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 Vietnam (Hanoi, Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay, and Cuc Phuong)

Sorry it’s been so long but I am really enjoying myself and just haven’t had time to sit down and write. The good news is I’m getting my laptop back soon and will be able to write while in transit. Thanks to everyone for your comments and well wishes. I really appreciate it and it’s making the journey even better.

Hanoi

After the debacle that ended our stay in Bangkok, the flight to Hanoi was short and we arrived in the early morning. We ran to the ATM to get some cash for the taxi and pulled out 100,000 dong each before realizing that was only about $8 each. From that point onwards, every time we visit an ATM we each pull out 2 million dollars, er, I mean dong. A guy can dream, can’t he?

Walking from the airport, I felt like a celebrity as ten taxi drivers, upon noticing the color of our skin, immediately started shouting and screaming to get us to come with them. We accepted one offer and away we went. Using our guidebook we directed the driver to the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the original center of the city and a bustling, busy, and noisy hub of hotels, restaurants and pubs. Not to mention about a dozen small eateries per block containing my favorite dish of all time, Pho (pronounced fuh.) Once we checked into our hotel – which we found out later was not where we told the driver to take us – we immediately set out to find the delicious noodle soup of my dreams. It didn’t take long to find a place and we settled down – more like squatted down – onto our tiny stools and slurped to our bellies were full. Although Pho can be found 24/7, the Vietnamese tend to eat it for breakfast and next to a super spicy Bloody Mary, it is hands down the greatest hangover cure known to mankind. Much to my palettes pleasure, we would be spending the next 3 weeks indulging, sometimes twice a day, in the culinary legend of Vietnam.

Pho

I eat two bowls in the morning

I eat two bowls at night

I eat two bowls in the afternoon

It makes me feel alright

We spent two nights in Hanoi, basically chasing different food dishes that we hadn’t tried in the States. One night we had Cha Ca, a hot pot of fresh fish with veggies and noodles served on the side. Most restaurants only serve one or two types of dishes so ordering is sometimes unnecessary and also allows the restaurants to truly perfect their craft. During an afternoon adventure to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum we sat down at a little cafe and without saying a word had soup and sides in front of us within seconds. The dish is called Bun and you dip your veggies in the broth or allow them to cook in the broth and eat as a soup. Either way, it’s unbelievably delicious. I truly cannot get enough of the food here.

A side note though, I’ve lost ten pounds since starting the trip. I’m assuming it’s mostly muscle as the few workouts I do sneak in consist of pushups and situps in our hotel room. Sweating like a pig 20 hours out of the day probably helps as well.

Finding any location is nearly impossible and there are a few factors at play here: If you’re walking, streets change names roughly every two blocks and numbers are not intuitive, for example if you’re looking for 22 Le Loi, across the street from it could be 876 Le Loi. Not to mention you also get slashes and letters involved in addresses, such as 22A/25 Le Loi, which means it’s an alleyway off of Le Loi. Your other alternative is to take taxis or motorbikes, and believe me, you can’t walk more than three steps without being incessantly propositioned or honked at with shouts of “motobai, motobai?” The only struggle with this method to finding your destination is due to the Vietnamese business concept of “copycatting.” For example, if you were to open a restaurant called Jason’s Pizza and it became successful, gathering notoriety in guide books and magazines, all of the businesses around you would soon be named Jason Pizza, Pizza by Jason, Pizza Jason, Jayson’s Pizza, and Pizzeria Jaison and given the brilliant postal system they’d all share the same address.

Hanoi is dirty. Noise pollution is rampant, consisting of 4 Million motorbikes revving their way through the narrow streets, taxis speeding, and tourist buses driving crazier than anyone – not to mention they all have this obnoxious affinity towards blaring their horn at least once a second. While on a bus from Hanoi to Hai Phong, I created the Vietnamese Guide to Horn Blowing, a guide that must exist somewhere:

Honk when…

  1. Approaching other vehicles or pedestrians
  2. Passing
  3. After passing to remind them they’ve been passed
  4. To alert rider’s their bus has arrived
  5. Entering an intersection or roundabout
  6. Going slow
  7. Forced to brake
  8. You need to remind others that you’ve already honked and are prepared to continue
  9. Making turns or entering roundabouts as signalling is insufficient notification
  10. Passing busses full of tourists that have pulled off to the side of the highway for an embarrasing bathroom break amidst the rubber trees.

Roughly 18 bowls of Pho later, leaving Hanoi was easy as we were excited about heading east towards the UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long bay. After some research we decided the best starting point for a sailing adventure would be from Cat Ba island.

