A Hong Kong Stopover

We had decided to make our way to Indonesia via a multi-day stop in Hong Kong. It’s always sounded like an interesting place, and so many flights pass through that it wasn’t really out of the way from nearby Hanoi. After a short flight we were greeted by a bumpy descent and a deluge of rain. The weather – refreshingly cool compared to Vietnam but oh so very wet – was the first of many substantial differences this unique location has provided from our trip so far. Hong Kong is a novelty – to us at least – in pretty much every category one can think of and we’ll do our best to describe it from our limited 4-day stay.

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Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong from Kowloon

I’ll finish getting the weather out of the way, that being one of the more significant and limiting circumstances of our visit. As we learned later when speaking to somewhat apologetic locals, Hong Kong had been experiencing a solid ten days of heavy rain by the time we arrived and it did not let up while we were there. The city is wholly set up to handle such conditions of course and between extensive public transit, under- and above-ground walkways, and ubiquitous shopping malls one can get around here without really stepping outdoors; but for folks like us excited to get out and see more than just concrete, the rain was a bit of a damper. We did our best!

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waiting in line at a popular ramen place

As newcomers we found Hong Kong to be easy to get around but at times difficult to navigate. Buses and MTR (subway) are well run, frequent, and go pretty much anywhere in this relatively compact urban area. Reasonable scooter-free traffic makes walking a breeze (except for umbrella congestion!). The difficulty came in actually finding specific things within a known target area (say, a city block). Bus stops at bigger stations are distributed around on various streets which works well for traffic flow but isn’t obvious to the uninitiated. Hong Kong is also distinctly 3-dimensional with many of your objectives being somewhere above or below you. This isn’t unusual for a dense city but seemed to be taken to the next level (hah!) here by innumerable 15-story towers packed with a bar or restaurant on each floor and little or no street-level indication of their presence. After traveling in countries where everything domestic and commercial takes place on the sidewalks, this is quite a shift.

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looking uphill from Hong Kong Park

Kowloon, the mainland area directly across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island, is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. This is also where we stayed for 4 nights, so our accommodation was accordingly cramped. The guesthouse we stayed in occupied a corner of the 10th floor of a multi use tower, and all told its 5 rooms plus entryway took up about the same area as a large living room. Our room was 7 square meters (75 sqft) so a bit  tight for the two of us and our stuff! Actually it would have been fine if it weren’t for the rain, but having lots of wet clothes and shoes with nowhere to put them added some hassle. Well, that and the fact that the bed was definitely too short, even for Elaine. It was clean though!

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our room!

Beyond simply walking around and getting a feel for the city we had a couple objectives for our visit: eating some exciting food and doing some hiking on the surprisingly extensive range of trails. We did reasonably well with both though between our fairly short stay and the weather we barely scratched the surface. Dining costs also were a bit of a challenge – Hong Kong prices approach those of San Francisco so again quite a shift from our travels to date. We mostly avoided high end places (which are innumerable) and sought out popular local spots which all share a similar approach of few tables but quick turnaround: an orderly queue forms, you place your order before sitting down, and then get up and pay at the door on your way out.

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dim sum kitchen at Tim Ho Wan

We pretty much hit all of our cravings: ramen, sushi, dim sum, seafood, Indian, pastries and pizza. We also tried some simple local fare for breakfast like rice congee with chicken, mushrooms, and green cured eggs, or a bowl of black soy noodles with fried cuttlefish balls. Dim sum was delicious at Tim Ho Wan with crunchy baked pork buns, fresh shrimp dumplings, and really tasty turnip cake. We were a bit baffled when our order of “sauteed seasonal vegetable” turned out to be iceberg lettuce though! Meat, fish, and carbs are easy finds here, green things less so.

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black soy noodles with fried cuttlefish balls

 

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typical breakfast: rice congee

Fred, a friend from college who makes his home here in Hong Kong, took us out for dinner at a traditional “typhoon shelter” spicy crab place. Excellent seafood – scallops, clams, and the centerpiece crustacean buried under a mountain of fried garlic and shallots. We got the inside scoop of a lot of the workings of Hong Kong from Fred as well. For one we had been puzzled the other day walking around and seeing large gatherings of women in public areas engaged in all forms of relaxation from sleeping on cardboard and blankets to having a birthday party or singing karaoke. He explained that these were the hired help on their day off (Sunday) – most families here have at least one employee, given that it’s so cheap as long as room and board are provided. These women are mostly Filipino and the day off is a chance to congregate and socialize. We also learned that all of the public transit is privatized and the MTR (subway) is operated by a real estate company – they will extend a line and then erect a new apartment complex at the end to rake in high rents. It all works well here though, given how compact the city is. The buses are also privately owned by the jewelry company! There is some speculation that the big jewelry company is a money-laundering operation.

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there is a spicy crab somewhere under all of that fried garlic and shallot

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a clear moment at night!

Another strange part of the transportation here is that all of the taxis are the same make/model of Toyotas (I think from the 80’s!). The reason for this, I read on Wikipedia, is that Japan is the closest left-hand drive nation and has stricter standards for emissions so once Japan upgraded, their outcasts were shipped south to Hong Kong. Combined with some old Hong Kong bureaucracy dictating that very few makes/models of cars can be registered as taxis, this has left the entire city with a pretty unique and outdated fleet. Side note, the rest of China is right-hand drive.

