Ric & Rose | Our Travels in Vietnam
In January of 2014 we took a month long trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong. We packed light and didn't intent to make this film, but we did want to capture a bit of our trip. We brought our 5Dii, 40mm pancake lens, 135mm f/2L, a gorilllapod and a small jerry-rigged monopod, the "Frankenpod" as we lovingly came to call it.
We started in Ho Chi Minh with two of our good friends (Leif and Anni) and traveled north by bus, taxi, plane and boat. Together we flew, hiked, biked, scootered, bussed and boated across the country. We explored national parks, islands, big cities, small towns and even smaller villages along the way. The four of us made a surprisingly good travel team given our rather divergent interests. Leif was curious about history, temples and historical sights, while Anni wanted to shop and try all the restaurants. Ric was most excited about getting to know the culture, meeting people and trying all the street food - I mean ALL the street food. I, on the other hand, am a huge natural history buff, so it was wild places off the beaten track that I wanted to see. Prioritizing something for everyone made for a wonderfully varied adventure.
Ho Chi Minh City
We were only in Ho Chi Minh City for a couple of days. It was just enough time to sample the local food (and fall in love with it), catch up with the time change and wander the insanely busy streets.
We also took a day trip, by boat, up the Mekong Delta where we visited some river markets, temples and a sugar plantation. It was a great way for our rather jet-lagged brains to get into the pace of things and get a general sense of customs.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
Learning the history of these tunnels was truly humbling. During the Vietnam War (the American War in Vietnam) the villagers built these tunnels to take shelter from the bombing. The tunnels were dug into limestone with no structural supports and protected the villagers for years without collapsing. Over five years the entire village lived underground. Sixty families lived thirty meters below ground! Seventeen children began their lives underground, and the village was saved because of the tunnels.
Below you can see one of the largest sections of tunnel (left). Most of the deeper tunnels were much narrower, the ground was slick often steep and difficult to traverse. Every family had a small carved out area for their "home."
As we traveled we did not encounter one person who expressed any animosity towards us as Americans. I found this to be truly amazing. I understand that most of the people we met were too young to remember the war and many of them were part of the tourist industry. Even so, I still find it astonishing that the people of this country were so kind and welcoming to us. Evidence of war was almost everywhere we traveled in Vietnam, but when the Vietnamese spoke of the damage done, or lives lost, it was very factual. There was no blame in their voices or the way they treated us.
My Son Temples
It rained for most of our visit to the My Son Sanctuary, making this beautiful place even more surreal. The walk leading to the temples was along a beautiful dirt and stone path that made them feel quite remote, and in some sense they were. These ancient Hindu temples lie in a valley surrounded by mountains, without another man-made structure in sight.
They were a place of religious ceremony and a burial site for royalty from the 4th to the 14th century. At one time the valley was home to 70 temples.
Many of the My Son Temples were destroyed during the Vietnam War in a single week of carpet bombing. Craters and rubble still remain at the sight.
During our stay in Hoi An, we took a cooking class, so we could learn to make Pho and a few other traditional dishes. The class started with us heading off to the bustling markets for a shopping extravaganza! We bought everything we needed for the recipes and hopped on another little boat to head up river for the class.
The four of us were able to spend days in Hoi An wandering the streets, people watching, bargaining with street vendors and eating. We did lots of eating! And we may, or may not, have gotten ourselves turned around in this tiny town a couple of times.
While visiting the Silk Village we made friends with Son. He gave us a little tour and explained how silk is produced. While we were all looking at the silk worms, he became very excited - one of the silk worms was making its cocoon. This is normally a nocturnal activity, and to see it during the day is said to be very auspicious. Later that day he asked us if we would like to hang out on his upcoming day off.
Meeting Son turned out to be auspicious indeed. Thanks to him we have many treasured memories we would not otherwise have. Not only did Son show us some fantastic restaurants and bring us to a place where we got to see how rice paper is made but he showed us his childhood neighborhood (where they raised shrimp) and even took us to see the nearby temple where he would be married in a couple of months.
Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park
At Phong Nha-ke Bang National Park (home to the largest cave in the world) we were able to spend several days visiting different cave systems. This was one of my favorite parts of our trip despite the drizzly weather. We stayed at the Pepper House; a homestay owned by a Vietnamese woman (Diem) and her Australian husband (Multi). Ric and I rented a tandem bike from them for a couple of days - it was a bike normally only rented to European travelers because, as Multi put it, "Only Euros know how to ride tandem bikes. The Yanks always crash 'em."
Ric was able to convince them otherwise after giving the very wiggly Diem a ride down the muddy road without crashing.
As we rode the muddy back roads, we were greeted by happy faces at every house. The kids would often run out and beg for a ride or just try to jump on our bikes and join us on our adventure.
