By Davis Nguyen The boat would depart in 20 minutes and we were on the opposite side of the island separated by a mountain and a torrential rain storm. We knew we couldn’t make it in time and if even if we made the trek back to the other side of the island, the rain would have already wiped away the trail markers we laid out making it likely for us to be lost.
Less than 3 weeks ago, I started my four month backpacking trip from Vietnam. A week ago I reached Nha Trang, a beach resort town in Vietnam. I started my backpacking journey to immerse myself in the culture of the cities I found myself in, so I wasn’t a fan of touristy resorts like Nha Trang. But after 2 weeks of trekking the countryside and walking in rivers with water levels up to my knee, I thought three days in a beach resort wouldn’t be so bad.
The girl who checked me in recommended I go island hopping and immediately booked my boat ticket for the next day. The boat was a boat targeted at foreigners, so I knew we would only stop at white sand beaches with entrance fees and restaurants that sold food for twice as much as I could get from street vendors. There would be no interactional with locals of the various islands, but I figured one day of an organized tour wouldn’t hurt.
On the bus ride that picked me up from my hostel to Nha Trang’s boating dock, I met a fellow backpacker named Janet who was also in Nha Trang for a few days to take a break. She had spent the last month in Nepal volunteering with the relief efforts and Nha Trang was a stop along her eventual journey to Korea.
The tour boat went from island to island with about 30 minutes of travel time between each and an hour or two depending on the island for the passengers to leave the boat. For some reason I didn’t feel happy, and I could see Janet felt the same way.
The last island we stopped at was another tourist destination: a two dollar entrance fee gave us access to a beach and tons of bars and food stalls.
Janet and I decided to explore the area more. Within 4 minutes we reached the back of the park and we found a dirt trail. With about 2 hours before our boat departed, we decided to leave the tour group and walk up the unmarked trail. As we walked, I would place trail markers so we could find our way back to the boat.
About 30 minutes later we reached a cemetery—where there is a cemetery, there must be a town nearby. So we continued forward until we eventually saw what looked like a small town. We descended from the elevated area and found a way to what seemed like the main street of the town. We noticed that locals were not used to tourists on this side of the island as every local we walked pass stared at us and kids would come up, smile, and follow us before their parents came to grab them.
It then started to rain—hard. Each minute that passed the rain got heavier and heavier until we saw locals using brooms to sweep the rain away from their pouches and save their homes from being flooded. We knew we had to make our way back to the other side of the island before our boat (the last boat of the day) left without us.
We started to retrace our steps, except this time we were fighting against the rush of water coming down the hill we descended from. Knee-high in rain and sewage water, we continued until we could no longer see that path. But then four local women stopped us. “Too dangerous,” one said to us as she raised her hand to block me from walking past her and up the trail.
“Our boat is leaving,” I told the locals in my accented Vietnamese. The women would not let us pass. We were at a standstill until another woman who had overheard my conversation walked over and said she can help us. Not knowing what to do, we followed her. As we followed her, she pulled out her phone and made a call. We eventually arrived at a pier.
The woman explained that she arranged for us to take a boat with some locals who were also headed towards Nha Trang. Luckily for us, they were leaving once the rain settled down.
We laughed at how stupid it will seem to the others on our tour that we left the safety of the park, hiked to the other side of the mountain, and walked into this small town that isn’t used to seeing tourists. But we didn’t’ care—we had the time of our lives!
To pass the time we spoke with the locals as much as we could to learn more about what they do and what it is like seeing foreigners.
Eventually our boat arrived and we made our way back to Nha Trang with our new friends still wanting to know more about us.
Sometimes you can’t start living until you get off the guided tour.
I'd love to hear from you in the comments:
What frightens you about leaving your “guided tour?”
Davis (@IamDavisNguyen) graduated from Yale University in 2015. He currently lives in San Francisco and works at Bain & Company. When he’s not helping CEOs transform their companies, he is helping recent graduates figure out the type of life they want for themselves and helping them get there.