“Welcomeeee to Viettttnammmmmm!!!” Is what keeps on repeating itself in my head from the moment we landed in Hanoi! Obviously I am not the only one, considering from the second you land you can buy t-shirts, hats and tanks with the saying!
Needless to say, we finally felt like we were really in S.E. Asia!
From chaotic (I might even say suicidal) driving, to dirty, loud, crazy madness, it hits you like a ton of bricks. Nothing makes sense but somehow everything works.
We headed to my dearest friend Camilla’s house in Hanoi. The directions alone were amazing : ” Take a cab and he will probably drop you off somewhere around the Army Guest House because there are about half a dozen or more of houses with the same address as my house. From there follow this map and hopefully you will find it. If not call me! ”
Luckily Camilla was home by the time we got there because I think it would have taken us a couple hours to find her apartment. She welcomed us open armed with a couple bottles of red wine in her arsenal!
For you who don’t know Camilla- I have known her since I was a baby. Our parents have been friends since they were in their 20s if not earlier. Camilla visited me in Newport about 3 years ago and was actually with me when Rex and I had our first “hearts fly around our heads” moment. She was also with us on our “first” date.
After catching up into the wee hours of the morning with some amazing wine and food we crashed out!
We spent the following day jetting all over Hanoi. Here’s a “brief” run down.
Stop 1- Food- We started the day by eating the best pho I have ever had in my life, in a local hole in the wall joint on mini benches, squished together way past capacity.
Stop 2- Planning – We carried on with a tuk tuk threw the old quarter to Miss Ly travel agency (email@example.com). Since we have started we have become pretty relaxed about our travel plans (some might even call it lazy). We just book our flights a couple weeks before hand and figure out the rest as we go. Miss Ly helped us get our following week sorted. She is amazing and we highly recommend her. After 1 hr of picking, sorting and booking we were ready for a coffee/beer.
Stop 3- Creepy Coffee- In a nut shell you walk threw a random knockoff bag store to the back, threw some dark dingy stair cases and you end up in this room filled with smoke, and people sitting on mini chairs slugging Vietnamese coffee and eating sunflower seeds. Needless to say dirt cheap and amazing! Think: Whipped sugar egg whites mixed with chocolate expresso like coffee!
Stop 4- Beer!
We wandered the streets of old quarter, filled with people, terrifying electrical work, crazy motorcycles drivers, amazing street food and sidewalks filled with mini tables/chairs and people chugging beer.
We plopped down at one of Camilla’s favorite spots and let the people watching begin. Impeccable service (your beer was full the moment you finished it) and weird food made the experience complete. After a couple hours, Camilla’s good friend Tip (or “future” husband made an appearance). He is a local guy with an interesting story which is worthy of a whole other post, but to sum it up he is a winner of the best bartender in Vietnam award in 2013.
Stop 5- More Food & Beer – We continued on with eating/drinking our way threw Hanoi’s street food vendors at one of Tips favorite places, fried rice with sweet and sour veggies! Tip continued telling us crazy stories and we enjoyed the evening as the sun went under and rain began.
Stop 6 – Pho Cocktail – since Tip won the bartender of the year award he had quite the following in Hanoi/Vientam and had his own signature drink- the pho cocktail. We headed to a friends rooftop bar to experience this drink and see how the drink is made. It is a full on story and was super cool! See picture!
Stop 7- Dancing- Hair of the Dog Club- 9 pm you enter into a building thinking it will be completely dead, since it is 9 pm but you are greeted with a cloud of smoke of cigs/shisha, a thumping bass and shoulder to shoulder packed club. Tip arranged for a private table and the fist pumping began (incld. Birkenstock and a bag of fruit since we hadn’t be home since the morning, that was a definite first!!!) 3 hours later and after chugging drinks “100%” (come to learn,Vietnamese don’t sip there drinks, they pound them back to back till you can’t walk) we got spat out by this club !!
Stop 8- Nightcap – Camilla was ready to rumble and we were off to another bar, that didn’t last very long due to the 12 am closure of bars/ clubs! There are some places that bend the rules due to “good relations” with the police but we were exhausted!
Next morning was spent in bed and lounging and going to an italian lunch for Easter Sunday! It was odd expierence being in Vietnam surrounded by Italians, in a court yard that resembled Italy with the best gnocchi I have ever eaten. Fast forward to the evening and we are at a Vietnamese/Korean BBQ joint eating… Guess what? The best BBQ I have ever eaten. You get the drift… We are eating our ways threw Vietnam and it’s so worth it!
