Hi everyone! We are now in Phnom Penh, Cambodia! I can’t believe it is already the end of July, the time is really flying by. I hope you are all enjoying the summer! 🙂 I’ve fallen behind on the blog posts and will try and catch you up on Vietnam ASAP.
Following a similar format to my Northern Vietnam post, I will break up Central Vietnam into all the cities we’ve visited while there (looong post warning).
After Cat Ba, we headed down to Phong Nha via bus/ferry/bus combo to a small town, Tam Coc, followed by a sleeper bus to Phong Nha. It was another long travel day with a bunch of waiting breaks in between transportation switches. We hung out in Tam Coc for around 6 hours waiting for our sleeper bus to arrive. The bus arrived around 10:30pm (instead of 8:00pm as advertised) and was already about halfway full. We all lined up waiting to get on, and sure enough, they had overbooked by 1 seat. Hoch and I only had a couple of options, either stay the night and try to leave the next day, or take the discounted price they offered and one of us would have to sleep in the aisle on a mat. Hoch decided to take one for the team and slept in the aisle for the 7-hour journey. Before we knew it, we had arrived in Phong Nha around 4:30am. Our hotel was able to accommodate us for an early check-in which was pretty awesome and we were able to go back to sleep for a few hours.
That day, we did not do much of anything. We ate lunch, Hoch got a haircut, and we made plans for the next day. That night, we decided to check out a bar at a popular hostel (Easy Tiger) that had live music and was conveniently across the street from our hotel. We walked to the bar and ended up running into the South African couple that we met in Chiang Mai and had a few drinks with them, which was a nice surprise.
The next day, we decided to do something we had not done yet on this trip, which was rent a motorbike and explore the area on our own! Well for us, since we are beginners, we rented scooters (motorbike sounds cooler). Phong Nha is a small town right outside of a national park and is a perfect place for us to try riding motorbikes for the first time. We told the lady we were beginners and asked if we could take a practice lap to see how we felt. We both wanted to try it, so we planned on renting 2 bikes. Hoch went first and was a natural, he drove down the road, did a u-turn and came back no problem. Then it was my turn. Starting out was easy, then I got to the point where I needed to turn around. I stopped and while I was waiting for traffic to pass, the bike shut off. Well I had trouble getting it started again and when I finally did, I gave it way too much gas. I ended up shooting across the road and ran up onto the sidewalk before I could stop and then the bike shut off again. There were locals sitting outside watching this attempt (and probably laughing on the inside). Man the poor lady was freaking out, bless her heart. She ran down the street to me and asked if I was OK, showed me how to start the bike again, and explained how I should turn (pretty much coming to a complete stop). My second turn was a little better, but I wanted to do another practice lap to make sure I felt comfortable. I did, and though it was still a little rough, I thought I was ready to hit the road. The lady again re-iterated how I need to turn safely and though you can tell she was worried, she let us go and we were soon on our way to our first destination.
Well let’s just say she was right to be worried. I was nervous riding the bike, but in the beginning, everything was fine. We rode through the national park, enjoying the scenery, and were making our way to Paradise Cave. I was driving ahead of Hoch (so he could keep an eye on me) and we missed the turn so he was honking at me so I would stop. I went around a curve and realized it was him honking and not another motorbike. I stopped, and started to do a u-turn. As he was coming around the bend to see if I had stopped, I repeated my mistake from earlier, shot across the street and hit a concrete mile marker post head on. I was trying to brake, but was also hanging on for dear life (AKA gripping/accelerating with my right hand), which is a bad reaction to have when on a bike. Luckily the post was there and did not budge an inch or else I would’ve went into a ditch. The bike was also OK. I bruised up my leg and lightly sprained my wrist from the impact. I am laughing about it now, but the whole ordeal just went to show how dangerous motorbikes are. Vietnam has one of the highest motorbike fatality rates and I can totally see why.
Anyways, that was my only accident on the bike. We made it to Paradise Cave afterwards (which is huge!) and the Dark Cave (more on this later) along with riding to an early dinner spot in the middle of nowhere before heading back into town. Overall it was one of my favorite days in Vietnam because we ventured out on our own, tried something new, and ended up saving a lot of money instead of going to see the caves with a tour group.
Side Note: Phong Nha National Park is home to over 200 caves including the largest cave in the world. In order to see the largest cave, you need to trek there, reserve well in advance (only 500 people are allowed to go per year), and it is really expensive ($3,000 for 5 days). There are also other caves that you can go and stay the night in. We did not do either of those options and stuck with a couple of the popular day trip options. Paradise Cave is the largest cave I’ve ever been in and was well lit and pretty cool to see. Dark Cave is set up for adventure seekers. First of all, you zip line and then swim to the cave entrance. Then you walk through the cave wearing head lamps. The cave gets smaller and smaller and muddier until you are floating in a mud bath. Then you head back out of the cave, rinse off, and kayak back to the start where you can swim and try obstacle courses if you like. I brought the go-pro and tried to get some footage from inside the cave. It is kind of dark, but I think you will get the gist.
Here is a short video clip of the Dark Cave!
