The Nha Trang Sleeper

We had finished all of our Christmas shopping and our last day in Hoi An consisted of shipping everything home and waiting to depart.

We decided to take a sleeper bus to Nha Trang. And no, we didn’t know what this was, but for $9 each, it seemed worthwhile.

Looking back, it was without a doubt my worst sleep of the trip.

Beyond the short, uncomfortable beds with the backs at a 45 degree angle and extremely limited storage space, which meant I slept with both my camera and daypack (so they wouldn’t be stolen of course), they played some sort of Asian pop music the entire night. I forgot I was even wearing earplugs because they didn’t help.

Uncomfortable and loud. No more than a half hour sleep.

We arrived in the beach city of Nha Trang at around 6 a.m. We found our hotel and by 7 a.m. we were asleep.

As for the rest of Nha Trang, well, I’ll describe it as such:

– Coconut milk out of coconut beside the beach
– Rain, postcards
– Swimming in the South China Sea
– Buckets and jars
– A late morning
– Delicious pasta saves the day
– Swimming again
– Reading, relaxing and an unexpected shopping trip
– Packing; anxious and excited for our upcoming motorcycle trip.

I’d like to buy a suit

 

Street food in Hoi An, Vietnam. Lunch consisted of grilled meat that you would then roll into rice paper with cucumbers and lettuce. The meat was brushed with a coconut curry. So good.

“Hellooooo! Where you from?”

Such was the call that greeted us the moment we stepped out of our hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam first thing in the morning.

We came the day before, taking the bus from Hue. Drove past China Beach. Envision streets full of green U.S. army jeeps, marching soldiers.

We arrive in the late afternoon, take a cab, check in and sit out on our balcony staring at houses with red clay tile roofs, walls of blue and yellow. The sun set by 530 and we went for a walk in the quiet night. The streets were well lit and, surprisingly, closed to motos. Their sound is replaced by classical music played over loudspeakers.

Walking through Hoi An we are astounded by the sheer number of tailor shops, each full of mannequins wearing modern and elegant fashion attire. Piles and piles of fabric sit inside.

We go for dinner and order shrimp that is baked inside a coconut. We add some vegetables and a type of light shrimp dumpling. The meal is one of our best of the trip. We would return here days later for Thanksgiving adding some spare ribs and a bottle of wine as a treat.

After dinner on our first night we walk back to our hotel. Sara spots a suit style she likes. She quickly tries it on. It looks perfect.

Returning to the introduction, after finishing a breakfast of pineapple pancakes with chocolate sauce and thick Vietnamese coffee, we face the day. The quiet Hoi An of the night before is replaced with shopkeepers calling for us whether we show interest in their wares or not.

We briefly browse then head to the suit shop from the night before. Two or three hours later and I’ve ordered a full suit, a jacket and two dress shirts. I can’t remember what Sara ordered.

We then walk to a shoe store and order tailor-made shoes. All for a cost far lower than anything back home.

Lunch at delicious Café 96 where we eat papaya salad and spring rolls and decide to take a cooking class the next day.

The next two days would be shopping, bargaining, drinking fresh fruit juices and mixed shakes. Our clothes were ready to be tried on 24 hours after we sized up and our shoes were completely finished, although I really didn’t like the colour of mine too much in the end.

Sara in the shopping hub of Vietnam. Beyond the tailor-made clothes we managed to finish most of our Christmas shopping. Hopefully it arrives in time...

Throughout the first three days in Hoi An, the weather was absolutely stunning. Super hot and blue skies, moon and stars at night.

Yet, such things are fickle as many store owners in this town know only too well.

We ended night three back at Café 96 where we came for a cooking class. In Vietnam it seems a family restaurant really is a family restaurant. Bup, the friendly owner took us through the steps of preparing spring rolls, prawn papaya salad, grilled spicy eggplant and seasoned fish wrapped in banana leaf.

As I was cutting and chopping, his three-year-old daughter stood beside me, watching intensely, yelling continuously.

“Do you want to see where the fish is baked? Go outside and to the right,” said Bup.

Sure enough, there’s grandpa grilling the fish over an open flame in a barrel.

The meal was amazing and he gave us the recipes to take home. I would definitely recommend Café 96 as a fun and inexpensive cooking lesson in Hoi An.

