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.

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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.

 

Vietnam by Moto Day 17: Hai Van Pass to Hue

Made famous by an episode of BBC Top Gear, the road from Danang to Hue crosses Hai Van Pass (some even call this Top Gear pass). The main traffic bypasses the route with a tunnel so only motorbikes, livestock trucks and oil tankers use the pass.

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Oil tanker headed up.

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View from the coconut stop. Some other backpackers took this for us.

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View toward Danang

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Pig trucks. We saw so many of these.

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Coconut and hammock a perfect combination. This was an expensive coconut for 2 at 40k vnd.

We took our time up the pass to avoid overheating. At the top, we stopped to check out an old military installation from the war riddled with bullet holes.

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Top of the pass

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Military installation at the top with bullet holes

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Looking north toward Hue from the pass.

I filmed part of our descent and Rob sped it up with Microsoft hyperlapse. Check it out here.

Continuing on the highway to Hue, we passed a valley full of vendors with cases of bottles. At first we thought gas, then happy water. The air started to get smoky and we began to see home-made stills. Rob stopped at one and bought a bottle. It was really expensive, $6.

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One of many roadside stills.

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The road was lined with these displays of bottles.

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Roadside distillation stall. The smoke along the road was terrible. 

It was amazing how many of these stills were operating. While it was interesting to see them all, it was also a relief to leave the smoke behind and turn off on to the “coast” road (it was really an huge inlet for much of the drive) leaving the highway behind. The way was slower going and longer but the scenery was beautiful. We got lucky and realized that there is bridge back toward Hue earlier (farther south) then we expected so we were able to get to our hotel before dark.

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Avoiding highway 1/taking the scenic way to Hue

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Fishing on a many land-locked bay south of Hue.

Vietnam by Moto Days 16-17: Dark beer, beach and bridges in Danang

The drive to Danang from Hoi An has about 3 turns max. The lower trafficked coast road was plenty fast and soon enough, we were in the suburbs of Danang.

As we approached, huge karst mountains loomed. We realized these were the marble mountains advertised on tours all around Hoi An. We stopped for a photo and a quick drive around the base. The mountains are filled with sculptures and there are shops around the base selling them if you want your own to take home. Recently, they added an elevator so you no longer have to hike up the mountains.

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The whole area around the Marble mountains contains a variety of shops selling statuary, although the marble is now from China not the actually marble mountains.

 

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Marble mountains outside Danang. The hills are filled with statues and shrines. They built an elevator (far left) so you don’t have to do most of the hike up. We just decided to take a look from the outside as there were so many bus tours there.

 

We stayed at the Titan Hotel in Danang just a few blocks off the coast. Best $10 a night hotel we’ve stayed in yet. It even has an amazing breakfast buffet.

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Our room at the Titan Hotel. So fancy for $10.

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A bathroom with separate shower. Fancy living!

After relaxing a bit in our beautiful room, we set out for a walk on the beach. En route, we found a new local snack food, bánh mi que, a toasted bread stick stuffed with a tomato meat paste for only 3,000 vnd. Two, please!Prime beach hours for the Vietnamese are early morning and early evening. We timed it right to catch numerous football and volleyball games in progress as well as packed swimming areas with folks enjoying the waves.

We had dinner at a busy local place near the hotel serving bún with a variety of meats. A very nice women helped us order. It was good but not as good as our lunch bowl.

After dinner we decided to get the motorbike and see more of the city. Some of the bridges were suppose to be near so we went to check them out. We discovered a draft beer garden full of people and stopped for a beer. They actually had dark beer!

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Dark beer at the Draft beer garden. This place was pretty busy. Many tables had towers.

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One of the other Danang bridges. They all put on a pretty good light show at night.

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Dragon bridge profile

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Dragon bridge in Danang

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Concrete fake yacht restaurant on the river

After a massive breakfast the next morning, Rob went for a scenic drive by himself.  At one point he stopped and got into a photo session with two women from Danang. When he got back, we packed up and headed for Hai Van Pass.

Vietnam by Moto Days 12-16: Enjoying the tourist throng in Hoi An

Checking into House 36 upon our arrival in Hoi An was amazing. Our $17 a night room was gorgeous! Anything this nice at home would easily be at least $100 per night. It was so modern and clean compared to anything we’d stayed in since the Yusense hotel in Taipei. Cleaned up, we dropped off our massive bag of laundry and went to see the city/EAT. Omg eat! We ended up in the tourist quarter of old town replete with fancy restaurants and souvenir shops.

