Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dalat DIY.

We took a Phuong Trang sleeper bus from Ho Chi Minh city to Dalat. It was weird. The seats were definitely not designed for long-legged Westerners, which we expected.  They also weren't designed for anyone who didn't want to be in a reclined position for six straight hours (maybe okay for a night bus; this one left at 10:30am).

but other than those things,
it was fine for Mr Smarty Pants and me

Dalat was easy - fewer people, much smaller, lots of mountains, not as hot and humid. There's a big market where we bought some delicious dried fruits, and the main strip has a carnival-like atmosphere at night (lots of neon, food carts, retail stalls).

yeah... we didn't spend much time here

It's also heavily French-influenced with lots of greenery and pretty gardens, particularly the ones near the man-made lake near the center of town.

most of the flowers sold
in this area of the country
are grown in Dalat

(it was also the first place where Vietnamese tourists
giggled and wanted to take photos with us)

the lake actually wasn't very clean
but it was kinda pretty

Dalat is where many Vietnamese couples go on their honeymoon, so the accommodations and food are great and there are lots of scenic side trips you can take. We opted for three side trips by local bus instead of minibus tours or the popular-but-now-pricey Easy Riders (a local motorcycle club fluent in English who organize tours up and down Vietnam). Thanks to the magic of the internet and a few really helpful local folks, we had no issues doing these trips ourselves and we saved a ton of money.

First up was Datanla Falls. At first glance it's pretty ridiculous. There's a bobsled ride, a cable car, a huge restaurant, a bunch of souvenir shops, and a costumed guy (we couldn't really figure out what he was supposed to be) for all your photo op needs.

oh, and there's a giant plastic tiger
about to be eaten by an eagle

But it only cost 10,000 dong (~$0.50) each to get in, and it was just a 5km walk from town, so we checked it out. The canyon, creek and falls are quite pretty... well, what we saw of the falls, anyway. There are several ticket areas along the walk and we only paid to see the first three sets of falls.

but they were all nice

the Vietnam we expected to see

The walk to Datanla Falls was a bit hairy at times. Parts of the two-laned windy mountain road had no shoulder; trucks and motorbikes barreled past us, passing and honking at each other and there were moments when we were pretty sure walking had been a terrible decision. Just moments though - for the most part it was really fine. We made it there and back a little dusty and grimy, but otherwise scratch-free... and we slept really well that night.

With one success under our belts, the next day we headed for Elephant Falls (Thác Voi). According to internet posts this was an easy hour's bus ride from town. Local buses in Dalat are sometimes numbered and usually have the names of major towns on the bus, so we just had to find the #5/"Nam Bam" bus. The lady at the coffee shop confirmed the bus stop location and the bus guy confirmed our destination (thanks, hand scribbled note!) and also waved us off at the correct stop. Only 10,000 dong (~$0.50) combined to enter...

easy peasy

up close and personal with Elephant Falls

Though they can sometimes take lots of time to plan, and they can be mildly stressful too, one of the best things about DIY day trips is being able to stay as little or as long as you want. We watched a couple dozen tourists come and go while we lounged around, ate lunch, and took a billion dragonfly photos.

half an hour...

... just to get this

Elephant Falls in dry season was equivalent to Tunnel Falls (PDX) in the spring - it's much wider but about the same amount of water. The volume crashing over that edge in rainy season must be astounding.

Anyway, getting back from Elephant Falls was cake too.

yay us

Our mission for DIY day #3 was to conquer Lang Biang mountain.

really, it was - see?

Another really helpful internet post said to catch the "Lac Duong" bus from the same central stop as the day before and go about 20 minutes to the end of the line. Our hotel owner confirmed this, and armed again with a handwritten note with our destination, we made it there and back just fine.

Like Datanla Falls, the main part of Lang Biang costs 10,000 dong (~$0.50) to enter and it's also a bit ridiculous (there are horses painted with zebra stripes for all your photo op needs). Most people just hire a park jeep to get to a lookout point, turn around, and come back down. We opted to walk 2km up the windy road to the trailhead, pay another 20,000 dong each (~$1), and hike 2km up to the mountain peak.

we think we made the right choice,
don't you?

The first part of the hike was all pine trees; suddenly it turned to jungle and we were surrounded by amazing bush and lush trees and ferns. It was awesome.

except these stairs - 150 meters
of these stairs in that heat
was NOT awesome

hazy, hot and humid at the top

This was by far one of the cleaner parks we'd visited over the last few months. Still, we did our part by collecting two bags of trash on the way out. (Why is it so hard to just put a candy wrapper in your pocket? Seriously?!)

old habits die hard

Back in Dalat we stopped by the Crazy House but didn't go inside, and we couldn't find the pagoda. Otherwise, we enjoyed our time in and around town and we'd definitely recommend Dalat as a side trip from HCMC if one has the time.

