The long tiring 12hr+ bus ride out of Laos had finally come to an end and it was after 9pm when we crawled out of the van onto a busy dark street somewhere downtown Da Nang Vietnam.
Jenn and I joined a solo American traveler headed down the street on the look out for a hotel sign and not far down the road we found our first Vietnamese hotel for the bargain price of $12.00.
We flopped our bags down in the large and somewhat clean room before heading back out to hunt for food. The solo American joined us and after locating a suitable looking establishment we sat down and prepared ourselves for the battle of the languages….. tonight’s lesson in Vietnamese!
We recognized and understood nothing on the restaurants menu and just barely managed to get across our point that fried rice would be sufficient to the waiter. Our meal did arrive and after a cold beer and a mediocre fried rice/chicken it was back to the hotel to crash.
We have only one day to kill in Da Nang before catching a flight north to Hanoi where we have planed to start our north to south trek of Vietnam. We just spent the following day walking around Da Nang in search of an ATM to get some cash or Dong to be exact which is Vietnams currency.
We hunted for over an hour looking for a ATM that dispensed cash without charging us a fat ATM service fee. With no luck after trying multiple machines we paid up the 120,000dong atm fee ($8cdn) on top of our $5 scotiabank fee that we are constantly being charged for by scotia on all of our overseas transactions.
Sadly these fees are continuously accumulating in every country we visit and I recently totaled them up to approximately $1,200+ in atm service fees paid in only just the past 15 months. We try our best always to minimize the number of transactions we make and still it’s a pile of money wasted. I wish we knew a better option.
The walk around the city was pleasant and the Vietnamese people we made contact with seemed warm and welcoming. We left early on the second day from the airport just a few minutes cab ride away from our hotel.
A short easy $50 flight from Da Nang we arrived in Hanoi and were greeted by a sharp decline in temperature. Hanoi was cold with single digit temperatures and grey skies a far cry from the hot sunny coastal Da Nang. Isn’t this sunny hot Vietnam I asked Jenn as we dug into our packs to find our jackets. We searched for a tourist shuttle that we could take downtown from the airport and it didn’t take long to be shoved off in one. Arriving into the popular tourist district of Hanoi we set off on foot chasing down a few of the hotels that we’ve got pre marked on the Maps.me app and within minutes we noticed a large number of clothing stores selling winter jackets, scarfs, hats and gloves. I think they were trying to tell us something but there was no way I was going to buy winter clothes in Vietnam, not the reason why we’re here!
In order to keep warm and comfortable during the rainy cold days we splurged out and checked into one of the above average hotels. $33cdn. The $33 was well spent and we enjoyed both the comfortable room and the free buffet breakfast while we waited out the weather near the hotel over the following four days.
The plan in Hanoi was to book bus tickets and do the long but recommended bus trip northwest into the Sapa valley to visit the rice patty rich farmlands of the north. This plan soon went to shit when we were told the Sapa valley was getting snowed on which of course was all I needed to hear to cancel the trip. You’d be suicidal to board a Vietnamese bus headed up into elevation on snow/ice covered roads with bus drivers that already have reputations of being anything but cautious or safe. We also pictured the lush green Sapa valley might not be so impressive covered in the white shit……..we’re out!!!
With a few extra days to burn in Hanoi we set out into the busy streets exploring the lively tourist zone. Hoards of travellers mingled in and out of the busy nighttime streets and it was apparent that Hanoi was a hotspot. With the abundance of cheap street food large restaurant selection and $.25c draught beers on every corner we quickly developed a crush on Hanoi.
It was cold cloudy and it rained off and on during the entire 4 days we spent in Hanoi. We lazed about the hotel and ventured out at night to join the mass chasing the addictive Hanoi nightlife. The city was good fun and in good weather we could have stayed longer (not something we usually say about these big cities) but we have come to Vietnam for sunny beaches and so in search of sand we must move along.
With Sapa out we headed east to visit Ha Long bay. We jumped on one of the many tourist buses headed to the coast just 130 kilometers away. We purchased a joint bus/ferry ticket to take us right to Cat Ba island. We wanted to do the much talked about Ha Long bay boat tour and decided to travel right to Cat Ba island to stay and to book our boat tour from.
