Tag Archives: hue

Hue to Da Lat, Christmas & New Years….Central Vietnam

I have been negligent with the posting, due to the holidays I guess, so this is a long one.  Sorry.

We arrived in Hue during a heavy downpour.  Having put all our things in dry bags and donning our rain covers, we headed toward the hostels.  However, Riki discovered his rain jacket no longer functions in the arms and we were pretty wet by the time we arrived at the hostel.

Hue is an old imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty until 1945 and thus has an impressive citadel.  Or it used to.  Hue was heavily damaged in the 1960s by bombings and much of the city was damaged.  The citadel, which we visited the next day is under reconstruction.  There are a few buildings left, but also many ruins.  We ate some incredible food (all recommended by our hotel), including pork cooked on lemongrass sticks wrapped in greens and rice paper dipped in peanut sauce (has a shorter name but I don’t recall it), clams with rice, and beef pho.  We also shopped around for a new raincoat for Riki, but the only options are knock-off North Faces with questionable seams or knock-off North Faces of shoddy material.

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The next day, we hopped on a bus to Da Nang, where we were treated by Riki’s dad to 5 nights at the Hyatt on the beach for Christmas.  The bus trip seemed to be going well and speedy despite the bumpy roads.  But after descending a small mountain, we started crawling along with people honking and passing us left and right (buses left, motorbikes right).  After ten minutes of this, we pulled over into a large gas station, where we all disembarked to discover the front wheel well of the bus noticeably lower than the back.  While the passengers proceeded to use the facilities (trough toilets for both men and women), the driver’s helper got behind the wheel well with a screw driver and jacked the bus back up to a normal level.

All was well and we were conveniently dropped off in front of the Hyatt, right on the beach.  We checked-in and took the hotel’s shuttle back to Da Nang for provisions and sightseeing.  Sightseeing included a museum on Cham sculpture and a walk along their waterfront to see the dragon bridge.  Da Nang is a large port city, not a very common stop for tourists.  We returned to the Hyatt to discover an incredible smorgasbord provided during the free cocktail hour(s).  This turned out to be our dinner for almost every night of our stay.

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The next day, Christmas Eve, we took the shuttle 20 minutes south to Hoi An.  We located a tailor recommended to us and proceeded to order a full suit for Riki, including vest and two dresses for me.  Hoi An is a UNESCO site and is charmingly preserved.  Small streets with limited traffic reminded us of New Orleans and at night, colorful lanterns hang from every structure.  As a former bustling port, Hoi An has been influenced by trade all over Asia and even the Middle East.  When the river began to become clogged with mud, major trade was moved to Da Nang, abandoning Hoi An and enabling it to be well preserved in its historic context.

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We spent Christmas Eve with the Hyatt’s complimentary food and drinks.  And then we watched Frozen. Yes, I know we are late to the game.  And Riki has been singing the song ever since (except he interchanges the words randomly, ie “Let it Snow, Let it Flow, etc).

We spent the next few days walking on the beach (despite the rain) and enjoying the amenities that come with a real hotel, like hot water, bathtubs, toilets that don’t get wet when you shower, AND free food and drinks (I could go on and on – the Hyatt is on the opposite end of the spectrum of every place we have stayed thus far).  Surprisingly, or not, we did not meet anyone there doing what we are doing.  Lots of families though.

We ventured back to Hoi An again for another tailor fitting and to wander the little streets.  The weather was less than desirable, but there were tons of tourists poking around the many shops and restaurants.

On our last day, we soaked up as much luxury as we could, took all the little soaps they gave us and headed back down to Hoi An to pick up our new clothes and catch the overnight bus to Nha Trang.

We arrived at 8 am in the small beach town of Nha Trang.  I slept a few hours between the honking and bumpy roads, but Riki didn’t.  We took advantage of a morning without rain though and wandered  the neighborhoods before taking a nap.  That evening, we discovered that Nha Trang is swarming with Russian tourists.  Everything in the tourist area is written in Cyrillic and we were spoken to in Russian a number of times, by locals and Russians themselves. We weren’t terribly impressed with the city, but did walk all the way up the beach to Po Nagar towers.  This Cham temple complex is from 781 situated on a small hill overlooking the water.

