Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 153 – Vietnam to Cambodia

March 7, 2010 – Chau Doc, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It’s an early rise today – we have to catch a motorcycle to get us to the pier. After spending far too much time on buses these last few days, we’ve decided to go to Cambodia by boat.

We opt to take the tourist fast boat, which includes a small tour of the Mekong Delta before we head to the border.

Everything goes without a hitch and we get to Phnom Penh mid-afternoon.

We spend the rest of the day strolling around the waterfront and commenting on how much hotter it feels in Cambodia. But just to be clear, we’re not complaining – the cold snap we experienced in Vietnam was no fun, thank you very much.

Day 152 – Vietnam

March 6, 2010 – Chau Doc, Vietnam

We spend our day in Chau Doc, wandering around in search of food, catching up on the blog and figuring out when and how we want to enter Cambodia.

As much as we’ve enjoyed our time in Vietnam – it’s been great – I think we’re both ready to leave and begin our adventure in Cambodia.

Day 151 – Vietnam

March 5, 2010 – Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho to Chau Doc, Vietnam

Once again, Eric and I decide to try the Vietnamese public bus system to get us to Can Tho.

In doing this we discover that sometimes it’s just easier – and sometimes cheaper – to book with a tour agency rather than fumble through on your own. Another “taxi incident” is solved early in the ride and we have minimal problems getting ourselves to Can Tho.

Unfortunately, Can Tho is not what we were expecting.

We have been looking forward to checking out the Mekong Delta for the past few days. We figured it was a very appropriate way to finish off our visit to Vietnam because in many ways the Mekong is the lifeblood of not only Vietnam, but also Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. It’s used for shipping, travel, agriculture, etc. and the Delta is where it flows out into the South China Sea.

We were expecting a smaller farming community, peaceful and quiet. Instead, Can Tho is a big city, loud and nosy. We manage to walk about 50 metres outside of the bus station before we change our minds, head back in and buy a ticket for the next bus out of there.

Our destination?

Chau Doc, which is a small town located near the border of Cambodia.

The bus ride gives us a good overview of life along the Mekong Delta, which I am pleased about considering this was the whole purpose of our coming here in the first place.

We arrive at the Chau Doc bus station at around 8:00pm and decide to walk towards what we think is civilization. Yes, perhaps we could have taken a motorcycle or a taxi, but after spending most of the day sitting on a bus, we need some exercise. And seriously, how hard can it be to find the town centre when there is only one major street?

Well, it isn’t hard to find the town, but it is hard to find a place to stay.

Chau Doc is busy with all the people going back and forth to Cambodia and rooms are proving hard to come by. Eventually, we find a room, but only for one night – the following night the hotel is full, so we’ll have to find another place to stay. No worries – at least we’re covered for tonight.

We enjoy a meal of Com Cha – Vietnamese chicken and rice – at a food stall by the town centre before enjoying a game of Skip-Bo and crashing for the evening.

Not a bad day for a day of public systems and changing plans.

Days 149 & 150 – Vietnam

March 3 & 4, 2010 – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

We spend our first full day in HCMC dodging the traffic while going on a self-guided walking tour of the city.

We begin by checking out Benh Thanh Market, which is located just minutes from where we are staying. You can find almost anything here – soap, souvenirs, dehydrated fish, whatever! Eric has to drag me away as I discover Vietnamese coffee is sold in convenient 10kg. bags.

From there we continue on past Independence Palace – or Reunification Palace, depending who you ask – and loop around to the heart of the government quarter, where Notre Dame Cathedral and the central post office are located. Both of these buildings are remnants of Saigon’s French-era and are very beautiful. We finish off the architectural portion of our tour with a stroll over to the Opera House.

After meandering through a number of different neighbourhoods, we eventually arrive at the waterfront, where we check out the harbour before heading to the War Remnants Museum. Along the way we discover an outdoor climbing wall and make a quick detour to find out about climbing there tomorrow.

We arrive at the War Remnants Museum to find it under construction. Fortunately it’s still open to visitors, so we head in. We spend the next two hours walking around the museum and learning about the “American War” from the Vietnamese perspective. The museum contains photographs, articles, documents, weapons and art all describing the war, some of which are pretty gut-wrenching. It’s a good prelude to our visit to the Chu Ci Tunnels tomorrow.

After the museum, we figure we need a treat so we stop off at Yugen Fruz and enjoy some frozen-yogurt-goodness. Our flavour of choice? Vanilla mixed with blueberries – delicious!

Our second day in HCMC we start off by taking a tour of the Chu Ci Tunnels.

During the numerous wars Vietnam was involved in during the mid-1900’s, the South Vietnamese army dug many tunnel networks stretching from Saigon to the Cambodian border. The Chu Ci Tunnels alone constituted a series of over 200kms worth of tunnels. These went from anywhere between 3 to 12 metres below ground and housed not only the army, but entire villages, including hospitals, kitchens and armouries.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are about 1 ½ hours outside the city. Along the way our tour bus driver gets lost and we spend some time doubling back and making U-turns but we eventually get there with not too much time lost.

