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Charming Central Vietnam

sunny 25 °C

March 25-26, 2018
Hoi An, Vietnam

After our VietJet flight out of Ho Chi Minh city was delayed by several hours, we finally arrived in Da Nang at around 10:30 pm on March 24th. From there, a driver hired by our hotel in Hoi An was waiting to transport us the additional 45 minutes (south) to the hotel.
Hoi An is a former port city on the central coast of Vietnam, with several canals running through it. It is famous for its charming mix of architecture and for an ornate Japanese covered bridge over the river leading into the tourist district. Hoi An's Ancient Town area is accessible via numerous small bridges and is within easy walking distance (10 minutes) of our hotel.
The first morning in Hoi An we had a slow start at around 10am and did some self-directed wandering in search of breakfast. The weather was tolerably warm, but not stifling, which came as a welcome relief! The forecast for our two days in Hoi An predicted 25-27 degree Celsius temperatures and possibly a morning of rain. We have yet to see any rainfall since our arrival in Southeast Asia.
The area around our hotel was fairly quiet, but we somehow stumbled upon a cooking school that offered classes and food to order. Both of us chose a traditional Vietnamese meal: Cao Lau for me and Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) for Adam.
According to Wikipedia, with correct accents included, "Cao lầu is a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is found only in the town of Hội An, in the Quảng Nam Province of central Vietnam." The presentation was amazing and the food was filling and delicious.
Next, Adam rented a motorbike from Mike's Bikes over Whatsapp and they delivered it to our guesthouse in less than twenty minutes. It was nearly new and outfitted with a phone holder in front so we could use our phones for navigation.
I think I forgot to mention that in Saigon, we each picked up a Vietnamese sim card complete with unlimited data for only $8 USD each. Since then we've been able to use our Google maps, TripAdvisor, and other necessary travel apps without requiring WiFi everywhere we go. Just goes to show how overpriced our telecommunications are in Canada... but then again the population here is 3x that of our own, low population-density nation.
We headed out to An Bang Beach, the other major draw in Hoi An, aside from the Ancient Town district. It was lovely, with palm-fronded huts and beach loungers and seafood restaurants stretching out along the shoreline.
But it was so busy! People everywhere you looked and vendors weaving in and around to offer their various wares to the sun worshippers. We grabbed a spot a ways down and up from the busiest section of the beach, and ordered some of the cheapest things we could find on the overpriced beachfront restaurant menus, and a couple beers.
It was late in the day and people were slowly leaving the beach, making for a more relaxed atmosphere. A few dogs scampered in to investigate any snacks left behind by the vacating tourists.
Next up, a motorbike ride back to our end of town to wander the shops, historical buildings, and waterways of Hoi An ancient town.
90_IMG_8085.jpg There were numerous shops offering custom-made suits and clothes, leather shops with bags, shoes, belts and wallets, and all the art and souvenir shops you could ever want or need.
Lanterns hang from every tree, doorway, and bridges and give the ancient town a beautiful ambiance.
The storefronts here are nicely decorated and less congested than Ho Chi Minh or the market streets in Cambodia, for a slightly elevated shopping experience. A square leather laptop-style shoulder bag called my name and I bartered with the girl in the store, who originally wanted $110 USD, settling at $62. More than the cost of two nights' accommodation, but still worth it in my opinion! A few scarves and t-shirts for those waiting at home also found their way into my possession.
The streets and stores of the Ancient Town were simply packed with people after dark and so we opted to return to the guesthouse for a quick swim, beers, and an early night.
The next day we headed out of town to see the Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary. My Son is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD by the kings of Champa. Like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the temples are dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva.
Since we were travelling a fair distance on the bike, Adam looked for an alternate route that would save us from driving on busy commercial and industrial roads where the traffic is heavy (and dangerous). We pursued that for longer than we would care to admit before realizing that Google was trying to get us to drive through a river. Eventually, a nice local woman, Hang, stopped and offered us help. Apparently she had seen us looking lost, dropped her kid off at school, then came back to find us - still lost. Ha ha ha. She told us she used to work as a tour guide and now was a teacher. Her English was very good! She led us back through the town and out and up to the main route we'd originally hoped to avoid. Turns out there used to be a small path across the river but it had been washed out. So Google wasn't just trying to drown us/waste our afternoon after all.
We finally got to My Son in the later afternoon and spent about two hours walking through the expansive site. The temples were incredibly old, and many were still being restored. It was interesting to see the excavation and reconstruction process.

March 27-29, 2018
Hue, Vietnam

On the 27th, our next hotel in Hue sent a car to pick us up at 10am from Hoi An. The taxi would also serve as tour for the day and bring us back through Da Nang to see the Marble Mountains, across the Hai Van Pass to see some stunning mountain + ocean views, a quick stop at a former war bunker site, and lunch on the beach at Lang Co, finally arriving at our hotel in Hue around 4pm.

