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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 47-48: central vietnam

cat ba island


bill: south of hanoi there are thousands and thousands of limestone islands scattered across ha long bay and lan ha bay, essentially karsts flooded by the sea. insanely majestic. a must see in vietnam. we heard from others that ha long bay was a tourist disaster but cat ba island on lan ha bay was relatively quieter, so we got on a gruelling 16-hour trip of overnight busses, boats, and more busses from way up north in ha giang down to cat ba.



Amy: Ha Long Bay is Vietnam’s number one tourist destination, and for good reason. Tiny islands, secluded coves, wave-eroded grottos and secret white sand beaches make it a vision of ethereal beauty. But it also means the area is packed with boatloads of tourists, vying for the perfect sunset photo-op. Cat Ba is the largest island in the area, and is supposed to be a less-touristy, more adventurous alternative to Ha Long Bay. When we arrived, we were surprised to see that Cat Ba Town had hundreds of high rise hotels and resorts and touristy restaurants along the main drag. Not what we were expecting. Thankfully, a quick 10-minute walk took us out of town to a handful of beaches overlooking dozens of islands in the bay.


cat ba town



bill: unfortunately the first few days here we were met with overcast and cold; like 14c, which is basically freezing in vietnam. we killed some time around the island while we waited for the weather to start to improve. one thing i will say about cat ba is that the food is horrible. this is an island almost exclusively visited by tourists and so there is no accountability from locals to keep the food standards high. we had the worst version of every vietnamese food we tried here.



Amy: We decided to wait for the sun to come out before booking a boat tour of the bay, so for the first few days, we explored the island’s jungles, beaches and rocky coastline. Half of the island is a designated National Park, so we rented a scooter and drove about 20 minutes down winding roads into the heart of the park. 


ngu lam peak



bill: we started with a hike to the top of dinh ngu lam, a popular peak that provides vistas of the area stretching across the island and out to the sea. pretty cool but very sweaty hiking in the jungle. we also stopped at the trung trang cave, which essentially involves a short hike that leads into the cave, which then just keeps going, and going, and going, deeper and deeper into the belly of the mountain with no indication of when or where you will come out the other side. there is nobody else around. the air is hot, damp, silent, and stagnant. the cave is at times very claustrophic, i hit my head about 4 times. every time you think you see daylight on the other side, it turns out to be a slightly whiter lightbulb around a corner that leads you deeper into the cave. i did not like this very much at all. it probably takes about 30 minutes to get to the other side if you are walking at a fast, not-quite-panicked-but-wondering-where-the-exit-is pace. very impressive if you are into caves i guess.




Amy: Vietnam has some of the largest cave networks in the world. A combination of ancient limestone deposits and heavy rains create the perfect conditions for cave formation. Apparently there are hundreds of kilometres of cave routes you can explore across Vietnam. You can do multi-day backpacking trips solely underground, without ever seeing the light of day. Hard nope. Interestingly, many of these hidden cave systems were used by the Vietnamese during the American War. We stopped to tour Hospital Cave, a huge cavern that was transformed into a 3-story secret bomb proof hospital, complete with operating rooms and a kitchen.


slightly whiter lightbulb, life


bill: one thing we have noticed in our time in the national park and on the beaches of cat ba is the lack of wildlife. the forest is silent. the beaches are devoid of obnoxious sea birds. it turns out that they all got eaten. there is a heavy, heavy appetite for meat in vietnam. thousands of years of oppression and a culinary tradition based mainly on survival and subsistence has lead that appetite for meat to be about as broad as it is deep. basically, if it has meat on it, it can be eaten. in ha giang i saw piles of 40-50 bbq'd songbirds barely bigger than a chickadee. the monkeys that used to inhabit this island have been hunted to all but extinction. there are almost no birds in the sky. there are many places in hanoi that serve dog, cat, and rat meats. as a vegetarian this is troubling, but a reality of a culinary culture born out of centuries of doing whatever it takes to put food on the table for your kids. that and rice.


you can eat horseshoe crab on cat ba island - the only edible part is the roe, which is said to taste "like burnt rubber", and "is more likely to give you food poisoning than not". hmm.




bánh xèo - vietnamese pancakes; banh (pronounced "bang") translates literally as "bread" but is used as a descriptor a huge variety of generally bread-y things ranging from literal bread to not bread at all - banh mi (sandwich bread), pancakes (sizzling bread), deserts (pudding bread), soup (noodle bread), hand soap (soap bread), tobacco (pipe tobacco bread), car wheels (car bread). it's all bánh.



