Hue: An overlooked city & Hoi An: An overrated one

First, a clarification – I loved both Hue and Hoi An – but neither was what I had expected. Many travelers we’ve met on our trip praised Hoi An, but described Hue as a “one-night town.” So we were pleasantly surprised when we pulled into Hue.

Our first day found us on a 25 km bike ride around the outskirts of the city. Chandler wanted to visit the royal tombs, but neither of us was keen on joining a large tour – and neither of us have any business driving a motorbike after two years in Ethiopia – so we thought our best option was bicycles.

WRONG.

With a heat index of 40C and more hills than we had anticipated, it turned out to be an ungodly hot day – much like every other day we’ve experienced in Vietnam. Someone once told me it rains every day in Vietnam – they lied.

So after thoroughly sweating through our clothes (and Chandler’s backpack! Gross), we were able to see Khai Dinh Tomb & Tu Duc Tomb. The first was definitely more impressive, structurally, but Tu Duc Tomb is surrounded by a picturesque garden, making it a lovely place to spend the day.

Tu Duc Tomb

My only recommendation, if you ever do this trek yourself: Rent motorbikes, not bicycles, or pay someone to take you.

That evening (after the world’s longest cold shower and a restful afternoon), we decided to take in the night market. It was pretty much what you’d expect – delicious smelling food that you hope won’t give you food poisoning (although the presence of flies makes you mighty suspicious), more trinkets than could ever be purchased, and bundles of clothes that people somehow know will fit them.

But the true spectacle of the night was the Truong Tien Bridge, built by none other than Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel Tower & Statue of Liberty). The bridge spans the Perfume River and is spectacularly lit up at night.

Hue Bridge

The next morning was spent inside the citadel at the Purple Forbidden City. It was hard to get a grasp on just how majestic this city once was – we bombed large portions of it during the war and they were never rebuilt. But what was still standing was impressive. The main gate was under construction (as well as numerous other buildings), but the side gate was still gape-worthy.

 

Old Imperial City

The rest of our time in Hue was spent wandering the streets, gorging ourselves on food (so much better than our previous few cities), a pool day (Hong Thien Ruby Hotel was great!), and taking in the full moon celebration. Every night of our stay, a handful of locals dressed up in dragon costumes and roamed the city streets with drums and other instruments.

Easy to say, we were sad to leave Hue. But everyone had talked up Hoi An, so we knew we were in for something great. Our first night we weaved our way through Hoi An’s Ancient Town (named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999). During the week, no motorized vehicles are allowed in the protected area, giving the town a more medieval feel.

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Kayaking and spelunking

I’m labeling this past week our “adventure week.” We’ve just finished the northern half of Vietnam and it’s possible that this’ll turn out to be my favourite part of our entire trip (though, of course, I can’t be sure for another few months!).

After we left Hanoi, we headed down south to Cat Ba Island. All of the tour companies will tell you the best way to see the karst outcroppings is to take a one- or two-night cruise through Halong Bay, but we’re convinced our way is better. Most of the cruises are overpriced and full of people. We talked to some who’ve experienced them and heard that you see more boats and people than the nature around you (though we have heard good cruise stories as well).

Instead, we made our way to Cat Ba Island, and with the help of Asia Outdoors, went kayaking through Lan Ha Bay instead. Lan Ha Bay has the exact same scenery as Halong Bay (we looked across the channel to double check haha) only the karst formations are closer together – meaning most large ships can’t make it through the area.

We spent the day kayaking through deserted enclaves and swimming in hidden grottos, with a delicious lunch on the main boat tossed in the middle. We had four other kayakers with us when we went (our guide said it was the smallest group he’d had all season), and there were hours when we didn’t encounter a single other person. It was so serene. At the end of the day, I was tempted to ask our guide what qualifications I’d need to do his job – anything to stay in the area. But Chandler quickly reminded me of what we had next – Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park…and Paradise Cave.

