Hoi An to Hue

The last activity we did in Hoi An was rent motorbikes and visit the country side. This is a must do in vietnam - maybe not in major cities, but definitely in and between the smaller ones. It's so beautiful!!

The next day we hired an Easy Riders guide to take us from Hoi An to Hue on motorbike, a 130km journey over the Hai Van Pass with a few stops along the way. Unfortunately, the pass seems to be the place in Vietnam where the weather changes from the warm sunny South, to the cloudy cold drizzly North.

One of our stops along the way was the Marble Mountain. From the outside, we thought it was just another temple, but once on top, we discovered hat the area was laced with some really impressive pagodas and caves.

After 4 hours, we arrived in Hue. We visited the Forbidden City which is really nice, but other than that… there's nothing else really special to see.

Fishermen, Fish Sauce, Tailors

What do these things have in common?  Probably nothing really.. they're just 3 more highlights from our days in Hoi An (yes, we actually did something other than eat!)

Our last Hoi An tour was a travel photography tour with Etienne, a French expat who now pays his bills with photography.  We started out bright and early at 5AM with Etienne reviewing the basics of our camera settings.  As the sun began to rise, we took a boat to a nearby fishing village to experiment with his suggestions and techniques for settings and composition. 

After breakfast, we visited a Fish Sauce Factory to learn about the process of making fish sauce, and taking photos in low light conditions.  

We picked up some great tips from Etienne that we hope to continue practicing during our travels. Unfortunately one of his biggest tips is that you have to wake up super early (ie. sunrise) to get the best shots because that is when the light is best… since neither of us are morning people, it's unlikely that we'll be putting this tip to practice very often.. :)

In addition to being a culinary capital, Hoi An is largely know for its tailors.  Many tourists flock here to have suits, coats, dresses, and even shoes, jewellery, and accessories tailor-made and/or custom-designed.  We decided to join in the fun to see what the fuss was about.. and that turned into a few more pairs of fun than we were originally planning.. (hehe oops!).  Here is what we had made:
  • Jen: 2 wool coats, a vietnamese dress, and 2 pairs of dress pants
  • Dom: 5 pairs of dress pants and 1 costume
  • Guy: 2 pairs of dress pants, 1 shirt, and 1 army coat

If you are ever in Hoi An and want to have clothes made, bring a sample or pick one of the samples that they have on display.  They're really good at replicating it, even with minor modifications.  From our experience (and others that we spoke to), if you try to have them replicate something from an image, you'll need a bit of luck for it to turn out exactly as you had in mind.. 

Lastly, here a few more random shots from the streets of Hoi An and the surrounding area.

Hoi An Cooking Classes

There are several restaurants in Hoi An that offer cooking classes, but most of them were only demonstrations or only offered a fixed menu of dishes that didn't really appeal to us.  Since we enjoyed Neville's foodie tour so much, we asked for his recommendation for a good cooking class.  He recommended Ms. Van from Green Bamboo, and we were lucky enough to make a last minute booking despite it being high season here! 

At Green Bamboo, each student picks 1 dish that they would like to learn (from a list of about 40+ items).  Like any typical cooking class, we started our day at the market where we bought fresh ingredients for our dish.  Van took the time to explain what all the ingredients were and how they are used.  She also gave us samples of local fruits and sweets, including some amazing candied coconut strips (Mut Dua). 

After the market, we proceeded to Van's house where each student was responsible for preparing and cooking 2 appetizers (Bun Xeo - Vietnamese pancakes, and Salad Rolls), and then our chosen main dish.  Van walked around instructing and assisting each of us on what to do.  
Here's what we made:
  • Green Papaya Salad & Fried Breaded Eggplant (Guy)
  • Vegetable Coconut Curry (Dom)
  • Fish in Clay Pot (Jen)
Although we didn't cook all 8 of the main courses ourselves, we still got a pretty good idea of how to make the dishes that the other 5 students chose:
  • Pho Bo
  • Cau Lau
  • Pork in Claypot
  • BBQ Pork Skewers with Peanut Sauce
  • Tofu Vegetable Stirfry
 The class lasted almost 7 hours (and, for us, included a new experience of beheading and shelling live shrimp - ick!!).  

Unfortunately, since we all snacked on appetizers while preparing our dishes, everyone was so full that we could barely eat the main courses!!  But overall it was a great experience!  We thoroughly enjoyed the class, food, atmosphere, and amazing home-made peanut liquor that Van treated us to for dessert!!  

