Dong Ha & Hue

After 2 consecutive nights spent on a sleeper bus, Nick and I arrived to Dong Ha at 5am in the pouring rain. We were welcomed to Central Vietnam with the beginning of the rainy season.

Most tourists visit the caves in Dong Hoi, however due to flooding, Nick and I headed to nearby Dong Ha to visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ). This 6 mile stretch divides the north and south and millions of tons of ordinances were dropped here during the American War. It is estimated that about 1/3 did not explode. At the Mine Action Visitor Center, we saw various cartoons created to educated children on the dangers of these explosives. Every year hundreds of people are killed and injured, mostly children and ethnic minority groups. As always, learning and remembering war is heavy on the heart.

shepard_fairey_make_art_not_war
Vietnamese Propaganda Poster

In 1966, just north of the DMZ, the villagers of Vinh Moc carved an extensive tunnel system to escape aerial and artillery attacks. These tunnels are 40- 75 feet below the surface and are extremely elaborate with 13 entrances. We met 1 of the 17 children born in the tunnels and can only imagine the life lived in the dark damp earth. As we walked to and from the caves we passed multiple craters from American artilery explosions.

4
Vinh Mac Tunnels

l1030576

man
Man pointing to himself as a child living in the tunnels

We purchased tickets for the 8am train from Dong Ha to Hue (pronounced ‘Hway’), however as always, things don’t go as planned. The train was not running (the reason lost in translation) and the next bus (that should be running hourly) would not leave for another 12 hours. So, Nick and I sat on the side of the highway and drank coffee. To our surprise, we were able to flag down a small van with a sign that read Hue. After overpaying and getting squished in with 22 locals we arrived in Hue, welcomed by another torrential downpour.

The main attractions in Hue are the citadel and tombs, however to see these one must pay almost half of Nick and I’s daily budget. Neither of us were extremely interested so we decided to rent a motorbike and take ourselves on a self guided tour of free attractions and food. The food in Hue has been the best on our travels thus far. The influence of the north and south make for fresh and spicy dishes.

Stacia and Nick’s Scenery Tour

3

Thien Mu Pagoda – Behind this Pagoda you can see the car that Thich Quang Duc (monk) drove on June 11, 1963. When he arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, he got out of his car, sat in lotus position and self-immolated himself to protest the governments discrimination against Buddhists. This story has become a part of the communist party’s propaganda machine.

1

Dong Ba Market – A 2 story market complex with individuals selling produce, sweets and clothing. This is a must visit in Hue.

Hue Walking Street – A relaxing walking street along the Perfume River lit up by laterns. Enjoy street food and tourist shops.

p
Perfume River

Gia Long Tomb – This tomb, of the first emperor to unite Vietnam and move the capital to Hue, is off the beaten track.

Ho Quyen – This is an overgrown stone arena where elephants and tigers would fight (1830-1904) as a royal pastime. As elephants often represented royalty, the tigers teeth and claws would be removed to ensure defeat.

tiger

Stacia and Nick’s Food Tour

Hang Me Me- Order the Banh Beo (royal rice cakes topped with shrimp and pig fat) and Banh Nam. These are local specialties and unique eats.

rice

Com Hen- Order the com hen (rice, herbs and oysters) or bun hen (noodles, herbs and oysters). I ordered the bun hen (without the hen) and it was one of the most flavorful dishes I have had. I also ordered an unknown desert drink which ended up being sweet corn with milk and rice.

food
$0.44 bun hen (without the hen)

Che Hue – Women line the street selling che hue, sweets served over ice (purple sweet potato, sweet bean paste, coconut milk, tapioca pudding, banana, etc.). Street vendors also sell varieties of sticky rice, sweet potato with sweet coconut milk/ peanut crumbs, spongey coconut rice cakes, and banh cha (sweet waffles shaped like fish).

che

fish
Banh Cha

Lien Hoa – Maybe I am biased, but this was my favorite meal in Vietnam. At this Buddhist vegetarian restaurant we enjoyed fried jackfruit, banh beo, mecan (wheat gluten), spring rolls and sweet porridge.

l1030683
Fried jackfruit with sesame

Bun Bo Hue – A local dish similar to bun cha in Hanoi except with beef, fried oysters and lemon grass.

Banh Khoai – A local dish, fried rice crepes filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.

shrimp

Juan Thai Phu – We ordered the famous bun thit nuong (grilled pork with vermicelli, herbs and peanuts)

Mandarin Cafe – Enjoy a coffee while flipping through binders of Mr. Cu’s remarkable Vietnamese portraits.

 

coffee

Navigating Northern Vietnam

Nick and I love our new life on the road. We are having a blast getting lost, eating among cockroaches, sleeping in $6 guesthouses, drinking tea, being vulnerable, haggling, trying new things and sharing smiles with strangers. However, Vietnam has been challenging for us in 2 unique ways, we are overwhelmed by the number of tourists and exhausted by the scams. Maybe because Nick and I came from desolate Mongolia and aren’t use to seeing so many Westerners or maybe because it is clear that some of the locals have been exposed to mass quantities of tourists, it has been hard to adjust. In addition, it’s tiring when we have to avoid being taken advantage of financially numerous times throughout a day. Okay, keep this in mind, put on your tourist blinders and let’s explore the wonders of Northern Vietnam (Sapa, Bac Ha and the Ha Giang Province).

place2.jpg
Playing by the river in Coc Pang

5
Harvesting rice in Coc Pang

place.jpg

Sapa

Nick and I took the 6am “sleeper” bus from Hanoi to Sapa ($8.50 pp – 7 hours). Although, rather comfortable for anyone 5.3″ and under, we recommend taking it during the day as the view coming into Sapa is remarkable. 

