Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Hustling through Hanoi

Taking the overnight train immediately after the Hang En caving trip was the only way we could fit Hanoi into our itinerary, and it was well worth it - we managed to pack lots of fun into a single rainy day! If we return to Vietnam, I'd like to spend more time here. It was raining as we pulled into the Hanoi Railway Station at 0600. I had booked a hotel for two nights, to be sure that we would have a place to take our grimy selves immediately upon arrival. Believe it or not, we had no specific plans for what to see in Hanoi, so as we took turns taking a real shower and cleaning up, we kicked around ideas and formulated a plan.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum...definitely no hot sauce allowed on the grounds
First, we decided to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. This is where the enbalmed body of Uncle Ho is on display (which Juli said looked exactly like Lenin's in Moscow). At the entrance to the entire place, security flagged Juli for carrying a dangerous substance - a bottle of hot sauce (she had purchased it to add to food that wasn't spicy enough for us) - and made her leave the hot sauce at the checked luggage counter for the duration of our visit. From there we waited in various lines, were directed to march two by two around a courtyard (felt like I was back in JROTC), and right before entry to the mausoleum we had to check in our cameras & phones. Once inside, we walked into a square room that contained the body. We had to keep walking along the wall of the room, no stopping, but we got a 270 degree view of a well-preserved body, lying on his back and encased in a glass box.

We wandered around the rest of the grounds for an hour or so, along with hundreds of other tourists. Some of the walking paths were insanely crowded with tour groups. We unintentionally ended up on a path that led out of the residential grounds fairly quickly, so we decided to visit the museum. The museum had many floors, I felt the top one had the most interesting artifacts from Ho Chi Minh's life. Unfortunately due to an afternoon cooking class that we had reserved, our time in the museum was cut short and we had to head back to our hotel.

Market trip as part of cooking class
The Apron Up was able to accommodate us with a last-minute reservation (even though when we initially called they said they were booked). The class began with a trip to the market, with each of us wearing the obligatory rice hat/conical hat. Our instructor Nhi led us around as we purchased meats, veggies, and herbs. Despite the rain it was nice to have a guided walk around the old town center of Hanoi (which is one of the most disorienting places I have ever been, as proven by my 45 minute quest to find the ATM that google maps indicated was just 'around the corner').

The class eagerly anticipated Siera's reaction to tasting fish sauce
Back at the cooking school, we began making some delicious traditional Vietnamese food. Of course, one cannot eat a meal in Vietnam without eating spring rolls, so those were on the menu. We also leaned how to make beef pho, a soup that is very popular in San Francisco. The star of the meal for me was bun cha - sweet barbecued pork with vermicelli noodles, eaten with herbs and dipped in some sauce. Most all of the recipes were very simple, so hopefully we'll be able to give some of these dishes another try at home. The tough thing about the class was that we didn't sit down to eat until 2:30pm, at which point we were ravenously hungry, and proceeded to eat until overstuffed!

Eating the yummy lunch that we worked to prepare
In the early evening we set out wandering for Hanoi Happy Hour. In certain cities across Vietnam they make 'Bia Hoi', a light draft beer without preservatives that gets delivered daily, and (perhaps most importantly) is really cheap, about 35 cents a glass. After a few twists and turns, we found a good looking bia hoi place to sit for a while and enjoyed our streetside view of people and traffic passing us by. After a few cheap ones, we continued our self-guided city tour through various Old Quarter neighborhoods and streets, often nearly all shops on a given street sell the same category of goods (flowers on one street, auto parts on another, etc.). We stopped for another drink at a second level pub, enjoying the view of competing bun cha eateries on opposing sides of the street.

Bia hoi on a corner in Hanoi (NOT the famous 'Beer Corner')
After a couple more stops including some snacks (no big dinners necessary on this day), we stumbled across the Hanoi Backpacker Hostel, which seemed to have a pretty popular bar night going on. Advertised as "ladies night", it became clear once inside that the "ladies" in question were mostly bearded young Brits & Kiwis, with dresses, wigs, and balloons stuffed into their chests...there was some kind of cross-dressing "competition" happening, complete with a runway, dance-offs, and boisterous fans of each "lady." The funniest part of the scene for me was that the bar was in the hostel registration area, so every few minutes somebody new would open the door and roll in a suitcase. While I'd think most of the folks who booked this place knew what they were getting into, there must have been a few who arrived after a long day of travel only to be surprised by a raging party, complete with many guys walking around dressed in wigs and balloons, right next to the hotel reception desk.

It's a bar with hotel reception...or is it the other way around?
After we'd reached our party limit, and a "lady of the night" had been awarded, we moved along, thinking to find one more spot to wind down our night out. However the Hanoi Old Quarter streets continued to confuse, and before we found another place for a drink we found our hotel, and decided to call it a night. Tomorrow was yet another travel day, hopefully just 3-4 hours to Cat Ba Island.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas in a Cave

By the time our three-leg journey to Vietnam touched down in Dong Hoi, our trip already included two 'firsts' for us:
  1. There were three of us! (Juli's niece Siera joined us for this trip as a birthday gift)
  2. We were missing one of our backpacks!
Turns out that Juli picked up the wrong backpack off the carousel in Hanoi, and none of us noticed as she carried it to the domestic terminal and checked it for our third flight. Although the airline alerted us by email to the problem before we took off, our attempts to convince the airline staff to leave the bag off our plane were unsuccessful, so some poor other person had to wait an extra day to get their bag back. Since we were heading for an overnight caving trek the following day, our first stop upon arrival in Phong Nha town was to buy Juli some appropriate threads (and a toothbrush). Not the most fun start to our trip, but fortunately Juli did not let her lack of comfort stop her from enjoying the first few days.

