Canyons, a Crazy House, and Croissants

Dalat, Vietnam:

Greetings from the Future!

Our adventure in Vietnam during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon continues. As we were only able to book one night in a hotel in Hoi An, an abbreviated visit to this beach town eventually passed as there were absolutely no other hotels within 100 miles (I canvassed the city, I called people, I scoured the internet … nada), so we lit off for the Central Highlands. The French colonizers of Vietnam seem to have had the right idea about dealing with the climate: set up numerous, quaint, hill stations within access to the hotter lowland cities in order to get some respite from the oppressive heat. Dalat is one such place wherein the French built a hill station (See also our earlier trip to Sapa). The weather is mild, there are hills, colonial architecture … they grow strawberries … they make wine with said strawberries. It is gorgeous.

After hopping off the sleeper bus in Dalat , we went directly to the hotel I had booked. Despite booking a room and paying a deposit, we were out of luck. Keeping in mind that we went through a similar song-and-dance in Hoi An before hopping on a 20-hour bus ride, I reacted with some understandable ire. Four letter words and praise of the decisions of Robert Macnamera were employed along with much chest pounding. Things cooled in the conversation when I explained to the in-keeper that I would be keeping their family awake all night by drinking beer and eating soup in their den. While I was busy venting testosterone to non-English speakers, Maria found other lodging at “Backpacker’s Paradise,” which is run by a bunch of saints who agreed to give Maria a bed in their dorm and give me a cot on the floor. We were then bumped up to a private room the next night!

In all fairness to the hotel that reneged on our reservation, some people are born insufferable jerks who lie and steal as a matter of course.

That said, we bounced back and had a great time here!

After all of that excitement, what is there to do in Dalat?

Outdoor Stuff:

Vietnam’s healthy tourism circuit has numerous well-established locations for specific purposes: Hanoi is the capital and where you dodge mopeds and wave at McCain’s flight suit; you can check out the caves in Phong Nha, hill tribes in Sapa, the old capital in Hue with a “Forbidden City”, and you can buy yourself a cheap suit in Hoi An. Dalat is the outdoor recreation mecca of Vietnam. Numerous outfitters catering to the banana pancake eating, backpacker set are available for mountain biking, rafting, trekking to local villages, rock climbing, and canyoning.

Maria and I went with Highland Sport Travel on a canyoning trip. Part rappelling, part rock climbing, part whatever you call that thing where you jump off a cliff and swim around … this was tons of fun.

Highland Sport Travel’s guides exuded professionalism and inspired confidence among the wholly foreign group we were with. The idea of convincing people, in a second language, of the fact that, “hey … all this equipment works, and also you need to listen to my commands to stay safe,” seemed a daunting task but was handled perfectly. Most of the guides had studied English in college and all were attentive to the guests. The trip was a blast and the guides did a great job, even dedicating an additional guide to helping a 10-year-old German girl through some of the more interesting aspects of the trip. (That last sentence might make this trip seem decidedly less hardcore, but I should mention that this was an unusually brave 10-year-old whose father declined to jump off a cliff that his daughter hopped off. I’m imagining there was some awkward dinner conversation that followed in that family.)

We jumped off cliffs, rappelled down waterfalls, and generally had a great day. The entire trip — which took all day, included van transport to and from the canyon, a full lunch, and two guides per our eight person group — cost $25 per person.

Baked Goods: 

The French left the people of Indochina with a bizarre legacy. You can find western toilets with these little spray-hose bidets attached in fairly rural bathrooms across the region. All of the countries of Indochina, as if in a middle finger to their previous colonizers, are communist (Cambodia has elections but the last time the Communist Party lost there was a violent coup, which assured that their Prime Minister, who has been in power since the late 80s, remained in power). Oh …and the baked goods.

While baguettes are on offer throughout Vietnam, I was suspect of cakes, cupcakes, and other desserts. Maria and I found an enormous bakery in downtown Dalat called Lien Hoa. For less than $5, we purchased enough cupcakes and chocolate filled products to give a small elephant diabetes. I’m not talking a dozen doughnuts. I’m talking, “let’s skip breakfast tomorrow,” kind of eating. It was glorious.

