Saigon

After 4 weeks, I finally arrived in the giant metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. This city is big, loud, and busy! The streets are packed with thousands of motorbikes. I’m not sure why, but the Vietnamese seem to love their motorbikes more than the other nation in the region. I think every human being might own one in the country, babies included. Colleen took off to Bali after a day so I had a few days alone in the big city. I spent my days wandering the streets and alleyways, enjoying egg drop coffees and cheap pho. Its a good way to live. I didn’t do anything too interesting in the city, but instead spent my time watching the people go about their daily lives and soaking in the Vietnamese culture.

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However, one site that was worth the price of entry was The War Remnants Museum. I’m a huge history buff, so I can literally spend days in museums. Twentieth century US Foreign policy is something I’m always keen to learn more about, and a museum dedicated to a war the US effectively lost, created by the victor was particularly interesting. I obviously expected the museum to have a bias. When it was first opened it was actually called The Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes (as in puppet governments, not an army of Pinocchio’s). And while it certainly did not paint the American GIs in the prettiest of lights, I found the information to be relatively fair. While it featured the typical museum material junk such as old weaponry, uniforms, and stories of bravery (N Vietnamese bravery of course), it also had some beautiful exhibits. One of the more powerful sections featured the photography of journalists who had lost their lives during the conflict. These journalist came from all over the world, and their photography was haunting. They also featured a large area that extensively discussed the chemical warfare carried out by the USA. It’s no secret that the Americans used an unfathomable amount of defoliant throughout the country, but the lasting impact of these chemicals is rarely discussed (why would it be in the West). The impact this chemical warfare has had on the land, water, and the innocent populations continues to be seen today. The walls are lined with photographs of deformed adults and children who continue to suffer today for the sins of American actions years ago.

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I hate to go on a tangent in this blog, but I didn’t do much is Saigon so I might as well rant. In my years as a student of international relations and history I learned quite a bit about the actions of the United States in SE Asia. Foreign policy that was implemented during the height of the Cold War is rarely discussed in the West. In high school history classes, the 60’s and 70’s are portrayed as a period of radical social progress in the States. It’s seen as a period marked by protest, fights for civil rights, and anti war rhetoric. Rarely do teachers address the other realities of these years; the years in which US foreign policy led to the deaths of millions around the world. I’m not trying to channel my inner Noam Chomsky, but I think being thousands of miles away from the countries which we terrorize helps Americans normalize the actions of the government. When you spend time in Vietnam and Cambodia, you see that the scars still exist. You see the people who’ve been born with deformities, you see the amputees, you see the impact of the wars which your country waged in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. When you listen to the horror stories of the Khmer Rouge, from a man with one leg who lived those years, it makes you think about Nixon and Kissinger’s gleeful and illegal bombing of the non-belligerent country. When you’re face to face with the consequences of your countries dark past, it shines a new perspective on things. It makes you wonder what price that we, as a country, were willing to pay for our hegemony 40 years ago? What price are we willing to pay now? According to our leaders of yesterday and today we’ll pay with the lives of millions, as long as they’re not American. End rant…


Waterfalls in Dalat

Leaving Hoi An was tough. It was beautiful, relaxing, and had decent nightlife. I could have spent a few more days meandering through the streets and checking out all the different shops. Alas, there’s a big world out there and it was time to move South. Up next was the mountain town of Dalat. The journey there was one of the longest on the trip, almost 17 hours on two separate buses. We jumped off the night bus in Nha Trang and had a few hours to kill until our next leg. Luckily we didn’t stay in that city because it had a very strange vibe. The Russian mafia awkwardly has control over few SE Asian cities (ex. Pattaya in Thailand) and Nha Trang is apparently one of these strong holds. The resort city caters tot Russian tourists and most menus are written in both Vietnamese and Russian. Very unusual to see and I found it worthy of a note. Luckily after a few hours, we were on our way to the south central highlands.

