Chiang Rai is pretty similar to Chiang Mai in several ways. It’s a small city in mountainous northern Thailand, and it was founded around the same time (waaay back in the 1200s) as a capital for a kingdom, namely, the Mangrai dynasty in this case. Also, its wikipedia page has at the top, “Not to be confused with Chiang Mai,” so that’s pretty significant. In actuality, it is indeed a lot like Chiang Mai – though it’s smaller and has far fewer temples – but falls under the category of, “easier to live there than to visit.”
It seems that Chiang Rai is more about being a hub for trekking and tours of the surrounding region than a place to visit in and of itself. That was indeed our original intention in going there, to find a nice one or two day trek to do, but we ended up changing our plans entirely after a visit to the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center. Bonnie will elaborate about this in another post about that particular topic (the dark side of tourism), but in any case the museum is definitely worth a visit. A sweaty, hot visit – there’s no AC, by the way. But the collection of authentic and in some cases well-used artifacts of daily hilltribe life and information about their history and culture is fascinating, even with sweat running down your sides and back. Also, the bamboo exhibit (I had no idea there were so many species!) and the opium exhibit (northern Thailand and the Golden Triangle where a few countries meet was, for many years, a world center of opium and heroin production) were hugely informative.
At least we got some interesting food out of the bargain, though.
Well, not the food in and of itself, per se, but more in how we got it. For one, Bonnie got to cook for the first time in a long while because for once our hostel actually had a kitchen we could use. A trip to a local night market later (ie, tables of produce and meat strung along a couple blocks), we had a pretty affordable dinner to put together, including mangosteens for dessert – we were delighted to finally have a knife available to cut them open! Bonnie got a lot of “mmm, smells good,” comments from passersby, even with minimal spices available, and made a great stir-fry of cabbage, carrots, flat rice noodles, and homemade chili paste from one of the vendors who let Bonnie sample them before purchase. We’re excited to use rice noodles more when we get home, now that we really know how to use them.
The other two meals of note were more in the causes each place supported. Cabbages and Condoms, underneath the Hilltribe Museum, firmly reassured us in multiple places: “Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.” Its proceeds help the same organization as the museum, specifically in areas of family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention, and its interior decorating is startling in a country that is generally pretty outwardly conservative. Condoms, condoms, condoms. Actually, we were disappointed there weren’t free condoms with our receipt.
BaanChivitMai Bakery, on the other hand, we returned to several times. Frank simply could not get enough of their marzipan, is what it came down to – delicious, delicious marzipan. Almond confections aside, the bakery and cafe support the eponymous BaanChivitMai organization, which works to keep children out of prostitution and drug trade, so we felt pretty good about coming back repeatedly, and not just gluttonous. It also happens to be right across from the bus station, so it was super convenient when we had to check out of our hostel by 11 and then wait for our 1 pm bus.
But the real highlight of the trip –
Was the White Temple. Also known as Wat Rong Khun, this is a unique temple complex–still in the process of being constructed, interestingly–a short distance from Chiang Rai. That is, in practical details, only a 20 baht (less than $1) ride on a public bus out to the temple, and the same cost to jump on a red truck taxi full of schoolgirls on the way back.
Anyway, the White Temple is unique in a few different ways. For one, it has an art gallery and several restaurants and cafes associated with it. We actually really enjoyed the art gallery, which displayed works by the same artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed the temple itself – there was everything from oil paintings, to tiny amulets, to gorgeously colored modern-style paintings, to huge, intricately detailed bronze statues – and almost all of it devotedly Buddhist in theme. Well, except for a few with George Bush humping a rocket and penises and such, but they were in a special room near the end.
Two, the temple, as its name suggests, is entirely, brilliantly white. And glittering. It would be utterly garish had it not been cast in such a classy color. That said, upon looking more closely as one walks up the bridge that leads to the temple, it’s a big of a challenge to call the “pools” made of sculpted hands reaching and grasping, and the guarding piles of skulls and antlers. It’s a bit like a creepy impressionist painting – from far away, it’s gorgeous; up close, well, it starts to get a little hairy.
Until one gets inside the temple, anyway, which leads to number three: there ain’t no other temple with an inside like this. Oh, the giant Buddha statues that are the physical focus point aren’t that different, and could perhaps be said to just be a modern arrangement of the usual escalation of larger and larger statues. No, it’s the art on the walls themselves that’s unique. There does seem to be a devotional motif occurring, with more…heavenly images increasing as characters are carried on dragons from the near the entrance to the side of the Buddha statues. But back by the front door is a bevy of pop culture references surrounding interesting imagery, like the twin towers burning ferociously while demonic heads suck gasoline made from their fumes. I’ll just finish all this off with a list of said references, for the curious, since we couldn’t take photos inside the temple:
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle
- Hellraiser (totally called that one before we stepped foot in the temple, by the way)
- Hello Kitty
- Harry Potter
- Elvis Presley
- Neo from The Matrix
- Kung Fu Panda
- Sailor Moon
- Avatar (James Cameron’s, not the fun cartoon)
- Xenomorph (think, the Aliens series)
- Toothless (How to Train Your Dragon)
- the puppet from Saw
- Jack Sparrow
- King Leonidas (from 300, not historical)
And there were also tentacles grabbing a space shuttle. Yep.
Actually, this section of the wiki is very helpful in understanding the above, including the golden bathroom, which I did not think to mention.
The artist is actually quite an interesting character as well. Walking around Chiang Rai and surrounding areas, his signature style is everywhere. The original Wat Rong Khun was in disrepair toward the end of the 20th Century, so Chalermchai Kositpipat decided to use his own money to fund the complete rebuilding of the temple, and that way he would have free rein in its design. Construction of learning and meditation centers are ongoing, and apparently, are not expected to be completed until 2070.
Ahhh, Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern gem, aka one of our favorite places to have visited so far. Barring, you know, something exploding or the city flooding or the Burmese repeating one of their historical invasions of the region.
Speaking of history – see what I did there? – Chiang Mai was founded all the way back in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, which was an influential Buddhist kingdom in SE Asia for several centuries. Eventually it was subsumed into successive Thai kingdoms, but there are still markers of that ancient past visible even just walking around.
For one, the center of Chiang Mai is a pretty obvious big square ringed by a moat. This is the original city boundary (and the first actual moat I’ve ever seen – I very much get how daunting that would be to a medieval military, now), though modern Chiang Mai spreads a good way beyond it. There are only a few fragments of the city wall and gates left, but even in their crumbling state, there’s enough to help imagine the city as it might once have been.
Nowadays, Chiang Mai’s old city is full to the brim of vegetarian restaurants, guesthouses, cafes, shops and more temples than you can shake a stick at – seriously, it makes it sometimes pretty confusing to get directions: “No, you have to go to the next temple over.”
East side of the square: stick to that side.
It’s been the best side of the square we’ve seen so far. We stayed in a great little hotel, for example, Lantern House, that was right around the corner from a tiny restaurant, Hideout, where we had some mindblowing food. Followed by a house-made fudge brownie drizzled with orange-cardamom syrup, but seriously the sandwiches were delicious, too.
We went out with some folks from Lantern House (the usual international mix – this time it was English, American, German, and Canadian) to a cabaret show, which had some pretty great acts, including spot-on renditions of Rihanna and Tina Turner. As to the transgender/ladyboy/cross-dressing aspect, a few people from our group seemed extremely uncomfortable, which startled us – upon reflection, although we were impressed by this show, we realized our main reaction was to feel homesick for the burlesque and LGBT stuff we enjoy at home.
In any case, we ended the night at a nice little courtyard that had a different bar for every genre of music that one might dance to; our group picked Roots Rock Reggae and their killer live band. Man, reggae is just the best for a bar.
Center of the square: museums and temples.
