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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Vietnam

On a map, Vietnam doesn’t look that big. But when you’re traveling through that country, the hours add up. Not that that’s a bad thing, this country has a lot to offer. We weren’t expecting much, since we heard some bad things from other travelers. But we were very pleasantly surprised! It turned out to be a great time.

This was also the final country in our tour of Southeast Asia. I’m really glad we spent extra time in this region, rather than hurry ourselves through to get to Africa. As it turned out, we didn’t even have time to get to Laos, so I don’t know what we were thinking with our original plans. And we saved a lot of money–so far we’ve spent 64% of our time in Southeast Asia, but it’s only accounted for 35% of the cost of trip. Next up is North Asia, starting with China!

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Strolling down the streets in Hoi An at night.
  2. Hanging out in the park in Saigon.
  3. Riding bikes through Quy Nhon and up to the leper hospital. 

Brad:

  1. Hoi An.
  2. Saigon. For as busy as its streets are, there’s little pollution and its parks are peaceful. We also met some nice people and had our first tastes of delicious Vietnamese food there.
  3. Quy Nhon. The Leper Hospital beach was quiet and so worth biking over the gigantic hill.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. The DMZ tour. It sounded like more fun than it actually was.
  2. Getting caught in bad weather in Hanoi.
  3. Using what I can only describe as female urinals. They’re not even squat toilets, they’re just stalls (sometimes without doors) with two cinder blocks that you stand on and pee on the floor. To “flush,” you splash a cup of water on the floor. Smelled pretty bad in there.

Brad:

  1. DMZ Tour. It was a very long day of sitting on a bus, and we didn’t have much time to see the sights. Also, 35 years changes things a lot, and there wasn’t a lot to see at most of the historically-significant sites.
  2. Hanoi. The Old Quarter is very noisy, cramped, and dirty. The weather wasn’t great while we were here either.
  3. Being sick in Dalat. From the little we saw, it looked very nice, but between a fever and some weird stomach pain I definitely wasn’t up for much exploration.

Best meal?

Nikki: It wasn’t especially Vietnamese, but Brad’s seafood noodle dish in Quy Nhon was definitely the best. The squid was just incredible, it must have come straight from the sea. As far as Vietnamese dishes, I still really love phở.

Brad: The phở on our first night in Saigon. We might have had better, but this one stands out in my memory.

Worst meal?

Nikki: The Japanese pancake I ordered in a food court in Danang. It looked and smelled so good, but ended up being really gross. Not even sure what was in it, but whatever it was, I didn’t like it.

Brad: A cheeseburger I had in Hanoi one night. It was tiny (for the price) and pretty boring. Nikki’s dinner that night looked so good.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Has to be little Adam from Saigon.

Brad: Adam in Saigon. So full of energy, talkative, and incredibly smart for his age. He was such a joy talking to.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: Our Halong Bay tour getting canceled was pretty inconvenient and very disappointing. Oh well, maybe next time.

Brad: The Halong Bay cruise getting canceled. I suppose it was for the better, because even if the boat actually cruised we wouldn’t have seen anything, but it was too bad.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The Spark Hotel in Hanoi was very modern and comfortable, with wood floors, windows that actually looked out at the street, a flat screen TV, and a big bed. It even had a separate shower stall!

Brad: Les Sapins 60 hotel in Dalat. With soft beds, a huge area, and a nice bathroom, it was a fine place to be holed up sick. And they had really good breakfast for a great price.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The Bao Son Hotel in Hue ended up being a nightmare. We had a room on the 5th floor and we constantly had to hike up and down the steps to tell the owners about problems. First the balcony door wasn’t locking, then the front door wasn’t shutting, then the front door wasn’t locking, then the key actually broke in the doorknob. Really way more trouble than it was worth.

Brad: A hotel in Hue, where we had repeated incidents with locks. The patio door didn’t lock, then the front door didn’t, so we switched rooms. Then on the last night the key broke inside the other room’s door, and we had to get a spare! Bad luck with the locks at that place.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Eating and walking in Danang. Danang is one of those places that doesn’t have much to see, but because of that there’s no tourists and you can walk around without the constant hassle of touts and scammers.