Dalat was developed by the French during the late 19th century as a colonial resort town. Situated high up in the mountains, its temperate climate serves as a respite from the brutal tropical heat. It was a pretty drive up into the mountains and the landscape was unique to others in the country. There was a plethora of strawberry patches, fields of flowers, and forests of tall pine. Without the tropical humidity and no palms in sight, the weather was quite agreeable.

Martin decided to hang back for a few more days in Hoi An, so Colleen and I spent our first day exploring the town on our own. We actually had a pretty good plan. There was a large cable car that traveled from the highest point in the town to the valley below. We intended to explore the village, ride the cable car to the waterfalls in the valley, and then take a cab back to our hostel. It was a tough climb up the winding streets to the cable car, but the views were worth it. The mountains and valley were both spectacular to behold.

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At the bottom we visited the Buddhist temples that sat on the shores of a sizable lake. They were situated in a nice little garden and were quite peaceful. A mile walk further down the road we arrived at the most popular attraction in Dalat, the waterfall park. I’m not sure how to describe the area. They’ve created a large outdoor-adventure recreation center around some of the more stunning cascades. There are large ropes courses and rock climbing options. The site is primarily known for its canyoning adventures. On these tours you travel down the canyon on a special course that allows you to abseil, climb, and swim through the waterfalls. There is also a roller coaster that seems very out of place. Its a fun way to descend to the falls without taking the 500 stairs, but resembles something that could have been made in someones back yard. You actually control the braking and speed yourself which seems alarmingly dangerous but…. that’s Asia. After taking the coaster down to the falls and snapping some nice pictures we decided to head back to where we were staying. Unfortunately, there were no cabs available and we ended up walking about 2+ miles back up the valley. So in reality we spent the entire day going uphill. Admittedly, that part sucked and we did not plan well. Oh well.

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Another very cool attraction in Dalat was the Crazy House. Built by Dang Viet Nga in the 1990s, this building looks like something out of Antoni Gaudi’s sketch book. Much like the eccentric architecture scattered about Barcelona, the Crazy House is a rather shocking site to behold. The structure is filled with passages, stair cases, and bridges that seem better suited for a Disney park than for a Vietnamese mountain escape. It’s tough to describe, so instead I took a bunch of pictures.

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To coincide the Crazy House the center of Dalat also features the 100 Roofs Cafe. Unfortunately, due to bad lighting and the fact I was drinking, I was unable to catch any pictures here. However, if you are a nerd and have seen Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, the bar was designed like the inside one of those elvish tree cities. Much like the Crazy House, there were secret passages leading to nowhere and cool little nooks and crannies to explore. It’s massive and features a rooftop garden that is reminiscent of the Parc de Guell. The bizarre architecture and massive scale made for one of the more unique drinking experiences of my life. Overall, Dalat was very interesting spot to check out in Southern Vietnam.


Hoi An

Hoi An is a small coastal city in Central Vietnam that served as a trading port between the 15th and 19th century. The preservation of its historic downtown makes it a popular destination for tourists (and a UNESCO world heritage site). Both the layout and the architectural designs reflect the impact foreign trade had on the area. The blend of cultures is both apparent and appealing. Its most iconic monument is the 400 year old Japanese covered bridge.The city also sports a decent beach that was a quick bike ride from downtown.

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There isn’t too much to write about this city. There were no grand adventures or wild stories. We all spent our time strolling the quaint downtown, lying on the beach, and grabbing drinks by the river. The evening of the full moon, all electric lights were shut off and the city was instead lit by Japanese lanterns. Thousands of small candles were sent floating down the river on tiny paper boats. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

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It was a relaxing few days, and it truly was a charming city. Bright colors and flowers adorned the buildings of the small alleyways. Red shutters, blue doors, and yellow walls seemed to be a staple. It was almost perfect.

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Escape to the Hai Van Pass

Martin and I escaped the floods of the central Highlands and I was ecstatic to get out. I needed some sunshine ASAP. We hopped on the night bus south and ended up in the coastal city of Da Nang. Upon first glance, the city seemed exceptionally bright. There were neon lights lining the roads, the buildings, the boats, and the bridges. Furthermore, it was strikingly modern and exceptionally clean. The only downside was that Trump was elected president of the United States of America  the morning I arrived, so it was going to take a lot to shift the mood. Actually it took 1 beer, and then I was over it.

