Adventures in Central Vietnam
After leaving our wonderful escort, Kyle, we journeyed on to central Vietnam. We were hopping on a quick flight for the city of Da Nang, which had both a beach and a booming river district, known for its fantastic colorful bridges. We used the city as a gateway to the smaller, but equally well-known cities of Hoi An and Hue. With Kyle’s help introducing us to the culture, food, and means of safely crossing the street, we were ready to set out on our own.
What We Did
Day 217 (3/1/17): We sadly said goodbye to Kyle and got back on the bus headed for Hanoi. When we arrived, we got a quick, delicious lunch at a local place across from the bus station. They did not speak any English, but we managed to use a little Vietnamese and some miming to order a great mi xao bo dish served with a cilantro flavored soup. After eating, we made our way to the airport for our flight to Da Nang, in the center of Vietnam. After the short flight, we grabbed a taxi and headed for our hostel near the beach. We settled in and ventured out to get dinner, deciding on a place called Sofia’s that had a good mix of western and traditional food. Afterwards, ka tie and Justin went back to the hostel to relax and Adam and I walked into town to see the Dragon Bridge. It was very neat seeing it completely lit up at night changing colors from gold to green to blue. In fact, Da Nang has a ton of bridges all of which seem to be in a contest with one another as to see which one can be the brightest and craziest colored. It was a sight to see. We also strolled along the riverfront, admiring the view and checking out all the bars and restaurants. Then, it was time for bed.
Day 218 (3/2/17): After sleeping in, we got breakfast on the roof before heading out into the city. While we had planned to rent scooters, early morning rains delayed our plans. So, we started out with a trip to the Con Market, the largest market in the city. We took our time wandering through its 2000+ stalls, looking for interesting foods and goods and taking in all the sights and smells (some more potent and/or pleasant than others). After leaving we walked down to the riverfront to check it out in the daylight and found a nice pizza place a few blocks up to get lunch. Then, Adam went off on his own to look for a watch to replace his that broke, whilst Katie, Justin, and I ventured across the Dragon Bridge to a row of tented restaurants right next to the bridge. Adam met up with us and we proceeded to drink, eat, and play cards for the rest of the night. We returned to our hostel after a few farewell cheers with some older Vietnamese men, ordered tacos, and hung out with other travelers in the hostel before going to bed.
Day 219 (3/3/17): Today, with the weather much improved, we rented scooters and headed for the Son Tra Peninsula. We scootered down along the coast, admiring the views of the fisherman on the water until we reached the Lady Buddha, part of the Linh Ung Pagoda complex. The statue of the Lady Buddha is the largest Buddha statue in Vietnam standing 220 feet tall and looking out over Da Nang and its beaches. We spent about an hour wandering around the complex, admiring all the marble sculptures and snapping photos. Then, we got back on our scooters and headed up the mountain. After a brief stop at a fisherman’s beach, we came to a split in the road. We took the right fork towards the “Great Banyan Tree” and a lookout pagoda. We first took the hilly roads to the tree. We marveled at the size of this 800-year-old behemoth that had been used on more than one occasion as a rebel base during times of conflict. We then went in search of the pagoda. Now we followed signs and went down several winding, abandoned, jungle encroached roads (as these types were out only options) and we never found it. Nor did any other scooterists we came across. We did, however, find some extremely beautiful routes with great views of both ocean and dense jungle, if you don’t mind the fact that rock slides are a super common occurrence here as evidenced by the dirt and massive boulders that were strewn across the path (we figured that’s why they were abandoned). So, giving up on it, we headed back to the fork, this time taking the left one bound for Ban Co Peak. The road up is quite steep and we were all leaned forward and praying our scooters had enough oomph to make it to the top. We all made it, and took some time at the top to gawk at the incredible view of the ocean, city, and jungle-covered mountains. Feeling pretty hungry, we descended the mountain (this was quite the thigh work-out) and made our way back to town. Unfortunately, a snake was lost on the way (Adam ran it over). We stopped for lunch along the water and then got back on the scooters. It was now time for the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five jagged marble and limestone hills just south of the city. We found parking, bought our tickets, and began climbing the steps to the temples, caves, and pagodas as above. I thought the caves were by far the coolest part. They were filled with bats and statues and alters. One of them was extremely large with openings in the top through which you could see the lush greenery of the mountain. It resembled something out of Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones. Another one had a hold in the back you could climb up through to reach an awesome viewpoint. We spent about two hours here exploring before getting on the scooters and returning to the hostel. That night Adam and I went out for Italian, while Katie and Justin went for burgers. Yum!