Lots of temples. Lots and lots of them. All over the place. Yep. I’d love to wax on about how beautiful they are, and it’s nice to see such a concentration of quiet spirituality, but aside from one silver-plated building we saw south of the city, there isn’t a lot of variety in Buddhist temple design. They’re nice, though.
The museums we’ve checked out have been of varying quality. On the lower end of the scale is the Chiang Mai Historical Centre; it was a bit like a rundown, lackadaisical, smaller version of the amazing Museum of Siam in Bangkok. Bonnie’s favorite was the Lanna Folklife Museum – she thought it had a really nice variety of artifacts and great explanations of everything from the shape of traditional Lanna water-serving jugs to temple architecture to medieval mural painting techniques, traditional textile weaving, embroidery, and wood carving. My favorite by a nose was the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Center, purely on one count: it had miniatures to display the different ways people have lived in the region in centuries past. I love miniatures so hard.
South of the square: well, we did it again.
That is, we accidentally ended up staying in the middle of a Thai neighborhood where no one spoke any English, and it was prohibitively far from where we actually wanted to hang out. The Airbnb ad and reviews said it was a 10 minute walk to the old city, but it was more like at least 20, and that’s just to the edge of the old city–probably another 20 minutes to where you want to be. It did lead to the usual learning about local living just by observing as we walked around, though, and some funny experiences.
For example, I got a haircut for a little over a dollar, and it came with free mini-bananas, and about as much joking as we could all create with nominal language overlap. Also, we had more fun times with the pan-Asian cultural practice of the locals never saying “No” – ie, cab drivers saying they knew exactly where we were going. And then going the opposite direction. Then going the opposite direction again while spinning around a tourist map and looking perplexedly at our phone map. They may or may not have known how to read a map. It led to some pretty funny discussion between us about asking them next time to take us to “Funky Town” or “Paradise City” and see if they claim to know where those places are.
Anyway, while exploring the south side of the city, we did manage to have some interesting food. Namely, there was one vegetarian buffet – a very local sort of place. It took some doing to figure out how to get our food and where to wash our own dishes – that was simply one of the worst meals I’ve ever attempted to have. Seriously, I felt physical distress while trying to eat it – each new thing I sampled was almost painfully worse than the last; I think I know what it would feel like to be poisoned, now. Even the different drinks we got were so inexplicably smoky in flavor that we couldn’t take more than a couple sips.
On the other hand, Khun Churn, while a little out of the way, was one of the best buffets we’ve been to – it is all you can eat fresh vegetarian food with a beautiful salad bar, fresh fruit and coffee, and both cold and warm varieties of delicious breakfast and lunch options spread over two floors. Moreover, they had plenty of drinks that actually tasted good, like roselle, bael, and lemongrass. One of the very kind servers used “I’m sorry” when he probably meant “excuse me,” so we kept thinking we were doing something wrong each time he stopped by our table to see if we needed anything, which was often. According to the American ex-pat who gave us a little orientation when we first arrived, we just needed to remember that’s it’s all you can eat but only for 3 hours. He said he’d petitioned for them to extend it to 4 hours and to hang some hammocks outside so people could take a nap in the middle and then start again. Although his tone was extremely dry, we’re pretty sure he was joking…nice idea though!
One afternoon, as we started our trek back to our apartment, we decided to get takeout for dinner and luckily stumbled upon some delicious Indian food, Taj Mahal. While we waited for our food, we had a nice conversation with a British guy here on holiday and a very opinionated older ex-pat. When Bonnie asked where he was from, he said something like “I lived in Hawaii once.” She decided not to press further. We wonder if some of the older ex-pats are here trying to forget their past lives or something. Ooo! Maybe he used to be a gangster.
Also south of the square but this time very south of the square, we found a nice clinic that caters to English speakers. Although we had some confusion finding it initially (mostly because the name is so generic and Google was confused), we received great service. This was the second of our 3 rabies vaccination shots, which each cost about $25. In the US, we figured out that it would have cost over $800 for each of us, so we’d decided against it. We’re starting to think we should have gotten all of our vaccinations here in Thailand. Apparently, India still has quite a problem with rabies, so we decided to go ahead with the pre-exposure vaccination before going.
West side of the square: is…fine, I guess? The good stuff is far away?
Well, wait, let’s see. There’s Mixology, which was recommended to us by Jody – thanks Jody! – which had a unique burger with sticky rice instead of buns and a spicy ground pork patty, and a colorful tower of grilled veggies with pesto marinade for Bonnie. Then there were some lackluster attempts at breakfast and some interesting Chinese style buns…but then we tried Amrita Garden, a tiny restaurant run by an adorable Japanese family, which had tasty vegan food. But then we were really hungry again inside of half an hour.
There was also our favorite temple so far, Wat Suan Dok – it’s big and beautiful and has pristine white secondary mini-temple sort of things and a meditation retreat that we signed up for (the main reason we decided to stay in this part of the city). And, we ran into a sweet Spanish girl that we’d originally met in central Vietnam – small world! Sadly, she doesn’t use Facebook–maybe we’ll meet again someday anyway!
The trick with that temple is that it’s well outside of the old city square – and so is Ninah…Ninnyhamin…Nannahymar….that other neighborhood that’s west of the old city, that has a lot of expats and university students and feels like California. Nimmanhamein. We’re going to go back tomorrow, but let’s see, today we had:
- Loose leaf vanilla rooibos tea, a dark chocolate passion fruit shake, house-cured duck prosciutto crostini, and a huge open-face roasted pear, mushroom, and garlic-creamy spread sandwich at Rustic and Blue–delicious!
- A haircut for Bonnie; there are a lot of salons in that area. It turned out well enough, especially considering the lack of English. A picture of Anne Hathaway on the phone was helpful.
- An utterly gorgeous glass of butterfly pea tea, traditional Thai flower tea, spicy tofu and mushrooms, and a richly creamy Massaman curry at Anchan
Oh, also, the weather is pretty fantastic.
It’s much cooler up in the mountains than in the rest of Thailand’s tropical savannah, and so while we’ve been doing a ton of walking, it really hasn’t been as onerous as in other places. That said, it does rain a lot – almost every day – but rarely more than a light misting, and so it’s an easy fix to pause for a coffee and wait it out, or just toss a rain jacket in a backpack.
But remember to stand before the movie starts – respect the king!
No seriously, it’s a thing – make sure to stand up for this when it plays after all the trailers and whatnot. Also, the theaters in Bangkok have assigned seats, and they don’t open the theater until the moment of the listed time for the movie. Plus! They have interesting popcorn flavors, like sweet cheese and strawberry.
Also, the Chatuchak Weekend Market sells plants during the week!
Weird fish ice cream!
We actually wound up with not one but two trips to Hanoi because it’s the main travel hub of the north. We spent a couple days there before heading up to Sapa (which I shall call the “days of coffee”), and then we had one more day on the way back from Sapa and before leaving the country.
Days of Coffee
We first arrived in Hanoi on an overnight bus from Phong Nha, which we described in an earlier post as our coffin bus experience. The one thing we’d been most excited about leading up to this visit was the coffee. Neither of us has ever been a daily coffee drinker, but we both love drinking it when we do. I think because of that, it allows us to be a bit more choosy, and…shall I say snobby about our coffee? Anyway, Hanoi is well-known for its particular style as well as something called an “egg coffee.” We’d already gotten to taste traditional Vietnamese coffee made in a phin, but egg coffee was new to us. Fortunately, a local travel agent gave us a good recommendation to try Cafe Giang, which is apparently one of the oldest and most famous places to get egg coffee, having been around since the 1940s. Frank tried it iced; I tried it hot. Basically it’s a like a liquidy custard layered on top of a cup of coffee. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to mix it, but we did, and it was decently tasty–Frank said it was a snack combined with a drink, and Evan commented that it was an efficient breakfast! Frank and I were both glad we tried it but weren’t sure whether we’d order it again. I’m guessing that it’s a little bit of an acquired taste.
