(Note: Thanks to uh… current events I’m writing this post nearly 3 weeks after leaving Asia. Can’t be helped but hopefully my recollections are clear.)
It wasn’t until I was back in Hanoi a couple days later and I went back to seeing the wizened old ladies running a vegetable stand or a couple of old men playing cards by the lake that it finally struck me what had seemed mildly weird when I was in Cambodia… The sheer youth of the population. I guess it’s something I subconciously noticed but didn’t quite process until the comparison was stark. Intellectually of course I knew Cambodia’s population was one of the youngest in the world, that’s what happens when a madman does his best to kill off an entire generation of a country, but it still took a while to really hit me. Between the Americans, the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge the Cambodian people have been through hell the past fifty years which makes their open friendliness all the more enjoyable. Unfortunately even today their government is among the most corrupt in the world with a strong authoritarian streak. As a traveller on a more grassroots level I try to take heart in the fact that most of my money is going directly to small businesses and people themselves.
Day two started early (but not pre-dawn early) as I joined my trusty tuk tuk friend to head out to some of the further temple and wow, travelling out into the more rural area was a different experience. Most of the cars you see are relatively new (it’s only been in recent years that importing cars for personal use has been a thing again) and even motorbikes don’t reach anywhere close to Vietnam levels. Dangerously overloaded miniature trucks are definitely a thing though… like the minicab I saw carrying a twenty foot by twenty food cube of plastic barrels down the road and crowding everything else. The further you get out of town the more you see the odd cart/tractor combos as well. Most of these are essentially a hay wagon style cart of varying sizes connected via a long yoke to the front wheel and engine of a tractor. Thankfully these are mostly slow because they seem very unwieldy to control.
The homes and countryside itself reminded me much more of Thailand than of my recent times in Vietnam as well. More buddhist style architecture, lots of gates of the thai style and once again having a mostly indecipherable alphabet to a western eye all contribute to that. It’s also noticeably waiting for the rainy season to green up a bit, much as when I was in south of Thailand. At the same time it’s nowhere near as modern looking as Thailand anywhere. The occasional newly built house sticks out along these rural roads especially as the modern Cambodian appears to be moving back to the cities, yet there are also some modern (often western built and signed) schools as well. At points this contrast becomes very pronounced, nowhere more so than the multiple gas stations we passed with an awning and sign that wouldn’t be out of place on a corner here but sheltering pumps as old as I am and a payment shack made of salvaged lumber and plastic. Low quality scooter/bike gas is available almost everywhere roadside in water bottles and jugs, probably a good thing given how many bikes I saw there completely missing fuel gauges. Travelling fairly early in the morning we passed a number of families sharing one motorcycle, frequently getting a smiling little boy giving me a wave as he sat sandwiched between his sister and mom behind dad.
The first actual stop for the day was Banteay Srei which means Citadel of Women and was supposedly so named because the carvings were so intricate they showed the hand of women in their creation. It’s fairly different from the main complexes for a couple of reasons. First it was built not by a King but by a senior civil servant/philanthropist and secondly it’s build primarily of a red sandstone that makes it look starkly different. The carvings themselves are absolutely beautiful. The pediments and doorway lintels are particularly breathtaking with intricate designs still beautifully preserved. The site is fairly small (perhaps not surprising given it wasn’t royally built) but was one of my favourite visits of the trip.
On the way back to the main site my driver asked me if I wanted to stop at the Cambodian Landmine Museum, I decided to not subject myself to the depression (in fact I’d already made a donation to a landmine charity) and spend more time at the temples given my limited time in Cambodia but it’s supposedly a well done exhibit.
Once back at the main park we proceeded to do the ‘outer circuit’ of very slightly less visited temples including East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Prasat Kro Ko and Preah Khan.
Ta Som had the same sort of ‘only barely cleared’ vibe as Ta Prohm the day before. Strangler vines and tall trees were everywhere. It was blessedly cooler as a result after baking in the sun at East Mebon earlier.
Preah Neak Poan was one of the more different sites of my visit. It was apparently originally a healing site with a central tower in a pool surrounded by four smaller pools, each one having the power of one of the base elements..
Surrounded by a moat and reached by floating bridge Preah Khan is the largest complex on the outer circuit and one of the largest of the whole park. It’s also where I got, for lack of a better word, abducted by a tourist police officer. Don’t get me wrong, he was a very nice man but his insistence that I take a photo from all of his favourite spots as he showed me through Preah Khan was beyond intense. No sooner had I taken a shot that he’d grab my elbow and pull me over three more feet to show me how the tree looked at this new angle. At times he’d practically snatch the camera out of my hands to make sure I was taking the photo he wanted. He did provide some great information though and when he unsurprisingly asked for a ‘donation’ when I said goodbye I was happy to oblige. By the time I escaped his clutches my camera was actually almost out of power.
As gorgeous and awe inspiring as Angkor is, I admit between the heat and the volume I was getting kind of templed out. After I crossed back over the moat and braved the varying groups of sellers we made a couple more stops at smaller sites but it was with a fairly satisfied heart that I made my way back to the hotel again for a shower. There are further outer temples and some really interesting sounding sites that would draw me back again for sure, but I was ready for a change of pace for sure.
Unfortunately I’d also somewhat cheaped out and had not sprung for a phone sim for Cambodia. Originally I’d tried to buy one in the airport that (based on an internet post from a year ago) should have worked for Cambodia as well but hadn’t noticed until a day or so later that he’d sold me the one for a competing company. It didn’t matter a whole ton except for the fact that it was only as I got back to the hotel around 2 that I got the message that my cooking class choice was full after all and could I come Tuesday… since I was leaving monday afternoon, not so much. Shower forgotten I went back to my research from the night before and dashed off a bunch of messages and emails, somewhat resigning myself to either missing out or having to get up first thing the next morning to check out then rushing off to do one hurriedly before my flight. When I’d originally tried to book the night before I’d been more picky, several of the classes were only doing things that were very close to the thai/viet classes I’d done and I was hoping to do things more unique to Khmer cuisine but at this point it was try to get whatever I could.
When I got no response I gave up and had a shower. After relaxing and watching something for a while I got a delayed email alert on my phone that said “yes we have a spot for 5pm, you are booked” and as I checked the time I saw: 4:52. I threw on some clothes, got out the door and hopped on the tuk tuk only to get to the end of the alley and find it blocked by a delivery truck. Some truculent honking later I managed to get to the class restaurant at only 5 after and they were thankfully waiting for one other person so I didn’t look like the only asshole (especially when he/she never showed.)
I enjoyed the class at the Paper Tiger but it was probably the worst of the trip cooking classes I’ve taken so far, that said it was also the cheapest. They didn’t have the recipes printed (and in fact this reminds me that I have to email them to remind them to send them) so you couldn’t easily follow along and the chef/teacher woman had a tendency to either give you too little or too much information. Given I was really looking forward to it this was a bit disappointing but it was still a fun time making some tasty dishes with a couple from France. If I went back I’d for sure try to book with the class I’d originally tried to take, my fault for not booking further ahead, I just didn’t expect it to be an issue with the current lack of tourist traffic.
My new French friends and I devoured our creations afterwards along with several $0.50 cent beers before they excused themselves as they were doing the 4AM wakeup call the next morning. I transferred a bit further down the street and had a couple ciders while listening a fairly terrible trio of women singing cover songs and just enjoyed the people watching. In the end I was pretty beat from the heat and the climbing and headed back to the guesthouse where I watched soccer with the desk manager and a brit guy for about an hour before turning in.
The next morning I enjoyed a leisurely sleep in to 8:30AM (oh the decadence,) packed, checked out and spent most of the day walking around and discovering the city in the daytime for the first time really. I checked out some craft markets, bought myself a pretty woven blanket and a few gifts and had another phenomenal meal at a place called Cafe Pou. It was Deboned fried chicken wings with spicy sauce, salt & pepper lime sauce, minced prohok, turmeric rice. Just a fantastic meal packed with flavour and a great way to say goodbye to Cambodia.
Sadly it was indeed time to say goodbye, I was glad I’d made the choice to spend the extra day in Siem Reap and I would definitely happily return someday. There was lots more to see out of town, investigating some of the upper mekong would have been interesting as well. Please friends, if one of you goes in the coming years I’d be really interested in knowing how things have changed.
In any case that just about does it for this adventure, I’m just going to write a brief tale of my return to Hanoi and the ridiculous journey home in a burgeoning pandemic, but that will have to wait for next time.
Those of you who are CJS grads of my era will remember an incredibly frustrating project in Core “English” class called your life list. For those that aren’t basically it was a bucket list of (I think) one hundred things you wanted to do before you die. It was an incredibly stupid project that we spent a ludicrous amount of time on in senior year. Now don’t get me wrong, I think getting kids of that age to at least pay some cursory attention to that sort of concept isn’t a bad idea but:
This project required 100 ‘Meaningful’ things you wanted to do in your life AND was going to be posted in public in high school, I don’t know about you but that meant nothing EXTREMELY personal was going on there. As with most of my friends I was grasping at straws after a few dozen… by 70-100 I was straight up making crap up. No 17/18 year old has or even should have 100 goals yet, we’re still discovering who we’re going to be as an adult.
The thing for me is that a big portion of the project involved displaying your 100 things in some meaningful way, some of us just did a poster with some sort of random hook to it (mine was a trombone and my items were on music notes I think?) and some people went ridiculously overboard. I forget how much this project was worth but I recall it being a not insignificant mark in a required ‘english’ course that was essentially being given out for how meaningful my dreams were and my skill at elementary school arts and crafts.
Yes I am still bitter about this (and other things about that class, never got my credits for gunther!) 20+ years later. Sure glad I spent that time on that instead of you know… my real english class that taught me how to write well for university… or Physics! It may not surprise you to note that I believe my parents talked to this teacher at PTIs and were told something like “Tristan does not hide his disdain well and needs to stop rolling his eyes.”
That said… this giant rant serves as a preamble to the fact that one of my legit number one things on that stupid list was “See the sun rise at Angkor Wat” and by god I checked it off. You’re welcome 17 year old me!
Let’s back up a bit though. My mostly nice stay at the Bamboo ended on a bit of a sour note as I realized the maids had thrown out or taken my packing bags. Thankfully I wasn’t so overpacked that it was an issue. As previously discussed in the blog I’d sprung for some air travel to pack as much as possible into the last week and a half. So while it’s theoretically possible to go directly to cambodia from the Phu Quoc area, it involves a fair bit of time on a bus, extended border transition times and then transfering in Phnom Penh to get to where I wanted to be in Siem Reap. It just made more sense to fly there via a quick hop back to HCMC then onward to Siem Reap, then direct from Siem Reap back to Hanoi for my flight home. Thankfully the flights lined up quite well and I was delay free and ended up touching down in Cambodia around 4pm.
First off, Siem Reap has an adorable airport that seemed very new. The other main reason for making sure I got to Cambodia this trip was that I’d sprung for the extra money for a multiple entry Vietnam visa. The Cambodian visa on the other hand was pay on arrival in USD. After getting extorted with a $5 fee at an atm for some yankeebux (I’d spent my reserve the week before paying Dr. Phu.) I stood in the brief line with the other foreigners to pay (most of the plane had been full of locals and Vietnamese who don’t require a visa) I waited for my name to be called. Despite being warned that they have trouble with western names and to pay attention it still took me 3 calls before I realized that Arz-ee was me. Turnabout is fair play and all with how I no doubt butchered the names of everything I tried 😉 Somewhat hilariously the dude asked if I wanted to skip the line, I remembered reading in my guidebook that five bucks can usually get you ahead, but turning around at a mostly empty customs hall I told him I’d take my chances and was in fact through in about 3 minutes. I suppose that scam works better when there are planeloads of chinese tour groups but about a quarter of the arrivals board was cancelled flights that day.
I’d booked in at an eco-guesthouse that offered free airport pickup and the very smiley Mr. Thon was waiting for me with a sign. Stuffing me and my bag onto his Cambodian style tuktuk (essentially a regular motorcycle with a permanent trailer) he took me into the city proper with a running commentary that I could hear about 50% of over the rush of the wind. He told me it was a shame I was here this week instead of next as the new Angkor Eye (a large ferris wheel in the vein of a smaller London Eye) was opening the following week. As we got closer to our destination I wondered if he was taking me somewhere to be killed as we zigzagged across bridges and through lanes until finally turning down a dead end path that…. surprisingly was lined with guest houses out of nowhere.
My place was called the Babel Guesthouse and is run as sustainably as possible by a Norwegian Couple. The lobby contains a shop full of various Hippie home and beauty products, the idea being to refill rather than buy more plastic. This extended to water bottle which is an ethos I can get behind to a point… except that their public refill bottle was just under a thin cloth cover. If you’re going to want me to not buy water it needs to be at least somewhere in the zip code of cold. I’d been places in Thailand that did the same and they had ceramic jackets they could put over the bottles with a bit of ice to keep the water significantly colder. Other than that it was a fairly nice place with a small courtyard bar where you could watch soccer and get a drink/food. The breakfast was apparently nice but I never partook as it wasn’t free and I was usually out of there too early anyway.
After checking in and arranging my (gulp) sunrise excusion to Angkor Wat the next day I set out to explore the town and get some food. Siem Reap is not a particularly large city, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100k people though of course usually swollen with tourists. While it was busy enough, I walked past several large hotels that looked mostly empty and even one that appeared to be shut down. Crossing over the canal that bisects the city I by chance spotted a restaurant called Chorney Tree that was highly rated in my guidebook and pulled up a chair and I was absolutely famished after skipping lunch.
