Last day.

Here we go, our last day in Vietnam. I really wish we would have come back to Saigon earlier, but exploring Hanoi was very eye-opening (I would have rather been there in the spring though!). We booked a night in a well-reviewed hotel just around the corner from our original spot at a super saver rate on Agoda. We booked this though less than 8 hours in advance, so when we arrived, we found that they had overbooked us. Last time this happened, just two days earlier in Hanoi, we had the run-around being sent from hotel one hotel to a sister hotel, and, unhappy with the replacement to several others until winding up in a place ironically named “First Choice Hotel”. Well played Vietnam. This time, rather than being turned away, we were simply upgraded at no charge to the Elegant Suite, where we spent almost all of our free time lounging in the jacuzzi spa bathtub giggling at the suds and jets and ultra-mini Vietnamese-sizes bathrobes. Saigon is HOT, especially after weeks of bone-chilling rain and cold — it’s heaven just seeing the sun again.
In Hanoi, Duc gave us some recommendations for contemporary galleries and restaurants to explore in HCMC, so we hit up a very delicious Cuc Gach Quan, a restaurant in an architects home, which may be my absolute favorite restaurant on earth. We ate soft-shelled crab, steamed vegetables, and dried shrimp with green mango salad, accompanied with plenty of soft, earthy brown rice and Vietnamese cherry juice, freshly blended and served in a little glass bottle with a rolled banana leaf as a stopper, and honey on the side. It was all so light, so balanced, and so so satisfying.
We wandered around for lunch today, with 12 hours to kill before our flight leaves. Another light lunch, shredded prawns in rice paper, a seafood salad, and pork vermicelli salad, plus two desserts: my new favorite sweet soup of bananas in coconut milk and tapioca, and drunken sticky rice in sake. So inexpensive by American standards, and so much better than I could ever find back home. Now it’s time to decide how to make a living here 😉

Still 7 hours to kill, and it’s too humid to walk around with all of our backpacks, so we’re heading off to see The Hobbit in 3D at the local cinema.

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Lets face it, I’ve lost count.

We’re in Mai Chau!! We booked a very long time to spend in the north if Vietnam, but without our trusty steed, we are subject to guided tours or day trips. In retrospect, we would rather have booked a flight south sooner, or rented another bike to really explore it up here. I think that will be a future trip: motorbiking the north of Vietnam and into Laos. Travel agencies wanted $80 for bus tickets for Andrew and I to arrive here (we chose Mai Chau over Sapa, for the same reasons we liked Tam Coc more than Ha Long Bay: fewer tourists) but we found that a local bus costs $14. We had to find our way to the local station, and endure four strange hours on a very local-only bus through one if Vietnams most dangerous roads (0 visibility, glad I couldn’t see what was below us really…). The villages here are ancient feeling. It is quiet, with only a handful of other visitors, and we all stay in stilt houses and homestays. We showed up unannounced in a nice looking cafe/homestay, and were given a private room (very large, full tub, beautiful!) for $12.50/night. Most places here are $5, but we’re being luxurious and not sleeping on the communal floor. The air out here is fresh, my lungs are awakened and my ears are adjusting to life without the constant buzz of traffic. I can hear pigs squealing, dogs barking, children playing. There is a long and beautiful history in this part of Vietnam, in short, the locals are ethnically Thai, coming from mostly White Thai and some Black Thai tribes.
In Sapa, women and children use strong-arm bargaining to convince you to buy textiles. In fact, this is all of Vietnam — and so we haven’t yet bought souvenirs. Here, the culture is so much more relaxed. I can actually stop to look at a fabric and not be grabbed or talked up, and so we are very shop-happy. I immediately fell in love with the woven textiles and embroidered blankets, but noticed that a very prominent element in the textiles here is one of my favorites: batik. Batik is an Indonesian hand-dye technique using wax and indigo (sometimes other dyes) to create patterns. This, combined with bright embroidery is like heaven to me, and so I’ve finally found my Vietnam souvenirs, which will hopefully last for generations.

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Day 22: Hanoi

This city really is making me fall for Vietnam. We have no agenda, no need to wake up at a certain time anymore, so we can really explore on our own terms.

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Day 21: Ha Long Bay

We had a deal with our motorcycle company: as there was some miscommunication and problem sorting in the beginning of our trip, they felt they owed us one when we returned the bike. We couldn’t come all this way and not see one if the seven wonders of the natural world, so a trip to Ha Long was required. I don’t know if its possible to charter a local to take you out there alone, but if it is, that’s the only way I’ll go back. In part, we were fresh off of Tam Coc, where we spent only a fraction to see a very similar thing in a quieter setting. In part, it was overcast and cold. But mostly, we are selfish and bitter that giving up the motorcycle meant giving up our freedom, so being herded around with other travelers on itineraries just felt too stiff for us. We booked one night, two days with a hotel on Cat Bá island. We got into the boat, were served lunch as we pulled off shore, when the tour guide informed us of the itinerary: overnight, on the boat. Then they ask if that’s what we signed up for. As the dock is becoming a speck in the distance…. No, it’s not right but they have our names and we have a room reserved, which means losing daylight trying to figure out two screwed up. And so, in the Vietnamese tourism fashion, we were politely abducted for two days.