Amy: Cat Ba is also one of the world’s premier deep water solo climbing destinations (climbing over water with no rope). Every island is a rocky playground of sheer limestone cliffs, weathered and pockmarked with hundreds of handholds. I am very scared of cliff jumping (the second half of deep water solo-ing is jumping down into the water), but we had to give this sport a try while we were here. Time for some exposure therapy to conquer my fears! We went out on a boat with about six other climbers to a remote part of the bay. We started small and easy, and gradually climbed harder and higher. After about 5 or 6 routes each we were pretty cold and tired (the water was warm, but the air was cold and it was still cloudy!).


a wild amy in her nest



bill: the limestone is very cool rock to climb, with all kinds of abnormal formations like tuffas, jugs, and pinches, and is also very sharp. the routes essentially climb as high as you want, considering how comfortable you feel jumping back down. we did a bunch of routes in the 5.10 range that were super fun, overhung, burly and bouldery, but with lots of excellent jugs you would never find on granite. very fun. amy is always scared of jumping off of even the lowest cliffs but she did super well at jumping from around 30 feet up! as the day goes on it gets more psychologically challenging as the tide drops and you have to climb onto the roof of the boat to start the route, and by the time the boat pulls away and you even start climbing you are already 10 feet off the water. overall, very cool experience.


amy concerned about making her first jump


Amy: The next day the sun finally came out! Time to get on the water. We signed up for a full day boat tour of Lan Ha and Ha Long Bay. We joined about 30 other folks on a small boat with a big sun deck and lounge chairs on top. We cruised between the islands, drank beers, and jumped off the boat to swim on secluded beaches.  Halfway through the day, we all loaded into kayaks, paddled through caves and explored remote shimmering lagoons. It was very touristy, and quite chaotic (there was a massive kayak traffic jam in one of the caves), but a must-do to actually get out and experience the inlets and islands of the bay up close. Good day.



lol @ bill's hoverhand



floating fishing villages



temple



bill: we are staring to feel very tired. it may be the low level food poisoning that we have both had for a week now, or the colds that we are both coming down with, but there is also something about the sheer chaos that is vietnam that is leaving us both feeling pretty exhausted. the streets are so hectic, there is constant honking, music, lights, yelling, only like 70% of doors in this country close and even fewer lock. every decision takes such a large amount of research. the sisyphian task of keeping amy fed when that we no longer live with a kitchen with us everywhere we go is extremely draining because three times a day we need to figure out where we are going to eat. weird thing to complain about, i know, but there is a huge range in restaurants here from definite food poisoning to less likely food poisoning and every choice requires careful deliberation. there are hundreds of homestays, hostels, and hotels everywhere we go, but the range from cockroach infested, unclean sheets, no real lock on the plywood door to clean, new, western style hotel is huge and it takes a lot of sorting through reviews to figure out which is which. we left our first hotel in cat ba due to massive 3 inch cockroaches and booked into a much nicer but more expensive place for a few days. we had lots of plans, but we have decided to take a bit of a break and just chill for a few days in the relative luxury of this western style hotel room, rest and recuperate from our various ailments, even if it means skipping southern vietnam. after a few days here we were watching tv on my laptop when about 400 miniature ants crawled out of my computer onto the bed. that is just a reality of living the jungle i guess. pure chaos. jumanji.




bill: speaking of exhaustion, vietnamese people work like crazy. stores seem to be constantly open, early morning to middle of the night, people are always shouting at you trying to get you to take their cab, or trying to sell you trinkets, sandals, or food, even just driving down the street people will run out into the street and stop you to try to get you to book a night in their homestay or book a boat tour. the grind is real. the average vietnamese person works about 50% more hours than the average canadian, and about twice as many hours per year as the german and dutch tourists that flood the area. despite this, even with the cheap (to us) costs of food/transportation/housing etc, vietnam is still a very poor country in terms of personal income compared to cost of living. people here apparently take about 3 holiday days per year. many people work straight through the weekend. bootstraps indeed.






goodbye cat ba island


ninh binh


bill: south of hanoi is a district called ninh binh (pronounced "ning bing"), often described as "inland ha long bay" because of the towering limestone karsts that wrap around the braided rivers. we spent a few days here and are very glad we came.


