Vietnam by Moto Days 31-32: Stilt Houses in Pu Luong

We left Cuc Phuong in the morning and started the beautiful drive towards Pu Luong Nature Reserve. The Pu Luong area is well-known for minority village homestays, primarily in the village of Mai Chau. However, Mai Chau is now far too popular and on the bus tour route, and apparently has turned from a quaint village in the mountains to a place where tourists are treated like a walking ATM. The Vietnam Coracle talks about another village inside the nature reserve, so we decided to try and stay in Bản Hiêu. 

Sunset over the rice terraces.


The Coracle’s website mentions two Homestay options, but one has since turned into a fancy eco-lodge that is out of our price range, so our plan was to try and find Mr. Ba’s Homestay, or somewhere else to spend the night. As we reached the nature reserve we turned off the highway onto a dirt road leading up into the mountains. All we had to follow was a google maps point from the Coracle, but it pointed us in the right direction. We reached the general village and were riding through the stilt houses when Hoai chased us down on his motorbike. He asked if we needed a place to stay, and proceeded to take us to his family’s house.

Hoai’s stilt house, the wooden stilts are over 100 years old as high quality trees are hard to find now days.


Hoai lives in a traditional stilt house: These houses are built up high to allow storage space underneath and to protect against flooding. The house is one large room inside with bamboo flooring and and a palm leaf roof, there is an outhouse and a separate kitchen outside. Hoai’s house only got electricity a few years ago as is costs $100 to buy the wire to connect your house to the grid, but now they have a small refrigerator, TV, and a single light bulb. Apparently the electric bill is only $5/month. They have no running water in the village, but Hoai was lucky to have a good well they dug in 2007 so they had clean water available. They kept a can of water filled from the well next to the squat toilet and you pour a bucket of water in the toilet when you’re done to flush.

Bamboo pipes bring water to the rice fields.


Bản Hiêu is a beautiful village in a river valley between mountains. We spent the afternoon hiking around the village with Hoai as our guide and seeing their traditional way of life. There are rice patties everywhere, and the patties without a stream to feed them water use an ingenious bamboo waterwheel to lift water from the river into bamboo irrigation pipes.

When rice fields don’t have a natural stream to supply them with water, the villagers build bamboo water wheels to lift water out of the river and irrigate the fields.


The locals haul bamboo down the mountainside by dragging it behind their motorbikes.


As we hiked up the mountainside, we saw villagers dragging bamboo behind their scooters, it turns out growing and selling bamboo is one of the major industries in the village as bamboo is greatly valued for construction. We saw one woman carrying huge pieces of bamboo out of the forest and Amanda tried to pick one up, I think the villager found us weak westerners quite amusing!

Amanda tried to lift the huge bamboo pieces that the villager had been carrying out of the forest.


This snake we saw crossing the path is apparently pretty toxic. Our host wouldn’t let us anywhere near it.


Hoai’s family was excited as their cow was pregnant, and if they can raise the calf to a healthy adult they can sell it for a significant amount of money. A grown bull is worth around $700, enough to buy a new motorbike! Bản Hiêu is a Thai minority village, so the locals are ethnically Thai despite living in Vietnam. They speak Thai among themselves, but they also learn Vietnamese in school.

It was time to get cleaned up for dinner after joking around the village, and since they don’t have a shower that means a nice swim in the river. Some of the local children were practicing their English with us while we bathed in the river: most children know a few basic phrases like “What is your name?” And “How old are you?”.

Dinner was a feast of spring rolls, pork, vegetables, and sticky rice.


The dinner was a feast of pork, vegetables, spring rolls, and sticky rice. It was going to be hard to finish all the food, and then they brought us another plate! Hoai’s father joined us to share his homemade rice wine, which packs quite a punch.

It was hot inside.

After dinner Hoai played some guitar, and we watched a Chinese drama that the family enjoyson the TV. Finally it was time for bed, so the rock-hard mattress was laid on the floor and the mosquito net hung up. We got to have the house to ourselves while Hoai and his parents slept in the kitchen and underneath the house, respectively.

Saying goodbye to Hoai after spending a night with his family.


The next morning we had another delicious but way too large breakfast, along with several more shots of rice wine (apparently they drink with breakfast and we had to finish the bottle). After saying our goodbyes, we set off on the road to Hanoi.

As we climbed higher into the nature reserve jagged rocks started to poke through the rice fields.


Hoai had told us the best route to take, and it was a lovely drive through mountains with village after village. However, it was also the steepest mountain pass we climbed during our entire trip. Amanda had to walk good portions of the climb while I drove the bike as the motorbike could barely climb the hill with both of us and our luggage. At the end of the day, we braved the insane Hanoi traffic and made it to Vietnam’s capital after a month on the road.

One of the joys of driving across Vietnam is witnessing what a motorbike can really carry. The bonsai tree delivery moto is one of our favorites, we’ve seen tons of the these traveling the highways.

Vietnam by Moto Day 30-31: Monkeying around in Cuc Phuong

Leaving Tam Coc, Rob and I first stopped at the Bah Dinh Pagoda, a massive Buddhist Complex built on a hill. They force you to park quite a ways from the site then take an electric cart for 30k vnd/person each way. Since it was a Sunday, the site was packed and required way more walking than Rob and I had anticipated. We were wearing our motorbiking clothes and were not prepared for hiking around in the heat.

Bich Dong Pagoda Complex near Tam Coc

Bich Dong Pagoda Complex near Tam Coc


Hall of Buddhas at the Bich Dong Pagoda

Hall of Buddhas at the Bich Dong Pagoda


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The Massive bell at the Bich Dong Pagoda Complex


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Inside one of the pavilions at the Bich Dong Pagoda Complex


Bich Dong Pagoda

Bich Dong Pagoda


Buddha at the top of the hill at the Bich Dong Pagoda

Buddha at the top of the hill at the Bich Dong Pagoda

Our next stop was Cuc Phuong National Park, where we finally lunched at last, then visited the Endangered Primate Research Center and Turtle Rehabilitation Center. We’d read mixed reviews on Trip Advisor. The animals are in cages, but they try to transition them to the wild if possible. Also, many of the langurs are endangered, so they run breeding programs. It was pretty cool seeing many of the unique langurs. There were some gray langurs that were completely gray except for white mustaches.