It wasn’t so bad really, we had a 45 minute break to get in a kayak (it’s not like my jeans haven’t been soaked for the past four days, what’s another chilly wet night in them??) and cruise around, a small boat from the main cruise lines ran over a local woman in her boat (she was alarmed and pissed, but we were relieved to see her conscious when she surfaced). We had group meals, and in fact we grew sort of close with some of our fellow travelers. There were 11 of us on board, and during our first lunch we went around introducing ourselves. The kid across from me says he’s from Ohio. I say “me too. Columbus? Yep, what part? Dublin. Me too!! What school? Coffman 2007. Ah, Scioto, also 2007. You must know so-and-so….” And we did, in fact, share many contacts from childhood, and most certainly shared elbow room years before sharing the soy sauce. Funny how small the world really, truly is.

Ha Long is impressive, and on a beautiful day in a small boat, it would seem bigger and more awe-inspiring. We did the thing, we have the pictures, and our boat didn’t sink. We’re happy. But we’ll do it next time on our own terms.

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Day 20: Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

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Day 19: Hanoi

We had our little taste of luxury in Doc Let, so plans to book a fancy hotel for Christmas and New Years seemed a bit much. Hanoi is cool enough on its own, and we’d rather be out exploring than staying in, so we played it by ear and managed to find an inexpensive room in the Old Quarter. All of the neat museums and sights happened to be closed on Mondays, so we looked up recommendations on killer street food, and we not disappointed. Nothing beats Saigon, and the northerners are not ashamed of their love for dog meat, so my appetite was a bit subdued… But we did find ourselves with very happy tummies.
Hanoi is probably our favorite city to date, it has all of the bustle and noise of Saigon, but with shorter, narrow streets, and cleaner, cooler air. We don’t feel pestered on every corner by people touting tourist traps, and though we see many more tourists here than in the south, we all seem to blend somewhat evenly with the local flow.

And so, without the recommended sights (we weren’t terribly sad to miss out on viewing Uncle Ho’s body), we found ourselves gallery hopping in the French Quarter, and entirely floored by a contemporary art scene we never knew existed.

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We celebrated New Year’s Eve simply, first sipping some coffee at our favorite cafe so far. When we asked which blend he had been pulling for us, the barista casually answered “Weasel one”. I had heard of the serious popularity of this coffee before, but didn’t exactly plan on trying it. Weasels are fed coffee cherries, and the beans are then collected from the weasel’s excrement, relatively undigested, dried and roasted. There’s some discussion about the validity of the common weasel coffee sold on the street, and I’m especially dubious of the vendors in the tourist district — as they say the amount of the stuff is purchased is twice what they’re producing. In the states, the stuff can go for up to $700 per pound, but it’s dirt cheap here. The taste is like Vietnamese coffee should be: mellow, sweet, and very non-acidic. We like it, we’ll probably buy a kilo, but I won’t go paying extra for something that is likely an altered imposter. (It is true that the special “mountain goat” touted at many restaurants is really just veal, though the dogs are still very real).

We continued with a few bia hoi in the street (sitting for a little while with a 52-year-old man who was very insistent that we visit Ha Long Bay — this was the longest short conversation I’ve ever had, but after 20 minutes, we know his name, his age, and how badly we need to see the bay). Later the cops ran our fresh beer bar off the street, so we abducted the Canadian couple next to us and eventually found the bar we’d been looking for: Make Some Noise, which we had found just the night before. They have a live Vietnamese band, with kids who really know how to rock the fiddle and saxophone, and we were pleasantly treated to some really beautiful music, including a killer rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and an acoustic jazz version of “Gangnam Style” which I only recognized as such when the local kids started singing along to it.

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Day 18: Tam Coc to Hanoi

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Day 17: Ninh Binh (Tam Coc)