Here's the website for anyone interested: http://www.greenbamboo-hoian.com/

 

The Last Great Taste of Hoi An

If you are in Eastern Canada and go to a Vietnamese restaurant, the food is usually bland in taste and mediocre in presentation.  Western Canada is a bit better, but never really considered a five star meal.  We'd heard for a long time that vietnamese food is really healthy and some of the tastiest in the world... what better place to discover the truth than Hoi An, the culinary capital of Vietnam. 

To get a kickstart on our culinary adventure, we did a tour called "The Last Great Taste of Hoi An" where we met Neville - a retired 50+15 year old Australian who (with his wife) moved to Vietnam 18 month ago to share their contagious passion for the food in Hoi An.  The walking tour lasted about 5 hours, with stops at the market and several street food vendors along the way.  Neville introduced us to the local vendors, told us interesting stories / histories and explanations of the different types of foods / ingredients, and of course, allowed us to sample their faire.

We also made stops at 2 tasting rooms where we sampled dishes picked up from other vendors along the walk.  By the end of the tour, we had tasted over 40 of the local dishes.  We were full, but the food was so tasty we still wanted to eat more!!

Neville captivated us with his local insight and stories.  Here are a few notable things that stuck out: 

  • Locals believe that restaurants that have refrigerators are "not good" or "not clean".  It's funny because it's the opposite of what we westerners might think.. but their logic is that if the restaurant uses a fridge, it means that the foods are not fresh.  "Good" vietnamese restaurants go the market and buy their ingredients daily (or even twice daily) - they do not store and reuse old ingredients from the previous day.  
  • Meat, fish, fruits, and veggies are brought into the market fresh, daily.  That is why we, remarkably, never saw any flies around the market, anywhere!
  • Locals burn fake money that will be sent to their ancestor in heaven so that they can buy stuff there. They also burn paper suits (since the ancestors need to be clothed), and paper iPhone 5s and iPads… seriously - we're not making this up…
  • Vietnamese love SPAM….thats right, America's "SPecial hAM".  SPAM was, until recently, the number one item stolen from stores (now they keep it locked up).  Why do they love spam so much?  Apparently, during the American War (what we in the West call the "Vietnam War"), most of the crops were destroyed and many Vietnamese were starving.  To eat, they had to raid the American army supplies... and what was the main staple of these supplies?….SPAM!!.  The locals discovered a taste for it that lasted even after the war….. now you can also see local copies/versions of SPAM in the market (ham packaged in a banana leaf wrapping).

After sampling so many dishes, here are the ones that really stood out and kept us coming back for more:
  • Bahn Mi: Vietnamese sandwich: Dom liked it so much that we went there 5 more times.  Be warned, it's not good everywhere - he tried it at other locations and cities but none of them rivals the one made by this sweet old lady who sets up shop just down the street from the White Sail restaurant (115 Tran Cao Van Street , Hoi An).
  • Dau Hau - Warm silken tofu with ginger sauce
  • Cao Lau - Hoi An specialty noodle soup with pork and salad leaves
  • Sinh To Trai Cay - Mixed local Fruit in a cup with sauce and ice
  • Hoanh Thanh Chien - Fried wonton with pork, shrimp, and salsa
  • Xi Ma - A black sesame pudding, served hot
  • Banh Cuon - Thin rice rolls with pork and minced wood ear mushrooms
  • Banh Beo - Steamed rice flour discs with dried shrimp
  • Banh Xeo - Vietnamese pork, shrimp, bean sprout pancake.  In Hoi An they serve this delicious crispy treat wrapped in fresh rice paper with herbs and a dipping sauce that makes it extra amazing.  In other cities the pancake is just served with fish sauce so it's a little more ordinary.
  • Ca Phe Sua Da - Vietnamese drip coffee (Trung Nguyen #1) with condensed milk and ice.  Yummy in Canada.. but even yummier in Hoi An, Vietnam!!
  • Eggplant & Pumpkin Claypot at White Sail - so delicious we just had to go back for more!

After the tour, our days in Hoi An largely circled around what and where we wanted to eat next!!  If you are a food lover and plan to go to Vietnam, a stop in Hoi An is a must.  We highly recommend doing the Last Great Taste of Hoi An as early in your visit as you can so that you can discover all of the great places to eat, and have enough time to keep going back for more!!  Neville's tour was definitely one of our biggest highlights in Vietnam - Book early!!  The tour is high in demand and limited in space (http://www.tasteofhoian.com/).