Nine members of Bup’s family worked in Café 96. He lived in the second floor of the building. Almost every fall they were usually forced to shut down the restaurant as Hoi An’s notorious floods had a nasty habit of filling the entire downtown with water. Bup’s restaurant has a marker on the wall over six feet high from the water level in 2009.

On our fourth day in Hoi An, we decided to book a tour to the My Son Chumpa temples about an hour and a half north of the city. A bus there and a delightful boat ride back.

Unfortunately, it rained. Although dressed for the weather, we were still pretty soggy. The temples were neat to walk around, however it was sad to learn many were destroyed by American bombing. Some statues had bullet-sized dimples scattered throughout. What a shame.

The intense rain had knocked out the power for most of the afternoon in Hoi An. We sat in our room reading, heading out twice in the downpour to pick up suits and go for a delicious Thanksgiving meal.

With the power back on we called our families for Thanksgiving. This ended at 2 a.m. when the hotel’s power went out and our room went black.

Hue biking fun!

A dragon guards a doorway at the citadel in Hue, Vietnam.

Hue, Vietnam is advertised as an old city with old walls and a citadel that dates back to 1804.

We arrived here via the overnight train from Hanoi – about 15 hours – and after checking in and eating some pho, we rent bikes and explore the city.

We take a loop around the walls of the citadel and go into what was described as a forbidden city inside. After seeing the Forbidden City in Beijing, this place was somewhat underwhelming. Much of it was destroyed by the Americans and they still appear to be taking their time to put it together. At the same time, fragments of buildings and foundations make the mind wander and I find myself curious about what stood here before.

We walk around here for a bit and enjoy vegetation that seems to get bigger and thicker the further south we go. We see an elephant chained by the foot. Apparently he gives rides around the citadel. I hope he’s alright, but he’s clearly agitated.

It’s getting later in the afternoon and we pick up our bikes and head off to the Thien Mu Pagoda about four kilometres away. I feel my bike ride getting more and more difficult. Maybe it was always like this and I’m just tired.

We get to the pagoda, park our bikes and hike up about 40 steep steps. It’s quite pretty and one of the nicer pagodas I’ve seen thus far. Behind it is a courtyard that leads to a Buddist temple. A loud drum echoes as incense burns in a cauldron.

We remove our shoes and enter the shrine to Budda, who, I must add, is increasingly becoming my favourite religious icon because he always looks so peaceful and happy.

A boy younger than 10 dressed in a light blue robe walks in and clangs a large metal bell with a wooden stick. Soon enough, a dozen others are in the room kneeling on the ground, singing, banging drums and ringing bells. The sound is sweet like the incense smoke that seems to hang in the air.

Eventually, we find our bikes and head back. Yes, my biking feels really arduous now and I hear a clanging sound from behind me. I call back at Sara as I’m biking and she says my tire looks pretty flat. I hope to make it across a nearby bridge and from there I plan to walk back.

I turn on a small roadway to head on the bridge and find that rather than a road it’s more of a narrow lane with enough room for a single bike. It’s too late to turn around.

The bridge is made of long metal slabs with a six-inch empty spaces between them. My back tire clicks and scrapes on the metal and I fear it sliding and getting stuck in each empty space. Getting off and walking my bike is not an option as the honking from the long line of motorbikes behind me would get even worse. Besides, there’s no room to walk my bike anyway.

It takes 10 minutes to get across and I decide to walk from here on. It seems like we’re going around in circles, somehow slightly lost in this small city. We stop to look at a map and there beside me in a small, dark, grease-covered shack is a man fixing bikes.

I point to my tire and he immediately pulls it off, finds the hole in the tube and patches it up in under three minutes. He asks for 10,000 dong or around 50 cents.

During this time, Sara’s figured out the map and we’re pointed in the right direction as hundreds of rush hour motorbikes fly past. Finally, after an intensive bike ride home, we find our hotel and return our bikes.

We tell the lady at the hotel that my tire was flat and I had to go and get it fixed. She shrugs her shoulders and asks if we want to book our next bus trip with her.

“No,” we say and leave, booking our ticket to Hoi An at an agency 10 metres away.

Hello Hanoi

Standing at a crosswalk in the Vietnamese capital. Feet on crumbled cement with an ugly broken hole nearby that could leave a broken ankle. Smells of exhaust mixed with street meat cooking on a fire and the other city scents that seem to draw rats at night. Sounds of hawkers selling, selling, selling. And, of course, incessant honking and motorbikes, constant motorbikes whizzing past.

