Ho Chi Minh City – In Pictures

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We spent less than 24 hours in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but thought it was still worth sharing a few pictures from our experience:

8:54pm – Motorbikes whiz by “Allez Boo” restaurant

9:53am – Typical Ho Chi Minh City street

9:57am – Motorbikes avoiding traffic by using the sidewalk

12:20pm – Cong Vien Van Hoa Park

12:39pm – Abby enjoying Pho at a fancy (i.e. indoor) restaurant

Hoi An vs. Noul

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After our brief visit in Hue, we reboarded the Reunification Express and headed south along the beaches and through the mountain range separating Da Nang from the north. Upon arrival in Da Nang, we took a taxi to Hoi An, the next stop on our journey.

Thu Bon River, central Hoi An

Hoi An is a beautiful town that feels as if it is stuck in a bygone era. French colonial buildings and preserved 19th century houses, many with strong Chinese and Japanese influences, are scattered about. Silk lanterns and wooden & silk crafts are for sale at many of the local shops that line the narrow streets joined by even narrower alleys. There is also a river that runs through the heart of the city’s old town, so there is a wide selection of river-front cafés, as well as atmospheric footbridges and walkways. Between the bicycle, motorbike, and pedestrian filled streets are narrow alleys that wind between buildings, often just a few feet wide.

Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street

Tan Ky House

Silk lanterns for sale

Aside from its wonderful atmosphere, many people come to this town for the many tailors that line the streets. As you walk through town, touts frequently approach you asking if you’d like any clothing made. After some research online (as these places vary widely in quality), Abby and I decided to have some clothing made at A Dong Silk, one of the more reputable places in town. We picked out styles and fabrics, got measured carefully, and came back for several fittings. In the end, I ended up with a new suit and dress shirt, and Abby got a shirt-dress and trench coat. All of these fit and look great, and cost significantly less than even the non-tailored versions back home. All-in-all a great experience.

The only unfortunate part of our visit in Hoi An was our encounter with Noul a tropical storm / depression that wandered into town for the last two days of our stay. On the day that we were scheduled to visit the nearby My Son ruins, we woke to a torrential downpour that unfortunately led us to cancel the day-trip. Instead, we outfitted ourselves in heavy-duty raingear and ventured into town for more sight-seeing and coffee-shop-visiting. By the end of the day, the passageway underneath the river’s main bridge had been reduced to a few inches and the surrounding streets were flooded. This is apparently not too unusual in Hoi An, however, and none of the shop-owners seemed particularly fazed. Fortunately, it had no impact on our flight out of there, which brought us to much drier weather.


What Is It?? Round VII – Official Results

While we thought this was a tricky one and wanted to give all of our loyal readers a chance to chime in, it turns out that the winning response was submitted less than nine hours after the original posting. This round’s congratulations goes to Dani! As her research proves, these are the phone numbers of concrete drillers offering their services. So if you’re interested in a good Skype prank-call, one of these may be a good choice.

We learned a lot about our readers this round as we saw guesses roll in related to gangs, “professional women,” and illegal business. It’s not that these activities do not occur, but they are advertised in different ways.

Crispy like a broken bubble

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Crispy like a broken bubble – This is how the menu at our hole-in-the-wall lunch spot in Hue described the dish on the bottom left, part of an elaborate Hue-style meal:


We’ve had some amazing food here in Vietnam, ranging from the ever-popular Phở (very popular in Seattle these days as well), to tasty regional dishes like the ones above that we had not experienced before. We were directed to Hang Me, the restaurant listed above, after asking our hotel staff for tips on a good neighborhood eatery. The waitress did not speak any English, but understood that we wanted to sample some local specialties. She brought out a laminated pamphlet that looked like it may have been part of a travel guide, and pointed to the food we were about to eat. The first dish consisted of 10 shallow saucers, each lined with a little bit of rice noodle and topped with some dried shrimp and some sort of crouton. We were instructed to pour sauce on them, and then use a spoon to scoop each bundle out into a single bite. Delicious! Four more courses of food followed, each being something new for us. Meanwhile, a woman in back was preparing more food, in this case putting meat onto a rice noodle to be wrapped in a banana leaf:


Many restaurants in Vietnam are quite different from what we’re used to in the United States. Rather than being enclosed air-conditioned store fronts with bound menus and a kitchen in back, they’re often open-air eateries that spill out onto the street. Here’s an example of such a restaurant in Hanoi. The plastic tables and chairs, as well as the outdoor cooking, are all very common in this country. Note the woman preparing chicken feet.