Dalat’s Crazy House:

Imagine, if you will, Pee Wee’s Playhouse during construction. A weird, mishmash of a tree-fort, cartoon imagery brought to life, and exposed rebar from walls where, most likely, the whole thing will be expanded. You can get lost here, and I’m sure you could fall and die here if you wandered around in the dark. The “Crazy House” is the design of Dang Viet Nga, a Russian educated, Vietnamese architect, whose designs have previously been destroyed for being interpreted as conveying anti-communist ideals. Interestingly, Dang Viet Nga’s father was Ho Chi Minh’s successor, which allowed for some liberal skirting of the rules with regards to building codes. It costs about two dollars to visit and is well worth a walk through.

Check out our photos from the activities mentioned above, as well as some pics from a hot-pot dinner out with some friends we made at Backpacker’s Paradise, including two Canadians, a New Zealander, a Finnish guy, an Argentine, and a Brazilian:

The Beaches of Vietnam

Greetings from the future!

After exploring the caves of Phong Nha, Chris and I were looking to do a bit of relaxing above ground. For this we headed to our next two destinations where some of the best beaches in Vietnam awaited: Hue and Hoi An.

The city of Hue (pronounced Hway) holds great historical significance in Vietnam. It served as the former capital under the Nguyen Dynasty Empire, the last dynasty in Vietnam, from 1802-1945. This time period overlapped with the French occupation of Vietnam (1858-1954). Though the French retained the Nguyen Empire, the French controlled the throne during this time. This changed in 1945 when Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist movement declared Vietnam’s independence and the last emperor abdicated the throne. This marked the beginning of Vietnam’s war with France, which lasted from 1945-1954.

The French pulled out of Vietnam in 1954 and the war came to an end with the signing of a peace treaty, called the Geneva Accord, the terms of which divided the country into two: North and South. The peacetime didn’t last long for Vietnam, as fighting between the South and North soon broke out. The U.S. sent advisors to aid the anti-communist South in their fight against the communist North, and this then segued into sending U.S. troops beginning in 1964, which marked the start of what is called the American War here in Vietnam as opposed to what we refer to as the Vietnam War back home. Hue’s location in the middle of Vietnam, between North and South, made it the city closest to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during the war.

Those last two paragraphs allude to a dense and complicated period of history, which, quite obviously, very much involved the U.S. Being of the post-Vietnam war generation, my schooling didn’t cover this piece of U.S. history in great detail. Most of my generation’s understanding of the Vietnam War likely either comes from family members that were involved or movies, e.g. Forrest Gump, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, etc. I believe Chris aims to unpack this history in a later post, but for now if you want to read more about key events in Vietnam’s modern history, I’ll refer you to this simplified timeline from the BBC.

Bottom line, there is a lot of historical sight seeing to be done in Hue. Chris and I planned on partaking in extensive historical tourism while in Ho Chi Minh City, so we focused our stay in Hue more on leisure. After all, we’d been traveling for a month and a half and had yet to hit a beach. I was craving some serious beach time, and for that, Hue delivered.

The beach is about 10 miles from downtown Hue, where we were staying. In fact, many backpackers don’t even realize there is a beach in Hue and wrongly deem Hue a rather dull town. We had been advised by travelers we met in Phong Nha that Hue had a beautiful beach, and we are grateful for the tip.

We arrived to our hotel in Hue in the morning. We ate a quick breakfast and set about figuring out how to traverse these 10 miles. First, we attempted to make the trip on bicycles, but the bicycles available to rent were too small for Chris, a re-occurring problem for him in this part of the world. At this point, we decided to do it the Southeast Asia way: by motorbike.

This marked the first time we rented a motorbike on our trip. It’s a common affair for backpackers in Southeast Asia. You need only do a quick survey of backpackers to notice the distinguishing mark of a muffler burn on the calves of many (get off the bike from the left side!). There are both manual and automatic bikes available; we opted for an automatic. With helmets fastened and fuel in the tank — fuel is obtained from roadside stands where gasoline is stored in soda bottles — we embarked for the beach!