The turtle center wasn’t as exciting. They had a tank of red eared sliders which are native to the US and invasive in SE Asia, so they tell you that if you if have it as a pet, don’t release it.

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Turtles on a turtle at the Turtle Rehabiltation Center in Cuc Phuong National Park

After finishing with the animals, we took a scenic drive on the main park road hoping to spot butterflies. Rob and I finally spotted some that were weirdly attracted to a pile of dead butterflies in the road. The road was slick and steep in spots so we didn’t make it all the way to the end, stopping at the Cave of the Prehistoric Man. The hike to the cave was up a several flights of steep slippery stone stairs. The cave isn’t lit so it’s byol, bring your own light.

We stayed at the Cuc Phuong Hotel just a few kilometers outside the park entrance and had a great dinner at the hotel restaurant. He served us a feast of pork, tofu, veggies, and the local specialty: snail. The stir fried snail was actually quite delicious with different herbs and spices. We ended the evening with a nice Canadian couple and some happy water. 

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 28-30: Tam Coc and the Karst Fields

It was drizzling as we arrived in Tam Coc, called the “Halong Bay on Land,” around 6 pm. Our lodging was down a small lane with numerous potholes. The Hoalu Backpacker Eco Homestay is located amount beautiful karst rocks and rice paddies and many of the buildings are wood with thatched roofs.

View from the road next to our lodging in Tam Coc.

View from the road next to our lodging in Tam Coc.

Trying to check-in, we’re told our room isn’t ready. (We’d booked a double with shared bathroom on hotels.com about 5 hours prior.) The owner shows Rob a different room, a bungalow with private bath then asks for another $7 if we want it. We’re already paying at the top end for us to stay out in scenic Tam Coc vs. Ninh Binh city and ask how long our room will be – his answer was 10 pm. Finally, Rob convinces him to give us the other room for no additional charge since 10 pm is ridiculous. Tired after a long day on the bike we finally get to pull off our damp clothes in our damp but lovely bungalow slightly disgusted with the whole situation.

The walls were wood with lots of spaces leaving it all open to the outside and you could hear everyone going on around you. The bed has a mosquito net to keep out the buggers. Everything was damp thanks to the high humidity. The wonderful rain shower with water pressure was the room’s best feature.

Rob enjoying our fancy bungalow in Tam Coc.

Rob enjoying our fancy bungalow in Tam Coc.

The only other restaurant within a short walk was a farm stay’s even pricier one, so we had a really great dinner at the homestay’s restaurant. After days of gingerly eating around numerous bones (Rob swears they chop the meat so that every piece has a bone), his dish is boneless “tourist” meat and my veggie noodle is covered with a layer of extra vegetables. Since the lounge area is pretty dead, we retired early to our bungalow and enjoyed the best bed we’ve had in awhile.

Rob and I decided to stay in the area another night but find a different hotel in the town of Tam Coc. Choosing a $10 a night room at one of the numerous guesthouses near the pier, we decided to walk and bike around the area instead of paying $25 for a 2 hour boat tour. The weather was gray and rainy with limited visibility, which ruled out any of the activities where a view of the area is a goal.

A woman paddling a boat with her feet in Tam Coc.

A woman paddling a boat with her feet in Tam Coc.

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The end of a random road we followed through Tam Coc area. A couple other tourists that we met again on Cat Ba took this photo.

Bike glamour shot with karst and rice paddies.

Bike glamour shot with karst and rice paddies.

Rob paying careful attention on the muddy roads.

Rob paying careful attention on the muddy roads.

It started to rain harder as just as we decided to finally do the expensive boat tour. We took one look at the weather and decided to get the oil change done on the bike instead. Errand complete, we went to happy hour at the nearby hostel for a couple rounds of pool then hanging out with some friendly folks. We got dinner with them at a “localish” restaurant nearby. I say “localish” because there were actually Vietnamese people hanging around and it was in the style of a local joint unlike everything else. All the clients when we were there were clearly tourists. We shared a whole duck with another guy as that seemed to be the thing to order as they had a whole rotisserie of them out front.

Ducks on the rotisserie. The best duck so far on this trip, better than the one in Khe Sanh.

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 27-28: Driving through the countryside

Rob and I took the Ho Chi Minh highway north for a few more hours of scenery as we climbed and wound our way through more of the national park. Soon enough, the karst mountains became karst hills shooting up amongst fields of rice and other crops. We found the highway through numerous small towns passing stretches with trucks heading to Laos.

Ho Chi Minh Highway north of Phong Nha

Ho Chi Minh Highway north of Phong Nha

The mountains give way to wider valleys with more fields.

The mountains give way to wider valleys with more fields.

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School children bike on all types of roads, including busy highways, going to and from school. There’s always a parade right around lunch time and again around 5pm.

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We passed a bunch of these trucks packed to the brim, but didn’t know what was in them.

Our first night back on the road, we stayed in the small town of Tam Ky. Trying to find dinner, we wandered around for almost an hour before finding a place with people eating. A group of locals beckoned us to the table next to theirs and started plying us with beers. We soon learned how cheers with beers goes: The person offering the toast specifies how much of the beer you drink – in this case, the other group was already pretty inebriated and insisted we drink the whole beer each time. Somehow, they managed to chug the same amount with us. Finally, after three beers we got some food to help absorb the beer, but it was a bit too late. After another toast in which I tried to negotiate drinking less of the beer, I gave up and left the table when they insisted on another. Instead, Rob had to drink my beer too.  At this point, we paid and tried to leave, but ended up getting sucked in for a few rounds of photos with our fellow beer drinkers and another family at the hotel next door.

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The two guys on the right were the ones drinking with us.

Our next day of driving was fairly uneventful. We found a great chicken restaurant for lunch in some small town. There were two different tables of green uniformed men, one older, one younger, both with multiple bottles of the Men brand vodka. Another big group with families had women letting their little girls try out their lipstick. We tried to order some stir-fried greens and chicken and ended up with chicken and green soup. The chicken was some of the best we’d had.

