A Travellerspoint blog

Nha Trang

We have a friend from home, Justin, who decided to leave Calgary last year and move to Vietnam. As beautiful of a city as Calgary is, the white sandy beaches, turquoise blue ocean and hot, sunny days of Nha Trang just seemed to be calling his name. He made a quick trip back to Calgary a few months ago and we mentioned to him that we were planning a trip to Vietnam. Immediately he reminded us of his new found home and from then on, we were destined for a visit. As we had been told by a few people that we didn’t need to go to Nha Trang because it was “just another beach town”, we were pleasantly surprised by what it had to offer. It also may have helped that we had local tour guides to show us around and take us to places that most tourists don’t even know exist.
Our first few days in Nha Trang were pretty relaxing - listening to the massive waves crashing along the beach (seriously, they were HUGE!) while we enjoyed the sun shining on and burning our skin, drinking coconut water right from the coconuts and enjoying the dense, green mountains jutting out of the ocean all around us. Not too shabby, to say the least!

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On our second night, we met up with Justin and his girlfriend, Hue. Hue is amazing! She is from a town called Ha Tinh in northern Vietnam but moved to Nha Trang a few years ago. Justin met her at the dive shop they both worked at and they have been inseparable ever since. She made sure that we had the true Vietnamese food experience while we were there. We even joked that a few of the restaurants she took us to, Justin had never even known existed - we were the “special guests” ;). Whether it was the restaurant on the corner where we made our own spring rolls while sitting on plastic chairs and drinking beer on ice, or the restaurant beside an old rice field turned lake where we ate the most amazing fish and deep fried pancakes - we were always full and never left without a smile on our faces.

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On our last day in Nha Trang, Hue said she had a very “special” place for us to visit. Excited and eager to explore, we rented our motorbike and met up with them at their apartment. Helmets on for safety, (and a new triangle hat in tow! Thanks Hue ;) ) we twisted and turned our way out of the city and along the coastal highway. We drove through so many cute little fishing villages with their blue boats swaying in the waves, little kids running on and off the sidewalks playing tag and so many dogs just trying to find some extra scraps of food. Even on the hectic Vietnam roads, we felt peaceful and relaxed.

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After a 30 minute drive, (which supposedly is an eternity for Vietnamese drivers), we finally made it to our destination – The Ba Ho Waterfalls. There was a “path” leading to the river and eventually the waterfalls, but it was barely that. There were rocks and tree roots jutting out of the ground with the occasional water pipe acting as the path for a short time, which ultimately gave our $7 sandals from Thailand a run for their money!

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We continued our hiking adventure when all of a sudden, the trail opened up to gigantic boulders towering in to the sky, a flowing river meandering through the middle and an enormous lush, green jungle bordering it all. As the sun shined down on us, we looked up to the left and saw the first of three (yes three!) beautiful waterfalls. It was easy to just stand there in awe, listening to the thundering water carve its way through the rocks and watching the sun glisten off the mist…but we had to forge on as there were two more to see! We finally made it to the top after choosing the most difficult trail to hike which included scaling boulders, holding on to whatever tree roots we could grasp and jumping huge crevices. Once we arrived at the top we realized that the arduous journey was ultimately worth it. The views were absolutely stunning and we savoured each minute we could while looking over the river below. 

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Our time in Nha Trang was amazing. It was so great to meet up with old friends and make new ones at the same time. Our adventures in food and travel were second to none and this city will always hold a place on our hearts. Thank you so much Justin and Hue, for showing us the time of our lives!

