Vietnamese New Year in Mai Chau

Feb 6 & 7, 2016

On New Years Eve… Vietnamese New Year that is… we headed out of our hostel pretty early in the morning and were driven a few hours up further north into the countryside to stay with a local Vietnamese family.

We stopped along the way at a little shop for coffee although we could have had some luscious wine with snake flavors… Amelia also found the cutest little kitten!

When we arrived at our home for the next 2 nights, there was a large group of other young people staying there that night from the hostel also. We all stayed on the 2nd floor of the families home on mats on the reed floor with mosquito netting… it was chilly and strange but calm and peaceful! Except for the high volume K-pop and karaoke that played all the time!

After a lunch with the rest of the hostel crew, we headed out on little mopeds and motorcycles provided by the home stay family and headed out to explore in the mountains and village a little. My moped had a little different feel from any type of motorbike I’ve driven before… And I’ve actually never driven a moped! I might have nearly crashed into the bushes beside the house when I started off, but I quickly got the hang of it! I rode one myself but Amelia jumped on the back with one of the other guys and we all headed out through the town and up to find a little waterfall and lake in the mountains surrounding the home stay.

The road initially was well paved and pretty safe… Moderately curvy but manageable. Eventually we ended up on more of a gravel/dirt road that often had large potholes we had to avoid! And it got really steep in some sections too! But we all survived and found the waterfall with minimal issues.

We walked down a steep, slippery path to the base of the waterfall. And it was GORGEOUS!!!!!!!

img_1935img_1812

From the waterfall we went a little further up the road where we found a great lookout looking over one of the lakes in the area. So blue and beautiful! And so sunny and warm up there! (It had been quite cool and grey-ish for most of our last few days so the sunshine and warmth was appreciated!)

There was a little village near the lookout that we walked through… There were so many little puppies in the village and they were ADORABLE! A bunch of them tried to follow the girls back to the lookout but eventually abandoned us to return to their mothers!

As it was getting late in the afternoon, so our group headed back to the village where we found a little bar with a rooftop patio overlooking the valley and we sat in the coolness and quiet and last bit of late afternoon sunshine drinking beer and watching the sun set behind the mountains of Mai Chau.

Once the sun set, we drove back in the dusk to our home stay to join in a huge Vietnamese New Year spread with our hosts and all their extended family.

We were seated in the families home on mats on the floor, clustered around many delicious dishes. Our host kept coming to our group to refill our tiny rice wine cups and toast the New YEAr. The extended family of our host arrived intermittently throughout the evening to share in food and drinks and every time some one new arrived, our host would introduce them to us, followed by a celebratory round of rice wine again!

The very special (and absolutely unappealing looking) rice wine came out at some point… It had some goat unmentionables in it and also part of a snake I believe. It was supposed to be for the men to give them special powers. It would probably just make me sick… But it was interesting to see this part of the culture! One of the guys was brave enough (or crazy enough) to try it.

After dinner… Hours later… We ended up downstairs again, listening to K-pop and the family sing karaoke… We even joined in at some point until we all got too cold and tired and tucked ourselves under our mosquito netting in bed to fall asleep to the sounds of our Vietnamese host partying the night away and singing their hearts out til the early morning hours.

The next morning, after breakfast, we headed back out on motorcycles to go check out a great lookout over the valley before we’d head back to Hanoi.

I loved riding those bikes around on the windy twisty hilly mountain roads. Makes me want to get my bike license at home and go motor biking more!!

The lookout was absolutely gorgeous!!! Even though the rice paddies were not filled with bright green stalks of rice, and were brown and muddy, the edges of each paddy were clearly demarcated and it was a beautiful sight regardless. The mountains were layered and faded out into the hazy blue sky… And it was stunning!

We had a great group shot at the top and then headed back down to leave for Hanoi again.

img_2256

Back in Hanoi, all of us were staying at the same hostel so after some pre-drinks at the hostel… We went out in search of authentic street food… Looking for some great hot pot.

We found a tiny little place where we sat on those silly little plastic chairs with our knees around our ears… And cooked our on dinner in little hot pots on the table. It was DELICIOUS tho!!!

All of us were pretty wiped and in bed early after a crap sleep in the cold the night before, plus, Amelia and I were headed out early the next morning to the highlight of our whole trip… A 3 day tour of Halong Bay!!!!

But our home stay in Mai Chau was a wonderful way to spend the Vietnamese New Year and it was so great to be able to see rice paddies and the mountains and have a very authentic Vietnamese experience with the locals! They were such friendly people and it was incredible that they opened their home to us like that on such a special few days of the year!

