Travel in the new normal: a trip down memory lane

November 30, 2021 | 08:34 pm PT
Darren Barnard Teacher
Do crowds at major tourist sites frustrate you? Does the sight of a selfie stick irritate you?

How about being annoyed by people trying to sign you up for a tour or overcharge you for a taxi moments after arriving somewhere?

If you answer those questions with a ‘yes,’ then domestic travel in Vietnam right now may just be perfect for you.

I can honestly say that some of my favorite travel experiences have been in the last few weeks.

You may not be able to tick off Lonely Planet’s top-listed attractions in Vietnam, but this unique set of circumstances encourages a bond with homestay hosts and locals that captures the true essence of traveling.

Fortunately, the high vaccination rates in tourism hotspots such as Sa Pa and Mai Chau allows travelers to enjoy these beautiful destinations again, creating a unique opportunity to travel safely and in an environment where people could not be more grateful for your support.

For the last few years I have constantly researched remote locations across Vietnam to find undiscovered and untouched areas away from the crowds.

Now, due to the convenience of being double vaccinated and easily getting tested, I am able to appreciate and revisit the popular destinations that made me first fall in love with this country.

More importantly, business owners in these areas also received their vaccinations months ago to help facilitate their reopening.

Sa Pa received 64,000 visitors over the course of one weekend at the beginning of May. This surge of people rushing north has always been a deterrent for me. In my opinion, nature is most appreciated without the sound of karaoke and masses of people around every corner.

Therefore it was refreshing and heartwarming to see the delight and surprise on the faces of many locals as I zig-zagged down the spiraling mountains from Sa Pa town to my homestay a few weeks ago.

Women walk among tea hills and cherry blossoms in Sa Pa, northern Vietnam, November 2020. Photo by Bui Xuan Viet

Women walk among tea hills and cherry blossoms in Sa Pa, northern Vietnam, November 2020. Photo by Bui Xuan Viet

When I arrived, the host could not have been more grateful to welcome a foreign guest after months of living in a ghost town.

She was one of the more fortunate business owners in the area since many have closed down already. As they have in Da Lat, an equally popular tourism destination, where more than 1,000 hotels have permanently closed their doors due to the financial constraints of the last two years.

Every evening at 7 p.m. around 10 children from adjacent villages would scamper up the hill to the homestay to learn English online.

The number of hours teachers have volunteered to the community in these areas is really admirable.

Meanwhile, the kids, some as young as five, were studying English after already learning Vietnamese and their own ethnic language.

I kept my exchanges with them brief since I didn’t want the foreigner in the room to distract them from their class.

The money I paid to people during these recent trips often appeared to be an afterthought for the hosts. They had a trust policy where they invited me to help myself to the contents of the fridge and pay when I left.

Shortly before ending the Mai Chau trip, I was invited to have lunch with the family one last time before boarding a bus back to Hanoi.

Their kindness was also exemplified earlier in the week when they invited my friend and me to a post-harvest celebratory dinner, where there was enough food to feed the whole of Hoa Binh Province and enough rice wine to ensure no one’s glass was ever empty.

These moments would not have been possible when tourism was booming before the pandemic and homestay and hotel owners were too busy accommodating large numbers of guests.

Besides, being the only guests, we were able to immerse ourselves in local life and venture away from the usual tourism activities.

I recall throwing my backpack on my shoulders at Manchester Airport in 2016, and hoping to form these unique connections with strangers in remote areas.

I was eager to explore the unexplored and share stories with people from various cultures.

You may not be able to pull over and buy sugarcane juice (nuoc mia) or the local specialty food (dac san) with the same regularity as two years ago, but this encourages communicating with people you may not even have noticed before.

As I left Mai Chau there was an announcement of more Covid-19 cases in Hoa Binh Province. Previously these new cases would have meant immediate closure for the homestay. But now they can remain open and optimistic of getting more business by ensuring safety protocols are followed.

The owner reminisced about her childhood in Mai Chau where there was no electricity and the only tourists were Vietnamese hiking through the town and knocking on people’s doors for accommodation.

I can now begin to understand the serenity and simplicity of life then after getting a small glimpse of it on these trips.

*Darren Barnard is an English teacher living in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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