 

Lunch in a small town chicken restaurant. The back area is the family’s living quarters.

 
At one point, there was a horrible rotting smell that wouldn’t quit. Eventually, we passed a truck selling durian and realized we’d been following it for awhile.

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Your everyday mobile durian seller.

We made a detour by the remains of the Ho Citadel, which consisted mainly of 4 gates and some of the walls. The area inside the walls is now filled with rice fields. Toward the end of the day, we started passing more karst jutting up from the fields again as we neared Tam Coc, the Halong Bay on land.

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East Gate of the Ho Citadel

Vietnam by Moto Days 23-26: Jungles, Caves and Glamping with Oxalis

Rob and I raided the remainder of the adventure budget for this one. In Hue, we signed up for a 3 day, 2 night jungle trek and caving tour from Oxalis called the Wild Tu Lan Explorer. (Crazy enough, we ran into two American cycle tourists doing the same tour leaving a few days earlier in Hue when I gave them them my leftover patch kit from Taiwan. We caught them again in Phong Nha post-tour.) We would visit 6 different caves, swim in at least 2 but up to 4, stay in two beautiful campsites and trek ~15 km through the jungle. Our group consisted of a couple from Austria/Germany, a trio from Stockholm and a couple from Germany/Switzerland in addition to our guide Vu and an array of porters/chefs, who carried most of our stuff, set up camp, cooked and composted our waste for us.

Day 1: Rat Cave, Camp in Tu Lan Valley

The Oxalis van picked us up at 8am and drove the group out to their Tu Lan base an hour away. There, we packed up our stuff, got assigned gear, including jungle boots, and signed our lives away. By 11am, everyone was ready and we began the hike across the first valley. The going was very easy thanks to a road put in by a movie company, who used the first cave as a filming location. After a couple km, the road ended at a river. Fording the river followed by a short hike brought us to lunch and the first cave.

One of our porters had laid out our picnic lunch in preparation for our arrival. Fried eggs sandwiches and tons of snacks tasted pretty good. They even had a variety of Vietnamese candies. After lunch, we explored the dry cave. The entrance was particularly neat.

Our Oxalis caving group before we set off.

Our Oxalis caving group before we set off.

About a km or so into the hike, we're about to enter the jungle

About a km or so into the hike, we’re about to enter the jungle

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Our first cave on Day 1. One of our porters has lunch set up inside. This cave was used a location for the upcoming King Kong movie.

Neat cave formation inside Rat Cave.

Neat cave formation inside Rat Cave.

 

After completing our first cave, we trekked through the jungle to camp climbing over two passes and through another valley to reach the Tu Lan valley. The trail was muddy and slick in some spots and rocky and slick in others. Some sections were also steep, which made the trail reasonably slow going.

We arrived at our beautiful jungle camp around 4pm. Everything was setup, so we could relax and enjoy the swimming hole with waterfall emerging from the mouth of a cave. Everyone took the opportunity to clean up and change out of our gross hiking clothing. Unfortunately the weather was cold with scattered showers so there was no hope of anything drying.

Dinner was a fabulous pork BBQ feast followed by games around the campfire until the happy water was polished off.

Lunch back at camp on Day 2 after a morning of cave swimming.

Lunch back at camp on Day 2 after a morning of cave swimming.

The cooking set up at camp.

The cooking set up at camp. Our dinner was an amazing pork BBQ, tofu with tomato, two different soups and so much more.

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Rob decided to try out a hammock the first night. I had a massive single tent next door.

Day 2: Ken Cave, Tu Lun Cave, Hang Kim

After a breakfast of noodle soup, we had to pack up our things for the porters to carry for the second camp and prepare for a day of cave swimming. The first two caves before lunch were swimming optional. I boated the first with the rest of the women, then swam the second with the dudes. Swimming with boots and a huge life jacket added a new level of difficulty.

Better view of camp #1 with us.

Better view of camp #1 with us. Ken Cave is in the background.

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Awesome formation in Ken Cave rising from the water. A photo of this wona a National Geographic Contest, but required lots of professional lighting in addition to three porters swimming around it with headlamps.

Climbing to viewpoint in Ken Cave on Day 2.

Climbing to viewpoint in Ken Cave on Day 2.

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Swimming out of Ken Cave. Rob’s the slow poke in the water. The women are in the boasts near the cave entrance.

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Pool outside Tu Lan cave to begin my first swim and Rob’s second swim. The boats are for the other women.

Amanda investigating a formation in Tu Lan Cave.

Amanda investigating a formation in Tu Lan Cave.

 

Shadow poses. Guess which ones are Rob and me.

Shadow poses. Guess which ones are Rob and me.

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Silly Time before lunch. I was pretty enamored with all the shades of green and textures on these rocks.

After lunch, everyone had to swim to get into the third cave, then we hiked out a different entrance leading to camp #2 and another river pool with waterfall.

Climbing up a "stone spiral staircase" inside Hang Kim

Climbing up a “stone spiral staircase” inside Hang Kim

Cave Spider-Hang Kim Cave

Cave spider about the size of a man’s hand. This one was the biggest or the many we saw. If you shined a light around the caves, many glowing dots would reflect the light; tons of tiny eyes watching you.

Another entrance to Hang Kim.

Another entrance to Hang Kim.

At our new camp, we indulged in some basic bathing and cleaning clothes before drying out by the fire. Dinner was another feast with fried chicken, pork ribs, stir fried greens and beef wrapped in leaves. Everyone seemed more tired so we just hung out for awhile then folks went to bed early.

Day 3: Hung Ton Cave, Secret Cave

Rob and I both got sick in the night and didn’t sleep much (the swaying hammock does not help nausea), but managed to push through. The first cave, Hung Ton, required sections of walking and swimming followed by a really tall ladder. Going through the cave was a shortcut back to the second valley we hiked through. Just over the smallest of the three passes we climbed and we would be back in the valley we began in. We hiked most of the way back up then detoured to secret cave, a small cave with well-preserved formations, for snack.