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We spent the first day exploring the city and walking the beach. The sky was blue and the sun was finally shining bright. It was a much needed respite from the constant rain and gray. As the sun began to set we headed towards the main city attraction, the Dragon Bridge. Cau Rong bridge is one of the staple sites of the city. The bridge is nearly a mile long and accommodates six lanes of traffic. A  giant serpent made from hundreds of light bulbs crawls down the middle, splitting traffic. Its glowing bulbs continuously change colors, illuminating the city skyline. On the weekends its massive jaws open wide and it spews actual fire into the darkness. Unfortunately on Thursday nights it does no such thing. It was still a site to behold and a cool tourist attraction for the city. We spent the remainder of the evening grabbing cocktails at a tall rooftop bar and a few local joints.

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The next day we rented motorbikes and decided to explore the Hai Van Pass. This 15 mile mountain pass was made famous by the show Top Gear. It’s situated on a winding coastal road that connects the city of Hue to Hoi An, with Da Nang sitting in the middle. Instead of chancing the weather and doing the full trip, we thought it’d make more sense to rent the bikes in Da Nang and drive up to the most scenic areas. This way we could also see the white Lady Buddha monument just outside the city. Luckily the the weather cooperated, and the views were spectacular. The highway winds its way up into the mountains and then hugs the cliffs closely with the ocean hundreds of feet below to the east. The roads are surprisingly well kept and the scenery is truly gorgeous. We spent a few hours winding our way along the coast before heading back to the outskirts of Da Nang. We were able to drive into the Marble Mountains to see the 200 ft statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy, known as Lady Buddha. Perched atop a hill, the white figure looks across the Bay into the East Sea. As the tallest statue in all of Vietnam, she dominates the landscape and can be seen from just about anywhere in the city below. After snapping a few pictures, we headed back to the city to rest up.

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One of the best parts of Da Nang was the hostel we decided to stay at, Barney’s. It was one of the best I’d experienced in any country. It had big comfortable beds, clean modern bathrooms, and great vibes. Most importantly, it was How I Met Your Mother themed. All of the rooms were named after characters from the show and there were photos and memorabilia of scattered throughout. It was a fun theme and they pulled it off quite well. After a long day we got some rest and hit the bar for a few drinks. The next day we grabbed a bus headed for Hoi An, only 20 miles South…


The Floods of Phong Nha

After returning to Hanoi for a few more days, it finally came time to leave the North. My friend Martin and I loaded up on a night bus and headed south towards a village called Son Trach near Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park. Located in the North-central highlands of Vietnam, Phong Nha was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003. The national park contains 400 million year old karst mountains and massive cave systems. In fact, the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, is located within the national park. It is more than 3 miles long, 660 ft high, and 450 ft wide. While we heard there had been some bad weather in the area, we decided to risk it. Spoiler… bad idea.

We arrived at about 5am and after some breakfast decided we would rent motorbikes and check out some of the caves. We met up with Colleen who had arrived a few days prior, and the three of us took off around noon. We decided to do the most adventurous cave first since we were unsure about the weather. After a 45 min drive through the beautiful mountain roads and lush jungle we arrived at Hang Toi, ‘The Dark Cave’.

This is one of the few caves that requires a guide, so we waited until 3pm until our group of 20 was ready to go. To prepare you strip down to your bathing suit, put on a harness, a life jacket, and a helmet with a flashlight on top. Then we climbed up a tower on the banks of the Song Con river. From there we connected our harness to a 400 meter zipline and flew over to the other side. Once there we all had to take a plunge into the icy river and swim to the entrance of the cave. There is a wooden walking path at the entrance and within a few hundred meters you realize why it’s called ‘The Dark Cave’. The whole group switched our headlamps on before once again plunging into the subterranean river inside the cave. It was a very eerie experience. The cave was pitch black apart from the 20 head lamps and you couldn’t see the bottom of the river. You could feel the enormity of the cavern surrounding you, and the ceilings must have been 200 ft above us. We followed our guide for another few hundred meters until we pulled up on the banks of the underground river. From there, we were led through a labyrinth of internal trails. At times the walls got tight, and anyone with claustrophobia would have had serious anxiety.

