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Entries in Vietnam (11)

Vietnam Begins

There are two great things about traveling in Vietnam:

1) I can now begin stories with “Back in ‘Nam”

2) The local currency is the Dong. And it’s 16,000 Dong to the dollar. So it’s not unreasonable to be walking around with a few million Dongs in your pocket.

1047435-792281-thumbnail.jpgI suppose there’s some other cool stuff too. Like the absolutely amazing, fresh, delicious food. The fact that people take such pride in everything they do. Locals smiling at you and actually being friendly. A culture with a sense of humor. Granted, not always with any sense of real urgency, like waiting half an hour for our luggage that was sitting just on the other “restricted” side of the baggage carousel.

Another bonus – things are incredibly cheap here. Like, really cheap. The 20 minute cab ride from the airport was $2 and our lunch came to $3. Granted, we got taken for a ride (pun intended) by our cyclo driver today. We’re pretty sure we paid about 5 times what we were supposed to – $30 to have two people pedal us around the city and take us anywhere we wanted to go for an entire day. It certainly seemed reasonable…

Let’s talk about “the cyclo” for a sec. A dying breed of public transportation (and for rather obvious reasons) it consists of a driver, three wheels, and a seat on the front. Very similar to a wheelbarrow. This may seem like a good idea except that they share the same congested, motorcycle filled "roads" that everyone else uses - and go at about 1/10th the speed, making them deadly icebergs in a chaotically flowing river of traffic.  I'll let the video speak for itself.

1047435-792284-thumbnail.jpgSpeaking of cheap, we also had an amazing day of beauty on our first day here. I’ve never been a guy who needs to be talked into a day of back rubs and foot massages, and why not throw in a facial for good measure. L'apothequaire, recommended by the esteemed Jenathan, gave us a 4 hour day of spa goodness, including lunch, for $75 a person. And this would be considered really overpaying, since we went to a very high end place.

If you’re thinking about coming to Vietnam, come now. While you can already see signs of how the indigenous local culture is changing by the influx of tourist dollars and rapidly growing economy, it’s still quite wonderful. But in a few very short years this will clearly be wiped away and turned into another generic cultural Disneyland.

Look Ma, No Hands!

1047435-793525-thumbnail.jpgThere's nothing like a night out drinking in Saigon.  Except for a night out drinking in Saigon that ends on the back of a stranger's motorcycle zipping around the city.

It all started innocently enough with an amazing dinner at Opera in the Park Hyatt.  Who whould have thought we'd have some of the best italain food of our lives while in Vietnam?  We wrapped things up and headed over to Q, a very cool bar/club just across the square.  Here we were entertained by what was, without a doubt, the drunkest girl we've ever seen in a public place.  She fell down at least ten times throughout the night.  The only reason she wasn't kicked out is because she knew the owner, which we found odd since she's from England.  Apparently she has been living here for 8 years.  Anyways, she was so over the top we added her to our There's Always One in the Group section.  Check her out.

Around 1am we decided to call it a night when I was struck with the drunken craving to actually get on one of these motorcycles we'd seen cheating death all day.  You can pay people to take you around similar to how you would take a taxi, so we found a couple of guys and sped off to the hotel.  But the hotel was pretty close, so we had them drive around randomly through the city for about half an hour.  Turns out it is every bit as fun as it looked, and was a definite highlight of the evening.

Floating Around the Mekong Delta

1047435-798411-thumbnail.jpgThe area of the Mekong Delta is a hub of activity centered around river-life. Located 3 hours from Saigon, it’s a popular stop on the “tourist” trail, so thought we’d check it out and see what it was all about.

We opted for the Saigon Tourist day tour for this one, which ended up being quite an endeavor. You just never know what you’re going to get with these day trips, namely the people you’ll be spending in this case upwards of 12 hours with.

1047435-798412-thumbnail.jpgOur initial impression when the bus arrived to pick us up from our hotel was that we made a bad decision when Jason noted a half dozen children running up and down the aisles of the bus. Strike one! Strike two was the fact that the only two seats left (mine on top of the wheel well with no leg room) weren’t next to each other, so we’d be spending the next 3 hour drive without each other’s company (you’d think after almost 4 months of traveling together we’d be okay apart for a bus ride, but sadly we’re just not sick of each other yet.) Within 15 minutes of our drive, the beautiful sunny skies clouded over and rain began pouring from the sky – strike three! Hopefully things would get better from here.

