Vietnam by Moto Days 35-39: Adventures in NE Vietnam, or the road so bad I cried

In the morning, we rolled out of Cat Ba with the Seattle guys (Alex, AJ and Taylor) and caught the 9 am ferry over to the mainland. The uneventful journey hit a snag just after a refueling stop on the outskirts of Halong City. Pulling out of the gas station, Taylor’s back wheel fell off. Apparently, the threads on the rear axle bolt were stripped, and the nut finally fell off. Luckily he managed to keep the bike upright and come out of it physically unscathed. As with any town in Vietnam, you’re never far from a mechanic so a few minutes walk down a hill and we had ourselves a repair team. Taylor watched them do the repair while the rest of us enjoyed the coffee shop next door. The mechanics had to put on a new back wheel since the hub was broken when the wheel fell off. Reassembling the bike, the mechanic tried to put on the bad bolt but we insisted he go procure a new one for the extra repair cost of <$1. About a couple hours later, the bike was ready to go and everyone except Taylor was well caffeinated.  The final damage was remarkably less than expected: around $15. The Seattle guys had all purchased their bikes together so to prevent any unfairness over inequality in bike condition, they agreed to split repair costs for the bikes equally. They paid $200 each for their bikes and definitely had many more issues than we did.

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Taylor’s bike lost its back wheel leaving a gas station. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt and there was a mechanic nearby.

Back on the road, the rest of the day was a pretty chill ride to Lang Son, a town in NE Vietnam close to the Chinese border. This proximity meant a good deal of truck traffic when we joined the main highway from Hanoi near the end of the day. The pavement had buckled under the weight of all the cargo so side to side movement on the road meant avoiding huge wheel ruts.

Arriving in Lang Son, we split up to scope a few hotels and ended up at the third one.  When the guys joined us, they also had picked up two Australians on bikes that had passed us earlier in the day, so we had a good group at Sao Mai Hotel, which had a room with a ping pong table that was nice for a quiet evening.  We had read about a night market, but failed to find it despite wandering around for awhile. It took us really long time to find restaurants with people eating dinner. Finally sitting down at a popular one, we struggled to order, but eventually managed a few plates of great fried rice, a chicken and some beef with greens. Drinking like the locals, we also got a bottle of the Mens vodka (~$3-4). The tables come set with a collection of shot glasses. On the way back to the hotel, we passed bakery row and picked up a selection of cake slices and cream puffs for $0.50 to $1.

The next day’s drive wasn’t too long, so we left town around 10 am after some leisurely banh cuon, a Vietnamese breakfast food that’s like a crepe made with rice noodle dough. They can just come with minced pork or can be filled with an egg. The banh cuon is then dipped in a broth with herbs and more minced pork that you doctor up with garlic, chili paste, soy and fish sauce. So good! We’d have this for breakfast a few more mornings in the north as it’s quite popular. This version in Lang Son was my favorite.  The road on this day started out on the same highway for a bit, but thankfully the truck traffic died down after most of them took the road to the Chinese border. The scenery became more impressive as the day wore on, the mountains growing with every mile.

Usually, we don’t expect much from lunch on the road besides some cheap sustenance, however, our food karma was in full force today. Yesterday, we landed at a market with tasty sandwiches and a super friendly fruit seller who chopped us delicious mangoes and pineapples. Today, we pulled off at a duck noodle soup restaurant way past local lunch time. The proprietor asked how many then spend off on her motorbike to get supplies at the market. She soon returned and cooked us up huge steaming bowls of amazing noodle soup with duck. Even a couple local guys came in for a bowl around the same time. Then, the market next door sold us ice cream for only 3,000 vnd ($0.13).  Definitely one of the better lunch stops of the trip.

In Cao Bang, we found rooms in a hotel alongside the river. The market was only a few blocks away and restaurants abounded everywhere. There were a few other tourist floating around, but those were mainly on guided trips. This was one of my favorite small town stops – just enough tourists that we weren’t attractions ourselves and that there was some English in some places. We ate extremely well here with the markets, bakeries and plethora of restaurants nearby. Coffee at the riverside cafe next to our hotel became a morning institution. Two nights we ate a pizza place in town which served pretty good pies at reasonable prices as well as sizzling steak and egg plates. The bakeries provided desserts and sandwiches for lunches on the go. The markets offered freshly cut pineapple and other fruits.

