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Hue and Hoi An

We’ve officially left northern Vietnam and had about 5 days to explore central Vietnam. We started in Hue, which is known as the imperial city and is cool in that a large part of the city is located within large stone walls surrounded by water.

We upped our hotel game a little bit in central Vietnam and stayed in hotels with pools, which was an awesome relief from the heat. Our first day in Hue was pretty chill and we had some pool time and explored along the river. I started to get my stomach back in Hue and while I was still too beef adverse to try their most popular dish, Bun Bo Hue, I did try Banh Khoai, which is the Hue version of Banh Xeo. Banh Xeo is a crispy pancake filled with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts. It’s slightly different in every city and I’m on a mission to try them all. Its a tie between Hanoi and Hoi An for my favourite, the one is Hoi An is served with a delicious peanut sauce. I also tried Nem Lui in Hue, which is basically a pork skewer that is also served with a peanut sauce.

On our second day in Hue we did a cruise of the Perfume River in a dragon boat. It wasnt my favourite because it was just so hot and the engine on the boat is really loud, but it took us to see Minh Mang tomb, a temple, and Thien Mu Pagoda, which are all located along the river and are pretty neat. There’s a ton of tombs located in Hue for past kings and emperors of the imperial city, but we just visited one. Its enormous though and was heralded as an excellent piece of architecture for its time (1800’s).

We also made a visit to the Imperial Citadel. The Imperial City is essentially everything north of the river in Hue, and the citadel is located in the center of the city behind another moat and set of stone walls. It is impressive in its scope and there was a lot to look at and explore, but we were about ready to pass out from heat exhaustion at this point, so we cut our visit a little short and made a beeline back to the pool. We had good timing though because we were in Hue over the weekend and similar to Hanoi, they close down a bunch of the streets to just pedestrians in the evening, so it was lovely to explore after dark.

We left Hue at the crack of dawn to travel to Bach Ma National Park for what would become the highlight of Seth’s trip. As I’m sure most people know, Seth loves birds and is just completing his masters in ecology, so we hired a local ornithologist to take us on a private bird watching tour of Bach Ma, which is supposed to be one of the best places in Vietnam to see birds. It did not disappoint!

I won’t get into the specifics, but we did some heavy birding in the morning and Seth was thrilled to see more than 30 different bird species. It was a great tour for both of us though because the park is very mountainous and gorgeous and I loved admiring the landscapes as much as Seth loved looking for birds. We started with a hike up to the summit of the mountain, which had an amazing view looking down over the coast, and did a hike along the river and several waterfalls in the afternoon.

This one was called the 5 lakes trail and was actually a much more technical trail than I was expecting, but I got to swim in the river under a waterfall, which is pretty much my favourite thing to do! We finished by hiking to Rhodedendron Waterfall, which is a 300 metre high fall crashing down over the mountains. It was neat because we hiked to the top of the waterfall, so while we didnt actually see the waterfall, we had a cool view of the river cascading over the cliff.

It wasnt all fun and games though! Seth and I discovered a new species that we had no idea existed, the land leech. We were so naive to only think there are water leeches, but we quickly learned about land leeches which were constantly trying to climb up our shoes whenever we went through the bush. They are quite gross and I was constantly checking my boots for them and kicking them off before they could make it to my legs. Seth wasnt so lucky though, he had short socks on so they kept sneaking down into his boots and he had to pull 2 or 3 off him over the day. They dont hurt, but they’re nasty little buggers and one left him with a big bruise.

Hoi An stole our heart on the trip though. We’d heard really good things about the ancient town and we were looking forward to having some time to chill. We had our nicest hotel booked in Hoi An and we’d originally planned to do a day trip to some ancient ruins, but we liked the town so much we decided to just hang around the city instead. On our first day we borrowed bikes from our hotel and biked about 5km out to go to the beach. It was another hot, cloudless day, so we enjoyed booking beach chairs, having our food and drinks delivered to us, and hopping in and out of the water. We were very content.