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Hong Kong’s red cabs

Hong Kong Island as well as several of the surrounding areas are rocky and mountainous. With obvious pressure for real estate, buildings have climbed up the slopes to the point where some tall towers look absurdly precarious on their perches. The integrity of the hillsides is therefore paramount and the city takes this quite seriously, with a department devoted to the task and important slopes placarded. This defiance of gravity combined with the fact that much underground is hollowed out for infrastructure makes Hong Kong pretty interesting from a civil engineering perspective.

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old and new are packed together
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Hong Kong Park’s small waterfall

We took advantage of the least-rainy day to get a hike in on Hong Kong Island. Though engineers have covered what seems like every buildable surface there actually remains a great deal of forested hills to explore – just don’t expect it to be flat going! It was exceptionally easy to get to and from the trail given how thorough the bus coverage is. We started at a mid-island reservoir and headed south on the Wilson Trail, over Violet Hill and down to Repulse Bay. Though the rain held off there were still plenty of low clouds and it was a bit challenging to catch views from the hillside. Elaine caught a bus from Repulse and I continued on to Stanley over the Twin Peaks which turned out to involve a pretty steep and damp climb through heavy cloud, followed by some good views of the south end of the island on the descent. The trail was very well built, which I suppose is necessary or it would soon wash away.

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Hong Kong and Kowloon from Violet Hill

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A rainstorm approaching from the south, looking over Stanley

On our tours around the city we took the popular Peak Tram (to a very cloudy and rainy Peak), and the equally iconic White Star ferry across the harbor. Both of these were very easy and cheap especially with the Octopus Card which is Hong Kong’s all-encompassing transit card that we used quite a lot. We also wandered through both Kowloon and Hong Kong Parks – beautifully manicured quiet havens from the busy streets – and into a couple free museums including one on teaware and another on local nautical history.

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exploring Kowloon Park at night

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Overall Hong Kong was a fun, tasty, expensive, and massively different diversion from our Southeast Asia tour. Judging by the few moments of joy we experienced when the rain actually let off, we would have enjoyed it more had it been sunny, but so it goes! As an opportunity for an easy taste of China in a unique setting it seems pretty hard to beat.

Savoring Vietnam in Hanoi

Heading to Hanoi – our last stop in our south to north Vietnamese adventure – we were approaching the 2 month point in our travels. (Well, really more than that counting our drive cross-country but that’s different). We were both feeling weary, in need of some low-key days to recuperate, so we ended up deciding to hang out in the city for the final week of our visa. This was a really good decision because we were even more tired than we realized and we’ve spent the week here fighting off a cold, exploring in between resting and dodging the heat.

We grabbed a very comfy – but still cheap by Western standards – room in Hanoi’s Old Quarter for a couple nights to offset the discomfort of our Cát Bà housing. This let us explore the narrow windy streets easily, visiting the extensive weekend night market and drinking cheap, sort-of cold bia hoi with the locals. We enjoyed simply walking around and looking at the people and shops, with unique and colorful sights everywhere. The Old Quarter is stuffed with cute narrow buildings (at one point taxes were based on the width of street-front property so skinny long “tube” houses became the norm), each colorful and adorned with equally colorful locals and their pets.

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tiniest salon. You’re seeing the whole thing here.
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grabbing some fresh bánh rán – little donut balls with mung bean paste

We love to try new foods when traveling and one of our favorite discoveries yet has been cà phê trứng: strong Vietnamese coffee with a foamy sweetened egg topping. It’s addictively delicious and there was at least one day in our stay where we went back for more in the afternoon. This is one of those rare examples where we found the popular opinion on who makes the best to actually be true: Giảng Cafe in the Old Quarter was better than anything else we tried and the cheapest too at $1 a coffee.

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cà phê trứng – delicious egg coffee

After our 2 night stay in a comfy guesthouse we ventured outside of the touristy area to stay in an airbnb. This was great – we got a roomy and comfortable apartment with a laundry machine in the building (wahoo, hand-washed is only so good!) within walking distance of several sights and a great little produce market. This gave us not only the opportunity to rest comfortably, as we sorely needed, but also make some delicious breakfasts such as fresh duck eggs on hot baguettes and my own attempt at Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk (which tastes like melted coffee ice cream yum).

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buying mangoes with a handheld balance
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the eggs here are so good!
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breakfast with homemade chili sauce sold in old water bottles

Talking about Hanoi, or really anywhere in Vietnam, would be incomplete without including street food. It’s so hard to walk around here and not ask for every tasty thing you see every couple of steps. It’s not all Vietnamese, either – we had some excellent Chinese noodles and a solid doner kebab in our ventures. It’s the Vietnamese that’s the most exciting of course, be it soup, fried something, or grilled meat. Our favorite – and perhaps the best street food we’ve had yet on our trip – was the bún chả we found in an alley near our apartment. Bún chả is a brothy vermicelli noodle dish with grilled pork (bacon and meatballs) and the stuff we found was out of this world, not only by our opinion but as evidenced by how busy the little nest of plastic stools was and how quickly the pile of pork diminished over lunch hour. Yes, of course we went back the next day.

