Hanoi travel notes and last thoughts on Vietnam

Just a couple of recommendations on Hanoi before I wrap up.

We stayed at the Hanoi Serenity Hotel. The rooms were good enough, the staff was very friendly and happy to help out in any way they could. The building doesn’t have an elevator, so you’ll get some extra exercise if you’re staying on one of the higher floors. What was great about the place was the location, with the old quarter opening up on the hotel’s doorstep.

We didn’t find any place amazing to eat in Hanoi although we tried recommendations from both Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.

One epicurean pleasure was eating at Mediterraneo. It’s an Italian restaurant in the old quarter. The food is quite decent and I really liked the wine (although I am not too hard to please on this front).

What made it wonderful for me though was sitting on the restaurant’s balcony as the sun began to set. St. Joseph’s Cathedral is just at the end of the street, and if you go for an earlier dinner, you’ll be there during the mass. Sitting in the warm, golden, evening air, sipping red wine and listening to the deep peal of the church’s bells (one of my favorite sounds in the world), I could almost imagine I was back in Europe. It was amazing to watch the great number of people who were attending mass; so many that they spilled out into the courtyard in front of the church’s entrance.

I also managed to find another up-scale hotel not too far from the Serenity where I could pay to use their simple gym. Working out so helps my head space – I’m intent on doing this as often as possible.

Grains of salt

Looking back over our time in (and my posts on) Vietnam, I recognize that this was clearly the most challenging country for us (on our travels so far at least!). I’ve mentioned it before but I want to make sure I’m clear about it once more for anyone who might be considering traveling to Vietnam.

I believe that travel is a very subjective, luck (or fate?) based thing. Like life, it’s a mystery but fundamentally I do believe that we attract the experiences we need to have, even if we can’t understand or see clearly why we may need them at the time of their occurrence.

So I don’t (yet?) know why we had hard luck and a tougher time in Vietnam, but I do know that just because that was our experience of the place doesn’t mean that it should be written off. We’ve run into people who were turned off by India, the country that took our hearts by such storm that we are still, nearly a year later, entirely under her spell.

So if you’re feeling drawn to Vietnam, I totally encourage you to go check it out and see what kind of experience YOU have there. I’m sure it will be different from mine, and I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

Itinerary

Here’s the run down of where we went:

July 22 Saigon Lac Vien Hotel
July 31 Dalat Hotel Chau Au – Europa
August 2 Hoi An Hai Au Hotel
August 5 Hue Hue Holiday Hotel and Huenino
August 10 Cu Nam Phong Nha Farm Stay
August 14 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel
August 18 Halong Bay A Class Cruise
Aug 19 – 22 Hanoi Hanoi Serenity Hotel
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Notes on Halong Bay

Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most iconic scenes. Before reading up on it, I was familiar with images of beautiful classic “junk” ships set against the dramatic waterscape, but I hadn’t realized this was Vietnam. The lovely Louise and Patrick highly recommended visiting – noting that even though you basically have no choice but to see it as part of a tourist-package, the gorgeous nature is well worth the risks associated with such tours.

(Risks like: Are you really going to get what they are selling you? Will the weather cooperate? Will the people you’ll be stuck on the boat with nice or nasty? We’d read plenty of horror stories about dingy, rat-infested boats, no refunds when the weather turns bad, etc. The bottom line is, yes, Halong Bay is definitely worth seeing, but make sure the person/business you’re buying the tickets from is trustworthy (we found some pretty dodgy websites and endorsements on-line!) and it is worth spending a bit more money to get on a decent boat – don’t go for something that is rock-bottom budget.)

We booked (through our hotel) an overnight trip with “A Class Cruise” and got reasonably good service/accommodations for a reasonable price. We had bad luck with the weather – it was cool and cloudy the first day and pouring cats and dogs the next – and good luck with the guests who were all friendly and good company. I’d rather have it that way than the other way around, so I was happy. 🙂

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View of our room from the door (small but fine)

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View of our room from the bed

We knew what we were getting into so we weren’t disappointed. The tour company picked us up in a mini-van; the drive to Halong Bay included a refreshment stop at a massive tourist store full of tacky sculpture and mass-produced paintings. Arriving at the Bay, we joined the hundreds of other tourists being herded like sheep to the slaughter by the tour group handlers. It honestly was exactly like queuing in line for a ride at Disneyland on a busy holiday.

