On to the land of tasty Banh Mi sandwiches and delicious Pho!
We pulled in to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, at around 6:30 pm on February 4, 2016. We had been travelling via bus since leaving Rathana and his village in Cambodia 12 hours previously. Upon arriving, we walked a couple km’s, managing to find and check into our hotel called Ava Saigon 2. It was a decent place for around $26 CAD a night, included free breakfast (with DELICIOUS Vietnamese coffee), and was right in the heart of the city. After dropping our bags off in our room, we hit the streets in search of something for dinner.
Less than a block away, we came across a small food stand ran by a cute elderly Vietnamese lady. She couldn’t speak a lick of English but we managed to order ourselves our first Banh Mi sandwiches; commonly known as Vietnamese subs in North America. We walked back to our room, and devoured the common street delicacy. The second I finished, I reached into my pocket, looked at the money I had (now called Vietnamese Dong), fished out another 40,000 Dong (about $2 CAD), and RAN back to buy 2 more! The Banh Mi would become a staple food source for the 2 of us in the coming weeks.
The next day represented my 27th lap on this rock flying around the sun. Allie and I had a pretty busy day planned, not so much as to celebrate, but to figure out what to do with our “10” days in the fairly large country. She still managed to make the busy day special, and kept me smiling all the while, like she always does!
We started the day off by going to the busy central marketplace called Ben Thanh Market. We grew an immediate concern for walking in the city, as the streets were PACKED with gregariously moving traffic in every direction. There are barely any sidewalks, and you have to sidestep cars, trucks, and motorcycles constantly. To cross the street, you just had to kind of walk out into the swarm of flowing metal and hope that the sea of machines would part and allow you safe passage. It was terrifying! Allie got to a point of just holding onto my arm and looking at the ground, while I walked us out into the dangerous roadway, staring into the eyes of the oncoming storm of drivers and praying they’d stop or avoid us.
After a tedious nerve racking walk, we entered into a large warehouse type building labyrinthed with aisles and sections of a huge busy marketplace. They sold everything from clothes, housewares, food, and everything in between; usually with some form of false branding. The shop owners were quite aggressive, barely letting you glance at their goods without jumping into your face and forcing you to look at or buy something. I was looking for a new wallet as, well, it went a-wall a few weeks back. Didn’t lose much money or anything truly important, but was a tad bit inconvenient. I had come across almost exactly what I was looking for right away, but I hadn’t looked around much and I didn’t have any idea what the going rate was for a cheap leather wallet in Vietnam. I told the lady I was gunna look around and come back, and in response she cursed me and said, “You have bad luck coming your way”, and proceeded to tell me that even if I came back, she wouldn’t sell the wallet to me. Quite the marketing technique!
I ended up finding a near identical one a few shops later, and I bought it for a little higher than the first lady even offered, more or less just in spite. Allie also scored a beautiful new purse, which has held up very well and still looks good today. The 2 cost us less than $15 dollars Canadian in the end as well!
Being hounded our whole way out by shop owners, we finally made it back onto the street, and headed over to Mobifone’s head office to get a local SIM card for my phone. We figured after not having data in the past 2 countries, it was time to utilize it again. For less than $6 CAD, I got enough data and a handful of minutes to last us a month!
Starting to feel a little famished, Allie suggested we get something to eat, but since it was my birthday I could have ANYTHING I wanted.
It was time my friends.
Time for my first Big Mac in months.
McDonald’s here we come!
It was the first (and only time on our 6 month trip!) that I had the Americanized fast food in a far away country, where beef is not the most common of things around. It was a tad disappointing to say the least, as you just can’t replicate Alberta beef, even if it’s the terrible quality shipped around to Canadian McDonald’s.
With the Golden Arches under my belt (and it a notch looser), we began the time consuming task of finding our route and transportation for the coming weeks. We had planned to use a bus company called The Sinh Tourist, which had a service that you could pay for one ticket and hop on and off their coach buses at multiple stops across Vietnam. Unfortunately for us, we had arrived in the country just before one of their major holidays called ‘Tet’.
Also known as ‘Vietnamese New Year’, Tet is the largest and most popular yearly festival in Vietnam. Celebrated on the first day of the first month in the Lunar Calendar, Tet’s celebration is the country’s longest holiday, and can last up to seven days. Most locals get the ENTIRE time off, so that they may go visit and spend time with their families. You can imagine the sort of crunch this puts on the transportation circuit running the entirety of the country. Also, the celebration brings a vast number of Chinese tourists that come for vacation, warmer (or cooler) weather, and to escape the home crowds during their own Chinese New Year, which is on the same day as Tet.
To say the least, the Tet celebration affected us IMMEDIATELY. The Sinh Tourist bus company was not operating the open ‘hop on hop off’ service Allie and I were so eagerly planning to rely on for our time there. We started planning our route, and couldn’t believe how few bus, train tickets, and accommodations were actually available countrywide. We even tried to go for dinner at one of the highest rated (but reasonably priced) restaurants in Ho Chi Minh, several days before the celebration was to commence, and they were closed for 10 days!
We spent a significant amount of time looking into and booking our options for the coming weeks. We tightened and played with our budget, and realized we could probably extend our planned 10 days to a full 2 weeks. Later on in the trip, that was once again extended to a full 3 weeks, due to the extremely low living expenses we incurred each day, and our infatuation with the country overall.