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all the fixings of bún chả

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Another noteworthy street dining experience occurred when we were sitting in a wide alley on tiny plastic chairs, surrounded by dozens of customers similarly situated up and down the street. Suddenly everything went into chaotic motion with staff and locals running around grabbing tables and dishes, barely refraining from shouting. It took us a couple adrenaline-boosted moments of confusion to realize that they were clearing the street in response to an imminent police sweep! There must be specific areas that have restrictions on tables in the roadway because we saw plenty elsewhere in plain sight of the authorities.

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this sidewalk setup is far from unique: everything from hand fans to industrial blowers are used to keep the coals hot
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it’s 2pm and it’s hot – everyone is napping
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Caption naming showdown: Broom Vroom, Pedal-duster, sweep&beep, bristle-mobile. You can choose your favorite. Or come up with your own. Whatever.

Among our ventures was a walk up around Trúc Bạch Lake (where Senator McCain splashed down under a parachute in ‘67) to a “cat cafe” at Elaine’s behest. This facility involves paying a fee so that one can sit in a room smelling of cats and wait to see if any of them can be bothered to wander over to you and cuddle. I apparently do not have a knack for this because while Elaine attracted some rather cute and adorable companions the only ones that eventually chose to hang out with me were the desperate, tatty individuals with no other option. Ah well, everyone deserves a good scratch behind the ears.

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We took an evening out at a trendy restaurant in the north of Hanoi where you sit on the floor at squat little tables and dine on a range of unique foods. The place was recommended by a popular food blogger in Hanoi and did not disappoint – the food was great and the atmosphere was fun as we were the only Westerners surrounded by a rowdy work group on one side and a large family on the other. Another evening was spent quite differently, hanging out in our apartment enjoying a nice bottle of French wine – the first we’ve had in our travels, sought out from a little nearby store – and a pretty solid delivery pizza which somehow made it straight to our apartment door in no time despite my uncertainty with our address and the fact that there is a big lock on the front gate. Thanks, Hanoi!

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smoked duck salad and grilled pork ribs, both fantastic

As far as official sightseeing in Hanoi, we did some but not all. The Temple of Literature was more or less next door to our apartment and so was inexcusable to not visit. We checked out an old restored tube house in the Old Quarter, spent a couple hours in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake. We didn’t make it to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum or surrounding palace area because by the time we were ready to do so on Friday we realized it was closed that day. Overall, though, we were more entertained simply walking around, and our recovery (plus the heat!) inhibited more vigorous touristing.

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lotus blossoms at the Temple of Literature

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wartime posters in the Vietnam Women’s Museum

Having spent time in both Saigon and Hanoi we can offer an inexpert comparison. Saigon is definitely the more modern, which cuts both ways: it’s cleaner and slicker than Hanoi and the cranking economy is palpable, fueling a healthy growth balanced by manicured gardens and well-lit tree-lined boulevards. Inevitably, however, this means it has lost some of the colorful character that permeates nearly every building and street corner in Hanoi. This aspect is most concentrated in the Old Quarter, for which Saigon has no match, but really is all over Hanoi (excepting intermittent areas of Soviet style red-and-concrete). Both cities have a wealth of amazing food and it would take us far more time than we’ve had to officially call a winner on that front. As for beer, Saigon has some impressively good craft brews but Hanoi has the edge on cheap lager between bia hoi stalls, Bia Ha Noi, and Trúc Bạch (all better, in my opinion, than Bia Saigon). Both are similar in terms of walkability (rather appalling, keep your head on a swivel) but Saigon cabs were more consistently cheap. Both have good coffee though Hanoi has the unique cà phê trứng. Hanoi was hotter and grayer.

So do we have a favorite? Probably Hanoi, by a whisker or two of Uncle Ho’s beard.

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engaged couples wait to take wedding photos at a popular site – photos are taken before the wedding and often there are many couples in the same place at once using the same photographer
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visiting the restored wooden “ancient house” in the Old Quarter

I write Saigon because nobody in southern Vietnam calls it Ho Chi Minh City. On this topic, the cultural transition between north and south was both more distinct and abrupt than I expected. As soon as we crossed over the old border north of Hue we noticed this shift in naming of the old southern capital. We also no longer heard praise for the US or stories of how such-and-such a relative worked with the American forces during the war, both common sentiments in the south. We’ve never felt unwelcome in Vietnam – far from it – but the change was noticeable. After thinking about it a little this 40 year old divide probably lingers due to (at least) a couple factors: lifestyle and geography. Families generally are rooted and tight knit, and Vietnam is quite narrow at the center and broad at the north/south extents, so there isn’t much movement and mixing.

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grabbing a new bia hoi keg

Regardless of north vs south, city or countryside, coastline or mountains, we are sad to be leaving Vietnam! For us it has been a perfect match of culture, scenery, and food. We’ve gotten quite used to being here over the past month so it’s going to be rather jarring to dive into a new country, especially since we’re leaving mainland Southeast Asia where we’ve spent our whole trip thus far. Tạm biệt và cảm ơn, Vietnam – goodbye and thanks! We hope to return soon.