Again the perspective presented on the tour was quite interesting. The area has been modified for tourism so replica bunkers, armouries and booby-traps are on display along a trail through the forest. It’s fascinating to see how a country that had limited military technology could be quite resourceful by adapting methods used to trap animals into traps for human. Some of them were quite brutal but when you’re talking about defending one’s home, you have to admire determination.

The final two areas contains a shooting range for tourists to try various types of guns – M16s, M60s, AK47s, etc. – and a portion of tunnels you can actually crawl through. The tunnels were cramped and we both felt claustrophobic… I was able to crawl through a 15m. long section and Eric managed to make it through a 30m. long section before we both had to get out.

And one thing to keep in mind – the government actually cleaned up the tunnels, added lights and expanded the size for the sake of Western tourists! I can only imagine what they were like originally… definitely not somewhere I would want to go again.

After such an intense morning, Eric and I decide climbing would be a good way to spend the afternoon. So we grab our gear and head to the outdoor wall for a full afternoon of getting vertical!

On the way home from climbing I decide to bite the bullet and get my haircut. It’s been over 5 months, and I’ve been contemplating it for the past few weeks – I’m feeling pretty shaggy and really, what’s the worst that can happen?

Well, what should have been a half-hour shampoo and cut, turns into a 1 ½ hour experience… 1 hour of shampoo, facial and massage – including having a cucumber salad made on my face, 15 minutes of actual haircutting and another 15 minutes trying to get my now crooked bangs fixed. In the end, I decide to cut my losses – no pun intended – and go on my way. After all, hair grows back.

For dinner we’re joined by the “Colorado sisters” – Katie & Carly – who we met on our snorkeling trip in Nha Trang. They’re traveling a similar route as us, so finish off our day swapping stories over some delicious Indian food.

Day 148 – Vietnam

March 2, 2010 – Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Today we go to Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon / HCMC.

Saigon – which is located in the south – was renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the government – which is located in the north – after the war. However, seeing as the North “won” the war, I don’t think the locals in the South were given much say in the matter, so to this day they still call it Saigon. The rest of the country just calls it HCMC for short. As Eric says, it’s a bit of a “Rogers Centre vs. SkyDome” thing.

The bus leaves Dalat around 7:15am, which makes us hopeful we will arrive in HCMC at a reasonable hour.

The ride is pretty uneventful, other than we stop three times in 8 hours at various touristy rest-stops. We’re getting used to making frequent stops on our bus trips – it’s a chance to use the washroom. However, most of the time you’re “encouraged” to buy a variety of over-priced and under-qualitied items, which can get a little tiring after a while. But the first stop today offers free ice coffee which is delicious.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m lovin’ the ice coffees in Asia – strong coffee mixed with some sweet condensed milk and ice… delicious! However in Vietnam they’re exceptionally good – the coffee has hints of chocolate and Kahlua… need I say more?

We arrive in HCMC around 4:00pm and are dropped off in the thick of the backpacker district, Pham Ngu Lao, which is both a blessing and a curse…

A blessing because it won’t be hard for us to find accommodation.

A curse because the minute we get off the bus we will get mobbed by swarms of people trying to sell us hotel rooms, taxi rides, package tours, sunglasses, tacky souvenirs, beer, fried balls of dough, etc.

Eric and I gather our things, and after muscling our way out of the crowd, we wander over to a small alley loaded with guesthouses. Pretty much every building along this strip offers accommodation, so it isn’t long before we find a great place with TV, hot water and quiet. It also offers a free cardiovascular workout…

Our room is on the 4th floor, but since the 1st floor doesn’t really start until the 3rd floor, we’re technically on the 6th floor. At least we only have to take our big bags up once…. unless you’re Eric, whose turn it is to check out the room before we commit. He forgets to leave his big bag with me in the lobby and carries it all the way to the top floor. But since we’re not sure whether we’ll stay or not, he has to carry it all the way back down so we can discuss it. And since we do decide to stay, he has to take it all the way back up again.

Silly boy… at least he’s cute.

We spend the rest of the evening wandering around the neighbourhood, grabbing a bite to eat and coming to the realization that HCMC is ridiculously busy with motorcycles. In fact, it’s probably the most we’ve experienced to date – apparently there are 12 million people in the city and 8 million motorcycles… I’m sure you can imagine the congestion!

Eventually, we make our way back up all the stairs and fall asleep.

What to Bring: First Aid

Feel like playing doctor? Well, be careful what you wish for because you may get your chance on your trip.

Medical treatment is not the same world-wide… so instead of having to rely on the local services, sometimes it’s better to D.I.Y.

Should this be the case, here are a few things which could make your job easier…

Prescription Drugs

Bring anything you take on a regular basis back home with you… your asthma-inhaler, your epi-pen, brain pills, whatever.

And be sure to bring enough of it! You don’t want to have an allergic reaction to shellfish in the middle of nowhere and go “whoops – I guess I’m gonna die now”.