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Posted by BlondeandCurly 10:18 Archived in Vietnam Tagged waterfalls food fishing hiking village spring roll motorbike nha trang Comments (0)

Hoi An - The Town of Lanterns

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Well, well, well, we have finally made it to the town that everyone has raved about our entire trip! Each traveller we ran into always asked us the same question, “Have you been”, or, “Are you going to Hoi An”? The moment we arrived, we realized why everyone was making such a fuss - there is something special about this gem of a town and it’s hard to explain without witnessing it in person. Hoi An has been inhabited for over 2200 years and has not evolved easily with the changing times. It was almost destroyed in the Tay Son rebellion and as the Thu Bon River silted up within the last century, the town was no longer able to support large vessels and lost its major port status to Danang. This was a blessing in disguise for the town though, as the town has retained its’ small town feel and charm. The Ancient Town, which is where most everyone spends their time, is now filled with buildings of many cultural influences. From the Japanese merchant houses, to the Chinese temples; French colonial buildings to Buddhist Pagoda’s, this town feels magical and accepting to whomever enters.

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In order to visit the preserved Ancient buildings in the old town, we had to purchase an entrance ticket that allows access to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ticket however, only allows you to enter 5 out of hundreds of buildings, so we had to choose wisely. One of the sites we decided to see was an old Apothecary, filled with bottles, jars and vases – some of which held the original “medicines” used by the people of the town hundreds of years ago. Next we visited the Tan Ky House – a house built over 200 years ago and is still lived in by the same family. It was originally built by a Vietnamese family, however throughout the house there remains Chinese (poems and characters written on beams) and Japanese (ceilings carved with sabres) architectural influences. One beam in particular resides in the back of the house which is marked like a growth chart. However, instead of measuring the heights of children, the lines instead represent how high the water has been during many of Hoi An’s floods. In 1964, the largest flood of the century, the water almost reached the ceiling of the 1st floor – 9 or 10ft high.

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The one day we did not explore the old town, we took a tour to My Son, which is an area 37km away from Hoi An, covered in religious Hindu temples built over 1000 years ago. Settled underneath the Sandstone Mountains, in a lush green jungle with trickling streams meandering throughout, this site was an extremely important area to the Champa Kingdom. It was used for prayer mostly, but was assumed to be a burial site for monarchs as well. The temples look similar in colour and shape to the temples of Angor Wat; however they are much smaller and are in poor condition. Because most of the temples were destroyed in the Vietnam War (the Northern Vietnamese fighters were hiding in the temples, so the American’s bombed the entire area destroying all but 20 structures) archaeologists and local agencies have been trying to rebuild them as naturally as possible. This is noticeable in the temples as the newest areas have bright orange stones and the original areas are a darker black color. The archaeologists are still uncertain of exactly how these structures were constructed and are amazed that the older bricks are continuing to outlast the new ones.

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As we neared the end of our time in Hoi An, we realized that one of our favourite things about this town was exploring at night. There were lights shining up and down the streets with neon signs flashing outside stores and restaurants. People were wandering around with their eyes peering into every shop trying to figure out how much to bargain for. And then, there were the lanterns. Oh, the lanterns! There were so many of them everywhere and they were absolutely beautiful, as if they were floating above us in the night sky, adding to the magical spell this town has already cast upon us. Each lantern had its’ own shape and colour and they were strung up for what seemed like miles, from shop to shop, building to building. No matter what was happening around the town, they seemed to steal the show as every tourist was snapping pictures, taking videos or buying these whimsical ornaments.

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On a lesser note we were lucky enough to have eaten at one of the restaurants featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Anthony Bourdain - Banh Mi Vietnam video link. They are world renowned for their Banh Mi and they did not disappoint. Even with all of the fame that the show provided to this small sandwich shop, the prices remain low and the quality is excellent. We highly recommend this place when in Hoi An.

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Anyone who is planning on heading to the beach while in Hoi An should know that due to a violent storm, Cua Dai beach has eroded significantly and continues to erode at an alarming rate. Large parts of the beach are now sandbagged and the water is very dangerous to swim in. Nice beach does remain in certain parts around Hoi An, but please ask around and make sure that you find the right spot before heading out.