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this little girl had me take her picture and then she gave me a hug.

 

Cát Bà: Enjoy the View, Survive the Stay

Last you heard from us we were a mile deep in a cave, soaking wet for two days and loving every minute of it, and then slurping eel soup for an evening in Đồng Hới. From there we left early the next morning and took a $20 flight up to Hanoi. This was so cheap we were pretty skeptical it would work out but we took a shot since the alternative was 11 hours on a bus, and surprise, it was fine! Arriving in Hanoi around 9am we took a shuttle bus into town to see if we could catch transit to Cát Bà that day. We had decided not to book any accommodation until we had a ticket in case we had to spend a night in Hanoi. (Yes, there is foreshadowing here.

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Cat Ba Town waterfront

Luckily we were just in time for a bus headed for Cát Bà and once we were settled in and were fed a sleeve of oreos we jumped online to search for a place to stay in Cát Bà. We knew Cát Bà would still be touristy, but all the hotels we were seeing were sort of at the top of our normal budget. Just as we were about to suck it up and pay the extra, Gregor checked Airbnb and found a reasonably-priced room so we went with it. Not the best choice of our travels so far.

Upon arrival we met up with our host’s daughter who brought us to our new digs at the back end of an alley. There we were greeted by a shirtless older Russian (Alex) and some friendly Vietnamese. We said hello as Alex’s daughter brought us up to our room with Alex followed right after us pretty much insisting that we wanted to rent a motorbike for the 3 days we were there. His daughter shooed him off saying “later, let them rest” and he retreated downstairs to the sidewalk. 

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our lovely accommodations

It was immediately apparent that the daughter was going to have to walk through our room to get upstairs to hers, not “past” as our host had indicated beforehand, oh well. Our hostess/roommate showed us the rest of the place including the bathroom – squat toilet, sink that did not drain and shower head that required straddling the squat toilet to shower – talk about efficiency! Also the kitchen which was a freestanding gas burner under an umbrella on the concrete “garden” terrace along with a couple plastic buckets for dishes and/or laundry. Rounding out the ensemble was and a rice cooker that had to have been intentionally camouflaged to hide the grunge and a mini-fridge with an open can of beans inside. I have been in Vietnam one month and have not seen one canned good before then. I can only imagine what spaceship this can of beans was beamed from.

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finding large flip flops is an ongoing battle as they keep falling apart

Not entirely thrilled with our new residence, we vowed to plan some extra-long days to be in the room as infrequently as possible. After dropping our stuff off we wandered through the market in town and then decided to stop at this busy locals spot right on the water that had cheap beer and my favorite snack, raw peanuts! We also ordered some sauteed squid which turned out to be uncleaned and presumably you eat the whole thing. Gregor was very brave and ate several. I almost cried. It was kind of hard day. 

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fresh peanuts: Elaine’s fav
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steamed whole squid. very… seafoody!
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some things lost (or gained?) in translation

This brings us to Cát Bà Town itself, a seaside handful of busy streets on the southeast corner of the island (most of which is park). Unlike our previous location in Phong Nha, Cát Bà Town has not gracefully weathered its recent influx of tourism. It is by a good margin the grubbiest town we have been to in Vietnam and also seemed less than welcoming (though to be fair we spoke to several other people who loved Cát Bà, so it may just be one of those things!). It does have a few things going for it though: the obvious proximity to one of the most unique coastlines in the world, fresh and abundant seafood, and a lot of friendly travelers.

Later on we ended up chatting with a group of Westerners while having some beers to recover from the journey and the room, and they got a laugh out of our accommodations and told us how much nicer their dorms were. Happily they also told us about a kayaking day trip they just did and thought it was great. It happened to be right upstairs from the bar we were at and they had two spots left for the next day’s trip so we booked them!

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Cat Ba Town facade

After our evening out the day we arrived, we decided it was time to retire to what we dubbed “the Gulag” before our 8am kayaking departure. We ended up not going to bed for a while, however, as we were waylaid by Alex and his neighbors hanging out in the alleyway and chatting. This was a pretty entertaining experience involving some stereotypical Russian hospitality. We eventually cut loose, and wishing our upstairs comrade Erika a good time at the bar on her way out, managed to get some sleep.

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on the water in Lan Ha Bay

Our day kayaking ended up being one of the best values we’ve found. We took a group boat out from Cát Bà Harbor into Lan Ha Bay, snagged some kayaks that were parked at a floating fish farm (there are lots of floating things in the bay including many homes), and spent the day exploring around the karsts. Along with the scenery we saw a lot of what makes for daily life here including various forms of fishing (ranging from highly to slightly ineffective), oyster farming, fish farming, lots of floating homes with families and dogs, and unfortunately, lots of garbage. Highlights included swimming in the bay, chatting with the cool folks on the boat with us, and seeing camo- and purple-colored crabs scuttling along the tidal cliffs of the many islands. Unfortunately the light was really difficult that day, and we don’t think the pictures below really do the bay justice!