We were prepared to spend two nights in Cao Bang with a day trip in the middle to visit the Ben Gioc Waterfall. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Rob and I ended up there for four nights instead.

I didn’t feel great when we arrived so I called it a night very early while Rob grabbed dinner with everyone (Seattle and Aussie guys). Turns out that they went to a com (pick a dish served with rice and soup) restaurant and the Aussies tried to talk the owner into free beer. The owner gave them a pile of shallots to peel and made them earn their drinks.

Our first morning, we set out to visit the waterfall with the guys deciding to tackle the ride as a lollipop loop that the Vietnam Coracle described on his webpage. The highway portion of the lollipop stem was beautiful. We passed a village of blacksmiths where each house had a display of knives out front and a person hammering on an anvil.

Turning off the main road though, the road became crap. We should have stopped after reaching the piles of rock that had been so thoughtfully piled across the road in preparation of future road improvements. They made for a slow jarring ride as you tried to find the best/smoothest path through them. Some parts were better than others. wp-1461988864450.jpg

After making it through a long segment of rocks, we finally got a brief respite of packed dirt road. Then, Taylor’s electric starter broke and soon after, Alex’s chain snapped. At this point, we split off from the guys since there was nothing more that we could help with except scout the road ahead.

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Partway through the terrible loop road to the Ben Gioc Waterfall. A brief respite from the rock piles before the mud pits.

After we split off, the road climbed a mountain pass and continues to be terrible with the addition of mud pits every so often. We finally hit one we bad that we had to walk the bike through.

"Motorbike road"

“Motorbike road”

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Mud pit, one of many, in the road. These were the worst. I made Rob let me walk some of them.

We can to wheel the bike around these stuck trucks.

We can to wheel the bike around these stuck trucks and avoid falling in the river.’

Eventually we made it to more consistent pavement as we approached the Chinese border. The road followed the border for awhile and we passed trucks with covered loads and beds full of people.

Approaching the waterfall as we drove along the road paralleling the border river, Rob and I passed a number of  boat docks extending most of the way across the river. As we stopped for a couple photos, these guys got on the docks, detached the end segment, then rowed it to China to drop off his buddy. We also passed a number of trucks parked along the border road; some of them were packed with people.

Paddling to China.

Paddling to China.

Us at the Ben Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border

Us at the Ben Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border

It was so late by the time we reached the waterfall that we found nearby lodging (200k vnd for a nice clean room) for the night. We ate dinner at a local rice restaurant and watched a Vietnamese movie there. It just happened to have English subtitles so we could follow along. I would put it in the rom-com category but it had a few tables of Vietnamese men enthralled.

We discussed returning to the waterfall in the morning but the weather/visibility wasn’t great so we headed to the nearby Nguon Ngao cave. They were pretty much deserted with the exception of several merchants and one group that was leaving as we entered. Nothing like having a huge cave all to yourself. It had some nice formations that we enjoyed even after all the other caves we’d visited.

Shadow poses in the cave.

Shadow poses in the cave.

After the cave, we drove almost all the way back to Cao Bang via the nice highway. The drive took around 2.5 hours before we split on the road to Pac Bo cave in the town’s outskirts.

Pac Bo Cave, where Ho Chi Minh or Bac (Uncle) Ho lived after crossing back into Vietnam from China, is a pilgrimage site for many Vietnamese. Notwithstanding the historical context, the site follows a gorgeous stream with beautiful bright blue pools. No swimming allowed unfortunately.

The entrance to the site is also the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, so we took some photos with the Km 0 marker.  They’re currently building a Ho Chi Minh museum nearby in addition to the shrine. Finally returning to Cao Bang, we ate some very tasty pizzas at Pizza Chi before crashing.