I got the biggest surprise though when we got back to the hotel room because they completely decked our room out with flowers and rose petals. There had been a few flowers the day before, and I was laughing about how extra the hotel was being, when I turned around and found Seth getting down on one knee and pulling a ring box out of his pocket! He totally surprised me but I couldnt have been happier to say yes when he proposed to me with my Mom’s engagement ring (they are both very sneaky!) So Hoi An became our favourite place for very sentamental reasons!

It is a very romantic city though. Every day starting at 3 they close down all the roads to traffic in the ancient town and after dark the entire city is lit by hundreds of paper lanterns! There are boat rides running up and down the river, so we took one to celebrate and see all the lights. It capped off a perfect day.

It wasnt the end of the excitement though. We had a pre-booked street food tour of Hoi An to fit in as well! Fortunately we had both gotten our stomachs back and we were able to eat all the delicious treats on the tour. We started with a proper Banh Mi, which was much better than the one I had in Hanoi and I tried the Hoi An version of the Banh Xeo pancake. There’s a lot of chinese cultural influence in Hoi An as well, so we tried the traditional white rose dumplings and wonton “pizza”. The main course was the most delicious chicken fried rice, and we capped it off with some coconut crackers that are local to Hoi An. We didnt have it on the food tour, but I did try one more local dish, Cau Lau, which was a tasty pork noodle soup.

Sadly our trip is almost over now, but I have one more post about Cat Tien Park and Ho Chi Minh City, so stay tuned!

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Phong Nha

Its been a while since my last update, but things have definitely not been uneventful! I wrote my last post just before boarding the night train from Sapa back to Hanoi and I was feeling on top of the world. But all the eating finally caught up with me and it was a long, rough overnight on the train.

I love trying new foods when I travel and Seth and I were definitely a little more adventurous than normal, thinking the last 4 years in Vancouver had toughened our digestive systems, but it caught up with us in our second week. We’re no strangers to travellers diarrhea, which is to be expected when you’re in a new place with different foods than you’re used to, but i definitely got full fledged food poisoning on the train to Hanoi. We’ve talked to a bunch of people since and everyone has one story about the time they got really sick (for Seth it was Peru, for me Malawi), but now it’s Vietnam for me.

I’ll leave out the gory details, but we were supposed to continue on from Hanoi direct to Ha Long Bay, which I was anticipating to be the highlight of the trip. But it quickly became evident that a 4 hour bus ride would not be feasible, so we unfortunately had to cancel our boat cruise of the bay and checked into a hotel in Hanoi instead. It was a hard choice to make, but it was definitely the right decision because I later collapsed in the hotel from what we think was dehydration and low blood sugar and Seth had to take me to the hospital. It was quite scary, but the staff at the hospital were fantastic and they took good care of me and pumped me full of fluids so that I could make a quick recovery and get back on the trip. I did recover relatively fast and we were able to catch our train to Phong Nha on time to get back on track with our itinerary. We just cut out the adventurous eating for a little while after that and there was a lot of yogurt, fruit, and steamed rice.

Phong Nha Ke-Bang is a national park located just outside Dong Ha. It’s a mountainous region known for its extensive network of caves (more than 300) and its karst topography. It’s also extremely gorgeous and had a totally different vibe than the other places we’d visited. Phong Nha is home to the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, and many other caves that make it a popular haunt for spleunkers. But there are 4 easily accessible caves that are frequented by tourists and we visited them all.

We started with its namesake cave, Phong Nha, and the nearby Tien Son Cave. We werent sure what to expect, but we were both really impressived with both caves. Phong Nha is accessible by boat, so we took a cruise on the river that eventually brought us through the cave. There are tons of stalactites and stalagmites throughout the cave, in addition to many birds and bats. Tien Son Cave is located in the same mountain, but at the top instead of the bottom where the river runs through, so we had to climb up about 500 steps to get to Tien Son.

I loved the views of the river and the park on our way up, but boy was it hot. Up until Phong Nha the weather had been a mix of clouds and rain, but that ended when we left Hanoi and it was cloudless, hot, humid days. It was normally around 35 degrees and several days went up to 40 with the humidity. It was rough on us Newfoundlanders, especially since I was still recovering from food poisoning. We both struggled with the heat in week 2, but it was still worth the climb to the top and Tien Son Cave was also gorgeous and it was much cooler in the cave, so that was a relief.