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one of many floating homes

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a lone fisherman

The next day we rented a motorbike from our gregarious hosts to do some island exploring. First we went to do some hiking in the center of the island park. Here we met up with a few folks we had met the day before on the boat and we had a fun – albeit very hot and sweaty – climb up to some viewpoints. Along the way we saw a civet, a huge centipede, and some bright orange jungle crabs scuttling around on the fallen leaves.

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Elaine with our companions Paul and Bob
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blurry jungle crab (they’re quick little buggers)

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one of the nicer sections of road along the south of Cat Ba Island

From there we looped around the southern portion of the island and took in scenes of karsts, goats, and fields while navigating between wide paved roads and narrow muddy tracks (quick video here). To finish off the day we rode up to Cannon Fort which overlooks Cát Bà Town and the surrounding bay for a great sunset view. We hung out with our friend Bob for a while who was wrapping up a 3-month travel stint in Southeast Asia, and then grabbed a late dinner of some fried fish. One last night in the Gulag and then we were gratefully on our way to a comfy room in Hanoi’s old quarter!

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pigs like a good view too

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Specifics: we got to and from Cát Bà with Good Morning Cát Bà out of Hanoi. It was decent, using ~24 person buses on each side of the ferry. There might be some cheaper alternatives without door-to-door service. Kayaking was with Asia Outdoors, they also do climbing (top rope and deepwater). Definitely recommended, everyone on our boat was happy. Surprisingly, some of the best phở bo we had in Vietnam was right in town at a place called Phở 10, on the north side of Nui Ngoc near the main harbor road. We went there twice so it was no fluke, the beef was excellent. Make sure you get the little donut things to dip in the broth.

Phong Nha: Cooling Off in Caverns

From Huế we traveled north by bus a few hours to Phong Nha, a small riverside town in the hills with an adjacent park by the same name. The park is home to a huge number of limestone caverns including the largest (known) cave in the world, Son Doong. We didn’t have the time or cash to fork over for the several-day excursion into that cave but we did sign up for a 2 day / 1 night trip to a couple of its neighbors (Nước Nứt and Hang Va).

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riverside in Phong Nha town

From what we had read we didn’t expect much of Phong Nha town. The cave tourism thing is a fairly new development with many of the big ones only having been discovered in the past ten years. The town has since been transitioning from quiet village to international destination, usually not something that’s favorable aesthetically and culturally. To our surprise we found it to be very beautiful and relaxing, easy to bike around and enjoy panoramas of karst hills, river, and farmland.

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going for a swim – clean and cool!

Highlights of an afternoon in Phong Nha town included relaxing in a hammock with a beer at Bomb Crater Bar (nicely landscaped around its namesake), watching the sunset on the river, and eating delicious grilled pork and chicken at a smokey local restaurant. I (Gregor) blew my third pair of flipflops here – this is the problem with cheap footwear – leading to watching a mother and two children turn their market stall upside down in search for a matching pair that would fit me well enough.

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lounging at Bomb Crater Bar

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In the morning we met up with our guide Quang and two fellow cavers Natasha and Tarik. We were briefed on gear and itinerary: hike to Nước Nứt, explore after lunch, then off to camp at the entrance of Hang Va which we would see the next day. We were dropped off at a jungle path and took a pretty easy walk to the first cave where we were served a big lunch in the shady, cool, decidedly cave-like entrance.

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view from lunch at the mouth of the cave
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Psyched? Scared? Both?

The cave started off with some large open spaces with big columns and stalactites, and then changed into following an underground stream under and through narrow spaces to a few other huge caverns. It’s an otherworldly experience going deep into these caves: the air is cool and misty, a distinct damp musty smell is pervasive, and all around are bizarre, massive, and delicate formations of rock and mud. Note: it’s hard to take good pictures inside dark caves without the right equipment! We did the best, but we also stuck together 5 minutes of video footage that helps illustrate the experience. It’s also far from pro, but check out the video here!

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Elaine poses with some nice backlighting provided by the guides
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Gregor: cavemaster.

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water flows down shimmering gold-colored deposits

Swimming along the sparkling clear and clean waterways past slabs of granite and hanging limestone was really awesome. Our hike in this cave was about 2 km. Looking at bus-sized chunks of rock that had fallen from high ceilings or boulder piles balanced overhead made it hard not to occasionally worry about being squashed, but given that this changes occur over thousands or millions of years it wasn’t too concerning. Of more practical concern was the regular evidence of flooding: logs and other debris lodged in disturbingly high locations. Flooding is seasonal (we were told).

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a ghostly Elaine emerges after swimming over a long exposure
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It’s hard to get photos of stuff like this, but one of many amazing areas where we went through clear water past amazing rock formations

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we occasionally crossed through huge caverns (photo only shows a corner of this one!)
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scattered throughout are signs that the water level gets much higher than this

Once we were done with the first cave, we hiked to our campsite. When we asked our guide how far the trek was he said “One hour” so we settled into a comfortable pace for about 20 minutes and then we arrived. Huh, guess we were very fast! When we arrived at camp there was another group eating lunch before trekking back out and we were a little mystified because it was around 3:30 and they all looked wiped. We wondered what the next day had in store for us, haha! After dropping our stuff off we descended into the cave for a ‘swim’ before dinner which turned out to be following a granite tunnel (nearly perfectly circular in some places) a ways downstream. Unfortunately we didn’t have the camera for this part but it was really fun!