As well, bring anything you may need specifically for your trip – malaria pills, antibiotics for traveler’s diarrhea, etc.

Speaking of traveler’s diarrhea… talk to your doctor about getting a small prescription of antibiotics to bring with you – levofloxacin or ciprofloxacin are good to have. It can help with any gastro-intestinal ailments you may develop, as well as other situations… an infected coral-gash, etc.

Medical Information

See “What to Bring – Necessities”.

Non-Prescription Drugs

Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, anti-histamines, Pepto Bismal, etc.

Chances are you’ll be able to find most of your over-the-counter favourites, or at least a suitable replacement, at the pharmacy / chemist / apothecary / corner store, but sometimes it’s just comforting to know you have 100% real, non-imitation Immodium handy before you embark on a 12-hour bus ride.


Get one with “deet”.

I know long-term exposure to deet isn’t good for you, but neither is malaria or yellow fever… citronella-based bugsprays will do jacksh*t against the mosquitoes you’ll meet along the way.

I believe Mountain Equipment Co-op and EuropeBound sell the same kind of bugspray used by the US Navy SEALS, which is totally badass.


Comes in handy once you’ve discovered that the citronella-based bugspray you brought did jacksh*t against the mosquitoes you met along the way.

First Aid Kit

Once again, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Europebound sell ready-made First Aid kits for people with active lifestyles… they come in various shapes & sizes and are quite handy.

The only problem with these is you do pay for the convenience of having them pre-made.

As well, these First Aid kits only carry a limited amount of each item, so it’s good to supplement yours with extras of all the items you may use repeatedly – bandages, gauze pads, alcohol wipes, Q-Tips, etc.


Sometimes food poisoning is just food poisoning and a cold is just a cold.

But sometimes it’s far worse.

So one of the easiest ways to determine whether or not this is “some time” or whether it’s something more serious is by monitoring one’s temperature.

As a bonus, you can also use it to make sure your glass of Cabernet Sauvignon is at exactly room-temperature.

Magnifying Glass

To make sure you get all of that tick, leech or bee bite out of you.

Pocket Mirror

The same as above when it’s on your forehead.

First Aid Surgery Kit

Some things you buy in the hope you’ll never have to use it.

This is one of these “things”.

It’s a small package containing sterile gloves, sutures, syringes, needles, an IV catheter and alcohol wipes. If you’re ever in need of emergency surgery – knock on wood – and you’re hesitant about the cleanliness of the clinic / hospital / shack you’re in, you can give the kit to the doctor / nurse / in-charge person to use.

Once again, it’s available at MEC and EuropeBound.

Water Purifiers

You should be able to find bottled water wherever you go. But if you plan on doing a multi-day hiking trip, you may not want to lug all of it with you.

Pristine Water drops – available at, surprise, MEC or EuropeBound – are easy to use and kill off 99% of bacteria and viruses in water… only boiling is more effective.

It doesn’t take up much room so you might consider bringing it along… again, it totally depends on what you’re going to be doing on your trip.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Days 147 – Vietnam

March 1, 2010 – Nha Trang to Dalat, Vietnam

To avoid having to take another sleeper bus to get us to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), we decide to split up our travel over two days by stopping in Dalat for the night.

We take an early morning bus from Nha Trang and arrive mid-afternoon.

Dalat is a pretty mountain town, in the heart of Vietnam’s “fruit belt”. The weird thing about it is that it doesn’t feel like Vietnam – it actually feels like we’re in the Muskokas… not quite sure why, but we both have that impression.

We stay just long enough to check out the town, visit the market to grab some of the fresh fruit Dalat is famous for and figure out how to catch the bus to HCMC.

Days 142-146 – Vietnam

February 24-28, 2010 – Nha Trang, Vietnam

Ahhhh….Nha Trang.

Just what the doctor ordered… warmth, sunshine and a beautiful beach.

After a long and partially restful ride on the night bus, Eric and I arrive to find a beach city. It’s a little bigger than we expected but it’s exactly what we are looking for. We find a hotel located about 200 metres from the beach and settle in for a good five full days of fun in the sun.

We spend three days relaxing on the beach and walking around the city. The other two days we go snorkeling.

Unfortunately, a lot of the organized snorkel trips around Nha Trang are really just glorified booze-cruises…

The boat company takes you to a number of different areas along the bay, but when you get there, they launch the floating bar and crank the music which scares away the fish. And would you believe it? Most of the snorkeling equipment is broken… sorry about that. Guess you can’t really snorkel today – you might as well have a drink. By the way, drinks are not included in the price… that’ll be extra money please.

But we discover a company – Vu’s Adventure Tours – that offers snorkeling trips where they actually take you snorkeling. It’s advertised as the “Non-Party Snorkeling Trip” – no booze, no loud music, no hidden fees – and we immediately sign up.