I specifically chose this day tour because they advertised taking us to experience the floating market, which is supposed to be quite a site to see. Unfortunately, our tour got a bit of a late start so by the time we got to the delta, loaded our long boat and arrived to the market, there was almost no activity left on the river. That was a bummer to miss!

BUT, once informed our next stop along the river would be a candy factory, we all perked up, especially Jason. We got to watch them make lots of different treaty-cakes including popped rice bars, ginger and coconut candy, and sweetened rice paper. The smells in the air at this place were divine, and luckily they fed us samples of all the candy, with some nice tea to wash it all down. This was especially a score since usually on these things they try and give you the hard sell to buy all the goods, but this was more about sharing it with us freely.

Back on the boat after waiting out a down pour, our next jaunt was an hour and a half boat cruise through the waterways of the delta that eventually led us to a local music show. I’ll let you be the judge of the “performance”—not exactly like seeing Zero 7 at the Fillmore!!!

One thing that I forgot to mention, which was giving Jason a coronary throughout the whole boat trip, was “Marlborough man” sitting directly in front of us chain smoking cigarettes the entire trip. I have never seen Jason almost blow a gasket like this – he was so annoyed and frustrated at how inconsiderate this guy was. I think we know who “the one in the group” was this day.

1047435-798413-thumbnail.jpgThe one thing that really didn’t disappoint, though much later then we had anticipated it would be served, was lunch. Although it most certainly wasn’t at a “local’s house” as advertised in the brochure, it was in a beautiful, lush, tropical setting behind a restaurant. We indulged in a 5 course Vietnamese meal, beginning with the Mekong specialty of elephant ear fish wrapped in rice paper – it was delicious!

By the time we got through with lunch and back to the bus it was already 4:30pm, and we had a 3 hour ride to look forward to. Although the day had shaped up into a pretty decent tour, ending on the note of a bus full of completely wired children going nuts on the 3 hour ride home soured things a bit. Thank god we have so much video though to remind us of the more enjoyable aspects of the day!

Veggin' Out in Phan Thiet

1047435-799863-thumbnail.jpgAlthough trying to find just the right place to stay in each destination we visit can be a bit of a struggle, this time it was easy; on the recommendation of our friends Margot and Charlie who were in Vietnam last year, they told us we MUST stay at Victoria Resort and Spa.  Okay, they are permanently on our AWESOME list.

This resort was beautiful - located on 14 hectares of lush, tropical land, pressed up against the ocean and beach, we were in heaven.  Our beach front bungalow was just perfect, with a direct view of the ocean, an outdoor rain-shower, and a lovely froncolny (how Jason refers to front balconies).  The landscape of the entire property were wonderfully manicured with lots of pretty flowers growing everywhere, as well the pools were expansive and refreshing.1047435-799861-thumbnail.jpg

Our 48 hours here was all about pools, beach, food, and naps.  The internet connection was terrible and only available in the poolside bar, so we were forced to put our computers aside and just completely relax (a well needed break from these machines that seem to control us at times!)

From the stellar seafood beach bar-b-q, to the incredibly friendly and personable staff, and the amazing pools, we did not want to leave this place.  The only reason we didn't extend our time here was the lack of reliable communication (internet access), which puts a damper in Jason trying to run his company.

1047435-799864-thumbnail.jpgSad to say, we never even left the property of Victoria Resort to explore the surrounding area.  We feel okay about that, considering we've seen lots and lots of places over the past 4 months.  If you ever just happen to be in Vietnam (I mean who isn't), and are looking for a perfect, romantic getaway you have got to check out this place. 

Diving Nha Trang

You know how they say that women who give birth experience “labor amnesia” (blocking out just how painful the process was), well I think we experienced the same but opposite affect with “scuba divers amnesia”, forgetting just how AMAZING it was to be in the depths of the ocean. We were on such a high after our two dives in Nha Trang, we can’t believe we hadn’t been doing more diving all along.