Amy: Many locals recommended we visit Ninh Binh because it's where they filmed the last King Kong movie. The landscape did not disappoint. We stayed at a lovely hostel tucked away in the rural countryside, right next to a winding river.


view from our hostel on the river


lotus flower fields


it is very beautiful here, flooded rice fields, karsts, river boats


bill: it is extremely peaceful out in the countryside and the scenery feels much more up close and personal than in ha long bay, even the bungalow we rented had a 60m cliff behind it. cool place, pretty mellow. reminds us a little bit of rural mexico.


hang mua


Amy: Our first evening, we rented a motorbike and zipped over to hike Hang Mua peak for the sunset. It was a short but steep trek up about 500 stone steps. From the top, we had an amazing view of the Tam Coc valley and a patchwork quilt of green rice fields flooded by the meandering river. We found a quiet nook to enjoy the sunset together.





bai dinh pagoda complex


Amy: The following day, we explored the Bai Dinh Pagoda. We didn't realize how massive the complex was until we were directed onto a golf cart to take us to the entrance. Apparently it's the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia! We started by walking up a hall lined with 500 Buddha statues. Each had a unique pose and facial expression. The hall seemed to go on and on (and up MANY steps). It eventually led to a series of temples with massive gold buddhas. We ended up at the base of a 13-story watchtower, aka stupa. We climbed to the top and got a great view of the Ninh Binh countryside from above.



rock on, brother






stupa



Amy: We were told that some of the best views in this area are only accessible by boat, so we ended our day with a tour of Trang An. We hopped in a wooden paddleboat and a local guide paddled us down the winding river, stopping to let us explore a few temples along the way. Part of the journey took us through a 1km long cave! Very cool. This was a quiet, peaceful getaway from the busy temples.


there are like 6 people per boat and they make these tiny little 75 year old ladies paddle them around all day long, probably a hundred kilometres a day. i felt so bad sitting there letting a 75 year old lady paddle my lazy ass around that i grabbed a paddle and tried to help, probably making her life more difficult in the process


this was extremely cool, the river runs under the mountains through a cave for a full kilometre



mattresses are always super firm in vietnam, which i guess is a holdover from what beds used to consist of - a solid piece of wood. this is the "nice bed" that you would save for your grandparents


Amy: Our final stop in Ninh Binh was Hoa Lu - Vietnam's first capital city dating back to the 10th century. We wandered around the temples, gardens and courtyards, then headed back to our hostel to pack up and head south. Onwards to Hoi An!




hoi an


bill: our last stop in vietnam. we had originally intended on going all the way south to ho chi minh city, but we only have 3 weeks in vietnam and didn't really account for how big this country is. hoi an is about a 16 hour train ride from ninh binh, and ho chi minh would be another 16 hours, so we decided to slow down a bit and enjoy the places we were staying a little more instead of spending all of our time on busses, planes, and trains.



Amy: We had also decided to slow our pace down and delay our journey southward because central Vietnam was experiencing pretty severe flooding. Just a few days before we arrived, the streets of Hoi An were completely under water. Apparently flooding like this happens a few times every year. Thankfully, by the time we arrived, the floodwaters had receded. Wandering around, we were enraptured by the charm and romanticism of Hoi An. The pace is slower. It's old and quaint. Lanterns are strung over every street. There are endless coffee shops and cute restaurants. And when you're standing on the riverside watching the boats float by, it feels like you're in Venice.




bill: hoi an is lovely. a much smaller city, sort of a sister city of da nang, it is so much more chill and manageable. it is right between the beach and the river and is known as "the city of lanterns". there are thousands of lanterns all over the streets here that light the whole town up every night. there is far less chaos here than hanoi. you can mostly walk on the sidewalks. the driving in hoi an is a lot better, but still fairly insane, it is still vietnam after all. hoi an basically smells like mould everywhere in the old town - the river in the middle of town floods so regularly that it is not even a big deal, people just move all their stuff upstairs and go about their day in the knee deep water.