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trekking through the jungle to Hang Va
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granite and water at the base of Hang Va’s entrance

So we camped in the jungle near Hang Va which was a really cushy experience. The porters took care of absolutely everything and the food was quite nice. After dinner I (Gregor) shared some rice wine with the locals: this entailed sitting in a circle while they passed around an aquafina bottle full of the grappa-like booze, each of them offering a few kind words to me (translated by Quang) before we downed another swallow. These are all folks who used to be farmers and hunters but have transitioned over to tourism as the local economy has changed. They were very friendly – I wish I knew more Vietnamese so I could have held an actual conversation!

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entering Hang Va from near our campsite

The next day we did Hang Va, which required descending into the cave harnessed to some ropes and then heading upstream in the opposite direction of last night’s swim. This cave sports some cool waterfall areas where the water is shooting out of the ceiling above you, as well as some fun scrambling / squeezing sections.

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limestone drooling down through a granite tunnel

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Reaching the top of a multilevel section of Hang Va required some more roped traversing. Up there are some weird soft cone-like structures formed by sediment dripping into still pools. The pools were mostly dry at this time of year so the sight wasn’t at its most spectacular but nonetheless it was super weird and super interesting.

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Both caves at first glance seem quite sterile. The water is clear of any algae or other green stuff (which thankfully means the wet rocks aren’t slippery) and the rock walls look bare. But there’s a decent amount of flora and fauna. Bats of course would circle around us in certain areas. White crickets with huge antennae apparently eat stricken bats that fall to the floor. Weird fungi and even some small white plants grow, and we also saw some spiders (white) and a centipede (white).

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cool fungus growing on an old log
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cave cricket
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fungus along with hanging strands from gooey cave worms to catch insects

A couple times during our treks we turned off all light sources in the caves and just sat there. Not surprisingly, it is totally dark. This is a darker dark, however, than I think I’ve ever experienced before – no stray photon here or there to tickle your eyeball into seeing a spot or two. Just black. (No photos to share of this particular experience).

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climbing back out into daylight

After climbing back up out of Hang Va we had lunch and then hiked out along a different trail. This was a bit more difficult, not only because it was longer but also it had rained the night before which made the roots and rocks on the steep limestone hill quite slippery. We were also hot and a bit tired. We made it though, not without a few stumbles and a bit of excitement involving some leech removal after fording a couple streams.

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Natasha and Tarik on our rainy hike out

We got back to the tour office to clean up – wonderful! – and had a bit of a unique experience. A recent big-budget movie (Kong Skull Island) had filmed in some caves here with the tour company, and the director along with another one of his director buddies (Star Wars Rogue One) and the Vietnamese Tourism Ambassador had returned to visit. This coincided with the 6th anniversary of the tour company, so they wanted to take a group picture, and wanted as many folks in it as possible, so Gregor, Natasha, and Tarik were recruited as extras (sadly Elaine was in the shower). See the photo here: famous folks in the middle, Gregor sticking out in the back.

We spent the night in nearby Đồng Hới where we were to catch a (very cheap, $20!) flight up to Hanoi the next morning. Đồng Hới is a very not-touristy seaside town and unlike much of our trip we really ran into a language barrier and encountered a lot of curious stares. The curious looks peaked when we stopped at a popular looking street place for dinner and ordered soup without having any idea what was in it (the owner held some dark stringy stuff up with her chopsticks by means of asking are you sure you want this? to which we just shrugged and said yes). It turned out to be eel – and very delicious!

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cháo lươn xứ nghệ (eel soup)

Specifics: there are plenty of cheap and survivable guesthouses in Phong Nha, or there are places where you can spend more and like everywhere in Vietnam you get what you pay for. We saw plenty of folks taking just a day trip to Phong Nha from Hue, which is doable but there’s no reason to torture yourself with 8 hours round trip because the town is really nice! Get a bike and ride around. We toured with Oxalis Adventure Tours – they basically have a monopoly on multiday treks to non-touristy caves. It was quite expensive ($350/person) which is more than seemed warranted for 1.5 days of activity despite the high level of service, but still absolutely worth it.

Royally Roasted in Huế, Central Vietnam

“40°C, feels like 48” has become a familiar sight for the weather the past few days. (To save some googling, that’s 104°F on the gauge, 118°F factoring in humidity and zero breeze.) And that’s in the shade – stepping out under sun and clear sky takes it several degrees further. It’s hot, to the point where we’re seriously impressed at the locals who continue to go about their regular business of construction, working over hot coals, or pedaling tourists around on rickshaws.

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A young girl enjoying her iced Vietnamese coffee
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Tiny pineapple shopping
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Hội An sunset on our last night before Huế (note the floating lanterns)
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More Hội An sunset, just because.

Huế has been a bit of a trial and the heat is no small part of that. It’s constraining, exhausting, and tends to amplify difficult situations. We’ve found ourselves spending more than expected, in some cases feeling a bit ripped off and not impressed with what we got in exchange (be it food, admission to a site, or transportation). Of course this is all relative. Folks back home will probably laugh at the idea of being scammed by paying $10 for a meal for two when we expected closer to $4.