Next we tried Ca Phe Pho Co, as recommended by this article. Even with the address, we probably would have missed the entrance if it hadn’t been for the helpful description on this blog. You enter through a silk shop at the street entrance and head back through a songbird and plant filled building-grotto to what looks like someone’s home kitchen. After ordering, you walk up a regular flight of stairs and then two metal spiral staircases up to the top floor. The coffee was decent, but I think we were really there for the view.
Sight Seeing and Delicious Food
In between our two coffee adventures, we managed a stop at Den Ngoc Son, or Temple of the Jade Mountain. This temple is on an island in the middle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake and is reached by the bright red Huc Bridge. The temple was built in dedication to Confucian and Taoist philosophers. The grounds contain large bonsai style trees, and there is a mummified turtle of the kind that used to be plentiful in the lake but are now severely endangered, to the point that they are rarely if ever seen.
From there we went to one of our favorite Indian restaurants of the trip, Little India. The food was fantastic and very well seasoned, and the staff and owner were attentive and friendly. We actually got to try their version of Evan’s favorite, gobi manchurian, and it did not disappoint.
Hanoi: Take 2
Our next visit to Hanoi wound up just being one night and one day so that we could spend Frank’s birthday in Sapa. There are plenty more places we could have visited, but these are just the few we managed to squeeze in before we had to make our way to the airport.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This is a place that should be visited first on a day of sight seeing, and we’re glad we knew that in advance. It’s actually only open from 8-11 AM, and the lines can be very long. Apparently, some people are so dedicated that they visit the mausoleum every day; I would be interested to speak to someone who does that just to hear their thoughts on the matter. The visit itself is quite an interesting cultural experience, and it’s definitely the most orderly situation we’d encountered in Vietnam–men in military uniform manage the lines and maintain decorum. We’d also read that they might turn you away if they don’t deem your dress as appropriate, and guidebooks recommend wearing long pants/skirts and covering shoulders. We definitely saw people walking in wearing shorts and tank tops, but we’re not sure if they were turned away or not.
After standing in line and winding your way along several streets and around several corners, you eventually get to the iconic mausoleum building itself. From there you walk slowly inside and around the glass case containing Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. Apparently the body is sometimes replaced with a wax replica while his body is serviced in Russia; we couldn’t tell the difference in what we saw. Some reviewers on Trip Advisor seemed very upset when they learned that it was a wax replica. Frank and I had quite an interesting discussion as to whether it actually matters. To me, the whole experience is just fascinating culturally, so in a sense it doesn’t really matter–the whole thing is just a symbol of much bigger ideas and historical events.
Museum of Fine Arts
Although this museum seems a bit less visited than some others, it’s definitely worth a visit (or maybe because it’s less visited, it’s worth going). Either way, we were both impressed by the art, and like all art museums, it seemed to provide a nice peaceful setting away from the chaos of the traffic outside. The museum contained art all the way from prehistoric times up through modern day. There seemed to be an emphasis on the 20th Century and local artists’ depictions of the Vietnamese/American War, many of which had a flavor of propaganda, but that were often beautiful nonetheless. It’s been quite interesting to perceive that period of history now from both sides.
Temple of Literature
First built in 1070, the Temple of Literature was Vietnam’s first national university, and is another temple dedicated to Confucius. It has been reconstructed but claims to maintain ancient architectural styles. Although this was a nice place to visit, I do think we would have greatly benefited from a local tour guide. Many reviewers on Trip Advisor reported finding local students who offered to give them tours, so we were hoping that we’d find this as well–no such luck. We did enjoy seeing the grounds, but we were definitely assisted by the Wikipedia article we were able to look up on our phone.
Okay we should talk a little linguistics. Namely, in how Vietnamese is often considered to be a monosyllabic language, implying that every word in the language is one syllable. That’s patently not true, as Bonnie pointed out within seconds of looking at signs around when I mentioned the idea, but nonetheless, almost all of the language’s words are disyllabic at most. Why bring this up? Well, it’s led to us questioning exactly how to write out the names of many places we’ve been. Many two-word names have gotten mashed together over the years – Dalat (Da Lat), Saigon (Sai Gon), Hanoi (Ha Noi) and so on, we’re guessing because it’s just a little bit easier for people – Western or Asian – to deal with. And so: Sapa!
Or, Sa Pa. Formerly known as Chapa, mysteriously. Maybe also Cha Pa?
Sapa is both the name of a district and its capital, about five hours from Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. Ha Noi. Anyway, we’ve stuck exclusively to the city, but there are many treks (the international word for hiking, as we’ve learned) to be done in the surrounding mountains, and several minority villages to visit in the same.
And speaking of the latter, we were swarmed as soon as we got off the bus by a crowd of grinning women in elaborately embroidered and brightly colored traditional dress. It wasn’t any less annoying than the motorcycle taxi touts in the cities, but at least they were prettier in several ways. One can theoretically let one of the local ladies take over, and even stay with them in a village house, but we weren’t really feeling that option for a few reasons – sadly, one reason was that we didn’t know how to tell who was just trying to sell us trinkets and who could actually offer an interesting homestay experience. That, and we’ve also done a good amount of the rural living in Thailand. Luckily, Sapa itself had plenty for us to see and do.
Like stare, and stare, and stare at the view.
It seemed like almost every last cafe and restaurant has views over the valleys and mist-covered mountains that are so vast as to almost be vertigo-inspiring. Each time we saw the verdant expanse over forests and rice terraces, we had to take a few moments just for our minds to wrap around what a big expanse of air we were looking across, and the constantly changing clouds and rain made each glimpse quite different from the next. We haven’t found a better way to enjoy a cup of coffee (especially rich Vietnamese style with a French drip filter, or phin, and velvety condensed milk) than from these balconies.
Of course, with clouds and mists comes almost constant rain. For the record, Frank is very, very glad Bonnie convinced him to pack a rain jacket. Secondly, Columbia’s Arcadia jacket has worked fantastically in that regard, even in this slippery, muddy, soaking environment. Everything ends up smelling just the tiniest bit damp in the town, but we’ll take that one hundred percent over the dorm room we initially ended up with. If any young English or German backpackers ever read this blog post, we’re just saying: smelling like a high school locker room and soaking yourself in Axe bodyspray are not going to help you hook up with anyone. And strangely, the hostel staff wouldn’t unlock the door to the outside–some explanation about plans to build dividers between balconies…
We’ve also eaten food, besides all the coffee.
The best example of which was a Hmong cooking class, scheduled after enjoying dinner at the delicious and utterly classy restaurant Hill Station, which features both local and traditional recipes and ingredients. Following Bonnie’s clever budget-saving idea of alternating who takes the cooking classes, Frank took on this one. He had the pleasure of working with Sai, a tiny Hmong woman who had learned cooking from her mother and who came to town specifically to teach the class. She was pretty in a quiet way, with a reluctant but bright smile and patient, measured kind of movement that was at once confident, gentle, and precise. She also was only a little taller than Frank’s waistline.
After a quick run to the nearby market to pick up buffalo and exactly half of a chicken, we settled down to business chopping, mixing, and cutting. Sai had a great way of teaching, with enough ingredients that Frank could simply mimic everything she did and thus needed minimal instruction that limited language overlap might hinder. The menu for the feast that resulted included:
- smoked buffalo with local pickled vegetables: this was actually similar to carne seca in preparation, with reconstituted dried meat, but a totally different flavor
- homemade tofu served two ways: unique to our experience, the tofu was almost in a masa-like texture, and one way was cooked with mysterious fragrant leaves mixed in
- chicken with wild ginger: perfectly fried chicken, with ginger made into something approximating french fries that burn
- ash-baked trout wrapped in banana leaf: perhaps the least flavorful of the bunch, but that’s only in relative terms; it was more subtle, instead
- and instead of traditional Hmong black pudding, Sai was kind enough to substitute banana flower salad for Bonnie – it’s a lot like pad thai in flavor, but completely vegan…and made of a giant purple flower!