bill: when i envisioned this trip, i imagined buying a motorcycle when we landed in hanoi and driving it all the way through vietnam, cambodia, and thailand. this turned out to be impossible for a number of reasons, one being the distances involved would require a lot longer of a trip, but another being that a foreigner with a bike bought in vietnam can't cross the border into thailand; non-residents can't own motorcycles in thailand. so we scrapped the motorcycle trip idea and settled on renting bikes or scooters wherever we went, which is working out pretty well - the only place i will never drive is hanoi.


marketplace


bill: the scooter however is not my preferred method of transportation. they are all small, usually about 100cc. they do not go fast. in vietnam they are almost always in such a severe state of disrepair it makes my bike look like a showroom model (my bike is currently mostly held together by zip ties). the seat slopes forward and so you are always sliding off. you are lucky if both of the brakes work. none of them have a clutch, but some are still semi-automatic, so you still have to shift but can't do it smoothly, which makes for extremely jerky driving. on the automatics, the drive is smoother, but you can't engine break. they are still more fun than driving a car though.


chinese temple


Amy: Hoi An used to be a major port town. Many merchants from around the world immigrated here, bringing not only their wares, but their cultures. There is noticeable influence from Chinese, Japanese and European settlers in the architecture of the old town. We explored these boroughs during a free walking tour - our favourite city pastime! Our tour guide also took us into the food markets, where we tried many local treats. One thing that's shocked me over here: the sheer number of tropical fruits I did not know existed. Longan berries. Mangosteens. Rambutans. Rose apple. Custard apple. My favourite: fresh passionfruit. Nothing compares.


look at all these cool fruits!!


japanese house


this is the best banh mi i have ever eaten, and it was vegan? just a lady with a stall on the street. so good.


bike noodles


Amy: Today, Hoi An is best known as the tailoring capital of the world. The small town has over 500 tailors sewing any type of custom clothing you could imagine. Every storefront has mannequins displaying colourful dresses, sharp looking suits, and rolls of beautifully patterned fabrics. We decided to treat ourselves with some affordable tailor-made clothing! I wanted a few dresses made, so I showed photos of the designs I wanted, chose the fabrics, and got measured. The next day, I came back for a fitting and they made some adjustments. A few hours later, the dresses were ready! (sorry no pics)





bill: hoi an has the highest density of tailors in the world (apparently). for me that meant getting a custom suit made from scratch. you pick your fabric, pick a style and all the design elements you want, they take about a thousand measurements, and build a suit from scratch specifically to suit your body and style. the process takes a few days because you go back in for 3 - 4 fittings for draft revisions to get everything perfect. all in all it ended up being $200usd for a custom bespoke cashmere suit that fits way better than any of the ones i have at home (probably because i tailored those myself). cool.


the process - 3 fittings


Amy: After exploring the narrow streets of Hoi An's ancient town, we ventured farther afield into DaNang to see the famous marble mountains. They are exactly as the name suggests: mountains made out of pure marble. They are slowly being chipped away by local businesses to make any number of garden statues, pillars and trinket souvenirs. We took a few hours to explore the dark caves filled with strange marble statues, and hiked to the top to see some temples.







bill: our last day in vietnam. in the morning we caught up with my friend sammy (long) from ottawa who moved back here about 10 years ago. he now runs a very successful restaurant in hanoi, but he chooses to live 16 hours away in hoi an, which after being to both places totally makes sense, it is a much more chill, much more relaxed place to raise a kid. he showed us a cool beach bar and we chilled out on the beach and watched the waves in the sun for the rest of the day. a pretty chill, relaxing, time. a nice way to end our time in vietnam.


morning glory and fresh coconut


bill: overall, we have had a lot of fun in vietnam. there is so much history, so many distinct cultures, so much good food. the people are so frigging welcoming and hospitable. but navigating the daily chaos is also exhausting. i feel like you could spend forever exploring the nooks and crannies of this country and never get bored. there are lots of places still flagged on my google maps but unfortunately we are on a tight schedule and we have to take off to thailand! soooo long vietnam!



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