With a pretty solid plan and some bookings confirmed, we decided to try a more Westernized restaurant that night, in hopes that they too wouldn’t be closed down for Tet. Luckily the La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant was up and running, and my first choice for my Birthday dinner abroad. We had absolutely sensational tacos, and their servings were certified GIGANTIC. The service was impeccable, and our awesome Vietnamese server gave me a free tequila drink that was both incredibly tasty and loaded with enough booze to kick my happy Birthday buzz up a few ranks.
Afterwards we had a few more celebratory drinks at our hotel while playing cards, and Allie even let me play metal music all night! Yussssss! ✊
All and all, it was a fantastic Birthday, and even though we didn’t do anything significant, it was still very special.
The next day we explored Ho Chi Minh a little further, and ate lunch at a wicked place called My Banh Mi. The prices were a little inflated in comparison to the street side vendors, but their sandwiches came in a vast multitude of types and had incredibly tasty twists, including a huge list of savoury homemade sauces. They were some of the best sandwiches ever, and worth the extra buck.
Next we hit up the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. Here they housed a collection of war memorabilia from the American invasion in the 1960’s & 70’s. There were photos, propaganda posters from each side, tanks, planes, guns; everything that was salvaged countrywide. Rooms on different floors were dedicated to specific events including guns and ammo, Agent Orange effects, and a background and timeline of the whole event. Allie and I soon realized we didn’t know all that much about the whole war, but it became apparent almost immediately that the United States truly didn’t have the most justifiable reason to invade their country.
We saw some of the atrocities brought onto the Vietnamese people during the time period as well, seeing photos and reading stories of Agent Orange victims. There are still many people today being affected by the horrible herbicidal warfare technique. It was used to kill crops, bushes and trees of the communist insurgents. As many as 3 million people have suffered major illnesses because of it including disability, still-births, cleft palate, neural tube defects, spina bifida, and deformation. Some of the images were very heart wrenching.
Once we got a little taste of the history behind the Vietnam War, we immediately went back to our hotel and watched numerous ‘crash course’ YouTube videos on the subject. We spent a couple hours giving ourselves some Social Studies refreshment, and learned a few things that we hadn’t come across in the Canadian education system. Very informative! Lol.
That evening we walked the streets in search of a restaurant to eat, finding that even more of the local eateries were closed than the night before. With Tet fast approaching, the Capital city was in a constant hustle and bustle. We ended up sitting down at a very good traditional Vietnamese restaurant, the name of which I would never even be able to attempt to repeat!
Allie had her first bowl of amazing fresh Pho (pronounced FU, like fur or fun without the last consonant); while I had a “dry pho” of vermicelli noodles with salad, ground peanuts, and marinated seared pork (which we soon developed an addiction to). They both were insanely good and cost next to nothing!
The next day we grabbed ourselves some more Banh Mi sandwiches from a street vendor (still just $1!) and hopped on a Singh Tourist bus for a 5 hour ride to Mui Ne. The beach front city is a major tourist hotspot, and is divided into 2 main sections down the main strip; one side being more English oriented, and the other half Russian.
Upon arriving around 6:00 pm, we realized why there were so few accommodations available to book. Almost everything along the main strip was closed, as most of the guest houses and resorts were shut down for Tet, allowing the locals on staff to travel home and spend the holidays with their families.
We ended up staying at a place called ‘Blue Sky Guest House’, which was decent enough for just over $20 CAD a night, and situated right across the street from the beach. That evening was the actual Tet New Year’s celebration, and we were informed by our hotel’s receptionist that there was going to be a party and fireworks in the next town over.
We popped out on the empty roadways in search of something to eat. We decided to rent a scooter from the shop right next door for 200 000 VND, which works out to approximately $12 CAD total for 3 days of use.
We picked a few restaurants out on Trip Advisor, and proceeded to drive up and down the Mui Ne strip in search of them. We managed to locate numerous eateries that interested us, but they were all closed. Eventually we stopped at a place called ‘Joe’s Cafe’. It was packed, and had a live band jamming some tunes. Allie and I set up on the street front patio and enjoyed a scrumptious meal, cheap beers, and a pretty stellar performance by an incredible female Vietnamese vocalist. She had insane blues/pop pipes!
Later as we were struggling to stay awake, we debated and decided against making the trip to Phan Thiet to join in on the Tet festivities. We were exhausted, and ended up watching part of a movie and crashing before midnight. Frig, we’re getting old… Hahaha!
The next day, we met up with one of our friends, Krista Baron, from back in Kelowna! She happened to be in Vietnam with her parents for a family friend’s wedding. They were staying at a beachfront resort in Phan Thiet with a nice pool, so when they offered us to come on over and hang out, we obliged without hesitation.
After some poolside beers, sunbathing, and visiting with Krista and her family and friends, we were invited to join them that evening for dinner. Everyone washed up, and we headed out. I took Krista on the scooter with me as we followed the taxi full of everyone else, so she could enjoy a little cruise around in the fresh Mui Ne ocean air. We arrived at a large 2 story Vietnamese restaurant, called Nhà hàng Cây Bàng, situated on a small ridge overlooking the South China Sea.