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And just for fun

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Posted by BlondeandCurly 07:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples lanterns my son town bridge vietnam old ancient hoi an Comments (3)

Danang & the Hai Van Pass

The Hai Van Pass & Marble Mountain

There are a few different options when deciding how to travel from Hue to Danang: plane, train, bus, or motorcycle. The most stunning though, is driving the Hai Van Pass. This pass is quite famous and we were told specifically by some friends that we could not miss these views. We contemplated whether or not we should rent our own motorcycle and drive ourselves so we could get an incredible 360 degree view. However, if you’ve read any of our last blog entries you’ll understand how much we “LOVE” the traffic in Vietnam and how safe we feel on the roads ;), so we decided to hire our own driver and a car to summit the pass. We felt extremely happy with our decision when we started the incline on one of the most twisty, turny roads we have been on – on one side of the car was a cliff straight up the mountain and the other side, a cliff straight down to the ocean. With cars, motorcycles, trucks, cows, dogs, you name it, coming straight at you or darting out onto the already small 2-laned highway; we would have completely missed the views and scenery trying to dodge it all. So, while our driver had to worry about the oncoming traffic, we could sit back and relax (kind of) and enjoy the absolutely stunning views around us.

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Once we summited the pass, we were surprised by what lay on top. Our driver informed us that this was an old military outpost. During the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the pass was an important military site which served as a protection for the Hue Royal Citadel. It also separates the north and south of Vietnam, and allows whoever controls it a very large field of view, which is why it also became a very strategic point for the US Military during the Vietnam War

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Once we conquered the pass, we descended into the city of Danang. Danang surprised us greatly and though some people told us it was just a beach town that could be skipped over, we actually found some really cute treasures and some pretty neat attractions in and around the city. Our first stop was the Marble Mountains. It’s a group of 5 marble mountains named for the natural element it’s said to represent; Thuy Son (Water), Moc Son (Wood), Hoa Son (Fire), Kim Son (Metal or Gold) and Tho Son (Earth). Thuy Son is the only mountain open to the public which unfortunately made it very busy with tourists, but we were able to walk around freely and took in what we could.

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Danang & Lady Buddha

After almost 2 weeks of straight sight-seeing adventures, we welcomed the beach with open arms. The first day, we literally did not leave the beach, which was a big feat for Sean! I’m usually the beach bum :) We had a few days of relaxation, listening to the waves crashing on the shore and soaking up the sun. To our surprise, the beach was fairly empty and we soon found out that it’s low season in Danang, which made our beach time that much better. On the morning of one of our beach days, we finally took the plunge and rented our own motorbike to head up one of the nearby mountains to see the Lady Buddha. Situated on a small hill on the mountain, the Lady Buddha is pure white and the tallest Buddha statue in all of Vietnam at about 220ft tall, overlooking Danang. It is so massive that you really just need to sit there for a few minutes to really take it all in.

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At night, we explored the city a little more and found that it is super busy, filled with people and lights. The streets we walked on during the day suddenly filled with couples and families out for dinner or shopping, small circus areas that were creepily deserted in the day were now packed with kids playing and laughing. Even the bridges were covered with people taking pictures of the city and the famous fire breathing dragon bridge. The dragon bridge was our favourite, and a must see when in Danang.

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As a suggestion from a friend, we sought out a little restaurant called Tam’s Pub and Surf Shop – the owner is this little Vietnamese lady, Tam, who was one of the translators for the American troops during the Vietnam War. She became friends with many of the soldiers, which in turn has allowed her to have an incredible amount of stories to tell with each wall in the restaurant telling some of those stories through pictures. As she learned to cook american food to help support the soldiers, She mastered the art of making her world famous bacon cheeseburgers, which are the BEST burgers we have ever had - EVER!!! So if you are ever in Danang please look her up and enjoy the stories. We are off to Hoi An now and the land of the eternal lanterns.

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Posted by BlondeandCurly 03:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains beach lights bridge vietnam buddha dragon lady pass van neon marble danang hai Comments (3)

Up, Up and Hue!