Wearing almost every piece of clothing we carry we prepared for the rain and single digit temperatures and left Hanoi aboard the bus/ferry combo. Four hours later we arrived on the picturesque island at Cat Ba and of course it was still raining.
Jumping off the bus in Cat Ba island south we were welcomed by a few of the local hotel owners and promptly haggling begun for the sale of one of their rooms. We were pleasantly surprised to find the room offerings were only $10 to $13 avg. per night. Cheap hotels seemed a plenty and it was now becoming apparent that northern Vietnam was not catering to high season tourists. We could enjoy the low prices of the off season for the price of cold wet weather. The $12 hotel offering looked pretty good so we followed our friendly hotel owner to her hotel just fifty feet away. We were given keys to a large bright clean room on the fifth floor with a heater, t.v. and large bay windows that had a great view of the entire harbor. A serious score for $12cdn!
We practically have the hotel and entire island to ourselves right now and besides the wet weather we have no complaints here.
Unfortunately the wet weather keeps us often in our warm heated room and again we only venture out for food and short walks between rain storms.
While sitting in a cafe having lunch one day I heard some loud squealing nearby and lifted my head to take a look. I soon seen across the street a 100 meters away in the middle of town a small pig and three people. The pig was tied at the legs but that didn’t stop him from squealing and kicking for his life. The men were cleaning the neck of the pig with water and a cloth while the pig fought. Soon after and with a quick smooth slice of the knife the squealing stopped and we were left to finish our lunch watching as the three men drained the hogs blood into a catch pan before heading back across the street into their restaurant. This is not something you see everyday back in Canada during your lunch break and so I mention it because I feel that it is these continual cultural differences and experiences we witness and face daily that often fuel our desire to travel.
We found time to rent a scooter for $4 and set off touring around the island on one of the lessor wet days.
There are a few tourist traps to give your money too on the island. There is a national park hike to a lookout point a place called hospital cave where soldiers were operated on inside… yep you guessed it…a cave!.. and a military defense post up the hill called canon fort. The fort sounded alright so we headed on over to check it out.
The military stage area had been preserved and had a series of tunnels and artillery weapons on display.
I expect the hillside attack point offered serious attack advantages for the Vietnamese as they defended the island from oncoming sea side attacks.
Below there were tunnels carved into the hillside used by the soldiers and artifacts of war were on display.
It’s been a week now and I’m tired of the rain and with the lure of hot sunny Vietnamese beaches down south we bought the Ha Long bay boat trip ($13) and crossed our fingers for nice weather tomorrow. The trip includes a stop at a monkey island a kayaking trip with lunch and a second kayak ride into a hidden lagoon. The boat trip is famous for showing off the stone pillar islands that dot Ha Long bay.
The boat headed out of the harbor the next morning with a fun looking crew of fellow travelers.
Immediately we motored thru a large group of floating villages where hundreds of houses sat afloat fifty gallon plastic drums.
Many of the wooden homes were surrounded by nets used as holding pens to cage and hold fish and it appeared many of the floating village inhabitants were contributing to the fishing industry.
We passed through the long line of homes and soon landed at the appropriately named monkey island. Our group disembarked and were promptly greeted by the local residents.
The monkeys were everywhere and it was apparent they weren’t intimidated by the sightseers.
The tour guide organized a small hike up to a lookout point and I decided to hang back to monkey watch. A second boat had followed us onto the islands shore and the other tourists began to land. Within a few seconds one of the larger monkeys was headed towards the new guests and lunged at a young female traveler as he expertly plunged his hand into the girls jacket pocket stealing the banana she had mistakenly brought for lunch. I couldn’t believe the balls on this monkey! The terrified girl was now freaking out and running towards the beach hut. This however proved to be an even worse idea then bringing a banana to monkey island and the commotion along with the banana sighting had another small group of monkeys chasing the girl down. She barely escaped the rundown and I watched as the islands resident caretaker grabbed his sling shot and shot a stone in the direction of the monkeys.