 

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Tasty meal (but on the expensive side for us)  at Mermaid Restaurant. Wontons with tasty topping and eggplant with minced pork

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Our favorite evening spot in Hoi An. This bar had great live music most night and only 20k vnd beers served with peanuts. It was on a street with a night market perpendicular to the river near the bar strip with tiger, tiger. The second band we saw there was really good and we managed to catch them another night at Dive Bar (unfortunately louder and more expensive)

One of the big things to do in Hoi An is to having clothing custom made. There are hundreds of shops in the city and everywhere you turn there’s another three. I wanted to get a maxi dress and a couple blouses made since I can never get these items that fit at home. Rob came along on my quest to find a good tailor but ditched me at the second shop out of boredom. I went to a total of four shops and finally chose one, the Golden Patch tailor, a newer shop that still had great reviews. They were good to work with and let me browse in peace which I appreciated. But, by the end of the day I was worn out from all the looking that I couldn’t bring myself to order yet and instead joined Rob at our favorite cheap beer place (3,000 vnd/13 cents for a glass of fresh beer). He was chatting with a guy from Wales after having done some through exploration of the area. Since he was in the same spot from the previous night, some familiar folks from previous hostels who had seen him last night asked if he’d ever moved.

The next day we went back to the tailor and both ended up ordering a few pieces. Rob got a linen suit for summer events and I picked out two blouses, two dresses and a pair of pants. We put in our order around noon and by 11 am the next day we had clothes to try on. Rob’s suit and shirt were pretty good as were my maxi dress, pants and one of the blouses. The second blouse was way too small and the other dress, which I had just given them pictures of what I wanted, was a mess. Since it was backless, they had added a built in bra, however, their idea of boob padding is crazy. The pads felt massive and were mounted so high that I felt ridiculous.  The straps also hit in all the wrong places. The second fitting after another 20 hours went much better and I was relieved to have  a dress that I could actually wear. They adjusted a few more things then everything was ready for us to pick up on the third day. I think we ended up looking pretty good in our new duds.

Hoi An is an old port city long ago made irrelevant as the harbor silted up. With no economic importance, the old town center and river survived only to be transformed into a tourist mecca. Everything a tourist desires can be found here although getting peace and any kind of real local experience takes more effort. The city is decked out with colorful streamers and lanterns. Lit up at night, the riverfront is a lively place to be. The daytime is quieter with only the groups visiting the historic buildings. Everyone else hits the beach or tours the surrounding countryside.

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A whole tour group in the cycle cabs

We spent the rest of the afternoon (and the next morning) visiting five of the sites on the old town ticket (admission for 5 sights for 150k vnd). There are some pretty neat old houses and buildings that allow you to visit.

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Fishing demos on the river

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Mother of pearl inlaid characters formed from birds

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Amazing wood carvings

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Hoi An riverfront at night

After seeing some of the sights, we wandered around trying to find an interesting more local place to eat at that A) had locals dining b) had food we were interested in and C) was not entirely men eating. Finally we stumbled on a beef restaurant and order a bowl of lemon beef soup and fixings for beef fresh roll. Afterwards, we indulged in the local pastime of pool/billards. The pool hall was one of the busiest local places and we had seen one in most small towns.  Rob is much better so we employed a handicap, but what was far more successful for me was just to wait for him to shoot himself in the foot and scratch on the eight ball which he did twice. We were still a bit peckish after pool but conveniently we passed a cream puff stand (Banh Su Kem) on the way back. They add the filling when you order so they don’t get soggy.

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Here’s the beef. They slice up a hunk for us to use for spring rolls and for the lemon beef soup.

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Pool hall in Hoi An

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Amazing cream puffs 7 for 20k vnd. We didn’t find these until the second to last night.

The next afternoon after our fittings, Rob and I took the motorbike to An Bang beach and enjoyed sun, sand and water. Rob played frisbee with some other backpackers while I read my book. Then we had a bit of sand castle fun before seeking out dinner in town at the Central Market. The food court there serves all the local specialties at very reasonable prices. If you want to pay slightly more, you can dine on the plastic chairs and tables on the riverfront for an extra 50-10k per dish. The Cau lau and white rose were great but we weren’t a fan of the mi quang noodles.