Kitesurfing in Mui Ne

After doing some research on the Internet, we decided to join the Surfpoint Kitesurfing School.  We did not regret our choice: these guys were absolutely great!  They helped us negotiate a price with the hotel, organized and invited us to some parties and dinners, and even invited us out for their company Christmas photo!  They really went all out in making us feel more than welcome in Mui Ne.  

There are SO many Kitesurfing schools in Mui Ne.  If you're looking for one, we highly highly recommend Surfpoint (http://www.surfpoint-vietnam.com/).  The 3 guys that run the place (Peter, Phong, and Adam) are awesome and were one of the key reasons why we enjoyed our stay here so much. We are even thinking of coming back in the spring (after we finish our Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia loop). 

They where excellent and super chill when it came to the kitesurf lessons - we didn't have to preselect / prepay a specific package, or stick to a fixed schedule (ie. if the conditions were bad, they'd happily reschedule for the next day).  We basically just started our lessons and once our instructor was satisfied that we could go safely on our own, the lessons ended and we were just charged for the lesson hours at the end. 

Typical kitesurf lessons begin with about 2 hours of land training as learning to control the power and direction of the kite is key to being able to get up on the board.

Once you can (mostly) control the kite, it's time to get into the water.  You learn to "bodydrag", which basically involves controlling the power of the kite such that it drags your body along through the water. 

The last step is to add the board to the mix.  We learned to position ourselves and figure out the right amount of power needed to lift ourselves out of the water, just enough so that we can stand up and the board can begin gliding along the surface.  We also quickly learned that too much power or losing control of the direction results in a nice yank and face plant into the salty sea :). 

It took us about 12hours of lessons (each) before being able to stand up and go on our own... and we are still at a beginner level!  But we both had SO much fun learning something new and recommend it to all sports enthusiasts out there!

Here's a short video to give you an idea of what we managed to accomplish after our 12 hours of training… we are definitely far from doing any backflips! ;)

And here are 2 pictures of one of the kite school owners (Peter) to give you an idea of what you can do with a kite.  There are some pretty crazy tricks that the advanced kitesurfers can do!  They happened too fast for us to catch any good photos, but it sure made for some enjoyable spectating while we were sipping drinks at the beachside bar :).

Mui Ne

Mui Ne is a beach town on the East coast of Vietnam that is increasingly popular in recent years due to its great kitesurfing conditions.  We personally wanted to go there for 2 reasons: 1) To learn to kitesurf, and 2) To spend Christmas on a beach.  It was our vacation away from travelling …and we were definitely not disappointed!!.

Since we stayed in Mui Ne for 12 days, we managed to setup a pretty awesome routine:
  • 9:30 wake up
  • 10:00 go for breakfast
  • 11:00 kite surfing lessons
  • 13:00 swim in the pool
  • 14:00 lunch
  • 15:00 nap, read, nerd-out on the computer
  • 19:00 dinner 
Of course, we didn't stick to this strict schedule all the time - sometimes we took a day off from kitesurfing or swimming to just chill out on our private balcony or beach ;) 

Waves & Beach
We didn't do many walks along the beach but we did, on occasion, go for a swim in the China sea amongst the biggest waves that either of us had ever been in!  On a couple of days, the waves were up to 3 meters high… let's just say that when one of these waves hits you, you definitely get knocked over :).
Scooting Around
On one day, we rented a motor bike to enjoy a scenic ride along the coast to check out the Mui Ne fishing village and Red Sand Dunes.
Our Hotel
Our hotel was partly responsible for the enjoyment of our trip here... we stayed at a small but beautiful beachside resort right next to the kitesurf school.
Christmas
Christmas here was also great - we enjoyed a (relatively) pricey but delicious meal at Sandals, a really great resort/restaurant on the beach.  The highlight of the meal for us was the cheese platter (Brie, Boursin, Emmental - it's now been quite a while since we've had good cheese!), and the desserts (ie. Brie cheese cake, …).
We really enjoyed our time in Mui Ne... so much that we already miss it already!  ..but we arranged to meet up with Guy again in a city called Hoi An, so it was time to move on and resume our travel adventures.. :)

As a side note, since Mui Ne is a Kitesurfer heaven, it means there is a lot of wind and kites around the beach (at least during the XMas high-season) making it a bit tougher to enjoy relaxing strolls on the beach.  So if you don't intend to kitesurf and prefer a quiet calm beach, you might prefer to go to a different beach town :).

