BRAND NEW VIDEO: Hanoi to Cat Ba Island! We travel by bus, boat and motorcycle through the wild karst mountains of this beautiful island on the southern shore of the famous Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Here’s the result.
WE PULL into Hoi An, Vietnam at around 6:30 am, jittery, exhausted, and frankly relieved to be alive.
The 12 hours previous to our arrival have been a nightmarish, non-stop, seeming suicide attempt by an overnight bus driver who insisted on barreling around 25km/hr corners next to 500m sheer cliffs at twice the speed limit, blowing past oncoming buses with centimeters to spare, crashing over potholes and speed bumps at maximum velocity, and slamming on his brakes for traffic at the last possible minute before collision.
Overnight buses, like the one we have taken from Nha Trang north along the coast to Hoi An, are a lot cheaper than other transportation in Vietnam for long distances. But in our experience, the extra grey hairs aren’t really worth it. If you save a few bucks but lose life, limb or family member, hasn’t your penny-pinching been in vain?
But we digress. Now we are in Hoi An, and the gentle vibe of this small historic city calm our nerves immediately. Perhaps it’s the feeling that we could actually be in the 18th century, an ambience heightened by the local government’s decision to turn off all power in the town from late morning to early evening. While this proves slightly inconvenient at first (especially with no A.C. or fans in 33 C heat) , we quickly adjust.
Hoi An has one of the longest histories of any city in Southeast Asia.
From the 7th through the 10th century the Cham people controlled the city and its spice trade, sharing the town with a Japanese settlement on the North bank of the river. After the Cham moved south toward Nha Trang, Chinese, Portuguese, Indian, and even Dutch traders moved in to pick up the trade, building Hoi An into one of the most important ports in the region.
Eventually, however, political and geographical changes led to the decline of Hoi An as a trading center. The Thu Bon river estuary silted up and large trading ships could no longer ply the water route from the coast to the town. Now the town is known mainly as a center for traditional ceramic and textile art – a designation which becomes obvious to anyone who explores the famed Old Town.
BICYCLING THE ANCIENT CITY
Bicycle is the best way to explore the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Old Town and surrounding neighborhoods, all of which have interesting side-streets and alleys to explore.
We find a hidden gem of a tea shop down one alley. May Concept has a huge selection of gourmet teas and iced drinks and a very friendly staff, one of whom, Ngoc, shows us to the rooftops to get a birds-eye view of the old town. (Sadly, the Internet has informed us that since our visit, May Concept has closed indefinitely.)
As visitors to Vietnam may know, each region and even city in the country has their own famous local dish. So, we feel it’s our duty to stop at a local restaurant for two Hoi An delicacies – Cao Lau, a spicy noodle dish, and Bun Thit Nu’ong, a local spin on vermicelli noodles and grilled pork.
After sampling the cuisine, we pedal down toward the riverfront, where the Thu Bon River lazes through the countryside toward the muddy coast.
THU BON RIVERFRONT
Winding lanes lined with paper lanterns and bakeries and shops housed in French colonial-era buildings lure shoppers and photographers alike as we near the water.
The Thu Bon drifts lazily for a few kilometers from this riverfront before emptying its silty self into the Pacific Ocean – a geographical advantage that the numerous riverfront tour boat operators take full advantage of.
A good way to wrap up the day in Hoi An: get dinner at one of the numerous excellent French or Vietnamese restaurants near the riverfront, and then take a night walk of the bridges spanning the many canals criss-crossing the city. The streets and the river light up nightly with hundreds upon hundreds of festive bright red and yellow paper lanterns and everyone is out to enjoy the cool evening air.
AN BANG BEACH
It’s so hot the next day that we decide to bicycle out to the most popular swimming beach in Hoi An, An Bang Beach.
This white-sand beach is located just northeast of the village. It’s a flat and incredibly scenic 5km pedal (or about a 30 minute ride if you’re slow and prone to stop every 5 seconds for photos, like us) on mainly packed-dirt roads over saltwater creeks and through coastal rice paddies. Though we highly recommend this ride, you must remember to exercise extreme caution and defer to the traffic while sharing the roads and bridges with cars, as you will need to do mainly near the beach. Vietnam has a….ahem….different view of road etiquette in the best of circumstances.
Storms blow just a few miles off the coast as we arrive, but luckily the water is still safe to swim, so we jump in and made a day of it. If you’re intimidated by the currents, you can always rent one of the handy wooden tubs (the ones with little red or orange flags attached to them) available from local resorts scattered all over the beach. Though somewhat tippy, they are super fun to paddle around in.