In addition, my (Gregor’s) phone decided Huế was the place to keel over and die. This is unfortunate because I was using it quite a lot as a map / camera / translator / notepad / newspaper / tour guide. I actually suspect the aforementioned heat contributed to its demise as I was taking pictures in the sun at the Imperial City. Perhaps it has done me a favor by further separating me from distractions beyond my immediate surroundings… here is its last photograph. RIP.

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A wall of the Thái Bình Lâu Pavilion in the Imperial City, Huế

We traveled by train from Da Nang (near Hội An) up to Huế. I was excited about trying out the train somewhere in our South-North transit of Vietnam and we read that this leg is especially scenic. The train was quite a bit late arriving at the station so we waited for 2.5 hours in the midday heat, passing the time with a couple beers and some cards. We then almost got on the wrong train – fortunately the attendant was paying attention to our tickets! After boarding we sweltered in the crowded car for a while until we got going and the air con kicked in. It wasn’t exactly clean or nice-smelling inside and the coastal views were obscured by passengers lowering the shades to understandably block the sun. So, not the greatest train experience, but we made it to Huế intact.

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When we arrived at the train station we dodged the touts trying to gouge us on a taxi and walked a couple blocks to catch one for a sixth of the price. Then down to the riverfront to catch the sunset, chat with a few local students who wanted to practice their English, and an attempt to find some cheap food at the night market (no success).

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The Perfume River at dusk

Of two full days in Huế we took the first to go see the main sight in the city, the 200-year old Imperial Palace. it’s a large complex of buildings and gardens surrounded by a massive wall and moat where the emperors of Vietnam did their thing. Some of the structures were leveled to their foundations during the war and walls everywhere are pockmarked from the heavy fighting that occurred there. But many buildings and objects remain intact (or have been restored) so we had an interesting if sweaty morning walking around, going from from temples surrounded by gaggles of Vietnamese and Chinese tourists to quiet open boulevards and trees.

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Outside the Imperial City moat: morning group dance!

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Imperial Mum’s garden

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We hit up the day market for lunch. We found a nice place to sit down and try bun bo hue – a local soup variant – which was pretty good, but the canny stall lady snuck in some extras without us realizing and then charged us quite a bit more than we expected. A better food experience was found that evening where we enjoyed skewers of grilled squid and vegetables while watching busy street action from a balcony table.

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Markets here sport a variety of seafood, though not always as artfully arranged
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At the market: dried fish flavor is the thing in many dishes
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Because selecting a rice cooker is a very personal choice

The next day we toured three of the imperial tombs that are scattered on the outskirts of the city. I was originally thinking of biking out to a couple of these but the heat caused us to replan and hire some wheels. This was a good choice – it was already very sunny and steamy when we hit the first site and by the time we finished at 11 it had hit 40°. So we saw three tombs – Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Duc. The first and third are expansive grounds of small buildings and waterways that acted as getaway locations during the emperor’s reign and became tombs afterwards. These were quiet locations with a few buildings each worth seeing. Admission of 100,000VND ($4) each felt a bit pricey.

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Lunching Duck

Khai Dinh’s tomb, however, is quite unique. Dark stairs surrounded by towers and statues lead up to a main structure with a fantastically opulent interior. Apparently the design was inspired by French aesthetic and it indeed felt like we were suddenly in an Asian-styled corner of Versailles. We also learned that this emperor was not exactly a good guy and this added to the otherworldly and slightly ominous feel. Though both smaller and more crowded, we found this visit to be well worth the time and cost.

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View of the tomb and nearby rice fields from the entrance road

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Craziness inside the tomb area!

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we took advantage of the effective house arrest that the midday blaze imposed by working through some trip planning, attempting to resuscitate my phone (fruitlessly), and occasionally venturing out for an iced Vietnamese coffee. Met up with some new friends for dinner – Josh and Liz, who also quit their jobs to travel for a year – and shared some travel suggestions which was great! We leave you on the way to Phong Nha, a national park with jungle and immense cave systems. Expect the next post to be quite different…

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Specifics: we stayed at Hong Thien Ruby Hotel. The room wasn’t especially comfortable but service and breakfast were good, and the location is near many dining options catering to both Westerners and locals (if you look down the side streets). Usually we’d suggest hitting the markets for good, cheap food but in this case skip them and instead find a busy hole in the wall somewhere with the typical tiny plastic chairs. For the Imperial City – apparently they just started opening in the evening as well as daytime during the summer which we did not know about, but some friends said it was great to see lit up in the dark (they also almost were locked in at closing). For touring the tombs we spent 500,000D for a private car but you can actually see more stuff for less if you go on a cheap group tour (we didn’t want to be out that long in the heat).

Delicious Hội An

Hội An is a Vietnamese town on the central coast well known for its historic old town. We got here by flying into Da Nang, a larger and more typical city an hour to the north. We only spent a couple hours in Da Nang transferring our way to Hội An but we got a chance to see the very cool dragon suspension bridge (apparently it lights up at night and sometimes shoots flames, which I’m very sorry to have missed). We also wandered through a fish market and found an excellent lunch at a mall food court. Food courts really are pretty solid around here for clean, delicious food.

