, jungle, cities and rural towns. It also made sense from a logistical standpoint as it costs money and some effort to acquire visas for each country you want to visit.
WHY CHINA? THE PEOPLE, THE FOOD, THE LANDSCAPES … WHAT MADE YOU GUYS WANT TO TAKE A TRIP FROM SHANGHAI TO HO CHI MINH CITY?
We chose China as it’s becoming a major world power and we wanted to see its most vibrant city, Shanghai. From there, it was pretty much a matter of logistics as we worked mainly from north to south using both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as hubs of transportation for some of the other locations. Basically, we wanted to see a variety of different locations. Pam was the main planner as far as where we went and coordinating how and when we got from place to place. The main thing was to put some relaxing days amongst the hectic travel and sightseeing days.
Another big thing for us was the food. We went to Europe for our honeymoon for a few weeks and the last place we visited was Berlin. Oddly enough, there is a large Vietnamese population in Berlin and the Vietnamese food there was absolutely amazing. We still talk about one of the places we ate there, although we can’t remember the name or location. For us, eating local cuisine was a bit of an eye-opener. The Vietnamese eat what is locally available and what is in season because they have no choice. It’s something a lot of Americans are finally starting to realize is not only tasty, but healthy and sensible.
We spent about 3 weeks working our way from Shanghai to Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon), flying from Baltimore to Shanghai via Newark.
We spent 5 days and 4 nights in Shanghai, visiting a bunch of the typical tourist sites — The Bund, The French Concession, The Jade Buddha Temple, The Shanghai Aquarium, Yu Gardens, Xintiandi and some various other neighborhood markets. We also took a day trip to Suzhou, one of a number of “water towns” about an hour or two from Shanghai. From there, we flew into Hanoi late at night, just in time to catch an overnight train to Sapa/Lo Cai.
In Sapa, we spent two days hiking with a local Hmong guide named Chi. She is one of four guides that work for a company called Sapa Sisters. We hiked through five hill villages connected by trails along the rice paddies. The first day was about six – seven hours, stopping for lunch in a small town with a few other hiking groups, then split off again for the afternoon hike to our homestay. Spent the night there then hiked about four hours the next morning to our guide’s home, where she made us fresh noodle soup with veggies she picked from her garden and poached eggs fresh from her hens! Then we took a motorbike ride back to Sapa, got some lunch and a $4 massage, then headed back to the train station in Lo Cai.
We took an overnight train back to Hanoi, arrived super early, stopped at the hotel we’d be staying at two nights later. They let us in at 5 a.m., gave us breakfast and a place to freshen up/repack our things before we headed off to our tour of Ha Long Bay. The bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay took about three to four hours. First day on Ha Long Bay, we cruised around the bay and saw the “Most Amazing Cave” or “Surprise Cave” (I’ll let you look that up). [We] had dinner on the boat, and hung out with the rest of the guests. [The] next day, we got away from the other tour boats on a smaller boat, did some kayaking and swimming, and saw a Buddhist temple on a very secluded island/karst (no pictures of it though as we were in kayaks and worried about the water). Then back to the boat for dinner. [The] next day we were up, doing some more kayaking, then back to Hanoi.
We spent the evening in Hanoi doing a bit of sightseeing by foot, nothing very noteworthy there. We didn’t spend much time in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City — so details are sparse.
We then flew to Da Nang and took a cab to Hoi An. We spent four days and three nights in Hoi An. This is a quaint but slightly touristy town that is very well preserved. It has a very French colonial feel with lots of great food, tailors and a beautiful beach about 15 minutes away by bike. We had some clothing made, visited the markets, ate some great street food and just really took it easy.
From Hanoi, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City. We took a speed boat up the Saigon River to the Cu Chi tunnels and got a healthy dose of propaganda from there as well as a visit to the war remnants museum.
From Ho Chi Minh City, we spent two days and one night on a boat cruising west on the Mekong Delta. We were the only two people on the boat — which had a crew of five — [so] we felt a little guilty, but it ended up being really nice. We stopped in a small village and met some of the locals, saw them harvesting their crops and checked out some of the methods used in harvesting rice. We also saw a large floating market where all the local villagers go to sell their crops. We then took a flight to Phu Quoc.
Our last big stop was the island of Phu Quoc, where we stayed one night at a place called Freedomland, which was like a small minimalist nature resort. The beach here was about a 15-minute walk through the jungle but was absolutely empty. There were even cows walking on the beach! Freedomland had no hot water, was in the jungle and dinners were served at a large table with the other travelers. It was cool, but wasn’t really our idea of relaxation. We only stayed one night as the heat/insects/lizards were not exactly what we had in mind.
We woke up the next morning having not slept much at all and decided to change course and head to the Eden resort, which was much more modern and swanky. We just wanted to relax at this point and really enjoy the island. We took a snorkeling trip for a day that involved a 30 kilometer ride on a dirt road in a mid 90s Toyota minivan. Needless to say it was a rocky ride! The boat ride was a blast, and we got to snorkel over two coral reefs, eat freshly caught sea urchin, and jump off the top deck into the water. The last two days we spent exploring the little town of Duong Dong, which I guess is the biggest town on Phu Quoc. Mostly though we drank mango drinks, had some tasty food and sat on the beach reading and relaxing.
Finally, we flew back to Ho Chi Minh City, spent the night and headed home bright and early the next day.
WHAT WERE THE MOST MEMORABLE PARTS OF YOUR TRIP?
Probably the most memorable times for us were the two days we spent in Sapa. Hiking with our guide, Chi, and learning about the culture of the Hmong and other hill people was really fascinating. She hiked for two days over relatively difficult terrain in plastic sandals with her 8-month-old son on her back and the most genuine smile on her face. She took great pride in showing us how her people lived with what nature had given them and not much more. Pam found her company, Sapa Sisters, by looking for trekking guides in the Sapa region. You could tell Chi was highly respected as the other guides we’d cross paths with would ask her questions and she’d offer her opinions freely. The entire time we hiked, other women from her village would hike with us for hours, just for the opportunity to sell us some of their wares including embroidered pillow cases, friendship bracelets and handmade bags.
I felt like Chi kept an eye out for us. She’d shoo away a water buffalo, if we accidentally got between momma and baby. She made sure we stayed in a reputable homestay. (Another group stayed with a homestay that had stolen from her clients and she wasn’t about to go back there). In general, just an inspiring woman in a beautiful location. I could talk for hours about Sapa.
WHAT WAS YOUR TAKEAWAY FROM THE TRIP? ADVICE TO OTHERS TRAVELING IN THE REGION?
My advice for traveling in the region would be to just go! It’s beautiful, the people are all about service. They want you to come to their store, they want you to eat at their restaurant. They will go out of their way to make sure that your stay is awesome. As for research, Pam did an awesome job of researching tours and guides and things to do. She got a lot of those recommendations from TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and similar sites. My suggestion for tours would be to make sure they are reputable and will pick you up and drop you off from your hotel. Most everyone in the service industry in Shanghai and the places we visited in Vietnam spoke a ton of English. The cab drivers, however don’t. Make sure you get your destinations written in the local language — it’ll make your day to day travel a lot easier. Even just getting a business card from your hotel works.
To read more about Scott and Pam’s adventures in Asia, visit Pam’s blog The Inspiration Files.
Conversation Starter: What’s the most incredible trip you’ve ever taken? Tell us about it in the comments, and email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in sharing photos and details from a memorable vacation with The Darkroom community.