Km 0 marker of the Ho Chi Minh Highway near Pac Bo Cave

Km 0 marker of the Ho Chi Minh Highway near Pac Bo Cave

The next day, we decided to “relax” in town to catch up on important matters. Rob got our oil changed and I filed our tax extension. Ever year it seems like our taxes become more complex. Rob keeps threatening to buy me Turbo Tax instead of letting me just fill in the forms directly. It was a relief to finally have that taken care of with only a few days to go. When we were at Pizza Chi the previous night, we’d seen everyone else order the sizzling meat platters and decided we needed to go back and order some with the white drink that was also popular. Trying the order what we thought was a white yogurt drink ended up being a wonderful accident. We were brought little yogurt tubs with a straw, but when the owner saw us staring at them in confusion because we were expecting a glass of white liquid, he came over to investigate. Rob and I tried to explain that we wanted the white thing that we’d seen everyone else enjoying the other night. The owner tried to tell us it was from the shop next door and ended up getting us two bowls of what turned out to be frozen yogurt covered with durian (the stinky fruit) and a variety of jellies. Sua chua mit turned out to be one of best foods we discovered in Vietnam. I hope we can find/make it back home.

In the morning, Rob and I continued northeast to Meo Vac parting ways with the Seattle guys, who hung out longer to recover from a bout of food poisoning.

 

 

 

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 33-35: Karst on the water and Cat Ba Island

Rob and I led our procession out of Hanoi since we had the phone mount for the bike. Since the old quarter is on the east side of Hanoi and we were continuing east, we didn’t have very much trouble getting out of the main city. The first problem arose when we missed a turn on to Highway 1 because the entrance was unclear on google. Then before we could turn around, our road turned into a traffic disaster where Rob was walking our bike through merging traffic that was barely moving. To make matters worse, Alex’s throttle cable broke. The guys went to get it fixed and we made a u-turn and got back on Highway 1.

Unlike Highway 1 in the south, this incarnation of Highway 1 was like a nice freeway in the States – two lanes each direction plus a full shoulder for motorbikes, with a median and guardrails. It was the easiest driving of the trip except for the expressway into Da lat that we’d mistakenly taken. From Highway 1, we got on Highway 18 east toward Halong City. This route was the typical 2 lane highway with a decent number of trucks. The traffic flowed well and the road was in decent condition. The google maps directions took us right to the dock and when we arrived around 3:15pm, a number of other backpackers were already there.

This ferry is clearly the cheapest way to tour Halong Bay. It only cost 70,000 vnd (<$3.5) for a person and 90,000 vnd for a person with motorbike. In the low season there are only 2 ferries, one in the morning that departs at 8 am for Cat Ba then returns at 9am and one in the afternoon that leaves Tuan Chau at 3 pm for Cat Ba and returns at 4 pm. The ferry ride goes through Halong bay passing the spot where many of the overnight cruises anchor for the night. Our captain had to honk repeatedly at all the kayakers hanging out in the ship channel.

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This lady drove a motorbike with a basket full of chickens on to the boat, but it tipped over while loading letting chickens out. She spent part of the journey repacking them.

Arriving on Cat Ba Island, we had a ~25 km scenic drive across the Island to Cat Ba town where the majority of the lodging is located. The island is gorgeous in its own right and has a national park and a number of caves. It’s also a launching point for the less visited Lan Ha Bay.  In town, we stayed with the Mr. Zoom Backpacker Hostel, which not only had dorm beds for $3, but also has two associated hotels with fan-cooled double rooms for $6 – an amazing deal. This turned out to be our cheapest lodging in Vietnam.

The next day, Rob and I went on a kayaking day trip with Asia Outdoors. For a few dollars more than the standard $16 bundle tour, we spent a full day on the bay with about 5 hours of kayaking. We chose this over just renting a kayak because the company shuttles you out of the more scenic parts of the bay to explore. Our group visited a few floating villages and got a closer look at the aquaculture they practice. Some of the floating platforms are pearl farms with strings of oysters hanging down into the water. Other platforms are nets where shellfish harvested from around the bay is grown to a larger size before selling. We saw smaller boats out in the bay with scuba dive set ups for the shellfish harvesters.

 

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Hanging out in a hidden lagoon. We had to navigate a shallow, rock-lined channel to get in.

That night, we had an amazing veggie meal at the surprisingly reasonable Buddha Belly. The small rice plate of the day was only $1.50 and was massive. The mushroom noodle soup I had for the same price was also great. Afterwards, we joined the Seattle guys at a local Bia Hoi place with some other folks. When we went to pay, the bill was under $10 for 37 beers.