There’s not always a light that shines to tell you to walk and no red light to halt the traffic. So what do you do? Look for a brief opening on your side of the street and Just Walk. Do not stop. Let the bikes anticipate where you’re going and they will drive around you.

It’s a bit of a nerve wracking experience at the start, but it really is all you can do if you want to get across the street in Hanoi. For a first time visitor it’s chaotic, far busier than any of the cities I had been to in China. But at the same time, Hanoi feels full of life. Narrow streets, speeding motos, hawkers, tourists, locals selling fruits and grilled snails all compacted together. Vibrant and exciting.

Amidst the noise there are some great ways to appreciate the culture.

1.) The Bia Hoi: Sit down on a plastic chair a foot high and enjoy the show. Draft beer costs roughly 25 cents a glass. A couple notes, you will be constantly sold too and if the police come, immediately get your chair off the street and on the sidewalk or bad things may happen.

2.) Cafes: The French colonisation was truly a Bad Thing for Vietnam, but there are a few positives that the French left on the culture. Most notably some fantastic cafes, bagettes and a love of good coffee. Sitting in a courtyard with coffee and coconut ice cream. Perfect.

3.) History: Vietnamese history is complicated and there are many ugly parts. Much of it is documented at the so-called Hanoi Hilton or more accurately the Hoa Lo Prison. This former French prison details the treatment of Vietnamese revolutionaries who lived in brutal conditions facing disease and torture. After the fall of the French in Indochina, the North Vietnamese used it to house American POWs such as one John McCain. Looked like a pretty good time. Basketball, cards, beer, Christmas trees, volleyball. Happy times. At least, that’s what we learned.

The military history museum was also another interesting spot if you like that sort of thing. Weapons, photos, strategy planning, Dien Bien Phu, a chronicle of this country’s fascinating military history complete with captured equipment and a giant monument made from downed American planes. A touch macabre.

4.) Pho Bo: The noodle soup that feeds a nation. For a national dish, this one truly is a winner. Outside our hotel was a small booth with stools, simple tables, a giant pot of steaming broth, and a pile of beef and vegetables. All combined for a perfect bowl of pho (pronounced “faa”). Have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner or just a snack. Wonderful.

Beyond that listed above, Hanoi also is home to some pleasent temples, tasty restaurants and one of the best English bookstores I’ve been to so far in Asia.

There is an easing-in process to Vietnam, but cross the street a few times and you’ll figure things out.

Hanoi via Nanning…

(Lack of Internet access and a week off of the blog has led to a major backlog in writing. I’ll try to get caught up before I leave Vietnam, but no guarantees…)

They say it was a typhoon. I haven’t read the weather report myself, but it certainly looked and felt like one. We took a seven hour bus from Yangshuo to Nanning and mostly saw beautiful scenery drenched in rain.

We arrived in Nanning in a covered station, grabbed our bags, bought a ticket for Hanoi the next day and searched for a bus in the pouring rain. To hell with this. We took a cab although our paper map was now soaked and torrn. The driver was not impressed with Sara trying to put the clumps of paper together to form an address. But, again, it was a typhoon we walked through.

Eventually, our drenched bags and bodies made it to the hostel. Dry clothes, a mediocre supper, a lame movie on television. Bed.

Up at 6am and out at 7. Walk through the rain and get on a packed bus. Arrive at an even more packed station and, for our first time in China, there’s no English whatsoever. But this is China and helpful people point us in the right direction.

The ride was uneventful with a nerviousness of what was coming up to the south. A brief stop for lunch, one military checkpoint, 15 minutes later, the actual border.

Our bus drops us off and we take a shuttle to passport control. The Chinese side is clean and efficient. We go through, get our stamp and we’re out of China. Done.

We walk about 50 metres alone to a gate where a couple guys in uniform are chatting. They usher us through, glance at our passport as though this is what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t really care.

Vietnames passport control is not clean and efficient. It’s a counter with guards sitting behind glass and a packed cluster of angry Chinese people on the other side. One woman who spoke English told us the guards were asking for a 10Y bribe. The Chinese stick the money in their passports. One lady refused and was told there would be a one and a half hour wait plus medical checkup. Yikes.

We don’t pay and nothing is said. Instead our passport is thrown in a pile in front of a guy with his uniform unbuttoned, head back, yawning. Sara sits down with our bags. I wait at the counter. Finally, he slowly looks through and scans our passports, another guy stamps and passes back.