The following day was Camilla’s birthday. We were busy getting ready for the shinding that was to be held for the birthday girl and we spend the evening celebrating with Camilla and her international group of friends, till the wee hours of the morning.
The next morning Caro and I were scheduled to drive 4 hours east to Halong Bay. We jumped on a ferry boat, then to a semi-cruise boat without all the luxuries of what you’re probably expecting. The boat was basically held together by paint and grime. The rooms had a hint of urine sent in them and the shower had wires hanging out of the walls so I personally opted out of the hot water bit. To put our expectations in perspective, most of the tours to Halong Bay in Hanoi are advertised as,”come and swim in the majestic emerald waters of Halong Bay and discover the untouched beauty of the region”. To get a couple things straight, it’s not untouched, the waters are not emerald, there’s trash everywhere!!! There’s boats everywhere. We felt like we were being rushed through the tour and our horrendous guide couldn’t answer one question regarding anything outside of her rehearsed, scripted little bubble. It was disappointing to say the least. Every once in a while we would look beyond the trash and all the damage that’s been done and you could get a glimpse of the beauty.
Our plan was to spend one night on the boat and one night on Catba Island. The first day we saw a cave, we rode kayaks (for a time limit of 20 min) then we went to Ti Top island. I think I’m still trying to figure out why Ti Top island is the way it is. I know it was named after a former Soviet Union hero astronaut, and I know that bit of history is somewhat interesting but I don’t understand the attraction I guess. We didn’t have very good weather either so that adds to the effect. In my opinion, nobody should be swimming in the same area as the drop off point from all the boats. When you can see the oil/gas film on the surface, you don’t go in. We stayed the night on the boat and in the morning we visited a pearl farm. The farm was interesting although again, a little disappointing. We never knew how pearls were made but now we do. Since the oysters have to be pried open and pearl placed inside. A shocking 60-70% of the oysters will either reject, and/or develop some kind of illness that ultimately kills them. I’m no sales expert but I’m pretty sure if you want to sell lots of pearls, you don’t tell everybody how many oysters died in the process of making them. Anyways, the good news is, is that we changed boats after the pearl farm and with that came a great new guide and a bunch of rowdy guys from Australia. Instantaneously our spirits lifted and the second half of our Halong Bay trip looked like it was about to get a lot more interesting.
We rode bicycles around Catba island through a local village, our guide took us to a local woman’s house and we drank some local rice wine that knocked our socks off and put even more unneeded hair on my chest. We were then dropped off at the main harbor at Catba and taken to our less then exciting hotel. Our time for the next 24 hours was our own to explore the island. Caro and I rented a motorbike and went straight to the national park to do some hiking which was interesting to say the least. We didn’t see anybody else there. There wasn’t really any signs guiding us, and after about 2 hours or so the trail became very narrow and very loud. Every time something fell out of a tree or brushed up against my leg I thought it was a snake or some kind of giant bug. The loudness was caused by a bug called a cicada. It makes a high pitched ringing sound that at times can be extremely loud and almost disorienting. We saw some beautiful scenery and realized jungle hiking is much different then mountain hiking.
We visited a place called hospital cave that was used to treat injured Vietcong during the war. We only spent 15 minutes there but it was the highlight of Halong bay for sure. The cave itself is tucked away on a sheer cliff. There’s a little metal door that opens up to a long dark hall way with rooms. It’s three stories high and there’s also a pool on one of the levels that Ho Chi Minh himself used to swim in. I think the engineering of this place is what surprised us. Perfectly squared off concrete corners and almost kind of modern in a way. If you ever get a chance to go to Catba island, check out hospital cave. We had dinner with the Australian guys that night and the next morning made our way back to Hanoi.
Halong Bay is an amazing place. Its a beautiful area of Vietnam and it has potential to be an even more amazing destination, but it needs to be taken care of more. They’ve figured out how to make money off the place and herd people in and out of there all day but there’s little pride shown. As a result of this, the park suffers. Although we had a subpar tour guide and were disappointed with the condition of the bay we had a great time. There are many different ways to see the bay and there are many different tour companies offering different packages. Some people we talked to had a more private tour and said nothing but great things about their boat and the places they saw. It really just depends on what tour you go with and if you get a good guide or not. The next couple years will be interesting at Halong. Hopefully they realize that taking care of there backyard will ultimately benefit them in the future.
Come to our first overnight train, Hanoi —> Sapa. It was such an unexpected pleasant surprise. The plus side of trains is that you don’t have to worry about your bags being stolen as easily as on an overnight train. There are stops but you have your bags with you in your cabin, so really the only threat are the people in the cabin with you and the possibility of you sleeping threw your stop (luckily not the case in Sapa since the train ends there.
