Hue, Phong Nha, Northern Vietnam

Our one night in Hue we spent at the hostel socializing. I found two backpackers from Buenos Aires so I spent the whole evening practicing my Spanish with them since I haven’t really had a chance to have a real conversation in Spanish in so long. It was so fun and it came back to me quickly, although it also made me feel like I need (and want) to take some Spanish lessons once I get back to the states…

The next morning I woke up and ate some banana pancakes, checked out of the hostel, and put my backpack in storage. We were only in Hue for one day so I spent the whole day meandering around the imperial city there. Hue was the capital of the Nguyen empire, so the imperial city is a massive walled complex. A ton of it was completely destroyed in the war, as Hue was also unfortunately one of the most intensely bombed areas. However, despite this, about 40 (of the originally 180) structures are standing and what is left is so beautiful and impressive. There were palaces, a royal reading house, a royal theater, various royal residences, and numerous beautiful temples. Also, every part was covered in very informative signage so you knew what every pile of bombed rubble used to be and what every standing structure still was. Unfortunately I can’t remember which things were which so I’ll just post a whole bunch of photos of the whole imperial city.

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I spent the whole day at this imperial complex and still hadn’t visited everything but at a certain point my back and sinuses were feeling unhappy so I walked back to the hostel, stopping at a cute but little royal antiquities museum. Then I got some delicious spring roll/vermicelli noodles as an early dinner.

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Eventually it was time to hop onto my night bus to Phong Nha, a small town that serves as the base for exploring some of Vietnam (and the worlds) most impressive caves.

Our first day in Phong Nha, Emma and I took motorbikes to Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in the world. The drive there was truly gorgeous. The whole area was limestone cliffs and the mountains were covered in lush jungle vegetation. It was so pleasant. Once we got to the entrance we had to hike in through the pretty ferns to get to the cave.

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The cave itself was so stunning. It was indeed a very long walk through all of the stalactites and beautiful cave formations. There were also these little mineral ponds that were so calm that the surface was like a mirror. It was stunning.

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After a while wandering through the cave we headed back out, hiked back through the jungle and got on the motorbike to head to Dark Cave. Here we actually swam to the cave (with a guide this time) and we’re given headlamps and hard hats once we reached the entrance. Then we hiked through knee deep water until we reached a section that was almost like a slot canyon. At this point it was starting to get very muddy. We finally reached this lake that is completely mineral mud. It is the weirdest mud. It makes you completely buoyant, so much so that it takes serious effort to push your feet down to touch the bottom. It was really cool but it made my organs feel all weird to be so completely weightless. Also every single inch of us was covered in this mud which was quite funny but frustrating if you opened your mouth, and it would have been a disaster if you had anything in your eye. After a while of floating around in the mud we hiked back out and kayaked downriver to get back to the motorbikes. The river was also so clear and blue so we swam around for a bit to try and get some of the mud off, although it seems to have permanently stained the white parts of my bathing suit a weird pinkish brown.

Then it was back onto the bike to head back to the hostel. The light was stunning on our trip home as the sun had already set but the remaining rosy light was reflecting off of the white limestone cliffs. The trip back was also gorgeous but in a different way as we were going through rivers and farmland and villages. I tried to take a couple photos but we were in a rush since we didn’t have lights on the bike and darkness was fast approaching so the photo below doesn’t even come close to doing the scene justice.

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Emma left that night, so I was back to traveling on my own, and that night I even got my dorm room completely to myself as Phong Nha is quite a small place and hasn’t hit peak tourist popularity yet. It was very calming.

The next day I had a slow lazy morning and then spent the rest of the day wandering around the village and the neighboring villages taking photos and eating delicious Vietnamese food.

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Eventually it started pouring rain so I headed back to the hostel and later got on a night bus to Hanoi.

I arrived in Hanoi quite exhausted and couldn’t check in to my room until 1. Fortunately they had a free 3 hour walking tour of the old quarter of Hanoi at 10 so I joined in. It was a really lovely tour. Hanoi is a really nice city, at least the old quarter is. We went to a small temple, then to a catholic cathedral. Our tour guide told us that Vietnam is very religiously diverse and the population is evenly split between Buddhism, Catholicism, and atheism, with a minority group practicing Confucianism. Very interesting.