The bride to be in their group was actually from Vietnam herself, and ordered the whole lot of us a seafood hotpot. She mixed seafood, noodles, veggies, herbs and spices into a large pot in the center of the table. After specific amounts of time, she dished out little bits of everything to us all. It was quite the feast! There was a plethora of shellfish, prawns, different types of fish, and lots of traditional Vietnamese vegetables and dishes that we would never have even thought of trying.
During our fantastic meal, the sun dipped along the shoreline and gave us a spectacular sunset! One of the best we’ve seen still today.
Krista’s parents ended up paying for our meal as well, which was way too nice of them. THANKS AGAIN MR. AND MRS. BARON!
Afterwards, we said farewell. We truly enjoyed our refreshing time with a recognizable face and friend from home.
The next day, Allie and I hit the road on our swanky scooter once again. We toured throughout the area, stopping to see the Fairy Stream (a mud stream between clay cliffs) and the 2 entirely different Red and White Sand Dunes. It was a fantastic day of adventure, and even presented some extremely tense moments when we almost ran out of gas in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We managed to snap some really great and memorable pictures!
The White Sand Dunes were further inland than we had anticipated, and the drive home ended up being much later than we had hoped. The sun was setting fast, but as we rolled down the hillside and approached the ocean, we were awarded with an incredible sunset to our left, while cruising along the shoreline with breathtaking views. It was quite a magical ride! Unfortunately we didn’t stop to take any photos and decided to just savour the moment, as once more our gas levels were unbeknownst to us.
The next morning we boarded what was possibly one of the worst bus rides we experienced, through a company called Nam Long. We were going from Mui Ne to Da Lat, which was only a 4 hour drive. The extremely crammed, no leg room, extra hot bus fared terribly through the ridiculously windy and bumpy mountain roads. Our driver constantly put the pedal to the metal, then slammed on the brakes. It made for a very uncomfortable ride.
Once safely in Da Lat, we immediately recognized our brilliance in booking a room well ahead of time. Allie had been watching accommodations online, and as they all seemingly began to disappear, she jumped on a very decently priced hostel. Within a few minutes of walking the streets of Da Lat, we could see tons of tourists scouring the area for any vacant accommodations. Everything was full! Tet had brought a tremendous amount of Chinese tourists abroad to celebrate their holiday away from home in much cooler weather and with extremely cheap expenses. That on top of the ridiculous amount of ‘normal’ tourism for the period, it made for a poop storm of accommodation shortage.
We thankfully got to our place called Mr. Peace’s Backpacker Hostel, which was ran by a very enthusiastic and witty man (who goes by Mr. Peace), and his adorable “wife” Strawberry. I say wife, in quotations because almost everyone we talked to was convinced he was gay, Lol!
He had a huge heart, and with the incredible influx of tourists and the possibility of people being left out on the street, he allowed more than 20 guests over capacity sleep at his place. He didn’t have beds per say, but many people obliged a little floor room and for just $1 USD, Mr. Peace allowed them to stay. There was literally NOTHING available in the entire city. We even gave up one of our bunk beds one night to a very nice couple from the UK, named Amy and Elliott. They thanked us profusely and left a cute note for us on our pillow when they departed. Lucky enough, we crossed paths again later in our Vietnam travels!
Anyways, we checked in and were shown our lovely 12 bed hostel room that was obviously fully booked. Allie and I were left with 2 top bunk beds, and were not the most impressed with the single bathroom we all had to share situated RIGHT in the middle of the room, only separated by a paper thin door. Yeah, everyone could hear everything that went on in there at all times. A little awkward to say the least…
We quickly dropped everything off and went out to find something to eat. Once again, we arrived at a restaurant we had hoped to eat at only to find that it too was still closed for the seemingly never ending Tet holiday. We wound up at another highly rated place next door called Da Quy, where I ordered caramelized fish in a clay pot. It was so incredibly delicious!
We took it easy that night and didn’t socialize all too much, as Allie wasn’t feeling very well.
The next morning, we made up for our hermit behaviour by introducing ourselves and chatting with some of our roommates.
Kieran and Nichole from Ontario
Julie from Nova Scotia
& Charlie and Max from Thailand
We all jumped on the friend wagon pretty quick (being predominantly Canadian and all 😉 ), and went out for breakfast Banh Mis and coffee. After further discussion, we all revealed our plans to travel onto Hoi An next, and most of us were thinking of departing on the exact same day. With that in mind, we all retreated back to the hostel and proceeded to find the very best deal. We ended up booking a bus ride with Futabus to Nha Trang, then an overnight train to Da Nang, followed by a short 30 min taxi ride to our final destination of Hoi An. Kieran and Nichole from Ontario, Charlie and Max from Thailand, and Allie and I all booked the trip together.
With our route in the books, the lot of us went to explore the Da Lat Central Market. We found it comical that they mostly sold “winter clothing” for locals, where the temperature was considered quite warm to us Canucks; usually mid 20’s. Kieran bought a big bag of local exotic fruit, and we retreated to the hostel to chill for a bit.
That night, the lot of us went out for dinner to a cheap local place where you get all the fixins to make your own fresh salad spring rolls. I was decent at it, but when handed a faulty rice paper, I constructed an abomination of a roll that had everyone laughing. Wasn’t as easy as it looks!