Ho Chi Minh

After a week of feeling back at home in a developed country, we resumed our South East Asia adventure, starting in Vietnam.  

We flew into Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon.  Our first order of business was to apply for a new passport for Dom because he was running out of pages.  You'd think we'd have foreseen this as a problem prior to leaving on a big trip and, in fact.. uh, yeah..  we did.  Unfortunately, when Dom pre-emptively attempted to get a new passport prior to leaving, the application was rejected and he was told that - if you currently have a valid passport, you absolutely cannot apply for a new one unless the current passport expires in less than 1 year, OR your current passport has less than 4 blank pages.  After pleading that we would be traveling the world for a full year and that we didn't want to apply and wait 21 days in a foreign country for a new passport, the officer gave him a baffled look and said "can't you just fly back to Canada during your trip?"… sigh… it was a no-win situation, so.. here we are at one of the handful of Canadian Consulates in SE Asia :).

After a bit of struggle with various Visa applications in other countries (ie. getting the India visa in Kathmandu), we were prepared for a bit of struggle/frustration here.  To our amazement, the staff at the Canadian Consulate in Ho Chi Minh, were really amazing (arguably even more friendly and helpful than the passport office in Canada!!).  The lady that helped us was super nice and understanding - she absolutely made the process as easy as it could be by answering all our questions, providing the right overseas applications to fill in, and she even had the new passport shipped to Ha Noi (the other embassy in Vietnam) so that we can continue traveling north instead of waiting for 3 weeks in Ho Chi Minh.  So, we were very pleased to deal with them and highly recommend it to anyone else who finds themselves stuck in this situation in the future :)

From Ho Chi Minh, we also visited the Cu Chi tunnels and the Vietnam War museum.

For those who do not know about this war, you should read the first few paragraphs of the Vietnam war wikipedia page: 

 South Vietnam: 850,000 (1968)
1,500,000 (1974–75)[6]
 United States: 536,100 (1968)
Free World Military Forces: 65,000[7][8]
 South Korea: 50,000[9]
 Australia: 7,672
 Thailand: 11,570
Philippines Philippines: 2,020

 North Vietnam: 287,465 (January 1968)[10]
China China: 170,000 (in 1965–69)[11][12]
[13]
 Soviet Union: 3,000

 United States
58,220 dead;[A 2] 303,644 wounded[A 2]
 South Korea
5,099 dead; 10,962 wounded; 4 missing
 Australia
500 dead; 3,129 wounded
[18]
 New Zealand
37 dead; 187 wounded
[19]
 Thailand
351 dead;1,358 wounded[20]
 Philippines
9 dead[21]

.  To summarize, it was a cold war fought in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, where the Russians were supporting North Vietnam and the US was supporting South Vietnam. 

No war is ever pleasant - the War Remnants museum did a good job of outlining the atrocities and horror of the Vietnam war.  It's presented in an artistic and touching way with artifacts, quotes, and photos from people who fought, barely survived, and were brutally tortured.  It has been over 25 years since the war ended, but since then, tens of thousands of locals have since been killed or handicapped by the millions of unexploded land-mines which, to this day, still contaminate over a third of the country.. not to mention the hundreds of thousands of children born with horrible defects due to Agent Orange exposure which also still contaminates deep within the soil.

The Cu Chi tunnels, a 2 drive hours north of Ho Chi Minh, were made by the Viet Cong to evade and hunt the southern forces.  There over 200km of tunnels split into 3 underground levels: At the top level, a Vietnamese can walk through if they crouch down at the hips, whereas the bottommost level of tunnels requires them to army-crawl.  They also slept and lived in expanded rooms within the maze of tunnels.  They were so well hidden from the surface that you would never know they were there - all you'd see is dirt and vegetation.  Also, since the Viet Cong guerrillas were mostly under-armed, the entire area was booby trapped.  

Unlike the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi tunnels tour felt very touristy and done up a bit like an amusement park more than a place depicting remnants of the Vietnam war: You can even pay to shoot old military weapons from the AK47 to M-60 for fun.  Overall, it was still an interesting experience and worth seeing/crawling through part of the cramped tunnel networks to get a real appreciation for what they endured and accomplished.

After Ho Chi Minh, we took a bus to a beach town on the East Coast called Mui Ne, where we will be spending Christmas!

Now that the world managed to survive the Mayan Apocalypse, we'd like to wish everyone and your families a Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays, wherever you are!