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After this we went to the main lake in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake. On weekends they shut down the roads surrounding the lake to vehicle traffic so everyone is just out playing in the streets. There were so many families around and there were all sorts of little plastic cars and scooters and roller blades that kids were renting and riding around on. It was so sweet to watch.

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The lake itself was also quite pretty and there is a special little temple island in the middle of it dedicated to the turtle god. Within the lake there are apparently ~20 different kinds of turtles that you can find. Unfortunately though I didn’t see a single one…

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After the lake we headed to the original place that made egg coffee, a Vietnamese specialty. Although I don’t usually drink coffee, Hanoi is famous for this egg coffee so I had to try it. They mix egg yolk with condensed milk and whip it so that it becomes a meringue, then you have to stir the meringue into the coffee.

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It was actually so delicious, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t really care for eggs or coffee. It was very thick and frothy and creamy.

After that we headed to a market which was fairly uninteresting and chaotic so we moved on quickly and headed back to the hostel. I checked in to my room, rested a bit, ate lunch and then headed off to return to the lake.

I sat down next to the lake and within minutes was approached by a group of 20 year old students who wanted to practice their English. This is apparently quite common around this lake (as I was later approached by 3 more groups of students ranging in age from 8 up to 20… the 8 year olds were the cutest). They had a list of questions that they were supposed to ask but we ended up getting super off topic and we ended up chatting for a full hour and a half. It was so lovely, and they tried to teach me some Vietnamese but the pronunciation is so hard that I’ve already forgotten almost everything that they taught me.

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After bidding my new friends adieu I continued my stroll around the lake, meeting some more curious Vietnamese people and watching all of the sweet couples cuddling up along the shore.

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Finally it was getting late enough that I decided to head back to the hostel, just in time for some free beer. I spent the remainder of the evening making friends and getting destroyed at foosball.

The next day I checked out of my room and put my bags in storage. Hanoi is famous for its food, so I soon went out to find some Bun Bo Nam Bo, a Hanoi noodle bowl specialty that I’d read about. I found a little hole in the wall type place and ordered some and it was so tasty.

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It was also a humongous portion and I was so hungry that I gobbled it down and then realized how stuffed I was. I wandered around the old quarter for most of the remainder of the day. Eventually I was hungry again so I tried another Hanoi specialty, this time called Banh Cuon. It was honestly a bit weird. First off they barely spoke English so I thought I ordered pork but then it looked very odd and tasted possibly a little shrimp-y. It’s basically these big wide slightly soggy rice noodles surround some ground mystery meat and you dip it in this sauce that seemed just like fish sauce with chilies floating in it. The flavor was quite good but the weird texture and mysteriousness of the ingredients were just odd enough to push me to gobble it down rather then savor it.

After dinner I headed back to the hostel to rest and then took a night bus to Sapa.

Sapa ended up being my favorite place so far. It’s in the far north of Vietnam, right on the border with Yunnan, China. It’s very mountainous and the area is scattered with hilltribes who have terraced the foothills of the mountains for rice paddies. We trekked 16 km through the mountainous terrain with a beautiful little hill tribe family as our guide, stopping to eat and catch our breath. It was actually one of the most scenic and gorgeous places I have ever been.

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We made it to our homestay around 4 and settled in. My tour group was such an amazing group of people. It was 2 Americans who were on their gap years before starting at private liberal arts colleges (so I gave them lots of fun advice), an incredibly fun Australian guy, and a hilarious brother and sister duo from Toronto (and the sisters name was Tara so that was fun). Our beds were in a cabin and right next to eachother so it was basically like summer camp. In the evening, I broke away from the group and went on a walk down the river to read my book and watch the sunset. It was so beautiful and peaceful.

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Our homestay family made us a delicious dinner and then we spent the whole evening having such a blast. We played game after game and then danced around for hours before the mosquitos and exhausting from our hike got the better of us.