We capped off the night by playing several games in the beautiful pool hall next door to our hostel. Beers were dirt cheap, and an hour of pool was 16 000 VND, about 60¢ CAD! Kieran and I got a little competitive, and made each other sweat in a best of 5 match. He took me out as we went down to the wire, and I’m still hoping for a rematch one day!
The next day Allie and I were up bright and early to go on a canyoning adventure. We looked into it before arriving in Da Lat, and booked through a decently rated company called Highlands Holiday Tours. Mr. Peace offered a canyoning trip as well, but he jacked the prices up because of the high demand during Tet, and we stuck with the cheaper option being Highland.
We drove out to a river and canyon area, got strapped up, and were taught how to repel down cliff sides and waterfalls. Allie was awesome at it, and didn’t falter once. Myself on the other hand, I don’t know if it’s because I played sports my entire life that require you to keep your center of gravity up and square to your feet, but I was terrible. My subconscious wouldn’t let me lean back far enough, and I paid for it with a couple of bruised knees.
We started off quite difficult, traversing down a steep and slippery waterfall. Next was a dry descent where you let go of the rope and dropped over 12 feet into the cold pool of water below. Then we did a MASSIVE waterfall, which most people struggled with; except Allie who accomplished it with grace and ease. Last was another dry abseil where we got to jump and free fall a little easier. All in all it was a great experience and a lot of fun, even if I wasn’t the most fluid of abseilers!
We returned to the hostel and discussed with everyone who had gone canyoning either that day or the one prior, and it turns out there are different locations. Not sure which is better, but both our tour and the one Mr. Peace sent people on sounded completely different, and equally awesome!
For lunch we all headed out to a hole in the wall local eatery, where we found one of our favourite Vietnamese dishes, Bun Thit Nuong; a vermicelli dish with peanuts, salad, fish sauce, and lightly seared pork. It was similar to the one I had ate in Ho Chi Minh City a week or so ago, and was incredibly tasty! The best part, a whole serving was 25 000 VND. Math that up. It’s just over $1 Canadian! CRAZINESS! Along with Banh Mi sandwiches, that dish became a common lunch for us.
Later that evening we all went out to one of the nuttiest and coolest places Allie and I have ever been. It was called 100 Roofs Cafe, and looked like some kind of Alice in Wonderland acid trip of a structure. There were 6 floors of tunnels, mazes, enchanted forest deco, spiral staircases, rock hideouts, and large pockets of areas where you could sit and chill. The place was AMAZING, and Kieran and Nichole introduced us to the real fun; playing Hide N Seek! We all pitched in and bought a 2-6 of rum for less than $5 CAD, and someone took off with the bottle. We spent hours searching the labyrinth of caverns trying to find who had possession of the rum. If you found them, you’d each take a shot, and the person who found the other would then take off with the bottle. It was so much fun, and made for a truly entertaining (and intoxicated) evening.
On our way out of the bar, we were stopped by an elderly man and became lost in discussion with him. It turns out he was the architect of the building! We took a picture with him and he showed us a whole portfolio of his work. I wondered what kind of drugs he must have done to come up with all this stuff, Hahaha!
The next day we were all hurting a little bit. We relaxed with some greasy fatty bakery goods (including incredible cheese sticks) before the 6 of us boarded our 4 hour bus ride to Nha Trang. The ride was a little crazy, as I think our driver must have been hopped up on some crazy caffeine or speed. We whipped around cliff sides and the narrow mountain roads, and ended up getting us to our destination city a whole hour ahead of schedule! Even with the seat gripping and tossing, we managed to glimpse incredible views of jungle coated mountaintops dancing above clouds of thick milky fog. It was a sight to behold!
Gladly back on our feet in Nha Trang; Kieran, Nichole, the Thai boys, Allie and I hit the streets in search of food. Most of us still not feeling the hottest, we decided on Pizza Hut… Yeah, lol. It was mildly disappointing for the lot of us, but at least we got our fill of greasy western food… enough to go out and buy a bottle of whiskey to split! We sat on the train platform sipping on some whiskey and playing round after round of Big 2 (which we had obviously taught everyone by this point haha) while we waited for our delayed train to roll in. We were all aboard near midnight, and Charlie, Max, Allie and I were all given beds in the same 6 bunk cabin. We got to our car and discovered a Vietnamese family had taken over all of our beds. We had to kick them all out, and during the confusion, Allie offered up her middle bunk so Charlie wouldn’t get claustrophobic and suffer on the very top. The top bunk was THE WORST, as you barely had enough room between the bed and the roof to roll over, and the rocking of the train was most violent. Allie had a terrible time, and later regretted it after feeling ill the entire ride. Although the Pizza Hut and rum she consumed earlier definitely contributed…
11 hours later, we arrived in Da Nang, on the nauseatingly corporate ‘holiday’ known as Valentine’s Day. Allie and I had arranged for our hotel driver to pick up the 6 of us, and we made the final stretch to Hoi An. Charlie and Max had booked themselves a couple of bunks at a hostel, so we dropped them off before heading to our accommodation.
Kieran and Nichole followed us to our place, and inquired about availability for themselves. Unfortunately it was fully booked, but it worked out great in the end as they found a sweet hotel with a pool down the road, which we obviously milked and spent most of our time at, haha! We checked into our lovely place called ‘Green Grass Land Villa’. It was ran by the sweetest Vietnamese lady, and was a gorgeous place for a very reasonable $25 CAD a night. It also included free breakfast AND bike rental, which is essential for getting around the flat widespread city of Hoi An.
