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10.9.13

Motorbikes across Vietnam (PHO-k!! The Coffee is Good)

Hello Fellow Fish!

This week's topic, Vietnam!

By the time I got to Vietnam, Jeff and Ariel were still in Hong Kong bumming around on the street (as it was portrayed to me).



Translation: "poor travelers...need money for beer"


 After complications at the border, I was relieved to finally be in Vietnam. I arrived in Hanoi around 4:30am local time. There was the usual touting of cab drivers trying to get me (the only white guy [sort of]) into their cab. I had directions and a map loaded on my phone so I had every intention of walking. So I decline and carry on my merry way. Before I am out of the train station alley, I hear a voice calling out to me with an Asian-"English as a second language" accent. I figure its a driver making one last ditch effort to persuade my patronage and dismiss/ignore him completely. Suddenly I'm tapped on the shoulder by a Chinese man who was on my train asking me where I was staying and if he could walk with me because he had no reservations. I'm pretty sure he was just afraid to walk in the dark alone because he seemed like a well to do type of Chinese business man. I agree to let him walk with me figuring if things went sour I could certainly over power him. I follow the directions I had to the hostel (provided BY the hostel) and end up no where near where I need to be. We ask directions, and end up crossing some bridge which turned out to be in the completely wrong direction, but not all for naught. Walked through small pockets of locals rising and getting their morning routines started. Young and old, farmers and city dwellers alike all on their way to whatever the day has in store for them. For some reason, everyone LOVES badmitton, and there were scores of people just playing badmitton right on the sidewalk or in a park or down a quiet street. I had no idea the Vietnamese were such avid badmitton fans. 

Despite the glory of the rising sun over a sleeping city, my problem persisted. I still had no idea where I was or where I was going. By this point I had been walking for about 3 hours with 25 kilos (about 55lbs) on my back, and it was HOT. I finally give up and have my new companion flag down a cab and show the driver the address which he delivers us to. Exhausted, and its only 8am. 

Jeff and Ariel arrive and we meet up with our old friend Moon, who we saw last in Korea, and her gang of English teachers. We got to know a few of them pretty well which was certainly a good thing as we were about to embark on a boat tour around the famous Halong Bay. 

Halong Bay

Between us, Moon's friends, and a couple independents, 19 people cram onto a small "tart cart" (something we were used to and got even more used to) and set out on the 4-5 hour ride outside of Hanoi. Being that it was a bunch of 20-something year old backpackers, the ride was super rowdy. Which was great for everyone who didn't have the fold down, aisle seat but terrible if you did. 

Once at Halong Bay, we are put into a boat, and shipped off to another boat that is anchored somewhere in the bay. On the boat ride out, everyone who wasn't already acquainted with everyone else tried to branch out. Being that there was an American contingency it was very refreshing to be able to talk and make jokes without the references going over people's heads and having to explain sarcasm. We had a very international boat group with Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Austria, Denmark, South Africa, and USA all represented. The Danish contingency ended up being the most surprising. We met these two girls who would keep popping up along the way and at first seemed really standoffish and unapproachable but would prove to be the exact opposite. But being that this was everyone's first encounters they seemed like they wanted to be left alone so we did. 
Our boat

Ariel, Jeff, Moon
When we arrived at the boat, we were all given an "orientation" of sorts (safety, etiquette, etc) then assigned our cabins. Once everyone was situated, we set out for our first activity of the day. We go to this cave that is supposedly millions of years old and maybe one of the deepest in the world. Soon after, we are dropped off on a beach for swimming time. It was surprising how salty the water was and there was a lot of broken coral on the ground which didn't feel so good for the feet. But it did feel good to be in the water again, after grinding it out for a month in China. Being that it was an organized tour, everything seemed very regimented. So we had an allotted time for swimming before we were herded back on to the boat to go to the Floating Village. It is exactly what it sounds like. Literally, a small village floating in the water. People actually lived there and fished and made a living there with their dogs and cats and kids! We were just there to kayak as it turns out and were given about 45 minutes to see what we could see before being summoned back to the boat for dinner. 