 

Finally… Hanoi

Feb 4-5, 2017

After our 2 luxurious days in Da Nang at the gorgeous Naman Retreat, we once again took a terrible little Vietnamese airline flight after many many delays to Hanoi this time… our most Northern stop in Vietnam… the capital city of Vietnam and the city most commonly affiliated with one of the most beautiful places in the world… Halong Bay.

This was probably the stop we were looking forward to the most. We had planned to spend a few days in Hanoi for Vietnamese New Year and then carry on to Halong Bay for a few days cruise before leaving Vietnam.

Our hostel in Vietnam was fantastic. Great location in the Old Quarter. Great vibes here too… met some wonderful people on our first night… hit up a pub crawl through more tiny little completely not safety standard approved hole in the wall bars… and had so much fun that the next day was not very much fun at all!

On our first day in Hanoi, we learned that the city would pretty much shut down over the next few days for Vietnamese New Year… there would be a lot of celebrations and festivities but no restaurants or sight seeing locations would be open. So basically we could party in the streets and not much else…

My friend and I weren’t particularly keen to stay in noisy, smelly, dirty, chaotic Hanoi. The traffic was absolutely insane!!! And the smells were atrocious! And we yearned for somewhere quieter and calmer, somewhere lush and green, somewhere surrounded by nature.

Turns out our hostel had a homestay out in Mai Chau… a small town out in the country further up North a couple hours drive from our hostel. We wouldn’t be able to make it out to Sapa on this trip so we welcomed the opportunity to get out of the noisy, congested city to the lush, green land of rice paddies and emerald green terraces…

We spent our one day in Hanoi walking around the city near our hostel.

We visited the “Lake of the Restored Swords,” or Hoàn Kiem Lake … the center of Hanoi life. We weren’t awake early enough to see it but in the mornings there are many people here doing their morning exercises… There is a beautiful red bridge, Huc Bridge, leading to a pagoda in the lake which we wandered through as well. And in the center of the lake is Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa).

Every country has a story to tell… and unfortunately Vietnam’s story isn’t only about beaches and rice paddies and beautiful limestone mountains or pretty lanterns… It also has a sad and complex history that involves a lot of unnecessary war and hatred and violence. We visited the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi… it felt so heavy and dark inside the prison… I could feel the centuries of suffering and pain and torment weighing down on me!

It was definitely not easy to see but a good reality check and pause to stop for a moment to be thankful for our freedom and the relative ease with which we’ve lived our lives so far!

Finally… after spending a few hours wandering the city… we found some proper Western breakfast food… at a super cute cafe that we could have found in any Western/European city… where they served up THE BEST french toast I’ve ever had!!!! (I know… shame on me for not experiencing local delicacies… but hungover girls just gotta have some normal homey comfort food every now n then!)

Now… The joys of backpacking and travel… Laundry in the sink at our hostel cuz all the laundry shops are closed for New Years! Hung out at the hostel for the evening and then Mai Chau in the morning!

I can’t wait to get out to countryside!!!

Vegetable Village

Hoi An is beautiful for its contrasts. The Old Town sophistication of Hoi An with its textiles and art and beautiful European influenced South East Asian port city architecture… in start comparison to the lush, green verdant farmland and simplicity of nature and a farming lifestyle in the surrounding countryside…

We loved our walks through the bustling but still quaint and quiet Old Town… but I loved to trade it in for cycling along narrow paths that divided lush green rice paddies… down quiet country lanes through small suburbs of Hoi An where homes often had vegetable gardens for “lawns”… encountering farmers walking their water buffalo down the paths… or cows munching grass along the roadside…

I had heard about a “vegetable village” just outside the town, so on our last day, we cycled through the farmland to Tra Que Vegetable Village. The village is rare in the sense that few, if any villages in Vietnam earn their income based primarily on vegetables… although it has become a tourism highlight now due to the quiet and peaceful setting where one can wander through fields of vegetables grown without any chemicals and only natural fertilizer from an algae found in the Tra Que village lagoon. The vegetables are beautifully fresh and there are many places one can take a cooking lesson and learn to make delicious, fresh Vietnamese dishes.

We wandered through rows of vegetables… bright green lettuce, herbs of all varieties, fluffy stemmed carrots… and eventually found a restaurant where we were served the simplest but most delicious food I’ve had in a very long time. We started with a lovely juice cocktail with cucumber and basil… Followed by fresh vegetable rolls that were so beautiful and bursting with herbs and slivers of tasty veggies… delicious deep fried spring rolls, and fresh shrimps wrapped with a few fresh herbs and dipped in a sweet chili sauce… It was a gorgeous way to showcase the village vegetables!

