Halong Bay - Bai Tu Long Bay

We were on the fence about going to Halong Bay.  Reports of way too many boats and trash in Halong Bay had many Trip Advisor forum people choosing not to go. Instead they opted to spend time and money in other places in Vietnam.  The weather wasn't great in Hanoi and we were also worried about getting there and being caught in a storm with no visibility.

After being on the fence and doing way too much research we decided to go to Bai Tu Long Bay, a cousin of Halong Bay but allowing limited boats to enter thus making it a much more serene experience.  While we were at it, we decided to go with the most luxurious company (Indochina Junk)- a splash for our last two days in Asia. 

Thankfully it all worked out.  We were blessed with GORGEOUS weather and the nicest room we have had in a long time.  I took pictures at every turn and we loved our time.  Here are some of the many photos!

Here are the photos of our cabin...  I couldn't help it!

Hanoi

We have had a good time paling around this capitol city of Vietnam.  We haven't found people to be outright rude but have noticed much higher prices (ie beer is no longer 50 cents!).  My brother in law sent us some of his recommendations and we have seen most of them - Ho Chi Minh, who is embalmed, the "Hanoi Prison", and we found the Temple of Literature by ourselves.  To be honest, we also spent a good amount of time drinking coffee (also now $1, no longer 50 cents) and doing crossword puzzles in cafes.  Not a bad way to spent our time winding down Asia!

While we have been here we have also done some good eating!  The food has continued to be amazing, though we have yet to find a good Banh Mi sandwich so we are already missing those!

War remnants

We were worried about coming to Vietnam and how we would be treated as Americans.  We had heard stories of people wanting to leave the country more quickly than they had planned because of how they were treated - loud yelling and blatantly being ripped off were two common themes.  We heard that after what happened in their country there was a sentiment that now we owe them.

Thankfully we haven't found this yet to be true (although we are headed to the North, Hanoi, tomorrow).  Instead we have met the sweetest hotel staffs, friendly strangers on the streets, and people that shout out "hello" as soon as they see us motoring by.  We have loved Vietnam, even in 100+ degree temperatures that mean we never really stop sweating. 

While in Hoi An our friends Richie and Claire recommended a lunch that they went to, hosted by a former solider from the South Vietnamese army.  We spent the afternoon with him, hearing his stories.  It was surreal being there with a group of French guys, our two countries have so heavily impacted the history of Vietnam.  He talked about how life was in his small village during the war and what it was like to have an Uncle and Cousin that were fighting for the North.  He repeatedly said how much he likes Americans and how Americans are now the ones that will help protect Vietnam from China.  There was a small language barrier so a lot of his thoughts he wrote out like this:

Today we stumbled upon a cafe that was decorated entirely with war relics.  We sat on detonator fuse boxes and sat surrounded by flak jackets, motor shells, cooking utensils, ammo boxes, and parachutes.  It was all really tastefully done, but yet another reminder of the recent war and American's role in shaping Vietnam's history.  We have read two books about the war that we'd highly recommend for anyone interested in learning more: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and Dispatches by Michael Herr.

Click on any to enlarge:

Hue Imperial City & Tombs

The Emperors of Hue knew how to live.  Lavish cities within cities, daily lunches with 50 prepared dishes to choose from, endless concubines, and then if all that wasn't enough, tombs out in the countryside to relax in peace (well, the concubines got to come too).  The festivals they had were legendary and it wasn't only other people that were invited - photos of elephants, tigers, cows, and other animals were all present (sometimes served for part of the meal as well).

It's been fun exploring this city by motorbike, jumping from one shady spot to another to try to keep the sweating under control in 100+ degree temps.  Yesterday we explored the Imperial City, modeled after Beijing's.  The citadel construction started in 1804. Unfortunately natural disasters, and more recently war, destroyed all but 5 of the buildings in the Imperial City.  Renovations are slowly taking place, with all the corruption most of the fee paid doesn't seem to go into upkeep.  That said, there's a great video at the entrance illustrating what the Imperial City looked like before the war. 

Rice drying

Rice drying

Today we jumped back on our motorbike and headed into the countryside.  It's rice harvesting time so we passed rice drying all throughout the streets.  I never realized how much work it takes for 1 grain of rice...  Blog post perhaps to come on all that we have witnessed driving around SE Asia observing rice paddies. 

Exploring the tombs was a fun element as it's getting hard now to distinguish between all the stunning pagodas we have seen.  After seeing mostly destruction in the Imperial City it was nice to see some intact architecture from the time of the Emperors.  We explored Tomb of Tu Duc and then Tomb of Khai Dinh.  Here are photos from Tu Duc's tomb, click on any to enlarge.

Next we visited the Tomb of Khai Dinh.  With much more European influence this was a distinctly different style than anything I've seen before.  There was mosaics overload, it was hard for the eye to find a place to rest with all the different designs featured!  Again, click on any photo to enlarge.