Kayaking

Hangin out at night
After dinner, true to backpacker form drinks are brought out. Even truer to backpacker form, everyone is super cheap and sneaks in their own when the staff isn't looking because there is a service charge for bringing your own booze. Soon enough our whole boating group is on the top deck just hanging out having a blast. Before long, the stars are out and the gang settles down and slowly everyone heads off to bed. I ended up sleeping on a chair on the top deck and didn't even feel the need to go to my bed.

It was something other worldly waking up to complete silence and seeing the morning mist covering the water and shrouding the huge rocks in the distance, the likes of which make up all of Halong Bay. I wanted to watch the sunrise, but the overcast made that a bit tough. That day got an early start. The group got a bit smaller because some people only signed up for a one day trip. But the majority stuck around. We made our way to Cat Ba Island, about an hour from where our boat was and got prepared for the hike we were about to undertake. A bunch of people from the group were hungover so they sat out and hung around at the bottom, drinking water. The one's that made the hike were pleasantly surprised that the hike wasn't so hard after all. At the top of this mountain, there was an old rickety watch tower used to spot fires. It was made up of rusted metal and looked like it hadn't been used in years. A strong wind could have toppled it and it seemed more dangerous to be anywhere around it. Naturally, there was a sign that said, "no climbing" which of course applied to everyone except Jeff and I. We go all the way to the top, climbing the stairs that go around the outside. 75 feet above the peak of this mountain, the wooden platform at the top was just about rotted through and was missing big portions. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit scared, even after sky diving and bungee jumping this was pretty terrifying, but the view we got was 100% worth it. Being the trendsetters that we are, there were a few brave souls who followed up after us, which made us a bit uncomfortable so we headed down. 
Group shot: Cat Ba

Atop the lookout tower


Don't look down


Back at the bottom we are loaded into another bus and driven to our hotel on the island, served a quick lunch, then herded on to a boat and bound for "Monkey Island." We had to walk a plank to get on to the beach and didn't end up seeing that many monkeys. Which was fine, again, we were just happy to be in the water again. This beach was much nicer than the one the day before so we just soaked up the rays and relaxed. When it was time to leave, everyone wanted to stay longer, but since we were with the tour, there were no boats coming back to the island until the next day so we had no choice but to go back. 

The next day we all get on another boat, and head back to the port we arrived at. The boat ride to port took an inexplicably long time. Which made the 4.5 hour drive back to Hanoi that much worse (I got the aisle fold down seat again). Moon and her friends (now our friends too) had to say good bye because they were all going to Thailand and then heading their separate ways. It was another instance of people whose journeys are ending just as ours were beginning. 
The gang

Dinner in Hanoi

Ariel making new friends

Hanoi

On our last day in Hanoi, we check out of our hostel at the appropriate time, and have plans to get motorbikes and ride around the city until our bus leaves later that night. The guys at the desk give Ariel and I our passports back and give Jeff one that isn't his. He gives it back saying it obviously isn't him and they laugh it off joking. We laugh along thinking they were just being silly, until the dude starts to actually look worried. Turns out he gave Jeff's passport TO THE WRONG GUY!! The guy didn't even look like Jeff. He was a Vietnamese American, who didn't bother to check if HE got the right passport. We all start looking for it, call the embassy and go the whole nine yards. We get a hold of this other guy's family and make arrangements for them to contact the hostel as soon as he shows up. We try to brush it off and get our bikes. 

Hanoi (like most cities in Vietnam) is absolute chaos in terms of traffic. Tons of exhaust, total gridlock at some points because the roads are just FILLED with motorbikes. Very few cars. Only motorbikes. If the streets were a bowl, and people on motorbikes were water, it was overflowing onto the sidewalks because of all the congestion. We decide to cruise out to the city limits. Navigating and weaving in and out of the traffic was some of the most fun driving I've ever done. Even though there is so much going on, the mind goes into "the zone" and just sees everything while you speed along. It was a ton of fun. On the outskirts of the city we pushed the limits a bit trying to go as fast as we could on the bikes, racing down farm roads, etc. Jeff actually crashed in the middle of the road at one point, but he was just fine. 