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Sand castles on An Bang beach

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For our last day, we picked up the clothing and got it mailed home. By then, Rob was getting hangry and had been craving bùn, so we stopped at a nearby street eatery. Their take on bùn mam (dry not soup) was different. Inside of a fish sauce style dressing, it came with a slightly runny peanut sauce. Rob quickly declared this to be his favorite Vietnamese dish. Then, we left for Danang, a short drive north.

 

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 9-12: Adventures up the coast

From Nha Trang, Rob and I decided to continue on the Coracle’s coastal route rather than cut inland to the Ho Chi Minh highway, which adds a bunch of miles. Our next big stop would be Hoi An, a tourist-friendly old port town back on the backpacker trail three days away.

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Our only view of the beach in Nha Trang. Taken as we left town.

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Nice roads to the middle of nowhere on Hon Gom Sandbar north of Nha Trang . No resorts had been built yet, but part of the road has four lanes.

Night 9: Tuy Hoa

After parking ourselves at a great hotel, Hong Hai, near the beach in Tuy Hoa, we headed to Bob’s Cafe American for dinner. Of the places in Tuy Hoa, this one had tons of reviews promising great American food at reasonable prices and an interesting time with Bob, the American Vietnam vet who runs the place with his Vietnamese wife. The food was great but it was busy and Bob was distracted, so we didn’t get much of an opportunity to chat with him. The beer was 50 cents for a liter on draft and they brought out the real ketchup for us. The red bottle on the table was not ketchup.

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Bob’s Cafe American in Tuy Hoa

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In the morning, we departed for Quy Nhon. We took a route following the coast ending up on a peninsula with a notable formation called Ganh Da Dia. Reminiscent of Devils Tower/Bear Lodge in Wyoming, Ganh Da Dia has the same geometric columns formed from molten lava, but these are oriented differently and eroded by the ocean. We had missed the turn and as we turned around two tour buses went past. We were able to follow them right to the carpark.

Here’s a great blog post with instructions on how to get to Ganh da dia, although it’s now 10,000 vnd per person to get in. Some lovely views of the ocean can be seen by hiking along the coast from the parking area. Heading inland, we stopped for lunch at a banh mi stand in a small village. I tried to make conversation with the woman running it and soon we were having a google translate conversation with her and her daughters, son, friends and other people. We took countless photos with them and I got to hold a baby.

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Since our drive for the day wasn’t too far, we also had time for a stop outside of Quy Nhon. Life’s a Beach and Big Tree hostels are located next to each other in a small fishing village about 10 km south of town. We decided to stop in for a cold drink and potentially stay there for a night. Sadly they were out of beds, so we eventually continued on to Quy Nhon.

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Fisherman launching a coracle (round boat from the beach). It was interesting to watch how they propel and steer it from the front.

Night 10: Quy Nhon

I had messaged the Quy Nhon kids English club (send them a message if you’re going to be in the area for a night), a group of people who are interested in practicing English conversation and we ended up setting a time to meet up later that night. In the meantime, we checked into our hotel (the only one so far that we wouldn’t go back to although its location was convenient) then walked along the waterfront.

Finally we met up with Vu and his wife, Oanh, for a dinner of banh canh and ban cuon at a local place. They were both so friendly and engaging. It turned out that they were about the same age as us and had a one year old son. It was so fun just to talk about normal life! I feel like we have the same obligatory conversation with so many other travelers that’s useful and interesting, but it was so great to break out of that mold.

Rob and I didn’t quite realize what was planned for after dinner, but we ended up grabbing drinks at a street side cafe. As we sat down, tables kept getting added around us and a group of 15+ other people (mainly a class of kids with their teacher) showed up to talk with us. They drove over 10 km on Saturday night just to practice their English, which was pretty amazing. With our limited classroom management skills, Rob and I ended up splitting the group in two and tried to have conversations with them all – a difficult challenge indeed. Some of them were very willing to talk (two of the little boys spoke great English constantly and at high volume) and others who were less confident, I tried to engage them the best I could to give everyone a chance. Especially with the pop culture stuff, I am way out of date. We tried to talk about music and movies and I struggled to find common ground. I did get them to try to teach me some Vietnamese for awhile, but I don’t know how much of it stuck.  In the end, Rob and I learned some more about Vietnamese culture and really enjoyed meeting so many people.  We were both exhausted, though. Being a teacher takes skill.

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I got everyone to make silly faces with me.