Food notes:
  • these dried rose flower things were amazing (so were the persimmons, not pictured)
hope we can find them again
  • we finally learned how to say "vegetarian" in Vietnamese
it looks like this

and like this
  • the pastries at Lien Hoa were really, really great... and some of them were a bit outrageous too
like this bacon-wrapped goodness

and this chicken leg pastry
  • and all the pho and com (rice) and bun/mi (noodle) dishes we otherwise ate were delicious too!
like this one

Lodging notes: Hai Long Vuong was excellent! Funny, helpful owners; big spacious clean rooms; a good TV with National Geographic so that Patrick could watch the new Cosmos; and just $10 total per night... really, what more could you ask for?

another fine 2-star hotel

Next up: the coffee capital of Vietnam - Buon Ma Thuot! This leg of the trip just keeps getting better and better...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Friday five: Touring the Mekong Delta.

We went the easy route and booked a two-day Mekong Delta tour through our guest house. TNK Travel knows what tourists want; unfortunately what tourists want isn't usually what we want and in hindsight we would've done more research and found a tour more our style... or just done it ourselves.

It was still fun, though, and we learned a lot about life in the Delta and in Vietnam in general, including these five things in no particular order:

1. There aren't many formal cemeteries, at least in this part of the country. Back in the day there were no land titles so people buried their deceased on the property in order to claim it. Tombs are arranged in a feng shui design to bring luck and prosperity to the home.

tombs on properties along the road

feng shui at our lunch spot

2. Fruit in the Delta is delicious!

sample 1

sample 2

we bought a nearly-eight-foot bunch

3. Floating markets are a way of life in this part of the country. We went to the "wholesale" floating markets rather than the "retail" floating markets but even the "wholesale" area was pretty amazing. Boats carrying heaps of sweet potato, watermelon, taro root, greens, whatever was in abundance would roll up to other boats to sell or exchange products.

stilt houses along the river



It was definitely weird being on a tourist boat watching people go about their daily lives. I'm not sure how we could've made this a more personal experience, though, and it was really cool to witness.

4. Coffee shops along the highways have hammocks because it's a great way to draw in business. Remember all those motorbikes? Riding hunched over like that for an hour or more, especially on such bumpy roads, tires you out. What better way to refresh than a cup of coffee and a nice stretch in a hammock?

hey Portland biker crowd -
get on this, will ya?

and get on this too while you're at it...

5. Rice noodles are made the old-fashioned way here. Rice paste is mixed with tapioca and a few other key ingredients, spread like a very thin crepe, steamed briefly, then left in the sun to dry.

rows and rows of future rice noodles

Then the "rice crepes" are hand-cranked through a machine that slices them into noodles.

slicing, no dicing

Yep, the tour was touristy but we learned enough to make it worthwhile. Honestly, it was nice just to have someone else doing the planning. It gives us more time to sit back and just enjoy simple things...

like the full moon over the Mekong Delta

and delicious pork buns

and the sunrise in Can Tho

Food notes:

  • A few meals were covered by the tour. The first day's lunch was very typical of what the locals eat.
pork, egg, rice, greens -
simple and delicious

  • We stayed overnight in Can Tho which had a surprising number of food options. In addition to the aforementioned pork buns we finally bought some fruit...

lychees at last

the lady said it was like watermelon,
but we think she meant cantaloupe

  • Can Tho has an entire street lined with food carts at night and it was difficult to decide what to eat. We ended up going with rice pancakes at the most crowded cart figuring the locals were on to something. We were right.
  • There's no shortage of street stalls either. While the rest of our group dined on overpriced restaurant food we enjoyed a nice lunch watching Can Tho go by.
lunching with the locals

Lodging notes: the tour included a night at Huy Hoang in Can Tho. Not a place we would've chosen (or would recommend) but a simple breakfast was included and it was just a short walk to the waterfront. And someone else took care of all the booking logistics.

Next up: Dalat! All we know is that it's quirky and artsy, and near pretty waterfalls and hiking, and there's a big body of water in the middle of the city. Sounds familiar...

Hello, continent number four and Ho Chi Minh City!

Our flight left Madrid on a Tuesday at 11am, stopped over in Moscow for an hour or so...

"we can see Russia!"
(been waiting two months to post this photo)

... and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Wednesday around 10am. We barely slept on the second leg of our flight and between no rest and hot, humid weather in HCMC we were glad to have pre-arranged (somewhat pricey but much appreciated) airport pickup to our guest house.