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We walked back through little neighborhoods and even found Riki a place to grill his own seafood.  Unfortunately, the beach was crowded with tourists and the water was very rough, so we opted to skip that, even though the sun came out for a few hours.

New Year’s Eve we took a morning bus to Dalat.  We had heard there was a celebration and everyone we asked said there would be music and fireworks that night.  But the city appeared pretty dead.  So we booked a canyoning tour for the next day and wandered through the city and the market.

That night, we went out to the center of town and found a stage set up with music playing.  People began dancing on the stage and locals gathered in the street to watch (no clapping though after each set).  At 10:15 pm, the music abruptly stopped and everyone scattered.  We were thoroughly confused and sat on some steps with our cozies of Tiger Beer hoping something else would happen.  When it was obvious the locals were all going home and there would be no fireworks, we walked to a bar where we found about 15 Westerners hanging out and playing pool.  At midnight, Riki had to remind everyone what time it was and we cheers-ed and continued chatting with a Dutch guy we have run into three times as we have headed down Vietnam.

I have one word for the next day, terrifying.  We went canyoning or abseiling or rappelling – a controlled descent down a rock.  Except some of the rocks we descended were actually waterfalls.  The dry ones were fine, but the wet ones, where you can’t see from above what you are about to do, well, I didn’t find that as entertaining.  I think Riki disagrees and had a great time, despite his “fear of heights.”

We were lucky as the sun came out a few times.  Otherwise, the water was pretty chilly, but when you are too busy concentrating on not losing your footing, you don’t notice the temperature.  Not until you get down and out. It was pretty exhausting and the walk at the end was very steep and conveniently included walking up the trail that was being used as the barrier for a controlled burn.  Very tough to breath as it was without all the smoke.

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When we got back to town, the place was swarming with Vietnamese tourists.  Apparently, they get four days off for the holiday, but nobody arrived until sometime on the first.

We spent our last day at a flower garden packed with people, shopping at the handicraft stores, and visiting our favorite bakery.  Dalat is called the city of eternal spring, as it is warm or cool during the day and colder at night.  The weather was pretty dreary our last day and it got very cold at night.  The Vietnamese were decked out in down jackets, hats, gloves, scarves, etc.  We had our thin fleeces and were fine.

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The cold never bothered me anyway. (Frozen is everywhere)

Next stop – Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon

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Phong Nha Cavernous Caves….Vietnam

Warning: There are lots of pictures of rocks. Lots. But they are pretty cool.

We crossed into Vietnam via Cha Lo, which is not a common tourist crossing we found out.  Our bus was full of 20-something Vietnamese guys presumably returning from working in Laos or Thailand, as their wallets were stuffed full of cash.  40 guys with stinky feet and me, and absolutely no English.  It took us 2 hours to get through the border, which was full of hand gestures, confusion and shuffling bags back and forth between inspections and the bus.  The whole time, we had a glimmer of hope that they could drop us off in Phong Nha (our destination) as it was in the direct path between Thakhek and Dong Hoi.  So we kept saying Phong Nha to the driver and the ticket guy and the other guy who was in charge of something.  Eventually they started calling us Phong Nha.

But we didn’t stop in Phong Nha, though we got within 20 km or so.  We got dropped off in Dong Hoi and found out the last bus to Phong Nha had already departed and we could take a taxi for an exorbitant amount, or wait til the next morning to catch the local bus at just over $1.  So we found a nice guesthouse along the ocean and ate some delicious beef soup.

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The next morning we woke up early and went out on the main street, hoping to find a bus marked with our destination.  After 20 nerve-racking minutes, we spotted one, got on and discovered other tourists headed the same way.