Arriving in Hue (spoken like HWAY) from Hanoi was a wonderful reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the capital city. There are still crazy drivers and honking motor bikes everywhere, but it is definitely more tranquil in comparison to Hanoi. Now that we have mastered our role as pedestrians in this motorized world and feel more comfortable wandering the streets, we decided to start exploring the city.

The main attraction in Hue is the Imperial Enclosure, which held the royal families from the Dynasty's that ruled for hundreds of years. Just like Ho Chi Minh's grounds in Hanoi, this citadel complex was massive. We're still astounded at how large these places are and after 5 hours of walking around, we only saw a fraction of what was offered! The outside of the citadel is surrounded by a large moat and a brick/cement wall that is 2m thick, 6m tall and 10km's long. The Flag Tower juts up from the centre of the wall, looming over the grounds with one of the largest Vietnamese flags we've seen. Once we crossed the moat, entered the citadel and passed through the walls, we found the Imperial Enclosure. More protective cement walls were now surrounding us, protecting all things important for the Dynasty's that once ruled.

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We then passed through the Ngo Mon Gate, (which faces the Flag Tower) where each royal visitor would pass through to see the King. Once through the gate, you walk right into the Thai Hoa Palace, where the King would sit in his gold plated, elevated throne, waiting for those who entered. No photography was allowed inside, but it was truly ornate. When we finally made it through the Palace, we were greeted with the Enclosure grounds. Everything from temples, palaces and pagoda's, to beautiful and colourful gardens with golden dragon statues, shrines and urns of the deceased Dynasty rulers and the houses where they would reside. It was pretty awe inspiring to see the colours and intricate architecture that unfolded before us. Definitely worth the 5 hour wander!

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The day after exploring the Imperial Enclosure, we headed to the DMZ (demilitarized zone). Both of us enjoy learning about war history and unfortunately the Vietnam war was a war that we really were in the dark about. Not knowing a lot about it, we thought this would be a great way to learn about it in an unbiased way. The DMZ was an area on either side of the Ben Hai River that was considered a "no man's land" during the war. From 1954-1975 it was supposed to act as a border between the North and South, however we found out that it eventually would have some of the worst bloodshed in the entire war - Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, Lang Vay, etc. and ended up being one of the most militarized zones on the planet. The tour took us to the 17th parallel, the Rock Pile, a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the American base of Khe Sanh and the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Although there was a lot of driving involved, this tour has been one of our favourites. We have also included some pictures from the war to give everyone an idea of what it looked like before.

Rockpile

I am not going to lie, if we were not on a tour, we would have driven right by this mountain on our way to the American base. However, its history is quite significant for the Americans. The mountain is 230m tall and was once a US Marine Corps lookout point as well as a base for long range artillery. The top of the mountain was most accessible by helicopter.

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Dakrong Bridge

The current design of the Dakrong Bridge was built in 1975. Because this river crossing was a major artery for the north Vietnamese, and was considered the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. Note: the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a concept, not a road. The trail was a vast network, spread across hundreds of miles of terrain extending far into the interior of Laos. According to our guide this network was a network of hundreds of kilometers of trails that brought supplies to the North Vietnamese troops, usually on the backs of porters or for the larger loads, strapped to the back of bicycles.

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Khe Sanh American Combat Base

This was the site of the most famous seige of the American War where the north Vietnamese attacked the base from the peripheral mountains. The base was never overrun, but it ended up being one of the bloodiest battles entire War. The 75 day seige started on January 21, 1968 and according to our book, 500 American, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and large numbers of civilians died in and around this base. Our guide told us that it is now well documented that this battle was only a diversion to draw US attention away from major southern Vietnamese cities in preparation for the Tet Offensive (one of the largest military campaigns of the entire war) which began 1 week after this battle began.

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The base prior to the attacks

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The base after the attacks

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Truong Son National Cemetary

Here lies the bodies of 10,000 North Vietnamese Soldiers who died during the War. Each tombstone has the inscription "Martyr".

