Hue

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

We left Hoi An in early afternoon. It was sad to say goodbye to the Sunshine Hotel, our clean, cozy and comfortable home for the previous five days. We would miss the spacious room, palm tree surrounded pool and extravagant buffet breakfast, but were excited to continue our adventure on to the next destination: Hue.

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Hue is the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province, and between 1802 and 1945, it was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Our bus rolled into central Hue in the early evening and we were already hungry by the time we checked in to Hue Backpackers Hostel. While not quite as impressive as Sunshine Hotel, Hue Backpackers has a sweet bar, fun vibe and is in a great location for exploring the city.

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With only a limited time to explore the former imperial capital, we set out for a stroll around the neighborhood under the evening light in search of food and a cold drink. We eventually stumbled across a Gecko Restaurant and decided we better eat there, before we got too hungry and ill-tempered. After dinner we made our way to DMZ Bar, an old ex-pat and backpacker’s institution where we had some beers, vodka diets and chatted the night away.

Monday, May 26th, 2014

We woke up on Monday morning to find that our early afternoon flight to Saigon had been delayed until 6 p.m. With almost a full day ahead of us, we rented a scooter and set out to explore the city. After filling up with fuel at a gas station dangerously positioned on the perimeter of a massive roundabout, we whipped across the Perfume River and headed west toward the Thien Mu Pagoda.

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The pagoda itself is fairly underwhelming, but it’s located on well-kept grounds and the gardens boast nice views of the surrounding lush green jungle spilling into the deep murky river that winds in and out of Hue.

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Having enjoyed a quiet walk around the pagoda and through the grounds we climbed back on our scooter and cruised back into the city to visit the old, crumbling Imperial City of the Nguyễn Dynasty.

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The Imperial City is made up of a large walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. Back in its hay-day, inside the great walls was a forbidden city where only the emperors and those close enough to them were granted access. Today, mostly what remains of the forbidden city are a few structural walls and various building foundations. Although, significant renovations are underway and the city is once again beginning to come to life.

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The ancient city is not only in ruins because of its age, but also because of excessive damage from air strikes during the Tet Offensive. In early 1968, Hue was seized by the Viet Cong and the entire city, along with the ancient imperial city was subject to extensive bombings by the U.S. and South Vietnamese. Bullet holes from the fighting can be found in the stone walls and remaining metal artifacts.

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After walking around and exploring the massive, maze like imperial city, we hopped back on our scooter and headed back across the river for a late lunch at Mandarin Cafe.

Mandarin Cafe is a must visit restaurant for anyone staying in Hue and is owned by local photographer Mr. Pham Cu. While we were eating, we had the privilege of meeting Mr. Cu and he showed us some of his fantastic photos of Hue and the surrounding landscapes. His photos have been taken over decades and clearly show how much the city as changed and evolved.

Having gotten wrapped up in conversation with Mr. Cu we lost track of time and had to race back to the hostel in time to catch our bus to the airport.

Thankfully, we made it back in time for the quick 30 minute ride to the airport. Our flight left about two hours later, just before 6 p.m., and we were on our way to Saigon.

Sapa

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

The trains in Vietnam can’t even compete with those in India. Four beds are safely enclosed with a locking door, thus eliminating the need to zip-tie and lock yourself and your belongings to anything fixed to the steaming pile of metal.

IMG_0181It doesn’t smell of urine, but is quite inviting with comfy beds, clean sheets, cute reading lamps and bottles of water making for the most comfortable overnight transit we’ve ever had. Nine hours passed almost too quickly. Fortunately, accepting these comforts didn’t mean sacrificing the “sleepover on a train” preboarding excitement by travelers just trying to get cheaply from A to B. James was also guilty of catching this contagious feeling, so of course disappeared and minutes later returned proudly passing out his beer purchase from the petite woman working the platform.

We settled in and ended up cheersing on the bottom bunks before a friendly American turned Australian joined us. Anthony was a chef living in Australia, on holiday in Asia with his parents.

The first third of the train ride was spent dissecting “travel” and further inflating our excitement about every day we would see the sun rise over an unfamiliar skyline.

By 7 a.m. we arrived on the platform Lao Cai. We sardine packed ourselves and other stinky, beer smelling tourists into a shuttle where we would all enjoy playing corners for the winding 25 mile, 60 minute drive up the curvy roads to Sapa Town.

Sapa.

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This 100 year old hill station still shines with French undertones, which is probably why I think it’s breathtaking and like a dozen other places, could gladly call it home. Cafes and baskets overflowing with unfamiliar and curious fruit spill onto invisible sidewalks.

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IMG_3576We checked into Elysian Hotel. This hotel is a sweet find. It’s situated in a perfect location, with the dining room opening up right out onto a little side road off the main center of town. For about $32 for a room per night, this is easily a deal. The kind receptionist offered us warm tea and a shower before dropping our things and heading back out to explore our new destination.