After bringing the bikes back, we went back to the hostel and Jeff got his passport back. We vow to give only copies from then on (which would prove helpful in the future). It was almost time for our bus south, so we pick up our laundry which we entrusted to the hostel staff (the norm across SEA) and found that they had lost literally HALF of Ariel's clothes. When they tell us I very audibly LOL at the absurdity. First the passport, then the laundry. What next? They eventually got it back in time for us to catch the bus to Hue.

Hue

On the overnight bus ride south to a small town called Hue, we meet the friendliest English girl Natalie. She had just finished teaching English in Bangkok and was making her way through Vietnam as well. She spent some time in Australia so we chatted a bit over that and she told us about her experiences slaughtering lambs and flying planes on a farm in the Outback.

We arrive in Hue the next morning and are met with usual touting of drivers and hostel/guesthouse representatives trying to get us to stay at their establishments. We decide to walk around and see what we find on our own. Along the way, we start talking about how unsafe traffic is in Vietnam. Ariel, goes on about how even though its chaotic, he felt safe walking around because everyone driving the way they do have been doing it their whole lives and he trusted them to drive well. As these words left his mouth we were crossing a road, and almost got run in to by one of the drivers he was so ardently defending. The universe sending us a sign perhaps? We keep walking and further down the road see a motor bike get rear ended by a car and the two people on the bike go flying. Somehow everyone walks away fine but shaken up. Another sign? If these were in fact signs we paid no mind. We found a guest house and went out to rent motorbikes so we could cruise around and see what we see. We ride towards the coast and find an empty beach to relax on and go for a swim. Spent the day driving around the old Citadel and watched a parade/festival that night while sitting and drinking cheap beer with the locals who were doing their best to explain to us what was going on with no luck.
Wedding crashing. The "non-Asian" girl is Natalie

Our beach

Old Citadel
Hoi An

We made our way south again from Hue after only one day. Hue was cool, but just didn't really do it for us so we moved on. Hoi An is the next stop everyone makes. Off the bus, we follow a dude on a motorbike to his guesthouse and negotiate a fair price for both parties. Natalie stayed in Hoi An only a night or two before leaving so, we did our best to negotiate with those terms.
A Colin Carroll sighting

Hoi An mess hall
Hoi An is a small town on the river that is famous for its Tailor-made everything. From suits to bags anything you want is available. Most people walk away with a few custom suits to bring home and drop about $600 on the stuff too. Which isn't much for the tourists, but is a huge sum for the locals. Right in the middle of town is a mess hall of sorts with different food vendors. It is here that we arranged to meet our good friend Colin Carroll, who was making his own way across SEA. It took a while to find each other, but when we did it was just picking up where we left off in Australia. Our first night together we get a few beers and drink by the river. We come across a hole in the wall bar with a pool table, so we shoot some pool with the locals/permanent tourists (white folk who move there for long periods of time) and have a good time. After a few drinks we get the good idea to put some money on a game. We lose and didn't feel like paying the jerk of an Englishman that beat us. So we try and escape but he follows us out. My alibi to this dude was I was just going outside to talk to my friends, I motion to the two girls standing closest. They smile and nod in agreement (we had never met). This story holds up for the dude and I thank the girls for their cooperation. Kristien and Lieve are Belgian and actually did wind up being my friends. As it turns out we would see them down the road too. Our time in Hoi An was summed up when we finally caved and bought the pants that all the tourists buy. It is just so hard to resist when you only have to pay $6 for a pair of hand sewn tailored pants.
Don't drink the water...seriously
Biker gang




















Nha Trang  

Since we booked our tickets last minute, we slept on the floor of the sleeper bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang. It was a very uncomfortable 12 hour ride. 
Right off the bus
 We arrived at 5am and per our routine, found a hotel. Bumped into Kristien and Lieve who were staying at our hotel coincidently. They had plans to leave that day, but would end up staying to hang out with us an extra day. We walk to the beach, right across the road from where we were staying, and watch the sun rise. Since Nha Trang is a beach town, there were a lot more built up and touristy places along the main road. We briefly see Natalie on the beach later that day, and had to say our final goodbyes to her as she was leaving for another place that day and we wouldn't be seeing her again. 
From left: Colin, Ariel, Lieve, Kristien, Matt all wearing the "tourist pants" from Hoi An
Sunrise