Oang and one of the older club members invited us to join them the next morning for their weekly hike. Great! No problem! Wait, it’s sunrise hike and we meet at 5am!? Rob took a large deal of convincing but let me drag him out of bed in the dark. Meeting at the road to the trail head, we couldn’t believe how many people were there. More and more kept coming. Our smaller group was around ten people including Oang’s son, who got handed around the group for the long uphill slog. This mountain is the highest of the four surrounding Quy Nhon. The group rotates mountains every week.  We took tons of photos at the top and then hiking down, everyone (and I mean everyone) out hiking posed for this massive group photo. A few other folks took photos with Rob.  After hiking, we had a breakfast of crab (cua) noodle soup with part of the club before everyone went home to nap time. It wasn’t even 9 am yet. We fit in a few more hours of sleep before setting off.

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View from the top. Sunrise hike in Quy Nhon.

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Night 11: Quang Ngai

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Our first stop this morning was the memorial at My Son, the location of the terrible My Lai massacre during the American War. This article from the NY Times is an interesting retrospective look at why it happened and the aftermath.

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Rob and I both felt that we needed to visit here to confront the horrible acts committed by American soldiers/government and remind ourselves of the great responsibility we have as US citizens to hold our government and political leaders accountable for their decisions. I feel our institutional memory is too short. Rob and I both were ashamed about the paucity of our knowledge about the Vietnam War. As far as I recall, my US history classes would make it through WWII and the school year would be nearly complete. If we had better remembered or passed on the knowledge of Vietnam war, how could we have put ourselves into Iraq and Afghanistan? I remember one day during an AP US history class (2004) being shown an article talking about how the majority of the Iraq war protesters were middle-aged. They had all lived through the Vietnam war.

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We passed so many dilapidated beach resorts between Quang Ngai and Hoi An. We couldn’t tell if they were operating or not.

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Random roadside monument. Sign in Vietnamese only.

It was clear when we reached the outskirts of Hoi An as all the signs had English too.

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 7-9: Underwater in Nha Trang

Nha Trang is known as a huge beach destination for Russian tourists. As soon as we arrived, we started seeing signs in Russian. Many of the locals also speak better Russian than English. Nowadays, there are also many Chinese tourists thanks to a direct flight from Beijing.
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Rob had talked me into the party hostel in Nha Trang. We arrived just in time for their free beer hour (6-7pm) served on their rooftop patio. Upon check-in, we were given these spiffy bracelets to make we could get ourselves back at night, which reminded me of the t-shirts lower fourth made their prospective students during one Owl Days at Rice (if found lost, etc. please return to Baker lower fourth).

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The next morning after the great breakfast buffet at iHome, we joined the $16 snorkeling tour from the hostel. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the water was very clear, but slightly on the chilly side. We visited three different locations for snorkeling. The first two are reasonably close together so unless you come in early, there’s not much time to warm up and dry off in between sessions. Rob and I saw a good variety of fish (Rob saw a squid!), but not having a waterproof camera, we don’t have any underwater pics.) Rob wasn’t feeling great but managed to snorkel even after taking a few breaks to feed the fish.

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Rob ready for the first session of snorkeling.


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Snorkel spot #2. The beautiful blue area is sand not coral and the reefs are very shallow here.


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Lunch on the boat. Quantity not quality. Rob could barely eat so I knew something was wrong.


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Our third and final snorkel spot.


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These guys with the foot jets appeared as we were leaving.

After a day in the sun with an early morning, we had shower/nap time upon returning to iHome. We grabbed a quick dinner of noodle soup to make it back in time for free beer hour. A number of the awesome folks from the tour came too and we spent a few hours hanging out. At some point, one of the bartenders broke out a guitar. He and a guest took turns playing any singing. Rob took a turn on the drum box for awhile.

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The next day, we packed up and headed north up the coast.

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Vietnam by Moto Day 7: The road to Nha Trang and Bidoup Nui Ba National Park

After breakfast at the hostel, Rob and I hit the road bound for Bidoup Nui Ba National Park. Winding through some of the countryside we passed on the canyoning tour, we stopped to take photos of the amazing country. Da Lat is the veggie growing capital of Vietnam. The markets in town had strawberries, artichokes, huge avocados and more. Leaving town, we passed the fields growing everything. Greenhouses stretched as far as you could see.

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Greenhouses stretch forever, except the hillside to the left which has graves.