After a couple of hours biking along muddy back roads up hills and across the valley, we arrived in town. We parked our bikes at the local restaurant and hopped on a boat to head upriver to Phong Nha Cave.
This cave was incredible! We had no idea what we were in for. The boat took us up the river and into the mouth of the cave, where they turned off the motor and paddled back 1500 meters into the cave. It was absolutely breathtaking! On the way out they let us off on a sandy beach to see the cave formations up close.
The entrance to our next cave, Tien Son Cave, was tucked away at the top of a 200 meter climb. The views on the way up were otherworldly and the cave itself was well worth the hike.
But our caving didn't stop there. We also rented a taxi to drive us around the park for a day so we could see some of the less accessible caves. The route we wanted to go, took us through the back entrance to the park. A road that was not so commonly used and, as we found out later, was guarded more heavily to reduce smuggling operations.
We were stopped at the park's border and nervously waited, having no idea what was going on, while our driver politely argued with the guards - obviously pleading his case. No one, not even our driver, spoke any English so we had no idea what was going on. We were all beginning to suspect that we would be sent away or asked for a bribe at any minute. Then, all of a sudden, the man driving us got out of the car and sat down on the bench amongst the guards. He just sat there, ten minutes went by. It felt like an eternity. And then all of a sudden he got up, hopped back in the car, and we were off.
We all learned a little about patience that day.
The man who drove us spoke no English but was told where we wanted to go and instructed to pullover if we said, "STOP." And much to his amusement we did ask to stop. We pulled over for a botanical garden and some gorgeous Hornbills. (He laughed out loud and was quite pleased at my excitement when I spotted them and proceeded to snatch the camera from Ric and jump out of the car.)
We visited two cave systems that day: Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. At the top of a 500 stair climb we reached the rather small entrance to Paradise Cave. As we entered, it opened into a massive chasm, and it was another 100-200 stairs down until the boardwalk flattened out.
This cave was beautifully lit. As we walked down the wooden walkway, it felt as though the cave would go on forever. It was truly incredible!
Toi Cave, or Dark Cave, is aptly named as it has no lighting. Getting to it is just a short (but beautiful) kayak trip down the river. Then it's a very muddy walk in. Much of the cave is only as wide as a person and the slippery mud gets thigh high at some points - so you can guess why we left our camera in the car.
The way out of the cave was just what we needed to get all that mud off. It was a swim in the icy waters that lead back to the river where we entered!
We took a day to explore the Tu Lan caves with Oxalis - we wished at the time that we had more time to do the three day cave trip but this turned out to be plenty challenging and fun. The trek began with a bus ride to a tiny village where we began the day-long trek. This day trip took us across valleys, up and over mountains, down craggy outcroppings, and through several rivers to three cave systems.
Hung Ton Cave had both a dry cave mouth, where we entered, and a river mouth that we swam out of. It was freezing and Ric and I were happy we thought to bring some dry clothes and a camp towel in my dry bag.
We had lunch by that cave's mouth next to a small waterfall in the beautiful To Mo Valley.
Hang Kim Cave, or Rat Cave, was stunning. In the photo above you can see a large opening. That opening was a sheer drop off down to another chasm that looked as though it may come out on the other side of the mountain - it was that big!
Cat Ba Island
We made it to Cat Ba Island by way of a bus ride and a slightly questionable "Halong Bay Cruise." We arrived at dusk, a bit hungry, behind schedule and slightly unsure if we were on the right island.
Luckily we were in the right place, and Cat Ba turned out to be well worth the irritation of getting there.
We all loved this island! We rented motorbikes, explored back roads, and visited more caves. We kayaked and finally got some relaxation time in at the beach.
We would have stayed longer, but it was fast approaching Tet - the big Vietnamese New Year's celebration. This holiday is not like an American New Year's - think of it as all of our major holidays rolled into one! The pace in cities slows to a crawl and little towns and villages shut down. Hotels, restaurants and shops close, so on a little island forget about finding a place to stay or a boat back to the mainland for that matter. We took the last boat out, said goodbye to Cat Ba.
It was one of the most picturesque evenings of our lives.
It was in Hanoi that we met up with Leif and Ric's childhood friend, Dan, and his wife. The two of them had moved to Hanoi for work and had a fantastic little apartment where they let us stay for the beginning of Tet. They showed us all around the city. We went to the best street food vendors and ate who knows what on every corner. We visited the historical sights, shopped and celebrated the new year (a second time) from their rooftop with a view of the lake and four different fireworks shows!
People take a week+ off to be with family. It starts with a big celebration filled with fireworks and family gatherings. They don't cook or clean for several days. Everyone just stays home.
We woke up the next morning to a different city. With Tet in full swing the once busy streets were dead. The bumper to bumper traffic that filled the air with honks and yells had vanished. All the shops were closed and the city was quiet.
From Vietnam we traveled to Hong Kong, but that's a tale for another day...