Day 1: Saigon
On Thanksgiving of 2016, we flew Eva air (LOVED IT), and arrived in HCM, Vietnam. We checked into the Town House 23 Saigon hotel and immediately went in search of food. We started with a restaurant which instantly became our favorite in the area: Propaganda.
We explored the city jet-lagged and with swollen kankles as best we could. The first stop we made was to mail postcards to our family. My parents had no idea where I was, so I figured that part way through the trip they would receive the postcard to learn my whereabouts and my mom could quit worrying. But, I gravely miscalculated and they didn't receive it until well after we got back. 🤷 Either way, it has turned into a fun tradition; we send pictures as clues of our travels and see if they can figure out where we are! See if you can guess where we were based on the clues we sent in the Sleuthing section at the bottom :)
View from the Bitexco Financial Tower:
Day 2: Saigon & Củ Chi Tunnels
The complimentary breakfast at our hotel was a turning point in our lives. They had limited options of just bread and fruit. However, there was UNLIMITED passion fruit, which is where we developed our ongoing passion fruit addiction!
We didn't have anything planned for today, so we booked an afternoon tour to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Doo doo doo.. just waiting to be picked up for the tour...
Our drive through Saigon featured some pretty complex wiring and obviously a plethora of mopeds.
Zach the narcoleptic ^
We made a pit stop to visit veterans making beautiful lacquerware. This gentleman was staining and crushing up egg shells to create texture in the women's dresses.
Oh and we bought some dragonfruit smoothies, because, priorities
Củ Chi Tunnels
The Vietnam War was not that long ago. We were standing on the same ground that the soldiers had, seeing the tunnels first hand, as well as the traps and weapons; you could even shoot the machine guns if you wanted. Learning about their extreme survival tactics was pretty unreal. It is hard to believe that people would stay down in these tunnels for months on end. A whole city lived underground, with some large areas for gathering, but mostly tunnels where you could not stand up. As dangerous as it was, it was still safer than the alternative. They had to build a ventilation system by putting holes in termite hills and natural looking mounds, place hidden tunnel entrances to squeeze through, and try to discombobulate their enemy so as to not reveal their secrets. And I could see how terrifying these tactics would be to the American troops, not knowing what greusome booby trap laid ahead in foreign soil, or how and where the Viet Cong were disappearing to. This tour painted a hazy picture of the beautiful landscape as a palpable war zone. And yet, both the Vietnamese and Americans in our group looked back at this history together without holding each other in contempt. It was a reminder of how horribly sad war is, and how loving and accepting both sides may be, underneath it all.
After getting back from the tunnels, we had a more light-hearted evening, relaxing with some nice treats at Milkbar!
And then of course we topped it off with round 2 of our favorite restaurant. yommmm. Don't worry, we aren't done with you yet, Props!
Day 3: Cần Thơ
Crazy bus travel day.
Went straight to Nem Nuong Thanh Van to make our own "nem nuong" (pork sasuage) rice rolls.
During the day we explored the city, and then for dinner we went to the Spices Restaurant in some fancy hotel to celebrate our 6 month anniversary. (Still can't believe we did this international trip so early on in the 'ship!)
And in typical Zach fashion... he starts going wild with the camera! He took so many photos that I made them into a gif for your viewing pleasure.
Some night markets and people watching on the way back.
Day 4: Cần Thơ Floating Markets
One of my favorite days. We woke up before dawn to boat down to the floating markets. I remember being nervous because the motor wouldnt start for a solid 20 minutes, but we stayed positive!
You can tell what the boats are selling based on what is advertised (tied) on the poles. These bigger ships were part of the "wholesale" market.
Today's first ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee)... more will follow 😅
Hmm oh look this might already be coffee number two.
Finally we entered the "consumer-based" floating market.
Vi, our guide, helped us buy some delicious fruit and snacks. You'll notice that only women are selling; here, the women run the business while the men tend to the farm.
Vi was awesome as you can see
We stopped to eat lunch while looking over some of the boats, and enjoyed some of the produce we bought at the market too.