Motorbiking Hai Van Pass

Our friends Richie and Claire that we met in Kep had a lot of recommendations for Vietnam and we have faithfully been following in their footsteps as we make our way North in this beautiful country.  One of these suggestions was to use an Easy Rider (a motorcycle club of riders from Vietnam affected by the Vietnam War and now offering motorcycle tours around Vietnam) to see the Hai Van Pass.  We spent a little too much money in Hoi An shopping for custom clothes (first and last time in my life I can say that!) so decided to do the route ourselves. 

We rented a motorbike and took to the streets at 7:20 in the morning to try to race the traffic and the heat!

Here are some photos from our gorgeous day.  We opted to copy the Vietnamese and wear as much clothing as possible to try to prevent the sun from reaching our skin... hence the outfits.

(From Wikipedia): The pass is renowned for its scenic beauty. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC motoring program Top Gear, featured the pass during the show's 2008 Vietnam Special, calling the road "a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world."

We loved our 5 hours on the road, arriving to Hue with sore bottoms and backs but all was put right in the world with a nap and a beer. 

Cooking class in Hoi An

In between clothes fittings and popping in for Vietnamese coffee we haven't done much else with ourselves while spending a week in Hoi An.  Yesterday we finally ventured away from the clothes shops and into the markets, our goal being finding the ingredients for our cooking class hosted at our hotel. 

One of my favorite parts of cooking classes is paying someone to walk around the market and answer all the questions I have about the different foods that are unfamiliar.  Especially the foods that are already made are hard to decipher, sweet or spicy, meat or candied peanuts, rice or noodles?  When wrapped in a banana leaf I've had many surprises and I love getting the chance to ask someone all these questions.  Unfortunately our guide at the market didn't understand much beyond "where are you from" and so we spent our time weaving throughout the stalls more questions building than being answered. 

Here are some of the sites, you can try to imagine the smells.

Finished with our mini tour we road our bikes back to the hotel in the searing heat we have come to expect in Hoi An.  Told that our class would begin in another hour, we headed to a coffee shop around the corner with our new friend Adam.  We got to sit in these little chairs and drink Vietnamese coffee while sharing travel stories and planning our trips to Australia. 

Finally the class began with the chef talking through a translator.  In no time we were whipping up our lunch.

Here are the final dishes.

And recipes for you to try to recreate at home!

Vietnam so far

Have I told you yet that we are loving Vietnam?  Unsure what we would find in this country and how people would treat Americans, we were unsure about spending a whole month here.  But now that we have been here two weeks and have hardly stopped eating to take photos of the beautiful landscapes and skies, I can say for certainty that this country is treating us right.

A few things that we love:

  • The food is AMAZING.  EVERYWHERE.  Every single street has someone selling something delicious and we keep trying to have it all.  The food is fresh and quick - sandwiches, salads, pho, with lots of veggies.  Oh, and don't get me started on the Vietnamese coffee...  We have taken to having several a day.  Who said condensed milk was bad for you??
  • The people have been so friendly.  Sure we are asked to buy things (way more so in Hoi An than in Dalat) but when we get to hang out with the locals it's a blast.  They are always smiling, joking around, and since we are now getting clothes made, tapping our bums.
  • The Price is Right.  We have been staying in hotels, with breakfast, for an average of $15 a night, including breakfast.  And these are really, really, nice places.  Sandwiches are around $1.50.  We had 4 beers last night in our pool and it was 80 cents.  Sometimes it's a stretch to spend $30 a day.
  • The scenery and views.  Vietnam has had this beautiful haze that accompanies the sun setting each night.  It's light I expected to find in Cambodia and never quite captured.  But here, and especially in Hoi An, the scenery is amazing.  If only I could put my sandwich down to take a photo...

Here are some photos around Hoi An, the lovely city we get to spend a week in as we have some clothes made (more to come on that...).

The Cra Cra House

We are in a LOVELY town in the mountains of Vietnam.  And before I can share photos of the Crazy House, I must share why I love it so much here:

  1. The temperature, it's cool enough that I had to buy a sweatshirt and actually need it!  The temperature also means I was able to run for the first time in 5 months (and it hurt so good!). 
  2. It's not really filled with western tourists so even though it makes everything that much harder for us to communicate, it's lovely to not be harassed to do things at every second or buy things at every corner. 
  3. The scenery here is lovely.  There's a lake in the middle of town with a golf course above so there's a natural gathering place for everyone at night.  The people watching has filled hours of our time here.
  4. With all of the pine trees, it smells just like home.

So, now that my love of Dalat is off my chest, here are some photos of the Crazy House.  Started in 1990 you'll see it is still not complete.  It's a completely bizarre house that is modeled off of tree stumps.  Nothing is similar to a regular house, there are no right angles, no straight walls, and a variety of ways to get from A to B.  You can even stay here for a night, which I wish we had!

Saigon

Take a tour around the top sights in Saigon with us...

First stop of the day, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, housed in a beautiful neoclassical building from 1885.  The building is gorgeous and filled with the history of the city.  There were even some brides on the grounds taking photographs.  Click on any of the photos below to enlarge:

The next stop of the day is the Reunification Palace, built in 1966 for the South Vietnamese President.  Filled with lavish rooms, a helicopter landing pad, and extensive bunkers the Palace is all open to the public now that there is no longer a need for a President in South Vietnam.  

