Through Rice Paddies and into Caves

To continue our outdoor activities, we headed south from Cát Bà to see the limestone peaks rising out of lush rice paddies in Tam Coc and to explore some of the giant caves in Phong Nha.

Tam Coc & Ninh Binh

Tam Coc is supposed to be a beautiful sea of lush green rice paddies with stunning limestone peaks shooting vertically skyward - that is, if you don’t visit during winter. When we arrived, the paddies were still mud pastures just starting to turn green and the sky was a dreary gray. Regardless, the limestone peaks made for an impressive landscape not unlike that of Halong Bay. We explored the region by scooter, weaving through rice paddies and between small towns. That evening we found a small local brewery in Ninh Binh - not a bad way to end the day!

Mama buffalo looked like she was going to kick us off our bike to protect the baby.

Travel tip: If you’re interested in visiting Vietnam but pressed for time, skip Tam Coc. Cát Bà and the Halong Bay area are more beautiful and have more activities to offer!

Phong Nha

We took a bus from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi where we were supposed to connect with a local bus out to Phong Nha. As the travel gods would have it, our bus arrived in Dong Hoi after the last bus left so we followed some fellow travelers to a hostel and crashed for the night before catching another bus in the morning. Hooray for flexible travel plans!

Phong Nha is a small town along the western border of Vietnam near Laos. The Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park is home to over 300 caves and grottoes, including the largest cave in the world (Sơn Đoòng Cave) and the longest underground river. Our first foray into the park was via boat along the Son River to visit Phong Nha Cave. The boat ride is about thirty minutes from town and then travels about 1.5 kilometers into the cave, which is basically nothing considering the cave is 44.5 kilometers long! Due to its massive size, this cave was also used as a hideout, hospital, and for storage during the Vietnam War.

The entrance to Phong Nha Cave
Photography in a cave is hard since it's dark and hard to capture scale.

Our second day in Phong Nha, we rented a scooter to explore more of the national park and visit Paradise Cave. First discovered in 2005 and opened to the public in 2010, the cave is considered the longest dry cave in Asia and named so because of its beautiful interior. It is MASSIVE inside and contains spectacularly colored stalagmites and stalactites. This was easily the most impressive cave we have ever seen, plus it was fun to do some actual hiking through the cave and the surrounding park. But don’t worry: we stuck to the trails since the park has one of the highest concentrations of unexploded ordinances in the world, particularly on its border with Laos.

A view into the cave near the entrance and looking back up all the steps we came down.

After Paradise Cave, we took the long way home with a drive through the mountainous jungle roads. This area was one of the most beautiful places we visited in all of Vietnam.

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Hanoi Excursions: Sa Pa & Cát Bà

We used Hanoi as a springboard for a few excursions before leaving northern Vietnam. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve we headed north for a three day trek in Sa Pa, and after the holidays we went east to Cát Bà Island so we could see the famous Halong Bay.

Trekking in Sa Pa

Part of the package we booked for Sa Pa included a super nice overnight train ride. Unfortunately, going to sleep right after boarding and being woken up at 5 am made the train not that exciting. Coming from temperate Hanoi, we were surprised that nobody mentioned just how cold, rainy, and muddy Sa Pa would be. Thankfully, we brought our full packs with all the weather gear we needed. Several other people in our group came with nothing more than shorts, flip flops, and t-shirts so they had to walk into town to purchase brand new boots, socks, pants, coats, and hats. Luckily for them, it was crazy cheap to buy North Face knockoffs.

We started our trek through the region by hiking down a muddy mountain between rice paddies. Before long, everyone’s butt was covered in mud after many falls. Several local women followed our group, offering help down the slopes while only wearing simple rubber boots on their feet, making us feel pretty pathetic in our high tech gear. Some even carried children in baskets on their back! We quickly learned that these women were working for tips and anyone who used their help was more or less required to buy souvenirs from them at the break points.

The rice paddy terracing makes the area look like a giant topographical map.

All the guides we met along the hike could weave crowns, bracelets, and more from the grasses and leaves along the trail. Our guide taught Vesper how to make a horse. He was very proud of his creation.

In order to see how the local ethnic groups live, our guide took us through several villages that dot the countryside. We saw gardens and livestock, learned how to make spring rolls, and watched kids playing with makeshift toys. We also learned how local textiles are woven and dyed and saw a working water-powered rice flour mill.

These kids were riding down the hill on a six inch metal rod stuck through a ball bearing. Creativity and lots of balance required.
The red color is an algae that grows in some of the rice paddies, which can be used as food for pigs.

The last day of our hike, we stopped at a beautiful waterfall before heading back to catch the train to Hanoi. Despite the cold weather, some hikers even jumped in for a quick swim! We were not that brave.

The island of Cát Bà

Many visitors to northern Vietnam opt to do a cruise through the iconic Halong Bay, but we followed the advice of friends and went directly to Cát Bà. The Halong area is more about resorts and cruises, while Cát Bà is more for budget-minded backpackers. From here, we were still able to do a full day boat cruise exploring Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay where we kayaked through small caves and limestone isles, visited fish farms, and ate some delicious local seafood for lunch.