Last year when I was in Berkeley for a wedding with my food friends we went to a cambodian place for dinner one night and we were all blown away by the flavours. In a trip I knew would be filled with a ton of great food I was probably looking forward to Cambodia the most. That first meal was phenomenal. Beef loc lac (tender thin pieces of marinated beef served with a bright tasting lime and black pepper sauce, crispy fried egg, rice and veggies) and a steamed egg and pork bao. Even later in the evening it was still very hot so relaxing with a great meal under a whirling fan was lovely, especially washing it down with a beer and a fruit smoothie as well as some crispy banana chips made with those amazingly sweet se asian bananas.
Walking a bit further after dinner I discovered the main Siem Reap night market and pub street which is basically tourist central after dark. There is a proper market but it’s surrounded by all sorts of restaurants, numerous upper floor bars blaring at each other across narrow alleys and even a kickboxing/wrestling ‘arena’ (there is apparently a full sized kickboxing arena in town as well that has more traditional events.) I had a quick look around but as I’d arranged to leave for the temples at 4:30 the next morning I went to bed basically the moment I thought there was a chance of sleeping.
Man four A.M. is early, especially when you’re in vacation mode. I mean I’d mostly been getting up at a reasonable hour this trip due to none of the hotels having blackout curtains or being particularly well soundproofed… but 4 is another matter entirely. Up, showered and (quasi) awake I made my way out front where my driver was waiting with a similar tuk tuk to the one I’d taken the day before. Bleary eyed as I was I didn’t actually make note of any of its identifying features which was an issue later. By 4:45 we’d arrived at the Angkor ticket office for the national park which contains the temples. Nominally it opens at 5am but I guess they start a bit early, unfortunately I didn’t notice the small sign that said the 1 and 3 day passes were different lines and only just managed to change lines before the first of the tourbuses arrived and started disgorging more hordes behind me. One can only imagine how much busier it would have been with another 10 buses with Chinese folks. Tickets are fairly pricey, but one can imagine they’re the main way the conservation is funded so I’m a-ok with that. It was $62 us for a three day pass so I grabbed one despite not being sure if I’d be doing that much time.
It was still pitch black as he ran me down the road towards the park entrance and it was with fairly vague directions that I was pointed at Angkor Wat itself but even ahead of the main crowd there was a trickle of visitors confirming I was heading the right way and eventualy I found myself at the edge of the moat water. February is firmly in Cambodia’s hot and dry season and space at the water’s edge was at a bit of a premium but I was still kind of shocked at how many people were trying to cram around the water in hopes of grabbing a reflection shot of the sunrise. It was a fairly long wait and as dawn approached swarms more people arrived and people started demanding those in front get down. Unfortunately I was standing in mud but managed to find a dry spot because there was no way my knees were going to handly crouching for 45 minutes. Occasionally people up front stood to stretch or take a shot and some loudmouth Australian who had just arrived kept yelling out crap about ‘sit down, do you think you’re special’ or the like. I mean I get it, let’s try and let as many people enjoy the best view possible but give people a break. Eventually he yelled ‘Your mother would be ashamed of you’ and I yelled back something in the vein of “my mother taught me to be places on time” and got a few claps and cheers from folks at the front.
Sunrise itself was slow in coming but absolutely magical. For the most part people kept their yaps shut once it arrived and you just heard the occasional hushed whisper or whirr of a camera shutter. I can’t really described it but those ancient towers slowly coming into view in front of the growing dawn light made it easy to imagine you’d been transported through time.
Once dawn had well and truly arrived I gave in to my aches (should have done this when you were younger T) and got up and walked around the moat towards the main temple. Angkor Wat is the only one of the temples in the region to have been continually used since being built (in the 12th century originally as a Hindu temple) and is thus the best preserved. It’s also the largest single religious monument in the world.
I’d actually walked in complete darkness over the floating bridge that is replacing the causeway during repairs and through the 5km long outer wall but now that daylight was here the galleries and inner area were opened and I could explore in earnest. The pure symetry of the place is what strikes you first after you start to comprehend the sheer scale.
In addition to the spires and long raised galleries Angkor Wat is famous for the intricate bas-reliefs that adorn the walls. The most famous of these is the ‘churning of the ocean of milk’ a representation of the reinvigoration of the universe comprising dozens of painstakingly carved asuras and devas.
Interestingly a lot of the modern restoration work has focused on cleaning out or reimplementing the original drainage and cleaning systems from construction as earlier restoration efforts caused as much damage as they fixed. Other efforts involve keeping plant life at bay, more on that later.
I spent what felt like ages exploring the place but it was still quite early when I made my way back towards the floating bridge and discovered that while I had a vague idea of what my driver looked like I had zero idea which of a probably fifty tuktuks was mine. Eventually I spotted a dude in a red shirt in the distance which turned out to be my driver Tam. This time I made sure I looked at the ad on the back of the seat to better spot it later.
A couple KM north lies the south gate of Angkor Thom, once the capital of the Khmer empire until it was later sacked by the Ayuthaya kingdom of Siam/Thailand. Unlike Angkor Wat this was an actual townsite and large number of people lived here before it was abandoned, though most of the later buildings were not stone and don’t survive today. What remains is gorgeous though, a number of temples and terraces in noticeably different styles.
The main temple of Bayon, probably the second most famous after Angkor Wat itself had a number of monkeys hanging around outside. They were surprisingly unpushy though there were a few warnings around about being careful. Though in much poorer shape than some other temples (and currently undergoing a major restoration effort of the upper levels) there’s still a vast maze of passages to discover. The towers carved with massive faces are very impressive.
From there I snaked through and walked the long causeway to the Baphuon temple which was one of the few you could climb to the top (up some absolutely mentally steep wooden stairs that covered the originals for preservation purposes.)
Phimeanakas was just to the north of there and was apparently the royal palace area for much of the era of the city. It’s guarded by the terrace of the elephants from which one could once see the royal processions from the victory gate.
A quick stop for lunch and a giant bottle of water helped me recharge a bit as the full heat of the day had arrived and it was probably pushing 35c with not much of a breeze to speak of. I was glad I’d had some time to adjust to the heat before getting here.
Our next stop was Ta Prohm, known as the Tomb Raider temple due to being used to film several sequences in the original Jolie film adapatation of the game. This is one of the temples where the conservation work has focused on maintaining the balance between invading nature and keeping the temples whole. Large trees and vines grown around, through and actually on the temple buildings and walls and if you catch a courtyard at a deserted moment it’s easy to imagine you’ve just emerged from the jungle to find a forgotten ruin.
We Finished the first day’s exploration at Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang. Banteay Kdei was a monastery but is in poor repair now, apparently due to using lower quality stone than many of the other monuments. Sra Srang is a large resevoir with terraces which was used as a bathing area for the royal family and every time I went by it on this trip there were a number of kids swimming.
My driver offered to drop me off at pub street and I agreed thinking a drink and a snack might be nice, but when he forgot and took me back to the hotel I sucumbed to the lure of a shower and a nap. I must admit it was nice that the guesthouse had their own crew of trusted drivers, they make a point of paying them a solid wage (it probably cost about 30% more than if I’d hired a random person) but the guys did a good job at steering you around properly, dropping you at the right place and time to avoid as much of the crowds as possible and chimed in with the occasional fact that added some context.
Once I’d recharged I walked back over to the night market and explored more thoroughly before eventually ending up down a side street at a tiny place that smelled amazing when I stopped to look at the menu. The resulting meal was almost as good as the night before, Khmer Spiced chicken skewers and ultra crispy spring rolls. Walking back I noticed a movie theatre which just like the ones in Vietnam was essentially a giant chaotic motorbike garage under the teeniest of lobbies and a couple screening rooms. I finished the night in a random bar along the pub street having a couple drinks and just people watching now that it had cooled down a bit.
I’m pretty sure I was out the moment I hit the pillow though with the nap I did manage to stay awake until a reasonable hour, thankfully day two was going to start a bit later.
Phu Quoc is an island in the extreme south west tip of Vietnam, and sits in the gulf of Thailand. It’s so far west in fact that looking at it on a map it looks like it should belong to Cambodia. It’s a small island, only about 50km long but is actually Vietnam’s largest offshore posession. As of a couple years ago it doesn’t even require a Visa so there are now a number of flights direct here from overseas and it’s exploding as a beach getaway destination for (based on what I saw) lots of russians and expats. In addition to being an international destination it’s all of a 45min flight from Saigon so a weekend getaway destination for those with means as well. My purpose here was to get a bit of scuba diving in and actually spend a bit of time relaxing as this has been a pretty active trip so far.
It’s a pretty place as you land, still mostly forested unlike a lot of Vietnam. Most of the island is the one coastal road with mostly small narrow tracts of land down to the beach with hotels (at least on this section, other areas are wilder.) There are a number of mega resorts further from town though and from what I understand at least 5 more under construction. Personally I’d chosen a small cheap-ish resort near-ish the town of Duong Dong since I still had a bit of heavier spending ahead but if I was going back I’d spend a tiny bit more and be closer to the beach or perhaps one of the remote ones in the north or east of the island. That said it was a cute little hotel with a small but nice swimming pool.
The beach stretching south of Duong Dong town is called Long Beach. As mentioned the side closest the ocean is unsurprisingly hotels, the other side snakes against the hills and is mostly shops and restaurants with the occasional narrow lane snaking upwards with smaller guest houses and homes. My little resort was on one of these just off the road, thankfully quiet from the main road-ish.
Unfortunately for the realities of life my absolute first priority was laundry as I was out of even vaguely clean clothing. I forget if I’ve mentioned on this before but in this part of the world you usually get your laundry done by the kilo, taking it in and picking it up washed, dried and folded a day later at worst. On Phu Quoc this cost me the grand total of ~$1usd a kilo. I know, the pure excitement of this travelogue.
Laundry sorted I headed north and started scouting food for my stay as well as making the most unfortunate mistake of stopping in at my dive shop and arranging my pickup in person. My resort was called Bamboo Resort or some such but there was also Bamboo Cottages and Bamboo something else. The french guy who seemed to be one of the senior dive folks got it in his head that I was at one of the other ones and told me my pickup site would be at hotel X in the morning. When I got back to the area of my hotel and didn’t see the place I looked it up and it was a 35m walk in the opposite direction, it would be closer to walk to the actual shop at 7 in the morning. This began a 4 hour email chain with the shop that ended with them giving me a list of stops that were all closer to my hotel (I was 90% sure) but insisting that the original one was closest despite me twice providing them with an actual address to look up. At this point they had closed and I was screwed. Looking back I wish I’d just cancelled and gone with a less obtuse operator but these guys were the top rated for the island and I had a reserved spot.
While this had been going on I’d been doing more pleasant things at least. I’d changed into my new shorts/fake swim trunks and found the nearest path down to the beach. Since it obligingly faced west I was treated to a gorgeous sunset over rippling waves. The water was quite clear and the beach not too bad, certainly better than the one near Hoi An. The water was also like 29c and like stepping into a heated pool. In fact, after I walked back up to the hotel and got all warm again I hopped into the pool and it was significantly colder (though refreshing.)
Dinner that night was indulging the want for north american style meat that had been so cruelly quashed the night before. Right next door to my hotel was a burger joint run by an American ex-pat named Winston. My hotel had told me it was tasty (which I’m always leery about when it’s just next door) but it actually showed up in Lonely Planet as well. I had a delicious bacon burger made with some juicy aussie beef, a plate of tasty wedges and a couple beers. Expensive by Viet standards but sometimes you just have a craving.
The next morning I sucked it up and walked down to my super handy pickup point which took fully 10 minutes longer than the google estimate (normally I can beat the est. by about 15%) to find the van waiting and the same french dude reappearing from somewhere saying ‘I went to your hotel.’ I said, no you didn’t.. blah blah blah.. and he completely ignored me because it was my fault we were running late… yeah right. Sure enough we picked up two people at closer stops to my hotel, one all of a 5m walk away. Assholes.
By 8 we were all on the dive boat regardless and began cruising to the north of the island for our dive sites. Along the way we stopped a couple times at the more remote resorts and the little shore boat we were towing went in to pick up people from the beach. It took us about two hours to reach the north end of the island (she was not a fast boat since even with the stops that was at most a 20km journey.) I had to laugh at the type A American business consultant woman who I heard comment multiple times about how she didn’t expect so much of the time just to be travelling etc. You come to a place like this to relax lady, you’re on a boat trip along a beautiful tropical island. Chill.
I spent most of the trip talking to a dutch couple who were just planning to snorkel. I’d actually read a few posts about the diving that said that the snorkeling was just as good or better, but having been screwed over on the last trip I wanted to get under for a bit. I know I’ve said it before but a good dive boat is the best of the human race. People from all over the world managing to communicate and have a good time mostly talking about their love of the sea.
For our actual dive I was paired up with a swiss german named Peter and lead by Simon a man from Saint-Tropez with a French father and a Vietnamese mother. After convincing him that no I absolutely did NOT need a wetsuit in 29c water and would be fine in a rashguard. We dropped under and went down about an 8m average to skim around the reef. Visibility wasn’t superb, 3-5m depending on the current where we were. The warm water coral was quite pretty but life wise the variety was unfortunately minimal. As is unfortunately a running theme on this travelogue the vietnamese have a serious problem with overfishing and anything of any size whatsoever is sitting in a tank at the night market. Combined with the fact that the new mega resorts have already closed two of their previous dive sites and one wonders about the future of the passtime on Phu Quoc.