LEAVING HOI AN
Though we’ve had only three days in Hoi An (with almost a full day spent napping after our night bus horror show), the easy-going charm and beauty of this village has seeped into us. What was supposed to be basically a stop-over between Nha Trang and nearby Da Nang has turned into an experience of its own.
We can see why so many artists and restaurant owners have decided to make this little village their home. We’ll definitely return!
One of the highlights of any trip to Vietnam is the trip up the Central Coast from Mui Ne to Nha Trang.
While there are several tourist attractions along this route, the biggest draw is simply the chance to be out in the natural beauty of this coastline. A storm had just passed through when we began this motorbike trip south of Nha Trang, hence the crazy cloud action.
All photos and videos below were taken on Cam Ranh beach at magic hour and near sunset. Shot by us with Canon EOS 60D and Panasonic Lumix GH3.
A sad story I will now relate. Our beloved guitar is mortally wounded. The wood underpinning the bridge split in half, leaving two of the strings unusable.
We don’t give up on the guitar easily though. We walk a couple of kilometers in 100 degree heat and blazing midday sun from Pham Ngu Lao to Saigon’s “Guitar Street” – a.k.a., Nyugen Thien Thuat.
This where most of the stringed instruments have been made by hand, repaired and sold for hundreds of years. If there’s anywhere in Saigon to find out if Beej’s guitar has a chance at survival, it’s here.
But the prognosis is grim. Every shop we go to takes one look and says the same thing: “There is nothing that can be done.”
The bridge is cracked and if they take off the bottom part, the finish will also…
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by Beej McKay
The 23/9 Park across from Pham Ngu Lao street in Saigon’s backpacker district is swarming with activity from 6 am on.
This being a large Vietnamese city where authority is centralized, most of the activity is pretty tightly regulated. The first day we’re there, dozens of organized groups are kicking the shuttlecock around; the next day, everyone – I mean everyone – is rollerblading, and it’s as if the shuttlecock never existed.
The slight oddness is amplified doubly by the fact that we’ve arrived while the entire park is being used as an advertisement for Vietnam’s tourist industry. A garish live concert, as loud as at any arena, is being held at the east end. Vietnamese pop singers extol the wonders of the country’s natural beauty in song while images of waterfalls and beaches are projected on a giant screen behind them.
The singers strain their hardest to get the packed and seated crowd worked up. They dance and sing with tremendous flair and energy. This being a reticent Southeast Asian country, though, and not prone to outward celebratory expression, the pop stars’ raised fists and triumphant smiles at the end of every song occasion no uproar.
No, instead there is dead silence once the music falls silent. Not one spectator betrays any sign that they have just witnessed a performance at all, no matter how slam-bang the spectacle. It makes me feel bad for the performers giving it all, but I’m sure they’re used to it.
Pretty sure this girl was there? Not positive.
The rest of the festival is mostly just booths hawking Malaysian cruises and temple tours and such. The only other highlight occurs when we run across a large group little kids dancing to a great DJ spinning hardcore hip-hop tracks (think an F-bomb every five seconds) while their parents look on. The DJ is so good, in fact, that Stax and I have a hard time stopping ourselves from joining the kids. The dour expressions of the parents as they stand around put a damper on these inclinations, however.
Despite these peculiar goings-on, the park is very pleasant at most hours and usually full of Vietnamese students eager to speak English or French with foreigners. Don’t deny yourself this experience – you will get more out of the exchange than the kids themselves probably will.
Since we returned to Saigon from our mountain retreat in Dalat, we’ve been staying at the Vy Khanh Guesthouse down a maze of back alleys just off the main street.
Vy is really nice and helpful and her guesthouse is too fancy for what we are paying. She’s also great to talk to, and the setting of her place is pretty awesome.
The steaming narrow alleys of Pham Ngu Lao, jam-packed with guesthouses and family residences and noodle stands and herb shops, wouldn’t be out of place in a movie like “Big Trouble in Little China”. I could easily picture Lo-Pan and the Storms facing off against their rivals right outside our guesthouse.
Stax and I waste no time in finding the best Pho and the best fruit and yogurt smoothies in the neighborhood. The stage is set for a very pleasant five days in Saigon before we head across the border to Phnom Penh. But as soon as I open my guitar case – for the first time since our bus trip from Da Lat – I realize that not all will go as smoothly as I hope.
Part Two of Saigon update soon!
To Be Continued…
Stax gets juiced up in Saigon and lives to tell the tale! Stay tuned for more misadventures from your favorite Misadventurists.