After spending the afternoon poolside at Kieran and Nichole’s with beers and countless rounds of Big 2, we all went out for a fabulous Valentine’s Day dinner at a wicked Italian restaurant called Good Morning Vietnam. Lucky for Allie, Kieran and Nichole are probably some of the only other people on the planet who love pasta and cheese as much as she does, therefore solidifying the decision! We were also joined by 2 girls that Kieran and Nichole had met during their Vietnam travels; Tessa from Holland and a friend of hers who we regrettably didn’t get to know all that well. We all had a fabulous meal, which was a little harsh on the new wallet, but so worth it.
Afterwards we all cruised on our bikes through the busy downtown streets in the area called ‘Ancient Town’. It’s a neat cobblestone grid of streets with a collection of old buildings and architecture that was not hit by any major air raids during the war. At night the eclectic streets are illuminated by strings of lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and colours. A very cool atmosphere!
The next day Allie and I opted to cruise around town on bicycles. First stop was the local marketplace where I was looking to purchase my 3rd pair of sunglasses! Good thing they’re cheaper than a beer at home, haha!
Afterwards we ate at Banh Mi Phuong, which according to Anthony Bourdain, serves the best authentic Banh Mi sandwich worldwide. I had the exact one he had ordered (basically mixed meats), and I gotta say I think he was wrong on that one. It was super fatty, and underwhelming. Allie had a BBQ pork one from the same place, and it was much tastier. Nearby is another shop called Phi Banh Mi which we ate at on a later day, and overall we thought was WAY better. Maybe Allie and I should get paid to travel the world and rate different foods and eateries? Hahaha.
Next we took a ride several kilometers north to the beach and resort part of Hoi An. It was a very nice ride, but unfortunately the weather wasn’t the greatest when we arrived. Not warm enough to suntan and the waves were crashing in far too forcefully to even contemplate a swim. We sat and watched the shifting sea for a while, and then headed back to town.
We spent the afternoon poolside at Nichole and Kieran’s place playing cards once more, and Tessa had moved into their hotel as well. The 5 of us headed out for dinner, with the inclusion of Mariya (a Russian-Canadian) and Amy and Elliott (the couple from London who we gave our bed to at the hostel in Da Lat). Mexican was the unanimous choice for the evening, so we hit up Hola Taco for some delicious fresh tacos with a nice twist of ingredients in each kind.
Then we all wandered the nearby streets of Ancient Town once again, before deciding to pop into a place called Dive Bar for a beer. The place was packed and thumping loud, so we crammed up into a tiny loft space above the crowd.
Realizing how expensive it was, we headed back out after one round, this time retreating to Amy, Elliott, and Mariya’s hostel called Sunflower Inn. There they had cheap beers and somewhat of a party going on in the attached bar, and a Foosball table that Kieran and I once again used to bring out our competitive edges.
Once the night wore thin, we said our final farewell to our newfound friends, made the journey via bike back to our place, packed our bags, and hit the pillows with a minibus awaiting us in the morning.
Bright and early we were picked up and dropped off at the train station in Da Nang, where we awaited our train to Dong Hoi. I discovered via other tourists that all the trains heading north were ridiculously delayed, and I was notified that our morning train was to be 6 hours late! I inquired at the ticket counter and managed to switch our tickets to one of the trains that was supposed to leave hours prior, thankfully saving us a boatload of time.
While we were waiting, the Thai boys Max and Charlie waltzed into the station as well! We hadn’t seen them since our overnight travels from Da Lat, and our schedules never seemed to work out while in Hoi An. We visited for a bit before a train FINALLY appeared, and we said farewell for the last time.
The condition of the train was absolutely terrible, and we had even “splurged” for the soft seat option, which cost us a whopping $6 CAD each for the entire journey. Out of curiosity, I walked to one of the hard seat train cars (the even cheaper option), and discovered that it was literally wooden slat benches to sit on. Rather uncomfortable for slow long train rides through the Vietnam countryside!
6 hours later we arrived in Dong Hoi, and shortly after our accommodation called ‘Nam Long Hotel’. We were immediately told that they overbooked, and we were FORCED to take a free upgrade to a room in their more expensive newer hotel called Nam Long Plus Hotel. What a drag… Especially for less than $17 CAD/night… 😉
The next day, we went to the caves! Vietnam is world famous for the stupendously incredible cave systems, including the newly discovered Son Doong. I desperately wanted to book a tour of Son Doong during our trip, but it’s outrageously expensive and monopolized by one government sanctioned company in order to carefully study and preserve the world’s largest cave. We also heard that they are fully booked until the end of 2017!
Not being gazillionaires, we opted for a tour of 2 amazing caves. The first one was called ‘Paradise Cave’ located an hour and a half away from our hotel in Dong Hoi. This particular cave is currently the longest cave system ever discovered, but tourists can only walk a kilometer into the behemoth underground passage on a boardwalk. The experience was a little spoiled by the well-crafted pathway and bright cheesy lights illuminating the stalactites and stalagmites, but I was still in awe. I enjoyed a wave of feeling so small and insignificant in something so vast, beautiful, and old as time itself. I loved it!
