Central Vietnam (Hue, Nha Trang and Da Lat)

Hue

Dubbed the culinary capital of Vietnam, Hue is split by a river and has a huge Citadel which was the site of major battles during the Vietnam War. Finding a hotel was painless and we decided to rent bicycles for the day to explore. But first, we needed to eat.

Deciding to ditch our Lonely Planet guidebook for a day, we pedaled across the bridge and explored the area surrounding the Citadel before finding a place that looked good with second-level outdoor seating. Sure enough, as we got upstairs and looked at the menu, they boasted their write up in the Lonely Planet. ‘Oh well’ we thought, and ordered three dishes to split and some beers since it was past beer o’clock, whatever time that may be.  We tried a seafood pancake and some other gelatinous substance sprinkled with dried, shredded pork.  After adding some fish sauce, they were both absolutely amazing.  The beer opener’s here were kind of neat as well as the deaf owner makes them himself.  It’s basically a foot-long by 1/4 inch piece of wood with a screw and perfectly positioned nut on once end.  After we finished eating the owner gave us one and wrote the name Lac Thienh on one side.  Then, he proceeded to show us pictures sent to him from around the world with folks holding up the beer opener.  Those photobooks, all 17 of them, seemed to be his most prized possession and he smiled from ear to ear as we pointed to the picture with the Golden Gate bridge, then to ourselves.  No speaking – or in his case, even hearing – necessary.

Other than some amazing dishes, Hue really wasn’t what we looking for.  At this point, besides the food, we weren’t really enjoying Vietnam that much.  On the surface, it seems as though common courtesies amongst the Vietnamese and tourists are non-existent.  People talk loudly on their cell phones, hock and spit as they please, blow snot-rockets indoors, sneeze uncovered, play music loudly, and operate on the thinnest of margins when it comes to personal space.  This coincides directly with their direct embracement of capitalism and they seem to live solely to extract every last dong from your pocket.  We’ve had to send restaurant bills back because they ”added incorrectly,” argue with hotels over being charged for sodas that weren’t even in the fridge to begin with, and our sweet hotel manager in Cat Ba who so graciously gave us his motorbike for the remainder of the day, tried to charge us for it the next day because we didn’t go to Ha Long Bay with him (due to the terrible weather.)  All of these things and many more have made our impression of Vietnam very poor and we could only hope that things changed soon. 

Nha Trang

Hello sunshine!  Sometimes all you need to cheer up is a couple beach days and Nha Trang possesses one of the most breathtaking beaches I’ve ever seen.  Our original plan called to skip past Nha Trang and head straight to Da Lat but as our bus pulled into town after another overnight run, the sun was rising over the water behind slowly swaying palm trees and we could not resist the urge to stop.  Lathered up on comfy lounge chairs by 8am, we spent the next  two days completely relaxed on the beach, buying souvenirs, gifts, and food from touts as they strolled by, begging us to buy anything.  On the second afternoon, we each treated ourselves to a massage and just as I was packing up to check some email, I spotted Travis and Katie about three lounge chairs away.  Running into friends on the road is always exciting because you get to share your adventures since the last time you saw each other.  We went out to dinner with them and opted for some Western fare, Italian.  Thinking of my Dad, I ordered the calzone hoping that it could somehow match the quality of anything from Philly.  It was good but I need some Julio’s when I return home.  We said goodbye to Travis and Katie and swore we’d make enough time to see them in Bangkok before heading to India.

Da Lat

The bus rambled up the mountains for a good six hours before we finally arrived.  Da Lat is set high in the hills and is like a miniature San Francisco with the feel of Paris.  Much to our delight, the weather is much cooler and before we could even leave our hotel to walk around, a guy spouting the nametag “Easy Rider” stopped us dead in our tracks to sell his tour.  I had read about the easy riders in our guidebook and although it was tempting to take a motorcycle journey around Da Lat, the price was a bit too much and we basically purged as much information out of him as we could so that we could take our own tour.  Two days later, we rose early for an epic 200-mile motorbike journey to – what we thought was nearby – Lake Lak.  The ride was amazing and I enjoyed every second of it.  Passing plenty of small villages and stopping for plenty of coffee to keep us revving, we finally arrived in Lake Lak.  If not for the elephant we saw as we were heading back to Da Lat, we would have been dissappointed.  We pulled over and got up as close as we safely could and watched it eat tall grass at the lakes edge for 15 minutes before leaving. 