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Cave cauliflower? Our guide says this texture is a result of humidity. Secret Cave

After enjoying the cave for awhile, we headed back to the base for showers and gear return. The van stopped at a local noodle spot for lunch on the way back to town and we devoured steaming bowls of wonderful soup before passing out in the van on the ride back into town. Rob and I reached the hotel and promptly continued our nap until dinnertime. Since our stomachs’ hadn’t quite recovered, we enjoyed the tourist friendly Bamboo cafe with veggie dishes and peanut butter/banana smoothie.

The next morning we packed up and took the Ho Chi Minh highway north towards Hanoi.

Flashback: 2.5 weeks in South Korea, the quickie version

South Korea was the first stop on our 6 month Asia tour. We only had two and a half weeks, but wished it could have been longer. Since there was so little down time and both my phone and tablet died, I never got around to posting anything beyond Christmas tree photos. Until I find the time to get back to those photos, here’s a brief list of places we visited and some of the things we did that we’d recommend to other travelers. Rob and I just met Matt and Sophie who have South Korea as their next destination and I got inspired to at least write a bit about our wonderful time there.

Stop #1: Seoul
A couple days to get rid of jet lag. We visited a couple of the palaces (cheap and take the free English tour – look up times in advance) and hiked Bukhansan National Park a short walk from the metro line. We thought using the metro card was worth it for the convenience although we lost a couple bucks at the end because you can’t use the remaining balance at the airport (at least not in the early morning).

 

Hiking in South Korea means many steep flights of stairs. The distance may be short, but it is probably straight up. Use their suggested hiking times as a guide rather than the distance; they are much closer to reality than the US national park suggested times which are super generous.

Stop #2: Chuncheon
It’s a long ride using the Seoul Metro, but we met some very nice people on the journey. This city is good for a half day stopover on the way to Sokcho. There’s a pretty lake for a bike ride around on numerous trails or a plethora of paddle boats to rent. The city is famous for dakgalbi, a chicken dish that’s cooked on a hot platter at your table. There are multiple streets lined with these restaurants. Are eating most of the dish, you can get rice added, which makes really tasty crispy rice rolls.

 

Dakgalbi with cheese. We tried it both ways and preferred plain.

Stop #3: Sokcho
We really liked this small town. The tourist fish market had great food, including amazing fried chicken (see caption, photo of business card) and a extreme fritters (squid). Be careful to ask prices if you buy a whole fish or other creature. They can apparently get expensive.

This chicken was amazing! Make sure you get the one with the tasty sauce. Some of the booths have boneless chicken, others have bones. Make sure you know that what’s in the box is what you want.

Seoraksan National Park is a short bus ride away and has beautiful hiking. There’s a multi day hike with a stop in a shelter, but we were there in the wrong season to do it. The waterfall hikes are nice. We also had an expensive but delicious and massive haemul pajeon (seafood pancake 해물파전) at a restaurant in the park.

Stop #4: Gangneung
We stayed in a hotel near Gyeongpo beach, which wasn’t that hard to get a bus to take us nearby. There’s a tourist near the bus station with more info and the buses are on google maps transit directions. The beach has a nice strolling path and many fun places to sit. A section has lookout towers and barbed wire. There are bike rentals nearby the beach and a lake with walking paths is fun to explore. Sections of it are lit up at night.
The Chodang tofu village area has great jeongol (a feast with a sundubu hotpot). I think we went to Nongchon Sundubu at 108, Chodangsundubu-gil based on the phone number on our receipt (must get two orders of the jeongol and that’s a full meal).

Stop #5: Haesingdong Park near Samcheok

See picture. A kitschy hilarious afternoon visit.

There are many more here.

The zodiac at Haesingding Park.

Stop #6: Gyeonju

Gyeonju is known for its many historical sites – Huge funeral mounds, pagodas, a grotto, etc. There’s a massive museum with good exhibits (on the same bus line as the big temple) that’s worth a visit. A guide says it’s a good place to try ssam, but the best looking place was full of tour buses.

Stop #7: Busan
Haeundae beach was fun to visit, although quite windy. We found a public foot bath nearby and tried it out (public footbaths near the beach, clean your feet first at a washing station. Locals bring a towel and something to sit on like a newspaper.) The tent bars near the big department store are a good way to meet Koreans in a convivial mood. Try the chicken anus!

Stop #8: Jeju-do
We got super cheap flights on Air Busan ($15 each one way with bag and OJ drink). The buses are very easy to use, but can take awhile because the island is quite large.
Rob and I hiked Hallasan, the highest peak in South Korea. The top was cold and windy. Instant noodles were available at a hut part way up the mountain and were so wonderful and warm. Sunrise peak is also worth a visit for the view. Time your visit right and you can see a diving demonstration by the women free divers looking for sea creatures to eat. Try the oranges grown on the island. They were perhaps some of the best fruit we tried in Asia.

Stop #9: Seoul again

On our return, we hiked the Namsan section of the city wall and visited the City Wall Museum. The riverwalk was great for a stroll, although the Christmas lights are probably long gone.

Vietnam by Moto Days 22-24: Underground in Phong Nha with a side of chicken

Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park was put on the tourist map when it became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003 and is one of the high-ranking candidates for the seven new world natural wonders list. The park contains forestlands, karst mountains and a spectacular array of caves, including Han Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. This place has become a big stop on the “banana pancake trail” as the SE Asia route well-trod by backpackers is known. Looking at the signage and meeting some of the children, it’s clear that tourism has left an indelible mark. The kids whip out postcards to sell you. Others just say “f*you,” or say hello but then give a hand gesture asking for money. Construction is everywhere as the tourism increase has brought money to the local economy.

 

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The old normal Vietnamese sign on top. The fancy new tourist friendly sign on bottom.

 

Since our caving tour didn’t leave for a few days, Rob and I had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the beautiful countryside. With the threat of more rain, we decided to have an easy first day in Phong Nha seeing the town and doing errands. We went for a walk to check in with Oxalis and make sure we have all the gear for the trip. As soon as we finished trying on their trekking boots, the sky opened up. By the time, we made it back to the lunch spot we had chosen, we were both thoroughly drenched. After a okay meal of bùn thit nuong (rice noodles with grilled meat) and bánh loc (clear dumpling with shrimp steamed in a banana leaf), we holed up in our room under all the blankets (no heat) for the afternoon.