After taking it all in and being so psyched about the elation I felt, we continued with our tour which included a mediocre lunch. Then we headed out on a small boat with a group of around 8 into the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Phong Nha Cave. It’s a 14 km underground river system of otherworldly sites. We were given a guided tour as we were slowly paddled down the winding river system into grottos and cave chambers. The cave is home to an astronomical number of various bat species, so as to not disturb them, there are no motors. We were later dropped off at the mouth of the cave and able to go in on foot to explore the chambers running parallel to the river. Again we were astounded by the overwhelming feeling of smallness in something so ancient and breathtaking. Once we returned to the mouth of the cave, we boarded our boat, and cruised the river back to where our bus was waiting for us.
After our hour and a half drive back, we went for dinner and took it easy that night, as the temperatures were lowering and rain had settled in.
The next morning we Skyped with Nettsie (my Mom) and went for brunch at the Tree Hugger Cafe. It was a little pricey in comparison to most Vietnamese meals we had eaten, but Allie had amazing yoghurt and muesli and I once again had a western style feast. A great change from the Banh Mis!
We killed time that afternoon wandering around Dong Hoi and taking it easy while we awaited our 9 pm bus ride to Hanoi. Just before our bus was set to pick us up, we had to return to the original Nam Long Hotel, where we initially booked our room before being moved and upgraded. We walked into the lobby to wait, and lo and behold, we ran into Elliot and Amy, the couple from the UK we met in Da Lat and Hoi An! They too were headed to Hanoi, as well as Halong Bay. We loosely made plans to book our Halong Bay tour together, and said bye for now as our bus arrived.
Before we boarded our bus that evening, we grew exponentially nervous about the company we had booked called Queen Café Bus. We read horrible gross things online, and the reviews were plentiful. But we did realized that most were written during the Tet holiday season, and could most likely account for many of the issues tourists were complaining about. In the end it was a great ride with no problems at all! It was a sleeper bus, with race bucket seats permanently leaned back in lay-z-boy position. We both slept decently through the night.
What was supposed to be a 10 hour drive from Dong Hoi to Hanoi was over and done well before that. We were abruptly awoken and told to exit the bus before 5:30 am. We were an hour and a half earlier than expected, and only a few blocks from the accommodation we booked in the Old Quarter called A Dong Hotel (Lol! Still makes me laugh!).
With a few hours to kill before the Booking Agency / Hotel opened its doors, we were greeted by a smiling enthusiastic gentleman who owned a tiny hole in the wall restaurant next door called King Cafe. The prices were exceedingly reasonable, and the elderly owner was very kind and attempted to chat with us with his limited English. The food was quite good for the price, and I think we returned another 2 times for a meal because of the chivalrous Vietnamese host.
Growing very weary and tired at this point, we scooped up all of our bags and attempted to check into our hotel right next door. The room wasn’t vacant as of yet, so we deposited our big bags and wandered the streets until mid-morning. The main streets and marketplace of Hanoi are very well organized into types of goods and services. For instance, one street is all hardware stores, the next all textiles and sewing shops, suddenly it’s all shoes, followed by the tourist restaurants and pubs, and so on. The streets were insanely busy and crammed with crazed scooter drivers once again, but nowhere near as nutty as Ho Chi Minh City had been. We really enjoyed the city of Hanoi.
I checked Trip Advisor for any leads on a cheap tasty lunch, and once again came across a Banh Mi stand with exceptional ratings. This time however, we DEFINITELY found our favourite. Banh Mi 25 is an ittie bittie street stand on a hardware store street, that has teeny tiny plastic tables and chairs set up along the sidewalk. It is ran by a happy go lucky family that is above and beyond nice to every patron they have. You have a few choices of sandwiches, and can add Laughing Cow cheese to any of them. Still with a price tag near $1 CAD, this was the creme de la crop of Banh Mis. One of the family members seated us with some tea and bananas, while the others prepared our order. SO unbelievably tasty. I think Allie and I ate there at least once a day during our stay in Hanoi… sometimes twice, haha!
Now utterly exhausted, and Allie starting to come down with a nasty cold, we returned to A Dong Hotel and were able to check into our room. After a quick nap, we hit the streets for dinner. Hanoi is always buzzing with nightlife; whether it’s from tourists packing westernized pubs or locals pouring out onto the streets in little plastic tables and chairs from tiny restaurants; there’s activity almost everywhere. We decided to try another authentic Vietnamese dish for dinner, called ‘Bun Bo Nam Bo’, at an eatery titled the same. There are multiple vendors selling the very dish on the exact same street as the highly rated one, so we had to be sure we entered the correct eatery. For 60 000 Dong (just over $3 CAD), we got a bowl full of noodles and beef with all the fixens. It too was ridiculously delicious, and was basically a beef version of the Bun Thit Nuong; the dish we had fallen in love with in central Vietnam.
The next morning we spent time organizing flights to and throughout the Philippines, as well as booking our tour of Halong Bay for the following day. We ended up getting a great deal on the Fantasea Cruise 3 day tour, but we asked to be dropped off on Cat Ba Island for an additional night. All in all we paid just over $400 for the 2 of us, accommodation and all meals included (except for our night on Cat Ba). So we didn’t pick the cheapest company possible, and didn’t stretch for an outrageously overpriced one either. We let Amy and Elliot know who we went with via Messenger, and then went for Banh Mi 25 again. Afterwards, we went for a lengthy walk around town, touring the nearby ‘Hoan Kiem Lake’ and checking out a couple of tourist attractions we opted out of.
