Week 17- Cat Ba Island, Phong Nha, Hue, and Hoi An

This was a really great week in Vietnam because I met some awesome new people to share it with! I love when I can find a crew to travel with for awhile and it all just works like when I was with Viviane, Jordan, and Sam in Colombia. I woke up early to take the bus to Cat Ba Island. My hostel had booked it for me so I was surprised when they said my ride was here and it was just a guy on a motorbike. I was a little concerned that he was going to drive me all of the way there. That was not the case thank god and shortly I was dropped off at a tourism office with very little instruction and then told to get on this bus that randomly stopped around the corner.

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Waters around Cat Ba Island

The bus was almost full already so I asked to sit next to a guy that was close to the door and I am so glad that I did. That is how I met Patrick. He was from Germany, but had lived all over and had the most bizarre accent that he said different words with different accents. He was traveling with Tom and Meghan who were a couple from the UK. I started talked to all of them on the bus and they just seemed like a really great group. Meghan just finished her PhD in Biology and Patrick was about to start his in Chemistry. They were super sarcastic and willing to talk about almost anything and we did. After the bus, we had to take a ferry across and then one more bus across the island. We arrived around noon on Saturday and had lunch together. The food on Cat Ba Island was not very good compared to Hanoi and Sapa. Until this point I had not had a bad meal and then I had a bit of a streak of not very good meals.

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Outlook over Cat Ba Island

After lunch, we rented two scooters to go around the island. The boys drove which was fine by me because I was still a bit scared to ride a scooter. Patrick and I named out scooter Alex O’Reilly because we could not decided if it was a boy or a girl. So we both shouted our names that could be either. I said Riley and he said Alex so we settled on Alex O’Reilly. This is the same name we were use for every bike we rented. We first went to an abandoned fort on the hill. Here we saw different bunkers and old equipment and even statues to show us what it would look like. The views from the fort looking out on the town were beautiful, but it was a bit of a cloudy day.

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Fort of Cat Ba Island

Then, we drove the scooters across the island to the entrance to the national park. We had a to pay a bit to get in and then hiked straight up the mountain. It was a beautiful walk through the forest and it was nice to be back out in nature. We reached the top and there was a lookout tower that we climbed. The views were really interesting because the mountains were all shaped like the little mountains that make up Halong Bay. They are all made of limestone so the hill had this look as if it was an egg crate. We noticed we could go higher, so we kept on trekking until we reach the top and it was worth it. We had 360 views of the whole island. After we hiked back down, we went back for a bit of a rest and then headed out for dinner. We walked around for awhile trying to eat on one of the restaurants floating on the water, but they were very expensive and all seafood. So, we found another place in town, had dinner and a couple of drinks, and then headed to bed.

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Lookout spot on top of Cat Ba Island

The following day we had booked a private 4 person boat tour to explore the waters around Cat Ba island, which had all of the same geological features of Halong Bay but with less people and less trash. We were picked up in the morning and dropped off at the docks where one small man ushered us onto his boat. He spoke no English, but he was always smiling.

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Our boat for the day…it even had a hammock!

We started out by driving through a floating village which was so interesting. All of the houses were floating on the water and they had nets out front to catch the fish. They also all had dogs as well, but the dogs could only be out front or running around the poles that held up the fishing nets, which I though was a bit cruel.

We kept driving and then we saw one large piece of sheer rock, but was astounded me was how tall and skinny it was and just sticking out of the water without tumbling over.

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Next, we stopped to start the kayaking. We got off on 2 kayaks and this is the part of the tour where I was happy I was not on one of the big boats. They all had to stay together and we were let off to wander for however long we liked and go where we wanted to go. The sun had finally come out and the water was so calm in the back bays. We had to kayak under these natural bridges into different lagoons and it was just stunning! We found one enclosed area where we were the only ones so we decided to jump out and go swimming for a little while. At one point, we saw a local woman and her daughter rowing around the same area. They knew the market and the older woman was using her 3 year old daughter to sell us beer, wine, vodka, chips, or cigarettes. I hate how they use their children to try to make a sale and as a rule I don’t buy from children.