Lan Ha Bay 1Lan Ha Bay 2Lan Ha Bay 3

Before we continued our way south, we had to pop up for another night in Hanoi. We made it back to our hotel (Serenity), and they gave us a free upgrade for staying with them a second time (in case you’re keeping count, this is the second time we’ve gotten a hotel upgrade on this trip!). The room was even bigger, as well as nicer, but came with even more stairs to climb – we got a workout every time we left or returned!

Fun fact: the Vietnamese people that I’ve met so far have easily been some of the kindest people I’ve met in my entire life. Less fun fact: Vietnamese tourism companies in Hanoi are among the most corrupt I’ve encountered in my entire life.

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Good Morning, Vietnam

Ok, in full disclosure, I haven’t actually watched Good Morning, Vietnam yet…but know that as I type this, I’m also downloading it, so I should be watching it in the next few days.

You can currently find me on Cat Ba Island, but yesterday, and the three days before that, were all spent in Hanoi. Chandler and I have decided to take it even easier (three weeks in and we’re already getting lazy), but we’re still seeing so many incredible things.

We spent our time in Hanoi around Old Quarter, just wandering about. We saw countless women on bicycles, selling everything from vibrant flowers to meter-long cucumbers to fruit we didn’t have names for (now we know we prefer longans to rhambutans – they’re easier to eat!). We passed by St. Joseph’s Cathedral, wet markets and dry, restaurants, bars, and boutiques. We even found 25-cent beers, which did more for Chandler than it did for me (mixed drinks still cost anywhere from $2-4).

Flower CartSt. Joseph's CathedralHanoi Market25 Cent Beer Continue reading

À bientôt Bangkok

We’re sad to say goodbye to Thailand, but definitely excited to move on to Vietnam. We’ve loved our time here, but it feels like the real adventure lies ahead of us. We also have to say goodbye to Zach and Yata and strike out on our own. But before we begin those new experiences, I figured I should share a little of what we’ve been up to since Koh Tao…

We returned to Bangkok August 18th and jumped right into exploring the city. We decided to do everything on our own (aka no tour groups) and subsequently got a little mixed up on our starting location. For those of you doing this in the future, start at the Grand Palace. Apparently you can buy this super ticket to all the sites – we didn’t have it and ended up paying for everything individually (still not expensive).

We began our sight seeing with the Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall…or at least we tried to. We wandered around the entire complex, looking for an entrance, and when we finally did make our way inside, we got hustled. Well, not literally, but we clearly weren’t paying attention, and ended up buying tickets to Vinanmek (the world’s largest golden teakwood mansion – pretty specific, right?).

Well, we shuffled through that pretty quickly before making our way to the Throne Hall, which was another 150 baht on top of the 100 we paid for the teakwood mansion (only the Throne Hall was definitely worth it!). The Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall was incredibly well done – remote controls with English descriptions, well lit, spacious – and the pieces inside were extraordinary. Especially the Wood-Carved Screen with Scenes from “Sangthong” and “Himavan Forest.”

Ananta Samakhon Throne Hall

The following day we decided on an overnight trip to Kanchanaburi. Luckily, we were able to leave our big duffels with the hotel, since we’d be returning the next day, and we made our way to the train station feeling lighter than air.

We arrived at the train station over an hour early just because we weren’t sure what to expect – that proved wildly unnecessary, as we got our tickets in minutes and then found ourselves waiting around. That said, just hanging out there was a wonderful experience. I love Bangkok, but it’s pretty filled with tourist (especially in August) and it was nice to get away from it all. By the time the train left the station, there were maybe 10 other foreigners on it, but everyone else was local.

The train ride might possibly be my favourite part about Kanchanaburi – it was so relaxing. All the windows rolled down, fans on, so the temp was wonderful and the scenery could be viewed with full enjoyment. Definitely a change from the over-crowded minibuses with closed windows in Ethiopia!

We pulled into the Kanchanaburi station around 10:30 and made our way to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre – just a three-minute walk away. The center was built by the Dutch and gives an incredible amount of information about the railway and the POWs who were forced to work on it. The images, replicas, and memorabilia really made the tragedy sink in and we were glad to have gone through the center before making our way to the actual bridge.