This hu tieu was the best I've ever had. (Hủ Tiếu is a Cambodian noodle soup, different from pho)
Air roots and a monkey bridge!
We got out to climb it. Zach took this picture of me while balancing in the center of the monkey bridge 🙈
"Perfect mobility" as Zach would say
We (assist with) making noodles!
For the immersive experience:
Eyes on the boat ward off sea monsters/evil spirits
These guys were quickly double-watermelon-tossing flawlessly 🍉🍉
We were told that building houses on stilts over the water doesnt count as owning land, so you don't have to pay taxes on the part of your house over water (or maybe it's just cheaper? something like that...😬). Whatever the reason, there were a ton of these structures.
Back on land! We walked really far to get dinner here but I forget why. Apparently Zach got some rock shrimp and I got something spicy.
Had to get a workout in.
Sorry, No wrinkly old folks on this one!
Day 5: Châu Đốc and Rừng Tràm Trà Sư
Goodbye, Can Tho!
Today was going to be a go-go-go day. We were heading to Phu Quoc Island for some R&R, but to get there, we needed to travel a long ways by land and then take a ferry. Rather than do all of that in one day, we decided travel to Chau Doc as a sort of layover, in the hopes of being able to squeeze the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary into our itinerary if possible.
We woke up early so that we could hopefully get to Chau Doc with time to explore (cough, Tra Su, cough). By now, I had already OD'ed on ca phe sua da, and had to cope with the reality that I will not be allowing myself to have any more. (I had 4 the previous day and was still feeling the repercussions) The only thing that was holding me together for this journey was this tiny banana phone.
Getting from Can Tho to Chau Doc put our relationship through the ringer. It was a hectic day of many buses and transfers in stations where no one understood us. And to add fuel to the fire, I knew we had a very tight schedule if we were going to visit the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary in this short stint (which was on my personal must-do list, if you couldn't tell). If only I had read How to Stop Worrying before this-- Sorry, Zach!
Luckily when we arrived, we were able to book some local guides who said they could take us to the sanctuary on motorbikes as well as to Sam Mountain where we could explore some pagodas-- Even better than we had hoped for! But, in order to make it to the Sanctuary on time, we had to leave immediately. That banana was obviously not enough, so in a desperate attempt to refuel we grabbed some pretty gnarly street food. It was interesting and a little unappetizing to watch rats eating next to my feet in the establishment.
This super-packed day was extremely memorable and more than I could have hoped for.
We motorbiked all over town and the rural roads
To finally arrive at...
The Tra Su Bird Sanctuary
First we boarded a motor boat (the blue one) to go deeper into the reserve. The scene of speed-boating through what looked like grassy landscapes and lily pads was just, wow. Like floating through a dream.
Eventually we reached another dock, where we switched to a quiet white canoe.
It is a special thing to be let into another habitat, and important not to disturb it. Needless to say, this part was even more enchanting!
Had to get some pics with our nón lá (hats)
Bird spotting time!
The peaceful skies under the light canopy of nests
We hung out here for a minute
Then continued on to explore some pagodas at...
In order to enter, we had to dress a little more conservatively
Whats that burning?
Watched sunset over the Cambodia border
It took a long time for the sun to set, so we entertained ourself with taking a picture of taking a picture, of taking a picture, of...
I did feel sick to my stomach this night, probably from the authentic albeit cheap street food we bought for lunch. So, I was extremely grateful to be staying in the comfortable and lovely Murray Guesthouse this night. It made it much more bearable. The couple running it were so welcoming and personable and even sent us this commemorative picture :)
Day 6: Hà Tiên and Phú Quốc Island
We continued our trek to Phu Quoc today by a bus to Ha Tien.
In pursuit of drinking water and the ferry, we wandered around some town on the wrong side of the river in the sweltering heat for a few hours. After an incorrect booking of a slow cargo ship, and a couple precarious bridge crossings, we booked the right boat to take. It was equipped with Vietnamese dramas and repeated loops of this one particular Vietnamese singer. Double thumbs up!