Eventually the mud started to come into play. First it was ankle deep, then midway up the calves, then knee deep, and finally you were wading in mud up to your waist. Finally we made it to the popular mud chamber where thick mud is INCREDIBLE. It looks like you’re chest deep in melted milk chocolate and the consistency to match. Also it’s buoyant and when you put your legs up and recline back, it feels like you’re floating in space. It was an amazing experience and we spent about 15minutes playing in the mud. We then headed back out to the entrance of the cave. That’s when the rain started and the real adventure began…

(Unfortunately I could not bring my phone or camera on the adventure so I don’t have pictures. Unless you had a GoPro, your gear would have been destroyed)

We could see the wind and rain as we approached the exit of the cave. It was a disheartening sight considering we still had a 45min motorbike ride back to the hostel. What made it worse was the trip we had to make back across the river. The three of us were put in the shittiest inflatable kayak and were given 1/2 a paddle each. We then had to fight the wind and the current to get back to the other side. It was a pain in the ass. Finally we made it onto the bikes and headed back. By this time it was dark and raining. Not ideal motorbiking weather. After 30min we arrived at a back road that was turned to 6inches of thick mud. After a grueling 200m drive we arrived at a downed tree that was blocking the road over the river, which was now currently UNDER the river. About 5inches of water was already rushing over the top of the asphalt path and the river was rising every minute. We had two choices, either risk it over the river or turn back and go 90min the other way. We decided to go for it. I know it sounds dramatic, but it was honestly pretty terrifying in the moment. Instead of driving we walked the 200lb bikes across the rushing water and it was BRUTAL! Even with 2 of us dragging one bike, the force of the flowing water was pulling both us and the bike over the side. Luckily we managed to drag both across and carry on. Looking back, it was definitely one of the sketchiest moments of the entire trip. If anyone had slipped or if the water suddenly had picked up we could have been carried over the side into the rushing river in the dark. Not necessarily where you would want to be. BUT we made it, so it’s nothing to dwell on and it was obviously a great idea.

Unfortunately the dark cave was the last we would see. After a night of rain the caves all closed. Colleen took off the next day and Martin and I had one more day and night (or so we thought). With a quick break in the wet weather we took our motorbikes to a local pub aptly named ‘The Pub with Cold Beer’. It was a tough, muddy ride up to the pub but we did run into a giant group of ducks who were enjoying the weather far more than we were. They brought some joy into our lives. The pub was famous for their fresh chicken and you had the option to actually kill your own. We saw a video from a few Canadian guys partaking in the gruesome practice and promptly lost our appetites. Murdering chickens was not in the cards for me. Instead we had a couple of beers and headed back.

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That evening the real rain began. It started POURING and did not stop for hours. The next morning we began to worry about our 3pm bus as the water on the roads was already ankle deep. We were supposed to be informed that the 3pm bus was now leaving at noon, but sadly that news never reached us. The woman at reception she said she had ‘tried to find us, but couldn’t’. This was astounding news considering we had not left the building during the flood and she had not left the reception desk in 4hrs. The bus had passed and we were stuck.

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The rain continued for hours. Eventually the water in the streets was almost waist deep and the locals drove boats down the main road. It was quite the flood and it took another 24 hrs for the road waters to recede. We managed to catch the 6am bus out and were happy to leave the floods of Phong Nha behind us. It was an interesting and, at times, dangerous stop on this great adventure.


SAPA

Throughout my trip every seasoned traveler of SE Asia I spoke with insisted Northern Vietnam was one of their favorite spots. They said the scenery was incredible, the people were fantastic, and the hiking was superb. I had seen some breathtaking views in Thailand, Cambodia, and Ha Long Bay so I was excited to see if the hype was real over N Vietnam. One location that came highly recommended was a small town that looks over the Muong Hoa Valley in  the Northwest called Sapa. Situated close to the Chinese border in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, this village is a popular starting point for trekking.

