Saigon, Da Lat, & Hoi An

My second evening in Ho Chi Minh, 5 other travelers and I headed to a bar that’s on top of a skyscraper. The view was really amazing and the other people were so friendly so that was fun. My next day in Saigon, I booked a Mekong river tour. I hadn’t heard the best reviews of it, but it was only ~$6 and included water and lunch so it couldn’t really be that bad. We started out with a 2 hour bus ride to the river delta while our very funny guide explained what was on the schedule for the day. Our first stop was a small temple that had 3 giant Buddha statues, one standing, one sitting, and one reclining. It was a pretty little temple, and seemed to have a lot more Chinese influence than the temples in Thailand.

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Then we piled onto a boat that took us over to an island that had a coconut candy factory on it. We got to sample the coconut candy but then they of course tried to push us to buy some. Didn’t buy anything the whole day. Next we went to an island where they served us lunch. It wasn’t the most appetizing lunch, but it was food. Then we had an hour to explore the little island. I had mixed feelings about this. First we walked past a “crocodile” (pretty sure these were caimen, not crocs but that’s what they called them) farm. At first I was excited to see “crocodiles” but then I realized how terrible the conditions were, it was like 50 animals in one tiny enclosure barely bigger than my living room and I got a bit depressed. So I moved on to explore the remainder of the island with a couple Dutch people on my trip. We got free bike rentals so we took the bikes out of the tourist area and biked around the island through banana and coconut farms, which was charming.

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Our next stop was a honey farm, where we were served free honey tea but then of course pressured to buy some. Thankfully we moved on quickly and got in these little banana boats that took us down a little Mekong tributary. It was really pleasant, and I kept spotting these weird little creatures that looked like a mix between a fish and a salamander that were climbing out of the water onto the mud using what looked like fins, not legs. I still have no idea what they were but they were everywhere. I’ll have to look them up.

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We ended with some fresh fruit at this place where we were serenaded with traditional vietnamese singing. It was a bit bothersome because I don’t exactly like being sung to and it wasn’t particularly good and of course they asked for tips. After this we headed back to the main land and got back on our bus to Saigon.

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So in total, it wasn’t the best experience because a lot of it was clearly designed as a sort of tourist trap, but the banana boat trip and bike trip were quite nice and worth it so I don’t regret my $6 spent. Then it was back to the hostel for some free beer and socializing. A new British girl arrived at my hostel who was so incredibly entertaining and had just gotten back from scuba diving for 2 weeks in the Maldives where she got covered in jellyfish stings. So I listened to all of her diving stories and then we headed out on a pub crawl put on by a neighboring hostel. It was really fun, and I made a lovely group of friends.

The next day I checked out of the hostel and then spent much of the day lazing around their common room. Eventually my hunger overtook my laziness and I found a stand selling sandwiches that were a cross between a banh mi and a gyro. It was fantastic. Then I walked through another part of downtown Saigon for the rest of the day. After wandering I was feeling sore so I went to a massage place where the masseuses are blind. It was the best massage yet and it was only $3. So crazy. After dinner with some of the people from my hostel, it was time to get on my overnight bus to Da Lat. It was truly the weirdest bus I’ve ever been on. The seats are beds and there are two levels of them. So there was someone sleeping above me.

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Thankfully I passed out right away and woke up when we arrived in Da Lat at 5:30 am. Unfortunately the reception at my hostel wasn’t open until 7, but there were two other backpackers in the same boat as me, so we lugged our stuff up to a little cafe, ate some breakfast Bun Bo Hue (noodle soup), and rested. Then I walked the 2 km to my hostel and fortunately there was an open bed, so I was able to check in immediately and sleep for the remainder of the morning. Also the beds at this hostel were memory foam, which made sleep all the better.

I finally decided it was time to get out of bed around lunch time. I walked all through the center of town looking for street food called da lat pizza. Eventually I reached the main lake in Da Lat and thought maybe there would be a food cart somewhere around it.

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After almost fully completing the 6 km trek around the lake I finally found a cart selling banh mi so I bought one. My inability to know how to order food in Vietnamese meant I just got whatever she handed me. It was a sandwich with about 5 meats in it. It tasted delicious, although the texture was a bit suspicious so I just had to gobble it down before thinking too hard about it. Then I wandered back up through the hillside and around the town where I bought some more questionable street food, this time a weird jelly boba type drink that ended up being overly sweet so I only made it through half of it.