Back in Saigon from Dalat, we’re hanging out at Highlands Coffee, a major coffee shop chain in Vietnam. I’m sitting in front of the large windows on the second floor overlooking the backpacker district at Pham Ngu Lao. We come here for a break from the crowds, wifi, and coffee, of course. Vietnamese coffee or Cà phê sữa đá, is so powerful, it could wake up the dead. I prefer to get it iced, but even the melted ice cubes do little to tone down its strength.
Still, I forget how strong Vietnamese style coffee is, until I take my first sip of the day. The mix of concentrated coffee and sweetened condensed milk hit me hard. Every time. One drop meets my tongue and my brain goes into system overload. Caffeine! Caffeine! Caffeine! Caffeine! my cells scream. Caffeine sprinting through the blood…
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Before the Misadventurists visited the Hang Nga Crazy House in Dalat, we suspected it might be just another overblown tourist trap not worth the entrance fee.
By way of explanation, some of subpar “attractions” exist throughout Vietnam, their reputations inflated by overzealous tour organizers who want to add another paid stop on the merry-go-round (personally I would add most of the Mekong “floating village” tours to this list. Others may disagree.)
These attractions, some little more exotic than your average Denny’s parking lot (and not even the David Lynch “Mulholland Drive” parking lot) must be weeded through if one is to avoid blowing all their cash.
But mainly because Crazy House is located only a few blocks from our guesthouse, we decide to give it a chance. And believe us…Crazy House is worth visiting, if only to feel like you’ve floated outside of your body into a bizarro alternate universe.
Or maybe you want to recapture the feeling of being a baby, when your neural paths were not yet set and your silly-putty brain couldn’t just take for granted what a “house” should look like. You know, door here, roof here; a giant eagle is not a normal occupant of someone’s bedroom.
Crazy House is a combination of the weirdest hotel you’ve ever stayed in – in fact, it is a functioning hotel – a Dali-esque architectural fever dream, and Injun Joe’s Cave on Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island.
In fact, the whole complex is like one of Walt Disney’s peyote trips (of which several are well documented. Don’t bother Googling that, the Internet is secretly owned by Disney).
An interesting fact about Da Lat Crazy House: the architect is the daughter of Vietnamese aristocracy and she created several huge Soviet-block style Party buildings before hatching the idea (perhaps at a local bar after one too many) to build her own personal wonderland in Da Lat.
A big fan of Gaudi, (which will surprise no one who has seen Gaudi’s work in Barcelona) she says she built the house to honor the harmony of nature and architecture. In practice it looks like a gigantic mud creature with monstrous vine-arms is consuming a whole village.
By the time we’ve hiked through all the caves and climbed to all the roofs, we’ve probably covered over a mile of distance. A few buildings are under construction, although guests are still allowed to explore these sites freely.
Beej crawls to the roof of one five story brick behemoth with narrow stairways and beams stretched over long drops which would undoubtedly end in death with one wrong step. Let’s just say that building safety codes are not the strictest here in central Vietnam.
Back down on the ground, we enter a maze of spider-web shaped lights in a mini-fairytale forest. The forest is centered around a mosquito-infested pond containing giant living bullfrogs who croak deeply and incessantly. We can’t see them, as it’s almost totally dark in the spider-web forest, but we can hear their heavy slimy bodies splashing into the pond as we approach.
We peek into a few of the rooms, which are just as weird and cool inside as the house is outside.
It’s dark, and Crazy House is kind of creepy after dark, especially with the recorded Vietnamese orchestra music blaring from the somewhere in forest, so we decide to split. Before we leave though we stop by the wall of tribute to the architect, who apparently REALLY likes 1970s-style matte portraits where she is in fields of flowers.
To read more about Crazy House visit the official website here, and if you’re up for a trip to south Vietnam, book yourself a room. It’s cheap and you’ll remember it much better than your run of the mill luxury Hyatt.
But stay away if you’re prone to psychotic breaks.
Fellow Misadventurists: This entry was originally posted on Stax’ blog, gypsytrampthief.wordpress.com.
There were once two hill tribes that lived uncomfortably close at the foot of a mountain. They were called the Lach and the Chil and they hated each other. A lot. It seems that in general, they were pretty good at maintaining a safe distance from one another. That is, until Fate intervened.
One day, K’Lang, a boy from the Lach tribe, happened upon Ho-Biang, a girl of the Chil tribe. Their eyes met, their hearts raced, and in an instant they were experiencing chemically induced euphoria, excitement, bonding… In short, they were falling fast into forbidden love.
They wanted to marry, but it had been decreed many, many years ago (so many years that no one knew when or by whom) that people from different tribes could not marry. This did not deter them. Defying their parents, elders, tribe members, and years of tradition and enmity, the two married anyway (in a private ceremony, I presume), then climbed to the top of the mountain, away from their respective tribes to live in peace. Things went pretty well until Ho-Biang became very ill and nothing in K’Lang’s experience could cure it.