They drop us off at some amazing spots for snorkeling – the coral is stunning and there are fish everywhere. We see parrot fish, angel fish, puffer fish, clown fish, starfish, plus many others I can’t name. I even see an eel and a sea snake! At one point a school of at least a hundred fish swims by me – it was like something you’d see in “the Blue Planet”. We stay in the same areas for a couple hours at a time, so there’s plenty of opportunity to snorkel, sunbathe, dive off the boat and just relax.

And the lunch they provide is to die for – grilled fish, grilled prawns, marinated squid & vegetable salad, fried tofu with long-beans, yellow noodles with papaya salad, spring-rolls, angel-food cake and so much fresh fruit, we ended up taking some of it home.

The trip was so much fun that Eric and I decide to do it again, so we sign up for two days later.

For dinner, we discover two amazing places.

The first is a Bo Ne restaurant. Bo Ne is a fried egg with a piece of steak and fried onions, topped with a chili-tomato sauce and served piping hot in a cast iron skillet. You mix it all up and eat it with fresh vegetables and crusty bread. The fun thing about this place is that it’s only a restaurant at night. By day, it’s a carwash… seriously. We discovered this the hard way – we walked past it in the evening and thought it would be a great place for breakfast, but when we went back the next morning, there was no Bo Ne to be found – just a freshly-waxed Lexus. At about 4:00pm, they clear out the cars, spray the place down and hang up the hoses. Then they wheel out the stove and set up the tables – talk about an amazing use of space! The Bo Ne was so good here we brought our first snorkeling group with us on our return visit.

The other treasure we find is located on the sidewalk across from the beach, about 5 minutes from our hotel. This “restaurant” consists of a man with a charcoal grill and buckets of fresh seafood packed on ice – you pick your seafood, he weighs it and then grills it up. The garnish is a simple mixture of lime juice, diced chili peppers and green onions, a bit of garlic and chopped peanuts. Then you just sit at a little table on the sidewalk, enjoy your meal and watch the world go by. We have scallops and clams on the half-shell and a whole lobster – the scallops are so good we go back for seconds our last night in Nha Trang.

After being land-locked for almost 2 months, Nha Trang was exactly what we needed.

Day 141 – Vietnam

February 23, 2010 – Hoi An to Nha Trang, Vietnam

Today is “the Awesome Gazelles” final day in Hoi An.

We’re all catching overnight rides to our next destinations – Stewie’s heading north to Hanoi and Eric & I are heading south to Nha Trang.

We spend our remaining time wandering the streets of UNESCO World Heritage site Old Town Hoi An and doing a bit of souvenir shopping.

After grabbing a couple of Banh Mi sandwiches for the road, Eric and I say a farewell to Stewie and prepare ourselves for the dreaded sleeper night bus and wishing we could be teleported to Nha Trang.

Day 140 – Vietnam

February 22, 2010 – Hoi An, Vietnam

The three of us wake-up and grab a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes, club sandwiches, ice coffees and banana fruit shakes before heading out to see the sights.

Today we’re going to visit the Marble Mountains, which are about 20kms from Hoi An.

We decide to rent bicycles and after a thorough inspection, Eric and I decide on yellow ones, while Stewie picks a green one. We make a very colour-coordinated biker gang, which inspires us to pick a gang name… “the Awesome Gazelles”.

Now that the important tasks are done, we can head out.

The ride starts off very nice – we make our way along a quiet dirt road surrounded by farms. In the distance we can see the Marble Mountains, which are very impressive.

The Marble Mountains are a series of large cliffs and caves – obviously made of marble – that are home to a number of temples and shrines. They seem to pop up out of nowhere and are quite amazing… from afar.

Unfortunately, as you get closer, they lose some of their charm.

The quiet dirt road turns into a massive paved highway and all the fields and farms, become a series of buildings, stores and restaurants. There are dozens of marble masons surrounding the mountains, each of them showing off an unbelievable array of statues and carvings. Eric and Stewie start joking around about how the way they’re going through marble, eventually the area will just be known as “Marble Mountain”… singular.

We stroll around the temples, which are quite peaceful and then make our way over to see China Beach.

During the Vietnam-American war, China Beach was a base camp for the US Army. Today, it’s a very quiet beach, though judging by the amount of development happening – the Hyatt chain is building a resort – this won’t last for long.

We don’t go for a swim as the temperature is still pretty chilly and the waves look pretty intimidating. But we do check out a number of fishermen braving the waters and heading out in their “basket boats”.

Eventually, we decide it’s time to head back, so we hope on our bikes and begin the ride back “home”. For a change of scenery, we take the long route home, which adds another 5kms to our route. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but I get a flat rear tire and we end up having to walk the last 9km of our “scenic route”.

The plus side is the last 4km of it is quite beautiful – the paved highway disappears and we go back into the peaceful world of rice fields along a river.

Our evening is spent wandering the ancient city of Hoi An and looking for dinner, which we eat in three courses. Cau Lau is the first course, Xima Phu – sweet black sesame seed soup – is the second course and Mi Quang – noodles with pork, bean sprouts, peanuts, vegetables and a boiled quail egg – as the third and final course.