Brad: In Nha Trang, when we got a drink at a bar called “Booze Cruise.” They had a live band playing really good rock classics, and we watched highlights from the last Olympics on the TV.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: Instead of beeping, some cars play a medley of Christmas music when they reverse.

Brad: Where do I start?

  • When cars are backing up, they often play Christmas music instead of beeping. It’s mid-March.
  • Vietnam’s obsession with blinking LED displays, flashing neon signs, and cheesy blinking halos on Buddha and Jesus statues.
  • The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi. It was less an informative experience and more a postmodern multimedia oddity. What does Guernica have to do with Vietnam? Nothing, but they have an exhibit for that. A cave hideout reimagined as the inside of Ho Chi Minh’s brain? I don’t get it.

Statistics for Vietnam

  • Days in the country: 23
  • Places we stayed: 9
  • Rainy days: 2
  • Blog posts: 4
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 2
  • Photos taken: 901
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 240, 27% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 1
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 67
  • Overnight buses and trains: 2
  • Motorbike crashes witnessed: 3

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 8
  • Days on the road: 207
  • Places we stayed: 96
  • Rainy days: 32
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 12
  • Photos taken: 7558
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 1766, 23% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 8
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 254
  • Overnight buses, trains, and planes: 7

North Vietnam

Once again I find that my opinions are very different from everyone else’s. The Lonely Planet says, “The grand old dame of the orient, Hanoi is perhaps the most graceful, atmospheric and exotic capital city in Asia.” I keep thinking we must have missed something, because I didn’t think it was that great. We did have horrible weather while we were there, so maybe we did miss something. But from what I saw, the historic section of the city, the Old Quarter, didn’t seem charming, just crowded, claustrophobic, and noisy. The sights we did make it to, like the Temple of Literature, weren’t all that beautiful and interesting. And the people were more rude than in other cities.

But that being said, I did still enjoy Hanoi. The buses made it easy and cheap to get around. Hoan Kiem Lake is a pleasant area to walk around (even if we didn’t see any tortoises). The Ho Chi Minh Museum was definitely worth seeing. It started out like a normal museum, with newspaper articles about Uncle Ho and his background. Then when we got up to the second floor, it turned into a series of weird, surrealist art that seemed to have nothing to do with him. It was all very entertaining, but I still know very little about Vietnam’s national hero.

Another thing I really liked about Hanoi, and really all Asian cities, is the street culture. I remember one of my history teachers once saying that in America, the streets don’t belong to the people. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about, but now I get it. Here, the streets do belong to the people. When they want to eat, drink, shop, or socialize, they go out to the streets. Food stalls and makeshift coffee shops set up right on the sidewalk, next to the parked motorbikes. I love seeing the old men sitting on tiny plastic stools, drinking beer, and playing Chinese chess. It just seems so much more connected than we are back home. The neighborhood feels more like a community.

After Hanoi, we were planning on doing a two day, one night boat tour of Halong Bay, but the tour was cancelled because of bad weather. Luckily we had booked with a reputable tour company, Vega Travel, and they were very honest with us about our options, saying we could go with another operator that was still going or just get our money back. I’m pretty sure a lot of other travel agents would have just stuck us on an inferior boat and kept the money. We had already booked a train ticket to Sapa for Saturday night, but we were able to change it to Friday night.

Now we’re freezing in Sapa! The internet is telling me the low was 63 last night, but I find that really hard to believe. We could see our breath! I’m wearing all the layers I have and I still just want to huddle under the blankets all day. I’m afraid that after four months in Southeast Asia, we’ve turned into those Florida people that need a winter jacket when it’s 60 degrees. I actually was looking at fake North Face winter coats yesterday.

Anyway, Sapa is a very nice town. It’s surrounded by green rice terraces and mountains, although fog is ruining our views. We went on a couple of hikes and took in what we could of the gorgeous scenery. There are also many minority hill-tribe people living here. Normally I’m not into the whole hill-tribe tourism thing, but it has been interesting to see the people here. I really like their unique and colorful clothes. (I could do without their constant sales pitches, though.) We also saw a very entertaining traditional dance show. I’m sure this would be an incredible destination, if it weren’t for the cold and fog.