 

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Trying banh loc with shrimp. This one wasn’t very good.

 

Eventually, we dragged ourselves off for dinner at a pork bbq restaurant near the market before making it to Easy Tiger for happy hour. So begins my new favorite story (in hindsight of course)…

We were having a beer with some other friendly travelers and Max and as we get to talking about happy water (a local spirit that comes in reused water bottles), I remembered that we grabbed our bottle purchased outside Hue and Rob pulled it out to share. He takes one whiff and says he doesn’t think it’s alcohol. We all take a whiff and it’s definitely something very floral. One of the other backpackers stuck a finger in to take a tiny taste and immediately grimaces in disgust. Someone else takes another whiff and says well it still could be booze. That was enough for Rob – he grabbed the bottle, took a swig and made a grotesque face almost spitting it out. I’m not sure how he kept it down but the new conclusion was definitely not alcohol.

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Rob’s “Happy water” from outside Hue

I brought the bottle over the hostel reception and asked them to translate it for me – the answer was melaleuca oil or tea tree oil. Rob just drank a swig of tea tree oil! I immediately got on to the poison control website and start looking it up. The word toxic came up several times, but another website mentioned an LD50 that was way more than Rob had, but still… I tried to talk him into throwing it up/getting as much of it out as possible. He refused and continued drinking. Fast forward to the next morning. Rob felt terrible and kept hurling while I was on email writing Steph and Cheryl, our pharmacist friends to see if there’s anything else I should have been doing to help. Turns out some kids have gone into temporary comas after ingesting and it can also cause extended stomach discomfort. Thankfully, none of the terrible effects occurred and by the afternoon Rob was feeling better and we could get some errands done and go out for food.

I went to get the oil changed after our long rides thinking it was a simple task I could get done while Rob rested. After draining the oil, they took a look at the bike and noticed a spot without paint on our gas tank.  Over the next several minutes, the staff of the bike shop made explosion noises then told me through google translate that the gas tank was leaking and the bike could explode if the gas fell on the engine. An hour and $25 later, we had a new gas tank complete with new paint job, which delayed lunch a bit.

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Our tiny leak in the gas tank.

After finding this account of Moi Moi, I really wanted to check it out. As it was too late in the day to really go out to the caves like we had planned, we decided to get lunch there. Moi Moi is located in the same valley as the legendary Pub with Cold Beer, a restaurant that serves amazing chicken with peanut sauce, where we planned to go another day. The woman at Oxalis gave us the vague directions of “Follow the signs to pub with cold beer and it should be on the road before you get to the pub with cold beer.” We followed the signs and eventually reached pub with Cold Beer. No sign of Moi Moi anywhere, but one of the other tourists eating there had been to Moi Moi and told us to follow the road as it looped back to the highway. Turns out the Moi Moi (here) is closer to the highway on the other end of the loop road and our directions were fine if we had taken the second set of signs for pub with cold beer from the highway. (Note: they close at 5 pm)

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Relaxing in a hammock at Moi Moi

Our pork in bamboo cooking at Moi Moi

Our pork in bamboo cooking at Moi Moi

Lunch/Dinner at Moi Moi

Lunch/Dinner at Moi Moi

After they ordered, they went and split a piece of bamboo, stuffed it with pork then put it in the fire. Then, they went and picked the greens we ordered. It took awhile but it was definitely worth the wait and there are hammocks to chill in.

For our final relax day, we went to the 9 am Easy Tiger talk about the area sights to join a group for the Phong Nha and Tien Son cave tour. You pay a certain amount per boat, so it’s cheaper for everyone to have a full boat. After paying for everyone at the ticket counter in town, you bring the papers to the boat kiosk and they assign your group a boat. The boat takes you through the Phong Nha cave, then drops you inside the entrance on the return so you can hike through the Tien Son Cave and/or the array of souvenir shops. Our group opted to do both caves because the second one is pretty cheap (an extra $5)  and is much less crowded.

Boat to Phong Nga Cave

Boat to Phong Nga Cave

Entrance to Phong Nga Cave

Entrance to Phong Nga Cave

Inside Phong Nga Cave

Inside Phong Nga Cave

Tien Son Cave with walkways

Tien Son Cave with walkways

Cave Jellyfish in Tien Son Cave

Cave Jellyfish in Tien Son Cave

View from the trail to Tien Son Cave.

View from the trail to Tien Son Cave.

By the time we returned from the first two caves, it was too late to make the trek out to Paradise Cave. Instead, we grabbed a snack at A Vietnam Corner trying some of the local foods and then headed out to Pub with Cold Beer. The road was muddy and rough, so Rob took it slow. At one point, the mud got deeper and he dropped the bike. We were crawling along and just got a bit dirty as a result. Finally we arrived at Pub with Cold Beer.

Pub with Cold Beer is well-known as a great place to hang out with a cold beer and have a super fresh farm-to-table chicken dinner served with peanut sauce and greens grown on-site. The chicken dinner can be as DIY as you want. We did the killing and plucking of our dinner.

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Pub with Cold Beer!

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Rob picked our chicken. 1.4 kg live weight. 200k vnd/kg

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Preparing to kill dinner.

Rob killing our chicken dinner.

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Chicken plucking is hard work. You douse the bird in hot water to help get the feathers off.

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Naked chicken after plucking.

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We let them gut the chicken for us.

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Butterflied chickens cooking on the grill. The marinade smelled amazing.

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Finally dinner time! The freshest meat dinner we’ll probably ever eat. The peanut sauce was amazing!

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Mission complete. The three British guys who prepped chickens right before us polished off their 2 chickens, too.

We returned to town fully sated and ready for an evening of packing for our caving trip the next day.