The taxi ride was the perfect intro to the city. Car horns blaring, motorbikes galore, pedestrians weaving through traffic - at first I thought it was jetlag that made traffic seem to function so smoothly, but the "organized chaos" persisted as we later became the pedestrians weaving through traffic. Crossing the street was never really stressful. It just required attention and patience.

motor(bike) city

Once we got out and started to explore, we noticed a weird familiarity. Maybe because the narrow streets reminded us of the Moroccan medinas where we'd recently spent so much time? Maybe because we spent so much time in Asian neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland, maybe because we already loved Vietnamese food, maybe because everyone was so friendly and nice? Whatever the reason, we really enjoyed our time in HCMC.

Day One was acclimation. We mostly stayed in District One (Pham Ngu Lao), the tourist neighborhood conveniently located near everything you could possibly want or need.

food stands at the market
where absolutely everything else
is for sale too

first authentic Vietnamese lunch

group aerobics in the park
(they really get into this, it was fun to watch)

Day Two was tourist day. Our most important missions were coffee and pho.

success #1

(This coffee was enjoyed at Soza Cafe in the tourist area, "established for the purpose of helping disadvantaged Vietnamese break the cycle of debt, find employment and start a new life... all profits are used for training, education and facilitation of more jobs for willing workers." There are lots of these places in tourist towns; our guest house also donated unwanted clothing to families in the Mekong Delta. Unfortunately they probably wouldn't have wanted our legwarmers and long sleeved fleece/work t-shirts which we were dying to shed!)

success #2

We visited the War Rembrance Museum to see the other side's take on the "American" war, as they call it here. Outside there were several US army planes and helicopters (strange photo ops if you ask us) and a few exhibits on the tiger cages and prisoner holding cells. Inside featured lots of information about the war and memorabilia from countries protesting America's involvement in the war, as well as displays of acclaimed war photographers and the impacts of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. It was definitely interesting to see the other side's view, but mostly it raised a lot of questions that reinforced how little we actually know about the Vietnam war. We absorbed as much as we could in the two short hours we had, made a mental note to find an unbiased book or five on the subject, and moved on.

Skipping the water puppet show and the Presidential Palace, we walked by the Cathedral and famous Post Office on our way to the Saigon river.

that's when we found these
(Bánh Tráng Nướng -
a local saw us eyeing them, smiled,
and said "you should try them"

being a tourist is hard work

The riverbank is actually quite pretty, at least it was in the early evening. We walked the long path down to the pedestrian bridge, admired the view, found some dinner, and called it a day.

tree reflection aht

pretty decent dinner at 404 Truong Son BBQ
(yes, it's a motorbike parking garage too -
EVERYTHING doubles as motorbike parking in HCMC)

Day Three we ventured to Cholon, a short local bus ride from the tourist area, to see Ho Chi Minh's Chinatown.

¿dónde estamos?

We sat in a park for a while to get our bearings and started to wander but it was so, so hot, and so overwhelmingly big and we had no map, so we found the main market, awkwardly ordered lunch from a non-English-speaking family (which turned out to be wonderful)...

behold the magic of
pointing, nodding, and smiling

... and headed back to rest. Or so we thought. On the way to our guest house we ran into a group of Vietnamese university students looking to practice their English. We ended up chatting with them for almost an hour about all kinds of things - the legal driving age in the US, how conical hats are made, growing hops, the meaning of Jen's ankle tattoo, travel tips and street food in Saigon, even brief discussions on Martin Luther King, Jr and the benefits of democracy vs communism. Super-nice kids who were surprisingly fluent in English considering they'd only been studying a few years.

they were pretty funny too

Food notes:
  • pho! breakfast, lunch, dinner - it was all delicious
  • and when we didn't eat pho we ate noodle or rice dishes
just $1.50 each at the cafe across from our guest house
  • or Bánh Tráng Nướng (a.k.a. rice tacos, pictured above)
  • and lots of coffee, coffee, coffee
  • oh, and ABC Bakery & Cafe
we would return there a few times

Lodging notes: Ngoc Thao Guest House was terrific. Really nice and helpful staff, conveniently located, our own private room for pretty cheap, free instant coffee that was worlds better than Nescafe.

if this is a 1-star hotel,
we're sold

We skipped the nearby Cu Chi tunnels after reading that the tunnels had been widened "to accommodate western tourists". Sad. But Days Four and Five we visited the Mekong Delta, which is a story for another post.

Suffice to say we were pleasantly surprised with the ease of Ho Chi Minh City, and we are really looking forward to seeing what else this beautiful country has to offer!