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Natural Bridges
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Our own little bays

 After kayaking, we returned to the boat and went to another stop where we could go swimming. There were other larger boats there as well so I did some diving off the second level of these larger boats which was a bit of fun. For lunch, we went to a floating restaurant on the water and had a meal waiting for us. Our final stop was on Monkey Island. This is an island the just like its name is just filled with monkeys.

The scariest money I have ever seen was on this island!! It had no lips and around it teeth was just bloody and it looked like his lips had been bit off. On the island was a pretty beach, a hike we didn’t go on, and the  monkeys. We climbed up on some rocks and watched the sunset and Meghan and I had some much needed girl time. I was so sad when the tour was over because it was one of my favorite days. We finally had sunshine and all of the scenery was absolutely stunning! I would love to go back at some point. After the tour, we showered, got some pizza (I know so Vietnamese) and we to bed.

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Our group on Monkey Island
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Sunset from Monkey Island

On Sunday, we decided that it was time to head out. I had breakfast with Nate, who was also staying in my hostel, and then went and packed up. We reversed our trek by taking the bus, boat, and bus again. This time the boat was very crowded and smelled really bad, like body odor. Once we made it back to Hanoi, we needed to walk to the train station and eat dinner before catching the train out. Previously, I had seen some restaurants near the train stations so I suggested we just walk there and then find something. Well, this wasn’t the best of ideas because all of the restaurants close to the train station were very expensive so we kept searching. It was so hard to find a restaurant and we were all so hungry and tired of carrying our stuff so we stopped at a little roadside restaurant. This was the worst food I have eaten so far in Vietnam!! I have no idea what I ate and I still don’t want to know. Then, we got onto the train and we were in the second class sleeper train so there were six beds going up and the space between them was gradually getting smaller so that in the top bunk you can barely move. Thank goodness none of us had the top this time, but I would on a future train. We took the train to Dong Hoi, which is the stop to get off at to go to Phong Nha so see the caves.

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Monkey Island

We arrived very early in the morning in Dong Hoi and found a hostel called the Buffalo to go to because we thought that we could store our bags there, eat breakfast, and rent a scooter for the day. This hostel was amazing and even let us store our luggage there all day with no charge. We hopped on some scooters again and drove to Phong Nha to find our first cave. The first part of the drive was very beautiful and flat countryside. We saw many rice fields and buffalo meandering around. Then, on a huge cliff we see the tacky words Phong Nha. Why would you ruin nature like that? Phong Nha town was very cute and there were places to stay and restaurants all up and down this one main street. We drove down, parked our motorbike and bought tickets to see our first cave called Phong Nha cave. If I had to do it again, I would have skipped this cave and gone to Dark Cave instead.

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Entrance to Phong Nha cave

We had to first buy entrance to the cave, but you can’t get to the cave without a boat. So, we had to book a boat as well. The more people you can group together to share a boat, the cheaper the boat. Then, you sail down the river for about 30 minutes. It was pretty, but really nothing special. Once you get to the entrance of the cave, you pick up a local guide on the boat and they row you into the cave instead of using the engines. It was very pretty inside the cave and the lights set up gave it an eerie glow. I think we liked it a lot at the point because it was my first cave, but later I realize that it was just an ok cave. The boating in the cave didn’t last long. They dropped us off at a beach inside the cave and we were allowed to walk the rest of the way out. I like this part better because you were able to get more up close and personal with the rock formations. Outside the cave, we boarded up the boat again and were driven back. All in all, we were on the boat more than in the cave and it was not worth the money.

For lunch, we found a place in town to stop and eat and I had the smallest, thinnest hamburger known to man. Note to self, Vietnam does not know how to do a hamburger. Next, we moved onto Paradise Cave. The drive from Phong Nha to Paradise cave is one of the most beautiful drives I have been on. We drove up into the mountains into dense forest, then came out over valleys with a scattering of houses. We drove along a river the was engulfed into the mountains. It was just stunning!

