Chapter 15: Vietnam x2
After changing hostels to the livelier counterpart of the guesthouse I was staying at (a long walk across the street) I settled into the lobby patiently awaiting Kristy’s arrival. I received a text from her right as she landed and was getting stoked! Getting periodic updates via blue box, “getting to baggage claim,” “finding the exit,” and then, “….” Nothing. 30 minutes go by; then 45 minutes. Now I’m starting to worry because the airport is maybe 30 minutes from HCM. But maybe she ran into some traffic or couldn’t find a taxi. After chalking it up to nothing, I realize more than an hour and a half have passed since I heard from Kristy. Initiate panic mode: I went full on Karen. I was texting and calling and messaging through every message outlet at my disposal. I was starting to wonder what I would do if she was missing. I didn’t even know where the embassy was located! Just as I was about to enter full panic mania, I glance out the window and see a disheveled XT attempting to cross the street. For those who have not been to Vietnam, crossing the street is a true test of faith. You pretty much have to just hold your breath and step out into moving traffic. The trick is to keep an even pace and just keep moving—the bikes and cars will move around you. Though, being the first few hours in Vietnam, Kristy’s face was plastered with a look that still makes me smile thinking about it—just utter confusion, worry, tiredness, but mostly confusion.
After a big bear hug, we set our stuff inside and decided to go grab some food. Since I had been in Saigon for a while, I took her around to some of the cool spots that I had found like this hip new Bahn Mi place, Pasteur St. (of course), and the fancy Bixeco Tower for the night skyline and fancy drinks. Walking around HCMC was so much more fun with a bud. We explored a bunch of streets and sampled everything. One of the highlights was a sampler plate of sticky rice! We also tried some corn dish that was alright, probably wouldn’t get it again. The late night food star was this pancake thing we had in a less than credible “establishment” (pictured below). I’m thinking it probably has a B- for the health code grade. Oh, and we can’t forget how Kristy just kept ordering boiled eggs mistakenly…or maybe she was just getting trolled.
Yummy corn thing
nom nom nom…
The Jamba Juice of Bahn Mi
Tell me what’s yo flavah OoOoo
Michelin 5-starred Dessert
…But really, this pancake thing was bomb (and also $0.02)
We also reserved a space for the Cu Chi tunnel tour which was not bad for $5. Our tour guide though—what a character. He started the bus ride off with “Goooooooooodmorning Vietnam!” (RIP Robbie). He even snuck in some well placed jokes and well-intentioned jabs at the bus load of tourists he was carting around. And just when we thought it was all fun and games, the dude does a 180 and goes stone-cold serious on us about who is to blame for the Vietnam War and who is still paying for it. *Crickets* Needless to say, the stop at the Agent Orange Victim workshop was pretty somber and we weren’t the only ones eager to get out of the bus when we reached the tunnels.
The tunnels are nothing short of impressive and really showcases how resourceful and scrappy the Vietnamese were in fending off combatants. Despite being at a resounding resource deficit in comparison to their enemies, the makers of the Cu Chi tunnels were so clever in utilizing what they had available and taking full advantage of their size difference. The tour was sprinkled with the slightest bit of propaganda and I think the words “celebrated American killer” were uttered more than a few times. We didn’t have very long in HCMC and I knew Kristy wanted to see the War museum as well. So after the Tunnels we headed out for the museum. I had been before but there was so much more to see. And despite it being a very emotionally heavy day, it was really nice. I never felt compelled to study history in school but there is something different about being in the actual place learning about it. In hindsight, we as Americans really do not put enough time into learning from our mistakes.
