Ha Long Bay and the Tourism High Life

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A lone karst formation and a boat in Ha Long Bay.

The appeal of Vietnam for many tourists is the luxury-level vacations at middle-class prices. You can get an all-inclusive trip here for only a few hundred dollars here thanks to economic disparity, and one tourist’s bargain price is a Vietnamese citizen’s income boon. The result is a vast network of tour agencies, guides and drivers and middlemen, all pushing to cash in on the tourism boom. And nowhere is that more apparent than Ha Long Bay, a bay of thousands of karst islands off the northern coast of Vietnam that now serves as one of the country’s main tourist attractions.

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The Vietnamese flag waves from a sunken beam on the way to Ha Long Bay.
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Visitors arrive at an island resort in Ha Long Bay.

Though there are backpacker guides to the area, we booked two nights at an island resort through our hotel to save time. This included transport to and from the islands, so we were picked up from our hotel, driven in a bus to the port, and took a boat to another boat that finally landed us on a small beach nestled in one of the karsts off the coasts of Cat Ba. With raised bungalows, soft sand, and palm frond parasols, it looked like quintessential island getaway.

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Beachside bungalows at our resort.
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A praying mantis explores my computer.
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Moonlight over the bay

The primary draw of Ha Long Bay is its jagged beauty, with knife-sharp, rain-weathered limestone karsts jutting from the ocean, crowned with lush greenery that clings to life among the rocky crags and flourishes in places where weathering has formed dirt. Scattered everywhere, the karsts form a maze navigated by the locals in junks, motorboats, and rowboats, all moving people or goods or livelihoods. While many people seem to have switched to servicing domestic and foreign tourists looking to get around the islands, others get by fishing squid and farming shellfish as they have for hundreds of years. From wooden houses built on moored docks, they catch fish, tend to baskets full of shellfish submerged underwater, or wade through the shallows collecting snails and augers for market. They sometimes stare at tourists as the float by in boats or kayaks, but they don’t like the stares they receive in return.

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Coming home: two men disembark from a boat at a floating home. The wires above it are strung between the karsts and carry electricity.
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A man gathers snails during low tide.
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A man paddles a boat with his feet.

The most stunning thing to me at our island resort is the tide. The afternoon we arrived, we swam to another nearby karst with sandy beach and back. The next morning we woke early to find the channel we swam the previous day had become a mud flat, the tide out so far that we could walk to the same beach. We picked our way across the mix of mud and sharp limestone rocks, curious of what we’d find: buried plastic bottles here, bike tires once tied to boats to act as padding against the docks there. But there was surprisingly few signs of life. Besides some scattered anemones that turned inward to stay moist at the low tide and small scattered augers burying themselves in the mud, there was nothing. No coral, no sponges, no algae. If there was anything that once lived here, it might have died out with the coming of the resorts. Their construction brings silt, and silt blocks out the light and chokes out life. It’s the price paid for tourism, for the beautiful waterfront bungalows and (artificial) soft sandy beaches.

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Low tide from the beach in front of our resort. We swam to the middle karst yesterday afternoon. Now, we can walk.
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Augers scattered in sediment at low tide.
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Bike tires, lost from a boat and colonized by shellfish and sponges, now exposed at low tide.

In the afternoon of our last day, we borrow a kayak from the resort and head out onto the water, camera precariously wrapped in a plastic bag. We paddle around the karst islands, looking for something interesting, and stumble onto sites where local tour agencies run rock climbing excursions. Then we make a wrong turn and we find ourselves at the edge of a deep, wide channel. This is the shipping lane in these parts, and we’re not allowed further. We return to our island and circle it to discover an inlet between two limestone towers on the other side. Our island is actually a crescent shape, with a secluded lagoon in the middle, where the more stagnant water forms pond-scum like bubbles we paddle through to reach a rocky, pebbly shore. It’s silent here except for the occasional cry of a raptor circling overhead. This is the draw of Ha Long Bay for us: to feel like you’ve found a secret that even if it’s been discovered before, you alone have for the moment.