The boat was perfectly nice; the food they served was decent and plentiful. The hours on the boat were sliced up into activities – make your own spring rolls, taste some (dull) Vietnamese wine, go visit a “floating village” (nothing compared to the amazing river-villages at Kampong Chhnang), now its time for swimming and/or relaxation before dinner is served, etc…

The nice thing was that even with this and the grey weather, Halong Bay still is very, very beautiful, and I’m glad we saw it. I wonder though if it was glad to see us – with so very many tour boats cruising through the bay with military efficiency (our boat picked up guests from the two-night tour on the way back and our room was ready to receive the next round of fresh meat before we even docked), one can’t help but wonder about (and feel a bit guilty about contributing to) the impact on the environment…

Panorama view of the bay as we (and all the other boats) dropped anchor for the night – click for a closer look

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We get taken for a boat ride around the karsts and village

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Floating snack shop rows from boat to boat selling over-priced beer, chips, etc. It must be a hard living – she was rowing around long after dark and I’m not sure how much she actually sold…

DSC 0432Beautiful scenery!

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One of the things I really loved was watching the eagles (or hawks? or other?) wheeling through the sky above the karsts. So gorgeous!

Some more Hanoi pics and a quick update

Current (coffee) events

It’s Thursday afternoon, which means that we’ve completed four days’ worth of Chinese lessons here in Yangshuo.

Chinese is not easy (especially the pronunciation and comprehension – those tones are subtle and tough to get right!), but it’s also not as cryptic as I had expected. I’d braced myself to deal with bouts of frustration and impatience (I usually can’t stand it when I’m first learning something and am not automatically great at it. 🙂 ) but it’s been really fun so far and I’m actually amazed that I’ve managed to learn as much as I have in these few, packed days. I’ll give most of the credit to Becky, our teacher here at Omeida, who teaches with a great combination of enthusiasm, energy and humor while remaining laid back. 🙂

At the moment I’m a very happy girl because after lots of trial (and lots of error), we’ve FINALLY found a café in town that serves decent coffee. So far our experiences would indicate that the Chinese just don’t do coffee. We’ve tried a new café every day we’ve been here (there are plenty to choose from in the touristy part of town) and the brew at each one has been a total disappointment. So I’m here now, contentedly caffeinated as Leonard Cohen plays in the background, trying to get my mind back to Hanoi. 🙂

Pooped!

By the time we made it to Vietnam’s capital, we were basically done. Travel is of course not meant to be all roses, and the negative experiences we had in Vietnam really weren’t even that bad (one phone stolen, getting ripped off a couple of times, getting sick, getting food poisoning – these are little things and par for the course when you’re travelling for as long as we are I’d say!).

But when we’d had unpleasant things happen to us in other countries, they were quickly counter-balanced by other experiences.

A positive interaction or visiting someplace really beautiful or fascinating or inspirational, a pleasant or relaxed vibe or an awesome meal. These are the things that mentally and emotionally nourish a person when they’re on the road.

In Vietnam, the interactions we had with folks were neutral on the balance, places we visited were pretty, but not moving, intellectually interesting but not emotionally stirring. Walking the streets was hectic, aside from the local eats in Hoi An, we never found any food to get excited about.

Taking it easy in Hanoi

I’m not writing this to complain, but to explain that when we got to Hanoi, we didn’t have tons of energy or enthusiasm for further exploration. (It’s also important to note that travel is SUCH an individual thing – for what ever reason these were our experiences in Vietnam and this doesn’t mean that country isn’t worth visiting if you are contemplating it!) There were a number of touristy things we were considering – visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum or the Hanoi Hilton in the city, or doing a trip to the hills at and around Sapa to experience some minority culture.

But as we started to thaw from the exhaustion of the stink-bus experience, we realized, we simply didn’t want to do these things. The energy and motivation just weren’t there.

So we shortened our list, took things a bit easier, started making our plans for how to get into China. Our hotel was in a good spot, so we had plenty of easy access to the interesting, busy old quarter with its thematic streets. We spent a lot of time drinking coffee and researching at Highland, Vietnam’s answer to Starbucks.