Since we were short on time, we had decided it was best to break up our trek toward the north with some flights and overnight buses. We were flying from HCMC to Da Lat. It was definitely one of those flights where they go, “we’ve now hit cruising altitude.” And then about 2 minutes later go, “please make sure your tray tables are secured and you chair is upright for our decent.” When we arrived, we must have looked like stereotypical travelers that didn’t really know what we were doing. These two youngish looking business men type struck up conversation and asked what we were doing in Da Lat. After chatting a bit, they offered to take us into the city since they already had ordered a car. What luck! It was roughly an hour drive to the city of Da Lat from the airport so it was much appreciated. We didn’t even mind that they friended us on Facebook and proceeded to message us some random, mis-translated on-goings of their life like, “it’s raining today—kakakakaka.” Still not sure what the appropriate response to that would have been.
Da Lat was nice because it is famed for being one of the cooler spots in Vietnam. We were staying at Mr. Peace’s hostel which had pretty good reviews when I had researched it. When we walked in Kristy got an enthusiastic hug and a kiss on the cheek with some flamboyant hand gestures from Mr. Peace whilst I got a sideways hello afterthought. Speaking with some of the other people there, we realized Mr. Peace seems to have a grudge against his fellow asians—weird. Anyway, we were only staying 1 night in Da Lat so we didn’t have time to do the canyoning but we walked around to the market and this AMAZING bar called 100 floors. To this day, coolest bar I’ve been in. It is a constructed labyrinth of imagination. A mix between Alice in Wonderland and Pirates of the Caribbean. Not sure what I mean? You’ll have to check it out for yourself. The famed “crazy house” that is an actual tourist attraction you pay for paled in comparison, needless to say.
Not much from the outside, but don’t miss this
Da Lat treated us well and was a nice reprieve from the humid sticky-ness of Saigon. Can’t forget this cutie either!
Here are some pics from our sunrise run to the Valley of Love (which we did not have to pay for woohoo!).
Valley of Love <3
And our horse friend that we rescued from winding its lead around a tree.
Saved this horse’s life, maybe…
From Da Lat, we took a bus to Nha Trong where we caught our connection sleeper bus to Hoi An.
That bus does things to you
We were staying a bit out of town but directly at the beach at this Coconut hostel. Such a chill place complete with a cutie pie puppy. Directly upon arriving at 4am, we had booked a cooking class straight away to take full advantage of our time there. A few hours of waiting in the lobby area and we were getting picked up to head to the local market. Once we were properly acquainted with some of the local foods we were going to be using, we were dropped at the river where we hopped into giant basket boats for crab catching! The local woman with us made it look so easy but trust me, it’s not. Kristy and I didn’t catch 1 sadly. But it was still fun learning. From there we got to the cooking place and spent the next few hours rotating around stations making papaya salad, eggplant saute, pho, rice paper, spring rolls, and bahn zeo. SO. FULL.
Somehow it’s only funny when XT does it
XT pondering the vast expanse of the universe and what would be a good insta caption
Mama making it look easy
Chef XT Mami
On a date
Still on a date
The summer festivities and the lantern lighting on the river also happened to be that same night we arrived. So we rented bikes after recovering from our food coma and headed toward the town. While we were walking around, this other American guy heard us speaking with each other and introduced himself. As a fellow traveler you welcome all solo’s as a rule of thumb, if you’re cool. So, being cool, we invited him to walk around with us to see the sights. This was a mistake since he proved to be interesting (*bad connotation*) company. That’s harsh—he was fine until we decided to stop into a bar for a drink. It was packed with other backpackers and there was Asian McLovin’ (literally) walking around selling laughing gas balloons. Kristy and I opted not to but Mr. Floppy hat guy was chain huffing essentially and being extremely rude—worst of all, he was being loud about it to the point where other people were whispering about it. So now, Kristy and I have the unlucky circumstance of looking like we are associated with this turkey. We managed to ditch him after a series of looks and supported white lies of being tired and going back home. I know, I know…so mean. Trust me, you would have done the same thing. Once we got back to the bar sans Flop hat, we were able to relax and get a few drinks along with some general merriment. Properly tipsy, we decided to head back since we still had about 2 miles to bike. As fate would have it, as we are walking back to our bikes, who do we see sitting at a local spot watching the Euro Cup? FLOP HAT. No way. We narrowly escaped and were getting riled up about the slightest odds of us running into him again.