Song: The Adventure by Angels and Airwaves
DMZ (demilitarized zone) Tour:
The next day, we were up early and were on our way to our next destination, Hue, and decided to join a DMZ tour that made a couple of stops on the way. There were only 6 of us that joined for the tour. We stopped by the coast in a town called Quang Tri to see the man made Vinh Moc tunnels. Since it located at the middle of the country (between North and South Vietnam), Americans bombed the shit out of the area during the Vietnam War. You could still see several bomb craters throughout the village. During the war, 3 levels of underground tunnels were built and families actually lived there. We had a tour guide take us through the tunnels, which were Vietnamese size and we had to crouch down the entire time. We were able to see the living quarters, which were tiny, a few water wells, the meeting rooms, and hospital area. 17 babies were born in the tunnels during that time and in those conditions! We really enjoyed this part of the DMZ tour.
The next stop was at a nearby museum by the Ben Hai River.
Some history on the area:
In July 1954, the Geneva Conference decided on the Ben Hai River/the 17th Parallel as the temporary dividing line between North and South, with a five kilometre buffer on either side as a demilitarised zone until elections could take place. In theory, a president would be decided and the country reunited. In fact it was a giant step towards war.
We visited this area, learning about the history for a little over an hour with a different tour guide and then were on our way to Hue.
We arrived to Hue (pronounced hwe) around noon, checked into our hostel, and then went to eat lunch at a local restaurant that was recommended by the family at the hostel. We both ordered a set menu which included all the dishes on the menu, but in smaller sizes. We tried several typical Hue dishes and though they were different, they were pretty good. Hoch claims he enjoyed the food in Hue the most so far. I really liked their thick peanut sauce used for dipping.
After lunch, we decided to walk straight to the citadel which is the old town. Hue was the national capital of Vietnam during the 19th century and the Nguyen dynasty. The citadel houses the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City, which is where the emperors lived with their families. We walked through the citadel, and though it was really beautiful, it was also very hot. We did not enjoy it as much due to the heat and had to stop and take breaks rather often. We finally threw in the towel and headed back to the hostel to take a break from the heat in our air conditioned room. After cooling off for a bit, it was time for dinner. We ventured out to eat and then returned to our hostel for an early night.
The next day, we were going to wake up early, rent a motorbike, and go see some of the Nguyen Dynasty Tombs, but again it was just too hot, and we had a bus scheduled to leave at 1pm so we decided to skip it and soon were on our way to Hoi An.
We took a short bus ride (sleeper seats, our fave) to Hoi An. We arrived in the early evening and made our way to our homestay. It was a really, nice homestay and was short 5 minute bike ride away from the center of town. They had free bicycles for our use, an amazing breakfast, and were very friendly and helpful.
Our first night, we ate a delicious dinner of local dishes at a nearby restaurant that was recommended by the homestay. After dinner, we heard loud music and followed the sound to a local café/bar that had Karaoke and locals dancing! This was a first for both of us and fun to watch. Locals would go up and sing Vietnamese folk music, others would bring them flowers from a common vase, and then when they finished singing, they would return the flowers to the vase for the next singer. The dancing was a mix of ballroom, line dancing, the two step, and at times had no rhyme or reason from what I could tell. We drank a couple of beers and watched for a little bit before heading back to the homestay for the night.
The rest of our time in Hoi An was spent biking (motorbike, I rode with Hoch this time! Or bicycles) around town. We went to a local beach one day, took a cooking class another day, and went to see the My Son Cham Ruins (Hindu temple ruins), that were mostly destroyed during the Vietnam War.
Some photos from our cooking class:
Some photos of the My Son UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the Champa Hindi Ruins:
We also were luckiliy there for the Full Moon Lantern Festival in which you can make a wish and send lighted lanterns floating down the river! The city limits the amount of electricity used during the festival and NO motorbikes are allowed! So everyone was walking around, enjoying the beautiful lanterns on the streets and in the river! We ran into a UK couple that we had previously met in Cat Ba this evening and had a lovely dinner and post-dinner drinks with them for the festival. It was a great last night in Hoi An!
I really liked Hoi An. It was such a cute, little town. There were also several clothing shops where you could purchase tailored clothing! I did not purchase anything since baggage space is limited, though I really wish I could have! They had so many beautiful dresses, blouses, and skirts on display. I guess I’ll just have to come back to visit another time. 😉
Sorry for the long post, I could’ve shared a lot more, but figured I will save it for a third Vietnam post. My goal is to have a Southern Vietnam post up within the next couple of days!
-I was definitely nervous about the scooter and only during our second time (in Hoi An) did I feel comfortable enough to do some serious leaning turns. Just gotta go slow and ignore that semi passing by you honking at full blast. I will always chuckle when remembering seeing Kimberly hit the post just as rounded the corner.
-Hue was a neat town, and their local dishes had some of the most unique flavor combinations I ever tried. It’s impossible to explain it; mix of oceany saltiness with sweet earthiness, all complemented by plethora of fresh herbs. I hope I find a decent Vietnamese restaurant wherever we end up back in the States. Also, you get offered drugs quite often in Hue. I don’t think it’s ever worth the risk.
-Hoi An was one of my favorite cities as well and reuniting with Mat and Cass by chance was a crazy happenstance.
-I am like 84% sure the “karaoke/dance hall” was a swingers’ club. Anything goes.