Dive two was a bit shallower on the other side of the same reef but visibility was better. Saw a few more things but the highlight was probably a single pretty anenome no one had poached yet with a couple anenomefish darting in and out. Once we started the slow journey back our deckhand/chef brought out lunch: a simple but tasty vietnamese buffet of rice, chicken, tofu, morning glory and noodles. I’ll say this for them, on the boat they were a good crew of dive leaders. Back on land however, the asshat told the driver to take me back to the pickup point, I mean I’d literally pointed out the hotel as we drove by. In the end I’d planned to just hop off at one of the other drop off points but we he got held up by a garbage truck near-ish my laundry place I just insisted that they let me off there. It was such an unnecessary trial to deal with.
Grabbing a couple ciders at the minimart I took everything back to the hotel and hopped in the pool with a book, leaning on the edge and reading for probably an hour and a half before grabbing a very nice curry dinner and heading to bed early-ish where I wrote a blog post and struggle to last past 9 (as is usual on diving days.)
The next day was pure relaxation. Slept in as long as I could (8:30 when the dude cleaning the pool was right outside my window.) Had a relaxed breakfast. Spent most of the day walking the beach and occasionally taking a swim. Eventually wound up back at the hotel and read a book and drank a few drinks by the pool. Rubbed the tummy of the hotel dog a bit. I wandered down to the night market which was a large number of seafood restaurants, many selling exotic stuff and I just couldn’t patronize them given what I’d seen the previous day. Had a tasty vietnamese dinner further back up the road then hung out in a weird courtyard bar where they played 90s/early oughts alterna-rock while playing chaplin films on a projector. It was a nice bit of a recharge.
Thinking back to it now it feels like it may be on its way to being Vietnam’s Phuket (Russians and all.) I enjoyed it a lot, the main beach is kept clean at least though again there’s the garbage and plastic problem everywhere. From reading things ahead of time some of the other beaches are less clean. The authorities are also letting the new resorts build restaurants out on tiny islands and blocking off the snorkeling sites as a result. Here’s hoping they settle down a bit soon on the big hotels, expand the marine reserves and actually enforce them.
I’m flying around a bit more this trip but that’s a factor of Vietnam’s relatively slow trains/buses vs. cheap flights. I’m guessing between the wars and the proliferation of motorbike culture since the country opened up there hasn’t been much priority on upgrading what was originally built by the french in the late 1800s. There’s certainly no high speed passenger portions of the track that I can see and the route frequently hugs the coast making for beautiful views… and 18 hours to cover 500km distances.. Unfortunately while I had some interest in the areas between the central coast and Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon it became a question of priorities and unfortunately with having to take a train bus combo part of those options it was just going to take up too much of my remaining time. Still, it doesn’t hurt to have things you’d like to come back and do next time.
I did take one train trip however, the previously discussed hop back down the coast from Hue to Danang. This was a short one but flights were significantly cheaper out of danang on the day in question and the train ticket was $4. I had hoped I had a window seat for the lovely coast but unfortunately the jokers at Vietnam national railways flipped the orientation from what was shown on the booking site.
The Vietnamese train experience was an odd contrast to the Thai one, simultaneously more advanced and more backwards. The one positive was that booking online gave you an e-ticket that was perfectly valid to board the train, the negative being you can’t pay for anything on the actual site with a foreign credit card and thus have to pay a commission to a broker. I ended up doing the same in Thailand of course but it was worse there as you then had to go to the broker’s office near the train station in order to pick up your actual ticket. The trains themselves were nicer in Thailand too, though quality depends on the specific train of course. I was in second class soft with AC which is pretty standard backpacker travel, the sleepers are apparently a bit nicer in terms of accommodation but also aren’t as good for the daytime travel. The Vietnam trains often include private first class cars bolted on the end as well so if you’re travelling as a group that can be fun getting a slightly swankier experience… though depending on where you’re going you’re likely paying more than a flight. Still, I’ll give a sleeper a try next time I’m in Vietnam I think.
Despite being on the wrong side facing backwards the views were still great, I just didn’t want to be that guy getting up to lean over and take a photo. That same azur blue sea sparkling beneath the steep drop I’d seen from above on the bike. It took us a couple hours to roll into Danang at which point I transfered straight to the airport and on to Saigon.
Saigon is definitely more like what I expected Hanoi to be. The motorbikes are even more insane, everything is denser and the air quality is not great. Simultaneously it’s also more old fashioned and noticeably more french. Wide boulevards with large pedestrian paths are much more common and the architecture has noticeably brutalist soviet style presences. Riding downtown from the airport one got a definite feel of a more cosmopolitan city, whatever pretensions Hanoi has to being more cultured, though perhaps I’d feel differently if I lived in both places a while.) The bus ride into the city even had the curious diversion of a short stop for what appeared to be young ladies from the health department in cheerleader outfits handing out facemasks as part of the coronavirus measures. Unfortunately this stop turned out to be my first mild stinker of a hotel. Nothing major, it was clean and ‘ok’ just a tiny windowless box, the only benefit of which was quiet and a location close to most of the sights in District 1.
District 1 is basically the center of town and contains (or is near) the backpacker/budget hotel district… The fancier wannabe champs elysee area with the high end hotels and the swankier restaurants… And the ‘diplomatic’ area with a bunch of the consulates and the former presidential palace/now museum. It’s also close to the Ben Thanh night market which I decided to check out the first night. It turned out to unsurprisingly be mostly the same old tourist tat but nearby was another area marked as specifically the Ben Thanh Street Food market and that was delightful. Far too cramped as it’s crammed into a tiny lot rather than in a park setting but at least it had a second level of seating. After browsing around a bit I got a pork and shrimp banh xeo (vietnamese fried pancake/omelette thing) and a lemongrass chicken skewer with a peanuty sauce. The band pictured below were quite energetic. Sated and somewhat wiped from all the travel I tried my best to watch a soccer game and have a beer or two back closer to the hotel but I didn’t last long and retreated to my cave.
After a bit of a sleep in (the first time it’s been quiet enough to do so) I set out to explore a bit more of Saigon. First stop was the Reunification Palace which is the former presidential palace and site of South Vietnam’s official surrender to the NVA. The original home on the site was that of the Governor General of the region under the french occupation before becoming the presidential palace during Diem’s regime.
Being the swell guy he was Diem’s own airforce decided to try and kill him and flattened the original building. This replacement was built during the war years, Diem getting killed in another coup attempt before it was finished. After the NVA tanks broke through to raise the flag it wasn’t used for much until being opened as a museum so it’s a pretty great time capsule of 60s architecture and design.
My map let me know that one of the restaurants that had sounded interesting was nearby on one of those wide european looking boulevards. Called Propaganda it did fancier versions of street food from around Vietnam in a trendy bistro lined with old propaganda posters and murals based on them. Really tasty and with some amazing (though overpriced imo) fresh fruit smoothies. It was interesting but honestly felt like someplace in the Bay Area or Vancouver.
Next up was the latest stop in the disappointing asian churches tour! I joke, I joke, but turns out that Notre Dame in Saigon is getting the TLC that St. Joseph’s in Hanoi so desperately needs. Unfortunately that meant it was covered in scaffolding and closed to visitors. The nearby late 1800s french built post office was fascinating though with historical maps on the wall and Eiffel reminiscent ironwork.
Unfortunately it was a baking hot day and the air quality was not great so I wasn’t feeling amazing by the time I’d walked the couple km to my next destination. That combined with the coronavirus notices everywhere made the pagoda somewhat of a disappointment. I’m sure it’s much more atmospheric when not covered in ugly printed notices and everyone wearing masks.
All things considered this called for a drink and it so happened that I wandered near one of Vietnam’s explosion of craft breweries, this one called Heart of Darkness. I tried their delicious Kumquat Pale Ale first before trying a Mango cider from Hanoi out of their limited range. Both were phenomenal and left me feel much cooler, though sitting under a fan in their courtyard reading a book for a while as I drank helped too.
The rest of the day was spent wandering the streets of HCMC and just admiring the architecture, occasionally grabbing a seat and people watching and just generally trying to absorb some of the vibe of the city.
Dinner was at another beautiful courtyard restaurant, but this time the solo traveller next to me from Japan massively overordered and kept offering me some of his food so I got to try almost triple the dishes including some amazing duck, an absolutely flaming hot shrimp dish and a fried salt chicken wing. By the time I got back to the hotel around 11 I was stuffed and positively roasted.
The Mekong Delta evokes different images to different people I’ve spoken to. For some it’s that quintessential vietnamese image of rice paddies and flat bottomed boats, for others it’s the Vietnam War movie scene of an American patrol boat out looking for VC down a muddy brown river. Even on a quick one day tour out of the city to the region I got a brief taste of just what a labyrinth of rivers the region is made up of. Islands are everywhere, most only accessibly by water, and most devoted to agriculture. Over half of Vietnam’s rice is grown here, though ‘here’ is a pretty vast region made up of multiple provinces. We also got glimpses of small scale fish farms, coconut and fruit plantations and village level industry like coconut wood production, candy making and other things. Our guide told us that many of the vendors in Saigon drive out every morning to buy things from the villagers in order to resell in the city.
This being somewhat of a basic tour we were given many opportunities to buy lots of different things, but it was still an interesting window. Based on what I’ve read what we saw was not disimilar from what the rest of the delta is like, just that life gets even simpler the farther you get from HCMC or from the other major city in the delta area.
We did get an absolutely wonderful lunch and entertainment in the form of the young korean guy on our crew who was obviously terrified of dogs and who’d jump and run from the table when the most harmless looking little puppy got within 10 feet of him. This continued the rest of the day with the kid acting like any dog in distance was a cobra and backing into walls to avoid getting closer.
Overall the tour was so-so. It basically just whet my appetite to go back and do a more extensive one at some point as there are more involved tours that let you go out to the floating markets at convergence points in the delta as well as staying overnight in some of the outlying towns. Unfortunately for everyone who makes a living on the delta it’s a really delicate ecosystem that is probably going to get absolutely slammed in the next decade or two. The entire area is barely above sea level and will get inundated if climate change predictions are even close to correct. Even if things turn out better than expected pretty much every country upstream of vietnam on this vast life giving river is planning some sort of hydroelectric project that is going to mess with the water table. Reading online it looks as though Cambodias giant waxing and waning lake that feeds half the country and Vietnam’s ricebowl are both in serious danger as the hydrodynamics are very finely balanced.
Back in HCMC a couple hours later I found myself craving something not Vietnamese so sought out what was supposedly an American bbq joint run by expats… only to find that it was closed for renos after a 30m walk, another 30m walk led to discovering the next place had closed permanently at which point it started to absolutely pour and I dove into the first place I saw that had a roof and tasty looking things (this of course being the first night I’d gone out without my backpack and raincoat.) Dinner was lovely but man had I been craving that brisket from the restaurant’s website (you think you’d mention one of your two locations was closed for 3 months on your website but nope :p ) Thankfully there was a break in the rain about an hour later and I managed to scurry back to the area around my hotel and listen to a band for a while before bed.
The next morning I said goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and headed off to Phu Quoc Island to get a bit of beach time and some diving done.
Those of you who are old version Top Gear fans may have watched the Vietnam special they did many years ago now. The middle section of the special has them having (silly) suits made then driving their bikes over the Hai Van pass between Hoi An/Danang and Hue. This is the point where if I recall correct Jeremy briefly starts liking biking and all three guys are in awe of the view. Originally I’d planned to do this journey too but in the opposite direction, but the flight issues I mentioned in the last post made it easier to do it this way then fly out of Hue or (as eventually happened) just backtracking on a short leg of the train. In doing some research I’d found a good small company that took you across on motorbikes for all of $40usd which sounded tons more appealing than a tourbus.
One last great breakfast at the Hotel Hai Au (as always I also use this blog as a reminder for myself 😉 ) then out front to meet ‘Dr. Phu’ who plastic wrapped my pack then loaded it all up on the bike before we set off. I’d fully expected this to be a pretty direct trip with a few photo stops but Dr. Phu was intent on showing off his country as best he could entirely to my delight. We exited Hoi An by zig zagging through the rice paddies surrounding the town (some of which I’d wrong turned by on the way to the beach the day before) then moved on past shrimp farms and the ‘vegetable village’ that apparently grows much of the produce for the restaurants in town. I was amazed at how many small guesthouses were even out here but the ‘homestay’ concept is popular with some visitors here, though I imagine you’d want your own bike staying some of these places. It was probably an hour before we actually hit the road back towards Da Nang.
Our first actual stop and chance to rest my poor still not fully healed (c’mon already) tailbone was the Marble Mountains. These are five marble monoliths on the outskirts of Da Nang which are named for the elements and have pagodas and shrines dotting them. Surrounding the bases are marble carvers though the villagers now import chinese marble rather than further mining from their tourist attractions. Again, if you watched the top gear special this is where James’ present came from.
The major one of these Marble Mountains is Thuy Son or the Water Mountain. A quick trip up in the world’s hottest elevator revealed a gorgeous garden of sorts, paths carved everywhere between Pagodas and natural caves housing shrines. The one downer was of course that a mega hotel is being constructed between the mountain and the ocean, spoiling the view completely.