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Setting out in the kayak.
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Looking up at the erosion on the karst walls.
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A hidden lagoon on the other side of our island.
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A small, pebbly beach in the lagoon where we made landing.

We board a large junk the next morning, bound ultimately back for Hanoi. Surrounded by chattering tourists, we occupy ourselves in watching the karsts and other boats slip by, a tapestry of blue dotted with white clouds, beneath which the green and gray angles of karsts jut upward and slip downward into the jade-colored water.

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Our junk’s mast.
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Karsts make many areas of the bay impassable for large ships.

As time passes, the islands become less frequent and the clouds thicken overhead to a uniform gray sheet. We hear the crew muttering, and the boat picks up speed to try and beat the storm. We arrive early, but they keep us on the boat for an extra hour—there aren’t any boats available to transfer us from the junk to the mainland. Meanwhile, the sky portends trouble, with whisps of cloud drifting over the mainland and peals of thunder. Just as we’re given the clear to disembark to the mainland, thick droplets begin to fall onto us and the waters of the bay. We scramble into the transfer boat, huddling under its awning to stay dry. Once on the mainland, we hear from a waiting attendant that we’re lucky; with the approaching storm, the government has temporarily halted all water travel to and from Ha Long Bay. Bound for a bus back home, it’s easy to worry about the details of what Ha Long Bay will look like after another decade of tourism. But given Nature’s power, it’s hard to imagine its beauty will disappear entirely.

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A crewmember stares out at the water as the weather turns dark.
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Lightning strikes in the mountains as the storm rolls in.

Shoe Repair, Take 3

It’s that time again! The zipper on my left boot has been slipping more often and yesterday, with a final tug, a side of the zipper pull slipped off the teeth. I’ve been able to tie the boot shut with some string, but it won’t last long.

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Er…it works for now.

With some help of google and the hotel staff, we look up a local shoe repair shop and get a written description of the repair we want and we’re off. It takes us a while to find the place; sandwiched between a new teahouse and a restaurant, the shoe repair storefront looks more like someone’s house. But a no-nonsense older woman comes out when we knock on the door, followed by her husband. After taking a glance at the shoes and our note, she nods and we talk business. She wants around USD $30 for the repair and won’t take less. We don’t have a lot of power to talk her down, so we try a different tack: could they resole Stoytcho’s flip flops as well for that price? We pantomime this action, putting new rubber onto the bottom of his flip flops. She gets it and agrees–we’ve got a deal. Stoytcho takes off his flip flops and, now barefoot, hands them over to the woman. Meanwhile, the man is turning my boots over in his hands, evaluating, assessing, and thinking of repairs.

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Stoytcho, barefoot because he didn’t bring a spare pair of shoes.

Three days pass before we can return to them to pick up the shoes. When we arrive, the woman smiles and retrieves our shoes, perfectly repaired. For my boots, they removed the old zippers and added new ones in for both the left and right shoe so they match. They’ve also done some sewing where the threads between the leather parts were failing, and added glue at some of the weakened seams between leather and rubber sole. Stoytcho’s flip flops are a bit more of a patch job: they found some old black treaded rubber and glued that onto the bottom of each sandal. It’s crude, but works like a dream. They don’t slip on the wet tile and marble in wet bathrooms, nor out on the sidewalk.

We thank the couple and give them an extra tip for their awesome work. Then it’s off to take more steps and continue our trip around the world.

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Ok this was totally in Hong Kong instead but LOOK AT THOSE FRESH, GOOD-AS-NEW BOOTS.

P.S. If you’re looking to repair your shoes in Hanoi, we can definitely recommend these two. You can find them right around here (+/-1 on the address number):

Hanoi and Vietnam’s History

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Hanoi is two things: hectic and contradictory. It is hectic because it is the capital. Everything must happen here, but bigger. Vendors clog the sidewalks with impromptu eateries and storefront goods spill out onto the streets. We’re here also here during the tail end of Reunification Day celebrations, which every year commemorates the end of what they call the American war and joining of North and South Vietnam. In the evenings, young couples and families walk the boulevards of the Old Quarter and along the river, weaving their way through rivers of motorbikes and dodging the occasional car. During the day, it’s business as usual: everyone on a motorbike has somewhere they need to be five minutes ago and most driving rules are loose. In the early afternoon the roads flood with schoolchildren, walking home with friends or catching a ride on a motorbike with parents. Neither will stop, so watch your step.

