Travel notes – Vietnam

Part II

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First things first 🙂

(Part I here)

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve, on a full train coming from Ninh Binh. We spent the trip chatting with a smiley 9 years-old girl and her family. Everyone going to Hanoi for the weekend.

It was the first time since Livia joined me that we were not attacked by tuk tuk and taxi drivers on the way out of the train station. Point for Hanoi! From there we took a bus (more points to Hanoi!) and walked a few blocks to get to our hostel (Old Quarter View Hanoi), in the heart of the Old Quarter. All we needed after getting settled was to find a place to have our Christmas dinner and enjoy the French wine we bought in Hue.

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Christmas in Hanoi

Just like the other places we visited, we walked, walked and walked around Hanoi. Well, not really “around” Hanoi; maybe around the Old Quarter is a better description of the area we covered. From the hostel to the lake. Around the lake. Back to the hostel. Back to the lake.

It was interesting to see how the Vietnamese people use the public space on weekends. The streets around the lake were closed for cars and bikes, and were packed with people; mostly families with kids. They organize games such as tug of war, jumping rope, and crafts. In addition to the games, many Christmas decorations, lights and this song everywhere [play at your own risk] – even though only 8% of the population is Christian (Vietnam is one of the least religious countries in the world where 73% of the population declare themselves irreligious).

In Hanoi we visited the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners kept there during the Vietnam War. And we tried to visit the Ho Chi Ming Museum and the Citadel. “Tried” because we picked the wrong days to go to each of them. Sunday and Monday respectively. They were closed. (If you go to Hanoi, go to the Citadel on Sunday and vice-versa).

Also in Hanoi I saw a friend who I met in 2010, in Berkeley, CA. I remembered Dang as this funny guy who thought us a funny warm up exercise to keep us awake throughout the day, despite all the party from the night before. He picked us up at the hostel and took us out for dinner. “No snakes, Dang, I’m not ready for that”, “Chicken, then”. And this is how we tried the traditional black chicken from Vietnam. We were skeptical at first, but pretty amazed by the taste after we tried (until I found the chicken’s head in my bowl and had to covered it to continue eating. Still: delicious). Dang also took is for a coffee with view to the lake we had circled a couple of times. We laughed a lot and had a great time with the Vietnamese hospitality. Thank you Dang!

On December 27th Livia left and I took a bus to Cat Ba island [200K VND], northeast of Hanoi. No goodbyes because neither of us like goodbyes; but also because I didn’t want to think how my next days would be without her. I’d be traveling alone after a month.

I ended up in Cat Ba for a few reasons; rock climbing one of the (i.e. the great time I spent in Tonsai, Railay). There I stayed at Mr. Zoom’s (5 USD room with private bathroom), who also owns Cat Ba Climbing.

The island is a great place to take a break from the busy Hanoi or the touristy Hoi An. And it was all I was looking for: sea, mountain, rock climbing, nice people, and the best Pho Bo I had in Southeast Asia. At first I thought I’d stay 3-4 days there, and ended up staying 6 days, and celebrating the New Year playing pebolim with a group of Italian, Dutch, Mozambican, German, and a Brazilian from Sao Paulo who knows people from the climbing gym I used to go to.

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Best Pho Bo EVER!

In Cat Ba, I strongly recommend rock climbing. Talk to Mr. Zoom or the super helpful people from Asia Outdoors, and ask about the climbing areas (an entrance fee is charged) and/or deep water soloing (DWS). Take a boat trip too (14USD) – unless you go DWS, because you kind of see the same things – and get the impressive and scenic landscape of Vietnam take your breath away. You can also hike to a view point, on the way to hidden valley, where you have an amazing 360 degrees view of the island.

After staying almost a week and starting the new year surrounded by the sea (literally) and good people, I took a bus to Hai Phong (140K VND) and from there to Cao Bang (260K VND) This time with another travel partner: the Brazilian of Japanese descent.