Back on the road we snaked through the busy streets of Da Nang, crossed the Dragon Bridge, (An arched bridge with dragon heads added as though it were a sea monster) and started heading up the coast. A tunnel was completed somewhere around a decade ago which thankfully cuts the traffic down though fuel trucks and others still have to use the pass. Dr. Phu stopped us just up the first couple switchbacks where there was a superb view of the beach already far below and a glimpse of the train track I’d return on in a few days time. What a phenomenal view, especially on probably the best day I’d had weatherwise thus far.
We stopped several more times in the pass for photos. Not so long ago this region was the extreme north of South Vietnam and the pass was an important military site. The former DMZ lies just north of Hue but even here at the top of the pass there are the ruins of a former lookout station/bunker and bullet holes still clearly visible everywhere. The view in both directions is phenomenal, winding tarmac zigzagging down to the sea in both direction, unfortunately the all too everpresent garbage problem in Vietnam is pretty bad as well.
Now at the bottom of the pass we arrived at a fishing village called Lang Co. There’s a series of lagoons along the coast here with semi salt water and a large number of oyster farms. Phu showed me in his words the ‘fancy fancy’ restaurants then took me to a place he said locals eat. I suspect it’s more likely ‘place he gets a small commission’ but there were definitely a good mix of locals and tourists and I got a lounge chair under a palapa staring out at breaking waves and eating some reasonable food. At his insistence I tried some local scallops done in chili and peanut, scallops are not usually my thing but these were delicious. I also had a cider and some shrimp noodles and just enjoyed the view and the breeze for what felt like a couple hours. Dr. Phu was actually from Hue so he was in no great hurry.
As we moved onward eventually he continued to take us along the road less travelled hitting a couple of minor passes rather than taking tunnels and eventually winding up at a local swimming spot called Elephant Springs. I wasn’t expecting this (nor did he really explain) so I wasn’t wearing my suit but in the end no regrets. Reading the reviews of this place afterwards I gather it’s a mega scam in busy season. Basically a rushing crystal clear river that forms a series of natural pools as it drops down there are bamboo huts with mats along the edge all the way down. I gather if you’re here on your own motorbike as a tourist you get charged the admittance fee then someone tries to charge you to swim, to sit in a hut etc etc etc with trash everywhere. I think because of the time of year mostly what we saw was locals rebuilding the huts. Apparently it floods quite severely in the rainy season and washes everything away… They should take the hint. The reviews on TripAdvisor make it sound awful with people putting up tarps and whatnot to make extra pools and basically just messing with what was probably originally a very naturally gorgeous place. The fact that we were off season and the place was just setting up again saved us from the worst of it and it was nice to cool off by dipping my feet in the water but still kind of sad. I hate to keep comparing the two countries but when I was at the falls in Kanchanaburi in Thailand there were such strict controls about bringing any plastic in and everything stayed pristine as a result.
As we made our final run in to the old imperial capital of Hue it was some mildly exciting highway driving with a couple minor stops for photos. I was glad to get off before it was fully dark but overall it had been a spectacular (and much fuller than expected) day on the bike. With a thank you and a hefty tip I sent Dr. Phu home to his family, checked in to a hotel room with a bathtub!!! (that I later found out wouldn’t hold water) and headed out to explore the cuisine of Hue.
I’d seen the same recommendation three different places and boy did it not disappoint. 130000 Dong ($7.50) five course set menu to try a bunch of ‘royal’ Hue specialties. It all came at once and the tiny woman who brought it all showed me how to eat the things I’d never seen before. Little Banh Beo steamed rice dumplings with shrimp and green onion that you poured a bit of sauce on then shot almost like an oyster. Banh khoai which are like an extra fried banh xeo just encrusted with shrimp. Fried spring rolls and fresh rice wrapped charbroiled pork, the juiciest things with peanut sauce. And Nem Lui, lemongrass pork grilled on a skewer of lemongrass that you then wrap with veggies in rice paper and go to town on with more sauce. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far meal wise.
The big attraction in Hue is the Imperial Citadel which was the seat of the monarchy in the 1800s up until the end of the dynasty in 1945. Most of the other side of the Perfume River is encircled with massively thick stone walls with narrow archways constantly flooded with traffic. Things could definitely be set up better but eventually you arrive at the inner citadel/enclosure and buy your ticket. As with seemingly every other cultural site in central Vietnam the Americans did a number on this one too, though the French went to town as well. According to my guidebook only 20 of 148 buildings survived. Soon after entering you can see a well done video where a South Korean university has done graphical reconstructions of some of the areas. Restoration work is ongoing however and some of the remaining structures are breathtaking.
It was a baking hot day for exploring and despite buying some extra water on the way over there was definitely some extended breaks when I found a particularly shady and breezy spot. Highlights of the enclosure were probably the front gate and the main audience hall as well as some of the surrounding temples. The detail work in some of the tiling is just breathtaking and I loved the lanterns.
A solid bird will be flipped to Lonely Planet for recommending doing it counter clockwise when you can’t actually exit back through the front but have to go out the side which meant a fairly massive detour to get back to where you originally came in. Something’s probably changed since this edition of the guidebook came out but it makes absolutely no sense how they’ve arranged things. You think they’d want to make things easy on pedestrians. Still, it was 100% worth the visit. I finished off the afternoon with a late lunch of a bowl of the other Hue specialty: Bun Bo Hue, a beef noodle soup to die for. Despite that fact that I love it, despite the fact that I was starving, a small bowl at this recommended place absolutely destroyed me and I barely finished it before sloshing back to the hotel for a shower.
In order to make my flight the next morning out of Da Nang I was having to take a fairly early train, so I spent my evening having a few drinks and some appetizers at an odd little bar in the tourist zone listing to a band play surf-y covers of pop songs until I figured it was bedtime. I wouldn’t have minded spending another day in Hue and heading out to some of the surrounding stuff but in order to have time to see Saigon and still go diving I figured this was the best plan. There’s always next time.
This was a really great section of the trip, if you’re in the area I can’t recommend Dr. Phu and HueToGoTours enough. I would imagine you can hire him for other tours as well but the Hai Van pass was definitely a fun thing to check off my list. I really appreciated seeing more of the countryside and getting to stop and look around places without a busload of other people right on my heels.
As ridiculously great as the boat trip had been, starting out back to Hanoi reminded me that I was still worried about potential closures. I’d also made the decision to fly south rather than take a sleeper train. Part of that was that you had to book the trains well in advance online but it also took an indordinate amount of time (the trains are not fast) and was only about 5-15 dollars cheaper. I’d also overheard some australians from the other boat say that there were at least 5 more flights today to Da Nang. Given that we were going to back late enough in the day that I couldn’t really get a full day of sights in and that I’d decided to fly to my next stop regardless it seemed more sensible to just turn that day into a full on travel day and bounce straight to the airport. I was sorta torn between the next two hops but flying to Da Nang and taking a cab to Hoi An ended up being the best option and I’d figure out the next hop later.
After what was assuredly not the world’s safest flight on a discount viet carrier (though I got the exit row to myself!) I arrived in Hoi An and bargained a cabbie down to at least close to what the fare should have been. Hoi An is about 30-45m away from Da Nang but doesn’t have an airport or train station of its own. Thanks to a delay on what was already a late-ish flight I was rolling in pretty late and I guess my cabbie had a hot date to get to or something as he was swerving around even more than normal. The concept of ‘right of way’ isn’t really a thing in Vietnam but boy this particular cabbie get upset if he thought you’d taken away his. At one point a motorbike did an admittedly dumb left turn in front of him and we stopped to scream out the window at this poor kid and his girlfriend. Still, I arrived in one piece, eventually figured out I had to slide open what seemed like a crash barrier to get inside and checked in.
As an aside, my name is most decidedly not in the native Vientamese speaker wheelhouse and it’s been fun seeing all the different ways it gets pronounced. Likewise I’m doing my best on pronouncing my Vietnamese but the tones are a difficult thing to handle.
Oddly though, this particular reception person acted as if she didn’t have my reservation and I had to bring up the confirmation on my phone to get her to accept that I was expected… yet the moment I went upstairs she was closing down the reception desk so they were clearly waiting for me? After throwing my gear into the room I wandered out into town to see what was still open for food and the answer was… not much. I eventually found a bag of chips and some drinks at a mini mart then thank goodness a banh mi cart near one of the bars actually still open. (For reference I think it was around 9:45, but any place I walked by that was still open said the kitchen was closed.) Exploring the town later I think if I’d headed across the river some of the backpacker joints might have had food but I was tired and sated so I headed back for sleep.
In the morning I discovered why every single person who’d been there said not to miss it. Many years ago Hoi An was one of the primary trading ports of central Vietnam. Chinese and Japanese traders would live there parts of the year and conduct their business and eventually more and more roots were settled. Even after the Japanese withdrew into their bubble the town remained important until the river silted up. The resulting UNESCO world heritage site boasts a large number of ancient shop fronts and chinese community halls seemingly most of which are decorated with paper lanterns at night. The central core of the ‘ancient town’ is supposedly kept vehicle free for most of the day (I’d call this more accurately ‘motorbike light’ but it’s better than nothing.)
The strict restrictions on modification to the old buildings combine with standardized signage to make navigation somewhat of a challenge at first but it starts to make sense reasonably quickly. Of course, part of the issue is that seemingly 3 out of every 4 shops in Hoi An are tailoring shops. It’s honestly mystifying how they all survive. There are several larger ones, most with multiple locations and a ridiculous number of staff, that seem to have the designations of being the safe ones for quality (and that charge the premium that implies,) but you can definitely get some solid deals if you do some research and walk around. I ended up ordering a blazer and a shirt from a lady called Anna in a small shop and stopped by a couple more times for fittings over my time in Hoi An.
The Chinese and Japanese influences are everywhere. Assembly halls for the various chinese congregations dot the town and most can be visited as part of a ticket. The most noticeable Japanese structure is the japanese covered bridge that actually contains a shrine as well as statues that may (depending on who you ask) represent the years of its construction. It’s all undeniably touristy but in a mostly satisfying way as the town charges admission (though it’s mostly honour system unless you actively enter a hall) to help with the upkeep, and it’s all in celebration of the heritage of th eplace. Hotels are all outside the zone as well though mine was satisfyingly close in order to be able to hop in and out for meals.
I spent that first day mostly exploring, doing my initial fitting as well as finding a tour for the following day. Lunch was at a neat little restaurant in the ancient town where disadvantaged/homeless youths receive training in cooking and serving. Here I continued my burgeoning tradition of trying every regional noodle specialty with the local Cao Lau. Tradition dictates that the noodles be made from/boiled in water from a specific well in Hoi An and that they be soaked in a solution made from the ash of a certain tree(s) from the islands just off the coast. As such you can’t get ‘true’ Cao Lau anywhere else. This results in really chewy textured noodles which are then served with a porky broth, sliced five spiced pork and fried noodle squares as well as a heap of herbs and lettuce. It’s a delicious combo.
Moving to Hoi An had been a straight shot south and it’s more or less at the start of ‘south’ vietnam. As such the temperature had shot up from the cooler muggy days in Ha Noi and Ha Long and it was around 30C. This wasn’t quite as much of a brick wall as the trip to Bangkok a few years back but it was still hot for someone still in winter mode. So with everything else done I grabbed some cider at the store, took my laundry into a nice lady down the lane from the hotel and took a quick swim in the hotel’s frigid pool before relaxing with a book.
Around six I headed back out to check out the night market but on the way was absolutely blown away by the sheer number of beautiful lanterns that were now lit. I had obviously seen them during the day but I never expected most of them to be lit up. Adding to the colour explosion were the boats docked along the riverfront absolutely covered in lanterns lit with LEDs. I don’t think the photos really convey the true effect of the explosion of colours but here’s the best I can do:
Unfortunately the night market was disappointingly food light. Mostly banh mi and banana pancake carts. I had been hoping for one of the sprung up food court style areas common at the thai night markets. That said it was still entertaining and in the end I grabbed a stool upstairs at one of the restaurants lining the street and listened to a very odd band playing very eclectic cover versions of Creed and Pink Floyd and Coldplay while the crowds wandered by. At one point as I waited for my food it started to drizzle and it was shocking how quickly every vendor pulled out a box of ponchos to sell. I’d brought my raincoat with me but the rain was so light (and basically finished by the time I was walking back) that I didn’t bother.
The action on the other side of the river was definitely a bit more hopping but I had an early morning so I walked back to the hotel as everything was shutting down. One interesting thing to see as I walked back just outside of the ancient town was in just how many of the more modern shophouses the family was sitting down inside the store to eat their evening meal. I suppose it makes sense as that’s their largest room, but it surprised me how many of these places were essentially staying open while they did this. Having this in the back of my head on the other nights in town you could definitely hear people doing the same in some of the closed shops as well.
Day Two in Hoi An started early. A quick stop at the hotel’s excellent (included!) breakfast for some eggs, a croissant and some dumplings. Today’s agenda was a tour out to the local-ish ruins of a sanctuary of the Cham people. The Champa kingdom of the era of these temples were a people with strong ties to India via trade and who adopted hinduism and sanskrit. Their temples are very much in the same vein as Angkor Wat et al and were rediscovered by the French during the colonial era. Unfortunately the area also sheltered a Viet Cong base during the war and was bombed significantly by the USAF. To this day the surrounding jungle remains unsafe due to potentially unexploded ordnance and land mines. Preservation work is also ongoing with various international cooperation projects helping out the Vietnamese government.