The big banana stealing monkey took up residence close by me and began to eat the young ladies lunch. I took a few steps in his direction to snap a photo and I wasn’t more then a few meters away. Apparently the aggressive thief didn’t like the attention much and so he hissed and snarled at me.
I took a step back and as I did the monkey lunged at me with teeth exposed. This time he received a face full of sand that I kicked his way in my defense. Ok dammit that didn’t work and again the aggressive trouble maker jumped my way with teeth showing. Fortunately another mouth full of sand proved enough to turn the trouble maker away and I felt victorious and confident that I had won my first monkey fight. With most of the tourists now freaked out by the aggressive monkeys on the island we were all a little quietly happy to boarded the boats and shove off.
We loaded up some kayaks at one of these floating homes and beneath the floor boards of the home they were growing what was called “big fish” and we mustered only a quick peak of the fish. It appeared to be a huge Grouper and the tour guide claimed it to be over 650 pounds. Didn’t look that big to me but who knows.
Next stop was to a kayaking area where we enjoyed some time to paddle around while lunch was being prepared. The Kayaking was good fun and upon returning to the boat we were served a fish, rice and veggie lunch both tasty and needed after the mornings activities.
Following lunch we continued to motor throughout the stone island to another kayaking spot. We unloaded kayaks again and paddled our way towards a “secret” lagoon. The paddling was again fun and we found our way into the lagoon.
Soon after other boats on similar Ha Long bay tours arrived and the “secret” wasn’t a secret anymore. We paddled back to our boat and made our way back through the floating villages to Cat Ba.
After a full week on soggy wet Cat Ba we boarded the daily tourist bus headed for the pier to catch the ferry to the mainland where another bus was waiting to take us back to the Hanoi. Jenn and I decided that we would book a flight south to Ho Chi Minh city for today and asked the bus driver to drop us off along the way in Haiphong close to the airport so we could grab a taxi from our chosen drop point to the airport. The bus driver seemed accommodating and his response.. “No problem!”
Soon we approached our intersection close to the airport and I asked the bus driver to stop, strangely he pretended not to hear me and kept on going. I was sitting in the first row directly behind him and I asked again for him to stop please. He snaps his neck back at me says “no taxi here”! Ummm, no? I point a taxi to him as one drives past. He then turns to me and says “no problem, I have friend I call for you and he meet us up ahead to drive you to the airport”. Ohhhh yaa… I can smell what’s cooking and laugh as I demand him again to stop here! Ignoring me he just keeps on driving. A few kilometers further down the road the driver stops behind his friends parked car and points at us to get out as friend approaches. I’m already pissed off when I ask the friend how much? And he replies a price three times higher then it would have been the few kilometers back when we first wanted out.
With some unpleasant comments directed at the two wannabe con men we were off walking back towards the way we had come. Wasn’t more then a few moments when a taxi rolled past and we jumped in paying just 1/3rd the price that the bus drivers scamming buddy was trying to charge. With the airport located we were finally headed south leaving behind the cold wet weather of the north.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh we had a pretty good idea of what we were going to find.
We wanted to make our way into the city towards the tourist zone and after gathering our things from the luggage carousel we headed for the exit. The doors opened and the thick muggy heat welcomed us. The taxis were lined up along with many buses so we took a look at the bus schedule and found buses running downtown frequently and cheap. We jumped a bus that hopefully would head into the direction we desired.
The reputation of Ho Chi Minh traffic lived up to the hype and our back of the bus seats were great for watching the show.
Cars in the fray seemed to only move inches per minute while the scooters filed between them like agile ants.
When ticket call time arrived we were welcomed by yet another unique bus ride in this neon lit corpse capsule type transport.
The bus looked rather well maintained but clean not so much and we took our seats in the very back with a group of beetle type insects amongst the chairs. We hunkered down for the five hour bus ride and prepared for the late night arrival into Mui Ne.
I had a few hotels in mind that we looked up while in the bake shop and conveniently the bus driver was stopping for each tourist when they shouted out the name of their hotel as we passed by.
We arrived into Mui Ne near midnight and struck luck getting our first bungalow choice straight away. It is also three days before Chinese new year and things all over here are getting really booked up so we were stoked to luck out first try.
