11.11.2014 - 20.11.2014
After a bumpy sleep in our night bus, we had arrived in Son Trach village, just outside of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. This national park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and boasts hundreds of cave systems and a huge, lush tropical forest. Access is tightly controlled, since the park is still riddled with unexploded ordnance, so we had to book a day trip with a licensed tour operator. The day tour was really great though, and thankfully the weather was in our favor that day. We were first taken inside Paradise Cave, which is the longest dry cave in Asia. We descended a wooden staircase into a cathedral-like space, and the sheer scale of it was breathtaking! The cave's full length is 31km, but we tourists are only allowed in up to the first kilometer or so... it's truly massive, with the ceilings rising up to 18m! So incredibly beautiful! Next, we took a mini boat cruise along the Son River, admiring the views before arriving to the gaping mouth of Phong Nha Cave. The boat engine was cut and we were then paddled through all the beautifully illuminated caverns. It was so relaxing and pretty, and I think now we have had our fill on cave systems for a while! ;-)
So, let me try to paint you a mental picture... imagine being packed like sardines with about 30 of us total (5 of us Westerners and the rest local Vietnamese), plus a full-sized scooter(!!), in a mini local bus that should probably only hold 20 people, with zero leg and bag space, a crying child and three people puking in plastic bags... a photo could never do this justice, especially with the red plastic stools shoved in the aisles to allow more people to sit. This is how we spent 6 hours getting from Phong Nha to Hué... good times.
Thankfully, we did make it to Hué pronounced 'hway'), though, while there was a break from the rain. So, after dropping our bags off at the hotel, we immediately walked to the Citadel to explore the Imperial City, which is the heart of this former capital. This was once the emperor's residence, but today it is much in ruins after the French and 'American' (as they refer to it) wars. The buildings that are still standing are a mix of old and new, as reconstruction and renovation is ongoing. We walked around the whole site in almost three hours, taking in all the details... it was quite fascinating! We ended up getting lost amongst the buildings, so we ended up seeing a lot more than we probably would have, but it worked out well in end. There is no real night life in the city, since everything basically shuts down at 10pm, but we did manage to find a good happy hour where enjoyed some good cheap beer! Unfortunately, it rained the entire second day we were in Hué, which was such a bummer, but we did still manage to go on a day tour. We started with a boat cruise on the Perfume River to get to the second largest pagoda (seven levels) in Vietnam called the Thien Mu Pagoda, and then we took a bus ride to visit three of the principal emperor tombs outside of the city called Minh Mang Tomb, Khai Dinh Tomb, and Tu Doc Tomb. Due to the rain, it was hard to fully appreciate all of these sites, but they were really spectacular nonetheless and we are happy we got to see so much in one day!
We were picked up the next morning in yet another sleeper bus to take us to Hoi An. And even though all seats were full, they were still picking up more and more people, who had no other choice than to sit on the floor. These Vietnamese bus operators really like to pack 'em in!!
There is a reason why Hoi An is the number one tourist attraction in Vietnam... this city has so much ambiance and beauty! We stayed for four days, but we probably could have stayed longer because this town offers so much! Hoi An is the most cosmopolitan and developed city in Vietnam, so therefore it is incredibly touristy. You actually see more Westerners walking through the ancient town than you do Vietnamese. It is a shopper's heaven though, with hundreds of expert tailors and quirky boutiques... you can literally shop till you drop here. Beware of the aggressive and overly-eager vendors, though, who constantly call out to you or approach you attempting to lure you into their store. We treated ourselves to have suits and shirts tailor-made for each of us... early Christmas presents, I guess! Gotta get ready for interviewing when we're back in the real world! ;-) We really loved our time in this charming town... it was so incredibly relaxing and we could enjoy everything without having to rush through. The ancient town of Hoi An has been specially preserved throughout the years and luckily was not damaged in any of the wars. We were able to visit many of the old sites, such as the Japanese Covered Bridge, the Old House of Tan Ky, and a few of the Chinese Assembly Halls. We also went bicycle riding to An Bang Beach, and soaked up some sun! We have not had the best weather throughout our Vietnam tour, but we did get lucky with three days of glorious sunshine while in Hoi An... it's incredible how the sunny days make everything better!
We have had some really delicious food throughout our stay in Vietnam, but nothing compares to the Bahn Mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) at Banh Mi Phuong here in Hoi An... it is literally crack in a baguette!! We have eaten at this place every day of our Hoi An stay because it is just that good... in fact, we would go as far as saying that this is the best food we have had in the past 7 weeks of our trip!! And the added bonus is that they are only one dollar!
Everywhere throughout Vietnam, you hear the famous saying "same same but different", but Hoi An really is a notch above the rest. Here the saying is "same same but better"!!