Our hotel in Hue was right on the river, and Adam hoped it might provide an opportunity for some fishing. IMG_8201.jpg
We walked around the tourist area after the sun set and had a light dinner, including a glass or two of white wine, selecting a Vietnamese wine made in Dalat. It wasn't very good as far as wine goes but it also didn't cost very much. No regrets.
Hue seemed very similar to Hoi An, though bigger, or Ho Chi Minh, though smaller, and by this point in the trip we both felt pretty comfortable in Vietnam's cities.
Enjoyed a few drinks back at the hotel on a bamboo platform overlooking the river, with bats flitting by, catching insects, and an occasional rat walking along the riverbank below us.
The temperature was lovely at around 25 degrees in the late evening. I'd had enough of plus-35 degree weather at that point so the change was more than welcome.
The next day we went for a walk through the town in search of a fishing supply store Adam had seen on Google. He did find it, and it was a bit like watching a kid in a candy store.
Adam tells me the rod and reel came in at less than half of our Canadian prices, and tools and lures maybe 10-20% of the prices back home. There was a small puppy at the fishing shop which kept me occupied while he picked out all his products.
Food options were great in Hue, a nice balance of Vietnamese and Western in case your palate craves some comfort food (like mine does at breakfast time).
Adam spent the balance of the day and night fishing and while it would be a better story if he caught anything, he didn't. At one point a young local teenager in a carved out boat came sliding along in the dark, using a flashlight to spotlight and scoop up numerous fish as we watched. In about 45 seconds he'd collected four or five fish and was out of sight, moving along the riverbank in the dark.
The next day we took the afternoon to visit the Hue Citadel and Imperial City. Hue was at one time the imperial capital of Vietnam, from approximately 1804-1853. The Citadel is a large square walled area on the Northern bank of the Perfume River, has a moat around it, and ten gates.
Inside the Citadel are numerous tombs and the Imperial City itself, where the King would have lived during this period.
It was a huge site to explore on foot, but we did our best. The walk to and from the Citadel to our hotel added another 4km of ground covered.
In the next post, we'll take our first train in Vietnam - an overnight to Ninh Binh, we'll stay in a bamboo hut, and see some magnificent inland limestone karsts and landscapes.

Posted by Casualodyssey 05:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged coast shopping vietnam tourist central lantern scooter hue hoi an danang da nang Comments (0)

I Yacht to Write More Often

sunny 35 °C

March 17-21, 2018
I've fallen too far behind in my travel writings to document each day we spent on our boat, the Toum Teav.
Suffice it to say that each day was similar in structure but different in content.

At 7am or 8 am, coffee, tea, juice, and water served with eggs to order, bacon available most days, pancakes, pastries, corn flakes (no one touched them), yogurt, and a selection of tropical fruit like dragonfruit, milk fruit, mango, grapefruit, lychee, pineapple, banana, soursop, and the list goes on.

A morning jaunt:
On most days there would be a stop in the early morning at a rural village to meet local artisans, visit a school or a pagoda, or just tour the town.

Then back on the boat for lunch and the heat of the day until another stop at 2pm for another quick tour.

Sundown drinks and dinner on the boat and free time at night on the boat if cruising or ashore if docked (both options we typically filled with more drinks). It was a pretty charmed life!

On our day trips, we:
- Toured a brick and clay pot factory
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- Toured a tilapia and catfish fish farm. We fed the fish and created a brief but intense feeding frenzy
- Visited numerous pagodas and temples, and received a blessing from a senior monk
- Toured a fruit orchard and sampled all the different types of tropical fruit
- Saw how rice paper and rice wine are made (the wine has cobras and scorpions in the bottles), which we were told had certain aphrodisiac effects (!) 90_IMG_7783.jpg
- Saw how certain locally-derived snack foods are made
and visited a honey farm where we sampled honey and royal jelly (again, a "cure-all" product and many health claims were made... I wish I had taken a picture of the list of benefits. From memory, this stuff cures diabetes, ulcers, increases libido, increases beauty and eliminates wrinkles, cures Hepatitis A through C, and much, much, more).
- Visited a local school and bought pencils and notebooks for the kids (creating another brief but intense feeding frenzy!)
- Took a ride on an oxen cart (Oregon Trail or bust)
- Saw a floating market (sort of, there weren't many vendors left as a road bridge had recently been built)
- Took a tuktuk ride around Cambodian capital Phnom Penh 90_IMG_7592.jpg
and shopped at the night market, briefly turning down the wrong street (think red light district)
- Saw a traditional Apsara dance on the boat done by kids in a Phnom Penh cultural training program for disadvantaged youth. We also had a small dance party with the boat crew
- Took a ride on a traditional Vietnamese sampan boat
- Visited the largest local food market in Vietnam c8752aef-2..bae2fa81f9b.jpg
- Saw rural and urban life for Cambodian and Vietnamese people from the land and from the water
373D9A06A83AC5CEFA1B3C0C6C703309.jpg IMG_7780.jpg
- Saw the most incredible trees, 90_36271D20AE9ABD760AE2848E3C31757B.jpg exotic flowers, IMG_7615.jpg plants, 90_IMG_7787.jpg landscapes and scenery, at times starkly contrasted with extreme poverty, horrendous working conditions, lack of hygiene, and widespread pollution. A valuable reminder of how lucky it is to be born in a country like Canada. We make a conscious effort to set a good example, be socially aware, give our tourist dollars to good causes, and be good stewards of our planet as we travel.