In the morning after a comfortable air conditioned nights rest I met with the friendly female owner and when offered the next nine nights for $27cdn a night we signed up straight away.
Our bungalow is right on the beach so we didn’t go far in the morning to find out that Mue Ni was a full fledged kite surfing hotspot!
I never could have imagined that hundreds of kite surfers could “safely” (doubtful) share the space on the sea and in the air at once. Very cool to watch these guys and girls fling themselves through the air at break neck speeds. I thought about trying it but it was $60 per hour for lessons and I could easily a new addiction here. I took a pass and cheaped out but it did look like good fun… Forsure next time!
We spent the next nine days planted in Mui Ne to avoid travelling around during the very busy Chinese new year period. It appeared that most of the hotels around Mui Ne were just about full and buying bus tickets around Vietnam was also difficult as many of the bus runs already prebooked and full. I heard that the Vietnamese people prebook most of their hotels and bus tickets months in advance fully aware that travel during this time is difficult and in high demand.
With time to burn in Mui Ne we relaxed beachside daily and watched the kite surfers. The vibe in Mui Ne is addictive and the relaxing. Sunny hot days at the beach give way to nights out roaming the streets enjoying the energetic nightlife.
An abundance of fresh seafood, crocodile, frog, snake, burgers, pho noodle and everything else one could imagine lined the street. We soon also noticed many of the restaurants were owned by Russian foreigners and it seemed many Russians were operating shops and restaurants while living and vacationing in Mui Ne.
We found our handful of cheap tasty restaurants along our section of Mui Ne and fell in love with this one particular street side noodle cart. The lovely woman worked day and night serving up a tasty cold noodle salad with bbq chicken for just $1.00 and so we ate this tasty cheap treat daily.
If you had an adventurous appetite you could easily indulge in all sorts of interesting cuisines.
We jumped on a few rented peddle bikes one day and peddled the main drag down to the small fishing village at the north end of Mui Ne.
Some abandoned hotels were around and signs of seasonal weather storms appeared to have beaten the coast once upon a time.
The fishing industry in Mui Ne is very much alive and well judging by the large fleet of fishing boats parked in the harbor.
After nine very enjoyable days loafing about in Mui Ne it was time to move on and we purchased a bus ticket to the mountain town of Dalat. The six hour shuttle ride was fast and furious and arriving into Dalat I was already hot, bothered and tired. We set off quickly on foot poking into hotels nearby the bus drop off point and received very similar answers from many of the hotels…”sorry, full full”….
We had arrived in Dalat two days after the new years party was scheduled to be finished. However the city was buzzing with travellers and locals alike and it appeared the party was still going on. I was getting rather hot, tired and less inclined to hang out in the city and my heavy backpack paired with the high hot sun had me day dreaming about our cabana back seaside in Mui Ne. After a few hours of debate paired with our unsuccessful attempt to locate a hotel room I was ready to check out. After what already has been a long journey from Mui Ne this morning we hailed a taxi and headed to the bus station to see if we could jump a bus to somewhere/anywhere. Arriving at the bus station we realized it didn’t look good for us. The place was full and we made plans to head to Nha Trang while in line waiting to approach the ticket counter. When I asked about tickets to Nha Trang. “Nope sorry all buses full” was the response. We sat down in the waiting area and tried to come up with a plan B. After twenty minutes of back and fourth debate we still had no plan B and so again I approached the ticket counter to ask when the next bus was leaving to Nha Trang with seats available? This time it was a different girl and she checked her computer. She lifted her eyes back up from her computer screen and like an angel from heaven said there were two seats available for the 7:00pm bus tonight to Nha Trang. Of course I didn’t ask anymore questions and scooped up the last two tickets. A few hours later we were out of Dalat and back on the road headed back again to the coast.
We arrived into Nha Trang somewhere around 11pm. We exited the bus and checked maps.me app to see where in Nha Trang we were. In the dark of night we started off on foot soon greeted by taxi drivers asking us which hotel? Our answer was that we had no hotel and that we were looking for one. “Ohh nooo big problem everything full” is what we heard time and time again. Shit! same problem as Dalat and I thought maybe we would be sleeping in a Vietnamese ally tonight. None of the taxi drivers asked us anymore questions nor did they continue to show interest in driving us around on a goose chase hunting for a hotel. With work to do we started walking poking our heads into every hotel along the way. Jenn and I made a game of it and counted 37 hotels without vacancy until we finally found one well after midnight. We happily paid the inflated price which was twice as much as usually priced during a non holiday time @ $50.00/night and crashed out quickly after the very long day.