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Grabbing a snack (fresh peanuts)

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fresh squid for sale in the Da Nang market

We then got to the guesthouse in Hội An we had booked a couple days before. We were a bit leery of committing for more than a couple nights given the noisy accommodations we had in Đà Lạt but it turns out we couldn’t be happier with this place (and wound up staying 4 nights).  The family that runs it has been immensely friendly and our space is palatial for $15/night. From talking to several other people it sounds like Hội An has tons of great-value comfortable guesthouses of which ours was one. It seems a bit incongruous with the fact that it’s a heavily touristed location – usually that means good values are few and far between – but hey, we’ll take it!

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the town’s riverfront

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Our Hoi An guesthouse

Hội An’s old town is a cute small riverfront of preserved buildings packed with overpriced restaurants, coffeeshops, and an absurd number of tailors. The historic district is closed to vehicles at night to create a walking/cycling area – a refreshing escape from scooter mania. The streets are strung with lanterns that are lit at night and the combined effect with the architecture and swarms of tourists is a mini-French Quarter feel. Adorable wizened ladies hawk floating lanterns (for luck) and younger women who haven’t yet reached this stage push boat rides on the river among said lanterns.

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Scattered around town are a series of historic sites-of-interest to visit. We found these to be all over the scale in terms of how interesting they were – the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall was a favorite, highlighting Chinese influence, while the Tan Ky Old House wasn’t much more than a sales pitch for cheap baubles. Good news is each site is small and within a small area so hit-or-miss doesn’t cost you much.

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Vietnamese food continues to impress here in Hội An. The city has a few dishes that are famously associated with the town and they know it – cao lầu, a pork/noodle/gravy dish, is advertised everywhere, as are white rose dumplings and fried wontons. Mì quảng is another popular dish (peanutty noodle soup with pork) which we had first tried in Đà Lạt. We sampled and enjoyed all of these but we found them surpassed by other delectables…

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Cao lầu for less than $1 in the market building

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Mì quảng and fried wontons

Bánh Mì Phượng of Anthony Bourdain acclaim is supposedly top in the world for the eponymous sandwich and we found no cause to argue. It’s a tiny shopfront cranking out orders rapid-fire and man was it great. We also found the squid here to be incredibly good – it’s fresh caught offshore every night. Once I figured out how tender and delicious it was I couldn’t get enough.

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Busy Bánh Mì Phượng. These folks are all business and business is damn tasty.

New to us here is bia hơi, fresh (as in daily) draft beer that is supposedly common in Vietnam though we couldn’t find it further south. I expect we’ll run into it more as we head towards Hanoi. You get a small glass of light and very flavorful lager for 3,000 to 5,000 dong which is a whopping 13 to 22 cents. Awesome! Restaurants get deliveries in small hand-pumped kegs from a local brewery. No regulations, no shipping, no branding fanfare, just cold and tasty.

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We rented a scooter from our guesthouse and doubled up to take a half-day trip up to the nearby Marble Mountains (you may guess the local industry there), abrupt little hills rising out of the flat coastal area. The heights are dotted with a series of temples and caverns (also temples themselves) that you can climb up to and explore. At some point this apparently became a very popular thing to do as the place was mobbed with package tourists, mostly Chinese. Outdoor speakers pipe in cheesy music and an ugly concrete elevator tower (inexplicably located right next to a pretty pagoda) hauls up group after group. We walked up the stairs instead. Despite these shortcomings it was a worthwhile visit – the large cavern-temple of Huyen Khong was particularly impressive and the there were plenty of picturesque scenes.

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The entrance to Huyen Khong cavern

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Inside the temple-cave

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We felt like getting out on the water and away from crowds and streets so we signed up for a snorkel day out at the nearby Cham Islands. This ended up being great! We went out on a midsize boat serving both divers and snorkelers. Right away we met several friendly and interesting folks from all over (Canada, Belgium, Malaysia…) and we had a good time chatting with them throughout the day. The reefs and marine life were okay and visibility was modest but our expectations were appropriately set ahead of time and we just enjoyed being on+in the water and beach with a good group of people.

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A squid-fishing boat, equipped with nets and racks of lights for attracting them at night

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Our wisecracking friend Nathaniel from Malaysia

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Let’s see, what else? We took in a water-puppet show one evening, this is a traditional art dating back at least a thousand years (according to what I read, anyway) where the farmer’s stage was a flooded rice paddy. It was entertaining, unique, and clever at times, though I can’t say I wished it to go on longer than the half hour it did. We had a lazy last day in town, justifiable because the cloudless sky meant a harshly hot sun. A bit of biking around, more eating, and grabbing some opportunistic photos of local life. Tomorrow we take what is meant to be a rather scenic train ride up to another historic city, Huế. Until next time!

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Asleep on the job at the marketplace. Can’t really blame her, it’s hot

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Specifics: we stayed at Starfruit Homestay Hoi An. Places of course can change over time but as of right now we couldn’t recommend it more. They provided bicycles and scooter so we did everything ourselves except for the boat day-trip which was with Cham Island Diving Center, also recommended. Based on talking to others here there’s no shortage of good accommodation. Driving around here is relatively calm, though not particularly scenic where we went.