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If you made it this far, thanks for reading. We are on our way over the Hai Van Pass to Danang for some much needed beach time. Till next time.

Posted by BlondeandCurly 03:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged military vietnam pagoda war hue imperial dynasty citadel dmz vietcong Comments (2)

Halong Bay & Sapa

Halong Bay

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Happy Valentine's Day everyone! We really wish we had a wonderful romantic story to tell you regarding our valentines day however ours ended up being a little hectic, but worth it. We started off our day at 8am by getting picked up at our hotel by Tony (our Halong bay guide), thus beginning our 4.5 hour drive to the coast on one of the craziest roads we've ever been on. I'm not sure why we continue to be surprised by the chaos, however we honestly believed that the road to one of Vietnam's premier destinations would have better access (we eventually learned that they simply didn't want to pay the tolls so they avoided the nice highway). The trip was only 110km and it honestly took 4.5 hours. We were tossed around the bus, horns honking and the breaks screeching.... SUCH A GONG SHOW. We're not really sure how more people aren't seriously injured or dead.

We finally made it to Halong Bay, the sun was shining and hot as we boarded a little transport boat that took us from the port to our "Lemon Tour Boat". We opted only to stay one night on the ship as we heard from others that this was sufficient, and it was. The ship was pretty standard; our room was basic but cute, nice dinning facilities and a wide open sun deck which was great for sightseeing (and we finally had a comfy mattress!) We were fed some lunch and our adventure began. We first visited the islands and a small little beach where some people opted to kayak, but we decided to get in some rays on the sand. These islands, honestly, are so hard to describe. Only pictures could attempt to and those won't even do them justice. They are absolutely beautiful, scattered in each direction, rock faces with a variety of green, lush vegetation growing in between the cracks, hawks gliding in the wind circling their nest on the highest of perches, turquoise water with a little bit of haze melting into a never ending blue sky - stunning to say the least.

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We had supper on the boat and went squid fishing in the dark while listening to our fellow ship mates sing karaoke. In the AM, we were taken ashore and allowed to explore some of the caves on one of the islands. While it would have been nice to stay an extra day or two in Halong City, the next tour called, so back on the death road to the train station for our overnight train to Sapa, in the north.

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Sapa

So, the night train... this was my (Lindsay's) first experience with such a thing and all I can say is: I'm glad I was able to experience it one time in my life, but I would only ever do it again out of necessity!

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It worked out well for us this time as the Sapa tour began as soon as we got off the train and headed to our hotel. We ate breakfast and rented some rubber boots prior to meeting our group and beginning our trek through the hills. No rest for the wicked ;). Our first trekking day was quite foggy, so we were unable to see much of the landscape. These trails are so, so muddy and slippery that it was hard to even look up or around without the fear of falling! Our guide, Quang, told us that most people when they remember Sapa, remember only the mud. It's true! There were some lovely local ladies who followed our group for the whole trek and were there to help us out with the slippery parts. Sean and I, being from Canada and the rocky mountains, were slightly cocky about not needing their help...and then quickly bit our tongues as we realized how slippery the trails actually were!

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Our second day was one for the books. The sun came out early in the day and we unfortunately ended up with sunburns as we were not expecting this type of weather. Quang told us that this amount of sunshine is very rare at this time of year. He reminded us many times that we were very lucky to have the views that we did. Everything we saw this day was spectacular! What was hidden by the fog the day before, was out in full force and we were in awe. Mountains were soaring farther above us than we had imagined, the colours of the flowers were sparkling in the sun and the layers of rice fields were stretched out as far as the eye could see.

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After Sapa, we hopped a bus back to Hanoi where we spent the night. We are headed to Hue next.

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Posted by BlondeandCurly 08:33 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains beaches boats cliffs hiking trekking rice tours north bay sapa halong limestone paddies Comments (5)

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