I’m not really sure how we chose Cao Bang. We had no idea what we would do there, but we went anyways. The bus dropped us off at 4am and we walked about 2km to the hostel owned by a lovely Vietnamese family who, despite not speaking English, were great hosts. It was the first time in Vietnam when I felt like “the different” one, mainly because of my height – and traveling with a Brazilian Japanese doesn’t make me less tall.

We walked around town, enjoyed great Vietnamese coffee, and rented a bike to visit Bang Gioc, a waterfall (40K VND) located at the border with China. As in Cat Ba, my breath was taken away by the scenic limestone formations, this time joined by winding roads and rice fields.

From Cao Bang we started a bus adventure to Ha Giang. We left on a van at 5:30 am and arrived 12 hours later, changing to a mini-bus in Bao Lam (120K + 80K VND). The roads were bad because of the rain. Still worth it.

Ha Giang was my alternative destination to Sa Pa, where most of the tourism in Northern Vietnam is, and I was happy with the decision to go there instead. We stayed at Kiki’s House Hostel where we also rented a bike. There I finally completed my process of falling in love with Northern Vietnam.

I can’t find words while writing here to express the beauty of the Ha Giang loop. The mountains, valleys, colors, people, rice fields, roads. Just: astonishing. And cold, so take your winter jacket and/or windproof with you.

Must see/visit in the Ha Giang loop:

Lung Cu – the most northern point in Vietnam, from where you can see China!

Street Market. I was there on the weekend and went to two Sunday markets (in Dong Van and Meo Vac). It is nice to see the people on their best clothes, carrying their best products ranging from rice to cattle, from corn to huge pigs. Women wearing very colorful outfits, while men were mainly wearing black.

Lung Tam – impressive weaving and dying techniques

We were lucky that in the only moment we were hesitant to take a right or left, a local guide told us to follow him. We took the left then.[1] We then took a newly open road through the valley, with spectacular views of the mountains playing hide and seek with the sun.

Back in Ha Giang we took a day off before moving towards Laos, where I fell in love. My Vietnam visa was going to expire in 2 days and I didn’t want to risk dealing with the officials at the border. At 5:30 am we got on a mini-bus to Lao Cai (130K VND, arrives at noon). From there another bus at 5:30pm to Dien Bien (215K VND), and from there 6am to Muang Khua (120K VND in Laos.

[1] When in doubt, always left!

The French who meditate

[Or how to pick a new habit]

I met this French guy on Tinder.[1]

He asked me out for a beer (I don’t drink beer, but I said yes) and then he brought his friend along.

Weird, I thought at first. Maybe it’s a French thing? But after a while I didn’t mind. It was fun to be around them.

Papo vai, papo vem,[2] we realized we had exactly the same plans for the next few days: go on a 5 days bike ride.

“Wanna do it together?”

“Sure! Why not?”

And there we went.

It caught my attention that the French really liked to meditate. Several times a day.

Sometimes in the morning. Always in the evening; usually after taking a shower.

And so I joined them. In the evenings only. In the mornings I prefer to exercise.

For six days all we did was to ride on dirt and/or winding roads, visit caves, swim in cold springs, play petanque while drinking pastis, and meditate.

On the 5th day, we decided to do it before our ride back from the cave. I was so relaxed that I fell off the bike a few hundred meters before arriving at the guesthouse.[3] Nothing serious, no worries. I guess I was so relaxed that even the fall was smooth.

On the 7th day traveling together the French left. But the practice stayed with me.

As they continue to meditate around the world so do I.

Merci et à bientôt!

 

[1] No worries, my mom knows I’m on Tinder.

[2] One word leads to another.

[3] Can someone explain to me the whole mindfulness thing again?

Travel Notes – Vietnam

In 4 weeks in Vietnam I experienced different ways of traveling.

First I had the company of a very good friend who decided to spend her holidays with me – well, actually she decided to spend her holidays in SE Asia and I happen to be here, but it’s nice to think the other way around. Because she only had 25 days and wanted to visit Cambodia (travel notes here) and Vietnam. The first two weeks were a bit rushed – 2 days here, 3 days there, and a lot of long distance traveling. Still, it was completely worth it and enough to surprise me in a very positive way. The first part of these notes covers the first half of my Vietnam trip, from Ho Chi Ming to Hanoi. The second part (coming soon) covers Christmas in Hanoi, climbing in Cat Ba island, and falling in love with the landscape in the northern part of the country.