Thinking that the Chil people might know what to do, K’Lang and Ho-Biang decided to make the long journey back down the mountain to Ho-Biang’s former village. Unbeknownst to them, the Chil tribe were anticipating the couple’s arrival and had specially prepared a poisoned arrow to pierce K’Lang’s heart.
Upon entering Ho-Biang’s village, K’Lang plead with them to prepare a cure for his wife. But the villagers were too angry to listen. Blinded by vengeance toward this Lach tribesman for stealing their daughter from them, they aimed, shot and let the arrow fly. It looked like K’Lang was done for.
But despite her grave illness, Ho-Biang jumped in front of the arrow to save her beloved and died instantly. K’Lang died just afterward, devastated by his beloved’s death.
Realizing too late the error of hating one’s neighbors, Ho-Biang’s father decided it was time to unite the hill tribes of Lach, Chil, and a few others to become K’ho. Now that they were one shiny happy people, members also had the right to marry outside without having to move to the top of a mountain or worry about poisoned arrows.
In the meantime, the tombs of K’Lang and Ho-Biang grew to be two mountains, which the hill tribe members named LangBiang. Hundreds of years later, the Misadventurists (Beej and myself) visit this natural monument to lost love.
We pass through the large yellow archway entrance and are greeted by a very old woman trying to sell us authentic purses, scarves and other trinkets. Atop a small hill, above the parking lot full of green Russian-style jeeps that take tourists up the mountain to the trailhead, a giant “LangBiang” rises, laid out in big white letters like the Hollywood sign.
Next to the sign there’s a statue of K’Lang and Ho-Biang. The doomed lovers stand on separate rocks facing each other, reaching out their hands in futility, angst etched into their faces.
Climbing the mountain by foot is free, but for a small fee ($2/pax), someone will drive us to the top in one of the green Russian jeeps. Cheap. But there’s a catch: they’ll only take us when the jeep is full.We’re the only tourists in the parking lot. We can wait for four other people to show up (which could be awhile here in the hot low season) or we can pay for all six seats ($12) and a guide will drive us up, no problem.
I don’t want to wait, though. Things in the parking lot have become…annoying. The sun is trying to kill me, beating my head with wrenches of of heat. The authentic old Lach tribal woman won’t accept that she’s struck out. Her approach becomes more direct: she starts rubbing her belly with an exaggerated look of pain, holding out her hand and pointing to her mouth.
She won’t stop following us around the parking lot – from the motorbike parking, to the jeep ticket window, to the designated eating area, to the shade of one of the jeeps in the parking lot, and back to our motorbike, she seems to now be asking us to just feed her coins.
Then a boy of about 10 shows up out of nowhere. “Money” is his only greeting, and he holds out his hand in expectation.
So we begin our ascent. Soon we’re huffing and puffing up an almost vertical climb in the midday heat. This road is much steeper than we thought. Still, it is a tad cooler under the shade of the trees, the breeze constantly carries the odor of sweet pine to our nostrils, and the road is smoothly paved. Branches shimmy above me whenever the wind blows, and it’s quiet enough out here that I can hear them clearly.
Occasionally, a farmer roars past us on a motorbike, carrying huge loads balanced precariously to the back. Farmers are the only motorbike riders allowed on this mountain, and summer seems to be the season of gathering branches.
We watch as a couple gathers summer-dried pine needles from the hillside and stuffs them into huge bags, which they then lift and tie carefully to the back of their waiting motorbike. Balancing the load and maneuvering through traffic would take a more experienced rider than I. It’s a good thing they start training early. In Vietnam, babies stand on the seats of motorbikes in front of their parents as soon as they can climb to their feet.
Thirty minutes into our climb, the first tourist jeep of many roars by, but it’s not the deafening engine noise that warns me of its approach. Instead, it’s Rhianna belting out, “Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond.”
The top-40 hit echoes unnaturally across the previously peaceful countryside. It sounds like a dance party should be rocking the jeep, except no one on board looks amused nor is anyone dancing. By the time the sixth jeep passes us overloaded with grim-faced tourists, sure I’m feeling a bit sore from the climb, but I’m not disappointed at all that we’ve chosen to walk.
Two plus hours later, after talking briefly on the way to a German hiker from an island we’ve never heard of (Borkum??) we reach an area set aside for hiking.
There’s a shack there where we are instructed to pay a small entrance fee, but the place is deserted and doesn’t look like it’s been in use for a long while.
