Hue and Halong Bay and Hanoi

On Wednesday we started the journey from Hoi An to Hanoi, via Hue. Our bus left at 730am and we managed to get the prior day’s shopping shipped out from Hoi An via mail so we didn’t have to lug it around. The bus ride was quick and we met some Australian girls who we ended up spending time with on and off the rest of the trip.

Hue was nice, with large leafy streets, but brutally hot an humid. We had a total of four (yep) hours in the city during which we in effect chartered a AC’ed taxi and saw the Citadel, the Tu Duc Tomb, and the Thien Mu padoga. It was a whirlwind tour through the city and we even had enough time to book our return flights from Hanoi to Saigon.

Back at the bus by 5pm, it had started to rain a little bit so that among other reasons (which were totally opaque to us), the bus took off late for the 15 hour ride to Hanoi. The buses were the sleeper type, which meant there were nearly lie flat individual bunks to sleep on. While that may sound somewhat comfortable, it’s not at all. They were barely padded and the start and stop traffic all through the night meant I probably put in 6 hours of sleep.

While on the bus, we managed to find a Halong Bay tour operator which said we had to get to their office by 9am sharp to make the bus to Halong Bay. As soon as we arrived in Hanoi we found the first cab we found and hightailed it across town to catch the next three hour bus to the bay. Total time on a bus in transit from Hoi An to Halong Bay was roughly 30 hours!

Thankfully we made it on time, and set out for the two day, one night cruise along the bay and the lime outcroppings in the UNESCO-protected Halong Bay. It was a beautiful day to be on the water, and the geology of the surroundings is something otherworldly. One of the other passengers on the junk was a Dutch oil geologist who we went part of the evening chatting with on how the formations came to be, which added bit of color to the picture.

On the bay, we rented kayaks and paddled about two hours (or so) total, first out from our junk to a beach where we climbed some 450 steps to a pagoda at the top of an island. From there we paddled for a while until we finally came to an opening in one of the mountain facs that was maybe 10 feet high and 30 feet across. We paddled through it which lead to an incredible open lagoon. By the time we paddled out, our junk at arrived at the opening and the crew lashed the kayaks up as we went in to the water for a swim.

The water in the bay is bath tub temperature. Given the surroundings are in the 90s it’s not terribly surprising. While that sounds idyllic, we had heard from our tour guide that the waters in the area have some box jellyfish present, and unfortunately they managed to sting both Brendan and Dan. The jellyfish isn’t poisonous, but it’s as described by them “it felt like an scalpel cutting your leg”. Apparently there was a jellyfish sitting near the ladder that was used to climb out, and both of the guys had the misfortune to get their a leg each wrapped in the tendrils.

They sat writhing in pain for a few hours that eventually subsided, we slept in our cabins on the junk and made our way back to land by mid day. Our return put us back in Hanoi around 4pm, after which we explored the old town and made bookings for an evening water puppet show.

Old Town Hanoi is quite lovely. It’s bristling with motorcycles and bicycles and more than once I was nearly clipped by one, but it and the city seem like they’d be a great place to spend some time. By the time we got back to the hotel, the aforementioned Aussie girls had left us a note to hang out later since we were at the same hotel. We went to the water puppet show, which was fantastic. There was an 8 piece traditional Vietnamese orchestra playing music to the water puppetry.

After the show we met up with our friends and ended up stumbling upon an all you can eat ice cream buffet that happens the first Friday of every month. Needless to say, that ended up being our dinner. After walking along the lake back and taking photo booth pictures in the night market, we returned to the hotel and everybody has turned in for the night.

Tomorrow begins the return leg of our journey. We fly from Hanoi to Saigon at 11am, then Saigon to Tokyo at 11pm. There’s a ~10 hour layover in Tokyo on Sunday, during which I think we’re planning on going to Tokyo proper via the JR Express. We’re also planning during the day to meet up with Justin in Saigon for the afternoon and do any last minute shopping.