Brief medical check requiring us to look into some sort of camera. Baggage scan. On another shuttle (Chinese give more money) and on a bus to Hanoi.

Stunning Yangshuo

The bus ride from the rice terraces was smooth enough, meaning we got to Yangshuo without problems (but not so smooth in that I couldn’t write a legible thing in my book). We knew the hotel wasn’t far, but we couldn’t find any street names to orient us.

Sara went to look down a sidestreet and I stood looking at a map when a early-20ish guy approached me on a bike. He offered to help and he called the hotel and walked us to a place where the owner came to meet us. Again, China is oh so friendly.

As we were walking, he asked me if I knew of any Canadian universities. He said he was thinking of going to Carleton. “Carleton?!”, thinking I heard him wrong. Yes, Carleton University in Ottawa, my home for four years. Random.

Before we parted ways, I gave him my contact info and said if he ever needed help in any way in Ottawa to contact me. I would be so pleased to return the favour.

We checked into a lovely room up four long flights of stairs at the West Lily Hotel (roughly $10 a night). We then sat at a table outside at a nearby dumpling shop and enjoyed the afternoon with Liq Nature beer and pork dumplings.

Yanghuo is what I pictured Guilin to be. A pleasent town surrounded by amazing karst mountains piercing the flatlands throughout. Very pretty although parts are a little touristy.

We walked around the town and a woman approached us about a bamboo boat ride. This was the best weather we had seen yet and I knew the approachiing sunset would be perfect for photos. So we said no and walked away quickly through a market and down some steps.

As expected, she caught up to us and dropped her price to 150Y from earlier 185Y. Eventually, we settled at 100 for a two hour cruise, just the two of us on a bamboo boat with a driver. The photos do not do the trip justice.

 

Returning to Yangshuo.

Hiking the dragon’s backbone

The Longji (or Dragon's Backbone) rice terraces.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of satisfaction you get from finally setting your bags down in a room after a long hike to find your hotel. For most of our trip in China this has involved taxis and buses and looking at poorly marked maps and unmarked streets.

But at the Longji rice terraces north of Guilin, finding our hotel meant hiking up small stone steps for almost an hour before throwing our knapsacks on the floor and looking out at layer upon layer of golden rice fields surrounded by mist soaked mountains.

We had long wanted to visit these rice fields during our trip to China although we weren’t quite sure how. My friend Lonely Planet left me with the impression that they were close to Guilin, but on further inspection I learned it was close to a three hour drive.

Many tour agencies and hotels offer excursions to the rice fields, but most of these same-day trips seemed expensive and rushed. So we decided to do it ourselves.

There are a couple ways this can be done barring hiring a taxi. You can take a bus to Longsheng and transfer to Dazhai or (and this seems to be kept low key) you can take the daily 8:30 a.m. bus to Dazhai from the Guilin railway station. Always get someone to write your location down in Chinese so you can confirm with the driver.

We paid 50Y each and hopped aboard the minibus for a bumpy scenic journey. We then stopped at some sort of Chinese tourist location and a woman got on our bus asking for money. We didn’t know about this part and weren’t sure what was happening.

The guy in front of me turned around and said in perfect English, “It’s the entrance fee for the park, 80 kuai.”

Oh. Thank you.

It turns out he worked at the Canadian embassy in Beijing and was taking his parents on a holiday. Dad was wearing a bright red Canada hat with a matching red and white t-shirt. Looked pretty proud.

The next part of the drive was really windy, with the driver honking the horn at each curve, as is the custom of driving in Asia. Finally, we stop and get out. We’re surrounded by several old ladies with worn faces and baskets on ther backs asking to carry our stuff. They’re wearing brightly coloured clothes with patterns in red, black, purple, and gold. On their heads was what almost looked like a turban.

Our Chinese friend tells us they are from a minority in China in which the woman rarely cut their hair. One of the ladies, he said, hadn’t cut her hair in more than 30 years.

They look to be the same height as my great grandmother was at around 4’10. I think of this and decide to carry my own bags. After all, it can’t be too far.

We walk about 10 minutes to the first town of Dazhai. We walk through the town and hike upwards until we find a hotel listed in our guidebook. We wait and it appears empty.

One of the porter ladies returns saying something we don’t understand. We follow and meet up with our Chinese friend who tells us there’s a room available in the next town. Sounds good.