So here we are, trying to stay warm and preparing for our next big challenge: China!

Hue and the DMZ

In Hue we decided to take an organized tour of the DMZ. To be honest, I hardly know anything about the Vietnam War and I’m not very interested in it, but those seemed like good reasons to take the tour. It sounded like a great learning opportunity. (Scary fact: In my 17 years of schooling, I never had a single lesson about the Vietnam War.) And we hate tour groups, but the sites are so far apart, it would have been difficult to go on our own.

The bus picked us up before sunrise and took us to our first stop, the Vinh Moc tunnels. In response to constant American bombing, many villages built elaborate, hidden tunnel systems and carried on with their lives underground. The Vinh Moc tunnels took about a year to build and really are cool to see. They’ve redone the entrances and added electric lights, but besides that, the tunnels are about the same as they were in the 60′s. While not exactly roomy, they are larger than I was expecting. The taller people in our group had a hard time, but I could walk upright in most of the tunnels. Still, it’s hard to imagine living there for years.

After we visited the tunnels, our tour went downhill quickly. The bus broke down, so we spent about an hour waiting around while the driver worked on it. We eventually started off again, though I’m not sure if he ever actually fixed the problem, because whenever the bus stopped, it would die. This led to some interesting driving (even more interesting than normal). We spent hours sitting on the bus between tour sites. Whenever we did stop and get off the bus, it was usually just so the guide could point at some field and say, “This used to be such-and-such base.” There were a few tanks and helicopters at Khe Sanh, but nothing left of the actual base. So overall I would say, unless you’re extremely interested in the war, skip the DMZ tour and just go to the tunnels.

The next day we visited the citadels of Hue, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex was built in the early 1800′s when Hue was the capital of Vietnam. Sadly, most of the buildings were destroyed in wars, but it was still fun to look around at what’s left. It was very peaceful and quiet inside the Inner City, a great retreat from the busy modern city right outside the gates. Apparently the Emperor’s Tombs are also very cool, but at that point we didn’t have the time or energy to go look at them. (Our DMZ tour the previous day ended up taking 13 hours.)

That night we took the overnight train to Hanoi. It was our first ride in a train sleeper car, a big milestone in our backpacking careers. I really enjoy traveling by train, which is good, because we’ve got some long train rides ahead of us.

Vietnam

We are having so much fun in Vietnam! I know I???ve gotten quite behind in my updates, mostly because we???ve been spending a lot of time on buses (Vietnam???s a lot bigger than the map makes it seem!), but also because we???ve just been having a good time. The food here is great. I might actually like it more than Thai food, though that???s a tough decision to make. One of the most popular and delicious dishes in Vietnam is ph???, noodle soup with different types of meat, veggies, and spices in it. Another good one is banh khoai, crepes filled with pork and bean sprouts then wrapped up in rice paper with vegetables and dunked in a spicy sauce. Really, almost all of our meals have been great. And bread is still available everywhere!

After Saigon we went to Dalat, “Le Petit Paris.” Dalat is in the central highlands, so it???s nice and cool all year round. Brad wasn???t feeling well there, so we didn???t do a whole lot, but we did make it to the Crazy House, an Alice in Wonderland type place very reminiscent of Antoni Gaud?? architecture. Some lady with a PhD in architecture designed the house and it???s being expanded with even stranger looking additions. It was a fun place to poke around in and gawk at for a while.

Next we went to Nha Trang, the beach resort capital of Vietnam, though it didn???t seem that crazy and built up to me (at least in comparison to, say, Kuta or Phuket). The beach itself isn???t quite up to Thailand???s standards, but it???s still pretty and has walking paths and parks along most of it. There was also a microbrewery in town, so we enjoyed a good, dark lager for the first time in months.

Then we stopped in Quy Nhon, which is a bit up the coast, but not very popular with tourists. Since it???s not touristy, the locals were really friendly and there weren???t any touts, so we could just wander around and watch daily life. One day we rented bikes and rode to the Cham ruins in town, then up to the leper hospital. I know, a leper hospital doesn???t sound like fun, but it???s actually really nice (more like a resort than a hospital, I???d say), and, more importantly, they allow tourists to use its peaceful stretch of beach. The waves looked pretty intimidating so we didn???t swim, we just sat in hammocks and reminisced about the early parts of our trip.