Touring the site made the previous days heat seem like child’s play though as this was the first day the sun really came out on the trip, though it would dodge in and out of heavy clouds all day. While back in Hoi An this was offset a bit by the occasional hint of a sea breeze from the coast a few km away, an hour inland surrounded by jungle it was just stifling. The site is pleasantly remote and the government has set up a small road to cover the last few kilometers down which you are shuttled on small electric carts along which you’ll see a number of the dogs that roam the site.
The site itself is definitely battered. Most of the largest buildings were destroyed in the bombings and here and there there are some truly massive craters that show the power of what was dropped on the site. What remains is quite impressive however, though there are missing pieces even from what survived. Some of the artifacts which were removed from the site are in the Louvre, others in a museum locally in Da Nang. Our tour guide somewhat hilariously blamed the french for the latter as well calling them ‘stolen’ and while I’m sure some of the Da Nang artifacts were taken there by the French there are numerous plaques on the site denoting some object taken to that museum in the 80s or 90s. The ongoing rebuilding/stabilization efforts are nice to see though, even though it kept us from seeing the ruin of the largest temple which looks like it was truly magnificent before the Americans finished it off.
I’d sprung for the boat return part of my tour which turned out to be a mistake as it involved doing 3/4 of the trip back on the bus then transfering to a tiny boat to go down a mostly featureless length of river and be given a plate of rice and vegetables + a banana. Unexciting, but at least they dropped us right back at the ancient town. Still hungry after my ‘lunch’ I decided to try out Banh Mi Phuong, energetically recommended in Lonely Planet and a couple other guides to eating Hoi An I’d read. Oh my god… the BBQ Banh Mi here is life changing. Loaded with 4 or 5 variations of pork, veggies and on the crispest outside, softest inside bun. All for like $2 cdn.
The next day I hadn’t actually planned to still be in Hoi An but the combination of my clothes not quite being ready and not being able to book my preferred transfer to Hue for another day I decided to have a lazy recharge day. Unfortunately I was let down by my otherwise solid hotel. Most of the hotels I’d been choosing from had offered free bike rentals but I guess I didn’t notice that my final choice didn’t. Whatever, it was like $1.50… unfortunately it was a bike that even my mother might have found a bit short. Their provided map was singularly terrible too being basically only of use to find the ancient town, which to be fair probably serves 90% of their clients well. I should have drawn myself a better one from Google Maps but alas…I trusted them.
Turns out that map doesn’t properly point to the beach and instead (and after having to double back a bunch) I ended up at the very battered ‘beach’ that had been destroyed by development over recent years. While it’s still a pretty view of the ocean it’s from a small patch of sand behind giant sandbags that I gather the long term plan is to slowly rebuild from. The lack of a safe swimming area combined with what I remembered being told were strong currents at this time of year and some really crashing waves that day meant I really just paddled my feet and instead mostly sat on the sand and read a book for a few hours. I’d picked up another BBQ Banh Mi after my fitting and grabbed a can of strongbow so lunch was on the ‘beach’ as well. Getting back to the hotel was easier but in the heat and awkwardly peddling a bike with my limbs folded to fit my day of relaxation was somewhat undercut. In the end I ended up by the ice cold pool again soaking my legs while I read.
Dinner that night was another round of Cao Lau, this time accompanied by White Rose Dumplings, another Hoi An Specialty of steamed rose shaped white rice dumplings stuffed with pork, shrimp and local herbs and topped with fried onions. I took one last tour around the lantern lit old town before heading back to pack… only to have the hotel’s entire city block lose power for an hour just as I started. Thankfully just as I gave up and went to sleep it came back on so I didn’t have to set an alarm for dawn just to be able to get everything just so (adding the new clothes) before my 8am pickup.
I was surprised at how much I liked Hoi An. Several people had recommended it and I knew I didn’t want to miss it but it was honestly magical. The combination of a distinctly non western identity to most of the town (you won’t see any chain restaurants,) friendly people and truly delicious food made it just right up my alley. If I ever return to Vietnam I hope I can visit again. Heartily recommended, just make sure you stay in Hoi An proper, the bus tours of old folks coming down from the Da Nang beach mega resorts looked like the saddest way to see the town.
The day of my cruise dawned just as grey and misty as the previous two but I’d asked Hung (who was from Ha Long) and he said weather was frequently pretty different from Hanoi. I’d sprung for the (slightly overpriced) shuttle to the dock for overall ease and they picked me up directly from the hotel.
This boat trip had been the ‘splurgey’ part of my pre trip planning. Ha Long bay is a beautiful place and I’d wanted to really enjoy things with a 3 day 2 night trip. As I watched the prices before leaving I’d been mildly concerned how open the bookings seemed even with a discounted price. Knowing that things were iffy with the virus/lack of chinese folks I was a bit worried they’d cancel the sailing. I went with what the reviews showed were a pretty top company and hoped for the best.
Midway through my sleep I guess I was just awake enough to hear the buzz of an email hitting my phone and with some trepidation saw that it was from the cruise company. It opened with ‘Dear Elizabeth’ which wasn’t a great start and went on to inform me that my cruise had indeed been cancelled, not due to lack of people but due to the government mandating preventative sanitization. This is where I think going with the fancier company paid off as not only did they swap me to one of their other sailings, I was told I was being given an upgrade though I figured I would believe it when I saw it in person.
The bus snaked out of Hanoi picking people up at various hotels and I was struck again by how ‘small’ a city it feels. It’s an urban area with around 8 million people but very few tall buildings and no ‘downtown’ conglomeration of highrises just the a small number of clusters of taller apartment blocks. We also got to a semi-rural neighbourhood surprisingly quickly as only a few minutes after passing back near my hotel we were shifting it down a semi-paved road with a herd of oxen being drive alongside the road and over some traintracks. Then very quickly we were on a modern and mostly empty expressway (apparently recently opened) heading towards Haiphong.
Of course this was a pretty well worn tourist path so of course there was a built in captive audience ‘rest’ stop one of my absolute least favourite things in the world. This one (a pearl workshop/retailer) was at least interesting in that they had people harvesting some of the pearls out in public where you could watch. The showroom itself was full of ridiculously expensive pearl objects though and was massive. It seemed almost exclusively devoted to tourbus throughput too… I can’t understand the mindset where you’d buy a $20,000 pearl choker at some place your bus happened to stop but perhaps some of the Chinese buses normally go there specifically for the shopping.
As we approached the bay you could see more and more evidence of the limestone karst islands in the distance. Ha Long bay has almost 2000 individual islands ranging wildly in size but forming a maze of internecine channels and anchorages. You’ve no doubt seen it in a travel show at some point, probably in sunnier weather than I did.
For a fancypants cruise outfit they didn’t seem particularly well organized but eventually we were sitting on the tender and heading out to the ship to be greeted by the waving and smiling crew. She wasn’t particularly large but was beautifully fitted out as we discovered while heading to the dining room for an introductory briefing (While they took our bags to our suites.) They marked our tables with our national flags which was cute (and also a good hint as to who would be the easiest to talk to.) Once the talk had broken up we went to our rooms to settle in before our first stop and… I couldn’t find mine. I mean logic dictated that room 308 was on deck 3 but deck 3 only seemed to have the Royal suite… and oh my god, no it couldn’t be. Felix our cruise director (an extremely young seeming but super friendly and competent guy) saw me looking upstairs and said “you’re upstairs Sir.” Sure enough I climb the stairs and my backpack is sitting outside the Royal Suite. Pessimist that I am I assumed it was just a fancy name (the boat was the Athena Royal after all) to cover the fact that it was actually tiny because most of it was hiding a smoke stack or the freezer or something… then I opened the door and discovered this:
A huge bed, copious amounts of space and a panoramic view of the limestone islands passing by. Outside was a private deck area for just me that wrapped around the whole thing. The fact that the bathtub was apparently broken (I later found out) was the only blemish but the bathroom also had a massively space wasting shower for an on ship bathroom. I couldn’t believe my eyes or honestly even settle down to enjoy it at first… I flopped on the bed then got up and went outside to my private swing chair, then got back up and stared at the view from the other side. In the end it was only the call that we’d arrived at the floating village and it was kayaking time that sent me scurrying to change and brought me back to reality.
Not so long ago there were a much larger number of floating villages at various points in the bay. Now there are only a couple that mostly serve as a model of what the life was once like for visitors. The official party line appears to be that populations dwindled too much due to people not wanting the life anymore but some folks appear to have been more or less forcibly transfered to a shorebound life as part of government efforts to clean up the bay. They did mention that children are now forced to go to school and as such are away from their parents most of the week. Once upon a time I imagine the appeal was to be out closer to the fishing grounds in the days when you had to row. In the modern era and as part of an effort to clean up what was apparently getting to be a worse and worse situation with plastics and waste…
The remaining village we visited was very simple, the population apparently not what it once was. The people ran a fish farm and some pearl cultivation, as well as dock for the tourism visits. It was 18ish out so every single other pansy person from my ship opted to be rowed around in bamboo boats while I kayaked. This particular town was built in a shallow lagoon in the middle of a cluster of karst outcroppings. There were several clusters of houses and most had at least one dog, usually lazing away the afternoon somewhere on the decking that made up the ‘homestead’ of each home. There were several communal structures but it was mostly just the homes. Kayaking in that setting was beautiful though and even the occasional bit of chatter from the other boats appeared to disappear into the mist at times.
I’ll be honest, I was in awe of just the whole experience as I got back to the Royal and after a hot shower just curled up on my (MY!) deck and watched island after island slip by.
Drinks on the boat weren’t cheap by viet standards, though pretty close to a cocktail at a restaurant back home, so most of us took advantage of two for one happy hour before dinner. There was also very basic cooking lesson but that was more or less immediately swarmed by the half of the boat from taiwan that was just doing one night so I sat and drank Mai Tais and read until Elizabeth and Marcus from Singapore and the two older swedish couples arrived and we all chatted for a bit before dinner, which was a five course varied dinner with lots of fresh seafood with mostly viet flare. One never left the table hungry on this boat.
Despite the restrictions there were still a fair number of boats out and as we anchored for the night you could see a number of others quite clearly, none of which looked as nice as ours (or particularly full.) Most of us retired quite early and I spent an hour or so finishing off the first blog post, though the wifi was more than a bit shaky out in the bay so it didn’t get posted til I was back on land.
Day two was kicked off with a shipwide announcement to the taiwanese as their itinerary included an early cave trip before us three day folk even had to be at breakfast. Annoying, but once I was up and peering out my windows I wasn’t going back to sleep.
We also learned that apparently the main boat just goes back and forth between the harbour and this spot. The one night people would be returning to shore and some new folks arriving… and those of us on the two night (both from our boat and the second athena boat) would transfer to a day boat for the morning/early afternoon. I can see the appeal in the flexibility for the tour company but don’t really love the impact it has on the busyness factor for the places closest to shore. I gather there are some ships that straight up do a longer tour in 3 day chunks… I would probably try to seek one of those out next time for a different/better? experience.
The day boat was a reasonable sized flat bottomed boat with a dining area below and a sun deck above (even if the sun was still resolutely refusing to show its face.) It took us down a maze of smaller islands, occasionally rolling a bit when we hit a gap in the islands, until we hit a semi sheltered area and two men appeared piloting ancient looking wooden boats. And here’s where this lazy cruise weekend became a bit of an adventure.
We putt putted our way through what I guess was a shallower channel in order to get around another island and on to a small beach. Nestled into the cliffs at this spot was a large cave, quite deep but bone dry despite being right near the water level. Our guide showed us around the cave, pointing out some of the geological features including a couple that seemed to be his favourite, clusters that seemed to mimic the forms of sleeping turtles. This hilariously lead to an American fellow from the other boat saying ‘poor little guys, so sad.’ Based on later interactions with him I’m 90% he genuinely thought it was a fossilized real turtle somehow. When we emerged from the cave our guide gave us leave to explore the beautiful, very remote feeling beach and shoreline. We only saw one other boat during this section of the trip and it was definitely the best part of the trip for an actual feeling of nature, though in truth we still only saw a few sea eagles and various shells.
As we threw our life jackets back on and got on the boat I decided against kayaking as did everyone else (less surprising.) The wind had kicked up a fair bit and I knew at least part of the crossing would be open to it, which combined with a long-ish (45m) paddle felt like a bit much. They had told us we could kayak nearer the day boat if we wanted so I figured I’d just do that, but then the trouble began. Our boat was using the first boat as a boarding path but had wedged his front up on it in the process. Once we were all sitting down he attempted to rock us off the other boat, increasingly violently and doing so without turning his prop off so even when he briefly got us off we’d just spin around on the sandbar. Even I’ve spent enough time on boats to know he was doing it wrong, and sure enough at some point in this process he apparently holed his boat and started taking on water.
Twenty minutes later ‘the young ones’ (i.e. everyone under 50) were standing on the beach watching the other boat leave, and only then told we were kayaking. This left us with all our stuff (phones, cameras, extra clothes) on the kayaks with us and more worryingly to me, no support boat. I don’t consider myself an exceptional kayaker but I can hold my own, the Singaporean couple knew what they were doing (he did at least, she mostly took pictures) but the other folks were definitely at ‘I did it once on a glassy lake’ level and our guide wasn’t much better (and was towing the surplus kayak.) I tried to pass on a few lessons at staying more stable while driving into the wind but I was definitely not confident we’d get far without someone tipping (at which point there would be nowhere to easily get them back on board and their stuff would be long gone.) The young American woman kept asking what would happen if we tipped and I said we’d get her back in but truthfully I imagined we might just have to get her to cling to the kayak and keep pulling her away from the rocks/currents until the boat returned.