The overwhelming smell of thick dark Vietnamese coffee had us perched on an adorable cafe rooftop within minutes of arrival.

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With the coffee shakes setting in, we were ready to explore.

The rest of the day was spent wandering curiously through the rice fields.

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That night we walked around town, explored the market (of course!) and ended up at a fun cafe for some pho and drinks while enjoying the setting sun and resting our tired, happy feet.

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Monday,  May 19th, 2014

We were up early and made sure to tap into the complimentary breakfast offer. America’s Continental Breakfast just doesn’t have game. We were served up piping hot spicy chicken and beef pho, with a side of dangerous caffeinated vietnamese syrup (coffee).

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IMG_3797 Yup. This is paradise.

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Our day started out in the opposite direction from the day prior. We were quickly met by a group of H’mong women and girls.

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Young women half my age (hey- I’m not that old…yet) had sleeping babies strapped to their backs, while woman more than twice my age were still breastfeeding.

IMG_3825Despite that it was hot as hell, they were covered in heavy hemp cloth dyed intricately with indigo blue, neon threads decorated fringes and hems, and silver’s cousin made an appearance on about every accessorize-able surface on a human body.

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We invited the woman we liked most to join us for the day.IMG_3866

It was an incredible day, with our eyes treated to green rice terraces, picturesque mountains serving as the backdrop, the joy of not knowing or caring where we were being led, and the opportunity to laugh and learn from these beautiful people from a hill tribe we would never be able to discover on our own.

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All was well until we departed from our ladies and we were left to find our way home. We were pretty thirsty, sweaty and a little pressed for time to make our return overnight train back to Hanoi.

We hiked around up and down, forwards, backwards and in circles. My Mom thought we brought her out there to kill her, and while James loves to make public transportation wait for his tardy arrival, I wanted to make sure we were onboard the train that evening.

I attempted to flag down a motorcycle, but the driver looked at me like he didn’t understand and disappeared around the bend in the road. While the three of us sat delusional, dehydrated and arguing with one another on the best plan for action, my motorcycle man returned, with his plus one.

James saddled up next to this dude and Mom and I tres packed the motorcycle for the return journey home. All was well in Vietnam again.

We retuned home and Elysian staff made us the strongest most dangerously refreshing mojitos this cocktail chick has ever dreamed of. The evening was spent sitting alongside my adventurous mother, sipping mojitos and watching the hill town settle down as the sun cast its giddy pink glow across the mountains.

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It was a perfect night filled with disgusting rice wine (I think they meant to call it rubbing alcohol), incredible Vietnamese food, market runs and impulse purchases of the soon be disappearing indigo goods.

We eventually made the trip back down the hill and boarded our cozy train for the overnight trip back to Hanoi.

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Happy Birthday to me!!!!!!!

There is absolutely nowhere in the world I would rather be than with my two favorite people. Unfortunately I was little miss grumpy thanks to a surprisingly crappy night of sleep. So we returned to the all-too-familiar Serendipity Hotel, performed our predictable shower-pho-coffee routine and then set out. We cruised around, shopped and purchased a few dozen chopsticks, buttons, amazing printed tanks, pants and headbands. That bad mood quickly turned good.

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James then treated me to an amazing spa treatment. IMG_4248

We walked into SF Spa and were served tea while excitedly waited for an hour plus of indulgence. We all received the most incredible spa back massages, enjoyed a lemongrass steam and waterfall showers. It was absolutely unbelievable and made the day precisely perfect!!!!

We decided to carryon the celebration by heading to the famous Hanoi beer corner. Prime people watching, endless beers and lots of inflatables made for a wild and crazy night in Hanoi.

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With too much to drink and having forgotten to eat, we of course ended up at our favorite place, Gecko. We spent hours sitting on the intimate little balcony overlooking the hundreds of motorcycles, pedestrians, pedal bikes, cars all zipping around creating what looked like a long exposure on an American Fourth of July.

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Being with Mom and James was an amazingly perfect way to welcome age 28!!!!!

Vang Vieng Laos

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thanks to my Skype interview with a job back in Seattle, we were both up at about 4 a.m. I was done just by 6 a.m. and went to find James pacing around the streets. I grabbed him so I could excitedly introduce him to the morning market before treating him to his beloved omelet at JoMas Bakery and Café in exchange for serving as my official tech support throughout the interview process.

At 9 a.m. a tuk tuk shuttled us and a dozen other backpackers to a bus station where we transferred to a mini bus. James had a panic attack in the far back corner of the over-capacity minivan, which proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to have a fellow passenger volunteer to swap; so with some very vocal hyperventilation, we started the 8-9 hour journey.

If we ever had multiple lives, they are officially exhausted during that van trip.

We arrived into Vang Vieng after 5 p.m. We found the first place we spotted to call home and dropped our stuff and headed out to explore before darkness set.

I think Spielberg envisioned this as the set for Jurassic Park (sorry Hawaii).