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Rob with his small veggie meal at Buddha Belly in Cat Ba. He’s giving me his “hurry up a take a photo so I can start eating” face.

The next morning, we decided to do a climbing trip. I’ve never been outdoor climbing and neither Rob nor I is very good at gym climbing, but Cat Ba has deep water free solo climbing for a reasonable price ($30/each), so we gave it a try. Rob did very well, but I got on the rock and freaked out about jumping into the water. Regardless of whether I thought I could climb higher, I definitely did not want to jump from any higher. In the end, Rob got some climbing in and I worked on my fear of jumping from heights.

Rob's second route.

Rob’s second route.

My second attempt.

My second attempt.

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Jumping off!

With only the two of us, we were done climbing pretty quickly, so our guide took us on a long cruise around the bay with a spot at Monkey  Island for a short hike and some beach time.  Even on a cloudy day, the bay was still gorgeous. The island had a nice beach and the added entertainment of the monkeys harassing some of the other tourists.

Our last evening on the island was spent on a forgettable fish dinner (Rob didn’t want to go back for more veg) and another few rounds of Bia Hoi. The next day we planned to catch the 8 am ferry back to the mainland and head northeast toward Lang Son.

Vietnam by Moto Days 32-33: Overnight crazy in Hanoi

Rob and I hit traffic on the far outskirts of the city. Since we entered on the opposite of Hanoi from the Old Quarter where we were staying, we had to brave the crazy traffic through the majority of the city. I filmed driving through the weaving mass of motorbikes and cars but with the wide angle lens, it doesn’t capture the close proximity of the other bikes and the speed at which they pass you. The stoplights were the scariest part as you’re part of a mass of motorbikes that’s stopped and trying to start moving forward all at once. Low speed handling is one of the most difficult parts of the motorbike driving since you’re not as stable so trying to get going again among the throng trying to pass you is unnerving. Rob kept his cool, but afterwards he adopted the strategy of hanging back at lights and keeping us out of the mass if possible.

Here’s a hyperlapse of the different parts of our drive from Pu Long to Hanoi. The sped up version of Hanoi views more like what it feels like to be in the traffic.

If you want to experience the constant honking, here’s some video as we head through Hanoi with original sound.


That night we had booked the Funky Jungle Hostel. We were going to get a private room, but the dorms were so much cheaper $5 per person per night that we gave them a try. This hostel has free beer from 6-7pm, then again from 8:30 – until the keg’s gone, which turned out to be a lie. Rob and I were both given top bunks; these were very high and didn’t have great handholds at the top. This was okay for the daytime, but would suck getting up and down in the middle of the night while partially asleep. Since it was already pretty close to 6 pm when we arrived, dinner was a doner kebab (from one of the 3 stands within a block of the hostel) and an amazing bag of donuts with a sweet yellow center that we saw a number of locals buying. Treats in had we returned to our hostel for free beer and promptly met three guys from the Seattle area. AJ, Taylor and Alex had all graduated from Gonzaga and worked for one year to save money before quitting to do some extended worldwide travel (Their fancy blog).  They were also traveling by motorbike and were planning to head to Halong Bay/Cat Ba the next day. We were planning on heading that direction one day later, however, a look at the forecast had us altering our plans to leave the next day. We decided to ride with them the next day, leaving around 10 am when our laundry would be ready.

As per the usual, I went to work on the blog in the dorm after beer hour while Rob stayed out to meet folks. The guy with the bunk under mine was back in the dorm and it was clear that he had been there awhile. Apparently his current gig was getting other travelers to come to a casino with him and to get “$20 of free play.”  We didn’t see/hear him again until 4 am when he returned drunk and disorderly, yelling about how a cabbie ripped him of everything and stumbling around. Thankfully, he passed out soon enough and stayed that we until we left despite Rob dropping our USB charger on his bare chest from the top bunk and the cleaning crew servicing the room. Rob and I agreed that we would not be returning to the Funky Jungle on our next visit to Hanoi.

We met up with the AJ, Alex and Taylor and managed to get on the road around 10:15 am aiming for the 3 pm Tuan Chau public car ferry to Cat Ba Island. This was the last ferry of the day, so missing it would mean a night in Halong City.

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Rob and the bike ready to leave Hanoi for Cat Ba.

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.

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.