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The town of Ninh Binh has nothing really going for it (well, nothing for visitors to enjoy) so we went by recommendation of the GT rider guide to stay two nights at The Long Hotel in nearby Tam Coc. Tam Coc has one thing going for it: a very surprising karst formation landscape; it is nicknamed the Ha Long Bay on land. We were so happy to be dry and off of the bike, we hardly cared that the town was otherwise deserted (almost everyone who visits takes a day trip tour bus from Hanoi) and the food scene was dismal. We ordered some food and a bottle of sake for dinner, and spent the rest of the evening on our private little balcony overlooking the wharf with a bottle of wine (Dalat wine is the only Vietnamese wine of note, and its pretty comparable to America’s “two buck Chuck”). In the morning, we slept in so late ( around 9am!! ) and took a lovely walk around the lake before getting our tickets to do the boat ride. We’re very glad we went as early as we did, before the buses arrived. Boats line the sidewalk and the two of us were rowed by a young woman through the water for about two hours. Andrew and I were really impressed, and the only disappointing bit of the journey was a very typical Vietnamese tourist trap which we had been warned of prior: first other boats will pass you and a photographer will try to get you to pose for a picture. At the end of the trip, they will have a developed and laminated copy which you’re guilted into purchasing (we saw a billion of the rejected ones discarded around the lake on our walk). Second, they’ll stop midway and row you up to another Vietnamese woman’s boat, filled with snacks and drinks… and wait a good long time for you to decide that yes, a box of ritz crackers is TOTALLY required for the next hour of the trip. Not much later, our woman teamed up with her friend, and held a Finnish boy and Andrew and myself captive in open water while they pulled out their boxes of the finest Vietnamese souvenirs (tshirts and keychains). We wondered briefly if they might refuse to row us back until we’d bought something… The water’s pretty shallow, we could swim for it! They got the hint and kept on rowing (with their feet. I want a boat that I can row with my feet!!), taking us through neat caves and between karsts. As we pulled back into the wharf, we saw a sea of neon orange life vests: the Koreans had arrived by the hundreds (we laugh, only because you couldn’t drown out there if you wanted to, the water is just too shallow). 20121231-210806.jpg

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Day 16: Vinh to Ninh Binh

Still soggy. So smelly and muddy. Somehow we need to launder our pants (without being charged $100!)

Going to ridiculous lengths to dry out before another likely rainy day. At least there’s a slack day tomorrow with a renowned national forest.

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If it looks like we didn’t have fun this day…it’s because we didn’t. Sure, it was dry…er. But cold — SO much colder, and our shoes have been so soggy that we opted to wear sandals just to avoid total numbness. It was misty and grey and flat, and the short ride turned into one very miserable push to the finish line. Just when we thought we were in the home stretch (after a much-needed warm up with soup and coffee at what seemed to be a truck stop), traffic picked up big time, and we were struggling through an hour of terrible construction zones, towns which still look war-devastated, and a gas station bathroom stop which may have led to a man trying to buy me from Andrew. We got out quick from that one, and limped our little bike into Ninh Binh with our chain on its very last leg, and a flat tire. Muddy and overall pissed, we found some kids who took two links out of the chain and threw some air into the tire, just a quick enough fix to get us to our real destination: the nearby village of Tam Coc. I can’t tell you how welcome this arrival was. After so many kilometers of dismal, torn-up concrete towns, and an entirely underwhelming Ninh Binh, I had NO idea something like Tam Coc could exist just a few kilometers off the road. They call it Ha Long Bay on land, and it was beautiful. At the suggestion of our motorcycle guide, we stayed two nights at The Long Hotel, and were given a sixth-floor private suite, with beautiful big windows surrounding the bed, and a balcony which overlooked the Wharf and the majestic karst hills. The village itself has nothing going for it aside from the boat tours, and the food was less than impressive, but we warmed up and enjoyed our little slice of paradise (at 26 USD per night!!)

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Day 15: Dong Hoi to Vinh

I’m typing this morning from the bike — the road is straight and simple, and though the air us chilly, we are finally dry and hoping for the sun to break through the clouds. Surrounding us are more stunning hills blanketed in l a low-lying fog, the scene is very much like that of our hometown in the Driftless region of Minnesota. The only traffic we are competing with today so far are herds of cows, crossing the road at very slow paces and for no apparent reason.
…I lied. We passed through a tunnel and over a hill to find ourselves in a steady rain that lasted all the way to Vinh. Cold, very cold, with a wet that soaked our bones (no poncho can hold up to those winds for hours on end).

The one very interesting thing was a group of people preparing something which seemed very odd to us (of course, we declined their offer) — the betel nut, wrapped in a leaf with a white paste (a ground limestone mixture). It’s said to be something like chewing tobacco, it stains your teeth tar-black ( this also explains the strange smiles of old men here) and is quite carcinogenic. It’s quite common as a rural, northern habit — an interesting tidbit to learn on our travels

When we managed to crawl into our hotel, we had to wait 30 minutes for the water heater to start up, so the very welcomed showers were had, as well as a Minnesotan cabin-style sauna. Vinh is a pretty lackluster city, it was heavily bombed by both French and Americans, as most towns in the area were, and hastily rebuilt, resulting in rows if concrete and not much else. The food scene is barely happening here either, but we scored some decent soup and candies at the market. I haggled with a vendor and snagged some legit, vintage RayBans for $4USD. The interesting bit about walking around cities this, is that they aren’t on the tourist radar (they wouldn’t be on anyone’s if not for the necessary break between Hue and Hoi An) — and so we really stand out. Everyone, rather than trying to sell us something, does a double-take and smiles, people call out “hello!!!” And kids chase us and make jokes.
Now we’re left planning our future rides, watching HBO and drinking local wine. Thanks Vinh.

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Yes, they really eat dog here. As far as I know, I haven’t tasted this delicacy and I’d like to keep it that way.

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