That evening we hit up Gastro Food & Beer Pub for dinner and a couple drinks. Food was tasty, although more overpriced than we were used to. Once the sun set, we walked over to the night market which spans the entirety of the main road in the Old Quarter from north to south. They had the road closed off to traffic, but it didn’t stop it from being a busy crowded experience. We bought a couple of articles of clothing, and retreated back to the hotel. Now Allie really wasn’t feeling the greatest, so we made it an early night in order to be well rested for our departure to Halong Bay in the morning. Besides, we had a few more days to enjoy Hanoi after we returned from our tour.
We were up and all packed bright and early the next morning, and boarded our shuttle bus for the 3 hour drive to Ha Long City. As soon as we got on the bus, we noticed Amy and Elliot! We had never heard back from them the night before about which tour they booked, so it was a complete surprise. They had opted for 1 night tour, but chose the same company as us in hopes of reconvening. There were 3 Fantasea Cruise boats departing at the same time, so we were very lucky and happy to have the chance to spend more time with them. Once we arrived at the docks in Ha Long City, we boarded a small boat and were transferred to our larger vessel, called a ‘junk’, where we’d be sleeping and eating for the next few days.
The boat fired up and sailed out into the maze of islands and inlets of Halong Bay shortly after noon. The weather wasn’t the greatest, as it was incredibly hazy and didn’t offer the best clarity for views. It wasn’t raining much, so it could have been a lot worse too! We all “Oooh’d and Awed” as the boat wound its way through emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped with rainforests.
We anchored and were ushered onto a smaller day boat that brought us to a beach and Sung Sot Cave. It was another gorgeous cave, this time lit up with weird colourful lights; it kind of looked like the guts of a Christmas tree. Although the weird colours made it seem very fake and surreal, there were areas that looked completely different from the first 2 we had visited, and could have been mistaken for scenes from the moon or Mars.
After a brief tour inside, we went out onto the beach for a little sand and clouded over sun, before returning to the day boat. We cruised back to the junk and drove around a few more islands while we changed and layered up with rain jackets for a little foggy and rainy kayaking.
Once situated in our double person kayak, we paddled around for a while, entering an inlet between two islands where we spotted monkeys along the shore. The whole experience was very cool, although it would have been much more enjoyable with some sunshine and a clearer view of our surroundings.
That evening we had an authentic Vietnamese dinner on the boat with Amy and Elliot, and then returned to our cabin below with them to play cards and sip whiskey. Several hours after sunset we returned to the upper decks to admire the moon and stars, which were struggling to pierce through the thin veil of cloud, but nonetheless looked fantastic so far away from civilization. At this point Allie was nursing a full blown cold, and the rest of us were exhausted from the long day, so we headed to bed fairly early.
The next morning at the crack of dawn we were offered to go on one of the islands for a short trek up to a viewpoint. I ended up going alone with Amy and Elliot, as Allie was feeling absolutely terrible and reluctantly decided to stay in bed. The climb ended up being a short trip up a winding staircase to a clouded over viewpoint. Not worth it in the slightest, especially with the swarm of other tourists we battled through that were dropped off by other boats.
Afterwards it was time for us 3-day tour folks to split ways with the 2-dayers. I bid farewell to Amy and Elliot, as they returned to the big boat in order to be shuttled back to the harbour with the majority of our group. They knocked on Allie’s cabin door and said goodbye to her as well, while she rested to rid herself of her awful cold. Later that evening, the junk was to rendezvous with us boasting a new group of tourists that we joined for dinner.
Allie stayed sound asleep in our cabin as the boat made its way to Halong City harbour and back. The rest of us 3 day trip bookies (which just so happened to be 3 Swedish girls and myself) spent the afternoon on the smaller day boat, stopping for a couple of excursions. Honestly it wasn’t as awesome as it might sound, and get your head out of the gutter, haha. First we visited a pearl farm, which was fairly interesting, until they brought us through their shop and tried to guilt us into spending money on their “natural” pearls. I’m not sure if this is how it’s always been done, but I learned that they actually insert a small bead made of shells into the oysters once they reach a certain maturity. The bead is surgically inserted into the oysters along with mantle tissue, and it coats the bead in mineral deposits for several years. They later remove the beautifully coated bead and sell it as a pearl. Some of the pearls you get are not much bigger than the bead that was initially inserted, making me reconsider their value and purity.
We jumped back on the day boat where we had lunch, and I was fortunate to be given ALL the seafood because the girls were too squeamish to eat any of it, haha. Afterwards we were dropped off for a second bout of rainy kayaking in a different area than before. This time we had to navigate through a cave, and I paddled with one of the Swedish girls. The 3 of them were not the most nautically inclined, and they crashed and smashed into cave walls and shores all the while. We eventually beached on a beautiful deserted island where the girls took a rest on the sand and I went for a walk to explore (okay, I was really just tying to find somewhere to pee). Just around the bend, there was an incredible isolated beach. It had the most stunning views of 2 opposing island peaks, the clearest blue water, and sang a symphony as the waves rolled mounds of coral and shells along the shore with each lap of the ocean. It was serenity. Probably the most overwhelmingly peaceful moment I had on the trip. Unfortunately our waterproof camera had crapped out on us by this point, and I have no photograph to remember that moment of pure ecstasy. Oh well, the simple memory will have to do.
