Did you buy your ticket to Vietnam yet?

Vietnam is a must visit country for any traveler. It’s beautiful, diverse, and full of great people. Even with our bad experience in HCMC, we all loved this trip. There is a little bit of everything in Vietnam. You can have outdoor adventures, urban shopping, or lose hours in a museum. If you are a budget traveler than Vietnam will be a very good fit for you. It’s cheap to travel there (so be generous with your tips).

Obviously, Vietnam makes any American quite reflective. We forced a war on this country and by almost any vantage point played the role of villains. What we did was wrong, hell even McNamara admitted to that obvious fact! The war with the United States came up in conversation a few times. People acknowledge it but did not focus on it. They delight knowing that an American is enjoying Vietnam today. The war is in the past and introducing Vietnam to the world is for today.

I am surprised by the number of Americans who still refer to North and South Vietnam. Vietnam unified in 1976. That is 42 years ago! How poorly my fellow Americans are with history should not shock me, but this fact is astounding. I do get the feeling that we Americans are living in the past and stewing on a lost a war. While, the Vietnamese will never forget it, but focus on living in the present. I don’t have evidence for that, but it feels real.

I was very glad that we watched The Vietnam War by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick before we left for the trip. Go and buy your ticket now. Use this blog as a guide. Email me with questions and start watching this documentary to get ready.

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I love Hanoi.

I loved Hanoi. I like the speed, the weather, and the coffee culture. I thought it was a great town. We stayed at a nice hotel called O’Gallery Premier Hotel on Hang Bong Street. When we got to Hanoi we dropped off our laundry and decided to take a walk through the city. We ended up on something referred to as Beer Street. It is a small street with tons of bars and people sitting outside. We sat down at table to have a beer, and the waiter said, “you will need to go inside in 10 minutes.” We didn’t realize what he meant. There was no space inside and there were tons of people hanging out in the street. Ten minutes later a cop walked through beer street and EVERYONE picked up their tables and chair and went inside. The cop saw everyone outside, but while he was there no drinking or eating happened on the street. It was weird. We finished our beers and the entire street returned to normal about 20 minutes later.

On our second day in Hanoi we visited the Temple of Literature. This is a very old Confucius Temple in the middle of the city. While we were there a lot of elementary school kids were having a graduation ceremony on the grounds. The kids were so cute. The temple is beautiful and hosts Vietnam’s first university (built in 1076). I liked the grounds and the second floor of the last building. On that floor there are statues dedicated to the three rulers who built the Temple of Literature.

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Afterwards we walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. We were unable to go inside which means I have now stood in front of the Lenin and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum without going in, but I was able to enter Che’s mausoleum in Santa Clara. My communist leader bingo card is nearing completion.

On our last night, we met a friend from Philadelphia who was doing some work in Hanoi. We ended up eating Bbq on the street at a place called Thai Dat. It was chaotic and they forgot some things, but it was a fun way to kick back on our last night. They serve Czech beer and let you pick out raw meat that they then grill. There was nothing fantastic, nor anything terrible about the food. I’d recommend anyone trying it out.

Holly and Spencer left very early on the last day, so Samer and I were on our own. We walked through the french district. We stopped for coffee and walked past the Hỏa Lò Prison (ie Hanoi Hilton). The bookseller street that runs next to it was far more interesting. Our one destination that day was the Vietnamese Women’s museum. The stated mission of the museum is “to enhance public knowledge and understanding of history and cultural heritage of Vietnamese women… thus contributing to promoting gender equality.” It is wonderful and I’ll recommend it to everyone. I learned a lot about different cultural and historical roles women have been a part of in Vietnam. Each floor has a theme: Family, History, and Fashion. I particularly liked the history floor. No shocker, but some bad ass women fought in the war with America.

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Afterwards we meandered past the opera house and around the Hoàn Kiếm Lake toward lunch. Our last meal in Hanoi was fried foods near the Cathedral at a place called Quán gốc Đa. Then we had some delicious bun cha at a street vendor. It was delicious and a perfect last meal.

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Was my culinary favorite bun cha? Nope, it was Ca Phe Sua Chua, which is yogurt coffee. That’s it. Yogurt served with ice and super strong coffee. I loved it. I want it right now. It was amazing. The coffee with condensed milk is too sweet. One of the stranger things we had to eat was che thap cam. We found it an alley full of stalls. I didn’t love it for texture reasons, but it was surprisingly good. I discovered these sesame donuts called banh tieu being sold by the old east gate and immediately ordered a second bag once we finished the first. I loved them and would be 500 lbs if I lived near someone who sold them.

Next: Did you buy your ticket to Vietnam yet?

Kayaking and Relaxing in Ha Long Bay

We went to Halong bay with a company called Eco Friendly Vietnam. They picked us up at the train station in Hanoi and got us all the way to our boat. The type of boat is a junk. It’s not a piece of junk, it’s just some boat name that boat people would understand.  We had the entire boat to ourselves. We had a captain, a cook, and an English speaking guide. We spent 2 nights on the boat and the food was very good. March is the off season for visiting Halong bay, so the water was chilly. Most of the time we did not see other tourists. Cold water for more quiet time was a good trade in my opinion. I am no fan of kayaking and there was a lot of kayaking, but by the end of the second day I actually started to enjoy it.