The only other time we had ever been scuba diving was when we went through our certification course in Maui this past December. Now, when you get certified the process leading up to a dive is actually really long and a lot of hard work, having to set up your own gear, schlep it from the beach to the ocean, wash down everything at the end, plus study all the information so you can pass the test at the end. I think all that kind of turned us off to the whole diving process.

1047435-803115-thumbnail.jpgBUT, once your certified and especially if you do a boat dive with a reputable company, there’s very little work in the whole build up process to getting out in the water – they do it all for you. Basically, all you have to do is put on your gear with their assistance, waddles over to the ledge of the boat, jump off the plank, and the rest is pure enjoyment. We’re so down with the boat diving!

Rainbow Divers were a great choice to go out on the water with, and our particular dive master, Viet had eyes like a Hawk, pointing out things we would have never seen on our own (everyone told us to request the Vietnamese guys, b/c they have super vision for pinpointing stuff).

1047435-803117-thumbnail.jpgThe definite viewing highlights were first and foremost Jason in a wetsuit – I mean come on, how much cuter is that. Then of course the amazingly colorful and vibrant coral reefs, the two enormous jelly fish we saw hovering around us, the moray eel bearing it’s open mouth at us, and a couple lion fish. Of course there were lots of tropical fish and a couple large schools of fish, which are always neat to see.

We’re definitely looking forward to doing some diving once we get to the Maldives, as we hear that there is some of the best dive sites in the world.  Thanks to Nha Trang for reviving our interest in exploring the world under water.

Doc Let Down

1047435-805179-thumbnail.jpgDoc Let wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. It was kind of like a jigsaw puzzle that you get all the way done with only to find out a couple pieces are missing. At first it seemed like all of the pieces were there, but then as you got farther into it you realized something wasn’t quite right.

A beach town about an hour’s drive from Nha Trang, Doc Let is supposed to be one of the most amazing beaches in Vietnam. While it certainly was spectacular to look at from afar, once walking on it you are able to see all of the trash that is everywhere. Particularly hundreds of blue plastic bags. There’s nothing worse than a romantic barefoot stroll down the beach that is interrupted by constantly bending down to peel gum wrappers off of your toes.

The second missing piece was the people. There weren't any.  There are two large resorts on this beach, and neither one of them had a single person in them. Not one. We would have thought they were closed except for the fact that they were completely staffed with open restaurants and bars. I think this is how it would feel to be a survivor after a nuclear holocaust. Minus the horrible radiation burns.

The day was salvaged by our little friend “Song” who ran onto the beach and begged us to come look at her fresh catch of seafood. Tough to say no since the goods come directly from the boats that are fishing these very waters 100 feet from shore. And it was around lunchtime. We ended up buying 2 pounds of sea prawns, and a couple of pounds of mussels and clams too. They were grilled up while we sat in beach chairs and then Song came over to present her handiwork, even going so far as to peel each of the shrimp for us as we ate them. We ended up horribly overpaying, but what the heck – all that for $10 is still a great deal.

Seriously, Where Is Everybody?

1047435-807599-thumbnail.jpgWith its huge Hollywood-like sign gleaming up in the mountain of the island across the way, I felt this strange compulsion to head over to Vinpearl Land and see what it was all about. I had seen a billboard coming in from the airport advertising happy families, huge roller coasters, video games - a slice of amusement park heaven. And since it was just a quick cable car trip across the bay to get there, why not check it out?

Strike One – the cable car. Completed just 3 months ago, the cable car line to Vinpearl is the longest in the world, stretching 10,000 feet over the ocean. The fact that it was so new made Joy extremely nervous . Check out the video of her mini panic attack. It’s 15 minutes of hanging precariously over the water way too high up to possibly survive a fall. My princess insisted on a private high speed jet boat for the return trip.

Strike Two – the place is empty. And I don’t mean empty in the “wow, there’s sure not very many people here” kind of way. I mean other than the hordes of staff it took to run the place we were the only humans there. Granted it was 174 degrees outside, but you’d think somebody would show up to check it all out.

Strike Three – There is supposed to be a very nice Sofitel on the island. We thought as long as we're there we would go take a look at it since we really like that brand.  When we asked the best way to get over to it we were told there was a twenty dollar per person "admission" charge to see it.  In Vietnam you can eat steak for a year for that kind of money. Why on earth there is any charge - let alone an absolutely exorbitant one - to walk into a hotel I have no idea, but that was the final nail in Vinpearl's coffin.  