Stopping for lunch on our hike to Hang En. Juli looking very colorful in her new clothes!
After a night of good sleep, we were picked up the following morning (Christmas!) for our caving adventure to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. We met our guides and fellow trekkers, put on some borrowed trekking boots, then piled into a bus for a ride to the trailhead on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. From there we descended towards a remote village, and it was on this hike that we first met the jungle leeches. Little did we know how many of these little suckers we would meet on day two! The village appeared about two miles into the hike.

River-crossing on our hike to Hang En Cave
After another three miles we made a stop for lunch beside a river. After lunch, our hike included many river crossings, never very deep, but the borrowed boots had very thin rubber soles, so it was sometimes slow going over the submerged rocks.

Approaching Hang En (can you see the entrance?)
After about eight miles of hiking, we had made it to the entrance of Hang En cave, the 3rd largest known cave in the world. We strapped on helmets and headlamps, and continued into the cave. We came upon a ledge with a beautiful view of the campsite. It looked amazing from far, and up close it was even better - nice new tents and sleeping bags, two composting toilets, a changing tent, clotheslines for our wet socks & pants, a swimming lagoon, a communal table, and...a Christmas tree!

Initial view of our campsite upon entering Hang En
After settling into camp, we were free to hang out, swim in the lagoon, and enjoy the scenery. While Juli and Siera went swimming, I tried to take some good photos of our surroundings. Dinner was cooked up and served, and it was delicious. We enjoyed some mulled wine with dinner, and then also tried some homemade? rice wine (can't say this was 'enjoyed' nearly as much as the mulled wine...but based on the amount in the bottle the next morning, the guides and porters had no problem enjoying it on our behalf). Post-dinner entertainment included different games, the most popular of which was Heads Up!, one of our favorite pass-the-time games at home.

Christmas Dinner in a Cave! Note Xmas 'tree' (branch) in background.

Overnight, sleeping in the cave was not a problem, except for this solo guy from New Jersey, TJ. We knew he was trouble on the hike in, when a guide offered TJ his hand for help crossing a river, to which TJ replied "Don't hold my hand I'm not a girl!" TJ got up in the middle of the night to cause a ruckus - whether by banging on the metal table, or by ruffling tents (Siera's). 

A stalagmite inside Hang En
The next morning we spent a few hours exploring the interior of the cave, making our way through the cave about one mile to another entrance. We saw some beautiful views within the cave, some gigantic stalagmites and stalactites, a viper, and of course some bats! After lunch back at camp, it was time to walk back to the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Unfortunately today, it was raining off and on. We re-traced our steps from the previous day about halfway, until we reached the hill.

The other end of Hang En

The hill was a very steep hike out, on wet muddy ground, and LOTS OF LEECHES. These little guys were everywhere, almost every time you looked at your boots or gloves you would see a few trying to worm their way to a hole or opening to get at your skin. They are difficult to remove as they have a sucker on each end, so pulling it off of you just makes its other end start sucking on your hand. The guides helped us remove them quite often. I was pushing hard to get up that hill, it was about 75 minutes of intense work (including the leeches). I was talking to the guide who mentioned depending on the season, you either had to deal with the wetness + leeches OR 100+ degree heat with humidity - in both cases you have to wear long sleeves, gloves, and I'm still not sure which one would be preferable!

As everybody started making to towards the top, a case of beer was opened and between sips of warm beer, everybody was focusing on leech removal. After the bus started rumbling down the road a few minutes, I waved over to Juli who informed me there was a leech still sucking on the webbing of my pinky & ring finger...I didn't even feel it, which apparently is normal for leeches. Siera was certain she still had a leech on her somewhere, and before jumping in the showers back at the Oxalis office, Juli indeed pulled yet another leech off Siera! All in all, I was just happy the leeches were nowhere near as big as the ones in Stand By Me.

Our 'hard sleeper' for overnight train to Hanoi
While it would have been nice to relax in quiet Phong Nha town for the night, that was not on our itinerary. Instead a driver was there to whisk us away back to Dong Hoi where we were to catch an overnight train heading for Hanoi. We grabbed some spring rolls and (hopefully) chicken from a stand near the train station for dinner. We were assigned a 'hard sleeper' cabin which meant a cabin with 6 beds (a 'soft sleeper' has 4 beds). The rain outdoors was seeping a bit through the window onto both mine and Juli's beds, and not knowing if the two unoccupied beds would be occupied at our later stops, we just rolled with it and slept so our feet were down at the wet end. After all the wet feet we had had over the previous two days, the lack of leeches coming through the window was enough to make it quite comfortable!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Aloha, Alona

Famous tarsiers of Bohol
We were met on arrival in Bohol with a driver to take us from the ferry port to our hotel. Just based on the size of the gate we had to go through to get in, we knew the Amorita Resort would be a really nice place to stay. With just a short day and half to spend in Bohol we checked in and headed right back out to sort out our activities. Alona Beach, while really small, seemed to have decent number of large hotel and resort properties around it, both existing and under construction. We walked along the main road then down the hill to the beachfront.