Tell me that’s not McLovin’
The next day, we had scheduled a bike tour with 2 students. This was the highlight of Hoi An in my opinion—no wait, the Bahn Mi was, but this was still good. Starting at 7am (before it gets hot) 4 of us set off through the small streets of the Old town and get aboard a ferry where we get to this small island and check out how they make the wooden canoes. We learned why they paint eyes on the front and how much time it takes to make one of those bad boys. The process is insane and involves soaking the wood in the river for a while. With some stolen Vietnamese cherries in hand as a snack, we set off for a kindergarten school. Now you know how much children love me, so obviously this was great fun. No, it was! Kristy was a hit being so “foreign” and I got mad-dogged. Classic me.
You get a TV, and you get a TV, EVERYONE GETS TVS!
Note the stare down up front
We stopped by a traditional weaver family hut and saw the process to make real mats—not that plastic shit. We even got to try a few strands. Let me tell you, there is some definite skill involved and it’s sad that the art is being lost since many of the youths are moving to tourism as a profession rather than continuing on their parents’ work. Not that you can blame them—the money and opportunities are better. Next we went and had some tea and snacks at this cute old woman’s house who was making rice paper. She also made the traditional, and not-so-traditional, paper offerings for the dead. Since they believe that there is an afterlife, on someone’s death day, they burn paper representations of the things they want their loved ones to have in the afterlife like iPhones, cars, clothes, money, etc. Seems kind of excessive since many of the big items can run up to $300 USD.
Harder than it looks
Biking all day, we worked up an appetite and were talking about how the local specialty of cao long (?) noodles were kind of a disappointment. Apparently there is this really old, perhaps sacred, well in Hoi An where they use the water to make these noodles that are specific and exclusive to Hoi An. Luckily our excellent tour guides knew where to take us to get the real experience. After enjoying some lunch, we settled our tummies with some delicious Vietnamese coffee and said our goodbyes. Our guides also pointed us in the direction of the famous Bahn me 49a—a spot that is proclaimed by Bourdain as the best Bahn Mi in the world. So, despite having just eaten lunch, we stopped in to get a sammy and sample the corn milk (don’t worry we saved the sandwich until later).
Bike Tour Hoi An
Mastering the Jump Pic
The neighboring city, De Nang, is about a 20 km distance from where we were. While most people would have rented motorbikes, Kristy and opted for bicycles. Yes, everyone thought we were crazy but before we set out, we were fairly optimistic. We made it after a sweaty ride that seemed longer than expected but saw the famed marble mountains and climbed around the temple. Then we settled on the beach with some coconuts and excellent lighting for some photo opps. For dinner we decided to do some research and seek out local gems but to no avail. We hailed a taxi since we were exhausted from biking and the place we wanted was closed and we were essentially dropped off where we were picked up but had to pay the fare which was unfortunate. We walked to this really good noodle soup place though and chowed down. We stuck around for some of the summer night festivities but ultimately just wanted to get back so we started the journey back home which was much better in the night since it was cool and without the beating down sun.
Cool Bridge Dragon
From De Nang, we had another flight to Hanoi. Most people like Hanoi much better than HCMC but I found it to be kind of difficult to navigate. The hostel we were in was pretty cool though and it wasn’t long before we were headed out for out trip to Ha Long Bay. I honestly don’t know why some people only do a day trip to Halong Bay.
After an unexpected 4 hour bus ride and a 2 hour wait time in the dock we were ushered unceremoniously out to the docks. I guess more people than usual booked for the same days as us because we had to leave behind some people and make 2 trips because of the lack of life vests. While seemingly silly in the moment, this decision became even more dumb later on because of the abundance of other safety risks that were ignored following. Anyway! Made it to our boat and instantly had lunch (thank goodness) everyone was doing the awkward first day of kindergarten dance and getting to know each other. Kristy and I befriended a German girl Aline right away because she was traveling alone (been there girl!).