Once I got back to the hostel I rested some more before a tasty “family style” dinner served for all of the travelers and then some more evening socializing.

The next day I set out early for an EasyRider motorcycle tour. This entailed me and 3 other people from my hostel sitting on the backs of motorcycles while we were toured around the Da Lat countryside. Da Lat is very different from other places that I’ve been because it’s at 5000 ft elevation so the weather is significantly drier and there are pine trees rather than palm trees. Our first stop was a little pine grove that we hiked up to see a view of the city and surrounding farms (a huge portion of produce around Vietnam is grown in Da Lat).

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After this we continued on for a while on this long and winding, but very scenic road, stopping at another viewpoint, a flower farm, and a coffee plantation. At the coffee plantation we learned about this special coffee that is actually made from coffee beans that have been digested by weasels, which apparently makes it a delicacy. It was very interesting.

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Our next stop was a cricket farm (for eating) and a rice wine farm. We got to try samples at both and the rice wine was especially delicious. Then it was on to a silk factory which was interesting but a little gross as every surface was covered in wet silkworm carcasses.

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Next we went to Elephant Falls, which was gorgeous. We walked way down to the bottom of the waterfall which was fun, but muddy.

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Then we had a cheap little lunch. It was good but the meat was slightly questionable (thankfully did not get sick from it!). Then we walked over to a fairly modern temple that was built in 2007. It was very Grand and impressive, with a gigantic Happy Buddha statue.

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Then we got back on our bikes and headed off on a long trip to Pangour waterfall. We stopped once to look at these peppercorns trees that are actually growing around gigantic coffee trees.

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Pangour Waterfall was incredible. Truly breathtaking, I had no idea there were waterfalls like that in Vietnam. We walked around there for a bit, checking out the waterfall from all different angles before hopping back on the motorbikes for a long ride back towards Da Lat.

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On the way back we stopped at a mushroom farm and an indigenous village where they had build a massive rooster statue. We also stopped at a couple more viewpoints, including a beautiful alpine-esque lake.

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In the end, it was an incredibly informative tour and our guides were so friendly and knowledgeable. I had a family dinner that night with the other travelers from my tour and then we went to this crazy bar that’s designed like a mix between a maze and a funhouse. There are false stairways everywhere and in places the ceiling drops to about 3 ft. It was quite entertaining.

The next day in Da Lat, I went on a canyoning tour with 4 other backpackers. First we got dropped off and geared up in half wetsuits, harnesses, and hard hats. Then we headed to this dirt hill where they taught us how to rappel. With this knowledge in mind we hiked up this canyon until we got to a bit cliff face. First we rappelled down the dry part of the cliff and then it was time for the challenge of rappelling down the waterfall. It was a bit terrifying because the water is just pouring down on top of you so you can barely see but it was quite exhilarating.

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Then we hiked through the jungle for a bit more than a half an hour. There were birds everywhere and it was lovely to be tucked away in such a forest. Eventually we reached our next waterfall, the “washing machine”. For this waterfall we weren’t really climbing down it but rather just dropping down it. It was a bit overwhelming because it’s just a bunch of water pushing you down and again you can’t really see much but it was very refreshing and the swimming hole at the bottom was quite nice.

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Then they set us up on this zip line across a giant swimming hole and we spent the remainder of the afternoon zip lining into the water and cliff jumping.

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After a full day of activities they set us up with a make your own banh mi station which was so delicious and some beers. By then end of the day I was damp and exhausted and cold so it was nice to go back to the hostel and just relax. I spent the remainder of the evening there socializing with other people of course before heading to bed early.

The next day I checked out of the hostel and then had to wait for my night bus to Hoi An (a 17 hr bus ride). Our bus was running 2 hours late but thankfully I booked the same bus as a British girl, Emma, that I had befriended in Ho Chi Minh who was on the same trip plan as me. Having a bit of company made both the bus delay, and the accompanying overnight bus ride, a little more tolerable.

We made it to Hoi An and were staying in the same hostel for the same number of days, so it’s like having a travel companion. Our first day we were exhausted from our excruciating bus ride so we rested a bit at the hostel and then headed out with 2 other backpackers to explore Hoi An. Hoi An is famous for its tailoring shops and there are hundreds of them where you can get custom clothes designed and made overnight for dirt cheap. Emma had a list of things she needed made, and one of our other friends wanted to get a custom suit made so we spent the afternoon wandering around between tailor shops until we found the best price with the best fabric to get their clothes made. It was interesting to watch, and I decided to get a jumpsuit made since I can never find ones in the US that fit right. Then we went to a bakery that had incredible banh mi for less than $1 and was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. We spent the remainder of the evening just wandering around some of the produce markets along the river in Hoi An.