All day, every day, we saw boats. Fishing boats, dugout canoe-type boats with incredibly loud, longtail motors, tugboats, huge industrial boats with cranes dredging up the canal bottom, other boats to carry the muck away, rice ferrying boats with rice drying out on huge tarps in the sun, and very very occasionally, we saw another passenger vessel like ours.
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As we leave Cambodia behind, I reflect on the interesting fact that I was able to speak English in essentially all the places we visited. Even in the rural towns, children are learning English in their schools and greet you on passing motorbikes with a loud "HELLO!" and a wave. In the markets, even the rural food markets, the prices were given in US dollars and our change was as well, with only the last fraction of a dollar given in the Cambodian currency, the Real.

Our Cambodian guides had gone to university and earned a degree in tourism before getting jobs as tour guides and specializing in either French or English tourism (and increasingly, Cantonese). These types of jobs are some of the most desirable jobs for millennials in Cambodia's biggest cities.

It was really incredible to feel so welcome, so safe, and so wanted in Cambodia. To be able to participate in an exchange where our tourist dollars are helping - and we are getting so much in return.

We covered a fair bit of waterway over these five days and crossed into Vietnam from Cambodia from the comfort of our boat. An immigration official - who was indistinguishable (to us) from an ordinary fisherman - boarded and we were processed and on our way within about an hour. We learned afterward there was a small hiccup with one of the French passports having the wrong type of visa. I believe it was resolved quickly with a small change fee. We never even left the lounge deck.

Posted by Casualodyssey 04:14 Archived in Cambodia Tagged water local boat traditional ship cambodia river vietnam canal tropical tour mekong palm delta Comments (0)

Au Revoir, Toum Teav & Hello, Ho Chi Minh

semi-overcast 33 °C

March 22, 2018
Our last morning on the boat. Breakfast was a bit sombre as we ate our last meal together as a group. We packed up our rooms, paid our bar bill and left our tips for the crew and guides.

Crossing through the Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) port was really interesting with huge container ships, some cruise liners and freighters. One member of our party very much enjoyed all the heavy ships and equipment - I'll let you guess who.
IMG_7906.jpg IMG_7898.jpg

We disembarked at 11 am, said our goodbyes, and walked into HCMC.

We took a cab to our hotel, and he stopped in front of a narrow alley way and indicated we would have to walk down it to find our hotel. Once inside the inner street, it's a street (or more like another city) within a street, with hundreds of little shops and stands and tables selling everything you could need or imagine. Rooms to rent, laundry, coffee, pho, tours, massage, nail salon, all within literally 10 metres of the entrance of our hotel. 90_IMG_8060.jpg
The hotels and guesthouses are narrow and extremely tall to make the maximum use of space. 90_IMG_7968.jpg
When we walked in to our hotel, Diep Anh Guesthouse, we were greeted by a small elderly Vietnamese man who introduced himself as Diep Anh, in excellent English. His whole family (wife, son, daughter, and grandbaby) were there as well helping run the place. He wore two pairs of glasses, layered, I suppose as improvised bifocals. It was very endearing.
90_IMG_7944.jpg Animated and friendly, Anh sat us down and walked us through a map with the top tourism sites which all were luckily within walking distance. He pointed out some good places for food and the approximate cost of some of the services and tours. He showed us the room, 5th floor (85 stairs, blarg) but good views and quiet. His friendly and informative introduction is clearly the reason for the high TripAdvisor scores. It was a great and warm welcome to Ho Chi Minh city.
We spent the balance of the day exploring the city on foot. Since the hotel is in the downtown, or District 1, we can cover all the main areas without calling a cab. There are no tuktuks here. Though they do have Uber car and Uber motorbike, and Grab, where you can ride on the back of a motorbike and it's super cheap.
The traffic here is phenomenal, which we expected. 180_IMG_7972.jpg
Ho Chi Minh city is about the same size as Bangkok with between 8 and 10 million people. Different sources seem to disagree on the actual population. It's a lot, anyway. It's also very clean compared to all cities we've visited so far (Hong Kong being the one exception). The French influence is apparent in the architecture, landscaping, and food, at least in the tourist district and older areas.
I'm pleased to say that I'm really enjoying the city. I don't generally expect to love the big cities on long trips - and usually just use them as jumping off points. But I'm happy we have 3 days to explore HCMC.

Posted by Casualodyssey 03:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged traffic travel city vietnam busy big trip asia saigon chi ho minh hcmc population Comments (0)

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