On the way home, I enticed Erin to drive so that I could teach her how to drive a manual.  Always the quick learner, she picked it up quick and at one point, daringly maneuvered between a herd of cows crossing the street.  We switched soon after, darkness came quick and the bugs were abundant.  By this point, our lower halfs were in severe pain and the ride became more a test of strength than endurance.  Plus, the temperature had dropped much lower only adding to the urgency to get home.  Finally we made it back and went to the Arts Cafe for dinner, which had received great reviews.  After dethawing my hands under running water, I returned to Erin at the table and with eyes as red as a tomato and a slight limp, said “I don’t think we were supposed to do that.”  We laughed and enjoyed our delicious and well-deserved dinner.  The next morning we boarded another bus for Saigon after picking up some ridiculously good strawberry jam, which is famous in Da Lat, and having some more Ca Phe Sua, Vietnam’s famous coffee served extra strong with two teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk.  I am really starting to love Vietnam. 

Northern and Central Vietnam

Incessant honking pierces my ears, blaring unrhythmically as the drivers long-nailed thumb makes a dent on the rubber wheel. Bouncing and jolting, all passengers endure fumes and heat during the last leg of our bus trip in Northern Vietnam. Looking out the window, I gasp as our steele frame  just misses elderly vendors and shiny motorbikes, traveling full force through narrow Hanoi Streets. My watch’s stopwatch calculates 72 beeps of the horn in a matter of 60 seconds. I am close to

 insanity.

_____________________

This is a testament to the Vietnamese way of travel, where drivers use the horn as an instrument to say, “I am the car behind you,” or “I am passing to your right,” or “I am bigger than you so MOVE!” Blaring the horn in all situations is a habit and normality here in Vietnam.

Starting outside the airport, I had a feeling Vietnam was more intense in many ways than Thailand. The moment our feet touched the sidewalk outside the terminal, we heard 2 short claps from a man to our right, a lady screaming at us, and a man saying, “My friends!” as he ran to meet us. Desperate to sell their taxi services, we were chased by Vietnamese drivers until we ducked into the shelter of one van. Looking out the window at the masses, I just started laughing and said, “This is definitely what it feels like to be famous.”

The highlights of my Vietnamese experiences are categorized below:

Hanoi

The first few times I crossed a Hanoi street,  my heart jolted. Then I remembered what another traveler had advised me to do: “Just start walking and the motorbikes will swerve around you. If you stop, you will confuse them. They have their route planned around you, so just walk!” The motorbikes consume every inch of pavement, piled 3 and 4 people high, and with the lack of traffic lights and stop signs it is a mystery that they do not crash. The traffic never halts for anyone or anything, so standing at the curb to wait for a break in traffic doesn’t work.

hanoi.jpg

Above: A popular photo of Hanoi’s Old Quarter madness, taken by a student in the area.

Once I could cross the street, the next hurdle was avoiding the constant hagglers, selling everything from a seat on their “motobyyyk” to silk dresses. Next on the agenda was finding a bowl of pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, which is one of our favorites in the States. Excited for the authentic version, Jason chose a stand that a man set up in his garage, where he cooked on a hot plate. The steaming soup bowl of noodles, beef, and herbs was set before me and I began to relax as I slurped my way through it. (Slurping is actually a compliment to the chef, here in Southeast Asia.)