Another difference is that some restaurants only serve one dish. For example, when we walked into Bun Bo Nam Bo in Hanoi, we sat down at two of the few open seats, and within minutes were served the following dish without any questions asked:


It was great — a finely crafted bowl of Abby’s all-time favorite dish!

And other restaurants take on a completely different form… In Hoi An, we went to an outdoor restaurant near the river and noticed that the waitstaff was very aggressive. One waiter would tell you to sit down at a table on one side of the restaurant, while another would be trying to steer you towards their table. It turned out that this place, which had about ten tables, was actually a bunch of separate restaurants, with each owner running two tables. No wonder they were fighting over customers! We decided to eat at Mr. Rin’s fine two-table establishment:


One last thing I feel obligated to mention. Vietnam is one of the few places where you can still buy a beer for less than 25 cents. Mr. Rin’s was only 4,000 dong, and was ISO 9001 certified to boot! What a wonderful country!


Rules of the road in Hanoi

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Here’s a short video that Abby took from an intersection in Hanoi. We both think it’s a great example of the crazy street traffic in Hanoi, since it captures so many elements:

  • There’s a man crossing the street. Since traffic in Hanoi rarely stops, his method is the only way to do it — slow and steady.
  • A short parade of cyclos drives by. This is a common way for tourists to get around, however it can be a little nerve wracking given the lack of driving rules.
  • Near the end of the video, a woman walks by carrying baskets of fruit hanging from a wooden beam strung across her shoulder. Again, very typical.
  • You can hear bike bells ringing in the background. Many of these are from cyclo drivers offering us rides.


Midnight train to Hué

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Well, the train actually left Hanoi at 7p.m., but it was overnight and how could I pass up that title for the blog post? Anyway… Dan and I decided to take the train from Hanoi to Hué, which took about 12 hours in total. We had no real idea of what to expect, but had heard that food was hard to come by on the train, so we boarded with a bag of vanilla wafer cookies, two bottles of water, and four cans of Bia Ha Noi.

We found our assigned sleeper car with no trouble at all, and were very pleased with how clean and cozy it was. The only trouble: we had the two top bunks, but there were already three people occupying the two lower bunks. On one bunk, a man was lying down and reading the newspaper. On the other bunk, a man and a woman were seated and the woman seemed to be crying. We had no idea what was going on, but felt a bit uncomfortable barging into the tiny room with our packs. But that’s exactly what we had to do in order to get ourselves situated for the night. We never did find out what the deal was with the couple, but they both slept in the lower bunk for the night and then the woman was gone when we woke up in the morning. Who knows…

Somehow we lucked out in our cabin assignment, because we’re pretty sure we were in a first-class car although we had paid a standard ticket price. It was much better appointed (complete with fake wood paneling) and less stuffy than the other cars that we walked through, and they served us tea upon departure and provided toothbrushes and combs. There were also “western toilets” in the bathrooms and small sinks to boot. Although we did use our handy hostel sleep-sheets on the bed, it was really a very comfortable sleeping experience.

We knew about the decor of the other train cars because we had shared a taxi from our hotel to the train station with a German couple, and we visited them in their car for a beer about a half-hour after the train left Hanoi. All of the cabins in their car seemed to be full of tour groups, and the whole car had much more of a party atmosphere than our quiet and composed car. We had a great time hanging out with them, and made plans to meet up again when we arrived in Hué.