Vietnam by Moto Day 22: The remote Western Ho Chi Minh highway

We tried extremely hard to get an early start from Khe Sanh because the drive for the day would be 240 km of mountainous road, the Western fork of the Ho Chi Minh Highway. So many bloggers have posted about the drive that we had an idea of what to expect from the road(VietnamCoracleNOMADasaurusramblingnorthernerTimevsFocuswilltravel4knowledge) and had prepared accordingly with extra fuel, preemptive bike checks, etc. The weather was the main unknown as we had yet to find a good weather forecast site for Vietnam. Most of the them had some variations on some rain to more rain for the day with a trend of either scattered or increasing rain. Getting our bags rain bagged for the first time took longer than expected then we needed some water and food provisions for the day, so we finally hit the road just before 8 am.

The ride was increasingly beautiful especially the river valley we joined for the middle of the ride. The end as we reached the Phong Nga – Ke Bang National Park was pretty much socked in giving us a great view of white clouds. We had a brief moment of worry when Max dropped his bike while taking a picture causing the chain to fall off (easy fix) and the bike refuse to shift (more problematic). Luckily with a team effort including another passing backpacker, we were able to bend the foot shift lever a bit back so it wasn’t stuck anymore. We passed a few backpacker groups heading south and a couple heading north moving faster than us.  With the climbs under heavy load, we had to rest our bike a bunch and Max kindly stuck with us (Thanks Max!). I tried to give it a break by hiking up the hills (some even had an 11% sign) every time we stopped for a cool down. We did a good job keeping the engine cool and had no issues with the bike. The same could not be said for this amazingly cheery Dutchman who we met ~10+ km out of the one town in the middle with mechanics, food and gas. He had left from Phong Nga at 7am and about 70 km in his drive belt broke leaving him pushing/gliding the scooter for 40 km. We gave him some food (a sandwich and oreo between us and Max) and sort of offered him a ride/attempt to tow to the village, but he didn’t seem keen. We were already worried about making Phong Nga by dark so we couldn’t stick around too long. Later, we met some folks in Phong Nga who ran into him about 5 km from the town, so we hope he made it okay.

Steep downhills and climbs were numerous on the drive.

Steep downhills and climbs were numerous on the drive.

Another pretty spot, another bike off the bike on the HCM highway

Another pretty spot, another break off the bike on the HCM highway

U bend in the river the road follows.

U bend in the river the road follows.

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Reaching the mid-point of the drive, the way follows a river valley with karst intrusion jutting out.

Beautiful valley on the HCM highway west. r

Beautiful valley on the HCM highway west. r

Us on the bike with all the luggage.

Us on the bike with all the luggage.

With the long drive, we didn’t stop to talk to many of the people living along the road, but a group of workers waved us over to share a bit of their food. They were nice and we tried to communicate for a bit. This woman really wanted a height extremes photo with Max.

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A group of roadway workers waved us down and offered us some of their lunch, a mixture of corn and rice. This woman wanted a picture with Max and Rob jumped in.

 

Not too long after 5 pm we reached Phong Nga a bit damp and tired but overall not too bad considering the long day and constant threat of heavier rain than we got. After cleaning up, the pizza at the Capture Cafe tasted amazing and the super cheap bakery food from the morning left us plenty of budget for dinner.

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Victory pizza at Capture Cafe in Phong Nga. The guys reluctantly stopped chewing for a quick photo before the pizza disappeared.

 

 

 

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 20-22: DMZ remnant tour to Khe Sanh

The haul to Dong Ha didn’t end up taking too long as it was on highway with remarkably little traffic, not too many towns and for the most part, an amazing line of street lights. Most of the Dong Ha hotels with an online presence sounded nasty or were too expensive, but Rob found the Thai Son Hotel on Travelfish. Max beat us there and said it was good, so we met up with him there just before 8 pm. When we arrived, he was sitting in the courtyard with the owners having tea. I had a quick cup with them while Rob got us a room.

By this point, Rob and I were famished and still needed to confirm the details for the tour the next day, so we headed to Tam’s Cafe, who arranged the tour for us. It was empty, but the woman in charge of the kitchen said we could still order. As the western food on the menu was reasonably priced, we got fried chicken and fish sandwiches and fries. These turned out to be banh mi style stuffed with meat. So much food! The bread was not enough to contain all the tasty sauce and meat juices. The fries were good although not as numerous as I would have hoped. Our tour guide for the next day dropped by as we were finishing up and we arranged to meet him there at 8 am. When we returned to the hotel, everyone was pretty much where we left them, so we joined the circle and had a few more cups of tea.

Later that night as we attempted to sleep, those cups of tea came back to haunt us. Seven am the next morning came very quickly, but we managed to get ourselves to Tam’s by 7:45 am to order some breakfast.  Another group was there eating already awaiting their tour.  Breakfast was great ($2/meal) The omelette actually had bacon. It had been so long.

We met up with our tour guide, Mr. Hoa, who served with the South Vietnamese army toward the end of the war and visited a number of sites. We were packing 2 days of tour into one, so we were constantly in a hurry and didn’t have as much time to get as much of an overview of everything as would have been nice. If you have the time, I would recommend less riding and more time just to talk with the guide. We were just in a position where we wanted to see the highlights and end in Khe Sanh for the next day. The museum at Khe Sanh Air Base did have enough English that it can be visited without a guide and still be informative.  In hindsight, our best bet would have been to spend more time on the eastern sights and have the guide take you as far as the Ho Chi Minh trail marker still a ways out of Khe Sanh. Then, do the last bit of the drive and Khe Sanh Air base on your own.

Here are the different stops we made throughout the day.

Stop #1: Mine Action Center in Dong Ha describes the still ongoing process of clearing out undischarged mines and ordnance from the American war.

The Bomb-sai Garden outside the Mine Action Center in Dong Ha City

The Bomb-sai Garden outside the Mine Action Center in Dong Ha City


Collection of Cluster Munitions at the Mine Action Center in Dong Ha City

Collection of Cluster Munitions at the Mine Action Center in Dong Ha City

Stop #2: Doc Mieu Firebase and Hill overlook of the DMZ zone and border control. All the remains is one rusty old tank and a plaque.

Doc Mieu Firebase

Doc Mieu Firebase

Stop #3: The Reunification Bridge and the reconstructed tourist bridge. The reunification bridge was built on the same site as the original famous one, so they made a fake one next to it for tourists. They’ve also reconstructed some of the things on the north side including the propaganda megaphones.