The cooking class also came with a flight of local rice wines, which are a far cry from any sake we’ve ever had – they are throat-burningly, tear-inducingly high proof. The same went for the corn wines, only more so – they were basically moonshine. The plum-infused iteration at least had some plum wine kind of flavor, but plum wine that had been mixed with paint thinner kind of flavor, sooo….well, the Hmong apparently know what they’re about with their booze. Bonnie was lucky enough to join Frank for the meal once the class was finished.
Cat Cat Village
Rather than try our luck with a homestay, we decided to visit a Hmong minority village on our own. Cat Cat Village happens to be within walking distance of our hostel, so we took a trip down there. After walking down the windy town road for about 15 minutes, it becomes less developed, more gravelly and more muddy. It’s obvious that they’re improving the road, but it’s a slow process because the work is done completely by hand. Many motorbikes did brave the rough road, so we had to dodge them quite often, but we were still glad to be on foot.
It was interesting to see some examples of traditional houses and the way that they use rainwater to grind the rice, but we’re guessing that this one is a fairly touristy version of a traditional minority town. We did get to experience what it must be like to live and work on such a slope in this climate–it rained for much of the time while we were exploring, and to get anywhere requires walking up and down slippery stone steps.
All along the way are individuals trying to sell their crafts, many of which all look the same after awhile. We were lucky enough to come upon Hieu Stone and spoke to the owner for a few minutes. His stonework pieces are quite incredible, and we almost bought several but then realized just how expensive they would be to ship home. Someday!
Our unplanned trip to Vietnam has been a bit of a whirlwind. Looking back there are probably a few things we would have liked to research a bit more if we’d planned ahead, but all in all, it’s been an interesting and rewarding experience. We stopped at a few places in central Vietnam that didn’t seem to need their own blog entries, so he we go!
The trip to Mui Ne gave us our first taste of an overnight sleeper bus. We actually arrived at our destination around 1 AM, so we didn’t have the full experience of sleeping through the night on one; we did have the empty, dark ghost-town experience of Mui Ne in the middle of the night, though. Although we’d heard some nice things about the beaches here, we actually wound up spending most of our time at our resort’s pool. I think maybe we were just spoiled by Thailand’s beaches, and besides, it felt nice to be a little pampered. We’d somehow been upgraded for free from the “Budget” hotel to the “Bliss” resort.
Mui Ne is known for its sand dunes, so we did make the effort to do a sunrise visit to the dunes on our final day there. The first stop was at the white dunes, which would have been great, except our experience was mostly overwhelmed by the sound and smell of ATVs going by. We decided to see it on foot, so that did allow us to have a bit of a more serene experience, as ATVs couldn’t quite make it up the the highest points.
The next stop was to the red sand dunes. Fortunately, it didn’t seem like ATVs were allowed here, but we wound up spending quite a bit of time trying to avoid the people bothering us to buy slides. Again, we managed to find a relatively nice spot to sit and enjoy the scenery.
Next stop was to a local fishing village, which actually seemed pretty authentic (the smell of all the fish, squid and shellfish under the hot sun was certainly authentic enough). Local fisherman would transport the fish from the larger boats to shore with what looked like huge plastic bowls. Some looked like huge baskets, so we imagined that that’s what they must have used in the past.
The last stop was a place called Fairy Spring. The guidebook was correct in that in the first bit of walking along the silty stream, the whole thing feels pretty crappy, touristy and is full of trash. You also first pass a large fish sauce making facility, and oof can you smell it! But then fortunately, after about 15 minutes of walking, you end up a bit further away from the road, and it’s actually quite pretty. If we’d had even more time to explore, I’m sure it would be been even better.
Hoi An (quick stop in Nha Trang)
The first leg of our journey from Dalat was in a medium sized bus, but the driver apparently thought it was a racecar. The scenery was incredibly beautiful, green, impressive mountain landscapes and…sheer dropoffs. Let’s just say, we both put our shoes on, ya know…just in case. Through talking to some other travelers at the rest stop, we’re all pretty sure that our drivers were racing each other. Anyway, we made it through in one piece and had a few hours in Nha Trang until our next bus. Fortunately, we found a great restaurant for dinner, Cafe des Amis.
We spent the entire night on the bus this time, which was a pretty decent experience. The moon was mostly full, so we had some amazing views of the moonlight reflecting on the water. The whole affair, though, definitely did make us appreciate US highways. The entire drive was only about 500 km (about 300 miles), but the journey takes 12 hours. Much of the highway seemed to either be under construction or just dirt and gravel, though the bumps didn’t seem to hinder the epic, ripsaw snoring resounding from one large individual at the back of the bus.
We arrived in Hoi An, and after a bit of rest, we rented bicycles to see the town and surrounding beaches. It’s a nice area and relatively calm and quiet. Hoi An is mostly known for its clothing and tailor shops, and apparently you can buy handmade bespoke clothing very inexpensively and receive it in just a couple days. Sadly, we don’t have any room for extra clothing, but it’s on our list for the next visit. I bet you could get an entire custom made wardrobe, including the cost of flights, hotels and food, for less than a store-bought wardrobe would cost you in the US. And you’d be giving the money directly to the people who make the clothing. Just sayin’
Hoi An also had a nice selection of vegetarian restaurants, including one in which I took a cooking class. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to accurately replicate the dishes, but it was definitely a fun and delicious experience! It was also attended by an adorable British Indian kid and his parents, who for some reason had already eaten dinner…why? With 4 dishes to myself, I knew I needed assistance. Frank joined me, and I was able to offer samples to a nice Scottish couple who walked in at the perfect moment.
One highlight of the experience in Hoi An was just walking around the ancient city. Most of the storefronts are mostly taken up by modern-day sellers of trinkets and touristy items, but there are still some seemingly authentic historic buildings to see. The overall structures still have an air of olden days about them, at least. The thriving nightlife was fun for one night and wasn’t too overwhelming, especially with periodic electricity blackouts of parts of the neighborhood.
To get to Hue we rented motorbikes and drove ourselves there. The company actually delivered our bags for us! The trip certainly made for some amazing scenery! One highlight of our experience in Hue was the place we stayed, Hue Happy Homestay. The family who runs it is just so sweet, and their son is almost exactly Ronen’s age! The other was a restaurant, Shiva Shakti, run by a young, handsome Nepalese gentleman, that had some of the best Indian food we’d had.
This national park is somewhat newly available to tourists, so it’s just much easier to see with a tour. We stayed only one night but got to see Phong Nha Cave and some of the surrounding area. It’s a huge river cave that was used in the Vietnam war as a hidden Viet Cong base during the Vietnam War, though we were cringing at the way the locals were touching everything and even sitting on cave formations – apparently the local standards aren’t up to Arizona snuff regarding spelunking and cave health.
From there, we took a pretty uncomfortable overnight bus to Hanoi. We’d booked in advance, but I guess people here don’t tend to pay attention to assigned seats, and because of where we were staying, we were the last to board the bus, which had come all the way from Hue. Anyway, it meant a 12-hour ride in the coffin-section of a sleeper bus (a cubby at the very back of the bus, on top of the engine, with three pseudobeds that we had to snuggle up in with a pleasant German fellow, and the top of the cubby only inches from our faces. That made for some weird dreams…but on to the north!