It was such a gorgeous way to spend our morning/afternoon… and a perfect last day in Hoi An!

Next up: A couple Spa/Beach days!!!

Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

During one day in our stay in Hoi An, we travelled to Mỹ Sơn, to check out the abandoned ruins of ancient Hindu temples up in the mountains. From the 4th- 14th century AD, the site was used for religious ceremonies for the ruling dynasties of that time. As the religious and political capital of the Champa kingdom, it is one of the most important Champa historical sites in Vietnam. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is comparative to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, although on a much smaller scale. As we didn’t have time to include Cambodia on our trip, it was great to see this heritage site!

img_0889

I don’t remember any of the history at all… so you’ll have to hit up some of the links I included above for more info… cuz I’ve just got pictures 🙂

And finally… after our tour of the site and a boat ride down the river back to town (which was a total ripoff actually…) I finally found a Banh Bao stand and got to try it for the first time. Basically its a soft steamed bun stuffed with pork and egg and other such delectable goodies. YUM!

 

Exploring Hoi An

February 2016

Old Town Hoi An is beautiful. You’re about to be exposed to many pictures of cute little buildings. But I just couldn’t help myself. It’s such a pretty town with great vintage vibes. A hipster would go crazy in this place!

And on top of that, the various temples and pagodas were beautiful too. My favourite had the most stunning Bonsai tree arrangements! I can’t even imagine how many years it took to shape it into this beautiful piece of art!

We started the morning at the tailor, Tailor Phuong Nam, going through books of outfits, trying to figure out what we wanted made. Given my height and above average leg length, its extremely hard to find jumpsuits/rompers that fit… so I chose to have two jumpsuits made, one casual, one dressy. Thao of Tailor Phuong Nam was amazing. She measured us all up, and keeps our measurements for 5 years so that we can just email her pics of what we want made and she’ll make it and mail it to us! Super cool! And the service was so quick! We were only in Hoi An for 3 days but she easily made the short deadline! We found the place just walking past, but she gets brilliant reviews on TripAdvisor as well! So if you’re in Hoi An, check her out for sure (just follow the link above!).

After wandering around the Old Town for most of the morning and early afternoon, we decided to go cycling through the countryside in the afternoon and rented bicycles back at our hostel and went exploring along all the paths winding through the rice fields in the farmland surrounding the city. We encountered a farmer leading his water buffalo along the path… and some cows…

We ended up at An Bang Beach. A storm was blowing in so it was super windy… but I danced along the beach anyways! It feels amazing to be by the ocean again after being so landlocked for ages it seems in dusty, dry Riyadh! (I know, I was just in Dubai a week ago… but the beach there is pretty tailored and calm compared to this!)

Freedom is: dancing on the beach in Vietnam, being chased by waves… running and laughing and being filled completely with joy and happiness!

 

 

Next: Hoi An nights

February 2016

Stepping back in time… to a graceful, elegant, curious blend of Vietnamese and foreign cultures and architecture…

The 2nd destination on our Vietnam backpacking trip… Hoi An. Hoi An is located roughly on central coast of Vietnam and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Old Town Hoi An, the heritage site, is a well preserved South East Asian trading port that dates back to the 15-19th Century. The city is well known for its textiles and crafts (one of the best places in Vietnam to get anything tailor made!).

We left Saigon around noon, after the most terrifying cab ride in the OLDEST car I’ve ever ridden in (thanks for nothing hostel :S) img_0513-1 to the airport to fly to Da Nang (the closest airport to Hoi Ain, about a 20-30min cab ride away) because with only 2 weeks to see the country, we weren’t about to waste time on a bus.  Although local Vietnamese flights weren’t the timeliest either, and as we boarded the plane, I spotted our backpacks just hanging out underneath the fuselage of the plane… was really hoping they were planning on actually stowing them somewhere inside the bowels of the plane! (They did. We got the bags when we landed 🙂 )

As we arrived later in the day, by the time we checked into the Sunflower Hotel, an excellent hostel in Hoi An, we would get dusky/night views of the Old Town to start. Tourists are required to buy a pass to enter the town for 120,000 dong (peanuts in USD).

We walked from our hostel to the Old Town (about a 15-20min walk… an easy leg stretcher… plus plenty of shops to poke into along the way).

The Old Town at dusk is moody and reminds me briefly of a Victorian horror movie or something like that… but once fully dark,  as the lights come on, it’s colorful and brilliant and vibrantly cheerful.