Thankfully we managed to get around the first open section and into the semi protected channel, at which point the boat did return and picked up the less able folks, at that point I was already wet though so just passed off my backpack and paddled the rest of the way. At that point we were able to relax and enjoy the rest of the paddle more… and what a paddle it was. As gorgeous as the first spot had been, being surrounded by other tourists getting rowed around had robbed it of something… here it was just the two kayaks, the sounds of splashes and the occasional whistle of the wind.
The last section back to the dayboat was fully open to a driving wind coming off the open ocean however and I’m fairly certain we’d have tipped one of the novices at this point so I’m glad they came back for them. Back on board, dried off and changed we had yet another delicious meal and headed back to rendezvous with the Royal again where a new crop of one nighters had come on board.
One of the Swedes was having a birthday and the cruise had provided him with a lovely cake which he invited us all to share. Elizabeth noticed the server putting out the new flags and asked to look at them and proceeded to hold each one up of which I knew about 95% thanks to being a vexillogy nerd as a kid. It got to the point where she wanted to arrange a competition then have me on her team. Flag nerd spotted.
The next morning was a super early start. I’d been leaving my biggest window open to wake up to the view so I rarely slept late anyway but this was more or less with dawn. We were visiting one of the previously inhabited caves, this one higher up on one of the islands and with steps and water reservoirs etc carved into it. The stellagtites/mites were beautiful and the cave quite interesting but despite our early early start we only had about 10 minutes alone in the cave before absolute swarms of other people arrived. Once back down at sea level our trusty Felix informed us that there’d once been a restaurant/bar here but that the government had shut it down due to environmental fears. A hopeful sign. I do think an ecological camp/cafe could survive there but you’d have to be very concious of ecology before profit and Vietnam is very much anything for a buck at the present time. I understand where they’re coming from in what was until recently a very poor, very closed off country but hopefully an equilibrium can be reached.
Unfortunately there’s definitely a feeling that there should be more life here. There are nowhere near the level of sea birds that you’d expect. Apparently there are breeding populations in the islands I’m guessing they’re farther out in the islands. The geometry of the islands also precludes much viewing/knowledge of the animals that might be living on them. I also very rarely saw a fish jump and certainly no sign of anything larger. A lot of agricultural land feeds into the bay as well as a couple ports, the water isn’t particularly clear though what part of that is pollution and what is silt runoff I don’t know. That said, steps already being taken appear to have helped on the garbage from what I’ve been told and what I’ve seen and Ha Long bay is deservedly one of the modern natural wonders of the world. I just hope it stays that way (and hopefully improves.) I think if I came back to Vietnam I might stay in the area and do some side trips in hopes of better understanding… but at the present time again, some of the access on the larger islands are shut down for virus fears.
As people were checking out I got a peek at the more normal cabins and they were quite nice as well, though obviously smaller. I still have no idea why I was the lucky one who got the Royal Suite but I think I made the best use of the private deck as very few of the rest of them spent any time on the public sun deck. I personally wouldn’t call it anything like ‘cold’ but it was definitely persistently breezy and usually around 17-19c so those from warmer climes weren’t about to sit out in the wind. My only regret is that the sun never came out, seriously not even for a moment while we were in the bay. It would have been nice see some warmer colours, but I did love the mysterious misty morning look tons too.
Honestly this was a once in a lifetime experience and I enjoyed every minute, I heartily recommend the cruise to anyone… just practice your kayak stroke first.
People have asked me why exactly I wanted to come to Vietnam. It was a combination of things really but food was high up there. Given the previous days revelation about the tourist sites I’d done a slight pivot and booked a cooking class recommended in a couple places for the day instead of leaving it until later in the trip as originally planned. After enjoying the ones I’d done in Thailand so much it seemed a no brainer. This one took place right inside the restaurant with the head chef and involved a market trip and four dishes particular (at least these variations) to the Ha Noi area.
It was an early start though, not that that really mattered as I have yet to be able to sleep in here at all even when trying. For whatever reason they insisted on doing hotel pickup even though it was all of two blocks away and I’d walked past it at least 3 times at this point. It turned out my ‘pickup’ was the chef walking over to get me just as I finished my breakfast and we walked back together to the Blue Butterfly, built into a couple levels of a pretty, ancient house.
His name was Hung, but he informed us that his friends called him ‘Pickle’ because of how he smelled in a sweaty kitchen and that we could call him Hung Pickle if we liked (pause a moment for your childish giggle.) Rounding out our small group were: another Canadian, a young kid from Montreal riding a motorbike from Ho Chi Minh City to the North. An outback station nurse from Australia. And a Brit/French couple now living in Hong Kong who were just over for a few days to get some dental work done (apparently that’s a thing.)
Hung Pickle started us off making the broth for Pho Bo (excuse the lack of proper letters any Viet readers as this keyboard is a nightmare for trying) from scratch. Normally this would be left going for much longer but we started it first so it got a few hours before we ate at least. Basically just a stack of bones and a giant tea strainer thing full of herbs and spices including a little bit of ha long bay sea worm as Hung was from Ha Long. I can’t imagine that’s an ingredient I’ll find at home.
Broth bubbling away we headed out to the central Ha Noi food market which Hung said catered to most of the restaurants in the city. It was a fascinating place, much more hectic than the ones I’d visited in Bangkok. Apparently (and I read this in a guide book as well) many of the smaller stall folks are the actual farmers who grow the products and Hung seemed to be trying to buy from these (as much as I could tell.) Along the way he had us try a bunch of produce including some deliciously juicy red dragonfruit as well as a ginger sticky rice chew that felt like it would have been a solid pick me up for a wobbly stomach. We ended up picking up most of our herbs, some veggies, some fresh rice noodles and paper and a big hunk of pork shoulder.
We started by making Ha Noi style spring rolls which were similar to the ones I’ve made at home before, though with the rice paper being so fresh no soaking was necessary which made the whole process more speed friendly. I’d love to say mine were massively better than everyone else’s but it’s been a while since I made them so I will only say they were solid. We fried them up then set them aside for another high temp fry just before eating.
Next up was Banana flower salad. In many ways this was quite similar to Som Tam in thailand (and indeed he indicated you could make it with green papaya or mango.) The flower is from the outer leaves of the big flower pods sliced thinly so they form springy curls. The dressing is a similar concoction of vinegar and lime and fish sauce and it’s all topped with peanut and (optionally) chicken.
Lastly was the Bun Cha which is the dish that Obama and Bourdain noshed on in Ha Noi. It’s fairly simple, rice noodles and herbs with a combo of charbroiled pork slices and meatballs served with a dipping sauce but very tasty. Hung put a few of us to work hand mincing the pork for the meatballs then built up a charcoal fire in his cooking station in order to cook the two racks.
Once all the work was done we settled down in the restaurant with a beer and devoured our food while having a discussion about medical care, the corona virus hysteria and China in general as the Hong Kong couple had previously lived in Shanghai and was saying how they were pleased to be in HK for this particular crisis. The food was delicious, the Bun Cha in particular.
That said, overall as an experience it didn’t quite measure up to either of the Thai classes, mostly because this was only about 50% hands on most of which was prep work. Both thai classes had individual cooking stations and we did pretty much 90% of everything. This one was also a bit more expensive but I don’t begrudge that, it was still a bargain. The five of us all sat talking for a while but eventually it became clear that the staff wanted to shut up for the post lunch/pre dinner cleanup/break so we wished each other good travels and headed onward.
After a break back in the room to digest and confirm the times for the boat pickup the next day. I decided to see if the Water Puppet theatre was open as one of the classmates had said it was an interesting production. Given it was all of I think 10 bucks for the best seat in the house I figured why not. You’re seated in this odd auditorium with what looks like a deep pool at the front with unfamiliar musical instruments perched in the wings and a screen in behind. Out comes a band and suddenly odd puppet figures emerge from behind the screen or just directly from other the waves. I found out after that there is an english audio guide to the process but a good portion of them were self explanatory. Intricate puppets, often more animated than you expect are controlled via mechanisms under the water and appear to either swim through it or dance above it depending on the story. Definitely worth the money but I was glad the show was only about 45 minutes as the concept was wearing a bit thin after a while. Ymmv of course and the audio guide might have helped.
Much to my frustration I emerged to see people walking across the lake bridge to the Pagoda as the theatre was on the lake front. A quick glance at my phone confirmed that yes everything had reopened earlier that day after being ‘sprayed’ the day before. I would have hopped a cab earlier to check out a few of the closed spots had I known, now I was leaving the next day and when I returned it would be sunday when some of the spots regularly close anyway. ARGH. I’ll be back in Hanoi at the end of the trip as I fly out of here but was hoping to cut it reasonably close and/or use it as a base for a day trip or two.
I actually tried to go check out the Obama/Bourdain bun cha place for dinner after that but it was a longer walk than expected and I arrived just as they were closing. I ended up just taking a long sweaty walk in the muggy weather and finished my night at a place called Chopsticks another classmate had recommended which did updated modern takes on local faves. The place was absolutely packed, by far the busiest I’d seen a restaurant in the old quarter but I managed to scround a place at the bar. I ended up having Bun Cha again anyway as theirs had some flourishes on it including sous vide pork belly in place of the charbroiled pork. The waiter somewhat sheepishly told me that they were out of Chopsticks (at a place called Chopsticks GASP) but the food was excellent and they had a great local cider.
I’m going to leave this a short post as the boat trip is best treated as a whole, thanks for reading and shoot me a note if you have any questions or recommendations as I’m still here two weeks.
Seven A.M. Flights shouldn’t be a thing. The one saving grace about this one was that the first leg wasn’t international but I still needed to be at the airport at a time in the morning I don’t particularly like admitting actually exists. Add in the fact that my ride was running behind, Air Canada wasn’t letting me check in online and I wasn’t looking forward to the layovers and part of me felt like just going back to bed. The ends justify the means in this case though and eventually I took off on the first hop of my flight to Ha Noi Vietnam.
My flight was Winnipeg -> Vancouver -> Seoul- > Hanoi, thankfully much nicer flight time wise than my Bangkok->Hong Kong-> Toronto-> Winnipeg return last time in asia. Sadly, the layover in Seoul was absolutely killer and thanks to Air Canada’s questionable ticket selling practices I guess I was outside of the window for throughputting properly. This meant that I a) had to collect my bags and enter immigration in Seoul (thank goodness Canadians don’t need a visa) then check back in. Unfortunately I cleared about 5pm local and the flight wasn’t until 8:30 the next morning and I wasn’t able to check my large bag in until the following morning. You know how airport seating outside security tends to be of the spartan variety? It’s worse when you’re trying to sleep on them. Had AC warned me at all I would have booked an airport hotel or something but bleh… It was a grumpy Tristan who got on that final leg 13 hours later.
That said, Seoul did have some good points. Despite it being 7am when I passed security I was still able to find some super fantastic korean fried chicken before boarding. I also really enjoyed the helper robots that roam around to be asked questions, though I have to question the translation work by the person who instead of having it say ‘going to recharge’ made the voice line for this large person sized robot “I AM GOING TO CHARGE! PLEASE CLEAR THE WAY” somewhat disconcerting when you didn’t hear it come up from behind you.
As an aside… for those who remember my trip next to Captain Elbows on my last trans-pacific flight I at least avoided that this time. However this time, THREE separate times I went to what should have been an empty washroom and opened on some old woman peeing. How are airplane bathroom locks so difficult for people to understand?
Hanoi’s airport is actually surprisingly small, especially for the volume of planes it receives. Combined with the fact that they had a special portion of the immigration hall fenced off for chinese nationals getting extra attention for corona virus this meant very slow immigration. Still eventually I emerged, got my bag, bemoaned the fact that the freaking Hanoi AIRPORT has a popeye’s but Winnipeg is still only served by one and grabbed a sim card for a ridiculous price. Never believe the telco’s lies about how we pay good prices in Canada when I can get a 10GB one off SIM for ~$20, there’s no reason to ever pay Rogers/Telus/Bell’s roaming fees unless you desperately need your phone number for business purposes.
In doing my research for this trip I’d learned that Northern Vietnam is not particularly warm this time of year (I guess in the abstract I’d been expecting something similar to Chiang Mai) and I emerged into the mid teens and drizzle that I’d seen forecast a few days earlier. Honestly, I can’t say I minded. I’m still convinced that the temperature shock of going from a -30 Winnipeg to a +38 Bangkok the other trip played a role in my minor health issues that trip so this will be a nice introduction to warmer weather before the temp rises as I head south.
The usual SE Asia taxi nonsense was in full effect as I left the terminal. I’d read that there were particular cabbies you could trust but that information must have been out of date as the particular outfit was nowhere to be seen and most of the cabs were trying to talk people into set rates. Even a meter meant a fairly sizable bill however as the airport is a fair bit out of town. To make matters worse the minibuses that were supposed to be 40000Dong were trying to get 350000, I suspect it’s like parts of Thailand where the government cracks down everytime they reach a certain point but as a solo traveller it’s frustrating. I’ve mentioned in this blog before how loathe I am to pay a taxi driver anything when they’re trying to scam me. In the end I confirmed that the city airport express bus was departing from the same location and would cost only 35000, which is only a couple bucks. It was pretty much painless and dropped me all of two blocks from my hotel, though I would happily have hopped a cab from there if I’d needed to.