So we ditch the shack and continue along the switchback trail through the pine trees until we finally reach an overlook of DaLat city and the countryside surrounding it. It’s absolutely beautiful. The climb, the woman stalking us below, and even Rhianna occasionally screaming in our ears were worth it.
However, we can’t stay too long. We still need to head down before it gets dark. We’re not too keen on our last sight being a green jeep mowing us down with Rihanna telling us that we’re “beautiful, like diamonds in the sky”.
Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.
“Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond…”
Actually, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.
“Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond. Shine bright like a diamond…”
Scenes from the hike along the gorge below Datanla Falls, south of Dalat City, Vietnam.
If you find yourself in DaLat and awash in cash, you can book a motorcycle trip with one of the “Easy Rider” tours that leave from the center of town and visit such places as a mountain lake populated by tribes of elephants, silkworm farms, and other far-flung locales around the highlands..
But if you are on a miniscule budget (like us) you’ll probably end up bicycling or motorbiking to less ambitious destinations. Enter Datanla Falls, a mere 15 km south of Da Lat, but still a must-see in it’s own peculiar way.
We arrive at the falls just ahead of a giant, multi-bus Pegas tour – uniformed Vietnamese guides shouting orders into megaphones to overheated Russian tourists. We hang around the entrance eating ice cream sandwiches until the hordes have passed. Then we buy our ticket.
The info about the falls mention some sort of hike. This is false advertising to say the least. If there is a trail, we certainly don’t see one (likely it exists, but became overgrown through disuse). The real “hike” consists of, hilariously, a” toboggan” ride down to the upper falls, then a short amble to a cable car that whizzes you through the gorge, and finally a very strenuous, air-conditioned elevator drop to the lower falls. This is Vietnam, after all, where people REALLY hate to walk.
(Though this is partially true, it’s not entirely fair. Vietnamese family outings almost always include the very aged – they would never leave revered parents or grandparents behind – and these oldies cannot practically hike around Vietnam’s incredibly rugged terrain.)
But if the country’s aversion to walking incites them to construct such glorious apparatus as toboggans, it can’t be all bad. The ride is thrilling. You basically fly down the open mountainside in your own personal roller coaster car around hairpin bends, the only catch being that there are no hydraulics or electronic controls, so you must brake for yourself around the corners to avoid hurtling off the rails and somersaulting the rest of the way down like Andy Samberg in that forest dancing scene in “Hot Rod”.
We want to do the toboggan again as soon as the guy has stopped our cars at the bottom. But we restrain ourselves. At any rate there are other diversions. Like the archery range just above the falls.
Yes, an archery range, complete with real, extremely sharp arrows (suck it, Disneyland!) and bows – and no safety net of any kind in case an arrow flies wild, say toward the Russian tourists milling around the falls a few meters away.
Never being one to resist a test of skills, Beej opts to pay the lady 2 bucks for a chance to hit a target shaped like a critically endangered Asian tiger (you can’t make this stuff up) and win a big bottle of Da Lat wine. Hey, at least they don’t give you the wine before you handle the extremely sharp arrows.
It doesn’t go great – either Beej’s archery skills have declined since the last time he drew a bow at age 14, or he’s still jittery from the toboggan ride. The lady encourages him by laughing in unrestrained delight at every missed shot.
At one point she takes up her own bow and arrow to demonstrate to Beej how easy it is for her to hit the targets, which she proceeds to do effortlessly, several times in a row. This gesture doesn’t quite have the bolstering effect on his performance that she intends. Well, at least someone got joy out of it.
After the archery debacle we walk over to the upper falls.
A thing to do here is to have your wife or girlfriend dress up in traditional garb, smear on tons of make-up, and pose for highly unnatural portraits in front of natural wonders like waterfalls. There are at least two groups of people staging these bizarre shots in front of Datanla Falls – standing on rocks with arms raised like nature goddesses, etcetera. And it’s fascinating to watch.
A hulking figure in a full fur suit, previously camoflauged, suddenly arises from where he’s been lounging in a plastic chair near the cliff beside the falls. He springs toward us monkey-like.
In his frozen white mask, he bades us, with gestures alone, to take photos with him. We decline.
Whatever tourist outfit he works for hasn’t done enough research into Western horror movie tropes to know that having large mute furries in horrifying masks brandishing spears lurch out of the shadows in front of you might not be the best way to earn tourist dollars from Americans.
Fortunately for the monkey creature’s bottom line, others are not so shy:
A guide has informed us there are three even better falls down the gorge. Ready for a proper walk, we excitedly set out along the trail, the first we’ve seen so far here. Some have boarded the cable car which soars overhead.
But we are the only souls hiking on this peaceful trail.
TO BE CONTINUED…