Ah, Phu Quoc Island. We welcomed this part of our trip as a break to kick back and relax. We didn't pre-plan anything here except for booking some nice accomodations at Famiana Resort & Spa. When we arrived, we lazed around on our private beach and pool until the sun set.
I believe this evening, we explored a nearby complex of cottages to eat a fantastic meal at The Spice House outside by their pool and beach 🤤
Day 7: Phú Quốc Motorbiking
Today we decided to be spontaneous and rent 2 mopeds to explore the island.
HA! Let's be honest, once the guy saw me test-drive a moped around the parking lot, he only rented us one. It turned out to be quite a trust exercise.
We visited a pepper farm, where the guide kept asking me to "stay forever" and work with her there. They served us some pretty bomb black pepper tea too!
I don't have pictures of our trip back where we almost died, weaving through tons of construction and wild traffic through slippery mud and unable to turn on our headlights at night. It was an adventure that's for sure. 👍
For dinner we kept it simple and just went across the street to the Cami Restaurant. We got a nice seat outside, though to our waiter's dismay the rain couldnt make up its mind.
Day 8: Phú Quốc
After getting a wide variety of foods at the resort's continental breakfast, we went to get Vietnamese massages together, and then read at the beach for a little bit. While Zach went to the gym, I snuck back to get a second Vietnamese massage. In hindsight, I wouldn't recommend 2 massages over the course of a few hours... you'll feel pretty loosey-goosey afterward... I thought I might strain myself just from walking back home haha.
Day 9: Hội An
The city of lanterns!
We visited a sequence of historically tagged buildings, and then ate at a very yummy restaurant called Nu Eatery (another favorite of the trip). And look how cute it is! There were a bunch of Lonely Planet books in the entryway for grabs too 😍
Day 10: Hội An, Mỹ Sơn, and Marble Mountains
We awoke early for an amazing historical visit to My Son ruins. It had rained all night and was still raining, so today presented some challenges.
That's how you do it though.
When we arrived, it was actually flooded, so we had a very limited visit. We waited around while scouts kept zooming out to estimate when the water would go down. We were provided some sweet ponchos though!
Finally there was a brief window, and we started through a lush "Jurrassic Park" terrain in a safari-like vehicle. However at the next checkpoint, the rains hadnt subsided enough for us to cross a river, so we had to hop on the back of scouts' mopeds to make it across this unprotected "bridge".
A bridge yesterday, now one with the river.
Ancient original brick dating back to the 4th century was restored 20 years ago with our current brick recipe. You can easily differentiate which brick is from the restoration, as it is already green! Still no one has figured out the Cham construction techniques- how the brick is still in pristine condition or how they carved designs directly into it. They are Cham-pions! (heh sorry.)
Here is an Italian attempt at recreating brick, more recently done than the above photo. Beautiful, but again not the same as the original.
The rain started picking up while we were in here, and we had to wade our way back quickly...Zach's flip flop broke in the process 🤦
Our tour continued to Da Nang where we visited a cluster of five marble and limestone hills housing beautiful Buddhist sanctuaries. You hike up and down the mountains, through tunnels and caves to see them all.
Our affable guide insisted to take photos of us in, like, every spot, some goofy poses with the dragon heads, these are just some of them..haha.
climbed to the top
When we got back to Hoi An... It had taken a bit of a beating, but it was really fun.
After we crossed the bridge, were able to find some areas that weren't flooded, and so we explored, got tea, people-watched, and relaxed.
Zach lit a lantern for his grandpa
Day 11: Hội An to Da Nang to Đồng Hới to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng
Today was just a travel day.
We left Hoi An (somehow) and took the SE4 train from Da Nang to Dong Hoi. It was a 5 and a half hour train ride, for which Zach booked the "hard seats". $2 more and we could have had "soft seats", but really-- what could "hard seat" really mean?
So, "hard seats" is pretty accurate. Not a translation issue. Lesson learned
Foliage was beautiful but the windows didnt make for a good photo
A driver was waiting to pick us up at the train station and take us to our reservation at Chay Lap Farmstay. It was already late at night, and the drive was very long through a remote area with no street lights. In some points of time we admit being slightly worried that we could be taken somewhere to never be seen again haha. Once we arrived, we still had no idea what the area looked like, but the people and service were really wonderful.