At this point it’s fair to say I was running on fumes. I am rarely able to sleep on a plane but had somehow managed to grab a couple fitful hours on the final leg, but at this point I was running on about 5 hours of sleep in the previous 48, most of it awkwardly curled up in a seat or on a bench. My hotel itself was a sparkling clean roughly 15 foot wide building that somehow fit in a breakfast room, small lobby and 15 rooms on 5 guest floors. On either side were a motorcycle repair shop and a small soup shop that appeared to mainly be open for breakfast. Just walking in the door my bag was practically yanked off my shoulder and I was given a seat while they checked me in and plied me with a plate of delicious dragonfruit and a glass of juice. My room had a sizable bathroom with waterfall, a window overlooking an extremely unphotogenic courtyard (but desirable for a bit more quiet facing away from the street) large queen bed, ample storage and a TV with a few english movie channels for unwinding before bed. Not bad at all for 35 CAD a night (w/ breakfast to boot!). The thought of stretching out in any way horizontally was the most delicious thought, though I thought better of it and had a shower first to loosen my muscles and wash travelstink off. Once that was done I set an alarm for 4 hours later to get up and get some food then crashed hard. Later on, awake if not refreshed I took my first real steps out into Hanoi.
With the virus fears and preventatives in place there are apparently significantly lower numbers of chinese tourists in Vietnam at the moment. It was also somewhat low season as I was in between the xmas/lunar new year/tet celebrations and the actual warmer weather. I’m not sure I can fathom how busy the streets must be at full volume there. It feels like a more compact city than Bangkok and more chaotic, but perhaps that’s just a couple years since that experience speaking. No… it’s definitely worse. The sheer volume of two wheeled traffic that completely flouts all traffic control and the need to basically step off the curb and play chicken to cross the street most places in the old quarter is definitely more intense. I think I would find it exhausting after a while but it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it.
Hanoi is of course the former capital of North Vietnam and one-time near constant US bombing target. In ten minutes walking around you can see influences from the very old days, french colonial structures The old quarter is (as one would expect) a close knit warren of tight streets, narrow shop frontages and teeming masses of people. What looks like a ruin on the main floor might have an elaborate french balcony two stories up or a carved dragon grotesque peering down at you. As a city that’s quickly modernizing (given it wasn’t particular accessible to outsides until the 90s) one has to wonder what it will look like in another ten years.
Stepping out of your hotel is an assault on all the senses as a westerner. Everywhere you look there is action from the street vendor pushing a cart, a gaggle of tourists dodging traffic or some delivery man bungee cording a ludicrously large load to a tiny motorcycle. Horns are constant, every motorcyclist seems to think honking their horn gives them immunity from the constraints of physics and every car and truck seem to honk just to say “hey check out my horn.” The smell of it hits you too until you adjust, the aromas of street food everywhere mixing with the scent of sheer masses of humanity. There’s nothing quite like it. As a prairie boy I don’t think I could handle it long term but it’s definitely fun to experience short term.
Once difference from Bangkok was how early things were closing however. I’d read that the government kept a very tight lid on nightlife and it was quickly being proven true as even in this most backpacker friendly part of town things were definitely winding down at 10:30. Not that this was a hardship, I mostly just wanted to stretch my legs and grab a bit of food. A quick (delicious) Banh Mi and a snack stop later and I was back in my room and bedding down to kill off the jet lag and hit the town proper the next day. Mission accomplished on the first point, but the Vietnamese government had some issues with that other one.
For the purposes of archival reading of this blog let me document that as I travelled to Vietnam the coronavirus hysteria was in full swing. Unfortunately what I didn’t realize is that despite a miniscule number of cases in Vietnam the government had decided to take measures that included closing all tourist sites. (It turns out it was only for a day/day and a half but the inital press release I said “until further notice”.) Blissfully unaware of this, I started out by walking south through the old quarter towards Hoan Kiem Lake. The quarter had a different vibe at 8:30 in the morning, the drunken backpackers of the night before are (mostly) still snoring away in their dorm rooms and it’s mostly locals out and about (though with a healthy dose of the 30+ tourist.) Everywhere you looked there were people eating breakfast noodles at small shops that were made up of basically a couple kids plastic picnic tables, a burner and a cash box. Interspersed were the occasional hotel or hostel, restaurants of a more permanent variety and the usual mix of odds and ends shops, bodegas and various tourist focused shops.
Walking is in itself an adventure. Even more so than my experience in old Bangkok sidewalks are a place not for walking but for motorbike/scooter parking, merchandise, picnic tables, impenetrable mounds of garbage waiting for pick up and so on. And so you walk on the edge of the road, trusting your life to your deity of choice (personally I’d pick the god of motorcycles) and trying to remember to always shoulder check before stepping around any further obstacles. Crossing a road is merely a matter of picking a lighter spot, keeping your nerve and walking across making sure you’re visible and making the cycles go around you. It quickly becomes “normal” but at least for me is still a bit of a pulse raiser at times.
As I headed south there were a few more signs of western incursion. A kebab shop and ‘NYC Style’ pizza joint gave way to an actual Pizza Hut franchise and down by the lakeshore where some of the fancier small hotels and some of the international banks were you could find a few western shops like Aldo and CURSES another Popeye’s. My first hint of what was to come was seeing tv news crews filming some people in uniforms at the gateway to the bridge out to the mid-lake pagoda keeping anyone from entering, though walking around the lake itself was quite peaceful even as the morning mist decided to turn into a proper drizzle for a few minutes. Large trees hang low over the water, obviously craving the moisture and open sunlight (though not today) and give you a bit of a glimpse at what the area must have once felt like
Heading west now I was straddling the line between the old quarter and the french quarter. Sadly as I had read during my research the french quarter is mostly a combination of run down colonial structures and larger buildings where they’ve already been bulldozed for commercial development. Occasionally there will be a restored larger building that sticks out, perhaps a school or a larger estate turned into new uses. Various historical preservation societies fight to keep some of the character but it seems to be a losing battle. While on the one hand I get that the Vietnamese people probably don’t feel any desperate connection to the colonial era architecture there is something unique about the blend of asian and french influences on many of these buildings that really needs to be preserved. Much in the same vein my next stop at St. Joseph’s cathedral revealed a pretty neo-gothic building that could really use a bit of restoration work. It sits sandwiched between row on row of narrow shophouses and is somewhat surprising as you suddenly stumble upon the tiniest of squares that surrounds it.
Still walking I reached the remains of Hoa Loa Prison, better known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ of Vietnam War (or ‘American War’ as it’s known here) fame. The prison actually dates from the French Colonial times and was used to house the vietnamese revoltionaries though most of us I imagine know it as the place where pilots like John McCain were imprisoned. Here I found an empty ticket booth and an english notice about it being closed but still walked around one of the walls and read some of the information. In an absurd example of changing times, much of the site is now covered with the largest hotel I’ve yet seen in Hanoi.
I decided to go check out the Temple of Literature which is a scholastic complex founded around the year 1000 and home to Vietnam’s first university. As you could no doubt see coming this too was closed, completely deserted in fact. At this point I dug out my phone and found the press release mentioning ‘closed until further notice’ and sighed. I hadn’t planned to spend a ton of time in Hanoi and now one of my days was being thoroughly screwed over. In the end I visited a couple shops in the area, grabbed a bowl of Pho Bo Tai and, assuming any of my other targets would also be closed, wandered around further west for a while before starting to make my way back, passing the Flag Tower, Military History Museum and the nearby park with a large statue of Comrade Lenin.
Along the way I got another unfortunate disappointment as it turns out Railway Street had been severely curtailed. Friends of my parents had told me about their visit to this little street where the buildings are built so close to the railway track that when the train passes your cafe table is basically on board. It looked like a lot of fun, unfortunately when I arrived I discovered it mostly blocked off with a police officer shooing people away. Apparently it became so overtouristed several months ago that a train was forced to divert and the official patience with the whole thing more or less snapped. While you can still go in if you agree to go to one of the cafes directly with a tout, the days of it being swarmed are over. From what I could see vs. previous pictures only some of the cafes are still open. As I dislike being in that kind of captive customer situation I passed and took a couple photos before the cop shooed me away.
I hadn’t originally planned on quite so long a walk on the first day of flight recovery but perhaps it was a good thing. After wandering the old quarter a bit longer and finding a couple ‘maybe’ purchases for later I ended up back at the hotel, grabbed a shower and curled up to read a book for a while. I’d read about a jazz club that played in a small window between 9-12 so figured I’d grab a late dinner and go.
I should warn anyone now that much like my thai blog a big part of my motivation for a vietnam visit was food. If you’re into Viet food, fair warning to not read while hungry.
Dinner that night was at a place recommended both by my guidebook and the desk clerk as good ‘local’ food. I surrendered to recommendations by the waitress too and ended up with a plate of four Hanoi Style fried spring rolls, and a plate of what they called Hanoi Old Quarter style beef which was thin juicy strips of charbroiled beef brushed with a honey glaze and served with a tangy hot sauce and rice. The Banh Mi and Pho so far had been lovely but not so massively better than home that I felt blown away… but these dishes. The spring rolls were double fried, crunchy but so incredibly juicy with probably the herbiest tasting filling I have ever had, just phenomenal. The beef was just as succulent. Sweet without being cloying and perfectly tender with crunchy bits, the hot sauce having a solid kickbut also really rounded flavour. I was a happy but very full person as I walked out and started the trek over to the club.
It turned out to be a longer trek than expected as the club itself is a small place in what appears to be a former tobacco shop nestled behind the beautiful and massive Hanoi Opera House (and the actual Hanoi Hilton.) It was a dark and unfortunately smoky place but I’d been warned about that in one of the reviews so I chose a table by the open door, ordered a whisky sour (expensive by hanoi standards, but no cover charge so hey) and sat back to watch a great little trio eventually joined by a singer. A couple sets of standards mixed with occasionally giggle inducing jazz covers of 70s and 80s pop made for a great relaxing end to what had been an occasionally frustrating day.
Walking back to the hotel I was again struck by just how completely the town had already shut down for the night. Of course just as I was thinking this I rounded a corner and a ‘bar’ was taking up most of a street for the youngest of the backpackers… and by bar I mean two men tapping kegs about a large number of plastic chairs scattered around. I laughed a bit, though briefly of my early 20s then headed back to try and fail to write this blog before bed.
The excitement was palpable as I woke the next morning. I grabbed a quick slice of toast and made sure I had everything I needed for my dive… Mom planned a laundry run since this hotel actually had on site laundry. Hopping a cab to the marina I ended up with a driver that (while he didn’t compare to last year’s Thai Steve McQueen) did his best to re-enact the movie Ronin. It’s a good thing I don’t get car sick as showing up at a dive trip already nauseous isn’t the best.
Back on solid ground (temporarily) I made my way down to the actual waterfront at the Marina where it was early enough that most of the cafes hadn’t even opened. I’d even beaten the dive shop staff in which is saying something. Eventually they opened up, I got my final paperwork signed and began gearing up, finding that thankfully they hadn’t been lying and had a wetsuit big enough for my shoulders (though it was cavernous elsewhere.) Both guides weren’t fooling around and had full drysuits (a sealed system suit that keeps the body dry and offers better thermal insulation while also becoming more complex for buoyancy/pressure control. The rest of the dive group was a young pole on his final certification dive, a middle aged german guy who filled out my size of wetsuit a lot more and a young woman, also from Germany, who had a camera rig probably worth around 4k. Unfortunately due to the cert diver we weren’t going anywhere too fancy but were told it was a nice reef with surrounding sandy bottom. I’d had hopes of doing a dive at an artificial reef/sunken navy ship but given it was off season only the one boat was going out.
Heading out to the boat was a new dive experience for me, I’ve never gone for a dive somewhere that had you gear up almost completely in the shop then walk for a fair distance only to unload again on the boat. The gear was top notch with a proper weight vest, almost new BCD and a basic computer provided. The boat itself was a relatively new rigid inflatable with no sunshade, I wouldn’t have been a big fan on a hot summer day but on this particular day it was fine. It was at least well set up for gear and only about half loaded so we flew. Strangely enough it turned out that our dive site was pretty much right off the point of our hotel.
Geared up for the final drop off the German guy and I buddied up and dropped down the anchor line with our guide/cameralady. Initial impressions weren’t great and weren’t buoyed by the fact that one glance at the water had the leader handing out high beam led flashlights. Vis at the surface was at most 5 feet and hopes that it might get better further under the swells were quickly dashed. IIRC bottom was at around 14 meters and we didn’t even see that until our fins hit which of course doesn’t help much for visibility either. For those of you that don’t dive, when you’re doing this type of guided dive you keep an eye on your buddy and your dive leader basically at all times. This becomes very difficult when reading your wrist computer or gauges takes a second look and your fingertips are clouded on an outstretched hand. That’s where we were at, at best visibility was 1m and with the sediment frequently less. We managed to see one nudibranch on what was more of a solitary rock than a reef but, even with high beams my buddy and I lost the dive leader until he circled back, then we lost camera girl and while I was clearing my mask my buddy disappeared. The dive leader managed to get us rounded back up, looked around… visibly sighed as much as you can in dive hear and gave the thumbs up (which in dive signals means, let’s go up) unspooling the alert flag.