What to Bring: Gear

As with all your other packing, what you bring “gear-wise” will be dependent on what you’re doing.

Are you just going to sit on a beach and veg out or are you going downhill skiing?

Are you staying in an all-inclusive resort the entire time or will you be venturing out across a country?

Will you be near civilization or out in the boonies?

Things to think about...

Large Backpack

Well duhhhh…

What are you going to do? Carry your stuff in a garbage bag?

For the kind of travelling we’re doing – moving around by different forms of transportation – backpacks work the best. Suitcases with wheels are great if you’re staying in relatively the same place, but if you’re going to be hopping on & off buses, boats, trains, etc. invest in a good rugged pack.

In SE Asia, the sidewalks are kind of non-existent… they’re there in theory, but in reality they’re being used as markets, garages, restaurants, tea shops, parking lots, barber shops and toilets. So wheeling around a suitcase is a lot more difficult than it should be.

Sleeping Bag

Not every hostel or guesthouse provides blankets and sometimes the ones they do are a thing best left untouched.

And even though you may be going to a tropical country, remember – it can still get cold at night.


Be sure to bring a full-size one.

Yeah, the small quick-dry, “Sham-Wow” type towels you might take on a camping trip are great space savers, but on a cold morning in a guesthouse with no hot water, you won’t regret it.

Towels can also be used as impromptu blankets, seat cushions, window curtains and weapons... the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is right – towels are very useful.

Hostel Sheet

Hostel Sheets are kind of like a sleeping bag, except they’re made with a thin piece of fabric, such as silk or polyester, and they act as a buffer between you and those unknown stains on your mattress.

They can also give you some warmth for nights when it’s too hot for a sleeping bag, but too chilly for nothing.

Mosquito Net

Why bring a mosquito net?

Well, let’s see… malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, awkward scratching because you slept in the nude, etc.

Get one that you can hang above your bed and one you can wear on your head for hiking in dry places where the flies don’t bite but instead just swarm your face to drink your sweat…

You think I’m kidding, don’t you?

Backpack Rain Cover

This is for when your bag is about to be strapped to the roof of a bus and the driver’s assurance that it won’t rain isn’t comforting.

It also makes it a little harder for pickpockets to access your stuff.

Duct Tape

Please… do you really need a reason?

Okay then – fixing the hole a rat chewed in your bag, taping together your guide book, repairing holes in your window screen or your rain jacket, etc.

Rope / Laundry Line

Perfect for hanging up wet bathing suits, towels, socks, raingear, etc.

Plus it comes in handy for other things like jury-rigging your mosquito net, making a curtain rod, etc.

Cloth Shopping Bag

The developing world has a strong fascination with plastic bags. Unfortunately, this means there’s also a lot of plastic bags being thrown out. So by bringing your own bag, you’re helping to do your part for the environment.

These can be a fun souvenir to pick up along the way, but they’re also good to have in general – you can use them to carry food from the market or wet clothes from the beach.

Plus there’s nothing more annoying than trying to sleep and someone in your room starts crinkling a plastic bag.


For the important things in life… like whiskey, wine, beer, etc.


Not every hostel has a kitchen, so it’s a good way to enjoy food from the market.


A fork & spoon is always a good thing to bring along and when you’re in Asian countries, you might want to pick up your own set of chopsticks because some food stalls have questionable dishwashing techniques.

Laundry Bag

This should be self-explanatory.

Headlamp / Flashlight

These are great to have for night hikes or exploring caves, but they’re even better for reading in bed.

And you don’t want to be the traveler that has to wake up early to catch their 6am flight and then turns on the room light, much to the annoyance of everyone else trying to sleep!

Swiss Army Knife / Multi-Tool

Don’t leave home without one… these are great for doing minor repairs on your stuff, opening cans of tuna, cutting up a mango, etc.

Make sure it has a corkscrew – see "Cup".


Extra security for you and your stuff.

Most hostels use standard door locks, but some will use a padlock which are very easy to bust open or get a spare key cut for.

You can also use it to lock your bag shut or at public lockers in gyms, spas, etc.

Neck Pillow

They’re great for riding in planes, trains and automobiles and they can help you avoid being a “snuggler”.

Water Bottle

Developing countries also have a strong fascination with plastic water bottles, so you can refill your bottle in purified water stations… you’ll save a lot of $$$ and you’ll help the environment.


For defense against snorers, roosters, calls to prayer, people having sex, drunken idiots, etc.

Watch w/ Alarm

Because “I slept in” isn’t a good excuse for missing your flight.


For looking cool… and sun protection.

Sewing Kit

Repairing the rip in your crotch from when you bent over to pick up your backpack or sewing on a Canadian flag… but only if you’re a Canadian.

Ziploc Bags

See "Travel Tip #106".

Day 139 – Vietnam

February 21, 2010 – Hue to Da Nang to Hoi An, Vietnam

On Day 139, we wake up early and head to the bus station.