I didn’t take many pictures (believe it or not! 😉 ). So while we visited Ngoc Son Temple and took many a leisurely turn around the lovely Hoan Kiem Lake with its excellent people watching, I have no photos of either.

We visited the Hanoi branch of Fanny’s and I can now report that even durian ice cream stinks. Not only that, but the funky flavor (part gasoline, part sweetened cheese fondue, part sweaty armpit) l i n g e r e d for far too long! I’ve recovered now but would still need to work up my nerve to try the actual fruit.

We did other touristy things – saw the kind of kitsch, kind of cool water puppet show, visited the lovely Temple of Literature, home to Vietnam’s first university. We also made the hotel staff very happy and agreed to book an overnight trip to Halong Bay with them. I’ll do a separate post about Halong Bay. In the mean time though, here are some photos from the Temple of Literature.

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Travel joys: the bus from Cu Nam to Hanoi

Don’t let the title fool you; this is actually a travel gripe. 🙂

So we’d just had this magical moped ride through softly twi-lit farmlands as a new moon rose over the land. I was floating in the beauty of it all when suddenly our drivers unceremoniously dropped us at the bus “station”. Presumably they then sorted out the ticket with the guy who seemed like maybe he worked at the place. The “place” being a lot facing the street in front of what appeared to be someone’s home. And then they were gone.

Our hosts at Phong Nha had said they could fix us up with a bus ticket to our next destination, Hanoi. Had assured us that this particular bus at 8 at night was the only one that we’d be able to get to Hanoi. Had convinced us we needed to leave the home stay at 6 to be there on time.

So there we were at 6:20, the only people hanging out in these folks’ driveway, wondering how we would occupy ourselves for the next hour and a half.

Luckily, it turned out we’d have plenty of time to sort out entertainment. After about five minutes, the guy at the bus station explained to us with limited English that the bus was running late – two hours late in fact. We called the Farm Stay and had them talk to the guy and confirm this unbelievable fact. They said they’d look into things but we never heard from them again.

So, we sat on the little plastic chairs as the last of the light faded, and proceeded to watch as bus after bus, clearly marked with the end-destination of Hanoi, rushed mockingly past us. We were joined by a friendly English teacher, who pulled up a chair and shared cup after thimble-sized cup of the bitterest green tea with me. (Knowing we had an overnight bus ride with the distinct possibility of no bathroom breaks, I’d promised my bladder I wouldn’t drink anything after leaving the hotel. Ah the lengths I will go to be politely social!) Eventually his bus (to Hanoi) showed up and my taste buds could slowly start to uncoil. (And I attempted to make amends with my bladder in the family’s wet, dingy “bathroom”.)

Finally, four hours later, our bus pulled up. We scrambled across the waist high road divider with our luggage and up into the bus.

We’d done overnight buses before in Thailand and figured it would be more or less the same. Something half way between an economy and business class seat in a plane, except with a lot more neon and black light decorations, so you feel like you’re traveling through Thailand inside a rolling fish tank.

Because of this, we were a bit taken aback to discover a whole different set up on the Vietnamese night bus. Three rows of narrow metal bunks, stacked two deep, filled the crammed bus. The pathway between the bunks was so tight that my backpack kept getting stuck as I walked through to the back of the blue-lit bus.

A really nice guy switched his seat so that Roman and I could bunk close to each other. Up into the narrow “bed” we climbed and attempted to get comfortable for the night. The bus took off and the lights went out; the lucky went to sleep and the rest made do.

I was wired from all that green tea, so I plugged in my headphones and tried to enjoy the dark scenery outside, doing my best to block out the sniffling, snorting, snoring, sneezing, vomiting and – most persistent and pervasive – a steady stream of farts that were making their way at regular intervals through the aisles from somewhere in the back of the bus.

After a few hours even I was able to finally nod off; blessedly when I woke up the sun was up and we were nearing Hanoi. Eventually we arrived at the bus station – this time a real one – groggy, sweaty and eager to get to our hotel. My bladder was complaining about all that green tea but there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. Or a taxi we were willing to get into, either.

We’d been instructed by the hotel in Hanoi which cab companies were trustworthy, and how much it should cost us to get from the bus station to the hotel.