Dalat is a small city in the central highlands of Vietnam – we’ve heard it described as something like a little town out of France in the middle of an Asian country. We’ve also heard it called a “sleepy mountain town.” To which we replied to each other upon arriving there, “Sleepy mountain town, my ass!”
Which, okay, was probably because we were initially plopped right in the town center, which is just as busy and chaotic and loud as the larger Vietnamese cities we’ve been to; hell, we saw a fistfight in the night market the first evening we were there. That said, once we got out of downtown, we started to see where those other descriptions were coming from.
Interestingly, during the Vietnam War, Dalat was apparently avoided by both sides, which helps explain the European, French-ish architecture that fills views from the higher slopes of the city – that style combined with the muted but colorful tones the roofs are painted with makes for some lovely vistas. Dalat is also apparently partly where the movie Indochine was filmed, one of my mom’s favorite movies and one that we watched over and over when we were younger; check it out, it’s pretty great.
Getting There and Settling In
The minibus from Mui Ne was….something of an adventure. There were some glimpses of intriguing mountain views as we started to climb into the highlands, including trees that almost looked like redwoods, with lush grassy undergrowth, and plantation rows on steep slopes, but then the bumps started. They were uncomfortable at first, especially the way we were crammed into the very back with a couple English girls, all of us with much longer legs than the average Vietnamese person. We’d read that it was best to get a seat toward the front, but only the back was available when we boarded the bus.
But then, with construction and terrible road maintenance and who knows what, even with the bus driver going slowly at points, we were being bounced straight out of our seats. We banged our heads on the ceiling, then cringed from sheer cliffs to the side, then ducked our heads again as we were launched once more, over and over. We were quite done with it, though at least we had the girls next to us to laugh it off with.
Our hostel was interesting, as I mentioned above, in being right in the city center, which meant it was practically part of the utterly massive night market. That entailed everything from pop-up restaurants to innumerable vendors selling everything from clothes to trinkets to carnival-like wandering salesmen to tiny, fishy omelet-crepe stands to fresh fruits and vegetables and plants, all right outside the front door. Luckily we were pretty high up in the building, and with heavily-curtained cubby-hole beds to boot, otherwise it would have been annoyingly loud into the night, every night.
One thing we saw that was new to us was little stands selling pastries, somewhat sweet but otherwise plain, combined with various hot milks. We enjoyed the soy and peanut milks, but never quite brought ourselves to try the “green bean milk.” It also gave us the opportunity to meet some adorable local kids who were shy but excited to practice the little English they knew. We also found a young girl selling what were probably the best waffles we’d ever had, no syrups our sauces needed.
We also got some nice vegetarian food while in Dalat, as Bonnie eloquently wrote about in a previous post, but the other thing of note that we managed to see within Dalat itself was Crazy House. This weird….place, a guesthouse-cum-amusement park-cum-send up to Salvador Dali, Dr. Seuss and Alice in Wonderland technically does house guests, but serves most of the day as a tourist attraction for people to climb, clamber, and explore through on paths both confusing and actually perilous. There are ladder/stairways with nominal or no railings arching up and twisting around each other around and within melting towers, all surrounding a courtyard overgrown with moss and tropical trees – by balancing all the way to the top, we got some great views of the surrounding city. It really feels like the place grew organically rather than was built by anyone, which in and of itself is quite an achievement in style. We often weren’t sure which parts were actual tree branches and which were man-made.
And, the Countryside – the Morning Half
Much of what Dalat has to offer is in the surrounding areas, and unless you’re comfortable driving a motorbike on your own, you basically have to take a tour. We’d read stellar reviews of Easy Riders, so we decided to go with them. Basically, you have an experienced driver who is also your guide, and you ride as the passenger on the back. Then they stop at various sites along the way. We found that even though the places they stop are definitely on the beaten path, at least being in such a small group makes it feel like a more authentic experience.
After some confusion about our hotel and another one of the same name (apparently, you can copy other businesses names without penalty in this part of the world–it definitely makes things confusing sometimes), our drivers found us, and we were on our way.
We first stopped at Chua Linh Quang Pagoda. For all its compactness, it was filled to the brim with flowers and statues of all sorts we hadn’t seen before, including a large white elephant with six tusks. Our guide asked us before we strolled to try to guess what one of the main symbols important to Buddhism was; he seemed a little nonplussed when before we even walked away we replied “the lotus?” Maybe he thought we just got lucky.
After that we were back in the countryside we had seen a little of from the bus, but in a much more comfortable mode of travel this time. On a motorbike, we had the freedom to look in any direction, and also the freedom to stop at pull-offs to see the most of the steep, tree-covered slopes, the terraces of coffee, and mysterious greenhouses nestled between ridges. It’s a gorgeous region, and not at all what we’d imagined when we first imagined “tropical” Vietnam. We felt quite comfortable with our guides driving, especially once we were out of the city traffic, even on the especially winding mountain roads.
Our next main stop was at a coffee plantation. Unfortunately, harvest is in October, so there wasn’t much to see except the plants (bushes? shrubs?) themselves. Well, that and the sleeping weasels that are kept around to make “weasel coffee,” which is a weird arrangement wherein they only feed the weasels bananas and coffee beans and then harvest the “processed” beans from the weasels’ shit. There was a cafe at this plantation, with a perfect patio with a view of a lake and rows of coffee and a sunlit vale, but even that and the barrista’s insistence weren’t enough to get us to try the weasel coffee – it just sounded bizarre and abusive to the animals. The regular coffee was memorably rich and strong, though. Vietnamese coffee is made similarly to a French press in that each cup is brewed separately, but in this case, the coffee drips through a filter on top of the cup. This article is a helpful explanation.
Next on our tour we moved on to another example of local agriculture – or would it be textile production? – a silk factory. A quick little tour showed us everything from a box of silkworms contentedly munching on leaves, to silk being unspun from cocoons in pools of hot water in whisper-fine threads, to massively complex looms spinning together intricately patterned scarves, to another box of silkworms. Cooked, this time, as it turned out, in lemongrass. They were crunchy.
And, the Afternoon Half
As the day started to turn, we got to Elephant Falls; offhand, until I found that link right there, I had no idea “Elephant” was anything but an arbitrary moniker. But hey: there’s a really sad story to go with it, so there’s that? Better than…no story? I suppose? Nonetheless, it was fun to climb through the maze of metal railings, slippery rocks, carved stairs and overgrown tree roots to the base of the falls. We’re actually really lucky we didn’t totally eat it several times and get covered in mud, in retrospect. In any case, the falls were fine, but the climbing was the more interesting aspect of that stop.
A second pagoda awaited us a short walk down the road from there; this was a much larger temple complex, with a huge plaza dotted with massive bonsai-like tree trays. The inside of the building had several large Buddhas, but we just wandered the grounds, admiring tables and chairs carved out of humongous pieces of driftwood, elegantly minimal arboretums, and mysterious plaques that probably had interesting quotes on them, if we were able to make heads or tails of Vietnamese besides for ordering food.
After a quick lunch at a roadside eatery, we stopped at a “minority village.” I put that in quotes because that consisted of us walking up and down a short road fronted by rundown shacks, of which the most interesting part was a few potbellied pigs wandering around freely. Our guide did explain that the minority people used to be nomadic and lived in the forest but were then paid to live outside of the forest for ecological preservation, which was mildly interesting, but he also might have told us that while pointing at it from a road where we had a better view of the forests themselves. The pigs were cute, though.
And lastly, there was what might have been my mom’s favorite part: an example of the greenhouses we’d seen in all the valleys! Apparently people from Holland had come at some point and taught the locals how to use greenhouses to grow vegetables and flowers almost year-round, which turned Da Lat into a breadbasket for Vietnam. The greenhouses aren’t entirely enclosed, nor are they made out of glass like others we’d seen, but they did seem to produce wonderfully healthy looking flowers, veggies, and greens, including a rainbow of roses and daisies in the one we stopped at.