For the past few months we have gotten used to being constantly hounded by almost every motorcycle driver, tuk tuk driver, opelet driver and taxi driver trying to get our business and yet today we can’t seem to catch any of these to save our life.

I guess word has finally gotten around that we’re a “no sale”, so we end up walking the 2kms to the bus station.

When we arrive, it’s in a state of chaos. Buses are everywhere, people are swarming the doors, porters are lugging bags and ticket agents are hollering out to everyone… I’d like to think it’s still related to Tet, but I’ve got a feeling this is just how it’s done here. We manage to figure out the procedure and get ourselves on a bus bound for Da Nang.

There are no direct routes by public bus from Hue to Hoi An – we have to take a mini-bus 2 hours to Da Nang and then transfer to a local bus for the remaining 30kms of the trip.

We arrive in Da Nang on schedule – which is very impressive for Vietnam – and find the bus going to Hoi An. Of course no prices are posted, so we have to negotiate with the driver, but once we reach a deal, we hop on board and are greeted by a fellow traveler, Stewie from Australia.

Stewie seems like a nice guy and we enjoy swapping “war stories” for the rest of the journey…

Little do we know that this encounter will turn into a 3-day experience.

When we arrive in Hoi An, it’s less than a kilometer walk to the “city centre”, but of course now all the taxi drivers are paying attention to us… where were you this morning, boys?

The three of us set out to find accommodation and we discover this isn’t going to be an easy thing to do – it seems Hoi An is very busy this time of year.

Most of the hotels are full and those that aren’t seem to be way out of our normal price range. So we decide to work as a team and find a reasonably priced room that we can split three ways – there are 2 queen-sized beds, a TV and a mini-fridge, so we’re all happy.

To celebrate, we – we being the three of us – head to a small café to sample some of the local fare, Cau Lau and “White Rose”.

Cau Lau is a soup made with flat noodles, sliced pork, bean sprouts, mixed greens and croutons. The secret ingredient here is the noodles – they must be made with water from the local Ba Le well, which is located in Hoi An.

“White Rose” is a small steamed dumpling stuffed with shrimp, which is very similar to the Banh Beo we had in Hue.

Stewie and I also have a couple of Vietnamese ice coffees, so it’s a great meal overall.

We split up for the afternoon – Eric and I wander around the old city and Stewie does whatever he does – and then we meet up later to induct him into the world of Skip-Bo… of course.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Days 136-138 – Vietnam

February 18-20, 2010 – Hue, Vietnam

Our first day in Hue is a recovery day.

I don’t know what it is but after a night bus, Eric and I always need a day to recuperate, so we spend our first day in Hue doing a lot of nothing… reading, writing, napping, etc.

But the next two days are filled with good old fashioned sightseeing – visiting the Citadel and the Royal Tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty.

From 1802 to 1945, under the 13 emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, Hue was the political capital of Vietnam. The tombs of these emperors, along with the Citadel now comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Citadel itself is located along Song Huong – the “Perfume River” – within the city of Hue, so we spend Day 137 wandering around it.

Most of the Citadel is still in use – it’s a community surrounded by a moat and a large, brick wall – but the “Imperial Enclosure”, where the emperor’s carried out their official functions, has been closed off and is in the process of being restored. You can still walk around it and we enjoy a nice afternoon checking out the architecture. We also enjoy not having the constant sound of traffic in our ears.

For dinner, we opt for a night in – we grab a couple of take-away Banh Mi sandwiches and watch “Stranger Than Fiction” in our hotel room… the accommodation in Vietnam has been the best we’ve had so far because most rooms come with a TV and StarChoice Movies!!!

Whereas the Citadel was very convenient for us to get to, the Royal Tombs are spread out between 7-16 kms outside of the city centre… it’s either spend a lot of money and hire a taxi for the day or for less than half the cost of the taxi, we can take an organized tour and go to 3 of the tombs, plus a number of other spots and get a free lunch.

So on Day 138, we take the boat tour to check out the Royal Tombs.

Usually the “other spots” on a tour are places the tour company gets paid to bring tourists to – a rice whisky “distillery”, an incense maker, a fabric maker, etc. It gets a little annoying because these places are never included in the price and more often than not, they suck.

But as long as you know what you’re getting into, it’s an affordable way to work the system – take the transport to where you want to actually go and then skip the places in between.

However, on this boat trip one of the “additional spots” is actually a nice surprise for us. The tour company drops us off at Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda itself is quite nice and we enjoy a quiet stroll around the grounds.

But what really interests us is that it was also the home of Thich Quang Duc. Thich Quang Duc was the monk who publicly burned himself to death in 1963 to protest the policies of former Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. The car he drove to the event in is on display and Eric is fascinated by it because although the picture taken of the act is quite famous on its own, it was also used on the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s debut, self-titled album.

After our free lunch of rice, noodles and fried tofu – yeah, we weren’t expecting anything spectacular – we eventually get to the Royal Tombs and have a great afternoon checking them out.