Colleen and I decided we wanted to experience an authentic trek with a local guide. The Mountains surrounding Sapa are home to many of Vietnam’s minority groups including the Hmong, Dao, and Tay tribes. Friends in Hanoi recommended doing a trek and home-stay with a certain woman from the Black Hmong tribe. Her name was Mama Mu and she spoke English but could not read or write the language. To set up the trip we had to call her the day before we wanted to visit and she agreed to meet us in the morning at the bus station. From there we would do the trek up to her village in the mountains and spend the night at her home.

I was a big night bus fan during my stay in Vietnam, but the first overnight bus I took was a nightmare. My sleeping pod did not fully decline, I had no Valium, and the space was just too small for me. It was a long trip to Sapa and I arrived exhausted. We met Mama Mu in the town square and she took us for a local breakfast where we met our trekking friends from Holland. I felt a little more sprightly after breakfast but that would all turn when the weather moved in. A dense mist quickly overtook the mountains just before we started our trek around 7:30am. With ponchos on and very little visibility we began our 6hr ascent into the mountains. Our group did about 9miles uphill in the cold mist. There were no stunning views. Moral was low.

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We arrived at Mama Mu’s village around 3pm. The home  was exactly what I had expected. It was a true tribal village. The bamboo house sat above the rice terraces on a large plot of farm land. As we approached we were greeted by goats, chickens, pigs, a water buffalo, cats, and about 8 puppies. The interior was extremely simple. The floors were dirt and the cooking fire dominated the center of the main room. There was no furniture aside from the small plastic chairs that circled a small wooden table. The beds were surprisingly comfortable and we were able to get a much needed nap.

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After resting we hung out with Mu’s three young children and her husband. A massive feast was prepared for dinner and we ate around 7pm. The food was insanely good and there was way too much. We washed down the meal with countless shots of homemade rice wine. We learned that Mu and her husband married very young as is customary in the small village, and at 28 she already had 3 children. She learned english by offering trekking tours and homestays (the rest of the family did not speak english). It was inspiring to learn more about this family and their way of life. While it was a very simple way of life, one that many at home would look down upon, the family seemed genuinely happy. They also had plenty of questions about our lives back home. After a few more rice wine shots we went right to sleep and its a good thing we did…

The next morning we were treated to an enormous stack of pancakes and were joined by a pair of Czech hikers. Its a good thing we ate up because there was a LONG day of trekking ahead. Luckily the clouds broke as we began our journey and we finally got a glimpse of the stunning views everyone had raved about.  It was a magnificent decent into the valley below. We stopped off at the local school that Mu’s kids attended and grabbed raw sugar cane to munch on. When we made it to the valley floor, we rested at a massive waterfall before continuing to a few of the larger villages. Then we began the long trek up the other side of the valley walls to Sapa. Not that I’m a huge outdoors-man, but this was easily the most grueling hike I had ever been on. In total we did 12 miles that day, and more than half of those miles were up the steep mountain pass. Our reward was gorgeous views of the terraced valley below.

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We arrived back in Sapa in the early evening, exhausted and filthy. We said our goodbyes to Mu and she left us with a few parting gifts. After a hot shower and a quick rest in a hotel we went out to explore Sapa. The town had the vibe of a ski village. Obviously the region was in the midst of a tourism boom with construction all over, but it still had a very quaint vibe down town. It was filled with cafes, small shops, and little restaurants.

Sapa was one of my favorite experiences in all of SE Asia and certainly had the biggest impact on me. Being able to live and explore with a member of a local villager was a blessing. Our guide was such a strong willed and inspiring woman. Though Momma Mu and her family lived a simple life, they seemed to be comfortable and happy. People in the states may look down at a situation like theirs and think it is no way to live. They would be wrong. This family opened their home to strangers from the other side of the world, welcomed them with food and drink, and spoke to them like friends. Think about that in context to whats happening in our own country.