Sabbatical Week 2 - Hoi An, Hue, Phong Nha, and Ninh Binh

Day 9

I started off the day with a Duo call with my family to recap and catch up after yesterday’s meeting with Julie’s birth family. We were all still pretty emotionally impacted by it, and talked over some of the new things we’d learned, like how Julie’s mom was herself adopted, how the family lived on a farm, and how Julie’s mom worked as a housekeeper. Julie seemed genuinely interested in visiting Vietnam someday, which I was happy to hear.

We had a delicious poolside breakfast at the hotel. Breakfast here consisted of a lot of fresh fruit, which I loved.

After breakfast, we walked to the old town in Hoi An. Our first stop was the “Man Emporium” tailor we’d stopped by last night. I picked up the shirts I ordered and damn, they fit great! I’d never had anything tailored before, because, well, I’m not a gazillionaire, and 10/10, would tailor again. I’ve never had a shirt fit so well. I decided to order a third shirt. Each shirt was $55, which was probably more expensive than I would’ve paid if I’d gone further into old town, but still a pittance in comparison to what I’ve paid for shirts in the US.

We grabbed some banh mi at Banh Mi Queen for lunch, which was delicious and light. Bao, our driver, took us to the My Son ruins, about an hour’s drive away. It would’ve been ideal to have a tour of them, but there just wasn’t time and we’d rather have seen them without that context than to not see them at all. It was a humbling place; seeing a once-thriving civilization reduced to ruins amid a lush jungle.

We saw ruins in group F that were devastated by bombs. I felt a sense of the arbitrary devastation of war. And a sense of impermanence. The jungle was slowly reclaiming the ruins. I wondered what the ruins would look like in 100 years, or 1,000.

There was a group of women there in beautiful blue dresses. They shared fruit with us as we waited for the shuttle. Two tiny kittens played. A thunderstorm rolled in with lightning and rain just as we were leaving. We were grateful for our timing.

Bao dropped us off a short walk away from the tailors so I could pick up my extra shirt.

We had a delicious dinner with some Hoi An specialty cuisines at a place that made the food right in front of us, then grabbed a beer from a street vendor right by the water on our walk back. We sat and watched the colorful boats go by for a while, then headed back to the hotel. It was a beautiful way to spend the last night in Hoi An.

Day 10

Bao picked us up at 10:30 and drove us the 3 hours to Hue. I found myself unexpectedly tired and slept for most of the ride. We stopped at this beautiful fishing village called Lang Co to take a few photos.

Our hotel, the Hue River Villa, was tucked into this little alleyway and was right along the river. The people working there were so nice and helpful. They helped us get our luggage all the way from the street down the alleyway, and showed us a map with us of what to see here.

Overall, I wasn’t as much of a fan of Hue. It was the most in-your-face place we’d visited so far. Multiple people tried to sell us weed. They’ll pull right up on the sidewalk in front of you on their motorbikes and wave the baggie in your face. Every other person is trying to sell you a cyclo ride. Crossing the street was utter chaos and gave me a lot of anxiety at first. I gradually got used to it; you just have to be predictable, walk at a steady pace, and traffic will flow around you.

We went to Madam Thu’s for a late lunch and got a sampler platter of local foods, which was delicious (I feel like I’m overusing that word, but it’s accurate).

We visited a mall in the middle of town, which ended up being a pretty fascinating experience; the grocery store was full of foods I’d never seen before, and we bought a few snacks to try. One floor had an arcade, and it was really strange to see a Rambo game toward the front.

We were pretty exhausted from the trip and from a day of walking around, so we went back to the hotel around 7 and read for awhile.

Day 11

We spent the day touring two mausoleums and the pagoda.

We got lunch at Cozy Cafe, which was indeed cozy and also delicious (there’s that word again). Our favorite part was the Hue rice cakes, which are a local specialty.