When we arrive back into town, we immediately go out in search of some real food and succeed brilliantly. We find a nice, quiet café and order up an assortment of Hue specialties, including:

Banh Beo – rice dumpling wrappers topped with shrimp, fried shallots, egg yolk and green onions

Banh Khoai – a Vietnamese pancake stuffed with meat and green onions

Banh Nam – glutinous rice and meat steamed in a banana leaf

Cha Ca That Lak Kho To – fish balls caramelized in a clay pot

Nem Mia Lui – minced pork grilled around sugarcane skewers

All of them are delicious but I’d say our favourite has to be the Banh Beo.

Day 135 – Vietnam

February 17, 2010 – Ninh Binh to Hue, Vietnam

We wake up frozen.

When I said it was cold, I wasn’t joking… it’s freezing over here! Eric and I are wearing almost every piece of clothing we have and last night we both squeezed into one single just for the extra warmth.

We check out of our hotel, store our bags, have some breakfast and then rent a couple of bikes to go exploring.

On the agenda today is a visit to Tam Coc, described as the “Halong Bay on the Rice Paddies”.

We peddle around the villages while enjoying the fresh air and eventually we arrive at the Tam Coc pier where we hire a boat to take us for a cruise along the river.

The river is busy.

And when I say busy, I mean CRAZY BUSY.

At one point we have to pass under a bridge except there’s a full-on traffic jam happening… the kind where one side refuses to let the other side through, no one’s willing to budge and there’s one lone cop in the middle of the intersection trying to sort it all out. Except in this case, the “cop” is just a man with a megaphone standing on the bridge waving his arms frantically.

Eventually we make it through but it feels more like a ride on the bumper cars than a peaceful meander in a “canoe”.

Despite all the chaos Eric and I do enjoy our paddle. The scenery is amazing – bright green rice fields and quaint little farms, surrounded by massive limestone cliffs.

During the final stretch home, we really start feeling the cold, so we decide to hurry our boat along by picking up the spare paddles and paddling like true Canadians!

After an extra-long bike ride home – the “shortcut” wasn’t so short – we order a pot of tea and wait for the night bus.

Day 134 – Vietnam

February 16, 2010 – Hanoi to Ninh Binh, Vietnam

We wake up at the crack of 8:00am and make our way to the train station.

In most places, the train is actually a quicker way to get around, but in Vietnam, it’s not the case - buses are usually just as fast, if not faster than trains. However, since the train station is within walking distance from our hotel while the bus station is a taxi ride away, we opt to hit the rails to get from Hanoi to Ninh Binh.

Given our history with taxis, I’m sure you understand why.

When we arrive, the train station is bopping – there are people everywhere! Since Tet is starting to wind down, lots of people are making their way back home. Fortunately for us, we were given a heads up by the owner of our hotel, so we arrive an hour and half early to ensure we get a seat.

We have four options for tickets - hard seat, soft seat, hard bed or soft bed.

Since we’re travelling during the day, we automatically rule out the beds. And since it’s only supposed to be a two-hour ride, we opt for the hard seat.

Plus, the hard seat is a couple bucks cheaper and that savings can go towards ice cream.

The train ride is very busy but good. The only problem we have is two cases of sore butts. We’ve both lost a few pounds since we began our trip and apparently a good chunk of it came from our behinds… boney butts + hard seats = ow.

Eric didn’t have much a butt to begin with, so he was definitely in pain towards the end of the ride. And despite his numerous requests for me to kiss it better, I passed.

We arrive in Ninh Binh early afternoon and have no idea where we’re going. But as luck would have it, the train station is within walking distance of a few hotels, so we check into one and begin our search for lunch.

Now, with a population of 53,000 people, you’d think there’d be a couple of restaurants open, would you not?

Of course you would. But unfortunately it’s still “Tet time”, so our only options seem to be Pho, Pho or Pho.

I’m not a big fan of Pho and am determined to find an alternative, so we stroll around for a while and eventually find a small café that also serves fried noodles. Or specifically, fried INSTANT noodles… it’s not a great alternative, but it’ll do.

The weather is still quite cold so after lunch we head back to our hotel room to warm up before figuring out how to get to Hue.

Ninh Binh seems nice and we are looking forward to doing some exploring, but we REALLY need warmer weather, so it’s going to be a short visit.

After much searching we find out there are no public buses to Hue and the trains are already booked up for the next 5 days, so it looks like our only option is a tourist night bus.


Neither of us are big fans of night buses and we can’t stand tourist buses. But since our only other choice is renting a car, we book ourselves on a night bus for the next evening… given the way people drive over here, I’m sure you’ll agree we have no other alternative.

We finish off the day with a Pho-less dinner – we have a nice do-it-yourself BBQ instead – and then call it a night.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Day 133 – Vietnam

February 15, 2010 – Hanoi, Vietnam

Today is a lazy day.

It’s cold and almost everything is closed, which means it’s a perfect day to eat pizza, read, nap, work on the blog – we’re still trying to catch up – and do a whole lot of nothing. So this is exactly what we do until dinner time, which is the highlight of the day.