We had to start changing up our routine with the changing weather though. We started taking little siestas in the afternoon in our air conditioned hotel room to get some of our energy back. I’ve been to some hot places, but I can’t recall anywhere where the heat drained my energy so much as it did in Vietnam (I’m sure the sickness didnt help though).

On our second day in Phong Nha we did a full day tour of Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. Paradise Cave is known as one of the jewels of the park. It was only discovered in 2005 by a hunter and then opened to the public in 2011. It’s a 31.4km long cave that boasts some of the most incredible formations. We only visited the first kilometre, but it was breaktaking. In the first kilometre the cave is 30 metres wide on average and up to 80 metres high!

Dark Cave is the more adventurous of the 2 caves. You start with a zipline over the river to get to entrance of the cave and then explore the cave using only headlamps (all the other caves were lit). You walk into the mouth of the cave and then take a narrow side tunnel further into the cave. I dont really like being underground, so I wasnt sure I would like it, but it actually wasnt scary at all and the headlamps illuminate a lot. At the end of the tunnel is a huge mud bath, so we all had a laugh covering ourselves in mud. Then at the end of the tour you do a short kayak back to what the staff refers to as “water sports” but is a series of obstacles and attractions located over the river. Over all it was a great day and cooler since we spent most of it underground and in the water.

Sapa was still the highlight of the trip for me at this point, but Phong Nha was a new highlight for Seth, who had never been caving before, and he really enjoyed it.

Our next stop was Hue, but we decided to do a little stopover to the DMZ along the way. The DMZ is the ‘demilitarized zone’ of Vietnam where the border between the north and the south was created. It’s roughly along the 17th parallel and the border followed the river in that area, so friends and family on either side of the river were cut off from one another and the region was very heavily bombed. We visited the Vinh Moc tunnels and the border museum, walking across the bridge connecting the north to the south.

I knew tunnels were heavily used by Vietnam forces during the war, but I didnt realize that they were also used by communities in the DMZ who were literally forced to move underground to escape the bombing in the area. The Vinh Moc tunnels are a network of tunnels and 94 underground rooms that became home to 600 people! There were 3 levels of tunnels, ranging from 11 to 23 metres in depth. It was pretty unreal, the scope of the tunnels was impressive, especially considering the villagers had no experience in designing or building tunnels, and it’s hard to believe so many people lived in so small a place. The museum was also sobering and had some really interesting photos and artifacts.

We’re on our way to Ho Chi Minh City now, but more on Hue and Hoi An in my next post!

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Sapa

We not big city lovers overall, so we only planned for 2 days in Hanoi and then did a day trip out to Tam Coc before taking a night train up to Sapa for 2 days.

Tam Coc is about a 2 hour drive from Hanoi, but has dramically different landscapes. Hanoi and the surrounding area is mostly flat, but Tam Coc and Ninh Binh are popular for their mountains. The landscape is still pretty flat, but then these mountains just rise straight up, seemingly out of nowhere. There are no valleys, just sudden mountains and the contrast is pretty dramatic. I’m a mountain junkie since moving to Vancouver, so I loved the landscape.

We visited two temples for the Kings Dinh and Le. We’ve only been here a few days, but I feel like we’ve already seen a million temples, but I learned the difference between a temple and a pagoda. Pagodas are for the worshp of the Gods (majority buddhism) and temples are for the worship of the kings.

The highlight of the day trip though was boating along the river. We went on a hour boat cruise that took us through the mountains and in some cases, under them. The river has carved alongside the mountains and created some pretty cool karst topography. We went through 3 caves, one of which was so long you couldn’t see the end when you entered and very obviously went under the entire mountain. It was very gorgeous, but it’s also highly commercialized and the crowds took away from it a little bit. April 30 and May 1 are both holidays in Vietnam for Reunification day and Labour day, and because they fell on a mon/tues, the Vietnamese had a 4 day weekend. So that meant a lot of locals were travelling as well, so Tam Coc and Sapa were both extremely busy.

