I didn’t set out to become a professional athlete in Vietnam, it just sort of happened.
Having travelled to Asia a number of times over the course of my semi-professional career as a jetsetter, I had a very specific idea in mind of what to expect: amazing food, brightly colored fabrics, temples, tuk tuks and so much sweat.
So why did I choose to introduce intense physical activity into an equation that already worked? Well, the decision actually involved a lot of hesitation. I was downright nervous that this style of travel wasn’t suited for me. I’ve always subscribed to the sort of small group travel that leaned heavily on cultural experiences through interacting with local people, their environment and, most importantly, their food.
I wasn’t sure I was fit enough to do a trip like this. I wondered whether I would be missing out on the cultural aspects (cough, the sites and the food) of Vietnam. But, having travelled extensively in all manner but this, I wanted a new challenge. I wanted something different.
So, I packed my hiking boots and my athleisure wear, flexed a few times in front of the mirror (you know, for motivation), and jumped on a plane from the US to Asia. And let me tell you, after spending 10 days hiking, biking and kayaking my way through Northern Vietnam with Intrepid Travel, I can’t think of any other way I want to travel.
Hiking in Vietnam
Just like every self-professed travel junkie, I had seen numerous photos of Sapa in Northern Vietnam and internally yelled “I MUST GO THERE.” However, the question was, how do I to get to those out-of-the-way places without being crammed onto a big bus for the most interminable day trip from Hanoi ever? The answer was easier than I expected. You stand on your own two feet and you hike.
Led by the most gloriously nimble collection of village-dwelling ladies, our small team of explorers made our way from Sapa town to our homestay through the winding paths. We started our trek in the mud and the fog, but were soon rewarded with some of the most amazing sights I have seen anywhere in the world.
We slipped and slided along the muddy paths (some of us accessorizing our hiking clothes with as much mud as possible), chatting with each other and our local guides. We listened to the stories of their lives and their experience in the hills of Vietnam, and exhilarated by our morning and early afternoon, made our way through tiny villages until we reached our homestay. Here, a massive feast with a local family awaited us.
Perhaps the best thing was that it didn’t even feel like exercise at all.
Biking in Vietnam
Being originally from the Motor City (Detroit), I tend to rely on the good old-fashioned automobile to get from point A to point B. The idea of biking to our homestay, which was 100 kilometers from door to door, was a bit daunting. And have you seen the traffic in Asia? It’s a clogged congestion, where traffic rules are mere suggestions unlike anything I have ever seen before!
“It’s easy!”, our guide promised us, taking us for a nail-biting whirl around the streets of Hanoi. “A total breeze!”.
And you know what? What ensued was 48 of the best hours of my life.
With the foresight (albeit last minute – thanks, Amazon Prime!) of bringing along a pair of cycling shorts with me, my imagined nemesis of the dreaded bike seat never materialized. Once we hit the open road, a sense of absolute freedom came over me in a way that I have never experienced. We sped through towns and villages, farms and hills, dodging herds of buffalo, buses and motorbikes and waving hellos to the hordes of people (mostly children) who rushed outside to practice yelling greetings to us in English and high-fiving us along the way.
We were in the middle of what felt like nowhere – sometimes riding fast, sometimes stopping every five minutes to capture the stark beauty of the landscape we were riding through. Unified – despite our differing levels of fitness – we connected with each other and with others, through leisurely chats with the people we passed. My face legitimately hurt from smiling.
And once we pulled up to our homestay (on stilts, with surprisingly good wifi), a sense of accomplishment akin to winning a race washed over the group, as if we’d won the Tour de France. We naturally celebrated with another massive meal (uh, we totally burned a lot of calories) and a few toasts of locally-made rice wine.
Kayaking in Vietnam
Most people see pictures of Halong Bay and think that a place like that only exists in in the realm of photoshop. And I can tell you that even when the weather is less than Instagram-worthy, taking a boat to the far reaches of the bay is still like something out of a dream.
Par for the country, the marina at Halong Bay was choked with boats upon boats upon boats, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried that our experience would feel like wading into a sea of people at an amusement park. But the funny thing about Halong Bay, much like the rest of the spots we visited, was that once we got out of the marina on our private (and amazingly posh) junk boat, we were utterly alone. No wifi, no 3G, nothing but us and the karsts (massive island rock formations) for as far as the eye could see.
A relaxing two-hour cruise took us to a secluded corner of the bay, where the clouds finally opened for some much appreciated sunshine. The group of us jumped into kayaks and set out to do some aquatic exploring. What was so different about this part of the trip was that we didn’t have an itinerary, we didn’t have a destination. We were able to make up our own path (within our corner of the bay) for a real once-in-a-lifetime experience – exploring caves and rock overhangs, while taking in one of the most glorious sunsets I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
Mother Nature even behaved overnight, and we were lucky enough to take a sunrise paddle around the cove one more time before heading back to the mainland. And then it was back to Hanoi for our final feast before heading our separate ways, back to our respective corners of the globe.
When I look back on my Vietnam trip, the thing about this style of travel was that the sense of accomplishment our group felt from day one was what unified us all early on. We all adopted a team mentality immediately – nearly every member of the group had different reservations about different physical aspects of the trip, and I think this ended up reassuring all of us immediately.
None of us were here for Olympic Gold, but all of us were here for a challenge. And what we found was that in challenging ourselves as a group, we exceeded our own personal expectations and learned not only about each other and Vietnam, but about ourselves in the process as well.
And that yes, we all can now pretty much call ourselves professional athletes and adventurers from now on.
Ready to hike, bike and kayak your way through stunning Vietnam? Check out Intrepid Travel’s 10-day trip.
(All images c/o Carolyn Okon.)