  The main stop of the day was Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, 5 km off the main road. Sadly since we were unable to contact them the day before, we weren’t able to get a guide to visit one of the minority villages in the park.

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The park visitor center has a great display about the culture of the local people with a variety of their musical instruments. Rob gave this wind instrument a try. It was pretty hard to get a variety of pitches.

Instead, we did their 3.5 km waterfall hike. The rangers were extremely nice and gave us a little map.  Most of the hike was through pine forest reminiscent of back home, although were water was plentiful, more jungle-like vegetation flourished. As with more modern/foreign national parks, land use is not just preservation. We passed houses, a fish farm and a coffee plantation.

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Fish farm and coffee plantation in Bidoup Bui Na National Park. We got a bit lost on the return finding the correct road back in the fish farm area.

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The waterfall was a bit underwhelming. A few of the folks that were at the visitor center when we first arrived had beat us there and were lounging around.

Returning to the visitor center, we crossed their riverfront plaza (still under construction) to the restaurant building. It was deserted except for 3 people working there. We chose a table out on the patio next to one already set up with a tablecloth and utensils. That one was reserved!? We ordered the rice plate of the day, which was a pretty amazing meal for 40,000 dong each. It came with a bowl of soup, rice, veggie and a fish steak. As we received our food, the group from the waterfall sat down at the reserved table and along with a few other people including the man working the visitor center. They had ordered a feast. I couldn’t read the menu, but it seemed like they had ordered many of the things priced per kilo. Also, they had a case of Tiger Beer (Bia). Rob and I debated whether they were all employees taking lunch and couldn’t decide. A couple of them were definitely were park staff.

The rest of the drive to Nha Trang was beautiful, even better than the drive to Da Lat. Getting into Nha Trang was a bit hairier as Google directed us down a couple tight alleys with oncoming traffic. We made it at last to iHome hostel in time for their free beer hour.

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Road to Nha Trang. One section had waterfalls practically around each bend in the road.

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 4-7: Cooling off in Da Lat

Rob and I departed Mui Ne early in the day. We had heard that the stoplight by the sand dunes was a common police checkpoint where foreigners are often stopped.  Mui Ne has had numerous motorbike accidents involving tourists so there was some crackdown on foreigners driving motorbikes (not that this had stopped rental companies).  Thankfully, we made it out of town without any problems except the fact that we hadn’t had breakfast. Finally, when we intersected Highway 1, we finally found a multitude of local food sans tour buses and a great breakfast bowl of pho bò.

Our route stayed on highway 1 for ~2 blocks before we picked up a smaller road headed inland. This road climbed gently for awhile taking us past a series of reservoirs before climbing a mountain pass in earnest. Along the lakes there were plenty of shaded refreshment stands with hammocks, however, we passed them by having just stopped for breakfast. We didn’t reach another one until way over the pass. At one point, I asked Rob if the burning smell was the bike and he replied that it was just people burning stuff (which we did pass too). We kept going. Finally, we find a shady spot to stop. The engine is smoking. We give it awhile to cool before continuing more slowly. At this point, we pretty much at the top and had a glorious descent down the other side.

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We reached a roadside rest stop at last! Rob got his sugarcane drink, nước mía and we lounged in hammocks for awhile. Getting closer Da Lat, we joined Highway 20 for a period. This was some of the worst riding of the trip with trucks passing each other on a two lane road blaring their horns to clear the bikes traveling in the designated direction. Some sections of the road were undergoing construction, which didn’t help. We reached an expressway at some point with a great scooter road alongside. The scooter road quickly turned into a dirt path which led back to car road for a stint then branched again onto dirt. At this last split, Rob decided just to continue on the car road marked with no scooter signs as that’s what our route had marked. About 12 km out of Da Lat, the scooter road returned.

Out of nowhere, we reached a parking lot full of tour buses and pulled over to investigate. It turned out to be a waterfall, but I was more interested in lunch. Trying to move the bike from our initial stopping point to the food stall, Rob couldn’t get it to start and refused to have someone start looking at it while we had lunch. The food was extremely disappointing. Rob ended up with Pho again and I had a baguette with fried egg that I was happy with until I noticed the abundance of black speckles in the bread that were cooked little bugs. After lunch, the bike still didn’t start. Another backpacker tried a few things to no avail. The large parking lot with the restaurants has a mechanic. He tried a variety of things for an hour or more before sending us down a bit of hill to another shop. The new mechanic did a couple tests before pointing at the engine and indicating that he needed to take it apart. We ended up getting a new head for the engine for $20. It took over an hour, but the bike finally started and we made it into town just before 7 pm.