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Vang Vieng is a tiny place dropped into an overflowing, abundant green landscape. It’s as if someone oil-painted the whole scene but was only given pastel hues to chose from. The emerald mountains stretch their necks into the oceanlike sky and your busy eyes must shift down to view the glasslike pebbles that decorate the Palisade-like river.

This painting was once smeared with a dark and distracting period. In the town’s hayday, over 170,000 drunk, high, overly excited backpackers and in-their-element hippie crazies came tumbling into town every year, transforming the small dot on the map into a wild party town with a reputation to please all brave enough to head there. Dozens of tourists were killed after participating in drunk/high tubing/ziplining and rock jumping. The place was absolutely out of control, and despite the need for tourism, in 2012, the Laos government stepped in an cracked down. Hundreds of bars/clubs were shut down, crowds disappeared and the place cleaned up a bit.

If nobody told me this I would still be able to smell the spilt vodka lingering in the soggy floorboards. The hint of fear and anticipation for mass untamable crowds definitely exists, but I’d like to say all guests remain relatively well behaved. Warm faces are happy to see you, but worry clouds their eyes, wondering if you might bring back the chaos that they so gladly are beginning to finally forget.

We checked the town out (it’s tiny) and ended up at OtherSide Bar cheersing to a successful Skype interview that morning. The green cliffs served as a dramatic backdrop as brightly colored balloons peacefully glided by, and with dollar drinks and Laotian grub, we found ourselves sitting in an absolutely perfect evening.

 

Wednesday-Saturday, May 7-10, 2014

Our days were perfect and always started with enjoying morning Friends reruns on cushions, pad thai and spring rolls and then an afternoon filled with whatever Vang Vieng had to offer. We rented mountain bikes and cruised to the Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham caves.

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We went tubing, twice.

Off the government record, tubing is still insane. Despite claiming to have settled down, at about 1 p.m. about a hundred people come out of the woodwork, rent tubes, go in a tuk tuk and get dropped at the starting bar (point). Free shots of some home distilled rubbing alcohol are generously served paired with “good luck” bracelets. Word of advice – take the bracelet. You are going to need it for this trip. If anything it’s new jewelry and a dependable reminder of how much you’ve had to drink. Eventually before about 3 p.m. incredibly drunk people throw their overly tanned butts into tire tubes in the Nam Song.

The first bar is about 200 meters and you hardly have time to settle into the tube before some boy is throwing you a string with a water bottle attached to reel you in. The first bar is sweet – there is a sand volleyball court, basketball and soccer fields and plenty of beer pong tables to serve the masses.

There are a few more bars, some more fun than others and the last ones too incredible to remember. Two days of tubing was plenty and we had our share of fun both times.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Ironically, the same day there was a balloon crash in Virginia, we jumped into a basket attached to a balloon at 6 a.m. that morning. I thought it would a romantic, peaceful relaxing morning cruise over the green rice paddies with the beautiful mountains comforting me in the distance as I watched the river snake its way around the mountains.

Well, not exactly. The balloon was a bit worn and our pilot was likely about 15 years old. At one point we came about a feet from a cell tower (wait those have those in Laos?), and if I were to stick my arm out the balloon I could have easily grabbed it.

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I don’t think either of us realized you don’t have much control of anything up there, and neither does your teenage pilot. It’s not exactly as tranquil as any scene from UP, and James may have had to change his pants when we landed.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

We made our way to Vientienne – the capitol of Laos via bus.

We both hated Vientienne and feel it doesn’t actually deserve to be mentioned and the camera had no attraction to the grey shipping-yard looking place. Luckily we only spent one night there, which was enough for James to Skype his parents and me to unload my fat backpack that previously gained some Asian pounds.

We walked in the steam-room like weather to the post-office. The post office was massive and despite the hundreds of workers bustling around, nobody spoke a word of English (understandable since we were in the middle of Laos). I felt like I was at elementary school winter wonderland where you walk up to a bunch of tables, hand them some colorful currency and they give you a brightly colored box in exchange. After several sign language exchanges I got my package back and passed it off to the final window.

$150.

I quickly snatched it back and mentally totaled up the dozen items. Let’s see – chopsticks, canvas bags, maps, paintings all worth maybe $12. And I was paying $150 to ship it via rowboat home. James convinced me to hand it back over since he didn’t want to deal with it and I said farewell to my favorite Asian souveniers. Little did I know I had another surprise in store for me that day.

Lao Airlines, an airline with one of the worst safety records on the planet and a fatal crash within the past year, took us from Vientienne to Hanoi. Although James promised it would be an A320, I stepped onto the runway and did a 180* when I noticed the A320 looked more like an AT7.

I think I blacked out in panic. The plane definitely shouldn’t have been in the air and James only reassuring words mentioned that if the plane killed us I wouldn’t be able to get pissed he booked this flight.

But, we made it to Hanoi and excitedly settled in while we waited for my Mom to arrive from Seattle!