Next day we set out to explore Nha Trang and found a very lively city.
The streets were hopping at night and the clubs, restaurants and bars were all enjoying the heavy tourist traffic. We of course are cheap and skipped the lively clubs and bars and went big on flavour but low on budget… Sitting in a Vietnamese cafe chasing spicy pho noodles with a cold Bia Siagon gets my vote everytime….$10.
Not being interested in a party scene we spent two days in Nha Trang and then decided to move a little further north to what we hoped would be a quiet and relaxing beach town called Doc Let. The one hour bus ride is easy to catch from Nha Trang and so we packed up and set off.
Arriving into Doc Let we were surprised to see how small this village was. There are only three or four budget hotels and one or two beachfront hotels in the sleepy beach front community. The first two we enquired at were full so we backtracked towards the highway away from the beach and found a small family run hotel with friendly owners happy to see us. $23/night. We unpacked quickly and took the short five minute walk over to the beach. What we found wasn’t what we had come looking for. Instead we found a jammed packed beach with Vietnamese tourists, pounding music and garbage littered everywhere.
The beach was completely trashed and it was evident that the Vietnamese people didn’t care for nature or their beach. We must have stumbled into some sort of holiday party because typically I understand Doc Let to be calm and quiet. There was garbage littered everywhere and we even seen a dead dog lying on the beach that had been recently killed. With no desire to hang around this stretch of the Doc Let I jumped on the internet to see what else was around the area. I stumbled across a place on the internet just two kilometers up the beach called Paradise Resort and so we took the quick half hour beach stroll up the coast to check it out.
Arriving at Paradise we found a hotel with a few minor imperfections on a picture perfect stretch of beach with only eight or ten other travelers hanging around. We poked our heads in and met the 90 year old Croatian Owner named Vladimir. Vladimir showed us a few rooms and told us the $75cdn/night included three meals per day plus coffee and water. The cold $1 beers in the fridge were sold on the honor system (take one mark it down) and we really liked the beachfront room and clean empty beach. When Vladimir pointed out the complimentary all day vodka sitting atop the breakfast table that I knew we’d found the right place.
Not long into the walk the mid day sun left us hot and sweaty and the 14kg pack on my back was enough for me to flag down the first motorbike truck thingy that can screaming past.
The driver stopped and I could only point down the beach before jumping into the back of a two wheeled pickup truck bike thingymedoo.
Arriving at Paradise hotel after racing around Vietnam since leaving Mui Ne felt exactly like the name suggested, paradise. The place had a great relaxed vibe and our room was front row center. The open air room was five meters from the beach and we bathed in the refreshing sea breeze during the day and listened as the soft waves put us to sleep each night.
In the mornings we were woken at dawn by the chugging of diesel engines. The boats circled and netted their prey and as we watched sipping our morning coffee I wondering what they were catching.
When the nets were full dozens of baskets of krill were brought ashore and the bike trucks were loaded high. These tiny shrimp like creatures came in by the boat load and it was clear there was no shortage of these miniscule shrimp like sea creatures.
One of the bike drivers called me over and handed me a chunk of green mango and motioned that I dip it into the dark red paste he was holding. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into and the man pointed over at the baskets of krill indicating to me that it was made with the krills. The paste was spicy with a seafood after taste and had a take it or leave it type taste to me. Two more mango and paste combos were insisted on me by the now small gathering crowd and after my third piece I was over the spicy fish flavor and excused myself from the party. The baskets of krill continued to roll in morning after morning and it was obvious this was a big business here.
The food at Paradise was great and besides the routine offerings of eggs or pancakes for breakfast the meals varied and the western meal focus was a nice change after the last three months in Asia.
Everyday we met with the other ten or twelve hotel guests at breakfast and passed the time together lazing about the white sand beach or bobbing in the sea.
