Bye Bye Vietnam

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Chau Doc was our last stop in Vietnam before entering Cambodia by boat. It is definitively a boarder town but still has its own charm. It also has a huge market and probably the best avocado shakes we’ve had! Bye bye Vietnam, thank you for a wonderful time!

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Vietnam_Chau_Doc_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8611Hot pot by the river

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Vietnam_Chau_Doc_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8570Playing hide and seek with a panda baby

Vietnam_Chau_Doc_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8560BEST avocado shake in the world!

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The Mekong Delta

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Can Tho is the fourth largest city in Vietnam, and the largest city in the Mekong Delta, a region in charge of producing all the rice for the country. The area is full of floating markets, an endless number of canals, and it’s where we saw the rural life of Vietnam. We spent most of the time on a small boat going from market to market and enjoying the beautiful scenery.

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Vietnam_Can_Tho_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8071Late night snack

Vietnam_Can_Tho_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8131Sunrise start

Vietnam_Can_Tho_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8204The produce on the pole shows what the boat is selling for the day

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Vietnam_Can_Tho_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8433One of the many small canals

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Vietnam_Can_Tho_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8270Visiting a traditional rice noodle factory

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Vietnam_Can_Tho_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_8286After the rice paper is cooked, it is laid on bamboo mats to dry in the sun

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The Bay of the Descending Dragon

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Legend has it that two dragons, a mother and her child, were sent by the gods to help protect Vietnam from invader ships. The dragons spat jewels and jade that turned into islands creating a protective wall against the foes. After the war was over, the dragons chose this bay to rest on Earth. With a legend and a name like these ones, there is no way that Ha Long Bay can disappoint. The UNESCO World Heritage site houses more than 1500 limestone islets that come in every size and shape possible. Most of them have no beach and are covered with algae, lichens, and trees. Coupled with the dark color of the limestone and the turquoise waters of the South China Sea the landscape is breathtaking.

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We embarked on a 3 day cruise through Ha Long Bay and the smaller Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha bays. We opted for a 3 days cruise rather than the popular 2 day one as it is the only way to visit the other bays. It was worth it! We went to Lan Ha bay during the extra day in a smaller boat and there were only 6 of us on it. We swam, jumped from the boat, kayaked, and basically had a wonderful time.

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Vietnam_Ha_Long_Bay_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7762Celebrating Marily’s 60th birthday with some bubbles!

One of the other sites you are taken to is  “Surprising Cave”. This is one of the largest caves in the bay and it’s really worth the visit, even though it’s always full with tourists. The cave has three main chambers and, as always, your guide will point out stalactites and stalagmites that have names based on their shapes.

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Although the bay is definitively a very touristic spot and a lot of people visit it, there is enough space for everyone and the government controls it very strictly. Besides, the boats at night look beautiful with their lights on against the silhouettes of countless islands.

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All and all it was a great trip and we enjoyed the quiet time on the ocean but it was time to go back to the mainland and continue the adventure!

Vietnam_Ha_Long_Bay_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7820On board cooking class

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Hanoi with Mama and Papa

Vietnam_Hanoi_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7245After having spent some time in Ho Chi Minh City (population ~8 million), Hanoi feels like a small, manageable town. The city still has around 6 million people but its narrow streets full of local stores and the countless connecting alleyways give you the impression that you are not in the capital of Vietnam. The feeling is lovely and many travelers prefer it over the hustle of Ho Chi Minh.

Vietnam_Hanoi_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7891The best part of Hanoi was meeting up with my (Simon’s) parents. They were traveling through Asia to celebrate my mom’s 60th birthday and we were able to coordinate a reunion in Vietnam. We hadn’t seen them since last May and so we couldn’t miss this opportunity. We spent the days walking around the city, visiting temples, and enjoying the fabulous northern Vietnamese cuisine.

Vietnam_Hanoi_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7319Tracy and Tuchi at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, a must-see attraction in Hanoi

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Over the last weeks, we’ve been tasting bia hoi (fresh beer) in every city we’ve stayed in. This type of beer has no preservatives and thus has to be drank within 24 hours of tapping the keg. The beer is fresh and light, low in alcohol content (~4%), and extremely cheap—a glass on the street cost between $0.15 to 0.25 USD! Of course it is a very popular drink in the country and Hanoi has place called beer corner. Beer corner? We must investigate! Basically, an entire intersection is closed to traffic and people take over to eat and drink beer. We of course joined in.

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We stayed in Hanoi for five days or so and we loved it. It was a great experience to be in a foreign and exotic country with my parents and we hope we get to do it again many more times 🙂

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Vietnam_Hanoi_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7885Don’t cut the wrong cable!

Vietnam_Hanoi_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7907Your typical intersection in Hanoi

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Old Friends in the Ancient Capital

Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7087Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam (1802–1945) until the Communist government took over and moved the capital to Hanoi. The city has a sleepy feel to it and houses many ancient ruins and temples, including the overpriced and not so mind blowing citadel. We had heard from other backpackers that it was an ok destination to visit if we had time to spare.

So, why did we come here you ask?

