Hola from Hoi An

img_4444We arrived to lovely Hoi An on Tuesday after taking the train from Nha Trang. It was a 9 hour journey via train, but probably the most relaxing travel day we have had in a long while.

We had spent the day before at “Vinpearl Land”, an amusement park and waterpark built on an island just off the coast from Nha Trang. Our feet were thankful for the rest after a long day spent amusing ourselves at Vinpearl Land. We had a blast at the park, enjoying our favorite rides over and over again as the park wasn’t very busy and headed home in the dark. We left all of our cameras at home, so I don’t have any pictures to show for the day, but if you ever find yourself in Nha Trang with an 11 year old and a 9 year old, make a plan to spend some time there. For $30 US per person for the entire day, including the cable car to the island, it was definitely worth the price of admission. Teens might find the rides pretty tame, but for younger kids the day was perfect.

We boarded the train early, at 5 am so we got to see the sun come up as we traveled peacefully along the coast, then inland along rice fields and through small towns. It was so interesting exploring the train’s different coaches, moving from the dining car, to the coaches with hard wooden seats full of Vietnamese travelers and their children, to the coaches with softer seats and AC (we chose the softer seats for the 9 hour journey!), to the sleeper coaches in the back of the train. Every so often, different food carts and drinks carts would come along, so our bellies were never empty. I think Evan and I were able to really relax on the train, as its speed was constant, there was no overtaking, no honking and Jamey and Becca found it a pretty neat and comfortable way to travel.

Catching an early train to Hoi An
Catching an early train to Hoi An

We arrived in the early afternoon to Hoi An, a lovely small town on the delta, about 5 km from the ocean. We pulled up to the guesthouse we had booked and found these friends sharing our accomodation.  How could we not fall in love?

2 of the 3 adorable puppies living at Mina Le Villa guesthouse, we have named them Mr. Fluff and Barney
2 of the 3 adorable puppies living at Mina Le Villa guesthouse, we have named them Barney (left), Mr. Fluff (right), not pictured…Biter…

We used to look for accomodations that had swimming pools…now after 5 days at Mina Le Villa in Hoi An, our search will include “do you have puppies?”. Jamey and Becca spent hours with these dogs. They were so fun to play with and developed their “barks” while we stayed at the guesthouse. We slept in the most comfortable beds we have slept in, in all of Asia. A bonus for all of us.

Our 5 days in Hoi An were wonderful. It was an easy place to be. We spent afternoons swimming in the ocean (a 10 minute motorbike ride away, or a peaceful 20 minute bike ride for me!). The waves were incredibly fun and rough, but the sea was so warm. We visited the Old City that at night is lit up with beautiful colorful lanterns. We ate more wonderful food, having found the perfect place to find our breakfast “banh mi’s”, more Indian food and shared dinner with the locals at the market. Evan rented a motorbike again, so every morning he and I ventured out early before Jamey and Becca woke up to explore the beach, the surrounding rice fields, local villages, and the river delta that is home to Hoi An. Becca and I got really good at me doubling her on bicycles that our guesthouse let us use. Jamey and I finished Chapter 2 of his math curriculum…trust me, not easy!! I am grateful and thankful to all of his teachers for their patience.

This morning as I watched a woman driving her boat full of fresh produce down the river, I was thinking about how very different our lives are to those that live in Southeast Asia, knowing that she probably makes this journey every single day to sell her produce in the market.  I mentioned this to Evan and he reminded me that we are not that different after all. She is just getting into her form of transportation and heading to work. We do the same, just a different form of transportation and a different profession. “Same same” like the Vietnamese would say, but “just different” like it says on the back of the tourist t-shirts.

We left Hoi An this afternoon to spend a few days in Da Nang, another ocean side town further north. It is famous for “China Beach”, the beach where American soldiers came for R & R during the war in Vietnam. In 2 days we’ll head back to the train again to travel to a town called Hue where we will spend Evan’s birthday and explore Hue, before flying to Hanoi on October 29th. Jamey and Becca are bummed to be missing Halloween, but have planned out how to do some trick or treating with Evan and I…perhaps we’ll be surprised by Halloween festivities in Hanoi?

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We miss you guys! Thanks for reading!

much love,

Nicola

It’s cooler up there, in the wide open air…

Hello friends,

We spent a lovely 6 days in Da Lat, the south central mountainous part of Vietnam. It was the first time since we left Idaho that we wore our warmer layers…pants and long sleeve shirts in the evenings. The climate was perfect. Cooler mornings, daytime temps in the 70’s and cooler evenings. Lovely.