The next morning we woke up to a delicious crepe breakfast, put on our hiking shoes, and continued on to our next village. The breath-taking views continued on and we eventually reached this big cliff face with a waterfall down it where we relaxed for a bit and enjoyed the view.

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The remainder of the walk was quite arduous as we went up huge hills and then down slippery muddy slopes but we eventually got some tasty noodle soup for lunch, and then finally reached the main town of Sapa.

We had 2 more hours until our bus so our little group wandered around the town, and we eventually found a little cafe to just enjoy the incredible view and drink juice and coffee.

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Then it was back onto the bus to Hanoi. I got in at 10 PM and immediately had to repack my bags before catching a 7 AM bus to Halong Bay.

I went on a tour through my Hanoi hostel in halong bay as it is fairly confusing to deal with on your own and there are lots of “tour” scams. It was nice doing it through the hostel as there were 12 other backpackers my same age with me and we had 3 tour guides who were also our age and knew how to keep everything fun and laid back. Our first day in halong bay we checked into our dorm bungalow on a private island and got served a delicious lunch.

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Then we got onto a boat and went all around the bay, finally stopping at one point to jump off the boat and swim around a bit. Unfortunately it was freezing outside so it made the swim and post-swim a tiny bit miserable but it was still fun.

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Then we went a little further and got to kayak all throughout the bay. It was so much fun. We went through one area that was a floating village. There are ~1000 people that live in these floating villages throughout halong bay. It was really amazing to see. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera with me but it was all so scenic. After a nice long kayak ride it was back to our little island for rest and dinner. After dinner we all stayed up late hanging out and playing games.

The next day we took a boat ride to one of the major islands where we got bicycles and went all around the island. It was such a nice ride.

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Eventually we got off and hiked up one of the many limestone mountains in the area. It was quite the grueling hike, but the view at the top was so worth it.

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The hike back down was equally brutal and a few people in our group took some big tumbles. Thankfully I was not one of them. Then it was time for a long bike ride back to the boat where we were greeted by an extremely late lunch. We were so starving that the food was quickly gobbled up. We got back to our island stuffed and exhausted and all napped until dinner time. After dinner it was another night of dancing and games. Our group of people was so much fun and we all got along really well so that made the whole trip even better.

Our last day in halong bay we went on another hike, but this time on the island that we were staying on. It too had some brutally steep moments but the views were again so worth it, and we got to go to a beach that was covered in monkeys.

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Then it was back to the main part of our island for some final card games and lunch before our bus/boat trip back to Hanoi. I made it back in the evening, caught up with people back home, and then decided to head out for some late dinner. I got Pho from a tiny stand on the street and it was quite tasty, then I wandered around and stumbled onto the Hanoi night market. It was really interesting. It was geared towards locals, not tourists, as most of the stuff was clothing and accessories, but it was fun to wander around in the chaos and just watch people haggle over prices while snacking on the various fried street foods along the way.

Today is my second to last day in Hanoi. For the most part I took it easy for the day since I’m pretty physically exhausted from all of the hiking and exercise from the past week. I finally headed out for lunch at a nearby place that specializes in Bun Cha, a Hanoi specialty that Obama tried when he came to Hanoi. I didn’t make it to the place that he went to because it was far away and there was a place closer that had better reviews on trip advisor.

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It was indeed quite delicious and they showed me the proper way to eat it which was very nice. Afterwards I decided to stroll around through the Old Quarter to see if I could find myself a watch. I unfortunately broke mine beyond repair and thought it might be cheaper to just get a replacement in Vietnam. It was quite a frustrating search and I ended up confused and with no watch, so I guess I’ll just find one when I get home. The stroll around the old quarter was nice though. It was, and still is, the main shopping hub of Hanoi. Every street is named after the type of goods sold on it. Some of the stores have just turned into general tourist-crap stores but many of them still retain their original function so there is a street where every shop is selling aluminum wares, a street where every shop is selling silk, and then the street that my hostel is on is dedicated to stores selling ropes and string.

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Tomorrow’s my last day in Vietnam which is sad but I’m excited to head back to Thailand and meet up with one of my old school friends!

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