Our first night, the whole crew (Colin, Ariel, Jeff, Matt, Kristien, and Lieve) meet up and go out for dinner. It had been raining since the afternoon but that didn't stop us from going out. We found a nice restaurant and ordered some cheap beer and pizza (a comfort food for us). Towards the end of the meal, we start to realize that the street is flooding. Sure enough, by the time we leave the water in the street was thigh high and brown as bark. It got to a point where I took my pants off and walked back to the hotel in my underwear so my new (Hoi An tailor made) pants wouldn't get ruined.

Flooded streets

Flooded streets
Most of our days were spent on the beach across from our hotel. One day, we rent motorbikes and cruise about 20km (about 12 miles) outside of the downtown area to a place called "Bai Dai" beach. "Bai" in Vietnamese means long, and "dai" means beach. It was exactly that. The road to get there was unreal. We drove along a cliffside road and around a sharp bend that opened up to just a beach as far as you could see, with the bluest water hitting the whitest sand. It was sad to see the foundations of big resorts being built up all along the the beach. It seemed as if they started to build and ran out of money, so stopped. Because nothing was finished. Either way, the beach was deserted so Colin, Jeff, Ariel, and I helped ourselves to some swimming. We laid out and enjoyed the solitude. No one around for miles. On the way back, my bike broke down. It had been acting up all day, and I knew the guy who i rented it from was shady, so I left it at a conveniently located mechanics shop and just told the guy where to pick it up. 
Bai Dai Beach

A Corona commercial? Nope. 
One of our last nights in Nha Trang we met up with two more friends we had made in Hoi An, Laura and Lainey from Philly. Being that we were all from the northeast we had a blast together.  It was a shame that the passing monsoon restricted the remainder of our beach time. We almost convinced these two girls to stay and hang out another day, but they stuck to their guns and left for Saigon. 

We on the other hand were going to another beach town called Mui Ne. We sorted out our tickets well in advance to avoid the floor again, but this time we almost missed our bus because of another hotel screw up. Upon checking out, they charged us more than the price that we agreed on when we checked in. We argued with them for about 20 minutes, and planned to just walk away, but they had Colin's passport as collateral (we had learned our lesson from the Hanoi incident). It turned into a huge ordeal with lots of yelling and swear words (they didn't understand) being thrown around. They basically extorted us for more money because they knew we had a bus to catch and had no other option. At the end of the day it was only about $10 USD. But its the principle of the matter. No one likes to be taken advantage of. Fuming, we board the bus to Mui Ne.

Mui Ne

Mui Ne was a short bus ride away (about 5 hours). But leave it to us, in that short time we made a new friend. A German girl named Louisa who was traveling alone. We all get to chatting and decide we want to be friends. The drive in to the small town was beautiful. Sand dunes, beaches, mountains and valleys. All just waiting to be explored! As soon as we get off the bus, the attendant takes out our bags. The bus starts to drive away when Colin realizes his bag never made it off. In a pure state of panic, he sprints after the bus already half way down the road, and against all odds it stops and he gets his bag back. All of us, including Louisa now, find a hotel RIGHT on the beach. It was a little bit pricey compared to our usual budget, but we worked out a deal to have all 5 of us share a room. 
View from our hotel room
Of course, we rent motorbikes. Again, running into some trouble. The guys we were going to rent from struck a deal with us for 4 bikes 80,000 dong (dong=Vietnamese currency. 20,000 dong= $1USD) each for the day. Which is reasonable. We agree and when it comes time to pay, they ask Ariel to pay twice. He gave it to one of the guys (it was hard to remember who was who) but they claimed he never did. Again, feeling like suckers there is a big ordeal with shouting and in the end we don't rent from them. Only losing out on the 80,000 that Ariel put up originally. We take our business elsewhere and carry on as planned. We drive to the next town over and explore. The whole area is known for its fishing industry, so the whole city smelled like fish! 
A fishing "boat"