Checking out the Reunification bridge in the DMZ with our guide Mr. Hoa

Checking out the Reunification bridge in the DMZ with our guide Mr. Hoa


The tourist reconstruction bridge across the Ben Hai River (DMZ)

The tourist reconstruction bridge across the Ben Hai River (DMZ)

Stop #4: The Vinh Moc Tunnels. These housed 90 families during the war and were an important link for passing goods delievered by sea inland. I could stand in many of them, but there were a few that were even too short for me. Max and Rob, the tall dudes, suffered in a constant crouch, except for the bigger meeting room. We didn’t take pictures because our camera doesn’t have a flash, but hopefully we’ll get a few from Max.

Stop #5: National Cemetery. One of many. Most graves are anonymous as the North Vietnamese version of dog tags was actually laminated paper, which did not survive in many cases. Some graves are labelled with newer plaques as families pay fortune tellers to find the graves of a missing family member.

National Cemetary. One of many in the province.

National Cemetery. One of many in the province.

Stop #6: Lunch

Manual Railroad crossing enroute to Highway 9.

Manual Railroad crossing en route to Highway 9 after lunch.

Stop #7: the Rockpile with views of other base locations. All the US army outposts were on these big mountains with views of the surrounding valleys and the North Vietnamese soldiers were hiding in the jungle surrounding them.

The Rockpile.

The Rockpile.

Stop #8: Ho Chi Minh trail marker shows where the path the supplies were carried to South Vietnam.

Stop #9: Khe Sanh Air Base and Museum. The base was completely destroyed mulitiple times. Most everything on site was brought in or reconstructed.

 

We parted ways with Mr. Hoa in Khe Sanh then checked into the Khanh Phuong Hotel. They had pretty good rooms for a fine price. Our first room’s AC didn’t work so they gave us a different one, but it was late so they let us keep the bags in the old one. The bed was also softer in the first room, so we carried the mattress down the hallway and stacked it on the new bed.

Returning to the town center, we took care of motorbike errands first – an oil change and some chain love for Max and a back suspension adjustment for us. It took a bit of time since the mechanic was doing about four jobs at once. They did have the cutest puppy hanging around. The next stop was the gas station to get a few extra liters of gas filled into water bottles in addition to our full tanks. The remote section of Ho Chi Minh does not have consistent gas (and what there exist is expensive we found out later from some other folks).

For dinner, some rotisserie stands along the main road beckoned Rob and we chose some meats off the grill ending up with a half duck, some pork pieces and rice. Max was more adventurous and tried this black sausage, which turned out to be very tasty and filled with some vegetables. As we were finishing dinner, a thunderstorm rolled in and the sky opened up. The downpour was unlike any we’d seen since the blizzard we drove through on Japan’s eastern coast. Even under cover, the water deflected off surfaces and got us a bit wet. During a lull in the rain, we decided to get a second round of dinner and try some fried noodles next to the mechanic shop. We ordered three plates of noodles with beef, a fried pho, a fried egg noodle (instant noodle) and ap chao, which turned out to be soup despite my internet search pulling up pan-fried noodles by the same name. All were huge portions (40k each) and so filling that we couldn’t finish everything as much as we tried. A brief stint in a rain and we made it back to the hotel.

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 17-20: Working our Hue through the Nguyen dynasty

Rob and I arrived at the Valentine Hotel Hue just before dark. The staff met us with glasses of cold lemon tea, which was amazing. I absolutely need to figure out how to make it. They had us a triple room on the 5th floor; the shared floor balcony had a nice view of the city. After unpacking and changing, we spent some time looking into visa extensions as we only had 10 days left on ours and had only made it to central Vietnam. Quickly, we realized that we would need to get our visa extensions in Hue otherwise we might not make it to Hanoi before they expired.

Walking around town and asking travel companies about visa extensions, the only place we could find that would do them was the Hue Backpacker Hostel, which charged $65 each for another month. We brought them our passports Saturday night and they said they would be back from Hanoi Tuesday afternoon. Not too bad, but it meant one more night in Hue. We also did the very important errand of dropping off our laundry. It’s usually about 10,000 vnd/kg cheaper to take it to a place yourself rather than go through the hotel. We found a nice woman with a Tap Hoa to do our laundry a couple short blocks away.

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Having an extra two days in Hue, Rob and I didn’t feel any urgency to check out the sights right away. We took the morning to do some trip planning. With our departure date set, we started looking forward to planning our next week exploring DMZ and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park via some remote beautiful stretches of road. The only catch is that we were told that for the really remote section you should have a riding partner. I was of course more concerned about this than Rob, so we looked into a variety of options for DMZ tour as well as hiring an easy rider type guide for the whole stretch from Hue to Phong Nga.  After a flurry of emails, we headed out for lunch and a visit to the Imperial City.

We didn’t make it very far before deciding to stop for a quick bite of dessert to hold us through the walk to the Citadel. Ice cream in Vietnam has actually been on the expensive side, so we were thrilled to see a dish of ice cream for only 10,000 vnd. They also had crepes with mango or banana for the same price. YUM!

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So we might have had dessert on the way to lunch. Google didn’t approve my map edit, but SOB cake is somewhere around here and is a great spot for a snack or light dessert. They aren’t open too late unfortunately.

The walk to the old town/Citadel area took awhile, but we finally made it and arrived at a restaurant, Cafe Bao Bao, that lonely planet recommends for cheap pork kebabs. Since we were late to lunch, it looked deserted and we almost left. A guy sitting across the street noticed our indecision and told us to go inside.  They has an English menu and turned out to be variations on beef on a sizzling plate. Rob had the straight beef plate for 50k and I had the steak and eggs for 40k. Everything was fresh, hot and amazing. We had walked a ways out to get to this place and it was worth it.