We left the bus station parking lot with our big packs, fending off sketchy drivers and scanning traffic for a legitimate cab. After a sweaty quarter-hour of failure, my bladder getting more insistent by the minute, we finally gave up and flagged the next cab we saw.

The driver agreed to use the meter; we thought maybe we’d be all right until we noticed that it was running faster than water through a sieve. In the end the price was well over double what we knew for sure it should be. Roman was an absolute hero and stood his ground with the guy for another fifteen minutes in front of the hotel (no joke, the guy would NOT back down! Finally after Roman threatened to go to the police, the driver grudgingly accepted the fair payment) while I checked us in and (bliss!) use the lobby’s bathroom. I tried to have some breakfast pho, but all I could smell (and subsequently taste) was bus farts – pho may be ruined for me for the near future.

The hotel staff were very sweet but also a bit too well-trained; they took us through the numerous tour options they could arrange for us while I was just trying to revive my brain with cup after cup of coffee. Eventually our room was ready and I gratefully flopped into the non-moving, non-smelly, silent bed. Hello Hanoi!

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Roman managed to snap a quick photo of the bus before he disembarked in Hanoi – just to give you an idea of the set up. 🙂

Expectations and endless green

At this point in the trip it was feeling like quite a challenge to get off of the well-beaten tourist path in Vietnam (more like the well-bulldozed, completely paved six-lane highway of tourism actually). Most destinations listed in Lonely Planet were so well established that the “experience” of them was pretty pre-packaged and ready-made by the tourism machine.

Many places we looked into that were not on the major hit list were described, by Lonely Planet and other sources we cross-referenced, in such a way that they came across as totally and completely unappealing. *

So when we stumbled across information about a “farm stay” that was too new to be in Lonely Planet but came with favorable reviews and wasn’t at a major tourist destination, we were keen to give it a go.

So, we’re not 21 anymore

The Phong Nha Farm Stay was in a small farming village in North-Central Vietnam called Cu Nam. The closest major transportation stop is the beach town of Dong Hoi. The place is owned and operated by an Aussie/Vietnamese couple and her (she’s the Vietnamese half) family.

I think we calibrated our expectations a bit too high.

We’d had such an amazing time at the home-stay in the rural village in Laos, where the family was clearly running a business taking on tourists but none-the-less welcomed us very warmly. The interactions we had with them felt genuine – down to earth and grounded in the simple kindness and straightforwardness we experienced again and again throughout Laos.

So we probably had a bit of that experience lingering in our minds as we anticipated something like a B&B with a farm-like/homey atmosphere at Phong Nha.

The place is more of a proper hotel though, a newly built two-story building with a lounge/restaurant/bar downstairs (complete with pool table) and even an in-ground pool out back. The owners were chummy enough but in an off-hand, impersonal way, and the place seemed geared towards younger backpackers, with drinking being the preferred evening activity for both guests and the Aussies working there.

Not that any of this is a bad thing, but it’s not what we expected (ah, those pesky expectations again!) and not necessarily the scene we’d go for.

Green relief

That being said, being out in pure countryside again after all the time we’d spent in busy cities and tourist spots made for a welcome and nice change. And what countryside it was!

I think I wrote in an early post that I never seem to tire of looking at rice paddies. I can safely say this remains true.

Brilliantly green fields stretched off into the distance just across the road from the hotel and whether from our balcony view or from paths walking or biking along or through the paddies, I just kept drinking in the gorgeous ocean of green stalks swaying in unison like a glowing cloth in the wind.

Low, rounded mountains framed the farmlands in shades of soft purple and blue, like something out of a painting. I’ve included some my photos below; I’ve tried to exercise restraint as most of the pictures I took ended up being simply a whole lot of green and things could get repetitive quite quickly! 🙂

Into the belly of the Earth

One day we visited the Phong Nha cave. It’s apparently a popular destination for Vietnamese tourists and can get pretty crowded and loud, but we got lucky with our timing. The cave is nearly 55 kilometers long, with the first kilometer accessible by guided boats and illuminated for tourists’ benefit by dramatic, colorful lighting.