Later, Dan and I returned to our less festive cabin, brushed teeth, and got in bed to read at about 9p.m. Our cabin-mates were already asleep, so we ended up turning out the lights at 9:30 and going right to sleep. We woke up again around 6:30a.m., had some coffee, packed up our stuff, and were on the ground in Hué before 8:30a.m. All in all, a great experience and an efficient way to travel.



Cruising through Ha Long Bay

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After two nights in Hanoi, Dan and I headed out of the city for one night on a boat in Ha Long Bay — an area famous for its limestone rock formations that jut straight up out of the sea. The bay is absolutely beautiful, but it is not exactly undiscovered by tourists and the one drawback of our visit was the lack of solitude.


The trip to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi takes about three hours by car and gave us a more comprehensive view of the madness that is Vietnamese driving. It is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, with no real recognition of lights or lanes or right of way. The rules seem to be: bigger vehicle always wins, keep a steady speed when passing, and make ample use of the horn. It is pretty wild, but we made it in one piece and bonded with our fellow tour-group members along the way.

We boarded a “junk” boat along with nine others just before noon and were immediately treated to a delicious seafood lunch that gave us our first taste of how well we would eat on this trip. After lunch, we settled into lounge chairs on the upper deck to enjoy the ride out into the bay. The boats move very slowly and with a quiet engine, so it’s very peaceful to glide through the limestone carsts. There were also several floating villages that we passed along the way that reminded me a bit of Seattle’s houseboat communities.


We were lucky to have a great group of people along with us for the overnight tour, so it was a lot of fun socially as well. After one first lunch at separate tables, we ate all of the rest of our meals at a long communal table and enjoyed discussions about international politics, our respective cities, jobs, and adventures in travel. All of our meals were excellent, with lots of seafood and traditional Vietnamese dishes.


In addition to riding through the bay on our junk boat, we were able to explore some of the smaller lagoons in a motorized bamboo boat that they carried onboard. We also bamboo-boated over to an island that has a viewing spot at its top-top peak, which provided spectacular views of the bay. And the following morning we visited one of the many caves that are hidden within the bay’s islands. The one we visited is called Surprising Cave, and is named for a rock formation (not pictured here) inside that looks like a man who is “very happy,” as our guide put it.


All of these spots were totally beautiful, but I was a bit taken aback by the number of other tour boats in the area and the number of other people in the spots we visited. Dan and I read this morning that 2.3 million people have visited Ha Long Bay already this year and that marks a 49% increase over last year. We couldn’t believe the number of junk boats in the harbor that we left from and were a bit disappointed to moor for the night with at least 20 other boats in sight. But… other than the crowds, it was an magnificent sight and we enjoyed it thoroughly.


Oh boy! Hanoi!

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We have been in Vietnam for less than 24 hours now, and are extremely excited for the next eight days that we will spend here. We are in Hanoi for two nights, staying in the heart of the Old Quarter, which is a bustling, vibrant neighborhood that is absolutely packed with people and motorbikes. I’m amazed to report that the streets of Hanoi (at least in the city center) have even more frenetic traffic patterns than what we saw in Bangkok and Bali. The key seems to be slow and steady and just go for it — applying to motorbikes, cyclos, and pedestrians. I’ll try to get a video that illustrates the madness in real time.


Vietnamese food is probably my very favorite cuisine, so I have been eagerly anticipating our food experiences here and they have already been outstanding. I had my favorite rice noodle salad yesterday that came with barbeque pork patties — a Hanoi specialty — as well as a fantastic banana fritter with chocolate sauce for desert.

We also walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, which sits in the heart of Hanoi, and enjoyed watching all of the people walking, meditating, and peacefully sitting together at the lake’s edge. We agreed that most other parts of the world that we have seen on this trip have America beat in terms of knowing how to relax. We hope to take some of that home with us.


During our taxi ride from the airport into town, we saw a motorbike transporting a full pig carcass. It was draped over the main body of the bike. Although we have no photo (probably a good thing) that is our new top motorbike transport sight.