We were feeling a little mausoleum’ed out, so we took a short break after lunch and hung out at the hotel. Also the new Zelda game, Tears of the Kingdom, had just released, so I downloaded it and played that for an hour. It was a blast! I appreciated the creativity of the puzzles and open-ended way in which the game mechanics encouraged you to solve them.

We left our hotel to check out the citadel at 4:00. We thought it would be a 20-minute walk, but it took over 45 min. By the time we got there, it was dumping rain. We had the hardest time locating the entrance, and the rain got progressively heavier. By the time we found the entrance, we were soaked to the bone. We decided to just grab a taxi that got us back to our hotel in a few min.

We got showers and just hung out in the room, listening to the rain. At one point, I made a beer run from the fridge outside. The rain was so heavy that I accidentally ran back and let myself into the wrong room. I was quickly steered in the right direction by the surprised couple who were fortunately fully clothed and just hanging out in their room, too.

We found an umbrella and grabbed a late dinner from a restaurant around the corner. I hit a wall halfway through dinner; I was exhausted.

Day 12

We caught a super early bus to Phong Nha. The Hue River Villa staff were so kind. They booked the bus for us, handled payment (bundling it in our bill), and made us an early breakfast to go so we could eat on the road.

Unbeknownst to us, it was a guided tour bus (we thought it would just be point-to-point transportation), which was actually great. It was helpful to learn more about the DMZ and the devastation wrought by the war.

We stopped at a Catholic Church, picking up some banh mi and iced coffee for lunch. A church service was in progress in the distance as we ate. Everyone was dressed in vividly-colored traditional clothes and singing. I found it fascinating seeing how Catholicism had taken on a distinctly Vietnamese flavor. Even the Virgin Mary and Jesus statues had a Buddhist aesthetic.

We arrived in Phong Nha around 11:30 and got lunch at the Treehouse Cafe. Long, the manager at the Phong Nha Farmstay, picked us up to drive the 10 min to the hotel.

Our room was huge, with two bathrooms, two hammocks, and a balcony on both sides, and featured a stunning view of the verdant rice fields.

We took a long bike ride around the rice fields on some of the hotel bikes. We crossed a bridge into a local neighborhood. It was so cute seeing all the kids running around playing.

Most of them said “hello” and waved. Some of them chimed, in a friendly, singsong intonation, “fuck you,” and then giggled. It cracked me up. They were clearly practicing the most important English words, haha.

Dinner at the hotel was the most expensive we’d had so far, but was so fresh and delicious. I ordered fish, which came with vermicelli noodles, grilled veggies, and rice paper. The traditional way of eating here is to roll the food up in the rice paper, along with some fresh herbs (usually mint). I was such a fan of that style of meal that I’ve continued to make it at least a couple times per week after I’ve returned to the US.

We watched an episode of Yellowjackets and then crashed around 8:30.

Day 13

We’d booked a cave tour which we got up early for. The hotel had prepared omelets and coffee for us first thing.

Unfortunately, the tour bus never showed up. I hopped on a WhatsApp chat with Thao, their coordinator, and learned that they’d had an issue with their system yesterday and didn’t see that my payment had gone through, so we were never confirmed for the tour. They were able to rebooked us for the following day.

We arranged a private driver from the hotel to get us to Paradise Cave instead, which was also on our list to see here. It was stunning–A massive, ancient cavern with some really interesting rock formations. I wondered what it must’ve been like to have first discovered and explored it.

Afterward, we went on a hike at the Phong Nha Botanical Garden. It was a slightly cooler day, plus the hike was shaded, so it was a nice way to spend the afternoon. We even got a swim in under a waterfall in the park.

Day 14: Hang Tien Cave Tour

We woke up early and had breakfast at the hotel before being picked up by the tour company. Our Eurocentric group of spelunkers included people from France, the UK, Finland, Austria, and Switzerland; We were the only Americans.

On the way to the Oxalis office, we passed by a village full of “floating houses.” These are essentially small houses that are built on top of barrels and tethered to poles. This area floods heavily every year, so people stash their possessions in the houses, migrate to the mountains during the rainy season, and then return to their houses when the floodwaters recede. I found this such a fascinating way to live. A life of extremes, of constant change and adaptation. Of being in rhythm with the natural cycles of the seasons, rather than fighting against them.