Day 220 (3/4/17): We woke up, packed and headed for the UNESCO World heritage town of Hoi An. We were dropped off in the middle of town and made our way to our hotel. I was sentenced to bed rest given my bout with Dengue Fever, so Adam and I did not do much today except eat some Indian food at a place down the street and watch movies. Katie and Justin chose to spend their day relaxing and reading by the hotels beautiful pool, and went to a taco place for dinner. It was all in all a really lazy day.
Day 221 (3/5/17): Determined to see some of the sights of the area, we were ready by 6:00 a.m. to head out to see My Son, an ancient Hindu temple complex along the lines of Angkor Wat War in Cambodia. When we arrived, the sun was newly risen and the place was deserted. And that was perfect for us. We were able to wander through the ruins of the temple complex undisturbed, taking in the eerily calm vibe. After a couple hours, we left the park, just as the tour buses came rolling in and people were being dumped out in droves. We returned to Hoi An and decided to get some lunch. We ended up at a bar/restaurant on the river watching fisherman and boats of tourists go by. Afterwards, we returned to the hotel to relax. Adam and I took naps in the room while Katie and Justin lounged by the pool. Once the sun was setting we got ourselves ready and walked into town to see Hoi An’s famous lanterns. We walked across the covered Dragon Bridge and down the pedestrian street, admiring the lanterns hung over the street. We stopped for dinner at a local restaurant and tried a local specialty, cao lau and some cocktails for dinner. After, we snuck out way into the main street along the river where there were even more lanterns, glowing dragons, and wandering tourists. We walked along both sides of the river, and I bought a floating, candlelit paper box to send downstream. Once we felt satisfied we had seem all the lanterns we possibly could in one place, we returned to the hotel and went to sleep.
Day 222 (3/6/17): We caught our free shuttle back to Da Nang in the morning. We checked into our room for the night, changed into our suits, and packed our bags for the beach. On the walk there, we stopped to eat lunch at a small local restaurant popular with construction workers. We sat in our small plastic chairs playing euchre and watched them playing a card game that involved throwing the cards on the table as hard as they could. Despite our best efforts, we could not figure out the point of it. Giving up, we walked down to the beach, found a lady offering cheap prices on lounge chairs, and posted up for the afternoon. We spent several hours swimming, napping, and soaking up the sun before we headed back to the hostel. We rented our scooters for the drive the next day, showered, and decided to return to the burger place Katie and Justin had gone to when we were last in Da Nang called Burger Bros for dinner. The rest of the evening was spent relaxing and slowly packing our bags for our trip to the ancient imperial city of Hue.