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Photo Credit: E. Spencer McGee

Other moments of our trip included: a bike ride to the village of Viet Hai; a swim from monkey Island to the boat; and the very gay chef slapping my ass. Let’s start from the top. On our second day we were able to stop by the remote village of Viet Hai. We rented bicycles and road about a 1 KM into town. We did a little shopping and then went on a small hike, that included another cave. This was a poor and remote town that figured out the power of the tourist’s dollar. Now, there is a toll to get into town and lots of people pay it.  Shacks were replaced with nice stone homes.

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On our last day we went to an island called Monkey Island. Our guide told us about a summit we could climb to, but did a poor job describing the difficulty of the climb. It was a lot of shear rock edges, without many foot holds. We did not have gloves and the guide stayed on the beach. Arguably, the guide was irresponsible by sending us up without any preparation. When the hike was over, Samer and I swam from the beach to the boat.

Picture this scene. Me in my speedos, jumping into chilly water near a small taxi boat of senior citizen Chinese tourists. I was freezing and they were laughing and waving at me as I swam away. I was the first to the boat. While I stood on the deck shivering, I put my cold hand on the chef’s neck to give him a chill. I was being playful. He thought this gave him license to then slap me on the ass. It was a bit forward, but all in good fun. Also, it’s a nice reminder my ass looks good in swimwear.

The main town in Ha Long bay is Cat Ba, and outside of the town is a fishing village. There are hundreds of homes that float on the water. People raise fish in the submerged pens for their income. It’s like a normal town. Their are dogs hanging out on the planks that would be equivalent to a yard. There are kids rolling around in bouncy chairs. It was a incredible and quite foreign scene for me.

Ha Long Bay is one of the most breathtaking places in the world and it has a litter problem. It’s not as noticeable when you get away from Cat Ba town, but there is always litter. There are beautiful turquoise lagoons with plastic bags and beers cans floating. Why is there a litter problem? Well here is a story. To get to our boat, we first had to take a high speed boat from the port of Hai Phong to Cat Ba. While we were waiting on the dock, Samer was holding an empty coffee cup. He was waiting to use the trash can on the boat. An old woman walked up to him and offered to take the cup. Before he realized what was happening, she snatched the plastic cup and tossed it into the water. She smiled and carried on with her day.  That’s why there is a litter problem.

Next: I love Hanoi.

The Overnight train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi.

We took an overnight train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. What is there to say? There were 4 of us in one cabin, the beers were rooms temperature, the train shook like Shackleton, and it was an hour late into Hanoi. Experience? Yes. Do I need to do it again? No. I booked the tickets through Baolau and we boarded the New Livitrans Express SE4. We didn’t explore the train, which is a regret, but we were tired and not hungry. I do think I should have tried to find the cafe car and order a bowl of pho. I am sure I would have spilled half of it on me. The trains in Vietnam are rather expensive compared to a lot of things. These train tickets were more expensive than economy flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Danang.

Next: Kayaking and Relaxing in Ha Long Bay

Caving in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

Was I unprepared for the citadel at Hue? Yes. Was I unprepared for the day’s caving adventure? Definitely! We did a a 2 day hike in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park where we explored 4 caves and camped near a waterfall. This was a true adventure. We went with a group called Oxalis and hiked with 8 other people. This company is great and if you want some adventure while you are in Vietnam, contact them.

Here is how their website described what we would be doing:

  • 12 km jungle and mountain trekking, rocky terrain
  • Elevation change up to 150m (between valley and top of mountain)
  • 1 km swimming in caves (from 200m – 500m each cave)
  • 3 km caving
  • 2 days and 1 night in jungle and caves

I never looked at this itinerary closely. When the guide asked me to swim in a cave filled with cold water, wearing a helmet with a headlamp on it, I was a little surprised. You can look at the itinerary to see the play by play. We had access to some incredible caves which are not often trafficked. Occasionally, our guide would ask us to turn off our headlamps. There is something ethereal about floating in water without any light. I will say that when I was swimming and the bats began swooping toward us, I was more than a little freaked out. You know they are close to you even if you cannot see them, because you can see the bats flying near others as well.

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There is a lot to write about in this part of our trip. There is a funny story about Sam ordering the vegetarian option and not believing he ordered it. This meant he got specially prepared meals even though he also ate the standard menu over the 2 days. Admittedly, we all shared the vegetarian food and there was a sauteed pepper dish that was very good. There is also the story about Sam spotting jungle rats in the composting toilet, which led me to not go to the bathroom before bed.

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When we returned to camp after our first cave, I felt wonderful. I was having a coffee by the water and it was the first time on the vacation, (maybe in months) that I took some time to reflect. The sound of the waterfall and the ripples in the water forced my mind into meditation.

