|Taken from the bridge to a temple, one of our first stops in Hanoi|
We spent two days in Hanoi before we made our way to Ha Long Bay and then another 20 hours in Hanoi after our trip to Ha Long Bay. In that time I feel we saw a lot of the city and had enough time for relaxation.
Highlights of our time in Hanoi include: Ha Lao Prision, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War; a cooking class at the Hanoi Cooking Centre where we made Vietnamese dished including a carmelized pork dish, a banana flower salad and a sticky rice dessert; and visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mosoleum and the obligatory museum. Ho Chi Minh may not have been a friend of the West, but the more we read about him the more we were intrigued by his ideas and his vision for Vietnam.
We also checked out a water puppet show, and while I don't think we need to see the show again, it was a unique cultural experience. Apparently every other tourist in Hanoi got the memo on the water puppet show; the audience was akin to a United Nations Economic Forum with guests from Japan, China, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy surrounding us. As at many points on our trip, we seemed to be the only Americans. It's not a bad thing just not what we're used to.
|At Ha Lao Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton where John McCain was held during the war|
|At the Temple of Literature|
|Another view of the Temple of Literature|
|Inside a temple. Offerings included everything from lychee to packaged candy|
|Working hard for our dinner|
|Z preparing to eat an unhatched baby duck|
|One Pillar Pagoda near Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mosoleum|
|In the Old Quarter in Hanoi|
Ha Long Bay is undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip. The topography and geology are unique and beautiful and our time on the boat was very relaxing and peaceful. It's easy to see why the bay is a World Heritage site. We ate well, slept well and met some interesting people from around the world.
|On our boat in Ha Long Bay|
|Inside our cabin on the boat|
|Sunset over Ha Long Bay|
|Limestone formations in the bay|
|Inside Surprise Cave in Ha Long Bay|
|The cathedral in Da Nang reminded us of Latin America|
Z and I rarely drink sodas at home, however, we found that a cold Coca Cola at hot and humid temperatures is an incredibly refreshing experience; it's emotional, that's how good it was. So drinking Coke became a daily occurrance we both looked forward to. Keep in mind that unlike the high fructose corn syrup Coke in the U.S., Vietnam and most other countries use real sugar. It's so much tastier and healthier, relatively speaking.
|A temple in Hoi An. A sweet Vietnamese man insisted on taking our photo and showing us around.|
|The market at Hoi An|
|As sunset came, Hoi An became ablaze with lanterns|
|The Japanese Bridge in the background|
The Marble Mountains were unexpectedly interesting. An unsuspecting community of caves and temples on the backside of the limestone mountain range about 15 minutes south of Da Nang. Despite the heat and bats, we wandered through the caves and temples, in wonder of the amount of physical labor it must have taken to construct the altars and places of worship.
|At the base of the Marble Mountains|
|Large Buddha in one of the caves|
|Main temple at the Marble Mountains|
|View from the top of the Marble Mountains|
The closest town to the caves is Dong Hoi, a city of just over 100,000 people. The easiest and least expensive way to get to Dong Hoi from Da Nang is via train. So that's what we did. Our train arrived about an hour late, not unusual in Vietnam. After the initial discomfort and inefficiency of boarding the train was over, we settled into our "air conditioned" train car and ate a late lunch.
|Outside of the train station in Da Nang|
|Lunch on the train|
If tourism at the cave area is up-and-coming, tourism in Dong Hoi is, well, maybe coming at some point in the future. We didn't want to pay $150 per night to stay at the one or two resorts in the area, so we settled on Sunshine Hotel for about $15 per night. Our room was clean, aside from the one cockroach Z saw in the ceiling. But we were awoken most nights to either horns honking on the main road or Vietnamese people yelling loudly down the hall.
The beginning of our first day in Dong Hoi was miserable. The hotel didn't offer food or coffee, so we wandered down the road in search of both. We found a coffee stand first and between the four or five kids running the coffee bar, they correctly translated that we wanted iced coffee. After coffee we were starving and walked back in the same direction to try to find food. We found a place for pho, typically a breakfast food in Vietnam. The small roadside restaurant looked and smelled a little sketchy and I was torn between the now intense hunger in my stomach--no dinner the night before, small lunch on the train (I didn't really eat that sandwich.)--and the illness that had been plaguing me over the past few days. I caved and ate the pho, minus much of the broth. Z and I split a Coke.
After breakfast we found the beach and our day began to improve. We were the only people on the beach until about four in the afternoon when the locals began to stop by after work. We spent the afternoon reading and drinking lemon-flavored iced tea under an umbrella.
|The beach at Dong Hoi|
|Hot pot meal in Dong Hoi|
We had ridden in plenty of cabs and minibuses during our stay in Vietnam and were well aware of the driving culture. It's insane. Very much like India, for anyone who has been there. Organized chaos is the rule of the road. Cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes all honk for attention when they need to get somewhere. In rural areas, cows, water buffalo and oxen join the bedlam. The thought of getting on a motorbike and putting my life in the hands of a stranger who spoke no English was petrifying.
By this point in the trip, I had left my comfortzone so many times that I chalked this up as another "experience" I wouldn't be able to have in the Western world. Z and I donned our helmets and jumped on the back of the bikes to ride 40 kilometers to the cave.
|Ready to ride!|
|View from the bike|
|On the road|
|Holding on for dear life!|
|Ready for our caving adventure|
|Going down into the cave with our guide|
The first kilometer of the cave was full of tourists. Our guide, Dong, mentioned that during the dry season more Westerns visit the caves. But we were in the dry season and we were two of the only non-Vietnamese tourists we saw.
Once we left the crowds, the real fun began. We climbed down a ladder of just a few steps the floor of the cave, left the wooden boardwalk where other tourists were walking and began our adventure. Shortly after we turned the corner, we entered blackness. Without our torches, we couldn't see anything. In fact, we tried turning off our lights a few hundred meters into the cave in a flat wide area that minimized the risk of bumping into anything.
As we continued our journey we saw beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. The first part of the cave was bat-free and even the uninhabited portion of the cave had just a few, very small bats. That's the kind of cave I can get used to.
|Stalactites in the cave|
|Boat in the cave|
The return trip was much faster and seemed easier, too. The most treacherous portions of the hike came after the boat ride on the way in and before the boatride on the way out. So by the time we reached the boat, we knew the worst was behind us.
We had high expectations for our second day of caving. We knew this tour would be different, hiking through rivers and fields to get to the cave and swimming through an underground river in a the cave. Before the hike, I hadn't full internalized what it meant to swim in a river in a cave in Vietnam. And really it wasn't a big deal until I got water in my mouth and my imagination started to run wild. "What's in this water? What animals are in this river? I'm going to eat bat guano and catch something awful! This current is going to suck me under and I'm going to drown in this river." And on it went.
The bats in the cave flying about a foot from my face, the rain on the second half our our hike, and the 90 + minute minibus ride each way to the cave over rural roads didn't help either. Had I been in better spirits this cave adventure might have been fun, too, but even then I doubt it would have topped our cave adventure from the day before.
After our fourth night at the Sunshine Hotel, we headed to the airport to fly to Bangkok via Ho Chi Minh City. The Dong Hoi airport has four flights per week to Ho Chi Minh City and four flights per week to Hanoi. If our flight to HCM had been on time and the weather had cooperated in HCM, we would have left the airport for a few hours to go into the city. As it was, we camped out at another airport lounge before saying a fond farewell to Vietnam and boarding our plane to Bangkok.