A floating village of fish farms. There were also a few pearl farms throughout the bay.
Kayaking through caves and around Lan Ha Bay.

We also explored the island by scooter, visited an old cannon fort, hiked through the national park, and spent a little R&R on some of the island’s beaches. The town of Cát Bà is nothing to write home about, but the scenery of the island and surrounding bays is a unique and beautiful landscape to explore.

Around the Cannon Fort.
The view from a lookout point in Cát Bà National Park.

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History, Food, and the Holidays in Hanoi

We arrived in Hanoi on December 23 to find the Old Quarter abuzz with people and decorations for the holidays. The energy was contagious, and we were excited to be in a new country and ready to try all the new things! New food, new sights, and a new language all waiting to be discovered.

We started off our explorations of the city with several museums and cultural landmarks. The Vietnam Military History Museum had old aircraft, bombs, and other paraphernalia from the Indochina Wars and throughout the rest of Vietnam’s history. We also visited the Hỏa Lò Prison, sarcastically called the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs from the Vietnam War. Most of the prison has been demolished, but the part remaining documents both the French use of torture on Vietnamese political prisoners in the first half of the 1900s as well as the Vietnamese detention of American POWs during the 1960s. The most interesting aspect was that they held nothing back documenting the French atrocities to Vietnamese prisoners, but emphasized how well the Vietnamese treated American POWs. Although American POWs have documented the torture and poor living conditions there, the museum only showed positive and humane treatment: prisoners playing basketball and volleyball, having Christmas feasts, etc. - living situations so nice that it was like being in a hotel!

A memorial to the American War (aka Vietnam War)
Murals of the tortured Vietnamese political prisoners
The entrance to Hỏa Lò Prison

While in town, we also saw the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda before heading to the Temple of Literature. Built in 1074 as a temple to Confucius, it also houses the country’s first national university. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place to wander around and learn a bit about the Vietnamese education system.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda
Laura: "That's a cool topiary." Vesper: "I think you mean dope-iary!"
The Temple of Literature
A kylin or qilin, one of the four mythical animals from Chinese mythology
Turtle steles honoring successful graduates

Apart from the cultural sights, our favorite part of Hanoi was the food. It was DELICIOUS! Since we were spending Christmas away from home, we signed up for a food tour on Christmas Day to meet up with other travelers and learn more about Vietnamese cuisine. It was an awesome way to learn how to eat certain foods and what the Vietnamese words are for things like beef, chicken, grilled, noodles, etc. Foods we ate included:

Phở: This beef or chicken noodle soup can be found pretty much anywhere, often at tiny plastic tables and stools along the sidewalk. Served up with limes, peppers, and chili paste, a bowl will run you around $1.
Nộm bò khô: A dried beef and green papaya salad, mixed with various herbs, chilies, and peanuts. It’s spicy, sweet, and delicious!
Bánh cuốn: Super thin pancakes/dumplings made from rice batter and filled with pork, mushrooms, and shallots eaten after you dip them into fish sauce.
Bánh mì: Made with rice flour in addition to wheat flour, these baguettes are much lighter and airier (and we’d argue better) than their French counterparts. While the bread is delicious, we’ve been a bit spoiled by the gourmet versions from back home and found the ones here to be a bit underwhelming - especially since many of them are served with pâté which we aren’t the biggest fans of. In addition to phở, this is probably one of the most common street foods.
Nem chua rán: Fermented and deep fried pork sausages. This might sound weird, but trust us: so good!
Bánh gối: A “pillow cake” or a deep fried pastry filled with minced pork, mushrooms, seasoning, etc. We’ve decided this is the Vietnamese version of an empanada.
Phở cuốn: Basically a rolled-up form of phở without broth. Instead of noodles, a rice paper is rolled around veggies, herbs, and beef and then dipped into a sweet sauce.
Cà phê trứng: Egg coffee is a decadently sweet drink made of beaten egg yolks, sugar, and condensed milk mixed with coffee. This can be found in cafes all over Hanoi.
Bún riêu cua: A tomato broth soup with freshwater crabs and tofu. This was the only soup in all of Vietnam we did not like. It was far too fishy, the tofu was soggy, and it was just not good compared to everything else we ate.
Bún bò Nam Bộ: Hands down the best meal of the country! Seriously. It’s actually a dish from southern Vietnam, but our hostel recommended a place to try a bowl of this amazing noodle, beef, peanut, bean sprout dish. We loved it so much we had it three or four times while we were in the city.

Side note: Vietnamese is a super hard language to speak! Despite us now knowing how to read a lot of different words, people stare at us blankly when we try and order in Vietnamese because a minor change in tone means we have said something completely different. There are six tones in northern Vietnamese, and they can entirely change the word. For example, the word “ma” can mean six different things depending on how you pronounce it: ma = ghost, mà = but, má = cheek or mother, mả = tomb or grave, mã = horse or code, mạ = rice seedling. Our untrained ears can barely hear the difference between these.