Although Southeast Asia is not generally known for its vegetarian food, it seems as though the demand from Western tourists, combined with some vegetarian Buddhist communities, has certainly increased the number of options in many places. You just really have to look for them sometimes. That being said, vegetarian food was pretty much nonexistent in some of the less touristy places we’ve spent time. Interestingly, our host at Little Farm Friendly Project (in Chat Pa Wai) is a vegetarian, so he helped me with the lingo a bit. “Kin chay!”
We had tried using the website/app Happy Cow once in a less touristy part of Bangkok but were discouraged when we couldn’t find the place listed. And then the majority of the rest of our time in Thailand was spent in some more touristy areas–vegetarian options galore! I guess we still did use it a few times though. It wasn’t until we arrived in Vietnam that it has proven to be extremely helpful at times. It definitely doesn’t list everything, and it’s a pretty annoying process to add a new place, which seems counterproductive on their part. Also, some of the places listed just don’t seem to deserve to be on that list, but oh well!
Another interesting thing to note is that we’ve found in the more touristy areas of both Thailand and Vietnam, there’s a culture of servers standing outside and calling to you, often holding the menu and trying to get you to come into restaurants. I guess it’s the same way they talk to you on the street to get you to buy things. It’s an interesting practice to get used to. When we find places online and go directly there (as with most of these places), the servers are almost surprised when we walk in. I guess they’re used to having to convince people to come in.
Here are some of the places we’ve tried. We’ll list approximate prices and their conversions, to give you an idea.
Cafe des Amis, Nha Trang, Vietnam
We had a two-hour stopover between buses, so we decided to wander a little to find dinner. We actually found this place while walking to look for a different restaurant that was listed on Happy Cow (one in the category of those that doesn’t really belong on that website). This place does, however, deserve a listing on Happy Cow. They had about two whole pages of vegetarian options, so needless to say, we were a bit overwhelmed. Frank ordered the cauliflower and garlic, and I ordered the lemongrass tofu. When the food arrived, it was actually broccoli, which we were completely happy about, the tofu looked great too, and we were even happier when we tasted it. This was some of the most flavorful food we’ve had on our trip! I’ve found that you can get meat-free food many places, but you’re really lucky if it actually has any flavor. Both of these dishes were delicious and different from each other. Additionally, it was obvious that this is a family-run place, and they seem to take great pride in providing good service. The owner actually tried to talk to Frank in both French and German before realizing that we speak English.
- cauliflower with garlic
- lemongrass tofu
- steamed rice (yes, you basically always have to order it separately, sorry, Dad!)
- jasmine tea
- mango smoothie
- Total cost: 100,000 VND = $4.65
Hoa Sen, Dalat, Vietnam
This one got great reviews on both Happy Cow and Trip Advisor, and it was walking distance from our hotel, so we figured it was worth a try. The food overall was pretty decent, especially the “braised gluten,” which was delicious! Fortunately having made it myself at home, I knew that “braised gluten” is seitan, and used in the US basically anytime a menu lists mock duck, chicken or beef. We also got bok choy with mushrooms, which again, was decent. The fun thing about this place is that it gave us the opportunity to try some things of which you can’t generally find vegetarian versions: fresh spring rolls and dumplings. Both were good, but honestly, we like Becky’s spring rolls way better! The rice paper was pretty papery, and the peanut sauce wasn’t even close. It was watery and not super flavorful. If we’d had more time, though, I would have come back here for another meal to try some of the other things.
- braised gluten
- bok choy with mushrooms
- steamed rice
- bottled water
- fresh spring roll
- large bottle of water
- total cost: 150,000 VND = $6.98
Quan Com Chay Binh, Dalat, Vietnam
We’d been to a place like this earlier in the trip. All the food is already prepared and in a display case, and the staff don’t really speak English. We thought we were supposed to choose 1-2 items, which we then pointed to, but they only gave us a few bites worth of each on top of a large plate of rice, so we just kinda indicated that they should give us whatever. What we ended up with a plate full of all sorts of random things. The couple things that stand out in our memory were intensely bitter slices of bitter melon that looked like bumpy rings of squid, and chilled sour soups. If you’re looking for fine dining, this was not the place. One of the reviewers on Happy Cow complained that the food was cold, but we’re pretty sure that was intentional. Also, it seemed like this might have been some kind of monastery (the server was wearing robes, and the music was a chant), but with our lack of Vietnamese language skills, we couldn’t exactly ask.
- food, including rice and soup
- total cost: 20,000 VND = $0.93
Sen Quan Chay, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
This place was right around the corner from our hostel, so we actually went twice. The first time was with Amy, so it was nice to be able to share the experience and have more options. At first we weren’t sure the place was still there because the storefront opened into an empty space. We then realized that it was up some stairs in the back, which was great because it was nicely sheltered from the ridiculous street noise. We removed our shoes (which seems less common in Vietnam than in Thailand) and sat on cushions on the floor. They menu was impressive, and were were somewhat confused at first because it appeared to have many meat items, but we were reassured by the server that they were meat substitutes, as the restaurant was fully vegetarian. Amy ordered a cold noodle dish with spring rolls that was remarkably similar to one my mom had ordered at Loving Hut in Phoenix. It was unflavorful at first, but then I remembered that we were instructed by the server in Phoenix to pour the sauces on and mix it, rather than using them as dipping sauces. Frank ordered a mock goat dish, and I ordered braised jackfruit. Both were delicious, but we all especially liked the jackfruit. (We had the opportunity to sample it fresh while in the Mekong Delta, and let’s just say I’ll stick to it cooked and savory.)
Frank and I returned just the two of us the second time, and it was still good but less so. I’m sure it was just the items we happened to order.
- sauteed mock goat
- braised jackfruit
- steamed rice
- soursop smoothie
- avocado smoothie
- Total cost: 192,000 VND = $8.93
Tanh Tinh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We found this place in a completely non-touristy part of the city while walking back from our visit to the Bitexco Financial Tower. We definitely wouldn’t have found it without Happy Cow. It was one of those experiences in which the server sort of speaks English, we we couldn’t really understand what she was saying. We thought she said something about rice and about soup, so we just nodded. The place was completely vegetarian, so why not? We ended up with a plate of rice that included a few bites worth of a whole bunch of different things, with varied tastiness, and a soup. The server was very enthusiastic, so we tried to be the same. I can’t really remember any item in particular, but it was a decent meal.
- rice with all sorts of things
- Total cost: 95,000 VND = $4.42
Art Cafe, Koh Phangan, Thailand
We’d passed this place on our walk to the northern part of the island and then also found it online. The reviews were pretty stellar, so we were excited to try it. The setup was almost like a tree house, and it definitely seemed like a place you could sit and drink tea and read all day. Unfortunately for us, either the server was particularly enamored of me or is just like that generally, it became a pretty uncomfortable situation. He couldn’t stop complimenting me and kept looking at me with these very hopeful eyes. We realized later that maybe he was trying to emulate the floofy, effusive, hippy-type expats that live on the island. Either way, a great experience just became uncomfortable. I kept thinking he’d stop eventually, but he didn’t. Anyway, aside from that, the food was ok but less exciting than we were expecting, given the reviews of the place. Frank ordered the falafel and hummus (which was unlike any we’d had before), and I got a vegetable soup.