Day 223 (3/7/17): Today we set out on our scooter trip to Hue. We were going to be driving through the Hai Van Pass, a route popularized by the hosts of Top Gear during their visit to Vietnam. We boarded our scooters and left Da Nang, weaving through the crazy traffic and chaos we had become so familiar with in Asia. We finally made it out of the city and to the 1A highway that ran along the coast. Eventually you will diverge from 1A, which continues on into a tunnel, and take the pass closer to the water. We drove along the winding roads of the pass, admiring the absolutely stunning views of the ocean, stopping to take pictures when we wanted to. Once you reach the peak, you will find a couple of shops and vendors and remnants of an old army outpost, complete with ruined building and old decks for antiaircraft guns. We took about 20 minutes to explore the spot before heading on our way. We drove through the jungle along the cliffs, passing a few small waterfalls along the way. Close to the bottom, we came upon the lagoon and the small fishing village nearby before joining back up with 1A. We stopped for lunch at a small local place near a gas station and tried the local specialty, Bún Bo Hue, a noodle soup with lemongrass and beef. After stretching our legs and playing cards for a bit we continued on. We blindly followed our GPS and slowly navigated our way to the Bo Ghe Waterfalls. After a couple of hours swimming and lounging in an absolute piece of heaven, we dried off, got back on the scooters, and made our way past mountains and rice paddies to Hue. We were all especially tired from the last hour or so of the trip, when the traffic got heavier and we were forced to return to the high stress game known as Asian driving. After checking in, we went straight out to find a bite to eat. We ended up at a place called the backpackers restaurant. We must have made their day. Katie and I split a pizza and each got a salad, and the boys each got a burger, fries, and large pizza for themselves. After that, since beers were only 15k dong (about 65 cents), and were also buy one get one free, we drank the place out of beer and played several games of picolo before stumbling back to the hotel.
Day 224 (3/8/17): Getting a slower start today, we decided a big greasy brunch was in order before we could even consider sightseeing. We went to a Mexican place called Jalapeno and stuffed ourselves full. Feeling better and slightly guilty at the amount of food we had eaten lately, we decided to walk to the Imperial City, which once housed the Vietnamese royal family. We spent several hours touring the grounds, palaces, temples, gardens and residences that remained after being bombed during multiple wars. On our way back to our hostel, we stopped outside the Vietnam History Museum to see some of the tanks and planes outside and get a few more photos. That night we decided to be more mellow and went out to eat at a local restaurant around up the road. The owner, who was an amateur photographer, fed us and sent us on our way with a couple samples of his work. We made a brief pit stop at a popsicle joint called Lick & Bite we had visited the night before to satisfy Katie’s sweet tooth and then headed back to the hostel for the night.
Day 225 (3/9/17): Today we were headed out for a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). We were interested to learn more about the history of the Vietnam war and to see some more of the countryside. Our first stop was a photo stop at a former observation point and artillery post for the US Marines called the Rockpile. Afterwards, we continued on to the bridge that was the former site of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Then we went to the former US Army base at Khe Sanh, where we toured the museum and looked at some of the abandoned army vehicles on site. Next, we stopped for a quick basic lunch before we headed across the Ben Hai River and for the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Our favorite stop of the day, we spent time touring the tiny tunnels, absorbing the history, and gaining an appreciation for the difficulty faced by the Vietnamese people during the war. We had a long bus ride back to town after leaving the tunnels. Once back in town, we were pretty tired, and decided to take it easy, just grabbing a casual dinner before heading to bed.
Day 226 (3/10/17): In the morning, we packed and slowly got ready for our trip back to Da Nang. We would once again be scootering our way through the Hai Van Pass. Loading up our bags, the boys gathered their courage and prepared to once again face the insane, no rules traffic of Vietnam. We dodged, swerved, and weaved our way through hordes of cars and scooters until we reached the outskirts of the city. Once the rice paddies began to reappear, everyone relaxed and settled into the drive. We decided to take our time during this route, as the drive the first time seemed to go rather quick. We stopped several times to take photos of the beautiful rice paddies, mountains, cliffs, and cows that tended to appear at random on and around the road. We pulled off the road to admire a really impressive drop off the mountain down to the ocean that happened to be covered with goats. We also did a short climb up some boulders to a small waterfall that came out of one of the many mountain springs. We arrived back to town and grabbed dinner at a local taco joint before we turned in our scooters. Afterwards, we repacked our big bags and hung out in our previous hostel’s social area for several hours until it was time to head to the airport for our 10:30 p.m. flight to Ho Chi Minh City.