We spent that afternoon researching and talking to people coming back from the caves.  The national park here has the world’s largest cave and it was only discovered in the last few years.  Hence, tourism has just started to pick up and people are flocking to the area to see the caves.  The largest cave is $3000 to visit and has a waiting list, so that was out.  We opted for a few of the other, also spectacular ones instead.
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The next morning the power was out (something we would come to discover happens quite a lot).  There are tour companies in Phong Nha who offer day trips to see multiple attractions.  We asked around, thought $60+ was too much and decided to do two caves on our own.  The roads are good and the scenery is gorgeous, so we rented a motorbike for the hour drive to Paradise Cave.

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The ride up the cave was beautiful, more karsts, little towns and lush, green foliage.  It rains quite a lot at this time of year.  We parked the motorbike and climbed about a kilometer up a mountain to reach the entrance to the cave.  This cave has been open to the public for awhile and they have sunk a lot of money into the infrastructure here.  Everything outside is paved and the whole walkway inside the cave is wooden and appears sturdy.  I was pretty impressed.  For being so remote, this cave was really well taken care of and tastefully lit up.

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We spent about two hours at Paradise Cave, walking the 1 kilometer path and back.  The stalactites and stalagmites were massive and had such character.  You could see where some had fallen thousands of years ago and more had formed on top of them.  We arrived at lunchtime and all the tour groups were gone so we were able to enjoy a few minutes of complete silence in the cave (besides the dripping water).  The pictures don’t really do it justice.  It was hard to capture the scale of the cavern with the camera.

Next stop, the Dark Cave.  This is more of an adventure cave, not as big and has no lights.  This cave is more expensive, but includes all necessary gear – headlamp, hard hat, life vest and safety harness.  We were strapped into our harnesses and ziplined across the river to the mouth of the cave.  From there, we swam into the cave, waded through chilly water and mud.  We removed our lifejackets, flipped on our headlamps and trod through mud toward our destination, slipping all the way.  By the time we reached the end of the trail, we were all covered in mud and having a grand time.  I had a mudstache – courtesy of our guide.

The finale of the tour is sitting in a thick pool of mud in complete darkness.  The mud is so thick that you can float on it, but still swim.  It was much warmer deep in the cave and the mud felt great on my skin.  We headed back the way we came, rinsed off and kayaked back to the start, where they have two small ziplines dropping you into the water.  Despite the chill of the water, this turned out to be my favorite thing in Phong Nha.  It helps that they serve you hot soup, tea and rum by a fire at the end.

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We dried off and headed back to town in time for sunset.  Driving at night is dangerous, as there are no streetlights and when we got back to the hostel, there still wasn’t any power.  So no hot showers for us, which was disappointing.  Apparently, they are working on the electric lines all the time, probably updating them to accommodate the huge influx of tourism in the area in the last few years.  It would be interesting to see the development that happens in this area in the next ten years.  The caves are really incredible and its no wonder why people are already flocking here.

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The following day we met in the lobby of our hostel to join a bunch of people to visit the cave that is closest to town.  Ten of us split the cost of a boat and we headed for Phong Nha and Tien Son caves.  The little dragon boat took us down the river about half an hour to the entrance of the caves, leaking all the way.  our wooden boat had seen better days.  At the entrance to Phong Nha cave, the boat driver switched off the motor and he and his helper removed the top of the boat, so we could look directly above our heads.  They pulled out their paddles and we spent the next hour or so moving silently through the cave.

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The dragon boat returned us to the entrance of the cave and we disembarked for the walk up to the next cave, Tien Son.  We walked up some very steep steps, with ladies selling ice cream all the way up.  In my opinion, this cave was better than Phong Nha cave.   There is wooden loop way down into the cave, lots more steps.  More beautiful formations and tasteful lighting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the dragon boat back to town, where the power was out again.  Saw some interesting boat uses along the way.

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The next day we took the local bus back to Dong Hoi, where we were dropped at an intersection and told to wait for the next bus to Hue (no time table).  Luckily, one arrived about half an hour later, we flagged it down and headed south on the dustiest and bumpiest  bus/road we have encountered thus far.

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Colonel Mustard and Mr. Tabasco are a long way from home.