Our "Sort Of" Cooking Class. . .

1047435-809053-thumbnail.jpgEven though everyone always tells you to approach any situation without having expectations, well, we all know that’s hard to do. So, let’s just say we were expecting the chance to do lots of great Vietnamese cooking at the Red Bridge Cooking School, seeing as we got countless recommendations that this was the place to go (friends, hotel, wikitravel all talked highly of it).

First off, we were informed we’d be picked up at 8 am and taken to the meeting point, even though we had argued we could easily take ourselves there on our own. So we’re waiting and waiting and no-one comes. The hotel had to call to remind them to get us– two frantic girls arrived and we jumped on the back of their scooters and pedaled real fast to the Cafe. Jason and I sauntered into the Café with all 20 other people in the class there waiting. Oops! (Guess we were “those people” in the group today)

We’ve come to learn that many times a cooking class begins with a trip through the local market to peruse the local goods and maybe even try a thing or two (in this case we got to try mangosteen, which are quite a delicacy of a soft, white fleshy fruit). Even with splitting into two groups of ten, trying to maneuver through the busy marketplaces in a group that size is just a nightmare. We struggled to keep up with our guide -- at one point Jason got stuck behind a wheelbarrow full of dirt which put us way behind, but we managed to catch up.

Nothing too special about this market– you’re run of the mill fair of ladies squatting close by their goods, their bare feet precariously close to touching their delicacies, lots of fresh seafood and fresh vegetables and fruits all over, and of course many smells I’d rather not recount. This place was very tame compared to our experience in a Chinese market, thank goodness for that.

Next thing we know we’re boarding a boat to cruise down the river to where the school is located. A beautiful 30 minute ride and we were there. The cooking facilities were gorgeous, located right along the bank s of the Hoi An river with an open air eating area and kitchen. A fresh herb garden covered most of the 2 acre property in the back, and it was just a perfect place to relax and cook.

1047435-809054-thumbnail.jpgOur excitement had mounted at this point and we were ready to jump in the kitchen and begin cooking. Unfortunately, this was really set up more as a school classroom, where we sat in seats, watched as the head chef who was freakin hilarious prepared dishes, while we mainly just observed. We got our chance to “cook” a couple things like chop an eggplant and put it in boiling water, and ladle some pre-made rice mixture to make a fresh rice paper. All and all, there wasn’t a lot of cooking we did ourselves – mainly we just pushed around prearranged and pre-chopped ingredients into the appropriate places, which wasn’t that exciting. BUT, we did learn some great cooking advice from our chef like “no cook with MSG, or you die!”

None of that really mattered since we know that the true enjoyment of the day came from me and Jason competing to see whose dishes came out better. I’ll just put it out there and say Jason should certainly not quit his day job. You can check out the cut throat competition and be the judge of who the real “Top Chef” was!

Our favorite part of the day ended eating our delicious concoctions (of course we weren’t really sure whose food we actually got once we sat down) with the wonderful company of Damon and Marie, a couple we sat with. Jason and I both agreed that had we not had such a great hands-on experience at Cloud 9 cooking school in China, we probably would have thought this was top notch – but, we just didn’t get down and dirty like we would have liked to in this cooking class. Still, it was an enjoyable day that most importantly ended with good food and good company.

Hoi An, How We Adore You!

1047435-816391-thumbnail.jpgThis town is what Jason and I would consider to be a quintessential perfect place to spend some time. In fact, we fell for this area so much we’re trying to convince my family who take an annual “family trip” to make this the next destination. We ourselves loved it to the point of extending our time here by two nights, and we could have easily tacked on more.

Where to begin with wonderful Hoi An? It all started with arriving to the beautiful Life Resort, located just a 5 minute walk from the central marketplace and old town. The grounds of the resort were spectacular, right on the banks of the Hoi An River. The spacious rooms, outside open air library, and gorgeous pool all made this a very comfortable retreat.

1047435-816392-thumbnail.jpgImmediately we set out to explore the town, and the first thing we noticed was how few vehicles were on the road – not near the congestion and onslaught of scooters we had experienced anywhere else, which actually made it possible to walk around without fearing for your life. This was automatic bonus points!