We had braced ourselves for kitsch but actually it was really spectacular. Entering the yawning mouth of the cave the temperature quickly drops as you are enveloped in darkness. Massive, incredible, rock formations, intricately patterned by centuries upon centuries of water flow, loom to either side of the pitch-black waters being quietly parted by the boat.

I let my imagination wander and at times felt like I was being peacefully rowed to my just desserts along the silent river Styx. 🙂

I didn’t bring my camera along that day, but I don’t think any photo would be able to convey the amazing feeling of being that deep in the earth or the beauty of the natural rock sculpture anyhow – you’ll just have to use your imagination! 😉

Little things I want to remember:

–       We saw numerous churches along the riverside as we explored the area. We didn’t find out any information about this influx of Christianity in the countryside, but it was fun and funny to see the familiar shapes of spires and crosses as we poked around.

–       The arrival of western tourists to the area already seemed to be making its mark on the locals. We were greeted with enthusiasm by village kids who knew only two words in English and used them with great gusto (and repetition): “Hello money!”

–       The sound of the baby buffalos calling out to their mothers across the rice fields. So cute! 🙂

–       Stopping at a random “restaurant” for a coffee on the way to Phong Nha cave. The woman who ran the place was very sweet and her two young grand kids were adorable. I liked the random chicken in a box on the shelf that would occasionally poke its head over the edge to check out the action at my table.

–       The sight and sounds of a large, chatty flock of ducks being “herded” home across wet fields each night as the sun sunk colorfully below the mountains.

–       The gorgeous sunset moped ride to the bus station – getting to see a thin new moon rise up over the fields as we wound along the curvy roads. Beautiful! (And much more fun than the subsequent hours spent waiting at the road-side bus stop watching bus after bus pass by while ours was two hours late!)

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“Hello money!”

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Farmer lost in a sea of green

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Rice close up

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Heading home with the day’s harvest

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Sunset

(Lonely Planet descriptions of places we were considering using as pit stops included encouragement such as “Most people seem to be passing through the dismal town on their way elsewhere…” “There’s no reason to linger in Lao Bao…” “Quant Tri was once an important citadel city, but little of its old glory remains” “The sales pitch can be relentless, even intimidating. Some rowers have refused to budge until visitors purchased something.” (this for one of the more beautiful landscapes they recommended visiting) “Despite attempts to prettify the place with trees and parks, this is an industrial city through and through. There are precious few reasons to stop here…” It wasn’t all like this, but sometimes we got the feeling the authors of this particular LP didn’t actually like the country they were writing about very much!)

Quick notes on Hue

I feel like I posted a ton of photos from Hue (including a bit of info about the Citadel), so I will keep this entry brief.

I think Hue may have been our favorite stop in Vietnam. A nice-sized city (the population is around 330,000 according to Lonely Planet), it had a more relaxed atmosphere than crowded and totally urban Saigon and Hanoi. At the same time, its size allowed it to absorb the tourist tide more effectively than places like Hoi An and Dalat – it didn’t feel over-taken by tourism and for me had a nice grounded and “lived in” energy to it, if that makes any sense.

We also stayed at my favorite hotel in Vietnam, the Hue Holiday Hotel. Our room felt brand new, was spotlessly clean, and the staff were super accommodating and genuinely friendly. Excellent value for money too. The hotel was down a narrow alleyway, located in the touristy area of town but with Vietnamese homes just outside the hotel entrance. I loved catching glimpses of the families’ day to day lives as we came and went.

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Our room at the Hue Holiday Hotel – complete with real flowers on the bed

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The delightfully clean bathroom!

Another big positive about Hue for me is that I took the initiative to find a posh hotel about a 10 minute walk from where we were staying that had a small gym and a big pool, so a couple of times during our stay I got a work-out in. (If I remember correctly, this was at the Imperial Hotel. Insanely posh and a bit on the expensive side for the per-gym-visit price but access to the outdoor pool made it worth it) Aside from the obvious physical benefit, working out in some form or another is so good for my head space – it’s something I’m trying to do more often while we are still on the road.

Things I want to remember include:

– How wonderfully, genuinely fun it was to fly a kite!
– How infinitely patiently Roman untangled the kite line when it got into an incredibly huge tangle. Also the very sweet teacher who came to talk to us while he worked on the mess. 🙂
– The peaceful walk through the residential area on the north side of town and the friendly cyclo driver we met there.
– The lively atmosphere at the nightly street market along the riverside.