We slept like babies and got in only 3 hours delayed. We met up with our private tour guide that Camilla set us up with and we were off on our 2-day hike.
Starting out, we were walking with a bunch of other tourists, we saw Cat Cat Village and before we knew it we were hoping over rice paddies, balancing on mud damns, nativating water canals and jumping over massive mud puddles with no other people in sight. This was the moment we knew we had made the right decision to go with our traditionally dressed private guide, Ms. Su Linh for a whopping $20 more than a large guided group and we knew the money went all to her. Best decision yet!!!
Ms. Su Linh’s english was, to say the least, impeccable in comparison to our previous guides and the remarkable part is that she taught it herself.
A little background on Ms. Su Linh :
Weight: 40kg (LBS)
Height: maybe on a good day 5’1″
Married : since 16
Education Level: 4th grade
Languages: 5 (3 fluid, 2 semi-fluid)
Tribe: Black Hmong Tribe
We spent the day hiking along the hillside paddies and in general just really enjoying the view and conversations we had with Ms. Su Linh. She had so much information to share and it was so easy to speak to her. I felt like she legitatimly wanted to share her way of life with us. We hiked 16 km in the boiling heat and ended up at Ms Su Lyn’s aunties house in their remote village. The place could have slept 16 people but we were only 4 foreigners to sleep there. It was also the only home stay in a 20 mile radius.
To describe the house, it was concrete floor partial concrete walls, some wooden panels which were not water/wind proof. In the US we would consider it more of a hut or barn than a house. She had 4 proper beds downstairs and upstairs 5 mattresses on the floor. All had curtains and mosquito nets for protection and privacy. Even though it was very basic it was one of the homiest and coolest places I have ever stayed at. Luckily we had a shower with hot water and a western toilet, its the small things in life, right?
Once dinner time came around a collapsable table was pulled out and in no time a feast was presented to us (+home made rice wine) with the whole family (think: grama/grampa/kids/aunts/husbands) right next to our bed. After a evening filled with “one more? “ and stories exchanged, we passed out just to be woken up by the double doors flinging open by the wind (think: movie “what you did last summer” where murder stands in rain and doors flings open and lighting is behind him) and hearing massive thunder. We looked under our bed and a river had started to flow threw the entire house. Frantic running combined with shuffling of things ensued for the next 30 minutes, as the other couple got moved from upstairs into the only other dry bed in the house which was also Aunt’s bed. We are still not sure where Ms. Su Linhs
Aunt slept. Rex and I agreed that we both had never been threw such a violent thunderstorm (that wasn’t a hurricane). The lighting seemed to be continues as well as the constant rumbling of the thunder. It was an eventful night.
Next morning we woke up to perfect weather and continued on with our hike,only 9 km left, passing a few waterfalls and more and more tourist. We also stopped at Ms. Su Linh house which was the biggest eye opener yet. See pictures below, they speak more than words. We learned about the cost of going to school, how little it cost but how impossible of an idea it is for most people of the area since they do not earn enough money. We saw the first had impact of tourism which isn’t always good, and i can honestly say i wanted to stay and help these families. I hope to one day return and continue to share knowledge, educate and be of service to these amazing people.
To top the end of this adventure off we took motor taxi’s back to Sapa which was the scariest thing to date that we have done. Next thing we knew we were on our way back to the train station to catch our overnight train back to Hanoi.
Overall Sapa was one of our highlights, I learned so much about the indigenous tribes, there way of life and their crafts (indigo hemp clothing, which i am obsessing over). I learned how to stitch their traditional fabrics, how they prepare the hemp to be woven into cloth, how they indigo dye the fabrics and everything else between. We tried on traditional clothing and jewelry, ate amazing food and had great conversations.
I would highly recommend Ms. Su Linh and her family. If you guys are interested in booking something with her, just give her a call 0166668651 and she can arrange it all for you 🙂
If you can’t tell by the length of this post, Vietnam left an impression on us. Its such a place of rawness and so much culture, you don’t really know what to do with yourself. We felt utterly exhausted and as if we got eaten up and spat out. This has been a first for us on our trip, which is actually surprising.