What We Learned
- Roosters don’t just crow when the sun comes up. This is a myth perpetuated by the parents of both urban and suburban kids back home in the U.S. I expect those of you from more rural areas know better. Roosters crow all day every day, at seemingly random intervals. Some even seem to have their finger on the pulse of the city, knowing exactly what time of day will be the most inconvenient for those sleeping or trying to sleep nearby. I was deeply saddened to learn that one of my childhood favorite movies, Rock-A-Doodle, was based on a complete lie. Shame on you Chanticleer.
- Crossing the road in Vietnam is a harrowing ordeal for tourists. It is probably one of the scariest things you may do on your travels of SE Asia. The roads are always crazy, full of crazy scooter drivers whizzing by and cars slamming on their horns. Crosswalks don’t really work (and what I mean by this is you will have a walk sign but somehow there will be a stream of traffic headed right for you anywyas), and there never seems to be a good time to jay-walk. Never you fear though. There is a trick to it. And I promise you it will work as long as you follow the rules. The first rule is not to walk out onto the road in front of buses, vans, or cars. They don’t give a f**k about you and will not stop. No idea why the rules are different for them but they are. And second, once you decide to cross the street and there is nothing but scooters coming at you, walk in a straight line at an even pace until you get to the other side. I promise that all those scooters will part around you like the zombies do around sick people in World War Z. I don’t know why it works but it does. Sometimes, for your own safety, it is better to look straight ahead as you cross, ignoring traffic completely. This will ensure you do not have what I would call a “normal human” moment, see a scooter headed right for your path, and freeze. That is how you get hurt. Make your path predictable and you will be fine. It is a frightening experience at first, but once you realize it works and that the scooters deal with this all the time, you will be a pro. You may even get ballsy enough to walk across whole giant roundabouts, as we did on several occasions.
- Dengue fever blows. In my last post, I talked about being ill in Cat Ba, having a fever and chills and aches. Well in Da Nang, I developed a weird rash all over that didn’t really itch, but seemed odd. And then I got more fevers for a couple days before I felt better. After a trip to the pharmacy and just a tiny bit of googling, Adam and I determined these are typical symptoms of dengue fever. The pharmacist indicated this is not uncommon and that, in fact, Vietnam and especially Hanoi were having an outbreak during the time of our visit. Although it freaked out my in-laws when I told them, dengue fever is not really that serious. It is fairly common in Asia, and it is no more serious than the flu back home, primarily only dangerous for infants and the elderly. It may even be a bit less serious than the flu in that it is not contagious and can only be contracted by being bitten by the wrong mosquito. So if you start getting the symptoms like I did, find some water and Tylenol (ONLY Tylenol, NO Ibuprofen) and settle in for a miserable week.
- Don’t pay more than 100k dong for a scooter per day in Da Nang. A lot of places offer scooter rentals and from what we heard the hotels and hostels, especially on the ocean side of the city, will price them way above market. You can get a nice one for 100k/day. Just know that going into negotiations.
- Don’t go looking for the pagoda on the Son Tra peninsula. As far as I am concerned, it does not exist. We drove all over that peninsula, following signs and taking every turn imaginable, and we never found it. We ended up on some of the dodgiest roads I have ever driven on. And by this I mean roads that have been overgrown by trees and weeds, and one particularly scary and yet captivating road that had seen at least a dozen landslides and was covered with boulders and impassible to anything but scooters. We never did find the pagoda, but we did get some incredible views and ended up in some interesting places.
- Don’t bother with the elevator at the marble mountains. While it is a fairly cheap price to get up in it, it is unnecessary and you may miss part of the temples on the way up if you take the elevator. So walk your butt up the steps (it’s not really that far), and see some cool stuff! Also, you can park on the street for free. There will be people trying continuously to herd you into the areas outside their shops and charging you a small fee top park there. However, you are allowed to park on the street for free if you head just a teeny bit further down the road for free.