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Keeping cozy with a warm hat and some tea

The pace to the town was much slower than Ho Chi Minh, there was a lovely little canal and small lake in the center of town. Evan rented a motor bike and we all took turns on it with him exploring different corners of Da Lat and the surrounding countryside. I practiced driving the motorbike on a much quieter stretch of road, but I’m not ready to drive in the traffic here yet, much less with Jamey or Becca on the back of the bike with me…wishing I had taken some motorbiking lessons before we left. Exploring these countries on a bike is wonderful.

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Da Lat is well known for a home called “Crazy House” that was built by the daughter of one of Vietnam’s presidents. She studied architecture in Moscow and returned to Vietnam and built this unusual place in Da Lat as a gift to Vietnam. We visited twice because it was so unique and interesting. The kids really liked it. You can book a room in the “Crazy House” for about $50 US per night, and the woman who built the home lives in the middle of the compound in a home that looks like a Dr. Seuss tree house.

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The biggest adventure we had while we were in Da Lat was going to the Datanla Falls High Ropes course. It was incredible and very challenging. We spent over 2 hours doing the different levels (each getting more and more difficult) and all of the courses had fantastic zip lines that carried you over the tree canopy. The views were incredible, the staff very helpful but not in an overwhelming-I’m going to watch every little move you make-kind of way. The course and the equipment incredibly safe. We had a blast. Evan and Becca completed all of the levels, with Jamey and I deciding that the black level (the hardest level) was a bit too high for our liking.  At the same area, we also got to zip down an “alpine roller coaster”, a gentle roller coaster type ride where we each got to control our own speed with a break. Talk about a fun morning!

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It was wonderful spending so much time in Da Lat as we slowly got to know our neighbors and the lovely folks who ran the guesthouse; explore the day and night markets; find out who makes the best egg and baguette sandwich; where to find our coffee in the mornings and enjoy some lovely Indian food two days in a row!

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Becca and Jamey are ready for Halloween! Dress up as emperor’s children…after exploring an old palace owned by the last King of Vietnam

Yesterday we said good bye to the lovely Da Lat and headed via bus down the mountain to the beach side town of Nha Trang. The bus trip, while nerve wracking because of the unusual driving style of the bus drivers in SE Asia (we spent way too much time in the oncoming traffic lane!!), was incredibly scenic, made all the more scenic by the mountain rains and waterfalls coming down from the mountains.  We will spend only 2 days and 3 nights in Nha Trang-it is a very touristy town because of the beach and not our cup of tea as there are lovelier beaches further north.  We are here mostly to visit a large water and amusement park for Jamey and Becca called Vinpearl Land that is on an island just off of Nha Trang. We’ll head there tomorrow for the day to see if it is all it is cracked up to be. For $25 per person for both parks (including the gondola ride over to the island), we feel that it is an affordable splurge that will bring out lots of smiles!

Early Tuesday morning, we will travel north by train, 9 hours, up the coast to reach lovely Hoi An.  Vietnam continues to surprise us with its kind people, lovely vistas, and different adventures!

Vietnam here we come!

Jamey and I casting our votes!
Jamey and I casting our votes!

We just left the bus station at Ho Chi Minh City, headed via an 8 hour bus trip to Da Lat, in the south central mountainous region of Vietnam. I have a long time to write. Buckle in…We are travelling via a “sleeper bus”, a large double decker type bus where the seats (including your legs) are reclined to about 30 degrees. It’s 9:45 in the morning so we probably won’t sleep on this bus and the arrangement certainly feels different, but we have all figured out a way to get comfortable.

We have been in Vietnam now since Tuesday, after having spent some good days recovering and relaxing in Kampot, Cambodia. The lovely owners of the apartment we rented in Kampot, Brett and Chandra, were wonderful hosts. Evan and Brett (an Aussie) had many great conversations on the patio of our apartment and they invited up our to BINGO one night at the local pub (kids loved it and I won a free beer). Brett took us sightseeing around Kampot to the seaside town of Kep and to the Bokor Mountains outside of Kampot where we spent a morning exploring old buildings that were left vacant during the time of the Khmer Rouge.  Kampot was a very interesting town with its mix of expats and locals and holiday makers during the Cambodian holiday of Pchum Ben. Brett even drove us to the Vietnam border which saved us from having to have one last bus trip in Cambodia (thankfully)!

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Watching the freshly caught crab come up to market, Kep, Cambodia
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Jamey in a deserted building on Bokor Mountain, Cambodia
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Admiring some unusual art work in a deserted building on Bokor Mountain, Cambodia
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an old hotel, deserted during the Khmer Rouge period, Bokor Mountain, Cambodia

Once in Vietnam, we hopped on a bus from the town of Ha Tien to travel to Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. Although warned ahead of time to be careful, we realized that we were overcharged for all of our forms of transportation on just our first day in Vietnam!  It didn’t take us long to realize that in some parts of Vietnam, tourists are seen as “wallets with legs” and we too were taken advantage of. However, as Vietnam is in general a very inexpensive place to visit, being over charged means that maybe our bus trip should have cost $6.00 we each paid $7.00…oh, quick stop for a 5 minute bathroom break!