We ended up in Hanoi for New Year’s Eve, and our hostel had a huge (free!) hot pot dinner to celebrate. Hanoi also introduced us to bia hơi or “fresh beer.” This ultra light beer is brewed daily and is dirt cheap - about 25 cents a glass! There was even a “Beer Corner” near our hostel, which was packed with visitors perched on tiny plastic stools drinking this beer while music blasted from the stages set up for the holidays. It was a pretty great way to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve!

The ever-crowded "Beer Corner" and its plastic tables made for tiny people.
New Year's Eve celebration with DJ Mari Ferrari
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Hanoi!

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Two Weeks in Laos

We spent two weeks traveling through Laos on our way from Thailand to Vietnam. Laos has beautiful countryside and friendly people, but don’t go too far off the beaten path: “Laos has the distinction of being the world’s most heavily bombed nation”, and people still die every year from finding unexploded ordnance.

Our first stop was the border city of Huay Xai, where we spent the night before boarding our slow boat. The slow boat is an inexpensive and popular two day float down the Mekong River, taking passengers from the Thai border to Luang Probang. The boats were three rows across of car seats - think the back row of your mom’s minivan - and not much else. What the slow boat lacked in comfort, it made up for in views of the river and the surrounding countryside. You can bring your own food, a book, and, if you plan ahead, a cooler full of beer.

Luang Probang is the most popular destination is Loas and seems surprisingly untouched by modern tourism. The entire area is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, helping it to maintain the charming traditional and French colonial architecture. The city center contains several wats, a shrine on a hill with views of the Mekong, a night market, and plenty of nightlife for tourists.

Sampling some Laotian fare: their version of khao soi, Beerlao, and local whiskey.
Views from Mt. Phousi in the center of town.
Drying rice cakes in the sun.
Buddhas and bombs: a common juxtaposition throughout the country.

The surrounding area has several more attractions, including Kuang Si Falls and its bear rescue center. We also hiked to a hidden spring area with a rope swing, a small bar, and a cave full of Buddha statues.

After Luang Prabang, we made our way to Vang Vieng. While the countryside was gorgeous, everything else in town was focused on partying. The number one activity is drunk river tubing, and hostels and bars hand out free shots (and sometimes bottles!) of “lao-lao” (rice whiskey) or laughing gas balloons. Some restaurants even have pot, shrooms, and opium listed on their “happy menus,” served à la carte or baked into your food. This scene was too intense for more than a couple days, so we moved outside of town where we found some hiking, caves, and a hot air balloon ride - an early Christmas present to ourselves!

Tubing and an example of a "happy menu" in town.
A view from the top! Our hot air balloon ride over the city at sunset.

Our final stop in Laos was an overnight in the capital city of Vientiane before catching a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. Overall we were a bit underwhelmed by Laos: we found it to be more expensive and lower quality than Thailand, the food was a bit bland, and everyone seemed to go to the same four or five places. We’re glad we went since we were in the region, but it’s a country we probably wouldn’t have gone out of our way to visit otherwise.

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Northern Thailand: Pai & Chiang Rai

After Bangkok and Chiang Mai, we were already halfway through our thirty day visa. Since we didn’t want to rush through the southern part of the country, we headed farther north to Pai for hiking and beautiful scenery before continuing on to Chiang Rai, our last stop in Thailand.

Pai itself is a pretty small town full of hippies and expats, and unless you’re staying in town, you need some form of transportation. We chose to rent a scooter so we could explore the surrounding region. We had been craving some outdoor activities so we found a long hike through rivers and forest, swam in the pools of a few waterfalls, looked out from the hill in the Chinese Village, scootered up and down the mountain roads, and watched sunset from the canyons.

One night in town, we stumbled upon Jikko Bar which specializes in craft beer! In addition to great imports from around the world they had a delicious local IPA from Happy New Beer. It was a tasty break from all the Singha and Chang we’d been used to.

This little guy (and eight of his siblings!) were the highlight of our hostel!

If Pai had decent internet, we may not have left, but with only a few days remaining on our Thai tourist visa, we headed to Chiang Rai to see the famous white temple. After having seen a lot of wats throughout Thailand, we honestly weren’t too excited about seeing another one, but we were going to Chiang Rai anyway before crossing into Laos. Turns out the white temple is unlike any other temple we’d seen before! This “Disney” temple is more art gallery than temple. Wat Rong Khun is a large campus where the main building has a completely white exterior decorated with dragons, demons, and other creatures, while the inside (which prohibited photography) is covered in vibrant murals depicting many modern cultural icons such as Hello Kittty, Harry Potter, and Michal Jackson. You can find photos here.

Sierra-117?

Our last night in Thailand, we enjoyed some delicious pad see ew and live music at the night market before heading off for the slow boat down the Mekong River in Laos.

Around Chiang Rai's city center.

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