Part I

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Citadel, Hanoi

First, I need to confess I wasn’t very excited about traveling to Vietnam. Not that I’ve never thought about it – it’s actually on =e item of my bucket list to do a bicycle trip in Vietnam. Now I want to do it even more. I’m glad she insisted this was the one country she really wanted to see and we ended up taking the bus with Mekong Express from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Ming City (Saigon).

Wow! Saigon is… Saigon. I mean, tons of motorcycles everywhere. And by everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE! On the streets, on the sidewalks, on pedestrian crossings, inside stores. There’s no such thing as looking left or right when crossing a street in Saigon. You have to look all sides, many times, and look again. Oh, wait! AGAIN! I stopped at a crossroad and took a 2 minutes video with non-stopping traffic, 99.9% two-wheels vehicles.

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Vietnamese breakfast!

On my first morning in Vietnam I had Pho Bo for breakfast.My first Pho ever was at a Vietnamese restaurant in the US and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to finally try it in Vietnam. I was not disappointed. During the next four weeks I had Pho for breakfast, lunch, dinner. And I’m proud to say that my first breakfast in Vietnam was a delicious Pho accompanied by Vietnamese iced coffee. Yummy!

In Saigon we walked, walked, walked. To the train station, to the Cathedral, to the Post Office, to the War Remnants Museum. The latter, by the way, is a very interesting place to visit. The museum tells the story of the Vietnam War from the lenses of the East. It’s a very impactful and sometimes disturbing place, with war pictures I could not look at. It was super interesting to learn about history from a perspective that is not widely publicized in the West. I highly recommend a visit to the Museum.

On our second night in Saigon we had to change hostels and by chance ended up finding the brand new “Cozy House 160”, very good price with delicious breakfast (plenty of fruits included).

From noisy and busy but delightful Saigon we got on a train to Da Nang and from there a bus to Hoi An. The train ticket cost 623k VND on Soft Seat coach – there are sleeper options for a higher price. The soft seats were pretty comfortable for an overnight in our opinion. From Da Nang to Hoi An there is a local bus (#1) and it costs 20k VND. The ticket collector will try to charge you more and because we knew that I had the exact amount with me plus 5k VND just in case. When he passed collecting the money I handed him 40k and he asked for 40k more “20 for each bag” he said. We said “no way” and despite the pressure we did not surrender and he ended up accepting 45k. Tip for those planning to take that bus: pay attention to what locals pay, have exact change, and a little extra if you feel like paying a bit more. I guess in the end it all depends on your travel budget and willingness to corroborate with this kind of practice.

Bus ride from Da Nang to Hoi An takes approximately 1 hour.

Hoi An is cute little historic town recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Hoi An was an important trading port in the Southeast Asian region from the 15th to the 19th century, and its architecture shows strong influences of the Japanese and the Chinese.

During the 3 days we spent there we bikes to the beach – to reaffirm my certainty that there are no beaches like in Brazil, we walked and walked around the old quarters full of yellow houses, shops, restaurants and cafes, and saw (and bought) beautiful handmade scarfs.

I want to say Hoi An is a place not to be missed. It’s charming, it’s architecture is beautiful, but it is pretty touristic, and by that I mean, shops, restaurants, cafes, shops, restaurants, cafes. We didn’t have enough time to get off the beaten path, and I’m sure there are plenty of tiny alleys to explore.

Ah, I was almost forgetting! Hoi An is known by having amazing tailors. People from all over the world go to Hoi An to have their clothes tailor made. Not only clothes but leather shoes too. We didn’t get anything tailor made there but met a few people who did and were pretty happy with the quality and price.

A few tips if going to Hoi An:

Bus Da Nang > Hoi An (read above)

Bicycles on the beach: we were charged 10k VND to park our bicycles near the beach. We were told bicycles were not allowed… we even had someone blowing a whistle at me. The trick is to go around and access the beach from another point. We saw plenty of people walking their bikes on the beach.