Back with a funny story…so when getting on the sleeper bus, you are given a plastic bag for your shoes to be placed in for the duration of the journey, so it seems that in getting out of the bus to use the restroom etc you are all given matching orange and green flip flops to wear (well used flip flops) outside of the bus. Funny…when travelling around SE Asia, you definitely have to have a different mindset about germs!

Becca on the upper level of the "sleeper bus" on our way to Da Lat, Vietnam
Becca on the upper level of the “sleeper bus” on our way to Da Lat, Vietnam

We enjoyed many things about Can Tho. It has a population of 1 000 000 people so it helped us get used to crossing busy roads full of motorbikes,buses, bicycles and taxis all going in different directions. It is a test for the nerves for sure, but after bus trips in Cambodia nothing shocks us anymore! Can Tho is nestled on the Mekong river making it easy to arrange a boat ride down the river to take in the goings on of a floating market, watch life happen along the shores, and wander through some lush Mekong canals. Similar to Thailand and Cambodia, the garbage in the river however is heart breaking. Life lessons for all of us, about the need to recycle, reduce compsumption and take care of the planet.

Floating down the Mekong River in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Floating down the Mekong River in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

We spent the afternoons walking around the city, taking in city life and stopping to eat when we were hungry. We have found Pho (noodle soup with meat) and Banh Me (sandwiches on lovely bagettes) to be yummy, fresh and inexpensive. We took in a water park one afternoon in Can Tho that has seen better days, but it was refreshing to cool off in a pool.  Our only struggle was trying to get away from cigarette smoke. It seems that smoking is a national past time here, and people are largely free to smoke whereever they wish (including on the bus from Ha Tien to Can Tho, so gross when you can’t get away from the smoke). Our hotel rooms smelled of smoke, if we sat in a restaurant our cleverly chosen seats would soon have smoking neighbors, same again in coffee shops…we wondered if it would be even worse in Ho Chi Minh city.

We travelled by bus up to Ho Chi Minh city, the largest city in Vietnam after a few days in Can Tho. We arranged to stay in a guesthouse (Ngoc Pham Guesthouse-in case any of you come visit HCM city) in the center of town so we would be free to walk as much as we could (much to Becca and Jamey’s dismay). Our guesthouse was in a perfect location, found down a little alley off the main drag so it was quiet and very comfortable. We had lovely hosts who provided us with breakfast each morning and Jamey and Becca were so excited to each have their own bed, and some sweet dogs to pet who lived at one of the homes that shared the alley as our guesthouse.

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Navigating through the traffic as a pedestrian was thrilling and confidence building. We visited the famous landmarks in the city, including the Saigon Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral and Independence Palace, the home of the former president of South Vietnam. He and his family and staff deserted the palace in 1975 when the Northern Vietnam army invaded and took control of southern Vietnam, thereby ending the war. The palace was massive and appeared as though everyone just up and left one day. The basement was so interesting, built with fortified walls and had all the telecommunications systems, maps and “war rooms” needed for the President to be in touch with his army and the American soldiers helping to defend the south. Incredible to see a piece of history.

Our first night in Ho Chi Minh, Evan found out that we could take an elevator to the top of the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh for some expensive ice cream and beer. It was so worth it. The view of the city from 50 stories up was incredible! I had thought we would dread being in such a big city, but I think after travelling through quiet cities in Cambodia and Thailand, it felt exciting to be in such a place.

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The view of Ho Chi Minh city from the 50th floor of the tallest building in the city

We heard good things about a water park further out of the city center called Dam Sen Waterpark and spent the better part of a day getting whipped around water slides, zooming down ziplines, floating down a lazy river. It was awesome entertainment for about $6.00 per person.

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this ride was one of their favorites! Loved seeing their smiles!

The smoking was not nearly as prevalant in Ho Chi Minh as it had been further south, and we found the food to be excellent and inexpensive again. We didn’t ever feel that we had gotten ripped off or were targets for pick pockets. Ev even hopped on a few motorbike taxis to visit different parts of the city when the kids and I wanted to take it easy, which he said was so fun and for less than $1.00 a ride, a great way to get around. It was fun to join the crowds on the main drag in the evenings, sitting on little chairs or stools watching life go by. Ho Chi Minh was full of life and happening all hours of every day.

I think we could have stayed much longer, we only barely scratched the surface of the city…but onward we must go…isn’t there a famous expression, “the mountains are calling and I must go”?
Thanks for reading and following along our journey. With it being Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, I am reflective of all that I am thankful for…great family, great friends, wonderful health, the means to take an adventure like this, and being lucky enough to call Canada, New Zealand and the United States home.