Hoi An

[originally posted Tue June 30 2009 at 5:44pm]

We’ve been in Hoi An for two days now, after arriving Monday morning via train. We settled in to our rooms at a nice little budget hotel right off of the main town area and got on our way to explore the old town. I’d heard tons of the bespoke shoes and suits that are made here so purchasing one was on the agenda, as well.

After winding our way through the maze that is the old city, we finally settled on a suitmaker whose recommendation had come from some New Zealanders we’d met in Nha Trang. I ended up purchasing two suits (one three piece gray and one black pinstripe) and two shirts. We picked them up for a fitting today and they both turned out great. The best part? The price — the whole package was just over $100! After (or before?) shopping we stopped in to a restaurant along the waterfront to try Cau Lau noodles, a dish that Hoi An is famous for. They’re basically grittier (texture-wise) and thicker pho noodles that were in the same soup, but served with fried dough (like croutons). Needless to say, they were delicious.

The rest of the time in between was interspersed walking around the town and alleyways exploring the area. After clothes shopping (and the guys stopping in a few other stores to get some other jackets and the like), we met up with Rachel and her sister for dinner at a waterfront and finished the evening up a few beers (and working to avoid some rather annoying young American and British backpackers).

Today we went to the My Son ruins, about 45km outside of Hoi An. The weather was easily in the high 90s and probably crossing in to the 100s. The sites were beautiful, old Hindu relics that reminded me of a little version of Angor Wat. We explored the ruins for a few hours until the crushing heat sent us back to Hoi An.

We spent the afternoon getting the alterations done to our clothes, and then afterward sat outside of a sandwich cart (Bánh mì) while eating our sandwiches (vegetarian of course). While sitting down, the women who owned the store we got our clothes at came over and joined us for over an hour talking about life in Vietnam, her family, the store, life when she was a kid and when she opened the store. It was truly fascinating having a conversation with her and talking about the two worlds we came from.

The trip is entering the back half of journey. It’s already Tuesday here, and our flights out of Saigon are on Saturday evening via Tokyo. We’ve got bus tickets tomorrow at 7am to Hue, where we have a four hour stop over in order to catch our 16 hour bus to Hanoi, thus putting us in Hanoi Thursday morning. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to do a day or overnight tour through Halong Bay, and if not enjoy Hanoi. We’ve got to get on an airplane from Hanoi to Saigon Friday or Saturday in order to make our flights out (and meet up with Justin for a day in Saigon as he starts his trip).

Diving in Nha Trang and Leaving for Hoi An

[originally posted Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 10:16pm

We woke up this morning at 7:30am to catch our ride to our dive boat for a day of diving on the islands off of Nha Trang. I’ve never been diving before so I signed up for a “discovery” dive, which is basically a tandem dive with a dive master. The ride out to the dive sites was ~50 minutes and the diving was fantastic. There was a ton to sea underwater and the ocean was really clear. I did two dives, and in the in between time we snorked the waters. The diving pretty much like snorkling, only you’re a lot deeper and about a thousand times closer to the coral and sea life. Saw some moray eels and a lot of other fish I’ll never be able to identify.

After about four hours out on the water we returned back to the city at 2ish and made plans with some of the other people we’d met diving to have dinner later in the evening. We had some pho as a late lunch and then hung out for a while, bumming around. We had a lovely dinner with the people we met which provided perhaps the culinary hilight of the trip so far — an order of monitor lizard.

We also decided to try to find transport out of Nha Trang to continue our trek north, but as it turned out the sleeper train to Da Nang was sold out tonight, and all the sleeper buses were also sold out. For a brief moment we had hopes that seats in the sleeper bus avaiable, but by the time we pulled the trigger, the tickets were sold out. Long story short, we’re on a upright seat train tonight to Hoi An / Da Nang. We’ll see how it goes — we leave at 11:18pm and arrive at 9ish in the morning. Sitting in a seat for that long with a pack does not seem like it’ll be fun, but I’m looking forward to seeing Hoi An tomorrow.