Cat Ba

The town is completely deserted and the weather is reminiscent of Philly in April: foggy and sporadically raining with a humidity of 110%. Cat Ba’s main street is crescent-shaped running adjacent to the water’s edge and the tall hotel building are each painted in beautiful, bright colors. It reminds me of a smaller version of the French Riviera. We nestled into an amazing hotel on the fourth floor with our own balcony overlooking the entire town not to mention a view of the bay. The price was an absurd $6 per night and the hotel manager was so excited to have some business that he let us take his motorbike around the island for free. Later in the afternoon we found ourselves in a small little village on the outskirts of Cat Ba National Park having a cup of coffee with the locals while they practiced their English. It seems that everyone in Vietnam, regardless of age, knows how to say “hello” and “where you from?” However, should you decide to answer they will embarrassingly run away or stare at you in amazement. Children and adolescents are especially fond of foreigners and as you zoom by they will smile, wave and scream”hello!” No matter how tired or decaffeinated I may be, this simple gesture always makes me feel on top of the world.

That evening we stopped at a Vegetarian restaurant where we met some Americans, Travis and Katie and a Canadian, Robin. Travis and Katie now live in Bangkok where Katie is an English teacher and Travis is a budding photographer. Erin and I had talked about possibly teaching English so we had a long night of question and answer. Robin is currently bicycling around Vietnam and covers about 60-70 miles per day. they had all met while teaching English in Northeast Thailand. Again, another one of our dreams is to complete a bicycle tour so we had plenty of questions for Robin too. It seems as though the more people we meet, the more we hear of amazing ideas for lifestyles and adventures. We had a few more drinks with our new friends and stopped back at our hotel to try and book our boat trip to Ha Long Bay the next morning. Unfortunately when we woke, the fog had settled in so thick that we scrapped our plan to head out to sea and returned back to the mainland where we caught another bus south to Ninh Binh, roughly 60km from our next destination, Cuc Phuong National Park.

Cuc Phuong National Park

There are travel agencies on nearly every block in Vietnam to entice you on where to go next. We enter them with the intention of stealing their itineraries and planning our own adventure, partly because we are broke backpackers but more so because we like to get off of the beaten path and see the countryside.

Arriving in Ninh Binh relatively late in the evening, we decided to just hit the sack and ended up catching up on plenty of lost sleep. The next afternoon we rented a motorbike and began our ride to the National Park in what ended up being an 80 mile round trip adventure. We spent most of the time being completely lost but eventually arrived after speeding through endless sleepy towns.

For the first hour we visited the monkey’s who are being bred at the park to save them from becoming endangered or extinct. All of the monkey’s here are rescued from hunter’s who either sell them to China or use them for food. Afterwards we hopped back on our motorbike for another 20km ride through the park where we stopped at a prehistoric cave. It was terribly boring and our headlamps were nearly out of battery so being the big babies we are when it comes to the dark, we retreated back to our bike. Continuing on, we took a two-and-a-half hour hike through the forest in the sweltering heat. The main attraction is a 1000 year old tree which carried about the same excitement as watching water boil. Finishing the hike, we decided to head home as the sun had already begun setting.

Halfway back to the main entrance to the park our motorbike started making a terrible noise near the rear wheel. We pulled over and by now it was completely dark. Luckily, a band of other motorbikes came along and had the necessary tools to help us remove our chain guard, which had somehow become bent and was rubbing on our rear wheel. It was nice to see firsthand what we had frequently read about in our guidebooks: the Vietnamese will help you out if you’re in trouble. There were roughly 10 of them assisting in the repair and all of them had their ideas of what was wrong. Erin spent the rest of the ride holding onto the greasy guard and as we left the park, our fearless mechanics were waiting to make sure we were able to continue.

By now it was completely dark and riding at night is quite the experience. As the driver, I was nearly blinded from all of the bugs and also realized why the usage and over-usage of horns is a complete necessity. Due to the wind you can’t really hear that well and side mirrors tend to shift and move from the bumps and vibrations of the bike. So, when buses are approaching you really don’t know they are there until they blare the horn behind you, sending every hair on your body to attention. As they pass they continue to honk and of course, once the pass is complete they give you a little reminder honk, as if to say “haha.”

Red-eyed, we arrived back at the hotel and the owner of the motorbike was a bit perturbed at the status of his chain guard and insisted we pay for the damage. I refused and told the manager of the hotel, who spoke perfect English, to grab me a pair of pliers and a wrench and I would fix it myself. He smiled and before long, there were six of us on our hands and knees banging and torquing the faulty guard back into place. The hotel manager allowed us to use his room and shower so we could change. We ate some dinner at their restaurant and an hour later, Erin and I were boarding our overnight bus to Hue, considered by many to be the culinary capital of 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…