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Our next day in Hoi An, I accompanied Emma to some of her various fittings at the tailors and then we bought old town exploration tickets that allowed us to go into 5 different buildings, sights, or cultural events. We went to the old Japanese covered bridge, 2 old assembly halls, an old house, and a traditional performance art show. They were all very spectacular and at one of the assembly halls, we got swarmed by a class of elementary school kids who all wanted high fives, it was very cute.

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We got some delicious Hoi An specialties for dinner and then finally we headed back to the hostel, socialized with some other backpackers and headed to bed early.

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The next day we slept in a bit and then finished touring the old town. Emma had her final tailoring fitting and I had to pick up my jumpsuit, and then we wandered into a different part of the old town, admiring the lanterns and fruit vendors, and picking up some Vietnamese donuts along the way. Eventually we headed back to the hostel where we got a free street food tour that took us to various stops. Only one stop included something I hadn’t already eaten but it was still all so delicious. We got banh mi, pho, these little rice paper/egg/beef dumplings, and fruit shakes. At this point I started feeling a bit sick, as my throat was feeling very scratchy and my head was hurting.

I woke up the next day to a full blown sickness, I’m thinking it’s just a common cold. I couldn’t get out of bed all morning because of my congestion and body aches, but in the afternoon I finally decided I needed some fresh air so Emma and I rented bikes and biked through the rice paddies on the outskirts of town on our way to the beach.

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We didn’t make it to the beach because at one point along the way we stopped to take photos and I heard some mewing sounds coming from a gutter. We ended up finding 3 itty bitty kittens, wet and shivering, dumped in a shrub. We freed them and fretted about what to do with them. We ended up wrapping them in Emma’s sweatshirt and putting them in my bike basket.

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They quickly fell fast asleep in the cozy sweatshirt while we struggled getting through the rice paddies and coconut farms in all of the mud. We finally emerged onto a main road and I saw the name of a hostel that I recognized. We went inside and they helped us get in contact with a woman who runs the only cat shelter in Hoi An. After struggling with communication with her we finally got her address, and biked all the way across town to find her. By this point it was dark and drizzling and one of the kitties was mewing again. Finally we found her, and she was so lovely and said that she had already found them a foster family. So the story ended really happily, and it was a lovely little Valentine’s Day surprise. Then it was back to the hostel to pack up and get ready for our next bus ride.

Emma and I just arrived in Hue, so we’ll do some exploring here before heading north to see some caves.

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Chiang Mai & Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our first day in Chiang Mai, we got a tasty Thai lunch at our guesthouse, booked a cooking class for the following day, and then set out on a walking tour of the historic part of the city.
We started out visiting Wat Chedi Luang.
It contained a very ancient and large pagoda (although now much of the pagoda has slowly worn away with earthquakes). The pagoda was very distinct from the other Wats in Thailand that we had visited. Interestingly there was also a small temple there that was for men only, due to menstruation making women unholy and thus apparently ruining the sanctity of the temple. Not sure how I feel about this… Luke chose not to enter as well, in a stand of solidarity. I don’t really see much feminism in Thailand, although they seem to show women so much respect in other regards that I didn’t really even think about Thai feminism up to that point. Besides that, it was quite a lovely Wat.

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Before our next stop we found a little stand that was serving up mango sticky rice for unbelievably cheap. So of course we had to buy one (and a passion fruit shake) and it was one of the tastiest mango-sticky rices that I’ve had.

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The next temple we visited, Wat Phan Tao, was very distinct as it was made out of wood and was decorated in gold flags rather than the usually gilded temples that we were used to seeing. It also had a little bamboo walkway along a pond decorated in Chinese New Year flags that was quite pretty and peaceful.

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After this we strolled along a street that was lined in little crafts shops. In general, there was quite the abundance of crafty gift shops in Chiang Mai. This street led us to our final wat, Wat Phra Singh. This was the primary royal wat in Chiang Mai. It was quite the fancy temple complex and much of the gilding and architecture reminded me of the royal temple accompanying the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

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For dinner we decided to head to a little market area to eat some street food. We got Khao Soi, a Northern Thai specialty that is chicken and egg noodles in a yellow curry broth. Half of the egg noodles are regular noodles and the other half are deep fried so that they’re crunchy. It was so so delicious.