After my moment of zen was abruptly cut off by the wailing of a Swede in distress, I ran over to find that a minuscule crab had taken their kayak hostage! I saved the day by removing the Grand Theft Crustacean and we returned to the day boat. Not long after it cruised back to the junk where I finally met back up with me Wiff.
Overall, Allie didn’t miss out on too thrilling of a day, and by the time I joined her back on the big boat, she was feeling much improved. We had another similar authentic Vietnamese dinner on the boat with the Swedish girls that night, as well as a couple of drinks before calling it a day very early once again.
The next morning we switched junks to one that was heading for Cat Ba Island. We had made an arrangement with our tour company that included transfer for us to and from the island, basically turning our 3 day tour into 4 days. We had organized our own accommodation on the island, but the Fantasea tour included a group organized hike up to a viewpoint on Cat Ba. The weather wasn’t ideal, as once we reached the top the entire landscape was coated in a thick layer of cloud. The hike itself however was quite enjoyable, and Allie was able to sweat out the last of her sickness.
We were then dropped off near our accommodation, splitting ways with the rest of the tour group who had an organized itinerary and hotel stay. The place we had ended up booking, called Quynh Trang Hotel, was the best deal we found on accommodation for the entirety of our travels. For a whopping $9 CAD, we got our own private room & bathroom complete with two double beds, WiFi, air conditioning (not that we needed it), satellite TV, AND free breakfast! We were blown away with the deal. We got checked in and headed out in search of dinner.
The rain was coming down heavy, and the streets were slightly flooded, so the search only lasted several minutes before we stumbled upon the highly rated ‘Oasis Bar’. We relaxed while chowing down on delectable and ginormous Tamarind Prawns the size of your fist. We hung out for a while enjoying cheap beers, while I played a few rounds of pool against some locals who couldn’t speak a lick of english. It was a pretty stellar evening!
The next morning we met up with the rest the of the Fantasea group to be shuttled back to a junk en route to Halong City harbour. Once we were all safely on board, we were given a Vietnamese spring roll cooking lesson for the duration of the trip. Afterwards we docked and squished into a minibus for our 3 hour trip back to Hanoi.
Upon arriving back in the major city and once again checking into A Dong Hotel, we headed out for dinner. We were tempted to indulge in ‘Bun Bo Nam Bo’ for a second time, but decided we should try something new. We settled on a restaurant called Minh Thuy’s Family Restaurant. The menu was comprised of a mixture of classic German and authentic Vietnamese dishes, inspired by the two main chefs. One of the head chefs was actually a contestant on Masterchef Vietnam! Allie opted for a German meal of roasted pork and she was practically in tears over how much she loved the potato dumplings it was plated with. I ordered a Vietnamese clay pot fish dish, which was blended with the oddest mix of asian herbs and spices and was absolutely fantastic. The whole meal (with beers) was surprisingly cheap, below $20 CAD!
The next day was our last day in Vietnam… We organized a taxi from our hotel for later that evening in order to catch our flight to the Philippines. We woke up early and enjoyed a final breakfast at ‘Kings Cafe’, our farewell lunch at Banh Mi 25, and spent the rest of the day wandering the city checking out more markets and shops, as well as indulging in an egg white coffee. By late afternoon, we ended up deciding to go see Deadpool in the surprisingly modern movie theater. The movie was awesome , BUT I was extremely disappointed and baffled as to how much of the gore was cut and censored from the movie. Every scene with an injury, impalement, or severed limb was zoomed way in on a section where you could only make out a character and some arterial spray. Vietnam must have strict censorship, as the movie was even rated 18+.
After an evening stroll around the lake, we headed for our very last Vietnamese dinner. Since we were leaving the country that evening, we had spent almost all of our remaining Dong, therefore we were hoping to find a restaurant that would accept Visa so we didn’t have to incur any more charges for pulling out cash. It was an easy decision, as Minh Thuy’s Family Restaurant from the night before not only had incredible food at very reasonable prices, they offered Visa as a payment method! We shared an order of the Vietnamese chicken and sticky rice dish that the lady from Masterchef made for the judges, and were blown away with how good it was. Of course Allie also made us order a side of the potato dumpling with my yummy pork schnitzel so that she could eat them one more time as well, haha!
During the entire dinner we reminisced on our time in Vietnam, and we both couldn’t shake the feeling that we REALLY weren’t ready to leave. The people we met, all of the incredible activities, the ever changing landscape from south to north, the budget prices, and the ridiculously amazing food left a lasting impression.
We sauntered back to ‘A Dong Hotel’ one last time, and a couple hours later were picked up by the taxi we had arranged, and headed to the airport.
We said goodbye to a country we grew to adore. What was supposed to be 10 days turned into 22, and if we could have had our way, we would have made it even longer. There is no doubt in our mind that one day we will return… we will be back Vietnam, for you and your tasty Banh Mis!
Love Allie and Paul
Demsky Duo Disembarked