The small staff at Paradise did a great job keeping the beach clean but I can’t say the same for the stretch of beach just a few hundred meters further up.
Jenn and I took a few walks just only a few minutes up the beach from Paradise and couldn’t believe our eyes.
There is a small town just a few hundred meters up from Paradise resort and in front of the town the beach looked like a war zone.
Every imaginable piece of garbage was littered amongst the white sand beach. A place of beauty completely abused and a disgusting reminder of mankinds lack of respect for mother nature and planet earth. There must have been years worth of trash piling up on the beach and we couldn’t believe our eyes.
In retrospect we shouldn’t have been so surprised because Vietnam has been anything but a clean country leading to this. I think we were just sad to see such beauty destroyed and I couldn’t believe that the people were ok with this. When I returned I asked Vladimir about all the garbage and he told me that it comes with the tides from the north as far away as China. Not sure I bought that explanation after I’d already seen the way the Vietnamese treat their lands like a garbage dump.
After a very relaxing week and with full bellies we retraced our steps back to Nha Trang to catch another cheap Air Asia flight back to Ho Chi Minh city where we will end our time in Vietnam.
With a nasty 2:10am flight out of Nha Trang we had plenty of time to eat a few bowls of pho soup before catching the forty minute taxi ride to the Nha Trang airport.
The short one hour flight landed us in to HCM city just after 3am and there was now way I was venturing out into the dark unknown HCM streets at that time of night. We weren’t the only ones staying put and the airport was quite busy considering it was 3am. With no other choice we joined the masses and claimed our place on the dirty hard airport floor in attempt to catch a few hours sleep before sunrise.
The sun finally shined thru the airport windows and I lifted my sore stiff body off of the hard marble floor. With only one quick night to kill before leaving for Malaysia tomorrow morning we wanted to grab an affordable and convenient hotel near to the airport. Again the maps.me app saves the day and we locate a group of hotels only a kilometre or two away. On foot we go and arrive at a decent looking hotel by 7am. A long negotiation process occurs when the desk boy tells us that we have to pay for two nights if I want to come in and sleep now. After some serious haggling we get the room down to a night and a half. Completely bagged form the overnight travel and cold airport floor we barely just manage the strength to shower before jumping into bed sleeping most of the day away.
Following day it’s back to the airport early in the morning. I was ready for some issues today as I slid my passport over the counter to the air asia ticket collector and instantly she recognized my fear. Sir she said we have a problem, it looks like you have overstayed your visa by one day. Now she was right but we had done this on a calculated risk decision. We could have flown out on an earlier day but the flights were twice as much to Malaysia then todays price.
We had done some research before arriving here today and found out that a fine of $30cdn/day is charged for up to a three day visa overstay. Supposing the border official wasn’t corrupt we would simply pay and be on our way. The ticket woman escorted me over to the immigration line and a stern faced official took our passports over to a desk with more official looking men to inspect. Then men pointed at us as they spoke and a few minutes later the man returned with the passports and told us to go. We did just that with a grateful smile and proceeded to the immigration exit desk. When our turn came Jenn and I approached the window together and handed the immigration official our passports. The man thumbed thru our passports and then sharply said “big problem”. He then proceeded to tell me that I had over stayed my visa and that I would have to pay a fine. Fortunately we were still in eyesight of the other officials that had already given us the green light so I kindly pointed to the men and told him it was no big problem. Again he said big problem and again I pointed to his comrades and told him no problem. With a snuff and a flick of his stamp we were legally allowed to leave Vietnam with my $30 in hand. We jumped our flight leaving Vietnam behind on route to Malaysia. We had planned a two month trip around Vietnam working north to south and after just 31 days we were moving along. We weren’t leaving Vietnam early because we didn’t enjoy the country we just never found anything really to fall in love with and maybe we had higher expectations for the countries beautiful beaches. There are certainly places we enjoyed in Vietnam but the amount of garbage was hard to overlook. It was cheap to travel about here and I would not hesitate to recommend future travellers visit Vietnam and explore it for yourself. Enough about that… Lets see what’s happening in Malaysia!!…..