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Stuffed with food, we headed to the Imperial City and another decision point. The ticket for the Imperial City is 150,000 vnd or $7.50. If you buy a combo ticket with the Ming Mah, K Dinh and Tu Duc Tombs, it’s only 360,000 vnd (and savings of 90,000 vnd or $4.50). We wanted to do the Tu Duc and Ming Mah after reading Lonely planet and trip advisor, so we nixed any thought of visiting the DMZ the next day in favor of the tombs, as the combo ticket is only good for two consecutive days. This meant that we would be visiting the tombs on Monday, hanging around on Tuesday then touring the DMZ on Wednesday.

The imperial City of Hue is actually pretty recent as far as these things go. This complex is where the kings of the Nguyen dynasty have lived until 1945 when the last one abdicated to Ho Chi Minh. Most of it was destroyed during the war and bullet holes can still be found around the complex.

Cannon outside the Imperial City in Hue

Cannon outside the Imperial City in Hue

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Entrance gate. Lots of restoration done.

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Rob and another bell

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The gardens here like animal forms. We also saw many birds and other creatures throughout the grounds.

The Immperial Tennis Court in Hue Imperial City

The Immperial Tennis Court in Hue Imperial City. It reminds you that the grounds were used until 1945 by royalty.

Theater in the Hue Imperial City

Theater in the Hue Imperial City

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Women’s section of the Imperial City

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Women’s section of the Imperial City

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Beautiful gate!

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Religious area of the city. We were tired and ready to cool off by this point.

After all this walking, we were pretty tired and returned to our hotel for some relaxing. Eventually we headed out for dinner, but by that time the restaurant recommended by the hotel was closed. Rob and I ended up getting some expensive meh noodles in a street side cafe. Can’t win ’em all.

The next day, we planned to visit the tombs. During our relaxation time the prior evening, we had found a post on the Vietnam Back Roads Facebook group about someone looking for a riding partner for the remote highway stretch we were planning to do. The only catch was that he wanted to go Wednesday and we were stuck in Hue until Tuesday afternoon. Rob went ahead and sent him a reply stating our plan to do the DMZ on Wednesday and complete the remote section on Thursday. As we were leaving the room, Rob noticed that Max had sent him a message back and we eventually agreed to meet up later that night.

We set off on the motorbike toward the Ming Mah tomb, however, when we were still a few km away we passed another tourist attraction. It was one of the other tombs we planned to visit later, but we went ahead and did it then since we were there.

The Khai Dinh Tomb was incredibly well-preserved, however, it only dates from 1925. If it hadn’t been on the combo ticket, we wouldn’t have gone based on the Lonely Planet write-up. This ended up being our favorite of the tombs as the inside has quite spectacular mosaics.

 

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Mandarins and creatures immortalized in stone to served the deceased.

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Building housing a plaque detailing the King’s life. This one was written by the son about the father. All of the tombs we visited have one, but the plaque in Tu Duc’s is an autobiography rather than a biography by his son.

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Mosaics up close. I love all the different textures.

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The room in front of the tomb. Beautiful mosaics on every surface.

Minh Mang Tomb

This tomb was quite grand set out on a series of lakes and ponds. One pavilion had some chairs in front of a fan that we were quite enamored with.

Tu Duc Tomb

This tomb was closer to town and quite large. At one point, this was more like a second imperial vacation city with over 50 buildings. Apparently its construct caused major cash flow issues for the empire and wasn’t popular with the conscripted labor. The complex seemed to stretch forever as our interest waned. As we walked around, we kept finding signs to more and more sights, including the the tombs for the Empress and Emperor Kien Phuc. Tu Duc, who built the complex, is not actually buried here; his secret burial location (and the treasure?) is unknown as all the servants who buried him were beheaded. Most of the tomb wasn’t too exciting and followed the pattern of the other two we’d seen earlier, however, the entrance area is quite nice with a large and a large island where the Emperor used to hunt. The lakeside had a couple shady pavilions to enjoy the view and listen to the traditional singers and musicians performing.

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Every tomb had the same basic elements, including these large stile.

We met up with Max from Belgium, who we’d messaged about riding the remote highway with, at the hostel’s happy hour. He’d been riding with another guy, but had been detained in Hue for an extra stretch. Max wanted to ride a southerly stretch of the Ho Chi Minh highway from Hue to Khe Sanh, but agreed to join us on the DMZ tour (through Tam’s Cafe) on Wednesday and ride to Phong Nga on Thursday. We planned to convene in Dong Ha on Tuesday night.

Looking for dinner, Rob and I looped back to the streetside restaurant strip we had scoped out our first night in Hue. I had translated the sign and we knew they served a collection of spicy grilled things. We didn’t quite realize it was grill your own, but we quickly found out.

 

We returned to the hostel and hung out with folks until the wee hours not having any real plans for the next day. We learned some choice German words and played Jenga with some Brits. This was the first night in awhile that I’d stayed out really late with Rob. On our way walking back to the hotel, he was offered a number of things by the taxi drivers that he’d mentioned before but I’d never witnessed: Rob receives constant questions of Marijuana?, or Lady lady?, while walking around in the evenings.

On our last day in Hue, Rob and I attempted to sleep in, but sometime around 7 am, the pounding began. Someone was hammer drilling the tile on the opposite side of the wall from our heads. Trying in vain to rest, we finally gave up around 9:30 am and went to breakfast. You could still hear the pounding four floors door but the volume was more manageable. After packing up our belongings, we hung in the lobby and caught up on internet for awhile before heading to lunch. I was afraid that we’d be on a Vietnamese food only trail for the next bit, so I talked Rob into Indian. Afterwards, we did errands – picking up the passport and getting an oil change and minor tune up for the bike. Our hotel manager sent us to Thien, motorbike mechanic to the backpackers, who is located somewhere around here. He was amazing and noted almost the the issues we’d had with the motorbike after a short test ride. It was our most expensive mechanic visit yet, $40, but he fixed everything – new back tire, new back tube, repaired electric starter, new clutch cable, new headlight, new front shock seal, etc.  The mechanic visit took way longer than we expected but finally, we were on the road to Dong Ha at 6:15pm catching the last bit of daylight as we hit the highway north.

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Thien motorbike repair. The owner speaks English and does an amazing job of diagnosing bike problems. We had so many things fixed here before heading to the Ho Chi Minh Highway.