The center also let us know that we had missed Collin Firth and Nicole Kidman by a mere two years (haha), as they were in town in 2012 filming The Railway Man – we made a side note to watch the film when we got back to Bangkok.

After a quick rest and dropping our stuff off at the hotel – essentially a floating dock with rooms (on the River Kwai) – we began our walk to the bridge. It took about 20 minutes, but was a great way to see the city…and pick a place for dinner! When we arrived at the Death Railway Bridge (Bridge on the River Kwai), we were taken aback by how powerful it felt, but also disappointed with the number of tourists we saw (mostly older men and families). But the crowds thinned out as we walked across the bridge and by the time we got across, there was only one other couple in site. Making us believe early evening is the best time to go, but maybe that day was just a fluke.

Death Railway Bridge 1

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Island hopping in Thailand

An hour waiting in line, two more on a boat, and a final eight on a bus, and I’m finally back in Bangkok. Hard to believe we’re already done with Koh Samui and Koh Tao. Koh Sam (as I keep calling it) was definitely my favourite (hilarious since we initially planned only one night there), but Koh Tao definitely had it’s perks.

We stayed at Coral View Dive Resort, which is on the quieter side of the island. And while the staff was a bit prickly, we couldn’t argue with the beauty of our surroundings. The rooms were 900 baht a night, but worth it for the privacy.

1 - Bungalow

The bungalow next to us housed two more RPCVs (Yata and Zach), who decided to join us for some fun in the sun : ) We spent the first few days relaxing by the water and enjoying the views – and making a run into town for supplies. We were even more secluded than we had imagined and had very little access to anything! The food at the resort was decent, but pricey, so being the cheapskates we all are, we bought cereal and fresh fruit for our breakfasts. Ah, the joys of having 7-Elevens (and fresh markets) around!

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Simple Twist Of Fate

After a few whirlwind days in Bangkok, we boarded a bus headed to Chumporn Pier. God only knows why we thought a night bus was a good idea – we had only had one solid night’s rest all week. Luckily, Lomprayah does a great job. The bus was giant and super comfy and had an added bonus of a toilet onboard. I joked with Chandler that the urinal was positioned practically in my face, but really, I was just marveling at the convenience – no bus in Ethiopia has a toilet. And the nice ones – Sky and Selam stop once in the middle of nowhere to let you relieve yourself.

But you don’t read this to hear about my bathroom situations…at 4:30 am we arrived at the pier and spent the morning chatting with some Canadian friends we had met the night before during check-in. The pier didn’t officially open until 6, so we had some time to kill.

Before

Slowly, slowly, slowly, we began boarding the boats. Ours had stops on a snorkeling island, Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan before finally dropping us off at Koh Samui. But really, we didn’t mind the wait, we had gotten our first view of the Gulf of Thailand.

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A day in Doha

Chandler said our first day of vacation was a success – we visited everywhere we wanted to. I had more mixed feelings…

Doha is hot. 109 degrees Fahrenheit hot. And I don’t do well with heat (understatement). We tried to take the city bus (20 QAR for a day of unlimited rides), but during our whole time waiting, only one passed. And it didn’t stop. Which wouldn’t have been such an issue, but we were trying to get to Souq Waqif, which closes at noon (and it was already 10:30) and doesn’t reopen until four. So we gave up and headed for the taxis (costing considerably more at 41.50 QAR one-way). And then, just a few minutes later, we got rear-ended.

The heat was miserable as we wandered around Souq Waqif and Gold Souq, but all our window shopping made it bearable. I’ve promised myself I’m only going to buy something if I can’t fathom life without it, we’ll see how long that lasts – but today, it was a success. A lot of the fabrics were beautiful, but I don’t want to lug those around for the rest of this trip! And we found tons of antique compasses, but again, it’s too soon for souvenirs.

Gold Souq Continue reading