The weather has been a bit hit and miss, but our timing has been good. We didn’t see the sun at all on our first 4 days and there’s been rain on and off, but it never lasts very long and with the exception of our second day in Hanoi, we’ve been lucky in missing the rain all together. It poured on our drive to Tam Coc, but it stopped just before we arrived and though the clouds looked a bit ominous all day, the rain held off for us.

Taking the overnight train was an interesting experience though. It’s an 8 hour train ride from Hanoi to Sapa, which is located in the far north, so we took the sleeper train from 10pm to 6am. The cabins each have 2 bunk beds and are extremely cramped. I was a little overwhelmed when we first got on the train, but fortunately our bunk mates were later showing up and we were able to get ready for bed and stow our bags before they showed up to keep things from being cramped. I was also worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep on a moving train, but we were exhausted after the day in Tam Coc and the rocking of the train is kind of soothing. So overall, a pretty good first experience on the train. We have to take it back from Sapa again and once more later in the trip, so by then we should be pros.

We’re still only 5 days into the trip, but so far Sapa has definitely been the highlight. It’s located in the far north and is a very mountainous region. It’s mostly mountains and rice terraces and is home to many different minority tribes. I booked the trip to Sapa through an agency, so I wasn’t sure on a lot of the details, but the hotel they booked for us was amazing! It had the best breakfast and our room had a balcony looking out onto the most amazing view of the mountains! Like I said, I’m obsessed with mountains and now Im in love with Sapa.

Again, the weather was a bit dicey when we arrived and it rained the whole bus ride into town from the station, but it mostly stayed away during the day. We met up with a group and did a short hike to visit 2 villages. The first was Cat Cat Village. Because it was a Sunday, all the girls were dressed up in their traditional dress and it was really cool to see all their vibrant clothes. Cat Cat village is like a huge tourist trap though and one of the funnier places I’ve visited. I feel like they took a few cues from Swiss Family Robinson, gave someone way too much creative license, and came up with some of the most hilarious tourist attractions I’ve seen! Everything was engineered using bamboo and built around the river. They had everything from bridges and water crossings, to giant homemade swings, see-saws, and even a ferris wheel. It was a little surreal, but we had a good laugh at it and people were definitely loving it.

My favourite part was the hiking though. Cat Cat Village is on the bottom of the valley and Sapa town is on the top, so we did some hiking through the trees and along the river to get between the two and I loved being out in nature, away from vehicles and crowds. It is exhausting because it is so hot and humid and there’s a lot of uphill, but I loved it.

It was overcast the entire day, but I didnt mind it at all because the clouds and fog made for some gorgeous landscapes. Growing up in St. John’s, I shouldn’t have been as intrigued with the fog, but I couldn’t believe how quickly it would move in and out of the valley. One minute it would be totally clear, and then 10 mintues later the fog would roll in and you’d lose total visibility. We loved watching it though and had a fantastic supper in this restaurant overlooking the mountains and watching the weird shapes the fog would make.

The second day in Sapa though was the highlight. We finally saw the sun for the first time on the trip and it burned off the fog that was hanging around, making for a gorgeous, albeit extremely hot, day. We were picked up at our hotel by a woman from the H’mong tribe and she took us hiking for 6 hours to several villages along the valley floor. The scenery was so breathtaking, I am totally in love with the rice terraces!

We started hiking down to the valley along some pretty steep and slippery trails. Once we got to the bottom we hiked along and around the rice terraces and visited 3 different villages, stopping in one for lunch. It was oppresively hot and we were sweating so much, but it was so worth it. The only frightening part was the end, when we had to take a motorcycle taxi back to the hotel because it had been a 1 way hike. I rode motorcycles all the time in Malawi, but the traffic in Vietnam is frightening, so I wasnt in a rush to ride one. It’s like a quintessential part of Vietnam though, so now I can say I did it and hope this will be the only time!

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