- falafel and hummus
- vegetable soup
- total cost: 300 THB = $8.87
Royal Indian Food, Hua Hin, Thailand
After lots and lots of Thai street food, we were excited to be in a place that had all sorts of other options. However, those options definitely come with a more touristy price tag. Although months away, anytime we eat Indian food on this trip, we both start to get super excited for our time in India, and this was the first Indian food we ate on the trip. Hua Hin is more of a weekend destination for people from Bangkok, and we were there during the week, so it wasn’t surprising that we were actually the only people in the restaurant. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but our server was very attentive, almost too attentive. While we were eating, he sat at the table next to us and basically watched us eat. Once we got past the awkwardness of that, it was a very enjoyable meal. The food was less flavorful than some Indian food that we’ve had, but adding the chutneys made it super tasty. Even just having the option of eating chickpeas made me super excited!
- chana masala
- navratan korma
- basmati rice
- garlic naan
- total cost: 490 THB = $14.48
I Love Salad, Koh Tao, Thailand
After signing up for our dive course, we went to check out this place. Jesper said something like “people love that place,” kinda implying that he didn’t love it himself. But we figured it was worth a shot. Up until this point on the trip, and as much as we normally eat a lot of them, we’d really shied away from eating raw vegetables. Some say they need to be washed in drinking water. But we figured we’d been brushing our teeth with tap water for a few weeks by this point, so hopefully our bodies were used to it. Frank ordered a chicken Caesar salad, and I got a beetroot burger that came with a side salad. Both were tasty but not super memorable.
- beetroot burger and salad
- chicken Caesar salad
- total cost: 350 THB = $10.34
La Carotte Qui Rit, Koh Tao, Thailand
Fortunately Frank knows French, so were able to figure out the cute name of this place translates as “the carrot who laughs” or “the laughing carrot.” The owner/server was French and spoke English well, but unfortunately, his tone made it sound like he was making fun of us even when saying innocuous things. Whether he actually was or not, I guess we can’t know. He did give us glasses of drinking water, which was nice, because we tend not to order bottled water unless we really need to. Restaurants all seem to have giant jugs of bottled water delivered every day, but maybe they just usually reserve it for washing produce.
Anyway, I ordered the Panang curry, and Frank ordered pad see ew. Mine was delicious, but unfortunately, Frank hasn’t been able to find a pad see ew that he’s liked as much as ones back home. It does seem like they’re just made a bit differently here – instead of the drier noodles in a dark soy sauce, it’s goopy noodles in a brown gravy. Overall, we enjoyed our meal and would have liked to go back, but we were moving to the southern part of the island for the remainder of our stay.
- Panang curry with tofu
- pad see ew
- total cost: 240 THB = $7.09
The Mekong Delta is basically spread out over the southern-most portion of Vietnam; the land there is visibly threaded through with rivers, and even just driving through it, one can see how that nature affects everything from the flora and fauna to the local economy. Luckily – given that we’d kind of only arrived in Vietnam because we had to leave Thailand before our visa ran out, and consequently had no plans whatsoever – our new friends were kind enough to welcome us along on their planned tour of the delta, giving us both direction and great company!
The first of many bus rides! We visited Vinh Trang Pagoda, which has a much more storied past than we realized, given that we got zero information about it from our ostensible guide. Thanks, Wikipedia in retrospect! As it stood, it was fine to wander around for a few minutes, not knowing anything about it.
The rest of the day was a series of delivered-by-boat events, on craft which loudly puttered over water described as “coffee-like.” Number one was a tiny coconut candy factory. A sharply bladed contraption is used to remove the white flesh, which is then broken down by various means of cooking into a taffy-like form, and then wrapped in edible plastic-like rice paper to protect it. We got a package of pandan-leaf flavor to share around, which was tasty. In other news, we’re still not really sure what a pandan leaf is.
On that same stretch of land, we were ushered into tiny carts drawn by small, worn-out looking horses – we were very reluctant to get into the carts, saying we could just walk to wherever they wanted to take us, but they were very insistent, pointing at the nominal mud on the ground. After we finally gave in, they took us on a short loop through a run-down one-street town; we were underwhelmed, needless to say.
The next couple things were more interesting, at least. One was a slow, quiet rowboat ride through narrow canals shaded by water coconut trees. I can’t hardly find anything about this coconut variant, but it’s really odd-looking – it’s as if there was a tiny coconut version of the Big Bang, which was stalled just the iota of a moment after the initial coconut explosion, and before the coconuts become round so they’re still kind of pointy. Just like that. Many of the rowers seemed of the older generation, to which we realized it’s definitely a job that keeps you young! This part of the tour was actually pretty fun and peaceful…at least until our rowers were annoyingly pushy about demanding tips at the end. Ah well.
After that was a “crocodile farm,” though we weren’t sure what the farm aspect was supposed to be. What there was, as far as we saw, a small section of canal with a whole lot of crocodiles patiently waiting (like, so still we were convinced they were statues at first) for bits of meat tied to string that people could pay to give to them. Or, in the case of the many Chinese and Western tourists, gleefully tease and torment the crocodiles. Steve just gave the bit he had directly to a crocodile; we felt much better about that.
Last was an opportunity to hear local traditional music! And eat slices of fruit, while awkwardly trying to avoid looking at the ostentatious tip baskets. The singing was actually very pretty and interesting to listen to, if in an awkward and cheesy environment, at least until they got into a thickly accented “If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands.” Our cringing might have actually been more audible than any clapping.
We spent a few hours on the bus and then checked into our hotel in Can Tho, strangely separated from the group with which we’d spent the day. Apparently, we were just sort of given to another group because the group we were supposed to be with had too many people. Anyway, we explored a little around the town, but beyond circling a small night market with Amy there isn’t much to say, except that I discovered that ambarella juice tastes, as Bonnie put it, “like leaves smell.”
We got up really early and blearily ate our hotel baguettes and greasy eggs so we could make it to the local floating market, which sounded exciting after all the photos we’d all seen of graceful, slender boats brimming with colorful fruits and so on. Except, we discovered, it simply wasn’t that kind of floating market – this, rather, was a much more industrial affair, with boats of various sizes and increasing loudness of engines chugging and roaring back and forth as they tossed dubious produce to one another. It would make a good model for a sci-fi setting in its grungy oddness, but “graceful” would be the last word for it. Smaller boats would pass next to our boat to sell their fruit and coffee, and when they found a customer, they’d sort of tether the boats together with a rope and hook. It was interesting. Also, it was clear by this point that we’d been foisted off on a very non-English tour with a bunch of Asian tourists; it didn’t matter in a sense, though, because the boat was too loud to hear anything anyway.
Not being on an English-speaking tour does have the tiny advantage (sort of) of every next event being a complete surprise. Case in point: as Steve dubbed it (no pun intended), the “Saturday Morning Techno Noodle Market.” To be fair, the blaringly loud techno music was coming from house next door, but it permeated our learning-how-rice-noodles-are-made experience. That process in and of itself was at least interesting – we watched as the rice flour was cooked with tapioca powder to make a batter that was spread and cooked like a crepe, whereupon the next person would use basket cylinders to roll up and then unroll the big crepes for drying in the sun. Once dry, they were fed through a noodle-forming machine. Luckily it’s a pretty simple process, as we couldn’t hear our guide’s explanation very well over the loud rave music, but what are you going to do.
Next on day two was…well we think it was possibly a small fruit farm? It’s hard to say, we spent a while wandering rows of fruit trees and dragonfruit cactus…er, trees? Stands? Rastafarian bushel towers? It at least gave us an opportunity after we walked, mystified and sweaty, to get some more mangosteen (Bonnie’s new favorite fruit), so that was nice.
And lastly on the second day, the tour materials indicated that it was supposed to be an apiary, though there were no beehives in evidence; there was lots of honey on sale, though. We did enjoy the way they tried to sell it to us, which involved combining raw honey, a squirt of lime juice, bee pollen, and tea in a shot glass to make a tasty hot drink. No word on what bee pollen actually does for you, though.