Credit to him for actually doing the safety stop as though we’d done a full length dive and even then we temporarily lost my buddy again. As we broached the surface he was immediately apologetic but said he was cancelling the dive for safety reasons. We all totally understood even as I was somewhat heartbroken at the complete catastrophe my diving this trip had become. The certifying diver and his instructor stayed down for their full dive but as certification in that situation has you basically locking eyes with the instructor the whole time it was less complex for them. When he was back on board the rest of us told him (backed up by the instructor) that certifying in that mess meant he was definitely ready for diving anywhere.
Resigned to our fate I did my best to enjoy the boat trip back. It was at least a lovely day for that. We assured the dive leader that we understood his decision and he admitted that it had been bad earlier in the week and he’d worried the rain and waves the past bit had made it worse. As we reached shore he admitted he doubted they’d try to go back out again before the following Tuesday (this being Thursday I think.) Apparently in summer the wind patterns work better for sweeping sediment back out to deep ocean but the prevailing wind at the moment was being unhelpful. To their credit they gave us all a full refund, there was non-refundable ‘boat fee’ despite the fact that we’d gone out.
Luckily the café next door was fully open upon our return and a few of us settled in since despite the abbreviated dive we’d still done most of the work and had the usual post dive munchies. A bargain five euro full English with two eggs and double meat hit the spot and despite the aborted dive and cancelled second dive it was actually not super far ahead of when I’d planned that I got back to the room. The laundry excitement was over and we ended up just enjoying the sunny rest of the afternoon.
That night the resort’s Ocean Bar was hosting a low rent trivia night and we decided we should at least attend one resort event. I really enjoy pub quiz/trivia night things but never really get a chance to do them at home given how few of my friends ever leave the house. Unfortunately the clientele factor reared its head here too. A few VERY drunk brits showed up and began screaming (usually wrong) answers and singing badly over the music round. It got so bad that half the room was telling her to “shut the F up” and the poor quizmaster was being as insistent as a hotel service guy can really be. Eventually her husband dragged her off but not before she’d driven off at least one couple who was playing. I still enjoyed it but between her drunken nonsense, other drunken nonsense, a very brit centric question pool (understandably heh but I’m about as anglophile as it gets for tv tastes and some were beyond obscure to me) and the final results showing that everyone playing out on the patio out of the quizmaster’s sight was cheating, things could have been better.
The next morning we finished packing, threw the luggage into storage and went for a last walk into downtown/stroll along the beach. Having an oceanfront meal will probably be my lasting memory of Albufeira, in this case another delicious breakfast. We walked around town a bit more and also grabbed a last Gelato but before long we were back on the train to Lisbon. Usually on a trip I try very hard to avoid retracing my steps exactly but unfortunately with the way our timing worked out it was very much easiest to just take the same train back. As for Albufeira and the Algarve, I’d definitely not stay in Albufeira again as it’s just not my scene but I’d definitely re-visit the Algarve at large (and probably rent a car for my entire time just for the freedom factor.)
We’d hemmed and hawed about where to stay in Lisbon upon our return. Since we were leaving at 6 in the morning our final day we knew we really wouldn’t be sleeping much that final night. At the same time staying out by the airport didn’t really appeal. In the end we ended up back with our friend Luis at his slightly lower end guest house, but, happy to see us back he gave us the ground floor suite (NO STAIRS) which was actually even nicer than our previous room. He invited us over to the B&B wanting to see us for breakfast too which was nice as we got some more information about our final touristy thing of the trip in advance. Seriously, if you’re going to Lisbon consider staying with Luis at one of his Zuzabed locations, he has everything from guesthouse to private suites with courtyards.
It turns out the night markets we’d visited when last in Lisbon basically ran the exact duration of our mainland stay. We ended up back on the hill to try something new and enjoy the view once again. Give me a bottle of Somersby, a serrano ham and cheese sandwich and a chocolate shot of ginja to finish and I am a happy boy. That being said there was a noticeably less hectic vibe in the Bairro Alto that night vs. the previous week. I guess the previous week had been the height of carnival and tourist visiting. It was still busy but we explored a bit further afield as we had less picking through the crowds to do.
Ever so shockingly we managed another custard tart but, more interestingly, when Mom went in search of a coffee we ended up in a bookstore café. This turns out to be the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world: Livraria Bertrand. Built into the base of a particularly gorgeously tiled building it’s mix of modern touches and absolutely ancient looking barrel vaulted ceilings. Even with most of the books in Portuguese I could spend a lot of time there, but in the end bought a very nice leather bound Tolkein companion and was delighted when they stamped the flyleaf with a store stamp.
The next morning we grabbed our breakfast with (and said our goodbyes to) Luis and got a few of my pre-research decisions confirmed for us for that day’s trip to Sintra. Luis told us he’d get our cab called and ready to pick us up at 4am right in front and not to worry about anything else. We’d gotten a later start than I wanted and lingered longer at breakfast than I expected so, having confirmed that we could bypass the train lines with our already filled travel cards… we arrived at the train station to see none of the lines that we’d walked by the previous weekend. Things were definitely noticeably calmer, it made me wonder just how much shorter the lines at the castle would have been. That said, the train still filled up pretty much to the max and the lines for the palace in Sintra were not short (though not aided by them only having 2 of 5 ticket windows open.)
Sintra is not far out of Lisbon proper and has long been a retreat for the wealthy and was usually the summer residence of Portugal’s current ruler. The hillier/forested lands apparently trend much cooler in summer and held hunting pleasures not found closer to Lisbon proper. Towards the end of the Portuguese Kingdom it became the home to an explosion of romanticist architecture of which much still remains. One of the main draws is the Palace of Pena. Built on top of (and incorporating chunks of the existing architecture of) a 16th century monastery it has a variety of very diverse architectural elements both inside and outside. Heavy archways are lightened by fanciful carvings and large terraces command fantastic views across the gardens, down into the valley and off to the sea in the distance. It is a gorgeous place well suited for a palace though somewhat blasted by gale force ‘winter’ winds that particular day.
The place very much has the feel of a toy palace and I wasn’t surprised to discover part of the inspiration was Neuschwanstein despite the very different styles. Despite the playful nature of the architecture there are still a number of heavy defense elements built in. A heavy drawbridge guards a heavily switchbacked road with gunports that eventually emerges into the main courtyard.
The interior is just as eclectic in design elements though this is perhaps accentuated by some of the bizarre choices the curators have made in what items of furniture to leave on display. I’m sure to some extent this is dictated by the state of their collection but there are definitely some rooms that have a bizarre mix of eras/uses that aren’t original. It’s a fun visit. The Palace itself occupies a hilltop and is surrounded by a sprawling garden with extensive up and down that we honestly didn’t see tons of (you could easily spend a day just on the palace and the grounds if you took your time.)
Taking the bus up and down from the castle there were occasional views of various other romantic architecture examples. Many of the noble estates from that era do their best to match the palace in their fanciful natures (if not in scale.) A faux gothic castle at one turn might disappear only to be replaced with an overgrown swiss gingerbread house. It’s really quite something and most are still private residences.
After a quick meal and exploration of some of the shop streets we realized time was getting short and we set out to explore what Luis had said was his favourite part of Sintra: The Quinta da Regalaira. If the Palace of Pena is fanciful then the Quinta da Regalaira is pure fever dream. Built around the turn of the 20th century the estate is an extensive folly (in the architectural sense: a usually decorative building built to imply that it’s something it isn’t.) The entire estate is meant to evoke his personal beliefs and philosophy and this is conveyed in ways that are… eclectic to say the least. There’s even a large amount of Masonic and Knights Templar imagery.
In one corner of the park lies the Palace which is (relatively) small but impressively decorated in elaborate gothic decoration. Across from it sits a tiny Catholic chapel just as decoratively designed but unfortunately mostly off limits.
The grounds are where things get absolutely ridiculous. The plot of land is (surprise for Portugal!) quite sloped and is roughly formed into terraced areas with winding paths between them. One of the more impressive discoveries is that tunnels are everywhere. Mostly hewn directly into the rock, most meant to look natural the network of caves stretches all over the place as a labyrinth and I suspect we didn’t even see half of them. One tunnel we took brought us up and out behind a waterfall over a grotto with hopping stones to cross the pond. The tunnels also connect to ‘initiation wells’ which are almost like a tower built below ground, spiral staircases and intricate designs meant to convey the appearance of a place for ancient rites.
Towers are everywhere above ground as well, some designed to appear ruined, some evoking Moorish or Portuguese age of exploration architecture. The faux ruin aspect is a bit difficult as a modern visitor because the local government only acquired the estate from private ownership in recent years and is clearly still catching up on some deferred maintenance (Portugal’s austerity spending cuts likely not helping.) Honestly it’s kind of impossible to really convey the prettiness and the oddness of it, it ended up being probably one of my favourite stops of the trip though due to pure unexpectedness.
Back in Lisbon we sadly started to come to terms with heading home. While in some ways we were ready for a rest and blessed Prairie flatness there’s always still a melancholy that comes over you when it’s time. We still had to get to the airport early however so we took a last wander about town, grabbed a last meal and tried to grab a few hours sleep. We ended up safely making it to the airport this time other than a blind panic about what to do with the keys for the room as Luis had told us they’d open the stairwell next door to his office to drop them off and they didn’t. Thankfully he didn’t seem to be screamingly angry at us later.
Hop one of the flight brought us back to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel in the Azores, tiny home base of our island hopping carrier and a 8ish hour layover. I’d been trying here and there to find us some form of tour to kill a few hours of that layover. It seemed a shame to be sitting there that long and not see some of the island. Unfortunately I’d more or less struck out and when we arrived I started calling tour companies on the phone, most of whom either only ran full day tours or simply didn’t answer. In the end I suggested we just go ask a cabbie how much a round trip to Sete Cidades (a set of crater lakes on one of the island would be since from google maps it didn’t seem far.) The answer was a surprisingly not terrible 50 Euro so we took out some cash and went for it.
It was unfortunately a very cloudy/misty day on the island and I was a little leery of getting to the overlook and seeing nothing due to cloud cover but things thankfully cleared more and more as we drove. Our cab driver’s english was definitely not quite at the level of those in Madeira/Mainland Portugal but he did pretty well and stopped at various viewpoints (or often just on the side of a road) to show us the sights. Vaguely part of the same shelf of volcanic islands as Madeira the Azores are a lot more worn eroded. Long gentle hills separate a few taller peeks and the fertile soil makes for vibrantly green meadows everywhere, most filled with cows. There were times I was very much reminded of New Zealand and, even more forcefully, of Cornwall as verdant slopes suddenly disappeared into forbidding rocky sea cliffs.
We wound our way up into the hills on the west end of the island and eventually reached the overlook on Sete Cidades. Sete Cidades is a fairly large stratovolcano that makes up a good chunk of the western half of Sao Miguel and is best known for a number of lakes within its caldera. The Lagoa de Sete Cidades is a twin lake separated by a narrow gap that has noticeably different colours in the two halves. Unfortunately with the lack of sunlight the colours weren’t as pronounced as they are in some of the photos we’d seen beforehand but it was still a gorgeous sight from the viewpoint above. Back in the eighties someone built a very fancy hotel here but it failed relatively quickly and is now mostly a ruin. Reading online it appears someone recently purchased it and is planning to reopen it but we certainly saw no sign of that. While it does command a gorgeous view in pretty much every direction it was pretty windy up on the viewpoint and our driver said things were much windier in winter proper. From the viewpoint we took the winding road down into the caldera, stopping at a viewpoint over another smaller lake (apparently there are quite a number of crater lakes on this volcano) and eventually reaching the shore. Nestled along it is an isolated little village, picturesque but extremely quiet.
We took a slightly different route back to the airport with our driver taking us into what he said was a popular picnic area for the locals set along another mountain top lake. The clouds had by this point mostly retreated, it was still heavily overcast but the vistas of the island had properly opened up. On our way back down from the volcanic massif we came to a spot where we could see down the entire length of the island and from coast to coast. It really isn’t a large place. Honestly as pretty as it is I’d really wonder if there’s enough there to do to keep you busy for very long. Our tour lasted a little over two hours and we drove over a solid ¼ of the island I would guess? Yet as we boarded the plane later we talked to a number of people who had spent an entire week here AND had been before. I could definitely see the appeal in spending some time on Sao Miguel and some time exploring the other islands as well.
Back at the teeny airport we had a bite and settled in to wait for our flight. The final transfer from international to domestic at Pearson was the usual gong show but we eventually made it home more or less on time after what was about 25 hours of real time since we’d woken up that morning. All in all it was a fantastic trip. We definitely had our issues (luggage based and otherwise, in fact as I finish writing this almost a month after we got back we still haven’t gotten our payment from the airline) but overall it was a fantastic trip filled with beautiful sights, friendly people and great food. I’d happily go back, not just to explore more of the places we went but also to go further afield, Porto and the wine country and more of the interior beckon for one. All in all the trip was a rousing success given it more or less all came about from ‘oh, there’s an RCI on Madeira, that might be interesting.’ One thing that tempts me a bit now that I wouldn’t have expected before would be one of the cruises we saw in Madeira, some of which apparently hit the Azores and the Canaries/Cape Verde as well.
Thanks to all those that followed along as ever and apologies for the lateness of the final post. As I think I mentioned I left for a wedding in California a week after getting back from this trip and have been playing catchup since. If anyone has any questions/wants any info please let me know.