Eight years ago, I met David (a Czech national) at the boarder crossing from Thailand to Laos. We sat together on the bus and chatted for the 8 long dusty hours of the ride. I got off the bus before him to do some trekking and he continued on. We said the typical “hope to see you again” without knowing that 5 days later we would randomly meet while I was walking in another city. We shared a hotel room, exchanged movies from our hard drives, and talked about photography and the road. I never forgot those days. David has been living in South East Asia for about 8 years, moving from country to country while he translates English books to Czech—pretty sweet gig.

So when I got a message from him telling me that he currently lives in Hue, well, it was a no-brainer.

The ancient citadel in Hue is indeed a little overpriced and, although there are renovations currently undergoing, is a little disappointing. We checked it out while we were waiting for David and that’s when the fun began.

Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7081Entrance to the citadel

Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7108One of the halls that has been renovated

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“You ride motorbikes right Simon?”, David asked.
I have driven motorbikes before (scooters and semiautomatic bikes to be exact) but not since my last trip to Asia and NOT in Vietnam traffic!
“Of course” I said (gulp).
Fortunately, I quickly remembered how to operate the “heavy machinery” and Tracy and I were cruising through the streets following David. He took us to enjoy one of Hue’s local secret treats: a home made slushy packed with fresh fruit, condensed milk, and peanut butter! We talked and quickly reconnected with David and met his lovely Vietnamese wife Binh.Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7166

Hue is also known for its “royal” cuisine that was tailored to the king’s desires, really not a bad thing when it comes to food! They took us to a very local place (AKA you need a Vietnamese speaker to order anything), and enjoyed some of the most delicious treats imaginable. The cuisine is famous for its various kinds of deconstructed dumplings, filled with shrimp paste, pork rind, and/or vegetables. Binh ordered the whole array, each with its own specific dipping sauce, presentation (wrapped in banana leaf, sticky, soft) and way to eat. Needless to say, we feasted.

Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7151Deconstructed dumpling with pork rind and shrimp paste

Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_2014-09-24_20.12.18This one comes wrapped in a banana leaf. Also, notice the clear shape of North America!

To perfectly finish the night, they brought us to a lovely tea house where we relaxed and talked for a few hours.Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7158

Next day, with my biker confidence boosted up, we rented our own motorbike and headed to see some of the ancient royal tombs that Hue is also famous for. There are many different ones, spread across many kilometers, and so we chose to only visit the main one. It was fantastic. A whole complex of perfectly maintained buildings, lakes, and temples serve as the mausoleum for only one person. That’s passing away in style!Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7210

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We enjoyed Hue, its local secrets, and the company of David and Binh but it was time to move on to our next destination.Vietnam_Hue_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7221

Beautiful Hoi An

Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6589Extremely excited to be leaving Nha Trang for the UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An, we knew it would hold much better experiences and it did not disappoint. Within the city limits there is an ‘ancient city’ that holds a plethora of museums, meetings halls, open-air markets, and enough tailor made shops rivaling to be some of the best and quickest in the world. Obviously, there was no need to convince me that I should have a custom fit slinky dress and blazer sewn.Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6577
Out of all the places we visited in Vietnam thus far, Hoi An is definitely a ‘foodie’ atmosphere and for eaters at heart. Local dishes such as cao lầu, white rose dumplings and banh xeo (rice pancacke) keep any traveler and local very satisfied. The dish most unique to the area is cao lầu, the noodles are much thicker and chewier than typical rice noodles, and are made from water in a specific well in the center of the ancient city. Close to the open market, everyday shows many shop owners making their pilgrimage for buckets of well water. Then the noodles are burnt with ash, giving them their very distinct flavor. Assembling the dish, people layer the noodles with fresh herbs and lettuce, slices of pork, and crispy croutons made from stale baguettes. As we have consumed multitudes of noodle dishes and bowls in Vietnam, we both agree this is the most unique and mouthwatering of them all.

Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6887Delicious cao lầu

Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6889White rose dumplings

If anyone visits Hoi An during the daytime, they are missing the reason for its enchantment, the lanterns. Along the Thu Bồn river in the ancient city there is every kind of shop, restaurant, bar, and all of them hang lanterns of all shapes and colors. When strolling along, it is much easier to ignore the people asking you to come eat at their restaurant when the lanterns provide visual stimulation. The river, colonial houses, and lanterns are perfect for any photo opportunity and a stop to enjoy a bia hoi (fresh beer).Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6927

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Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6717The local market is yet another sight not to be missed in the city. Being a coastal town, Hoi An enjoys really fresh seafood as well as having the diversity and richness of tropical fruits. At noon, when the heat is almost unbearable, the shop owners take a break to play domino in the shade or to simply take a nap.

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And as if all this was not enough for someone to fall in love with this place, merely 40 km away from the city you’ll find Mỹ Sơn—an abandoned Hindu complex dedicated to worship god Shiva—that was built between the 4th and the 14th centuries.Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6945

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There is something necessary to say of Vietnam. Even though it is a communist country, there is very much a capitalistic spirit alive in most (tourist) places. However, as the base of communism includes education and healthcare, many people we talked to have no illusions that the government does not provide any benefits. As one young man explained, the Vietnamese government gives three things for free to citizens: sunshine, rain, and air. It’s quite simple to see the seriousness upon many Vietnamese faces, and the corruption does not heed any attempt in hiding. Regardless, Vietnamese culture pervades and leaves no doubt that they are proud of their country and welcome everyone to it.