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Views on the way to Paradise Cave
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Motorbike ride to Paradise Cave

Then, we arrive at Paradise cave. Megan and Tom decided not to do this cave because it was a bit expensive and they were underwhelmed by the first cave. So, Patrick and I venture into the cave and going down the steps and seeing the massive entrance hall we know it was very different from the first. The cave goes on for about 32 km, but they only have the lights and the walkway set up for the first kilometer. The whole walk was one beautiful rock formation after the next. Nature always continues to amaze me with its beauty and it crazy to think how many years were needed to make those formations. I liked to look around and see what they looked like as well and it seemed that the whole walls were lined with big jellyfish and I even saw one that looked liked an elephant. I am so glad I got the opportunity to see this cave. We also met a couple that we walked with that were biking all of Vietnam. Not motorbiking, biking! They were on their honeymoon and I though that was so crazy, but awesome to take on that challenge.

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Entrance to Paradise Cave
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Inside Paradise Cave
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Patrick and I in Paradise Cave
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Do you see the elephant?

After Paradise Cave, we returned on motorbikes (the end part in the dark) to Dong Hoi. Our butts were in some pain after riding all day. We had dinner at the hostel and then took a taxi back to the train station to board yet another train. This crazy travel might not have been the best idea, but that is what we came up with. This time though we didn’t have the sleeper car. We booked the 2nd class hard seats car. The set up is there there are sets of hard benches with small tables in between then and on each bench there were technically 3 seats. We were the only foreigners in the car. There were people all over! A lot of people were sleeping on the benches and many on the floor below the benches. Additionally, the hard seats were not easy on our already sore butts and we were really tired from a night train and an all day exploration of caves. Since there were 4 of us, this left two other people to fill our area. One was a lady that was lying at our feet and I was trying no to step on an the other was an old man that just kept looking and smiling at us. He spoke no English, but was very friendly. In the end, we all tried to find a way to be comfortable and Meghan even moved to the floor. The best moment was when it was just Patrick and the old man on the seat and the old man starts to stretch his legs out on the bench toward Patrick. Then, with a little smile on his face started to push his legs under Patricks butt and force him to the edge of the seat so he could put his legs behind. Now, this old man is sleeping so happy and Patrick is looking at him like he had no idea how this just happened. I will finished the train trip by saying that on the way out everyone was staring at us and then another old Vietnamese man pinched by butt on the way out the door. All in all, it is an experience I am glad I had, but I am not rushing to repeat. Then, we made our way to our hostel in Hue and finally went to bed.

The next morning, we woke up and went to breakfast waiting for our scooters to arrive. We had previously contacted a company that would drop off two scooters, pick up our luggage, and forward our luggage to Hoi An which was our next stop. This is a really popular thing to do because this particular stretch over the Ha Van Pass is supposed to be one of the most beautiful drives in Vietnam. We first rode around the town of Hue and saw some old US military tanks and planes that were captured during the war.

We drove around the outskirts of the imperial city, but realized we were running short on time so we had to hit the rode if we were going to get there before dark. We opted to take the coastal route instead of the highway for the beginning part. This added a lot of extra time because the roads weren’t well paved and we were going through small villages. This was worth it though because we got to see lots of temples and grave sights and had many amazing views of mountains and beaches.

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View from our route to Hoi An

We stopped for lunch originally at a restaurant on the beach, but changed our mind because they only served seafood. So, we found a restaurant out over the water and chose that instead. It was a beautiful setting for lunch and as we started back on the road the backdrop and the way the sun burst through the clouds and hit the water made for one of my favorite pictures this trip.