And finally we made it Hoi An, one of the best places I???ve ever been. It???s a really charming, picturesque historical town on a river. Most of the Chinese buildings were built in the 18th century, but they???ve been restored and are in great condition. It???s a World Heritage Site and quite a bit like Penang, except better. We took tours of the inside of some of the buildings, which are made out of beautiful dark wood and incorporate Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese architectural elements, but we mostly just strolled down the streets and browsed in all the little tourist shops. Tailors are the big specialty in Hoi An and each street has dozens of them. We thought about popping in one and getting something made up because it???s so cheap (an entire custom men???s suit costs around $150), but decided not to waste our money on it. At night, the town is lit up with colored lanterns hanging from the roofs and across the streets. There are also tons of fun restaurants and bars. I know this sounds stupid, but Hoi An is really just magical. I???ll admit the classical music playing in the historical quarter is cheesy, but besides that, I loved everything about it. Such a great place!

I suppose I???ll end here, although I could say more about Vietnam. This country has turned into the biggest surprise of our trip. I???d heard such horrible things about it, I really wasn???t expecting to like it much. Those good surprises are one of my favorite parts about traveling. I just hope the rest of the country can live up to the awesome first couple of weeks!

We’re Halfway There

Hard to believe, but our trip is now halfway over. I guess in a way it’s not too hard to believe. It seems like we’ve been gone a long time. But on the other hand, time has moved very quickly and it seems like we’ll be home before we know it.?? The good news is that we’re still on track to end our trip in Oktoberfest, assuming everything continues to go as planned. We’ve scaled back quite a bit from our original plans. Africa has been cut entirely, along with some of Europe. We just don’t have enough time or money to do all of that. (And besides, we have to save something for the next trip!) What we’re planning now is still fairly ambitious (at least ten more countries), but much more practical.

You might be wondering if we’re still enjoying life on the road. Six and a half months is a long time, after all, but the answer is yes, we still like it. Or, to be more specific, it depends on where we are and what we’re doing. Our lives aren’t nearly as glamorous and exciting as you may think. If we take an uncomfortable eight hour bus ride to a boring town and get sick in some dingy hotel room, we’re both going to be miserable. When we’re seeing beautiful, interesting places and meeting fun people, life couldn’t be better. Most of the things that I was worried about before we left, like constantly moving from place to place or wearing the same clothes every day, just aren’t an issue. On the contrary, I tend to get bored and anxious to move on when we’re in the same city for more than a few days. And who cares about clothes?

Of all our problems, homesickness is the most obvious one and yes, there are times when I just want to be at the Old Fashioned with my friends and family, but the internet makes home seem much closer. Sometimes I get really sad when we meet someone cool and just have to say goodbye two hours later. On the other hand, sometimes we meet obnoxious backpackers that we can’t stand to be around. (This is one reason we tend to avoid whatever local backpacker “scene” is around.) But those aren’t serious problems. The real problems are more profound and troubling, especially because there are no easy answers. Life is tough in the developing world. You can try to brace yourself for it before you leave, but it’s hard to prepare for how you’ll feel when you see a homeless, barefoot woman digging through the trash with her children. Or a dog as road kill in the gutter. Or the horrific results of war, some of which your home country was involved in. I mean, what do you say to that? Nothing. You really can’t say anything.

And I’m sure you’re wondering how Brad and I get along when we’re together almost 24-7. Luckily, we still have fun together and enjoy each other’s company. We do drive each other nuts, of course, but probably not as frequently as you would think. I’d say the key is to have a short memory. Usually when we argue it’s because we’re in a frustrating situation, not because we’re actually mad at each other. Once the situation is resolved, we’re back to our regular, nauseating, Gooseyllamabear selves.

When October rolls around, it will be nice to return home, but I’m certainly not in any hurry. For now, I just want to continue to experience everything vagabonding has to offer, both the good and the bad.