From this…

To this…

We visited the Morning Glory restaurant for dinner where I wisely ordered a 5spice pork belly that was DELICIOUS. My friend not so wisely chose a crispy red snapper… which happened to be the full fish… dipped in batter… and deep fried. We westerners are definitely not so familiar getting food with eyes in it still! She didn’t even know how to get at the meat and was vaguely repulsed by it :S I think it was tasty though once she had the waitress dissect it. (as a note… safe food here… pretty touristy though… if you’re someone who likes to eat with the locals).

The street view from the balcony of the Morning Glory was pretty though. I LOVED all the lanterns and lights strung across the streets everywhere!

We finished the evening with a walk around town, across the river with this super cool fish on it, to the Night market where we admired all the gorgeous colorful and printed Vietnamese lanterns.

And of course, the trademark site of the Old Town, the covered bridge was beautiful when lit up at night!

img_0588A much quieter town than Saigon for sure. I really loved the vibes here! Tomorrow we explore the town more… and the surrounding countryside!

Saigon & the Muddy Mekong

Day 2 in Saigon

Today we tour the famous Mekong River Delta in Vietnamese: the Đồng bằng Sông Cửu Long “Nine Dragon river delta”.

Lengthy bus ride through HCMC and over the river …

Pit stop for refreshments again… Roadside fresh coconut water!! I had so much fresh coconut water in Vietnam… but it was definitely the best in Saigon where the weather was the hottest and it was most refreshing!

Our first stop, we visited a little village where we sampled various local fruits and honey, and a Vietnamese group sang for us.

Carrying on… we wandered through some “farmland” near the river while our guide spoke a bit about the history of the area and some of the cultures and traditions… beautiful area for sure!

And then, the highlight of the day… traditional conical Vietnamese hats, called nón lá, and a traditional Mekong row boat  ride down one of the many little channels of the Mekong River… It was amazing just meandering along that muddy chanel, surrounded by tall foliage on either side… So relaxing actually. (Not for the poor woman rowing/pushing the boat around though!)

We landed at a little factory on the edge of the river where fresh coconut candies were made. They demonstrated how the treats were made… and then we got to sample the still warm and gooey and totally delectable coconut candy… made from everything coconut! Coconut milk, coconut sugar… so yum!!!!

And… there just happened to be a big ol python?? there. Some type of snake anyways. It was our lucky day. we could hold it! Initially I was kind of excited to hold it. It looked like it was sleeping anyways as it was super relaxed. A bunch of people held it. It started waking up. By the time snakey got to Amelia… it was definitely starting to wake up and squirm a little more… so I started getting pretty freaked out about my turn next. Would it be fully awake by then?!! It took me a bit to talk myself into have the snake placed around my neck, and when I finally said yes, the snakes handler just tossed the darn thing around my neck. I jumped! Pretty sure it jumped too and started winding its snakey large self up and around my neck!!!! I was freaking!! And everyone was telling me to smile for the pic. I managed a grimace before totally freaking out. Never again feel the need to ever ever ever hold a snake again. I still get the heebie jeebies thinking bout that thing snaking around my neck!! Entertaining photos tho! :S

Next up on our tour: we took a bigger boat down a main portion of the Mekong River to a little island where we had some lunch.

And finally… headed back to the bus and on to our last stop… a Vietnamese Pagoda… Vinh Trang Pagoda, My Tho…

And that was it for our Ho Chi Minh tour plans. One night to go out with our hostel crew and in the morning we were catching a quick flight up to Hoi An!

Saigon nightlife for us started with a few drinks at the hostel bar where I met a ton of Canadian backpackers!!! A giant game of sidewalk Jenga evolved into a very loud and exuberant and very touching edition of “Oh Canada”. JT would be proud (Justin Trudeau…).

oh and… Canadians dominated the Hideout hostel Hand Grenade Challenge (a shot of tequila followed immediately by a Jager Bomb) as we obviously completed the most challenges 🙂

Hostel life isn’t complete without a rambunctious pub crawl through Saigon (Saigon nightlife is supposed to be fantastic btw)… so we joined a whole group from the hostel and headed out to a couple different places in District 1 in Pham Ngu Lao.. definitely a seedy district, nothing classy at all. But a whole lot of fun!! Saigon is crazy by day… and at night is only a fraction quieter and less crazy but equally as bright!

And that was it for us in Saigon… potentially will hit up a museum when we return to Saigon in a couple weeks before we fly back home.

Cam on Saigon!