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One of my favorite pictures this trip

Next, we made it to the Ha Van Pass. It was a beautiful day to do this ride and the coastline the whole way up the mountain was stunning looking back over the water. At the top, you could get out and climb on some old fort and look down at the sea. Coming down, we all put our headphones in one ear and listened to music as we descended into Danang and it made the experience that much better. The end of our drive, we saw the sun setting over the beach in Danang and finally made our way onto Hoi An.

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View over Ha Van pass

Hoi An was one of my favorite stops in Vietnam and I can’t exactly put my finger on why. The city seemed really clean and the people were really nice. We stayed at Phoenix Homestay and everyone that worked there were just the sweetest of people. We were able to borrow bikes from our homestay and bike around town. Also, Hoi An is the place that you can get custom made anything for very cheap! At first I was not going to get anything made, but after talking to the rest of the group after their fitting for a coat, suit, dress shirts, ties, and shoes I just couldn’t resist. I spent my first morning in Hoi An just chilling in the hostel and having some much needed alone time and some time to catch up on sending out job applications. In the afternoon, I met up with the group for lunch and Meghan and I went to go make a lantern while the boys went and got massages.

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Making a lantern!

The lantern making was fun! The had the frame of the lantern all ready for us and we just had to glue the fabric onto the outside. It is not as easy as it looks!! I forgot that I was a terrible art student. The original lady helping me spoke no English and she kept taking the lantern and doing it for me. I had to ask her (possibly with a bit of a frustrated tone) if I could try myself. From then on the lady helping Meghan helped us both and it was much more fun. I think they turned out well! Perhaps not professional yet, but we are getting there!

That night we went to the shoe fitting for the boys dress shoes and I began talking to the lady about possibly trying to recreate the leather boots I had at home that had just reached the end of their life. The boots had belonged to my mom and were my favorite boots, but I could not find that style anywhere! I just described the boots to this lady and it felt like she was reading my mind. I chose the heel, the leather, and the style. Then, she took measures of both of my feet and all the way up my calf.  After the fitting, we walked to old town near the river for dinner. It really came alive at night. There were lanterns lighting up the street everyone you turned and there were so many people in the streets. We found a restaurant on the second floor and were able to watch people on the street. It was a great end to our night.

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Hoi An Lanterns at night

The following day, I went to the fitting with the rest of the gang and all their clothes came out so nice! I was starting the get a bit envious, so I took the afternoon to shop around for a dress and even decided to get my own custom made dress. I had no idea what I wanted to I just went into a shop where the lady was very nice and asked for her opinion. She gave me her iPad and searched summer dresses and just said, “pick one.” I couldn’t believe she was saying she could make anything that I found on the internet. So, we drafted up a dress using aspects of other dresses I found and I picked our the fabric and hoped for the best! I met up with the gang again for dinner near the night market and then we strolled through the night market.

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Hoi An at night

I bought some more souvenirs and then we went for some beers. This is when I realized that I had lost the key for the lock to the bike. I started freaking out because they would expect the bike home that night and I wasn’t sure if they had a spare key. The key to the bike wasn’t just a lock, it was a part of the bike itself and prevented the wheels from turning. I return the hostel and I explain the situation and they find a spare key and drive me back to where I parked the bike to bring it home. All day I was cursing myself about this situation because I didn’t want to cause them any problems.

The next day was my last in Hoi An. I went to my dress fitting in the morning and then went on a key hunt. Luckily, I found the key in one of the dress shops where I tried on a dress. I was so relieved!! I went to pick up my shoes, but they weren’t quite ready yet. Once all my clothing was ready, we were all going to go to Danang. This was the last day our little gang was together. Meghan and Tom rented a scooter because they were going to stay in Hoi An for another night and Patrick and I took the public bus. Patrick was headed to Saigon on a plane that night and I was headed on a train back up to Hue. We all met at a beachside restaurant and ate with a beautiful view of the water. Then, took a long walk on the beach together. I said my goodbyes and took my train up to Hue. I will miss this bunch and it was so good to travel with them. We had lots of laughs and some amazing times!

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Danang Beach – vista from our restaurant

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