And, this is still the best tea I've ever had in my life. It was their own special recipe using fresh ingredients from the farm.
Day 12: Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng
Here begins another multi-day-highlight of the trip: Caving!
We were staying and going on a caving expedition, in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and surrounding cave systems.
Needless to say, we woke up in awe of our surroundings! We had no idea it would be this lush and gorgeous, especially since the nighttime arrival felt like the middle of nowhere.. (Well, now it makes sense, but at the time it didnt)
Our humble abode nestled below the mountains
We ate breakfast at dawn with a peaceful view
And then hopped on the road
To meet our guides in this beautiful town. We booked the Hang Tien Cave Endeavor through Oxalis Adventure Tours. It is the largest cave in the Tu Lan cave system. The area contains both the largest (Son Doong) and the third largest (Hang En) caves in the world, but unfortuantely they were not available for us during this time of year due to the seasonal flooding.
The setting on the water was a brilliant place to wait for members of our trekking group to arrive. The picture doesn't do it justice. There was a subtle and calm fog that brought me such deep peace. Such a special town.
Started with long and bumpy ride in the truck bed to a trail where we hiked to campsite to have an early dinner. I also learned the joy of Happy Cow, and that it is not a Vietnamese specialty (yes, the cheese brand).
From there we went on a short trek to explore Hang Tien...
It was such a grand entrance, and then got dark fast!
This section was nervewracking: you had walk balanced between water and a cliff, and no nearby support for your hands.
We had to turn around when we got deep inside as there was a river which was too strong to safely cross. But before we did, we all sat down at this spot and turned off our headlights to take in the sounds and pitch black darkness...
Day 13: Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng
We boarded a truck again, and got dropped off to wade across a river and tread through mud. Fun!
And the cold wet journey begins
At this point we locked our cameras in waterproof containers as we were swimming for most of the day through caves in darkness! It was VERY cold, and we had to work as a team to navigate as well as avoid jagged rocks under the water. When we stopped for lunch, we tried to dry our clothing by a small fire, though it was not very successful. It was almost worse having to put them back on.
We continued to explore caves with very large spiders and very tall (harnessed) ladders, as well as a "secret" cave that you can only enter through very tight spaces. Zach almost didnt make it 😜
And time to wade more rivers back to the truck!
Day 14: Phong Nha to Saigon
Back in Phong Nha, winding down.
Went on a bike ride around the rural area and then hopped on a plane back to Saigon
We almost explored some more caves but backed out because it couldnt have topped our experience and we didnt feel like getting soaked again. Instead, we happened upon some cute puppies and one with a ratty tail, I wonder what happened :(
We left our Farmstay, which they just finished decking out in DIY Christmas decor, and hopped on our flight back to Saigon.
Bad news: Zach's bags arrived covered in fish juice and reeked, so we spent most of the evening cleaning them with soap in the bathroom and blowing them dry with the hair dryer.
Once the smell had mostly subsided, we went up to the rooftop and had a couple celebratory drinks to a successful trip before we flew out the following day. I drank mine with a flame, but no pictures to prove it.
Day 15: Saigon to Home!
The time has come for the long trip home, but not before we go to Propaganda ONE👏LAST👏TIME👏! Perfect ending to a perfect trip! Not gonna lie, I ordered the same thing.
We can't wait to come back to Vietnam and explore the northern half!
If you were only provided the following clues, when would you have figured out where we were? These are the pictures we sent my parents, and the only hints they had to our whereabouts!
On Day 2, we sent Clue #1 (Dad got it)
On Day 4: Clue #2
Day 6: Clue #3
Day 11: Clue #4
Day 13: Clue #5
Day 15: Clue #6
We were headed home, but sent some teasers anyway from random parts of the trip
Day 17: Solved
The postcard finally arrived at my parents' with the full itinerary. We easily beat it home.