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Bike repair just 11 km from Da Lat. At least it broke down nearly in front of a mechanic. $20 for a new head for our engine. 2 hours later we were back on the road.

We found our hotel without too much issue despite it having a similar name to so many others. On the way to My dream hotel, we passed dreams hotel, dreams hotel 3, sweet dream hotel and more.

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Weekend night market in Da Lat city center. All the streets close to motorized traffic after 7pm. Best grilled corn covered in herb butter. We had two ears!

For dinner, Rob and wandered tasting food from a variety of vendors. After dinner, we headed to 100 roofs, a crazy bar recommended to us by some folks we met at a hostel heading the opposite direction. Rob had arranged to meet another friend from Siam Reap and Saigon there. While waiting for him, we ran into the Canadians from the previous night in Mui Ne that we had told about the place. We had a great time great lost in all its levels and passages. The décor is ridiculous with sculpted faces and such everywhere.

 

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The next morning, we woke early for a canyoning trip with Groovy Gecko (motto-Be crazy not lazy!) I was a bit lazy and skipped out on the cliff jumping. Other than that, this was a pretty awesome day. We did a bunch of off-road driving (the guide not us, but it was pretty rough just riding in back), 1 dry rappel, 4 waterfall rappels, cliff jumping and 1 small waterslide with a spot of lunch to break up the day. The waterfalls were very slick and we all fell at different points, especially on the long one at 65m, which took awhile to get down.

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Group for Canyoning trip


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The headfirst natural waterslide


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The 65m waterfall at the end of the day.


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The 25m falls. Our second rappel.


imageSince we wanted a full day to drive to Nha Trang, we decided to stay one more night so we could get a few bike maintenance things done (oil change, spoke fix, new rear bearings) and explore around Da Lat for a day then and leave in the next morning. Our great $10 budget hotel was sadly not available so we moved to a hostel with a fun atmosphere, Easy Tiger.

After checking in, we realized that my sunglasses were missing, so we had to made a trip back to the first hotel. Turns out, they were in our first hotel room that the staff had moved us out of and had fallen under a curtain. Then, we spent awhile trying to find the national park office to book a tour for the next day. Eventually, we located the correct building accessible from a side street one over from the listed address. The building was full of motorbikes but not a person in sight. One person showed up as we were about to leave and explained that this is just an admin office. Oops!

Ravenous Rob demands feeding, so we headed to Artist Alley to get him the ostrich burger that the Canadians had raved about. It turned out to be an ostrich steak but it was darn good. My avocado salad was fine but they weren’t as flavorful as I hoped.image

We spent the afternoon exploring more of town and visiting crazy house, a ever-growing house with sections connected by soaring bridges, ladders or small passages. Da Lat is much cooler then much of Vietnam, so it’s a common domestic vacation spot, especially for honeymoons. This is their winter but still it’s not that cold. We were heartily entertained seeing locals everywhere in hats, scarves and all manner of down jackets.

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imageMany of the hostels here do a family style dinner for a few dollars so we joined out hostel’s one. With a small group, we pulled tables and chairs street-side for a meal of soup, pumpkin, rice, BBQ prawns/dried squid(fishy and very chewy), stir-fried spleen of some animal(well-seasoned but very chewy)/meat/veggies and of course, happy water. The happy water arrived in a two liter water bottle. When it was gone, it was replaced with a bottles of Men brand vodka. Rob bought the third bottle. Someone else bought a fourth. Each was $3.

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Street-side family dinner at Easy Tiger Hostel

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Rob’s Da Lat drinking buddy.

This was international women’s day, which is a big deal here because men and women are not considered equals as far as we can tell. We had seen flowers for sale everywhere walking around the city. From what we saw, women’s day meant the women got offered shots with everyone else and the husbands drank as per usual. I hope our host wife at least got a rain check on it.

Vietnam by Moto Days 2-4: Pool and Sand in Mũi Né

Near H’ô Tràm, we picked a yellow cantaloupe like melon to eat later and continued northward.