Less fun to remember is getting food poisoning; we actually had to extend our stay by one day because I was in no shape to travel. I can’t say for certain which restaurant may have made me sick. Most of the places we ate were all right but nothing special. The one restaurant in town I can recommend is Vegetarian Restaurant Bo De. Although Roman was less impressed than I was, I really enjoyed the interesting and tasty 100% vegetarian dishes, and I can guarantee that I didn’t get sick from their food! 🙂

Hoi An overview and travel notes

We enjoyed the return to sultry tropical heat in Hoi An after our cool down in Dalat.

Hoi An is an entire village in central Vietnam that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its centuries-old, fascinating mix of architecture.

It was once a port town that hosted traders from neighboring Asian and Southeast Asian countries to more distant destinations such as Holland, Portugal, France, Britain and even America.

Chinese and Japanese traders spent significant time in the town – four months a year while they would wait for favorable winds to escort their ships back home. As such, Chinese and Japanese aesthetics can still be seen in some of the town’s architecture today.

We’d heard the place can get pretty crowded with tourists, but that the beautiful buildings were worth a visit.

As Lonely Planet puts it, “More so than with other towns, the tourist economy is both a boon and a bane to little Hoi An. Without it, the alluring houses of the Old Town would have crumbled into the river years ago. With it, the face of the Old Town has been preserved but its people and purpose have changed beyond recognition…. (I)t’s so often choked with visitors that it feels more like a movie set than an authentic town.”

Having set our expectations before we arrived, we could take and enjoy it for what it was – a beautifully picturesque but somewhat-Disneyland-feeling representation of a historic Vietnamese port town that just happened to be located at what used to be a Vietnamese port town. A previous post has some photos of the town.

Food and accommodation notes

Hoi An also provided the best food we experienced in all of Vietnam. We had local specialties at Miss Ly Cafeteria 22 (thanks Pirmin for the recommendation 🙂 ) that were outstanding! “White rose” – delicate, delicious rice paper dumplings with succulent shrimp inside – and “cao lau” – satisfyingly thick noodles mixed with greens, bean sprouts and bacon-like slices of crispy pork – were the two local dishes we tried there. Genuine cao lau noodles can apparently only be found in Hoi An as they are specially made with local water that apparently gives them a distinct taste. All I know is that the combination of flavors and especially textures in the dish at Cafeteria 22 were amazing!

We also indulged in what for us has become total comfort food on this trip with some pretty darn good Indian fare at Shree Ganesh. The German-owned but Italian-themed Casa Verde had espresso and home-made ice cream that made my day.

After our experience in Dalat, we booked ahead at the TripAdvisor recommended Hai Au hotel (at this point we’ve pretty much given up using Lonely Planet for hotels – TripAdvisor tends to have much wider selection, more up-to-date reviews, and, very helpfully, photo documentation from guests). A bit on the pricey side at 35 dollars a night, it was a step up from our hotel in Dalat, with decent rooms, super fast wifi, a very nice breakfast buffet included in the price, and super friendly staff.

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White roses – delicate and delicious

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Super tasty cao lau

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Fragrant fish cooked in a banana leaf – also good although not as amazing as the local specialties. 🙂

Pics from Hue, round one!

Continuing to speed my way through the Vietnam posts, here are some photos from our time out and about in Hue. Citadel photos to follow.

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There was this great outdoor night market along the Perfume River (deceptively alluring name! If it smelled at all, it was NOT pleasant!). The side-walk was full of vendors and pedestrians and the river bank would be lined with these gaudy, bright dragon boats with seemingly nearly as much action taking place in them as on dry land.

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Sandals outside house doors on the alleyway our hotel was on. I loved the families living on this little street. Three generations living together – cute kids and smiley grandmas!

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A rare, traffic free moment on the Tran Tieng bridge

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Wares for sale on the sidewalk. Not sure if the boots were on offer too…

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Street vendor sets up shop under a tree

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Early evening sky over the Perfume River

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Incense and flower offerings to a spirit tree

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A glimpse inside a repair shop

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A horse decorating a home’s outdoor shrine

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Parked cyclo and firewood