Before entering the cave, we were asked to wear long-sleeved shirts to protect ourselves from stinging plants. Apparently Vietnam has some pretty gnarly variants of poison ivy. Having had a previous exposure to that, I was not in a hurry to repeat the experience. I showed up in a short-sleeved tee but was able to buy a long-sleeved high-viz shirt from the tour company for $16. The punishingly hot and humid weather made the hike to the cave entrance challenging, but we took frequent water breaks and had access to water filters if needed.

The cave itself was breathtaking. It’s part of a massive network of caves that was only recently discovered and is still being mapped out. We walked about 300m into the cave, passing several pretty otherworldly rock formations. We eventually arrived at an underground river. They had us turn our headlamps off and do a short meditation session in total darkness. It reminded me of sensory deprivation tanks, which I’ve always wanted to try.

After the cave, we hiked to a camp in the jungle where we were treated to a filling lunch of banh mi, veggie rolls, and watermelon. The camp was impressive, complete with composting toilets and changing rooms. During the rainy season, the whole thing is torn down and stashed away.

We also got a refreshing swim in the river near the camp before making our way back. The hike back was still brutally humid, with a lot of elevation, and I was soaked with sweat by the time we reached the van. Thankfully, they had cold beers waiting for us. We did a Vietnamese cheers to a successful day of caving.

“Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!” (One, two, three, cheers!)

Overall, the Hang Tien cave adventure was an unforgettable experience. The unique rock formations and scenery, coupled with the challenging hike and refreshing swim, made for a great day. It was easy to make conversation with others on the tour, and the guides were hilarious.

10/10, would Hang Tien again.

Here’s a YouTube video I put together of it:

Day 15: Misadventures on the sleeper train

After getting back from the cave tour, we booked an overnight bus to Hanoi via our hotel.

I was a little curious about this bus, so I started reading up on the company that ran it and pretty quickly realized that I was feeling horrified to get on it. The reviews were mostly 1-star, mentioning people being yelled at, cockroaches running around everywhere, bathrooms that didn’t work, and some aggressive driving.

By sheer luck, there were a few women from India who were also departing the hotel that night and waiting in the lobby. I asked them what their plan was, and they mentioned that they were taking the sleeper train. We decided to join them. Around midnight, we shared a taxi to Dong Hoi and boarded the train.

Long story short, our night on the sleeper train was pretty comically bad. We had the hardest time even locating the car we were supposed to be in. When we opened the door, we discovered that there were already two people in the lower bunks who had four cats in small cat backpacks who were super not happy we were there and meowed off and on through the night. The AC wasn’t working, so it was hot and stuffy, and the cat dander was just floating around in the air. I have pretty bad cat allergies, and they immediately flared up.

We weren’t sure where to put our luggage, so we crammed it under the beds and table. We quickly noticed that the car was full of cockroaches. At some point during the night, the AC did kick in, and I somehow managed to sleep almost five hours.

Definitely if I ever take another sleeper car, I’d probably just book the whole car to have some privacy. But it makes for a funny story. Like, it was such a bad experience that it was funny even in the moment.

We weren’t totally sure where to get off the train, but I had cell service so I just kept watching the map as we approached Ninh Binh. We got off and left the train station, bleary-eyed and blinded by the bright sunlight. We were about to book a Grab taxi, but found this really kind taxi driver in front of the train station and booked a ride with him.

At the hotel, we unpacked, did laundry, and made plans for the day.

We caught a Grab to Hang Mua and hiked to the top. It was a brutally hot, 98-degree day with 80% humidity. We stopped probably every 10 steps on the climb up the mountain. The view from the top was worth it, though. A pretty stunning view of the surrounding area and the river.

We went to Trung Tuyet restaurant for lunch. It was this really charming, small family restaurant with the sweetest woman running it. We were the only ones there, and lunch was delicious.