There’s a fee to enter Hoi An Old Town. Well, apparently there is a fee but how compulsory it is is debatable. We paid the 120k VND at one of the check points, however there were a lot of people coming and going without showing tickets and depending on the checkpoint there was nobody really checking. Again, it’s up to you to pay it or not. If you believe it’s benefiting the town, go for it.

Don’t forget to try the Banh Minh sandwich at the Chef’s restaurant. It’s a bit more expensive than the ones you find on the streets, but it’s delicious!!!! And the view from the rooftop is great. Totally worth going out of my gluten-free diet.

If you appreciate handmade scarfs – like I do – check out Viethands’ (12 Bach Dang) scarfs. Beautiful work with silk, cotton and linen.

From Hoi An we took a bus to Hue (USD 6), another historic Vietnamese town with ruins from the palace where the Nguyen dynasty emperors lived and was also the national capital from 1802-1945. It was the first time in Vietnam that we had heavy rain. A lot of rain. So much that we had to wait for a few hours before taking a walk around the city. By the time we left the hotel we were starving! So we headed to the market hoping to find some delicious local food. Well… not this time. I won’t go into details on what I saw there – my travel partner knows – but for the first time since I started traveling and eating in local places I was the one asking to leave because I wouldn’t eat anything there. We went to the big supermarket next door.

Things to do in Hue include the Citadel (150k VND) where the Imperial City used to be, as well as the Forbidden Purple City, the emperor’s home. There are also a couple of other places to see and visit, including tour on the Perfume River, but we only saw the Citadel this time.

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Rainy Hue

The hotel where we stayed was one of the best in Vietnam. The location is also great with a couple of good restaurants a few steps away.

At our hotel we bought a bus ticket to Ninh Binh (200k VND). The bus ride started with the wrong foot. I did not know about the apparently common rudeness of bus service towards foreigners in Vietnam. After a smooth train ride from Saigon to Da Nang, including onboard service during the whole trip, I was not expecting the treatment we received on the way to Ninh Binh. I explain: despite being half empty, the driver sent us to the back of the bus. I asked if we could stay in the front because we didn’t want to stay close to the toilet and we were getting off before most people. If I can recall correctly, I was pretty polite when I asked him, who replied shouting at me something like “go to the back or get off”; I asked why and he just shouted “get off” and ordered someone outside to take my bag out of the trunk. Seriously, I was paralyzed. What have I done to piss him off to that level? No idea. But later, talking to other foreigners I found out it was not an isolated incident, and it’s more common than we think.

Also after that, Livia and I were quite concerned with being yielded at by angry Vietnamese men. From that moment on I can say we started to read all the signs two, three, four times – even though we had no idea what they were saying.

The ride to Ninh Binh was very unpleasant: the initial stress + infinite horns + a driver who smoked one cigarette after the other [thanks for sending us to the back – at the end], that we did not bother getting off in the middle of nowhere at 3 in the morning.[1] We started walking and at the end of the street we arrived at the Ninh Binh hostel [check name!] where a kind security guard allowed us in and showed us couches + blankets where we were finally able to rest.

In Ninh Binh we rented a bike and drove around the region. The landscape is very scenic, as it is in the whole country with huge limestone formations,  a lot of green, and charming roads.We could had explored more, but honestly we were tired and didn’t enjoy Ninh Binh as we could have. One thing that tired me about Vietnam in general is having to pay to see everything. I had an expectation that in Ninh Binh we could explore the area without having people running after us asking for money or charging to park, to look, to whatever. Or maybe we were just tired and wanted to stay in one place longer.

For whatever reason, we decided to go to Hanoi earlier and spend Christmas there. After making sure the hostel would give us the night we had already paid back, and confirming a place to stay in Hanoi, we rushed to the train station and were able to buy a ticket for the 1pm train. And so we left Ninh Binh towards Hanoi.

[1] When buying the ticket we were told the bus would arrive in the morning… “around 6am”… ahn ahn…