In recent weeks I focused a lot on things that made me unhappy. A lot of that related to work, but there’s a lot that upsets me about the world. In that moment at the waterfall, I pictured and appreciated the things that bring me happiness. Whether it was Sam or making others laugh with a stupid story, I lost myself in those thoughts. The sound of the waterfall, the chilled wet sand under my feet, the sweet 3-in-1 instant coffee, and an exhausted mind offered me peace. It was magical.

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Photo Credit: E. Spencer McGee

I do have one regret. On our first day we had a picnic lunch and we had a sauce that I did not have any other place in Vietnam. It was a salty herbal sauce that our guide told us was only available in the local province of Quảng Bình. I wish I wrote down the name of that sauce. It was like a Vietnamese chimichurri. It was very good and when added to the inside of a spring roll it made that already delicious dish amazing.

Next: The Overnight train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi.

Driving from Hoi An to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

After Hoi An we needed to get to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and there was no good way to do it. We hired a car service to drive us from our hotel to the Phong Nha Lake House where we staying that night.

We drove through Danang and it made me envious that we did not have time to go there. We stopped at the Hai Van Quan pass on the way to Hue. When we got to Hue we visited the imperial city and the Thien Mu Pagoda. This is one of my regrets. I did not do enough research about Hue before I got there and our driver dropped us off at a magnificent citadel that I didn’t know anything about it. If I would have done 30 minutes of pre-reading I would 1) enjoyed it more and 2) realized we needed more than an hour to explore the grounds. It’s a very incredible complex and I wish I would have had more time to get lost in it.

One fascinating thing we experienced was the singing monks in the Thien Mu Pagoda. In English it is called the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, I think it is a Buddhist temple but I am not sure. The prayers were very beautiful to listen to, and I was pleased to experience it. This is not my video, but it is precisely what we experienced.


After the pagoda, we grabbed some beers and jumped back in the car. Our driver then drove us to a cute little hotel on a lake near the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It was dark when we arrived, so we weren’t able to take in the prettiness of the lake until the next morning.

Next: Caving in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

Believe the hype. Hoi An is amazing.

Everyone will tell you that Hoi An is one of their favorite places. Everyone is correct. It is a beautiful ancient town on the coast that has many old canals. The cobblestone streets canopied with lanterns that light up in the evening are out of a storybook. The town has many high quality and quick tailors. The regional dish is Mì Quảng, which is a delicious pasta. There are Hindu ruins built by the Champa people called My Son. I list all that to simple say that it lives up to the hype.

We stayed in the Sunrise Premium Resort outside of Hoi An. It was a great resort. The rooms were modern and very comfortable. It was a 10 minute ride into town and I am so happy we decided to stay there. I needed to catch up on my sleep and this was a lovely sanctuary. The pool was perfect and looked out onto the ocean. The breakfast buffet was good. They had anything you could imagine. I tended toward the fruit salad and pho.

There was a sign next to the bread display that read “Keep Calm and Don’t eat the decorative bread.” That was both funny and disturbing. I kept imagining the incident where some famished Australian family tore into a shellacked baguette, while the staff stood aghast wondering whether to stop them or not. Yikes.

On our first day we explored the town and found ourselves at the Ba Ri Tailor shop. They were the first tailor we saw, but after we walked around and visited a few others before we returned to Ba Ri. We liked the saleswomen and the shopped lacked an air of pretension that some of the others had. Being fitted for clothing feels like a movie fashion montage scene and I am embarrassed to say everything I bought. Here is what I walked away with:

  • 2 – 3 piece suits
  • 1 – 2 piece suit
  • 2 – chinos
  • 2 – long sleeve button down shirts
  • 2 – short sleeve button down shirts

Afterwards, I went down the street and had a pair of shoes made and a pair of sandals made. Was it too much? Maybe, but they all fit me extremely well and everything cost ~$700.

While Spencer, Holly, and Samer got to use the dressing rooms, I changed in the open. Hoa (my tailor) positioned a mirror to hide me from my friends, but forgot to realize my body was exposed to traveling backpackers on the street. Some nice tourist has the memory of entering Hoi An to see its splendor and looking right into a tailor shop to see some big fat American in his underwear shimmying into a pair chinos. It was a hell of a scene.

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After a long day of shopping, Holly and I decided to go to a spa. We went to the La Luna spa outside of the old city. She had a neck and shoulder massage followed by a deluxe pedicure. The upcoming caving expedition would destroy all evidence of that pedicure. I opted for the 4 handed massaged and a standard pedicure. The attention to detail was incredible and the massages were sublime. While we walked out a family came in and the staff gleefully yelled, “baby massage!” when they saw the mother carrying an infant. We think they were joking.

We had dinner in town that night and walked the alleyways enjoying the ambiance. Hoi An is pretty during the day and gorgeous at night. When the lanterns are lit it feels likes something out of a movie.

On our second day in Hoi An, we stopped by the tailors to try on the clothing and then left town to visit the ruins of My Son. We hired a guide named Happy Harry to take us and he was a lot of fun. Unfortunately it started to rain while we were at My Son, so we were not able to explore the ruins as much as I liked. It confirmed my desire to plan a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia as soon as possible. Harry is a sweet and quirky guide, who makes you laugh when he starts singing a song at the most random times.

Next: Driving from Hoi An to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.