Louisa smelling durian

The gang

Fishing boats anchored offshore
Our time with Colin and Louisa was limited. Because they left a few days before us to go to Saigon. The day we said good bye to them we rented bikes again. Jeff, Ariel, and I cruised the other direction this time the same way we came into town. Stopping to check out the sand dunes and the secluded beaches about 40km (25 miles) outside of town. The dunes had what looked like Oasis('s)(?) that looked like desert mirages from the movies. We rode the bikes impossibly through the sand to a secluded beach area, past all the local fisherman who just stared at us. A herd of cattle just casually walked by as we were swimming. 
Cow Parade

View from a hill




Playing on the sand dunes




Mui Ne is the first place that I remember not knowing what day of the week it was. We were there for about a week and spent our last few days just lounging on the beach and by our pool. Our last night, we go out to dinner and see the two Danish girls from our Halong Bay trip riding a bike past us. We flag them down and make them hang out with us. Fie and Nico (as I mentioned before) turned out to be the exact opposite of the standoffish girls they seemed to be at first. Our whole time in Vietnam, they had been about a day or two behind us. Nico had hurt her leg climbing a waterfall and was on crutches. Since it was our last day, we made plans to meet up in Saigon, because we were all going there.

Saigon

Another short bus ride to Saigon from Mui Ne. Haggled for our hotel which ended up being in this super shady back alley of Saigon. When the guy was leading us to it I was doing my best to remember all the turns we took and was constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure we wouldn't get jumped. The place wound up being pretty decent and as usual it pays to have a group rate to negotiate with. It wasn't long before we were reunited with Colin...again. In our group there were 2 Mendham High School graduates. As it turns out there were two more in the vicinity. Mary and Deirdre had relocated to Saigon to teach English. So at a small bar in Vietnam, 4 Mendham graduates were sitting and drinking cheap beer. Small world.
Mendham HS Alumnae in Vietnam
A day or two later, we have to say final good byes to Colin because he was making his way to Cambodia and eventually Nepal before going home. It was like the end of an era, having to say good bye for real. Because we knew it would be the last time we saw him for quite sometime. 

Our smoothie stand
Fresh fruits for smoothies!
Since we spent so much time in Saigon we had a pretty good routine down. Wake up, get a smoothie (possibly the freshest, tastiest smoothie I've ever ingested) right outside our hotel, get breakfast with Vietnamese Coffee (some of the best coffee on earth!), go out for our daily activity, come back in the evening, get a smoothie before going to the room, shower and get ready for dinner/the night, get a smoothie on the way to dinner, eat, then sit in the smallest chairs/tables drinking 50cent beers. We frequented one particular drinking hole in the wall that was basically a mom and pop shop. It was always packed and would spill over onto the road. Every now and then the cops would drive by and they would literally pull the chairs out from under people on the street to get them on the sidewalk until the cops passed, then just carry on like normal until the cops made another round. 

PHO!
PHO!
Since this place was so compact it was easy to start talking to people. One night, after meeting back up with Fie and Nico, we find ourselves at the ole watering hole. We get to talking to a few Australians who just rode motorbikes north to south through Vietnam. They were looking to sell the bikes (three) and offered us. We wanted so badly to buy them and took our time to think about it. By the end of the night they had sold one the a bar owner in exchange for free beer all night. Now there were two. Two of the three guys left the next day and left it to the last guy to sell the bikes. We kept running into him and on his last day, he just gave us the keys and the title to the two bikes. 
Local

Probably on his way to the office
We capitalize and drive all over the place. Saigon is even worse than Hanoi for traffic. One day the three of us take a trip with Fie and Nico out to the Cu Chi tunnels. We did a walk through tour and learned all about the intricacies of the tunnels and how the Viet Kong fought back against the "American enemy," as it was referred to in the intro video, during the Vietnam War. It was incredible to actually walk through some of these tunnels. They are so well hidden and so small that when I went into one of the tunnels, because it was so dark I felt legitimately claustrophobic for the first time in my life. It was unreal. People lived in these places for months and years in some cases. Before heading back, I wanted to go to the shooting range which was just down the road from the tunnels. I order my rounds and shoot an M-16. Was it worth the price I paid probably not. But was it fun, absolutely. 
Posing with mannequins 

Entering a tunnel

Jeff in a tunnel


Ariel going in

Uhh...who?