Since we’re scheduled to leave Hanoi tomorrow morning, we want to hit our favourite spots for dinner one last time.

We begin our evening with some deep-fried goodness – pork fingers & crinkle-cut jicama fries. Alas, our regular spot is closed for the holidays, so we go to the restaurant next door and they don’t disappoint us… DELICIOUS!

Then we follow this up with a stroll through the deserted city and finish it all off at the Vietnamese kebab shop. Along with our favourites from the night before – beef with tomatoes & Chinese mushrooms, crabcakes and grilled whole mushrooms – we also try a few local delicacies, including barbequed snails, grilled frog and roasted Chinese mushrooms.

It is a wonderful ending to a city we have truly grown to love.

Just for the Record…

In the previous blog entry – Day 132 – Robyn posted a picture of me holding a map and looking lost.

I just want to make it perfectly clear that this photo was taken as a joke.

I wasn’t really lost.

I wasn’t really looking at a map.

In fact, I knew exactly where I was…

I was in Hanoi.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 132 – Vietnam

February 14, 2010 – Hanoi, Vietnam

New Year’s Day in Hanoi is bizarre.

Normally the city is a bundle of energy – traffic is crazy, business is booming and people are everywhere.

But when we head out in search of breakfast it’s like the city has become a ghost town. Almost every store is closed and there are hardly any cars on the road… it’s actually kind of eerie.

Unfortunately for us, the only restaurants that seem to be open are the tourist haunts. We usually look for street stalls because the food is better and much cheaper. However their owners are celebrating the holidays, so it looks like it’s western food for us. We grab a breakfast of omelettes, fruit salad and French fries and then begin wandering around.

We visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, the One Pillar Pagoda and the War Heroes Memorial. The museum and mausoleum are closed because of the holiday but they are worth visiting any way for their significance and architecture.

We wander around the city for a bit when we stumble upon a small complex of narrow alleys and tall houses. We’re really enjoying watching everyone celebrate their holiday and we decide to explore it further. The next thing we know we’ve gone a little too deep inside and can’t figure out where the exit is. We know we’re in a safe area because it’s filled with families, but it’s starting to get cold so we want to find our way out.

As we turn yet another corner looking for an exit, we find a street flanked by two small lakes. In one of the lakes are the remains of crashed B-52 Bomber. There’s a small monument explaining that this is an American plane that was shot down by the Vietnamese Army and was a turning point in the war. The fascinating thing for us was reading the point-of-view – it’s a gentle reminder for us that there’s always another side of things during war… it was pretty cool.

We eventually find our way out of the “neighbourhood” and ironically run into a couple tourists specifically looking for the B-52 crash. They ask us if we know where it is and we feel kind of bad explaining that we did see it, it does exist but unfortunately we have no idea how to get to it.

We really don’t want western food for dinner, so we begin the search for a local restaurant that’s open.

The first place we find is really only serving Pho, which both of us are getting tired of. They do offer “fried Pho” which we order along with a dried beef salad. The salad is good but the Pho left something to be desired. We’re still hungry, so we continue out in search of Dinner #2.

Although we were trying to avoid having a baguette sandwich for dinner, we find ourselves sharing one while watching some of the New Year’s entertainment... a juggling act. We’re now unsatisfied on numerous levels, so we carry on our search for Dinner #3.

Well let me tell you, this is THE dinner. We find a food stall that specializes in shish kebabs Vietnamese-style. We are absolutely thrilled and sit down to enjoy our final meal of beef with tomatoes & Chinese mushrooms, crabcakes, fishcakes with lemongrass and grilled whole mushrooms.

It’s so good we plan to return tomorrow night so we can enjoy some more.

We head home, satisfied – finally – and crash out.

Day 131 – Vietnam

February 13, 2010 – Cat Ba Island to Hanoi, Vietnam

Eric and I decide to leave Cat Ba Island two days earlier than we had originally planned because we’ve seen what we’ve came to see and to be honest, we just aren’t really diggin’ the place.

We try to get ourselves to Ninh Binh, which is located about 2 hours southwest of Hanoi, but all the buses are full because of Tet. So instead we head back to Hanoi – sometimes it’s easier to just go with the flow than to keep trying to swim upstream.

We catch the last boat and bus from Halong Bay and arrive in Hanoi mid-afternoon. Despite hoping to hang out on a beach for a couple of days, we are quite happy to be returning since we really enjoyed our experience there the first time.

Plus it will be a lot of fun to celebrate Lunar New Year’s in Vietnam’s capital city.

After we find a place to stay, we bundle up for the cold and enter the madness on the streets.

And boy, is it madness – everyone is trying to get themselves to Hoan Kiem Lake for the celebration and the traffic is mayhem!

We have a nice dinner of “Bun Bo” and then wander around absolutely loving the vibe of the festivities. But after a couple of hours being surrounded by music, lights and people, we are absolutely knackered and can barely stand. We arrive safe at “home” around 11:30pm and are bundled up in our beds when the firework show begins.