That day we went kayaking and cruised along the bay taking in the glorious sights around us. Despite Halong Bay being on the must-do list for everyone visiting Vietnam, it didn’t seem crowded by any means. The area of the bay we were in was fairly isolated and our squad of kayaks hitting the water remained unchallenged. At the turn around point of our kayak trip, our two guides struggled to translate the legend behind Halong Bay. Ha meaning dragon and long meaning water, I think. Legend has it, that the dragon came down to help some war against China and left its eggs or something which is what we now see as the beautiful limestone rocks jutting out of the ocean. Returning to the boat, we had swimming time were we could jump off the boat. Our trio was the first group of girls to conquer the jump #stillproud.
These views tho
“Are you guys on a professional kayak team?” Yes.
A few plates of fresh fruit were served and everyone was wondering about this strange white, styrofoam tasting morsel was on the plate. Kristy kept muttering, “it’s hicema, it’s hicema.” But literally no one listened and kept eating going, “what the heck is this.” Still laughing about it.
As night fell and more fried food was served for dinner, more people fell into a rhythm. As I mentioned, I think a ton of people booked for this day so there was another boat that tied itself to ours after dinner and we had a joint boat party. No mystery here which boat was having more fun as many of our boat mates looked longingly across to the laughter and shouting while we were still going through the, “so how long have you been traveling for?” set of questions.
Eventually, everyone made their way over to the other boat and joined in a game of Ring of Fire (never fails). Before you knew it, Kristy and I looked around and literally 90% of the boat had coupled off…great. Didn’t matter to us, we found ourselves right at home with some Aussies taking their gap year and schooling us in some real OZ slang. It was dead set nectah!
That night was spent on the boat and the morning brought shiny new faces to the top deck. If Halong Bay looks good at sunset, it is gorgeous in the morning. Everything is so still and quiet, the water looks like glass, and the rock formations look like they might have been frozen in mid conversation.
We made our way to a “swim spot” and by swim spot, I mean weird sewage area. They claim the water had all the garbage and run off in it because of the recent rain but I’m thinking the majority of it was there before hand. Such a tragic sight to see.
I jumped in anyway because it was burning hot and, meh, if I’m going to die from something at least I swam in HB as much as I could. Back on board and cooled off, the boat set off for freedom island. The only island (allegedly) that has a double beach front. We got off here and claimed out bunks then set off to explore the floaty cushions, volleyball, hammocks, and general relaxation. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur as I ventured out in the kayaks once, laid in the hammocks for a good long while, lounged in the water, annnnd that’s about it. Commence fried food dinner!
Our backyard for a day/night
That night, as everyone got progressively drunker (including our timid and stone-faced guide), the drinking games became rowdier and rowdier. Even with drill sergeant Marty leading the way for most of the games. Then, as any drunk night on an island ends, everyone went skinny dipping. Not my first choice in activities, but literally everyone was doing it so I succumbed to peer pressure.
After having some fresh crab as a late night snack and getting a spider thrown on me, I hit the hay. 2 nights went by quickly but completely worth it. That morning was a slow moving march getting everyone back on the boat and to shore.
Nature being awesome
Oh, Halong Bay
The whole crew
Happy that we had made friends with so many cool people, we tried to make sushi plans for dinner. But, there really isn’t anything in a backpacker budget in HCMC in terms of sushi. Not sure what exactly we ended up eating that night but it wasn’t sushi. At this point we kind of had a ragtag team consisting of Kael, Marty, Aline, Dan, and ourselves. The six of us went out a few nights and even went to this other place I’m forgetting to ride boats and bikes and stuff. It was chill. Oh, and a puppet show.
Marty and Kael getting comfortable in the van
Rower Status: Chuck Norris
And, as each day passed, Kristy was nearer and nearer to flying to Spain. It went by quick, but damn did we pack a lot in.