We found the Piratas Alona Dive Shop, as recommended by a friend from Dumaguete, and arranged to go on a dive trip the next day. The next order of business was to figure out how to meet up with Paul and Anne who were staying in a town called Loboc on the mainland of Bohol. We had considered renting motorbikes but knowing it would be dark and given the distance, we decided to try to find a driver. We stopped by the tourist police office and what do you know, the officer "knows a guy." So we arranged for 8 hours of his drivers' time the next day, to take us to Loboc and back. With the logistics settled, we chose from the many similar beachside restaurants for our first dinner in Alona.

The next day we could see that Queenie had done some damage to several boats at Alona Beach - a few had sank in the water and several were pulled up on shore and detached from their engines. All of this chaos made it difficult for our dive boat to get close enough to load up, so we were delayed in getting out. Thankfully, it was a pretty quick trip to Balicasag Island and we were in the water by 11:00AM. At the first dive site, the swells and current were very strong on the surface. Usually once under the water its much calmer, but this dive was an exception - the current was strong enough that we had to swim against it to avoid drifting really far away! But the visibility was good and the scenery was full of life. Our second dive was the longest one we've ever done - 62 minutes total, with lots of turtles gently paddling about or scratching themselves on coral.

Preparing to enter the choppy waters at Balicasag Island
We were late arriving back to Alona Beach, so as soon as we could jump off the boat Juli went to the hotel to get our change of clothes and I went to meet the driver. We grabbed some sandwiches and hit the road, as we wanted to make a stop before carrying on to Loboc. Tarsiers are the world's smallest primate and are an endangered species found in the Philippines. Supposedly their heads and eyes were the inspiration for Yoda from Star Wars. The Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella has 8 tarsiers living in its confines. Each morning the staff has to go looking for them, since they are nocturnal and they sleep most of the day. On the day we visited, 5 of the tarsiers had whereabouts unknown. That left 3 of them for us to see live - and while two were sleepy, one was just starting to wake up.

We continued on to Loboc and met up with Paul and Anne at their hotel, a small set of riverside cottages. It was drizzling and threatening to rain, but mostly held off. Once the sun set, we were going to get on stand-up paddle boards and head down the river to look at fireflies, which gather by the hundreds or thousands at a certain type of tree. We were told that the rain decreases the chances they would be out, but we forged ahead anyway. Although the river looked like it was going at a pretty good flow, the boards cut easily through the current and we were on our way in the dark!

Juli paddling down the river
At certain points, there was no light on either side of the river, which made the scenery a bit disorienting, given that all we could reliably see was the water right in front of us. After about 30 minutes of downstream paddling, we came upon the first "mother tree." It was an amazing sight - none of our pictures could do it justice, so I found somebody else's photo which is a great one:

Thousands of fireflies gather in 'mother trees' along the Loboc river

There was one more mother tree a bit further downstream, but that was it. Then began the harder paddle upstream, which seemed to take a while even though we didn't need to go all the way back to the cottages as a van picked us up. Fortunately, all of us survived the trip without a single fall into the river!

A successful night paddle!

We arrived back at the cottages and enjoyed dinner and a few beers together, as well as playing with a new puppy that the owners had picked up the day prior. It was good times as usual with Paul and Anne and we were all sad that this would be our last time to hang out for quite some time. Like us they are focused on more far-flung travel for now, figuring they can hit the States later…but hopefully we'll figure out a way to meet up again sometime soon. Before we knew it, it was 10pm and time to catch our ride back to Alona Beach.

Yes, she actually wanted to take him home
We had just one more half-day left before the journey home began, and wanting to be active before sitting for so long, we took a tricycle to Dolja Beach as we heard the snorkeling was good. Unfortunately to get to the snorkeling required traversing 100 yards of 2-foot deep sea with all kinds of urchins and jellyfish, and by the time we got there, it wasn't all that great anyway! I got stung by something and had a rash on my wrist for about 3 weeks after, so at least I took home a souvenir of some kind! We made it back to the Amorita and decided to try our snorkeling luck again out in front of the resort. Thankfully, we had a nice swim with good snorkeling to finish off our Philippines trip.

Numerous Nemos to be seen while snorkeling!

We went back up to the resort and Juli got a massage which was included in our hotel stay. Not a fan of massage, I just took a dip in the pool, did some reading, and enjoyed our final views of Alona Beach - which are quite spectacular from the Amorita Resort viewpoint.

NOT a budget hostel...when we splurge, we do it right!
From there it was off to the airport, for a one hour flight to Manila followed by a 13 hour trip back to SFO. Once again our adventures have come to a close for a little while, though we'll definitely be back at it as soon as we can.