By the time we reach our hotel, we’re covered in sweat from the long uphill hike, but looking out at the rice fields make it all worth it.

Our hotel is called the Tianti Hotel in the small village of Tiantouzhai. It’s an old wooden building with creaky floors, but fits with the overall ambiance of the setting. A sign hangs outside the hotel that reads: “Welcome to our home. We don’t speak English but we will host you with our warmest hospitality.”

The only sounds are daily life of the villagers mixed with birds and wildlife. There’s no traffic or incessant honking as the town is only accessible by foot or horse. A delightful escape from the city.

From our hotel we could easily hike to several viewpoints overlooking the rice fields. Although we were hoping for a bright sunny day, the mist and the clouds made the scene look almost dreamlike.

The Longji rice terraces. The village of Tiantouzhai can be seen.

It also turned out to be a great place for local eating. We had rice and sweet rice wine from the fields out our window, fresh onions our waiter went to pick after we ordered, and earlier in the day we saw a horse carrying two live pigs up the steep path.

The next day we woke up early and hiked back down the hill for a 9 a.m. bus to Yangshuo (signs in the village said 65Y, but the driver asked 85Y due to the approaching holiday). I hired a porter to carry my bag for 30Y as my neck was sore from earlier in our travels.

Unfortunately, our time in China was growing short. However, we could have easily stayed for another day of hiking and eating delicious rice from fields that seemed to climb to the heavens.

Chengdu to Guilin, people and places

The flight from Chengdu to Guilin is fairly similar to any other flight I’ve been on except for a couple things. Just before takeoff, literally just before takeoff, I guy gets up to take pictures of his friends. The girl beside me pulls out a cob of corn as a snack. The flight attendants hand out beef jerkey for a mid-flight meal.

The flight is only 1.5 hours long and we grab a shuttle to Guilin. It drops us off at where we believe is the train station, but we’re not sure exactly and we can’t see any street names so to the map is no help.

We walk for a bit past people siitting eatting street food on plastic chairs and there it is: Wada Hostel. Check in to our dormroom, put my stuff into a locker with a painted Chinese flag.

We go to the bar for a drink. There’s only a few people in the bar: a really drunk Norwegian girl, a couple Aussies (one who apparently finds out his partner is pregnant that night on the phone), and a 60+ year old Canadian who grew up in Winnipeg, but lived in Kitchener. Only two months ago, his wife of 40+ years died. He sold everything and has decided to travel.

I hope he finds what he’s looking for.

*     *     *

Guilin is nice, but it’s still a busy city, not quite what I was expecting. We get up early and find a noodle shop for breakfast (two delicious spicy beef noodle for 10Y). So good.

We decide to rent bikes from the hostel. Most have flat tires. We grab two and set out. My pedal is loose and my handlebars turn and wobbles. I return my bike and get another in similar condition. We abandon the bike ride and take a bus downtown.

We eat candied fruit on a stick and walk past the sellers to the river. We sit and watch two fishermen on bamboo boats as large black birds (cormorants I believe) sit beside them waiting patiently.

A fisherman with his birds on a bamboo boat in Guilin, China.

We walk across the bridge and escape the heat in the Seven Stars park. Pretty gardens, trees and bamboo decorate the pleasent paths. We hike the stairs to the top of two karst hills, large mountains that jut out from the landscape, giving us a nice panorama of the city and its surrounding hills.

Many signs say to avoid the wild monkeys, we don’t see any, but I kind of wish we did – from a distance.

*     *     *

Catch the bus back and hang out at the hostel. We chat with two American backpackers who are from Minneapolis. They give some good advice for travelling through Southeast Asiia.

“How long are you travelling?” I ask.
“Three years.”
“Wow, that’s a long time. So you must be working or something?”
“Oh god no. We’re just travelling.”

Oh. I leave it there as I envision wealthy parents somewhere in the distance or just many boring nights before hitting the road.

But they’ve clearly seen the world, although I don’t know if could travel that long. Beyond missing family and friends, I would miss politics and engaging with the world back home, rather than just touring.

You can visit their page at www.livingif.com . Some parts verge on being a little cheesy (but I’m not one to cast the first stone on this charge), yet there are some interesting articles. They wrote their blogs together rather than the hyper-competitive dueling blogs we created.

Maybe I’m just envious of the three-year thing, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely made me think.