Highlights: Vietnam


The first cup of coffee in Pleiku: We already mentioned this one, but it was a highlight so it's here. It was our introduction to Vietnamese coffee - robusta beans brewed almost like an espresso, so strong it leaves a yellow glaze on the cup, topped with sweetened condensed milk. "Chut-Chut" is key when ordering, as it means you'll only get a thin layer of sweet on the bottom of the glass, not the standard OD amount. Cooler weather and grey skies: Call us crazy but we're both more cold weather types than warm so stepping out of the Thai and Cambodian heat for a bit was a welcome relief. By the time we reached New Year's in no-heaters-Hanoi we were well chilled (stupidly having left our jackets in Bangkok) and realized that it was actually warmer outside than in. Perhaps just because of the exhaust fumes?

The rolling hills around Pleiku: Beautiful lush countryside. Who could complain?

Kayaking around Cat Ba: Beautiful unique sea mountain terrain. Who could complain?

Walking in Hanoi: We're walking explorers to the core and Hanoi's dense center brought us back into our element. It's just impossible to get the same experience in any kind of vehicle as on foot.

20 minutes on a moto to the bus station in Hanoi: ...and similarly, it's impossible to get this particular kind of experience any other way. (Moms and Pops, stop reading) We and our baggage clinging to the back of two motos through evening rush hour: navigating either or both sides of the road, around trucks, against on-coming traffic, stuck in packs of hundreds of other motos, red lights, green lights, 40kmh, 10kmh, 60kmh, brake, accelerate, arrive. Amazing.

Ban Beo in Quy Nhon and Hoi An: Technically this is a specialty dish from Hue but our experiences not only in its presentation and taste made the Quy Nhon and Hoi An versions far more memorable. Almost more importantly than the taste, even, were our surroundings for these two - wonderful people serving and, in Hoi An at least, great company taking us to the best local haunt and sharing dinner with us.

Custom tailored clothes: Take out the awesome ladies we went to to have the clothes made and it's still a highlight. Getting measured, going back for a fitting and coming out the other side with exactly what we wanted (yes, I really DO want orange thread as a highlight in the lining of my suit) was an experience we've never had, nor are likely to have again anytime soon.


Vietnam Women's Museum & Vietnam Fine Arts Museum: We covered this in the Hanoi post, but both were certainly highlights.

All of the food in Hanoi: Covered in full.

Good humor: We heard all sorts of mixed reports (from home, from other travelers, and even from our Cambodian guesthouse owner) about the Vietnamese demeanor. Everyone (read: the overwhelming minority) that said we would find smiles, a good sense of humor, and a warm, friendly welcome was completely right on.

Our Pho friend in Dien Bien Phu: Have we mentioned the smiles and good sense of humor yet?

Cong Cafe: Vietnam started with coffee in Pleiku and ended with coffee in Hanoi. For a former tea shop and self professed "not really a coffee drinker" to be writing this with excitement is a bit of a statement in itself. The coffee at Cong was excellent though the reason it gets mention here is for its ambience - i.e. it had one AND it was excellently designed - and their version of Vietnamese coffee with slightly sweetened yogurt. We failed at acquiring the name of this strange sounding (though delicious) beverage but will be eager to recreate it in the future.

A Very Cat Ba Christmas

The xe om ride to the Hue train station marked the beginning of a continuous twenty hour period of travel, in which we utilized six different modes of transportation. It's true - the overnight extravaganza from Hue to Cat Ba city took us by: moto --> 12 hour train --> taxi --> bus --> minibus --> speedboat --> minibus

We would have felt more like James Bond had we not endured half hour intervals of awaiting the train or bus here and there. Or perhaps if some paragliding or jumping off of a helicopter was involved. Alas, we made it to Cat Ba on Christmas eve, snagged simple accommodations with a fantastic view of the harbor and took in the overall quietness of the island. There is something about Cat Ba city, a friend recently mentioned, that feels like a small Florida beach town. It happens to be pock-marked by women selling strings of "pearls" and tiny shells shamed into the likeness of owls or similar oddities. There is the inevitable food mark up, and a small but pervasively growing skyline of bright, skinny and awkwardly tall guesthouses. However, there is also - everywhere outside the town itself - the beauty of the simple island and surrounding bays. While we were there, it seemed that half of the businesses were closed up for the chilly season and we couldn't have been happier with this. Happy low-key holidays to us.

For Christmas day itself, we decided to rent a moto and zip around the island, exploring, stopping for prettiness and enjoying the practically vehicle-free roads (a real gem of an oddity in Southeast Asia). We did exactly this, but it was intervals of zip inside of relaxing cruising, as the island itself is quite small and we would have been all done by noon had we zipped entirely. There are just a few roads that lead over to one port, past some caves and the national park, or along the coast. We made it to the north side of the island and parked the bike just in time to watch a young man's moto tip over under the weight of that mornings sea harvest. Thanks to Eli, he got it balanced again and was able to take off without anything collapsing. Since we didn't spy him on the road back, we assume all went reasonably well. The dock where that mini-drama unfolded was the point of a fairly picturesque and standard view of the magical bay from shore. Small basket boats with lacquered bottoms were rowed by little women in big hats, large boats lazily made their way somewhere, and the undulating hills of the islands in the distance faded gradually to a misty grey. Everything from the barnacles on the boat ramp to the silence was enthralling for more than a few moments.


On the ride home later in the day, we stopped at a stalactite cave where a ten year old boy was our guide, armed with two clunky torches and no fear of the dark. Pitch black, warm and filled with bats it was, well, a cave. Yet, still fun to romp around with a sweet little friend for ten minutes - and a real roadside attraction steal a little more than $2 for the two of us.


The views from every angle and shore are basically full of local fishermen (or fisherwomen, hosting small children in their boats), folks combing for crabs, oysters or mussels in the low-tides and various goodies drying out in the late afternoon sun. All accompanied by incredible quiet.


The next day was the real adventure treat we gave ourselves for the holiday. An all day excursion into Lan Ha bay, the morning and afternoon full of sea kayaking and lunch on the boat. Others in the group did the same or spent the day rock climbing, as this is the main place for that in Vietnam - in better weather you can even deep solo, which is to climb up a cliff and jump into the sea! Neither of us has ever sea kayaked, though it was fairly similar to a lake, as the bay itself is incredibly calm aside from the ripples created by the larger tour boats or liners sweeping by from time to time. We were set on exploring a cave, but were only able to find some coves. Not a problem, since the coves were possibly more interesting - the ecosystem inside was lush, host to tropical birds and protected from the lives and happenings outside the arches. Amazingly, there are many small floating houses and fishing set-ups throughout most of the bay and along the edge of the islands. Guard dogs, surprisingly, abound on these floating villages and hearing barking while floating mid-sea with nothing but water and sheer cliffs rising above you is mildly surreal. Equally so is the fact that these folks, mainly men, live and work out here for weeks or months at a time, as we gathered from our Vietnamese guide. To have the open space around you be a deep void of water must be a strange mix of freedom and half-imprisonment. At least, that is how I felt viewing it all.



Some chilly beach trips, relaxed town market excursions and a hotpot experience rounded our island adventuring out. As per the recommendation of the organization we went kayaking with, we got our hotpot on at Mr. Zoom's, an unassuming place under some tarps in a row of Com-Pho-Thit Cho (rice-pho-dog meat, no kidding) restaurants on a back street in town. A good sign of freshness is when your shrimp leaps off the table behind you and is found later under foot - which is exactly what happened to Eli. Luckily, a kind woman gave us a brief lesson on appropriate hot pot orderliness and behavior, or else we would have been a hot mess. (sorry, I couldn't resist)


Though we were tempted to stay a few more days and enjoy more of the pace, the ebb and flow, and quiet, we departed towards Hanoi a few days before the new year in hopes of wrangling a sense of the city prior to any wild celebrations. The same transportation hustle, minus the train, ferried us towards the capital with relative seamlessness. The complexities of reaching and leaving Cat Ba only add to its being a special place to spend some time, a reward at the end of the game and a token to keep close when things seem all too accessible.