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VIETNAM – Saigon, Hue, Danang, Hanoi and Cat Ba Island

14 Nov

CHI MIN CITY – SAIGON

Good Morning Vietnam! (how cool is it to say that…. arriving in the Southern Vietnamese city of Ho Chi Min City….or Saigon as the locals still call it).  The city welcomed us with an incredible heat wave….even standing still made us sweat, so we moved very slowly during our two days of exploration. Saigon is a bustling city….and another one where the motorbike is king and it is a roll of the dice if you survive crossing a simple street!

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Street scene of Saigon

We stayed in the wonderfully, lively backpacker area where it was very enjoyable just to be sitting in a café, looking at people pass by….what the Vietnamese carry on their motorbikes is just beyond incredible! At night, the cafés fill up with the numerous backpackers enjoying the incredibly cheap Saigon beer….and the creepy old, white guys with the very young, and pretty Vietnamese girls.

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Underwater Puppet Show in Saigon

Saigon was the city where we had the pleasure of meeting up with friends: Bryan Rappaport, who works for the Canadian government in Saigon, with his lovely wife Angela and their adorable newborn son Leo. We enjoyed a scrumptious lunch with them and their friends at a breezy and elegant restaurant.

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Anthony with Brian Rappaport and his adorable son Leo

And we got to meet a couple of friends, which were purely made on-line (via my Families on the Move – Facebook group). We enjoyed breakfast with Australian couple Bethany & Lee Davies and their energetic son Rueben and got together with Barbara Adam and her adorable daughter Poppy.

Barbara, a funny Australian native, married Vietnamese Vu, and together they run Saigon Street Eats (http://saigonstreeteats.com),  offering unique, behind-the-scenes, street-food tours.  Barbara met us at a fun place called Snap Café (http://www.asialifemagazine.com/vietnam/the-snap-cafe/), a favourite for families with children as this lovely courtyard restaurant has a great play park to keep little ones entertained (Filou and Emile quickly bonded with the many expat kids there).

After a nice welcome chat, Barbara showed us the ropes of Vietnamese cuisine by taking us to a local restaurant where she expertly ordered a variety of dishes that melted in our mouths. At night, she also took us to her home, showed us the nearby river (where kids come to schmooze as they have little privacy at home), and gave the boys a spin on her motorcycle!  The boys’ were sad to say good-bye to Poppy, as they truly enjoyed their evening with her and her cool mom!

HUE

From Saigon, we flew with Vietnam Airlines to Hue in Central Vietnam to spend our next 5 nights, as it was highly recommend by some other travellers.  Unfortunately, I don’t think we got to see quite the beauty of this little town as it poured rain continuously while we were there. However, we still made the best of it and did some fun things….

On the only day calling for dry weather, we engaged Hue Riders (http://www.hueriders.com), a local motorbike adventure company, to take us and our travelling friends Sonja Everson & family, on a spin to explore the local countryside.  Four riders showed up with lots of enthusiasm and rain gear in tow to provide us with a great day.

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Our rainy countryside tour of Hue, with motorbike adventure company, Hue Riders

During our ride, we saw very colourful and intricate family homes – that looked more like temples – but were Vietnamese houses built for the sole purpose of families coming together to celebrate or enjoy each other’s company.  At the beach, where we were supposed to have a seafood lunch, we saw the structures of what used to be the seafood restaurants destroyed by a recent storm (so we ended up eating under a tent at a local little place – beef ribs, duck, green garlic veggies, egg & rice – $16 worth of deliciousness for the eight of us)!

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Vietnamese Family Home

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Just the skeleton left of a beach seafood restaurant, due to a recent storm

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We also saw farmers, working the rice fields the very traditional way with yaks and had the pleasure of making a stop and interact with a local family – where we got smiles from the very young and the very old (90 years!).

We (and by that I mean Filou), also got to learn about a somewhat unpleasant/surprising habit some Vietnamese have.  The lady of the house took a particular liking to our little guy. She kept asking if he was a girl (perhaps it was not clear as he had a big helmet on at first?) and kept grabbing his private part (I thought is was to check if he was indeed a boy). Later I learned that this is a non-sexual, normal custom – that just shows affection!  Filou took it really well…. just laughed the whole thing off!

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Farmers still working the rice fields, the traditional way with Yaks

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The young (very adorable)…

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And the old (90 years to be exact!)….

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Vietnamese lady that took a “particular” liking to Filou

For the rest, we had fun playing pool at a local café (where again the boys were adored by the many sweet girls that worked there), had our first family foot massage – all four at the same time!, and ate some of the best and cheapest Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) on the street- one that came with many interesting condiments (quail eggs, samosa type bread for dipping etc.) and the most delicious vanilla/lemon frozen yogurt in a bag with straw, we’ve ever tasted!