The War Remnants Museum, formerly known as "The Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes" is our last stop of the day.  It is a very moving museum that uses a variety of mediums to display all the atrocities of the war.  We won't talk much as we wind our way around the museum and I didn't take many photos either.  The destruction to the land and people, shown through photographs, made my jaw simply drop.  The history here is interwoven with so many different countries in the past that it is hard to understand how things went so horribly wrong here for 10+ years.  Some of the photos were so gruesome I couldn't look.

After a long day on our feet we'll settle into a nice corner bar and enjoy 75 cent beers and watch some of the 7.2 million people in this city wizz by on motorbikes. 

What a day!

A boat tour of the Mekong Delta and floating markets

5:30a and we were out of our hotel lobby and on our way to a 7 hour trip up the Mekong River looking at the floating markets and touring a rice paper maker.  We met two Germans, Chris and Pedro, who were our boating companions for the day and we all enjoyed our time exploring the area. 

The floating markets open before sunrise and is comprised of a cluster of boats selling fruits and vegetables.  They display their inventory at the top of a pole so customers know where to go for what they need. 

After purchasing our breakfast of pineapples, coconuts, and watermelons, we headed to see how rice paper is made. 

The rest of the morning we enjoyed the views in the delta. 

A food tour of Can Tho

Hobbling around I did my best to enjoy a free food tour last night around Can Tho.  We want to get the most out of the amazing street food in Vietnam which means having a bit of a command of the language as it seems most people don't speak a word of English!

Our guide took us all around town and encouraged us to try the specialties of this city and the country.  He pushed our boundaries quite a bit as well, having us eat foods we usually don't even consider as a source of subsistence at home. 

Our first stop was at this pork bbq joint.  They are known for their pork and serving it similar to a do-it-yourself spring roll, with all the fixings.  You select what you wish from the array of meat, rice noodles, and veggies, roll up, and dip away as you try not to spill all over the table. 

There are no copyright laws in SE Asia.  This means we have amassed a DVD library of over a thousand movies and also are now buying $5 copies of Lonely Planet guide books off cute little girls on the street. 

It also means it's hard to find the original restaurant.  As soon as a restaurant is successful, all over the city restaurants will be renamed to copy the popular spot in order to confuse tourists like us.  Our guide, Thoai, explained the original banh cong restaurant has tons of knockoffs all over the city.  He said none of the places taste as good as the original - where he took us.  These muffin-like foods are difficult to explain.  First the women fill a ladle with meat, then they fry it.  Then they take that, stuff some batter around it, add a bit more filling, and press two shrimp into the top, and fry it again.  Voila, a delicious, fatty, muffin.  The serve the muffin cut into pieces along with some greens and a sauce.  We took the muffin and rolled it in the leaves of mustard greens and dipped into a special sauce.  It was quite good!

Our next stop was the hardest to stomach.  Thoai explained the specialties at the next restaurant were eggplant with pork, tofu with pork, and field mice.  Hmmm.  He explained that field mice used to be really popular food in Vietnam but with all the pesticides now used in the rice paddies that the mice usually die.  The cost for 1 mouse is the same as the whole pork meal we had at the first spot.  But when in Rome...  Luckily we had some cold beers to wash it all down with!  (Click below to enlarge any photos.  The pot in the middle photo is filled with eggplant and pork, and the dish to the far right is the mouse.)

Filled with delicious and unusual flavors Thoai decided it was time for dessert. Again, he knew the imposters as he led us to the woman with the best sticky rice spot alongside the river.  Photos don't do justice to the delicious flavors we enjoyed. 

We happily agreed to a night cap before turning in.  Thoai was a great guide, telling us all about the food (and writing down all of the Vietnamese words we requested for the different types of food) but also telling us about his life in Vietnam.  We generously tipped him for his time and will take our food knowledge with us over this next month in Vietnam!

Us with our guide, Thoai

Us with our guide, Thoai

Arriving to Vietnam

Not all days on the road are as idyllic as our last week that we spent lazing around Kampot and Kep, Cambodia, recuperating after a month filled with family and waiting out too many rain storms to count. 

We know that border crossings usually suck and we were prepared for this.  We asked all the questions:

  • Does the bus have AC?  -Sure
  • One seat per passenger?  -Yes, sir
  • How long will it take to arrive?  -5 hours, 6 maximum
  • What type of bus is it?  -New minibus, sir
  • Who will give us our ticket?  -The driver knows about you, don't worry

Well 10 hours of travel, 6 of which were on a local bus with: No AC, 33 passengers in 24 seats, and every male heavily chain smoking, we arrived in Vietnam.

This photo doesn't do justice to how we felt for 6 hours (nor are you able to smell the cigarette smoke):

I woke up the next morning crooked.  Literally.  Eric kept telling me to put my shoulder down but it was stuck.  I couldn't move my head and everything was in the wrong spot.  We tried an hour and a half massage (our best one yet) and it didn't even do the trick.  A sleeping pill and lots of Tylenol was needed to sleep and today thankfully I'm a bit better.

That was one hell of a bus ride!