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.
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.
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.