After the honey we were ushered into an area where they were growing orchids, we assume for sale, but again, no explanation. They also brought out what we’re pretty sure was a Burmese python for the entertainment of the tourists. Again, we weren’t too thrilled by this and wondered how such a large animal could even fit in such a small cage.
After another several hour bus ride, we stayed in Chao Doc. We were referred by the tour guide to a specific restaurant, but it was pretty underwhelming. Amy was determined to get some veggies, but what she ended up with, unfortunately, was a bowl full of stalks. Bonnie’s meal was similarly, sauteed stalks. Not the best veggies we’ve ever eaten, but we definitely got our fiber for the day!
The last day of the tour. Still on a non-English tour. Still more boating, this time weaving through flotillas of the invasive water hyacinth to get to a small fish farm. A.k.a. a small house sort of building on stilts, with trapdoors opening to what appeared to be a gnashing, splashing, thrashing mass of piranhas in a very small space. They were actually some kind of more innocuous fish that were just really hungry for their fish food, apparently, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stick a body part in that frenzy.
There was only one more event on our delta tour: a visit to a Cham minority village. These particular folk were Muslim, though the Cham people were long-time Hindus in past centuries. We didn’t actually see much of the village, though we did see one woman making scarves, of which we were quite enamored; we spent most of our time there looking at them.
While we were glad to be done with the tour and be on our way back to meandering north through Vietnam, it was a bittersweet end – we had to say goodbye to Amy, Conor and Steve, as they were continuing on to Cambodia. We were kicking ourselves for having gotten only single-entry visas for Vietnam, so we couldn’t join them further. We’ll definitely see them in other locales at some point, though – we’ll make sure of it!
I mean really, we’ve asked person after person after person, and gotten all sorts of answers. Anyway, here’s some stuff we noticed!
Airport + Visa
The visa-on-arrival, following getting the required initial reference letter online, was pretty painless, luckily. Aside from having slept on the tile of Bangkok’s northern airport (Don Mueang) the night before for an early flight, that is. (Our bus had arrived from the south around 9 PM, and our flight was at 7:45 AM, so getting a hostel just didn’t make sense.) In any case, we were glad that we made sure to get the fee in US dollars and our passport photos ahead of time, and since it’s the low season, it took hardly any time at all. After customs we immediately went to the Mobifone kiosk to get a local SIM card with unlimited data for cheap and got some money changed. The city bus was also really convenient and easy (as opposed to getting a taxi) was incredibly cheap; we just had to deal with, you know, a crazy Chinese person yelling at the bus driver. Buses, man.
Something Something Traffic Metaphor
Now, traffic here….is crazypants. I’ll just copy and paste from an email I’d sent: “It’s kind of like Bangkok in being a ginormous Asian city. But it’s not so much a hot mess, it’s a bit more walkable. Except when crossing the street; taking the bus from the airport was like riding in a raft in whitewater rapids, except the water was made out of motorbikes. Thus, crossing the street entails being like Neo in The Matrix, and pretending that there is no traffic/spoon. Or maybe it’s like jumping into the water for scuba diving, you just stick one foot out and go at an arbitrary moment, letting all the motorbikes flow around you? It’s terrifying on some level, but kind of like spelunking, you just don’t think about it, and it actually seems pretty safe, bizarrely. At least we haven’t seen anyone get smuckered yet. I think I just mixed a lot of metaphors.” I’ll add that the city overall is actually very walkable, all things considered, there are just even more motorbikes also using the sidewalks than Bangkok. Apparently, there are around 13 million people in Saigon and about 6.5 million motorbikes, one for every two people. Whoa!
The money is frustratingly, supremely confusing. Can anyone who knows economics let us know why they don’t just lop off three zeroes? The current exchange rate is 21,000 VND to 1 USD. Carrying around hundreds and thousands and even millions of dong, little say with old and new versions of bills that are different colors and sizes but also similar colors and sizes….well, we’re just missing the Thai baht. And coins (from what we can tell, there are no coins in Vietnam); apparently there’s even a note that’s equivalent to 0.9 US cents. But hey, at least we get to say we’re millionaires?
New Friends and Microbrews
We’ve also been to several bars in the city, which is really a first for us on our travels – we hadn’t really drank until we got to Vietnam. We started with Heli Bar up on the fifty-second floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in the city. It had retty solid views (if smoggy before the sun went down), but the bar itself was surprisingly tacky; nice service, though, especially in how they escorted us all the way from the ground floor.
During breakfast at our little, very vertical (many flights of stairs, but we get to brush our teeth and go to the bathroom on a balcony) hostel that’s hidden away in a narrow, busy, sketchy alley, we were lucky enough to meet some awesome people! That is, Amy from England-slash-Scotland, and Stephen and Conor from Ireland! Hi guys! We hit it off immediately and made plans to hang out for the day. First stop was to the War Remnants Museum (will talk more about that in a minute), after which we decided we all needed a drink. We came across a random bar on the street that was filled with low couches and coffee tables; I learned that a pomelo milkshake just really doesn’t work and Steve and Conor were able to charm glasses of Glenlivet out of the staff. We have learned many things from them, including Vietnam travel, the etiquette and sacrilege that can be involved in drinking a pint of Guinness, and all sorts of slang.
Next we all went next to my personal favorite out of the bars we tried, Pasteur Street Brewing Company, an American-owned microbrewery hidden down a dark, narrow alley and up a bat-infested flight of stairs. It was very narrow and crowded, but had great bar snacks and offerings like jasmine IPA, a sour mash amber with rambutan, and a passion fruit wheat. This one was recommended by our new friend Anna, who we were introduced to by some Tucson friends. She’s an expat digital nomad currently living in Saigon, who had already given us some of the best advice we’d gotten for our travels – thanks Anna! She also went with us to a bar back on Bui Vien, something like the Khao San Road of this city, full of neon and loudness and bro-ness. But with falafel banh mi sandwiches, here! Also, people selling more dried squid and balloons filled with laughing gas.
Paying Our Respects
To swing to the entirely other side of the seriousness spectrum, we also went to the War Remnants Museum, which houses a collection of photographs and artifacts of the Vietnam War (or as it’s locally known, of course, as the American War or at times the American Aggressive War, or variations on that). It was obviously biased to one end of the spectrum, and as much as we were taking things with a grain of salt, it was a disturbing museum to visit. Exhibits included ones on journalists who were killed during the war, French rule and historical context leading up to the war, weapons used, effects of Agent Orange and other chemicals immediately and long-term, local reconstruction, and worldwide anti-war protests/peace movements. Patrons included one really offensive and obnoxious Australian guy.
The other sightseeing we did was at the Reunification Palace, formerly and sometimes still known as the Independence Palace. It has quite a storied history, including being a former White House sort of capital building, being bombed by a North Vietnamese soldier who infiltrated and stole a plane to do so, and the supposed site of the ending of the Vietnam War via a tank crashing through the front gates. Each of the rooms has been turned into a sort of time-capsule display of what the building was like in the 1960s and 70s, which would probably be amazing for anyone with an interest in interior decorating. We were doing our best to imagine what it was like to be there for historical events, like that tank gate-crashing, or what it would have been like to be hunkered down in the claustrophobic basement bunker with rumbling explosions occurring above. We were a little hindered by Vietnamese tour groups shoving past us in every stairwell, though – we weren’t sure if that was a cultural norm we didn’t get, or if it was because we were foreign.
Also: in almost all bathrooms we’ve seen in this country, there are no paper towels or anything for drying, which is great for trees past any mild inconvenience. There is also, however, no soap at all, which is terrible for hygiene. Also, sales-people can be really grabby, so if you don’t like people yanking on your arm to get your attention, maybe stay away from any claustrophobic indoor markets.