Our final day in Vietnam: Take two

We arrived in Saigon Wednesday morning with plans to see the city for a few days before heading to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) on Saturday. We did a walking tour of the city, ate some great food, and, let’s be honest, did a lot of resting. We have, after all, been on the road seven weeks now.

We even went so far as to purchase our bus tickets through Mekong Express. We were leaving at 7 am on Saturday morning. It was going to take us six to seven hours to get into the capital of Cambodia.

And then, Friday afternoon, Louis, our hotel concierge, invited us for coffee. We ordered, sat down, and had a fairly interesting chat – mostly concerning weddings? Louis has a five-year plan, which culminates with a beautiful wife and a wildly expensive wedding – complete with an American honeymoon.

We discussed the best tricks for learning English, the differences between northern Vietnam and southern Vietnam’s coffee culture, and the fact that Louis is an avid karaoke-er. An hour later, we were back in our rooms. That’s when the trouble began…

At first, it was just mild stomach discomfort, but it quickly escalated into the certain knowledge that we were dying. And the culprit was easily named – unfiltered ice in the coffee. We thought, maybe it’ll pass if we take a cipro fast enough – wrong. The cipro only made it bearable (though thank you Peace Corps for teaching me when I can simply self medicate haha). Our plans of waking up at 6 am the following morning quickly flew out the window.

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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

SE Asia Itinerary

Because my boyfriend and I don’t know how not to plan…and because I knew everyone who reads my blog was dying to know…here’s our SE Asia itinerary. The real itinerary took months to plan…I’ll give you the highlights : )

Qatar:

  • Doha – Al-Corniche, Souq Waqif, and the Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art

Thailand:

  • Bangkok – Banglamphu neighborhood, Siam Ocean World (I’m dating a guy obsessed with aquariums – who knew?), and SHOPPING…hey, I’ve spent the last two years in Ethiopia
  • Koh Tao – Scuba certification and beaches!
  • Phetchaburi – Tham Khao Luang Cave and Tham Khao Bandai-It Monastery aka bats, bats, and more bats
  • Kanchanburi – Death Railway Bridge aka Bridge Over the River Kwai (which we all pronounce incorrectly, thanks to Hollywood)
  • Bangkok (again) – Ko Ratanakosin and Thonburi neighborhoods for the Grand Palace, National Museum, the Amulet Market, and countless stunning wats (temples)

Koh Tao, ThailandWat Arun, Bangkok

Vietnam:

  • Hanoi – Water puppets (can’t wait to find out what exactly this is), Women’s Museum, Hoan Kiem Lake & Temple, Temple of Literature (because how could two people as nerdy as me and Chandler not go?), Old Quarter, and the Perfume Pagoda
  • Halong Bay – Kayaking, rock climbing, and island exploration, especially Hang Trong (aka Drum Grotto) and Dao Titop
  • Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park – Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave, and the Nuoc Mooc Eco Trail (wanted to see Hang Son Doong, the world’s biggest cave, but it costs about $3,000 and only 200 people can enter each year)
  • Hue – Imperial Enclosure and the Royal Tombs
  • Hoi An – Historical Old Town
  • Nha Trang – Louisiane Brewhouse and the Oceanographic Museum. Can you tell which of us chose this town? : )
  • Mui Ne – This stop was all me though, motorbiking through sand dunes
  • HCMC – Jade Emperor Pagoda, Fine Arts Museum, and the Tao Dan Park
  • Can Tho – Phong Dien Floating Market

Halong Bay, VietnamPhong Nha Cave, Vietname Continue reading