After our amazing time in Sapa we took the overnight train back to Hanoi and waited around until 10 pm to catch another overnight train to Dong Hoi or (phong nha). That is south of Hanoi for anybody who doesn’t know. It’s almost central Vietnam and only about 5 kilometers away from the country of Laos. The town of Phong Nha has been on the radar only for a couple years depending on who you talk to. If you’ve heard about the discovery of the worlds largest cave in the last 3-5 years, you’ve more then likely been reading about phong nha and it’s surrounding areas. Phong nha is starting to gain traction as a tourist destination and is slowly but surely becoming one of the worlds top picks for outdoorsman and backpackers. We posted up at a place called the Pepper house Homestay in the middle of the country side. From there we rented motorbikes and rode around the national park visiting some of the biggest caves I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t long after riding around we realized we maybe should’ve booked a couple more days here. Paradise cave was the first stop and we were blown away instantly. We hiked almost a mile into the cave. It actually goes another 6 kilometers deeper but you need a guide. After paradise cave we rode our motorbikes to dark cave. Here we jumped on a couple kayaks with nothing but life jackets, and construction helmets with headlamps attached. After a couple minutes we kayaked into a massive cave. We all hiked in for a couple minutes, ditched the life jackets and started walking through the cracks in the walls. Eventually the cracks turned into very tight crevices. At the beginning of this excursion, nobody really explained anything to us by the way. They just told us to keep taking off more clothes and that we would get wet. None of us had a clue what we were in for. All of the sudden your bare feet slide into a dark, cold, mud trench. Then you walk a little further and now that mud trench is up to your thighs. A couple minutes later we were asked to sit down and lay back into the mud and make sure our headlamps are off. So…there we were, in complete darkness, about 10 total strangers, in a cave in Vietnam, laying on our backs in the mud. Totally normal. We hiked back out and put the life jackets on and went for a swim deeper into the cave with our headlamps guiding the way. Such an amazing experience!!! One we won’t be forgetting. We were in Phong Nha for 3 days and we could have stayed for 3 weeks. Unfortunately, the previous 8 days of overnight trains planes and bus rides started to catch up with us. The second day in phong nha had us in hammocks the majority of the day and the most we did was ride some bikes around and play pool at ” the pub with cold beer”. That’s the actual name of the place and its spot on. As I’m writing this I realize where I am. Sometimes I catch myself saying all we did was lay around in hammocks and visit a pub with cold beer. It’s sounds miserable doesn’t it? I know it’s hard to believe that traveling to these parts of the world can be exhausting, but it’s true. Most people ask us how our vacation is going but in all honesty, it doesn’t feel like a vacation at all. Nor did we ever want it to feel like one. When the maximum time at one location is usually 2-3 weeks, it’s always go go go. We are always trying to fit in as much culture as we can and take advantage of our time, but, sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. It’s inevitable that at one point you crash. That doesn’t always coincide with travel plans either. So with that being said, we had to kinda of just crash for a day and let our batteries recharge. We only had 3 days here and we really missed out seeing the rest of the park.
We left Phong Nha by bus and we booked a ride that would take us by the 17th parallel on our way to Hoi An. The 17th parallel was the border between north and south Vietnam during the war and where most of the fighting took place. We visited a war museum and also walked through the underground tunnel systems the Vietcong used. It’s all pretty amazing in my opinion. The Vietnamese are a very proud people. From the small amount we’ve seen on the road all I can say is that they are an extremely resilient people too. The museums show how they used to live in these caves and even have babies underground. There is also a section of the museum that is dedicated to people who are still experiencing some of the effects of the war. People who plow their lands and clear crops and accidentally find a bomb that hasn’t yet exploded yet. Farmers are still finding bombs in the rice fields. It’s all very surreal to me. It’s amazing how long ago it was but how very apparent the memory is there still.
Our bus took off from there and headed towards our last destination in Vietnam. Hoi An and Danang. Camilla was meeting up with us there and the timing worked out perfectly to try and get some surfing in and perhaps get a custom suit made. Danang is known to have the most consistent surf in Vietnam and although it’s mostly pretty small there, it does have its days. Danang is also part of a massive development area. They’re building very high end luxury hotels and villas right on the sand. Hoi An has a little more character and is more well known for its shopping. Hoi An is a great place to get anything made that is custom. Shoes, suits, dresses, bags, tshirts, basically anything you can think of, they can make it. We scored some really fun waves in Danang both days we were there and we were able to get some custom clothes made as well. Most days were spent at the beach surfing in the morning, walking around Hoi An shopping, and getting a few drinks at night. These two areas are pretty fun and if you get a chance to come to Vietnam you should definitely plan a week or two. We had such a good time in Vietnam!! We covered some good distance and met some great people. Camilla really helped us out a lot and made our trip very special. Hopefully we can come back sooner rather then later but for now we have to push onward to Thailand.