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We followed that up with some roti with chocolate sauce which are kind of like bubbly fried crepes with toppings on them. That was delicious as well. After that we wandered outside of the old town to find the night market. It turns out that the night market is a whole street lined with thousands of handicraft-selling booths paired with multiple giant bazaars containing even more handicraft booths. It was overwhelming but fun and colorful. Eventually we found a little night bazaar that reminded us a lot of Portland. The square was lined in hip ethnic-fusion food trucks, the handicrafts that they were selling there were slightly more unique, there was an abundance of cafe lights and rustic furniture (so very portland-esque), and there was a stage in the middle of it all. We found ourselves a little upcycled pallet table to sit at and watched a very pleasant singer-songwriter for a bit while he covered familiar acoustic songs. It was a very charming way to end the evening.

For our second day in Chiang Mai, we started off my lazing around the hostel and catching up on Internet-things. Then it was time for our traditional Thai cooking class! We started off with a market visit where our chef-teacher explained to us all of the vegetables and ingredients that you see at a Thai market and what to make with each one.

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Then we drove out to the organic farm where our cooking class was located. The whole place was quite serene.

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Then school was in session. First we learned how to make curry paste. We followed that by making Tom Kha Soup. It was shockingly easy to make and tasted so delicious, even made by us amateurs!

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Next we learned how to make sticky rice with mango and green papaya salad. After eating those up, we moved on to curries. I made panang curry and Luke made green curry so that we would both learn how to make different curries. Then it was on to Pad Thai, which was also way easier than I was expecting. Luke somehow managed to make his Pad Thai inside of a fried egg (like an omelet), but when I tried to do this it came out looking like a complete mess.. I seem to lack the artful part of cooking. Finally we made holy basil stir fry and cashew chicken stir fry. During this part our teacher taught us how to make the pan shoot up in flames, which Luke attempted but I was too intimidated by. In the end, it all tasted delicious but it was sooo much food and we were stuffed by the time we left the cooking school.

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Our last full day in Chiang Mai, we wandered around the city and got more delicious Khao Soi at a cute little cafe.

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I followed that up with a Thai massage while Luke found a fun little coffee shop to hang out in. It was quite an interesting massage, very different from western massage but it felt phenomenal and was less than $6. They also gave me complimentary Thai iced tea for hydration afterwards. After some post-massage lazy time, we headed out for our final Thai dinner and then returned to the night market to pick up a few souvenirs and a couple clothing items to add to my sparse wardrobe. By this point in the trip I became acutely aware of my terrible packing, as I fully under-packed. Thankfully picking up a few clothing essentials did not break the bank.

The next day Luke headed back to the US. Thankfully I didn’t have to check out of the hostel until 5, so I spent the remainder of the day packing and planning my next steps in Vietnam. After dinner, I got a tuktuk to the airport and proceeded to have a fairly miserable remainder of the night. I spent ~5 hours in the Chiang Mai airport and then ~5 hours in the Bangkok airport. This was followed by a terribly messy situation with immigration that was solved by an airline representative taking me through the back route of the airport, bypassing immigration. It was very confusing. Finally I arrived in Ho Chi Minh yesterday at 7 am having gotten a total of 45 minutes of sleep. Thankfully it is so organized here and I got on a bus that took me straight to the hostel in no time. By the time I was able to check in to my room I was so exhausted that I ended up spending the remainder of the day sleeping, waking only for dinner at a nearby Pho stand (so so tasty and cheap!) with a British journalist staying in the same dorm as me. After a bite to eat, I got my two complimentary beers from the hostel and spent a few hours chatting with other travelers in the common room. Almost everyone here is a solo traveller which is super nice for social purposes and everyone has such different backgrounds so it was fun to spend a while chatting with people.

Today I woke for an amazing complimentary breakfast (between the 2 free beers, decadent complimentary breakfast, and really incredible amenities at dirt cheap prices I don’t see how this hostel makes any profit). After a post breakfast rest I headed out to discover some of Ho Chi Minh, or as everyone prefers to say, Saigon. I wandered all over, through various markets and down all sorts of streets.

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At one point I actually stumbled upon a catholic cathedral. It wasn’t particularly magnificent but it was so oddly out of place amongst all of the temples of SE Asia that it was interesting. Then I ate an incredible Banh Mi for lunch before wandering (a bit lost) back towards the hostel.