14550541_10207063706418795_855497471_o.jpg

Sapa sits on top of tall karsts covered in lush green rice terraces, next to a plunging valley. The town itself is a tourist pit, built as a “trekking” base for tourists. After dropping off our bags at a guesthouse, Nick and I set out for a short hike to Cat Cat Village. The colorful traditional clothing and exquisite jewelry worn by woman from the surrounding hill tribes was unique and gorgeous. While in Sapa we splurged on delicious $4 honey lemongrass tofu at Nature’s View and enjoyed getting local at the late night bbq stands.

14647323_10207106871697900_219244496_o

L1030166.jpg
I’d like to name my next dog Tofu. Thoughts?

The true beauty of this area lays in the surrounding villages. Nick and I planned only to spend 1 night, however since we were ahead of schedule we decided to do the typical homestay. Within 5 minutes of making our decision, we were approached by Mama Kurr and began trekking to her village (Black Hmong People). It took us 4 hours to hike up and over the mountains to her home. Along the way, we stopped at a waterfall and were shown marijuana and indigo dye plants. Mama Kurr had me rub some green plant leaves and water together and within minutes my hands were stained dark blue. This plant is used to dye fabrics, although in the West we use a synthetic compound most commonly used in jeans, the black Hmong still use this organic option. It’s fascinating how removed Westerns are from our natural resources (using marijuana for hemp, organic dyes, and harvesting rice).

14647210_10207106871737901_528990601_o

14724164_10207106872017908_2014288156_o
Indigo Dye plant

*Pause, side note: Tourism is interesting; on one hand I understand that I am part of the problem, a fortunate westerner who wants to see the unexplored. However, watching 7 year old village children approaching you like zombies rehearsing “1 for 5,000 – 2 for 10” and knowing that their parents are having them skip school to sell to tourists is heartbreaking. Sure, travel sustainable and give back to local communities, however is there anything else we can do to protect the beautiful people and places that are rapidly changing?

After hiking through through rice fields, we arrived at Mama Kurr’s house. The view from her “patio” was breath taking and we enjoyed drinking coffee and reading while taking it all in. The rice had recently been harvested (about 3 weeks prior) and the daily fog had settled in the valley. We played with her grandchildren and puppies and watched the pigs and chickens roam in the vacant terraces. The water buffalo observed us as we helped to prepare a delicious dinner over an open pit fire.

14699424_10207106872097910_1821420015_o.jpg

Bac Ha

The next day we returned to Sapa and caught a bus to Lai Cai then another on to Bac Ha. Nick found a homestay on coachsurfing and we had a great time hanging out with a local family. We had dinner, attended the night market (traditional dance and song) and stopped for delicious chè trôi nuóc (rice flour balls in sweet ginger sesame seed tea) to end the evening.

L1030391 (1).jpg
Homestay with Huy Trung and family
star.jpg
Fishing for star fish at the night market
l1030326
che troi nuoc

The next morning Nick and I went to the Bac Ha market where local hill tribe people sold produce, water buffalo, puppies (meat?), handmade crafts, and buhn nem. The market was huge and by 10:00 packed with foreigners and locals alike. We headed 6 km out of town to the Lung Phin market where we were the only foreigners in site. This gave us a feel for what a local market actually looks like. Unfortunately, it was apparent that the local community was not thrilled by our presence.

14699579_10207106872177912_1061366528_o
Hmong woman at the Bac Ha Sunday market

After the markets, we headed to Ha Giang where Nick and I rented a motorcycle to explore the most northern part of Vietnam (we strongly recommend renting from QT Motorbikes & Tour). We had a blast exploring the Ha Giang area as the next day we would set off for a longer loop. We were able to see uncut rice fields that blew in the wind and spotted a waterfall. We made it our mission to swim under the waterfall and after an hour or so of wandering in rice terraces we were rewarded with refreshing water.

14725331_10207106847097285_2079239645_o

14725440_10207106847217288_1823782463_o

14689146_10207107134744476_2095222584_o-1.jpg

The next 3 days on the bike have been our favorite experience in Vietnam thus far. The first day was extremely cloudy and rainy. We drove up and over some (what we imagine) remarkable passes and Nick did a great job driving bumpy single lane mountain roads. We edged passed semi trucks, saw the aftermath of a bike accident and had to go around some nerve racking blind turns (don’t worry Mom and Dad we were safe!). However, we were rewarded by beautiful views, rice terraces and limestone mountains covered with vegetation. And greeted with hellos, waves and high fives from local kids.

n

14697111_10207107132264414_1083026975_o
Ordering in a small village is always a show

sb
Tram Ton Pass

We spent the night in Dong Van where we explored the old quarter, a cluster of tradition Hmong houses converted into small shops and restaurants. The next day we biked over beautiful mountain passes and spent the night in Coc Pang. This small village (don’t blink or you’ll miss it) was our absolute favorite stop. We felt extremely removed from the tourist loop and welcomed by the community. We were able to share smiles and laughs  with locals while walking around town and were even invited to help a family harvest rice. The rice was cut, separated and cleaned while the family thought Nick and I were hilarious. This time in Coc Pang made the entire northern loop worth it. We know it is jealous to want an experience without foreigners, but it’s nice to get away from the crowds!

14647197_10207106847337291_1520350439_o
Dzao woman herding water buffalo

14672865_10207107128864329_1274901046_o.jpg

14689095_10207107151184887_1497560335_o

We headed back to Ha Giang, took a sleeper bus to Hanoi and now are off to Dong Ha and the DMZ. Stay tuned!