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Best Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup), eaten alongside the road, in Hue, Vietnam

And one day in town, trying to dodge the rain, we sipped delicious mango smoothies while Anthony made an attempt at starting a Vietnamese rock band with the locals (unfortunately, I don’t think great success is in the cards as Anthony had to try not to laugh when one of the guys started to belt out an English song – in a tone so off key, it would make chickens cringe!)

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Anthony and his “talented” Vietnamese music friends

DA NANG

We quickly learned that Vietnam is best explored by motorbike!  Officially it is illegal  for foreigners to ride a motorcycle without a Vietnamese license but everyone does it. And so did we!  For the entire time we were in Hoi An, we had two motorbikes that would take us anywhere. So fun!

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Our first big exploration was a coastal ride from Hoi An to Da Nang, the biggest city on the South-Central coast of Vietnam – beautifully located along the water.  We rode past some gorgeous, deserted beaches all the way up to see the Lady Buddha (or Goddess of Mercy – a HUGE stark white statue, not dissimilar to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ de Redeemer), and Monkey Mountain (a rainforest type habitat that supports many Langur monkeys – although their habitat is getting more endangered with the numerous high-end resorts being build in the area). 

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The Lady Buddha or Goddess of Mercy, on top of Monkey Mountain, Da Nang

Upon our return to Hoi An, we stopped at the Sailing Club restaurant at Da Nang where Filou quickly took a dip in the water to cool down – and Anthony, Emile & I had some great laughs – jumping in the air, snapping shots!

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Jumping for Joy at our Y.O.L.O Life!

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Filou practising Kung Fu, with a bamboo stick found on the beach

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Some great laughs at Da Nang Beach

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Calm Beach scene of Da Nang

The second wonderful ride was the one to the top of Hải Vân Pass – or ocean cloud pass – referring to the mist that rises from the sea – reducing visibility.  This is the 21 km long mountain pass consisting of twisting roads and stunning scenery, between Danang and Hue (according to the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, this road is “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coastal roads in the world’).

Once we survived the hair-raising task of crossing Danang (we made it alive crossing insane traffic on streets and roundabouts in the city), we were rewarded with a stunning ride through the mountains where we enjoyed magnificent scenery, gorgeous waterfalls, mountain goats – and the thrill of a fantastic ride up, high up in the sky!

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Many pretty, small waterfalls on Hải Vân Pass

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Riding the clouds on a gorgeous mountain pass

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Hải Vân Pass, or Ocean Cloud pass (we rode through a cloud of mist!)

HANOI & CAT BA ISLAND

Anthony interjecting here, to tell about a quick jaunt to Hanoi for Emile and me. On short notice, I had the chance to attend a workshop on climate change in the nation’s capital. I decided to bring Emile with me and make a trip of it.

It was his first ever conference and he was pretty excited. He registered, got a name badge and participated fully in the “tea breaks”. After 10 minutes of formal presentations however, he tuned out preferring to focus on his homework – a good thing indeed! At lunch, he made some new friends amongst a group of Master’s students, one of whom returned later that afternoon with a small parting gift for him. The conference was very interesting and I learned a lot and made some good contacts.

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Emile at his first conference

After the event, flanked by an afternoon of walking around Hanoi’s Old Quarter and some delicious Pho, Emile and I headed to Cat Ba Island near Halong Bay for some rock climbing. As our time was limited, we had to get an early start (5am to be exact!). After 7 hours on buses, taxis and boats, we finally made it to the island.

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Our guide extraordinaire at Asia Outdoors Adventure Company  (http://www.asiaoutdoors.com.vn) created a custom program to do some climbing the following morning – again an early start. But was it worth it! Rather than traditional rock  climbing, we took a boat out to the many rocks in the harbour and did some “deep water soloing”. This is essentially rock climbing without a harness, using instead the water to help break your fall. Very cool!

Our guide, Matt, said it best: “Have fun guys and don’t take it too seriously. I mean, we’re climbing rocks and jumping in the water – how serious can it be?” Wise counsel!

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Enjoying a Vietnamese breakfast with Matthew, our rock climbing guide

As Typhoon Haiyan was set to hit Vietnam, Emile and I got home to An Bang Beach as quickly as possible to reunite with Rose and Filou. Upon arrival, I learnt we had been evacuated from our villa and put into a solid concrete hotel. And so the adventure continued…

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On the ferry to Cat Ba Island

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Emile & Anthony doing some deep water soloing at Cat Ba Island

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