- Get to My Son early and leave by around 9:00 a.m. If you get there early, you will get two advantages. For one, you will not have to fight the crowds. You may even be some of the only people there. We were wandering around the ruins practically by ourselves, which gave it an eerie, enchanting feeling in the morning mists. And two, the morning light makes for amazing pictures. You get the soft lighting of the new sun, along with the mists from the night before. It was a magical time of day to be in the ruins and it showed in our shots. You should only need a couple hours at My Son to explore all of the ruins and the museum. Around 9:00 a.m. the tour buses start to arrive and the mood of the place changes with the crowds. Early is better!
- You do not have to pay to go into old town in Hoi An. While you are technically supposed to, and there is a person checking tickets at one end of the street along the river, there are plenty of small alleys that connect the riverside street to the one parallel that you can sneak through. And, if your only plans are just to walk around along the river, like ours were, I would recommend this. However, the ticket is cheap and will get you into a couple of traditional houses, temples, and museums if you are looking to make a day of it. They money also supposedly goas towards general maintenance and upkeep of the town as it is a UNESCO world heritage site, so the choice is yours.
- Make a stop at the Bo Ghe waterfall on the drive between Da Nang and Hue. This is one piece of advice I even hesitate to tell you about, because i loved the beauty and seclusion of this place so much, I almost want to keep it all for myself. We had read loads of travel blogs and there was only one that we even heard mention of it. Most people recommend you stop at a place called Elephant Springs on your way between the two cities to cool off. I have never been so I cannot really make a comment on its quality, but I do know that they charge admission and that it is very popular with backpackers so you are likely to be some other groups of travelers. This is not true of the waterfalls we stopped at. As such, it is also a bit more difficult to find. Our GPS did locate it on a map but the route will literally take you down an “Unnamed Road”. You turn off the highway into a dirt alleyway. You will cross a railroad track and the road will take a bend to the right. When we passed through there were people harvesting wood and the road was nearly blocked by debris and a large truck they were loading things into. You will continue on this road for a while, longer than you think you should. There will be mining going on in your left and rice paddies on your right. The road is literally just dirt and you will have ample potholes and flooded sections. You are getting closer when you pass a rundown -looking temple area, complete with giant Buddha statue. You will then pass under an archway with a blockade bar lifted up for you to pass through. You will almost feel like you are trespassing at first. But you aren’t. This is also the point where the road will get really, really bad. You will go over bumps and rocks better handled by a dirt bike, but if you go fairly slow, it is passable by normal scooter. Once you see a covered shelter on your left, park your motorbike there. There should be other motorbikes there as well (they are more than likely just the bikes of the people who live there, not other travelers). Get off, grab your stuff, and walk the rest of the road. You will pass a couple of spots where you can walk down to the river. You can go take a look if you want, but the main attractions are further upstream, so keep walking. It looks like the locals are trying to develop the area a little to attract tourists perhaps or maybe for their own housing, it was hard to tell, but they are incredibly friendly and welcoming, so don’t be alarmed if you run into them. There will be one spot where you will see the big waterfall which looks kind of like a big slide into a pool at the bottom with some platforms built around it. I am sure you could swim here if you would like to, but our favorite part was reached at the top of this waterfall. You just take the trail on the side up to the top and walk over. There is a big platform built there. From here, it is time to remove your shoes and climb up the falls a little further. A local woman working there showed us how to cross in the shallow part and the top and up the right-hand side. Once you are up, you have reached paradise. There is a spot there with several smaller waterfalls to play in, two tiers of shallow pools to cool off in, and absolutely no people. You are surrounded by jungle. We spent a couple hours here enjoying this piece of paradise. Right above this set of falls, the river flattens out a bit, but if you climb up there you can have a blast jumping from rock to rock, exploring more of the river. There is even another slightly deeper, still pool further up we enjoyed for a while. I know it sounds complicated to get to, but it really isn’t. Just make the correct turn off the highway, stay on that road until judgement tells you to park the bike, and follow the sounds of the falls. Believe me you will not regret it.