Fie and Nico
Target practice
On one Saigon morning we were just going through our usual Saigon routine. We were at the smoothie stand and wound up talking to two American girls from Boston named Jane and Erika. Turns out Jane and Ariel have a mutual friend who is close with both of them. Small world. This of course turns into a long game of "who do you know?" After the game is over we take our bikes to "guitar street" and shop around for the perfect custom handmade guitar. These guys make all the guitars right in their shop and do pretty good work. The only thing is their material is subpar and its hard to expect much. But we all wanted our instruments because it had been so long since we've had them. It took us the entire afternoon and a lot of shopping around and negotiating a bulk price for 2 guitars and a ukulele but we eventually settled and decided which ones we wanted.

Guitars and ukulele

Traffic. Daily.




One of our last days in Saigon we decided to take a trip further south to see the Mekong Delta. Fie and Nico had left at this point and Jane wanted to see the delta too. So we double up on our new bikes and drive south. Ariel and Jeff drove together, and Jane and I drove together. After about an 2 hours driving down dusty, crowded, pot-hole filled dirt roads i realize I'm running low on gas. As soon as this thought crosses my minds, we run out of gas. Ariel and Jeff were riding in front of us and didn't notice we fell behind. It took us about 20 minutes to find a place with gas. We get back on the road and figure they would have stopped or doubled back to find us. There was no sign of them. We decide to keep driving and figure we'll either catch them or they'll catch us. Neither one happened. After a few hours deciding whether to stay and wait or go and catch up, we call it quits and just go on our way. There were a couple times on the way to the Delta that a truck tried to run us off the road into the divider which was terrifying. Eventually, we make it to the Delta and have a look around. I was a bit underwhelmed, especially after the ordeal with looking for the others and getting run off the road. We followed a tourist bus and basically mooched off their tour without being seen. After a few hours, we decide to make our way back to Saigon and see if the others found their way. 
Jeff and Ariel in the Mekong Delta

Pineapples
Back at our room, I have missed calls and messages from Jeff who somehow found Wifi out in the boonies where we were. Turns out while they waited an ambulance drove by them, and they assumed the worst and started calling hospitals and thinking we were dead (apparently not worried enough to turn around). But they did their due diligence and when the hospitals told them there were no Americans checked in they continued even further than we had gone that day and were staying the night. Jane, Erika, and I hung out for their last night and made a bunch of new friends at the same hang out spot we'd been going to the whole time. Said my good byes to them because they were leaving the next day. 
From left: Jane, Matt, Erika
On our very last day in Vietnam, we had one more reunion to make happen. Krystal (to refresh, was the girl from Queenstown, NZ that let Ariel and I sleep in her friends bed in their hostel for a night because we had no where else to go or stay) had moved to Saigon to teach English. It had been almost EXACTLY one year to the day that we were meeting again. Our last night was full of "lasts" unfortunately. After having spent so much time in Saigon (compared to other places) we really got attached to the places and especially the food. We had our last smoothies, coffees, our last bowl of Pho might have been the toughest part. We sold our bikes and went to the watering hole for our last night out in Saigon. We played the children selling flower in Rocks, Paper, Scissors and basically bought all their flowers so they could go home. It was a long night and after saying good bye we head back to our room.
Matt and Krystal closing up shop in Saigon
The next morning we were awoken by Jeff screaming, "F**K!!" It was 9:20am and we had a flight to catch to Bangkok at 9:45am. None of us heard our alarms. We begrudgingly resign to the fact we missed the flight, and book new ones for later in the day, then go back to sleep...at least we got to have ONE MORE SMOOTHIE and coffee before leaving. We took no chances with our new flight and got there way in advance. All super excited to be on our way to Thailand.

Vietnam was definitely one of my favorite countries. Everything from the food, to the coffee, to the scenery and in general the people were friendly except for the bad incidents that we encountered. But can't let a few bad apples ruin the bunch. We had a blast and made a ton of new friends a long the way while being able to connect with some old friends from the past.

Stay tuned for the next installment: Thailand!

Until Next Time,

The Tunas

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