Above: Pho Bo, Vietnamese beef noodle soup

Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where most of the noise and craziness exists, is popular with tourists. The jazz club down there was phenomenal and the Vietnamese musicians blasted their funky beats to the crowd seated on posh leather couches. Another Old Quarter find was a vegetarian restaurant called The Tamarind Cafe, serving fruit smoothies, stuffed tomatoes and cucumbers, amazing mango salads and an extensive dessert list.

Hanoi is also proud to be the resting place of Ho Chi Minh (better known as “Uncle Ho” to locals.) Ho Chi Minh is still revered as one of the most influential political figures in Vietnam and lead the Democratic Republic of Vietnam until 1969. Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body is on display in Hanoi and supposedly goes under reconstruction and preservation once a year, to keep his good looks!

As you can imagine, being in touristy, loud Hanoi for an extended period could wreck the Vietnam experience, so after 2 days, I was ready to head somewhere where and locate a slice of serenity.

Cat Ba Island

catba.jpg 

catba1.jpg

Inside of Halong Bay set many tiny islands, positioned among limestone rock formations and green water. Recognized by UNESCO World Heritage as a protected site, Halong Bay holds Cat Ba Island, which happened to be the perfect place to escape the city’s craziness. (Click here for more info on UNESCO’s list of universal wonders.)

After 3 bus rides and 2 boat transfers,  all passengers were dropped of at a pristine location at the harbor, overlooking mountains and thick forests. Much of the island is covered by a national park, so we snagged a motor bike and cruised to some of the villages on the outskirts of the park. Two 13-year-old boys welcomed us to their town as we sat sipping a cafe sua (a shot of espresso lightened with a bit of sweetened condensed milk.) We discussed soccer, school, and family life with the young villagers in broken Vietnamese and English and enjoyed their company for the better part of an hour.

I was most impressed with the accommodations and prices on the island. A suite at the top of a hotel, overlooking the bay’s beauty was $7/ night and included a free motorbike rental. Granted, this was the off-season, and the weather was a bit foggy, but that wasn’t a problem after living in San Francisco for over 3 years.

Although it was cheap, there is no ATM anywhere on the island and we were lucky to meet Travis and Katie, 2 travelers from Washington, who traded us Vietnamese dong for our left-over Thai baht. They currently live in Thailand and Katie works as an English teacher in Bangkok, where we hope to stay with them upon returning to Thailand for the flight to India.

Hue

Divided by rivers and grassy parks, Hue was the perfect spot to rent bicycles and explore the markets and back alleys of Central Vietnam. Falling upon Lac Thien, a restaurant we later found written up in the Lonely Planet, we decided to park the bikes and eat lunch. We enjoyed reading the walls on our climb to the second terrace dining area, as they were decorated with words and drawings from other travelers. Markers were provided at our table and we immediately started making some marks of our own.

Hue is known for its culinary flare, so we ordered 3 items we had not seen elsewhere in Vietnam and hoped for the best. The best we did find: Banh Khoai, a rice paper crepe filled with ingredients placed at the table (like beef, sprouts, and chiles)  is dipped into a peanut sauce, rolled and eaten. We also enjoyed a gelatinous cold dish with shrimp and herbs and the fresh spring rolls.

 

The unique part of Lac Thien Restaurant is that it’s run by a deaf man and his family. We met 3 of the sisters who live and work in the restaurant/ home. The family chatted with us about their new babies and the business, and then the father, who is famous for making bottle openers out of a plank of wood and a screw, introduced himself. He gives the bottle openers out as gifts to his restaurant customers and asks that they send him a photo of the opener in a famous location around the globe. He had hundreds of photos from past diners who pose in places like Niagara Falls or in front of the Brandenburg Tür. I am alreading planning where I will take my photo.

Later that day for a healthy dinner, I decided I needed a break from all of the Vietnamese food and treated myself to some good old fashioned Oreos! Oreos and Ritz crackers can be found on EVERY street corner here in Vietnam, which I am assuming is something that was introduced here by American soldiers of the Vietnam War.

The second half of Vietnam will come soon…