After two wrong turns and several attempts to ask for directions to the beach — picture Chris and me wildly gesticulating different swimming strokes — we got set on the right path. [Side note: when Vietnamese people don’t know how to help you or don’t know what you’re talking about, they do this hand gesture where they shake their extended and open hand from side to side, somewhat like the hand gesture we would use to indicate if something was just “so so.” From our interpretation this gesture can mean either simply “I don’t know” or “I can’t help” or when paired with an expression of irritation verging on anger, “Leave me the hell alone,” and “Why are you addressing me in English, we speak Vietnamese here, idiot.”]

After about 20 minutes, we arrived to a private beach called, “Beach Bar Hue,” which was associated with a hotel and bar with the same name. [Another side note: On our way to the beach, we passed by a cemetery, which at first I didn’t recognize as a cemetery because of the brightly colored temple-like shrines that serve as grave markers — much different from the muted gray and black gravestones that fill our cemeteries back home.] We had to pay the equivalent of $5 to access the beach, for which we received a voucher for the same amount, which could be used for food or drink; it was a good deal and permitted entrance to a beautiful and quiet beach without too many people. We spent two days at the beach and would return to the city in the evening where we had the option of quaint cafes, a single late-night bar called “Brown Eyes” and ample street food options.

It was while in Hue that we gradually noticed the celebratory decorations adorning the city center and growing crowds of domestic tourists. Even more apparent to us were the rise in prices of accommodations and motorbike rentals. Our hotel staff alerted us that a holiday was approaching; it would last a week. What was the holiday celebrating, we asked in ignorance. The staff awkwardly danced around this question …

As it turned out, we unknowingly stumbled upon the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Americans, the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam … oh that holiday.

Traveling in Vietnam as an American brings with it some mixed feelings … a heightened sense of national awareness, remorse for something that happened before I was born, and admiration for hardships overcome. Tourism is the backbone of Vietnam’s economy, and people are nothing but nice and accommodating to American tourists. Still, it’s hard to overlook the myriad reasons the Vietnamese have to be less than welcoming to us Americans. Sure, the war is in past … but is it? Landmines and unexploded ordinances (UXOs) continue to kill and injure people everyday — not just in Vietnam, but in Cambodia and Laos as well. The aftermath of Agent Orange continues to plague the Southern Vietnamese. I’ll write more on this when we get to Ho Chi Minh City, but for now I’ll say that traveling during the anniversary heightened this awareness.

On the practical side of things, it made booking travel and accommodations extremely challenging. For instance, twice we showed up to a hotel where we had a reservation and they had just simply given our room away, no problem. As was the case when we arrived in Hoi An. This was a low point.

We arrived to our guesthouse to find two British couples already in a heated argument with the staff, and soon discovered we’d all suffered the same fate: reservations but no rooms. Luckily, all six of us were able to find lodging at a brand new hotel with rates way cheaper than they could have charged since they had just opened for business that very day, so things worked out in the end.

It’s worth noting that the garment industry is a big tourist draw in Hoi An. For a comparatively cheap price to what you’d pay back home, you can choose your own fabric and materials and get suits, dresses, shoes and accessories made. Though we thought about doing this, we ultimately decided we didn’t want to get something nice made only to stuff it in our packs and travel with it for the next two months. You can also ship things home, but it sounded like too much of a hassle. It should also be noted that there are other great beach spots in Vietnam, including Nha Trang and Phu Quoc Island, but we skipped out on those because there is only so much you can see and do when traveling. Besides, other great beaches in Cambodia and Thailand still await, so all in good time!

One last thing before I go for now — I want to sing the praises of a cafe called Fusion in Hoi An. It featured a menu that seemed made for me. I had a green juice (cucumber, celery, ginger, spinach and cayenne pepper) and a watercress salad with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and mango. I felt right at home.

Here are our photos from Hue and Hoi An: