Along our 4-hour bus ride from Phong Nha to Hue, we made two stops. The first was at the Vinh Moc tunnels, which are located in a town just over the border of where North and South Vietnam are divided. They were used during the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it here) as protection for the Northern Vietnamese people from American bombings. The people in this town had to live in these tunnels (sleep, eat, cook, go to school, deliver babies, etc.) for 6 years. The rooms in the tunnels were about 2 sq. feet each (I believe there were 95 rooms housing 600 people) and were each made to fit 4 people in a family. I don’t think I could even fit comfortably in one of them. All around the tunnel system, we were shown the bomb craters from the American air strikes. This was really the first thing from the war that we saw and it was very strange being an American here touring them, though there doesn’t seem to be any hard feelings these days towards Americans. Both my parents and Dave’s said that they couldn’t imagine what it would be like to visit Vietnam on vacation since they lived during the time of the war.
Our second stop was the river that divides North and South Vietnam. There’s a bridge going over the river, half which has a blue railing (the North side) and the other half which has a yellow railing (the South side). We were able to put one foot in North Vietnam and the other in South, which was pretty cool.
We arrived in Hue on the main street of the tourist area at Hue Backpacker Hostel. This is one of the main hostels in town, but only has dorm rooms, so Dave and I set out to find somewhere with private rooms nearby. Less than a minute after we got out of our van, we were approached by a guy asking us if we had a room. We said we didn’t and he told us he had a hotel down the street with wi-fi and aircon for $12/night. This seemed like a steal, so we followed him there, checked out the rooms to make sure that they were ok, and then settled in.
Our plan for the afternoon was to check out the famous Citadel, right across the river from where we were staying. The Citadel consists of the Imperial City, about half a square mile, where the Emperor, his wives, servants, and concubines used to live. The grounds were huge for just this one guy, and after seeing these and reading in our Lonely Planet that he used to make his chefs cook 55 courses for him so he could try all different kinds of foods every day, we figured he must have been a very gluttonous guy. Either way, the grounds and all of the buildings within were very pretty.
After that, we wanted to check out the rest of the Citadel, which is just a huge walled city. We were planning to do a little walking around and then rent bikes in the morning to cover whatever we missed, but then a rickshaw guy approached us and asked us if we wanted an hour-long tour of the area. We went back and forth negotiating and deciding and then finally decided to go ahead and do it. Within 10 minutes of our tour, he started dropping us off at all these different places, which is not what we had asked for – we just wanted him to ride us around, not waste our hour taking us to different sites for us to walk around (which were all really just jewelry shops and the like). We told him that we didn’t want any more stops and he got angry saying that he was tired and needed breaks. Well, that’s not the deal that we had agreed to, so we gave him a little money and decided to part ways there.
We did a little more exploring and then headed back to our place. From what we’ve seen of Vietnam so far, when it comes to food, most of the local places offer only one or two dishes, which they advertise on signs outside of their stalls or restaurants. The problem was that we didn’t know what most of the dishes were (except for the common ones like Pho or Bahn My). Since we want to try as many different dishes as we can while we’re here, we did the same thing that we did while in India and looked online for some of the most popular Vietnamese dishes and then made a list. We had crossed one of them off of the list at lunch time (Bahn Xeo, which is a sizzling pancake filled with beansprouts and then meats or seafood), but we went out for dinner in search of some others. As we were walking around our area looking at menus, the ladies standing in front would laugh at us when we pulled out our lists 🙂
Unlike the very local Old City, which was the walled city on the other side of the river, the area we were staying in catered much more to tourists and Westerners, and therefore didn’t have as many of the local places that we were looking for. So, we settled on a place that seemed to have the most local menu, and while we didn’t cross any of the dishes off our list, we still had a great meal.
In the morning, we rented bikes from our hotel and went for a ride around the Old City. Bikes are definitely the way to go for touring around Hue. We biked all around the very local neighborhoods, making several stops along the way to take pictures and for a couple of fruit shakes. Biking was a great way to see the rest of the city, and we had a great morning exploring.
At 1pm, our bus picked us up for our 3-4 hour ride to Hoi An, which is known to be the most cultural city in Vietnam (and also the city that many of the people we’ve spoken to seem to like the most).
We arrived in Hoi An in the early evening as as usual, our bus dropped us off just a little bit outside of town, just far enough that we couldn’t walk. This is par for the course for any long-distance bus travel in SE Asia as it requires you to take a local motortaxi for typically a quarter of the price you paid to travel for the last 8-10 hrs. After some negotiation, we hopped on a motorbike (well, two separate motorbikes actually) and told him to take us to the Old Town so we could find a place to stay. Before we knew it, we were crossing the bridge which meant we were headed out of Old Town and were a little confused as to where he was taking us, but then he told us that places were much cheaper right over the bridge ($10-12 instead of $30-50), and that it would only be a 5 minute walk to town.
He dropped us off at Hop Y Homestay, which turned out to be one of the nicest places we’ve stayed in (for $12!!). Not only that, the place was brand new (only 2 months old) and the family that owned it was so nice and helpful. The best English speaker of the group sat down with us when we arrived to help us figure out/arrange our plans for our stay in Hoi An. Then, after we checked email and got settled, Dave went out to the main area to find the whole family there eating dinner and drinking beers. They offered him beers for each of us AND gave us tastes of their food (unlike Dave and I who typically order 3-4 dishes between the 2 of us, the whole family of 5 was eating 2 small dishes, but they still were more than willing to share). We had a couple of bites and sat and talked with them for a while as we drank our beers, making as much conversation as we could with the very little English they knew. We couldn’t get over their generosity and friendliness and felt lucky that our driver had brought us to this gem of a place (considering we only paid $12/night, it was pretty amazing they gave us two free beers and offered to share their meal).
Finally, we headed out for dinner and our first time checking out the Old Town of Hoi An, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site (our 4th in Vietnam so far). Old Town in Hoi An is located right on a river and is an adorable little town filled with all yellow buildings, tons of great restaurants, and more tailor shops than we could count (Hoi An is known for their tailor shops, where you can get pretty much anything you want made – from a suit to a dress, you can bring in a picture of anything and have a replica made within a matter of hours). We weren’t in the market for any clothes, but we were in the market for dinner, so we scouted out a restaurant for the night. We had found a list of all the dishes to try in Hoi An and when we spotted the number one rated restaurant by Lonely Planet, which had every one of the dishes we were looking for, we couldn’t refuse.
We settled on Bahn Bao Bahn Vac (white rose) which is a dumpling filled with crushed shrimp. This was our least favorite of the dishes we tried. We also had Cao Lau, Hoi An’s most famous dish which is a special noodle with veggies and pork, Bahn Cuon, which is not a dish specific to Hoi An, but we’d been looking for it in Hanoi and never found it. It’s a pork and veggie-filled fresh spring roll (though for some reason it tasted a bit fishy to us). Last, we had a pork and sausage Bahn My sandwich. You can never go wrong with one of those.
It was a great meal but as soon as we continued our exploration after dinner, we realized we could have gotten the same meal for a fraction on the price on the street (even though our meal only came out to $15 for one of the nicest restaurants in town). From our experience in Vietnam so far, however, we were used to seeing street food stalls that really only specialized in one or two dishes. That was not the case in Hoi An, as every place had all of the famous dishes. So, we figured the next night, we’d try all the street food versions and compare (Spoiler Alert: As usual, the street food was even better than what they’re doing in any of the nicer restaurants).
The next day, we had planned to do some more exploration of the town. First thing in the morning, we went for a run. As soon as we got over the bridge, we stopped for a quick second to figure out which way to go, when all of the sudden a woman on her motorcycle ran right into me and clipped my arm and leg. I was ok but because of the shock of it, I started to cry. As soon as the first tears fell, two Vietnamese woman standing nearby grabbed me, pulled me into their shop, and started rubbing and massaging my arm and hand and making sure I was ok. They were also yelling at the woman who hit me! They were so nice to take care of me and make sure I wasn’t badly injured. Sometimes people really amaze me with their willingness to help a stranger. I was very impressed.
Luckily, I was ok, so Dave and I continued on our run. Suddenly, we heard someone call out Dave’s name. We stopped and realized that it was one of Dave’s friends from college, on vacation in Vietnam for 2 weeks with his wife. It was crazy to run into someone we knew (well, someone that Dave knew). We made plans to meet up later that evening to catch up over a couple of drinks.
After our run, we came back into town to get lunch at the Central Market, which is known to sell everything from clothes to souvenirs to coffee (Vietnamese coffee is probably the best coffee we’ve ever had) to food. We immediately made our way to the food section and found rows of little stalls set up selling all of the popular Vietnamese dishes. We sat down at one and ordered Mi Quang, another noodle dish that’s very popular in Hoi An, a banana leaf salad, and wontons. Dave didn’t love the salad (I thought it was pretty good), but the Mi Quang and wontons were awesome – the wontons may have been the best we’e ever had. They were filled with pork and covered with the Vietnamese chili sauce, which is unbelievable (maybe my new favorite sauce). Our whole meal cost us $4.
After lunch, we wanted to check out some of the famous Hoi An historical sites that are scattered throughout Old Town. There are assembly halls, temples, and “old houses,” and we didn’t really know what to expect from any of them. You can buy a pass to visit all of these sites. It costs 120,000 VND ($6), and you can choose 5 of the different sites to see. $12 seemed like kind of a lot for an activity that would probably only last us an hour or two, so instead, we decided that we’d share one pass and each pop in to some of the sites. We’d each go to one of the assembly halls, one of the old houses, and then one of us would check out the temple. This actually worked out perfectly because the assembly halls were pretty much all the same, and same with the old houses. Then, we ended up both being able to go into the temple. I definitely don’t think it would have been worth it to spend $12 for both of us to see everything, but the one ticket between the two of us gave us a great taste of the historical sites in Hoi An.
With our extra money that we had saved (and our extra time – it was still only around 2pm), we decided to take an hour-long boat ride down the river. This turned out to be a much better value for our money. We had a private boat and our driver was a great tour guide. It was a very relaxing and beautiful ride and along the way he made several stops to take photos and tell us about different things, the highlight of which was two men fishing with a huge net. They came up to our boat and let us try it out (though we were both pretty awful of it). Our driver even let us each drive the boat for a minute. It was a very fun way to end our afternoon!
We relaxed for a couple hours and then headed out to meet up with Dave’s friend and his wife. We got a couple cocktails and then some 25 cent beers (I still can’t get over how cheap and amazing these are!!) and spent an hour or so catching up, which was really nice. Then, they had to run to an appointment to get their tailor made clothes fitted, so we parted ways.
We weren’t hungry for dinner yet, so we headed to a bar that we had gotten a promotional flyer for the night before. It had pretty much the best drink deal we’ve ever seen. For $5, you got 1 vodka/mixer bucket, 1 beer, 1 cocktail, 1 shot, and 1 spirit. We drank up, played some pool, got a hookah at another bar nearby and then were finally ready to eat.
There’s a whole area of street food stalls that we had seen on our map and wanted to try out for dinner. We sat down at one of them and had another order of Cao Lao and wontons and then tried the last of the famous Hoi An dishes, Com Ga, which is chicken rice. All were great! By the time we were done eating we were very drunk and very tired, so we stumbled home to call it a night. As we were walking over the bridge to our hotel, there was a lady pushing a very heavy-looking cart over the bridge. All of the sudden, Dave was running over to help her and he helped her push her cart all the way over to the other side of the bridge. She seemed to be very surprised (but also very happy) to be getting help. Dave loves the old Vietnamese ladies who always seem to be carrying the heaviest loads ever and he said he wanted to help her since those women had been so nice and helpful to me earlier in the day when I got hit. It was very cute.
Our second day in Hoi An, our plan was to check out the two nearby beaches, Cua Dai and An Bang. They are each about 4km from town (and about 2 km between them), so we decided to rent bikes for the day. We started with Cua Dai (the fancier more resorty beach) and then hit up An Bang (the beach that all the expats like to hang out at). Both beaches were beautiful, but there wasn’t much going on at either. We spent some time relaxing at both, Dave went for a run along the beach at An Bang (he saw the biggest jellyfish ever and then made me go walk to find it – he was right, biggest ever, the size of an extra large pizza), we ate lunch and then started the bike ride home.
Along the way, we decided to take a detour through some of the rice paddies around Hoi An. First, we were stopped by a man also on his bicycle who told us that we were approaching a Japanese Tomb and that he wanted to show it to us. This, of course, meant we’d be paying him, but we didn’t mind. He picked some flowers for us off of the lily pads in the rice paddies along the way and showed us how to properly pay our respects at the tomb. He also showed us a plant that dies the second you touch it. It was all very cool.
Then, we parted ways (after giving him $1), and drove a few miles all around the rice paddies and through some of the local neighborhoods. It was a beautiful ride and really reminded me how simply some of the people here live. This ride was the highlight of my day.
We were exhausted after our day of biking and beaches, so we decided we’d have an early dinner and then come back to relax and watch a movie. Another dish we’d read was very popular in Vietnam is their hot pot, and we found a great place in town to try it. We had a few beers, a seafood hot pot, and the Vietnamese version of the papaya salad (we both like the Thai version better). The meal was great and afterwards, we were very ready to relax for the rest of the night. We download Platoon, which is the Academy Award winning movie about the Vietnam War (as you may remember, we love to watch movies about a place while we’re in a place). Admittedly, we did not know much about the Vietnam War, so we did a little research and then watched the movie, which we thought would help us visualize what it was like a little. And, it did. It was a pretty depressing movie (though also really good; Dave had seen it before) and did not paint the Americans in the best light, but it definitely gave us more insight into the war. I have to admit, I’m much less keen on telling people I’m from the US here after watching it.
On our bus ride into Hoi An a few days earlier, we had passed through Danang, which is the third biggest city in Vietnam and from everything we read, seems to really be on the rise. We hadn’t been planning on stopping there originally, but after driving through it and seeing the very nice looking city and some beautiful/awesome beaches, we decided that we needed to go back to check it out. So, we rented a motorbike from our hotel in Hoi An for $7/day (it’s only 30km away) and decided to spend a night there.
On our way there, we made a few stops. The first two at golf courses that we had seen on our drive to Hoi An (one was designed by Colin Montgomerie, the other by Greg Norman). Dave wanted to check them out and maybe even come back to hit some balls at the driving range. Our third stop was at Marble Mountain, which was a really great hour-long stop where we walked up and through the mountain stopping at some cool caves, temples, etc. along the way.
We made it to Danang and before stopping for lunch, we drove all the way through town down the coast. At the very end of the beach, there’s a huge Lady Buddha statue, which we drove to for some awesome views looking back at the beach and city. Dave said the whole set up of Danang really reminded him of Rio de Janiero. By lunchtime, we were already talking about how much we liked Danang and how underrated/under hyped it is. We can’t understand why most people pass right through this awesome city on their way to Hoi An, which as cute/charming as it is, is also very small.
Danang has 2 parts, separated by water (and a lot of beautiful and enormous bridges). The first is the city part and the second is the beach part. At first, we were planning to stay in the city, but then after riding through both of them, we decided to stay near the beach (which turned out to be a great decision). We thought rooms in Danang might be more expensive than what we’d been finding since it’s such a big city, but we found a great place right off the beach for $12/night. Can’t beat that!
We checked in and dropped off our stuff and then set out to explore the beach and scout out the dinner situation. As we walked along the beach (which is one of the nicest and biggest beaches we’ve seen), we couldn’t understand why it was so empty. We literally were the only ones there. We stopped in several restaurants across the street from the beach to look at menus for dinner and we saw something that we hadn’t seen before anywhere else along our travels. Each restaurant had buckets and tanks filled with all different types of seafood (from clams/oysters/mussels to fish to shark to eel to lobsters and crabs and even something called a water dragon which we had never heard of). We knew we had to come back to one of these places for dinner. We’ve both had eel before, but only in sushi rolls, so we decided that’s what we’d come back for (among other things, of course; sadly, they were out of the water dragon).
Right next to our $12/night hotel, there was a $200/night hotel with a great pool and happy hour special. We had stopped in earlier in the day to look at the drink menu and the waiter/bartender had told us to come back at 5 and we could have cocktails at their swim up bar. That sounded like pretty much the best thing ever, but when we went back at 5, we were told that in addition to buying drinks, we’d have to buy a day pass for the pool. That didn’t make sense since we only wanted a drink each, so that idea was out. And now my only complaint about Danang. After we were rejected from the fancy hotel, we went to find some alcohol to have a happy hour of our own. We could not find a single liquor store anywhere near the beach. Then we were told the only liquor stores were on the city side of Danang, over the bridge. It was 5pm, which meant rush hour, which meant thousands of people riding their motorbikes in every direction, all criss crossing, looking like they were about to run into each other every second. It was a scary ride, but luckily (and thanks to Dave’s great driving skills) we made it.
As we were driving back, we came back along the beach and all of the sudden it was packed. I mean thousands of people hanging on the sand and swimming. We had read that the Vietnamese people never go to the beach during the day (only at sunrise or sunset) because they hate being in the sun, but this was our first time actually experiencing it. It was so crazy to see how many people there were (we estimated about 5,000). We quickly went back to drop off our bike and make our drinks and then ran out to the beach to join everyone for a sunset swim. It was pretty cool!
After showering and changing, we headed out to dinner to the best-looking seafood restaurant we could find. We had about 5 different waiters helping us order/figure out what we wanted. We ended up with one giant clam and one giant oyster (literally the biggest of each I’ve ever seen; the size of 2-3 baseballs), 400 grams of steamed eel, and what we thought was clam chowder. The oyster and clam came out first. The oyster tasted just like any regular oyster just about 10 times the size. They served it with the hottest wasabi we’ve ever tasted. The clam was served with a delicious peanut sauce and was amazing. Then came our eel, which was served in a big pot, steamed and with some veggies. It was awesome (though a little bony), a very meaty and delicious seafood. The last thing we were served was what we thought would be clam chowder. Instead, it was a clam porridge (they call it Chao). I was actually really excited because I’d been wanting to try this dish since we arrived and hadn’t seen it in very many places. I loved it! It’s supposed to be a great hangover cure, so I’ll have to try it again the next time I have one. Our meal was awesome, probably the best one we’ve had in Vietnam so far – and all for less than $20 with a couple of beers.
In the morning, we went for a run along the beach, which was really nice and then we found a gym to work out at ($1 for both of us). It was a nice, healthy morning.
We grabbed breakfast at a cafe near our hotel and then started the ride back to Hoi An. On our way out of Danang, we rode by a huge ferris wheel we’d seen (it was still being built), a huge performance center/concert venue, and then another huge building that looked like a space ship, but we’re not quite sure what it actually was. This city really amazed us. We both said we wanted to come back in a few years to see the progress that they had made. We bet in a few years from now, this will be one of Vietnam’s top tourist destination.
On our way back, we made a pit-stop back at one of the golf courses so Dave could hit some balls at the driving range and practice some putting (while I wrote this blog). I think he was in heaven! And now, back to Hoi An to catch our overnight bus to Nha Trang, which is known to be the party beach town of Vietnam.