The town has a thriving artist colony so there are tons of unusual works of art you can check out and of course purchase. This is also the place to get yourself a new wardrobe, with over 400 tailors in the city that in two days can whip up a new outfit for you. Unfortunately, we didn’t indulge in this treat, but someday we’ll be back for our new custom-made getups.

1047435-816390-thumbnail.jpgThe amount of character and personality this town has is difficult to describe. It has maintained a historical quality with its blend of Japanese and Chinese architecture; as well it also has a French colonial feel to many of the buildings. The winding small streets and alleyways are filled with wonderful local restaurants, most of which offer cooking classes, tons of shops to peruse, and most importantly lots of friendly people who just want to say hi. Unlike many other cities that have become built up and over run, this town has no high rise buildings, as well lacks the often times tacky bright neon lights that can take away from the natural beauty and authenticity of a place.

This town is so special that it also has its own food specialty called a “white rose” that it’s known for – it’s a type of shrimp dumpling made from translucent white dough bunched up to look like a rose that is absolutely delicious. We definitely had our fare share of the white rose.

Hoi An is a great place to share a wonderful meal with newfound friends, as we did with Marie and Damon.  We feasted on a 5 course meal at Brother's Cafe overlooking the Hoi An River.  Although the food was way over-priced and just okay, the company was superb, and setting beautiful. 

1047435-816393-thumbnail.jpgSo, not only to you have a beautiful river that cuts through the area, a quaint town to wander, eat and shop around, tons of things to do (we ourselves did the Red Bridge School Cooking Class one day), BUT you also have a beach located about a 5 minute drive away. We spent one day lounging on Cua Dai Beach, eating some fresh seafood, swimming in the water, and watching the sun go down - that was a perfect day.

There truly is nothing not to love about this unique town of Hoi An, except for the time it comes to leave it. We will certainly return someday to this special place!

Sailing Halong Aboard The Annam

Halong Bay1047435-819528-thumbnail.jpg is one of those “must do’s” if you ever visit Vietnam – everyone we met who had been to this country put this at the top their list. Halong Bay is made up of over 3000 small barren limestone islands, that dot the horizon and appear to go on forever. The best way to see this Unesco World Heritage protected area is sailing aboard a “junk boat”. Not the classiest of names for the boats used to sail the region, but they certainly are not “junky”.

Three days and two nights aboard the Annam Junk Boat was the absolute perfect way to see the area. Since some of the smaller inlets and grottos can only be accessed aboard a kayak, we opted for the “sea-kayaking package” where any chance possible we were able to jump on the kayak and explore the vicinity.

From the moment we arrived to Annam Junk, we weren’t disappointed. First off, we were informed that there would only be 4 of us on the sail, which considering the boat typically carries 12 passengers was pretty sweet. For the mere four of us passengers, there was a crew of 7– not too shabby! Next, we got introduced to our suite room that had windows on two sides and yielded amazing views, as well a normal sized bathroom (which on a boat is pretty unusual). There was a lot more room to maneuver around then when we sailed the Whitsundays aboard the Pacific Sunrise.

Our first lunch was an 8 course meal of varying seafood’s including whole crabs, steamed fish, grilled calamari, and clams. Unfortunately, this first lunch was the best meal served, and the food slowly degenerated into some pretty unappetizing dishes (good thing food was not the primary focus on this sailing trip).

1047435-819529-thumbnail.jpgWe jumped in right away this first afternoon to sailing to Hang Luon Cave and kayaking around this serene grotto. One of the most spectacular parts was being in these gorgeous areas with very few people around. It was just us, and the Italians (Roberto and Jackimo --the other two on our boat) kayaking this area. You could hear every bird chirp and every cricket humm in the complete solitude of this area. This was a very special place to be, and for a while Jason and I just sat there floating on the kayak lost in our thoughts absorbing all the beauty around us.

A hike straight up to a scenic look-out yielded some of the most amazing views of Halong Bay that late afternoon, and was a perfect place to watch the sun begin to set. We sat on the beach for a bit, and then it was time again to set sail into the sunset and have dinner.