Vietnam_Hoi_An_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_2014-09-22_13.46.33When it rains in Vietnam, it rains hard!

Little Russia

Vietnam_Nha_Trang_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6567Kids playing on our way to Nha Trang

About four hours north of HCMC, lies a resort town with sandy beaches, and just as many hawkers as there are pieces of trash in the sea. As one wanders the sidewalks nearly unwalkable as motorbikes perch the entire area, there is an undeniable feeling that Russian tourist are everywhere. Should someone visit Nha Trang? Nah, trang.

Vietnam_Nha_Trang_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6571The beach is like a Monet: it looks better from afar

Vietnam_Nha_Trang_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_0107Russian paparazzi

Alpine Adventuring

Vietnam_Da_Lat_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6487Rice field in rural Vietnam

Used as an escape from the heat and bustle from Saigon, the mountain region is called the ‘Vietnamese alps’ and was chosen by the French vacationers who desired cooler weather. Although we had some bad weather on the first day, we were still able to do some rural touring and activities; including one of the most dangerous jaunts thus far when we trekked to a waterfall that was raging, on steep wet rocks with no shoes.Vietnam_Da_Lat_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_P1110590 We also visited a coffee plantation that makes weasel coffee: the weasel eats the coffee, it’s digested, and then it comes back out. You get the idea. Some consider this type of coffee a delicacy. This was also where we met another backpacking couple and went for dinner at a local spot in Dalat. As we walked in, a group of older gentlemen started to notice us. We also noticed them because they had a cooler of beer and were averaging one about every three minutes. As the end of the meal grew closer, the server informed us that the eldest man had offered to pay for our meal. It may seem less of a big deal to most, but for a man to pay four backpackers’ whole meal meant so much more than simply the total of our beers and plates. We were finally feeling this kindness so unique to Vietnamese people.Vietnam_Da_Lat_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_2014-09-17_20.14.16

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Vietnam_Da_Lat_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6433A second and more enjoyable waterfall

During our daylong tour of the countryside, there was a cricket farm and you better believe both of us ate our share. Similar to a crunchy peanut but just with a few legs, the crickets are also full of protein and not as tasteless as imagined.Vietnam_Da_Lat_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6312 Since Dalat is located at a higher elevation, it also houses a larger variety of vegetables (including roots and artichokes) and very importantly, produces large amounts of Dalat wine. The grapes are grown in the area using French viticulture. Although wine is often never the first choice of beverage in SE Asia, this area is definitely the best choice to share a bottle at dinner. Obviously, we did just that and really enjoyed its tannins and medium body and the break away from the Saigon special (local beer).Vietnam_Da_Lat_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6263

Vietnam_Da_Lat_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6338Silk worms, for both wearing and eating

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Vietnam_Da_Lat_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6522Kids being kids in rural Vietnam

Just like the French, we enjoyed our escape from the heat in the mountains but the desire to see more of Vietnam ultimately moved us forward.

Good Morning Vietnam

Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6216After leaving the Philippines, which was difficult to leave because of our unfortunate luck of visiting the Vietnamese embassy on its Independence Day, we finally made it to Vietnam. Starting in Saigon was a great beginning, as it took many historical happenings of Vietnam (the war and all involved) into context.

Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5997Reunification Palace, formerly the South Vietnamese presidential palace

Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6037Two bombs were dropped on top of the palace by an infiltrated Viet Cong pilot

Every morning started with a walk down a very sketchy alley to find the best pho in town. By the second day they knew our order—Pho Bo, fresh baguette, and iced coffee— and everyday it tasted just as delicious.

Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6066Notre-Dame Basilica

Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6136Street style Communist propaganda

The War Remnants museum was by far the most eye-opening museum we have visited thus far. Coupled images of the battlefields and Agent Orange victims, it was as if I wanted to keep my eyes closed. To say I’m happy we went is not exactly right. But I am very grateful to more fully understand the war from the other side and it has given me a very deep respect for Vietnamese people. As it was not the Viet Cong that won the war, but the deep sacrifices made from every Vietnamese person and their undeniable spirit against outside forces.

Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6173War Remnants museum

Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6213Cu Chi Tunnels, an ingenious way to win a war

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Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6157Thich Quang Duc Memorial

And by chance, we also stumbled onto another festival taking place while we visited the city. At the park right across from our hotel, the city hosted the “Integration and Development Festival”, an event filled with food from all the Vietnamese regions and the world, and a concert with themes of community and global participation. Oh, and then we were interviewed by a local news channel and were on Vietnamese TV, truly, can’t make this stuff up!Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6093

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Ho Chi Minh City perfected the beginning of our journey to northern Vietnam because it provided a crash course in the art of motorbike crossing, bargaining, and savoring delicious local cuisine.

Vietnam_Ho_Chi_Minh_City_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6137If you don’t almost get hit by a motorbike, are you really in Vietnam?