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As the fields changed from melons to spiky dragon fruit trees, we pulled over in a town to look for the roast pork sandwich stands mentioned in the Vietnam Coracle since I thought I had seen a pig sign. Rob pulled over in a shady patch outside a house to check the map. Turns out that a large group was lunching on seafood on the patio. They motioned us over to join their feast and plied us with beer and a variety of seafood. Luckily we had our recently purchased melon to share.
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With a combination of the only Vietnamese we knew (1, 2, 3, cheers! – mot, hi, baa yo!) And the Lonely Planet dictionary, we managed some conversation. We learned how to say spicy and tried áwp/snail. Rob responsibly refused beer refills (the Vietamese think it is perfectly reasonable to have 5 beers with lunch and then get back on a motorbike, we disagree) and we managed to get back on the road north.

We stopped in Phan Thiet for a 10k dong bánh mi and an ATM before continuing on to the Mũi Né Backpacker Village. We paid a premium $25 for a large double room with en suite bathroom and access to a gorgeous pool across the road from the beach. The poolside was so pleasant we actually never made it to the beach proper. We played pool volleyball for awhile then tossed a football around. Dinner was a beach front restaurant (sand on top of a concrete pier) that served tasty and reasonably priced seafood and beer. Recommended by Lonely Planet, Lam Tong Restaurant was our go to spot for food and drinks with a view. The squid with garlic was so good!

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Tasty dinner on the beach at Lam Tong!

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View of the kiteboarding beach from Lam Tong Restaurant


We signed up for the sunrise sand dunes and more tour for the next day. It was slightly more expensive than the afternoon tour, but came with free breakfast and would allow us to spend the afternoon by the pool (and not baking in the sun on the dunes). Four am the next morning came quickly and it was a bit hard to drag ourselves out of bed in the darkness.

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Vietnam by Moto Days 1-2: Escaping Saigon

Thanks goodness that the Vietnam Coracle has great routes for leaving Ho Chi Minh/Saigon (We followed his Ocean Route to begin our journey) that it wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be. Rob and I were doing pretty well getting our stuff packed and errands run. The mini market in our alley had bungee cords for 50 cents each and cheap face masks. Getting a SIM for Rob’s newly unlocked phone took longer than expected since the first one was bad, but we got it figured out.

So, we get the bike, load the bike, maneuver down our tiny alley to the main street then promptly find out that we can’t take the way we planned to the gas station. While trying to navigate to it, Rob realizes the bike isn’t riding right and sure enough, we have a flat tire. Everyone took one look at the bike and pointed to the nearest mechanic shop. An hour and a half or so later, we have gas and two holes in our back tube solidly patched (Only $1!).

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Despite one wrong turn, we manage to escape the chaos of the city via a tunnel then a super cheap ferry across part of the Mekong. After hours of riding and perhaps a nap on my part, we made it to the coast and eventually Hô Tram, a small beach side town surrounded by a few mega resorts. After some brief searching while having refreshments at a beach side hut (not too pretty with lots of trash and flies around), we booked a room at the river ray estates with our hotels.com credit. We wanted to spend the afternoon lounging around a pool and that was the only one in our budget.

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Arriving at the River Ray Estates, it appears to be pretty deserted. We were upgraded to a large section of a villa on the beach. The best feature above all was the washing machine. The thought of having all our clothes clean was amazing.

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More immediate though was the fading daylight. We put on swimsuits and headed to the beautiful pool. Since the resort is located on a sandbar between a river and the ocean. It has water views on both sides. Our room was on the ocean side and the pool is on the river side.
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Dinner at the resort seemed a bit expensive starting at $4 entrees so we took the motorbike about 1 km to a roadside com (rice) restaurant. The main recognizable thing was shrimp. Rob ordered some for him but the lady grabbed the rest of the tray and heated it up. I ended up with shrimp too. These weren’t able the large or even medium shrimp of the Western world. No, these were the itty bitty fried rice shrimp and just slightly larger with full heads and shells. Too big to eat without shelling but difficult to peel. Dinner choice fail. We should have just eaten at the resort.

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We returned to our room full but unsatisfied. After a bit of laundry and some internet time, Rob and I called it a night.

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The next morning as we went to check out the proprietress called us over to join her for a water and coconut. It was freshly picked and easily the best coconut we had ever tasted. After drinking the juice, she had it cut open so we could gorge ourselves on its sweet flesh. She told us about her children who live all around the world (she said we remind her of them) and the many places she has traveled. Eventually, we got on the road to Mũi Né.