Dinner and the entire evening festivities this first night could be a whole post of its own, so I’ll give the abridged version of the fun we had (and let the video clip speak for itself). I will say it involved a couple bottles of wine, two bottles of booze, some karaoke spearheaded by our fearless leader Mike, a major dance party with the whole crew (all men – I was the only female on the boat), and one of the crew members getting so drop down drunk he had to be carried down to his room. It was amazing being able to bond with some of locals – even though we didn’t speak the same language, we were able to have so much fun together.

The next morning we were all hurting a little, but that didn’t keep us from waking up nice and early and exploring the Surprise Sung Sot cave. This cave was incredible – it was absolutely humongous, with incredibly interesting formations, most of which Mike had pretty interesting descriptions of.

We said good-bye to our Italian friend’s who would be heading back home that day, and we boarded our own private boat to explore the bay and do a lot more sea kayaking. This time we really were the only people in some of the grottoes we paddled into, which was too beautiful to even put words to. The water was so clear you could look straight through and see the coral sparkling below the surface, as well little fish swimming around. Jason even jumped in and took a dip in the secluded grotto.

1047435-819527-thumbnail.jpgFrom sailing through the floating fishing community, to checking out the little local floating museum, and even laying out and swimming on a secluded beach, we certainly had a full day. We crashed by 9 pm that evening, barely able to sit through dinner we were so exhausted.

Now, we’re about to dock at the port and say farewell to Halong Bay. The exquisite visions of the towering karst limestone islands, the beautiful secluded grottoes and inlets, and the complete serenity of being in the Bay will never leave us though (and this is yet another place we’re already making plans to return to again!)

Hanging Out in Hanoi

1047435-822160-thumbnail.jpgWe had heard very mixed things from many travelers about their experience in Hanoi, so we came into this town with some pre-conceived notions. However, we immediately were able to judge for ourselves upon driving into the city and getting a flare for the gorgeous French Colonial architecture and frenetic energy of the town, that we’d like it here.

The first thing we noted, was similar to Saigon the motor-scooter traffic was insane. I think probably because we have become somewhat desensitized to just how intense the crazy flow of traffic is, we took to crossing the street through the constant sea of motor-scooters as a challenge rather than a chore. Jason actually seemed to be trying to find reasons to traverse to the other side, just to have that feeling of accomplishment that he did it – I wasn’t quite on board with his enthusiasm there.

1047435-822161-thumbnail.jpgOne thing that drove us crazy about this town was in the old quarter it was near impossible to walk around -- the sidewalks were absolutely covered with either parked motor scooters, goods that were for sale, or little restaurant plastic tables and chairs. So, basically you had to pretty much walk in the street in this area, praying and hoping that you wouldn’t get hit. I was definitely not a fan of this, and even Jason wanted out on this little challenge.

Hanoi has some great restaurants, which we definitely took advantage of. Emperor is a well known institution in the city when it comes to good Vietnamese food, and was a great place to spend an evening drinking some wine, playing some darts with the bar tender (before it got crowded), and then eating a really nice, bona fide Vietnamese meal. Everything about the place seemed pretty authentic, minus the $100 price tag – a family of 8 could probably feed themselves for a month on that kind of money in this country.

1047435-822159-thumbnail.jpgOne thing we found and are now hooked on, which we can’t believe it took us to the last couple days we were in Vietnam to discover, was the Vietnamese coffee. The small cups of concentrated coffee, topped off with condensed milk are really to die for. The flavor is so intense, and the sweetness of the condensed milk complements it perfectly.

Lunch at Bobby Chinn one afternoon was probably one of the best meals on our entire trip. It was so good we actually made a reservation to come back that same evening for dinner after the Water Puppet Show. We ended up deciding on another joint, but still the food in this town is A+.

1047435-822156-thumbnail.jpgNow you’re probably asking yourselves, did she say water puppet show – what’s that? This is definitely one of the most popular things to do in Hanoi, and no doubt the epitome of touristy, but well worth checking out this cultural performance. The traditional Water puppets are world famous puppets, made of wood, and which dance on the water conducted by puppeteers who are wading in the waist high water from behind a curtain. This is definitely something unique to this country.

Although not more than a couple of days is needed to check out Hanoi, it’s definitely worth a visit to experience the diversity of food, culture and attempts at crossing the street it has to offer.