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And Hanoi is contradictory because it is both the seat of the country’s communist state and a business center. Nearly everyone here is involved with business of some kind, whether selling food or household goods or running restaurants and coffee shops. In the downtown area, multistory malls with Louis Vitton and Burberry stores attest that anything can be had here, for a price. Teenagers pose for photos in front of monuments to the revolutionaries, but in the shadow of shimmering ads for Pepsi. Yet all this occurs under the watchful eyes of Uncle Ho, the adoring personification of former leader Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam feels less like a communist country and more like a country that used communism as a unifying word against colonial forces.

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The museums and monuments corroborate that idea, dedicating themselves more to portraying the evils of colonialism and the heroic acts of people who fought the colonial forces than to illustrating a post-capitalist worker’s paradise. A visit to the Women’s Museum yields two floors dedicated to female revolutionaries who fought against the French and American forces and their fates when captured. Similarly, Hoa Lo Prison (known by American POW’s as “Hanoi Hilton”) is divided into two parts: the first is a scathing reconstruction of conditions here during French colonial rule, depicting torture and treatment of political prisoners at the hands of the colonial forces.

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The second half of Hoa Lo Prison is a museum dedicated to the American POW’s housed here during the war, with specific attention paid to the good care and conditions the prisoners received. Wander through and you’ll find yourself staring at goods given to them for personal hygiene and entertainment, at photos on the walls of them playing volleyball or celebrating Christmas. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, a sort of proud elevation of the Vietnamese people over the barbaric colonial forces. I can’t comment on veracity, but it’s certainly interesting to see.

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As we’re leaving Hoa Lo prison, we overhear a tour guide talking to a visiting American couple. “There’s a joke here we say,” the guide says. “If you ask us whether we forgive the Americans for invading, people will say ‘yes, yes, we forgive the Americans.’” The guide pauses and chuckles, “But if you then ask whether they forgive the French, people will say ‘well, we forgive the Americans.’”

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Hoi An’s Tourism

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Tourists and locals reflected in the canal in Hoi An.

Hoi An, our next destination, is a ‘traditional’ village located 30 km south of Da Nang. Imagine any quintessential tourist village with preserved architecture, art galleries, and traditional restaurants, except in the theme of Vietnam, and you’ve got a good idea of what Hoi An is like. Women in traditional dress pose beneath the curved roofing of old homes and temples. Streets are lit by handmade fabric lanterns of every color, and human-powered rickshaws shout to get past throngs of tourists loitering, buying, staring, and photographing. It is at once adorable and obnoxious, somehow simultaneously catering to every touristic whim while being touristically exhausting.

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Lantern displays in Hoi An’s old town.
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A floating candle-lit lantern on the canal.

Nearly everyone in Hoi An is involved in the tourism industry, and anything and everything has a price on it. You can pay a man to pull you around in a  rickshaw, for a boat ride on the town’s canal, to take a photo of you in front of a building, to get ‘tourism information’. Even walking around costs money; Hoi An’s pedestrian streets have sometimes-manned ticketing booths at every street entrance, where occasionally people will deny you entry unless you pay. You can stand there as people who are clearly other Asian tourists stream by, but they won’t let you through unless you pay. Here, it’s the inconsistency of rules, both in race and in time, that bothers me.

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A man walks past a lantern display in the old town. And yes, you can also buy a lantern here. As many as you’d like.
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A woman gets ready for her shift at the inconsistently-manned ticketing booths that charge you to get into old town.

Things are also a distinctly different price for you as a tourist. I arranged a fairly pricey $75 cooking class for our second day there, and in the morning our guide showed us around Hoi An’s market. She was primarily interested in discussing the market’s vegetables and kept us at arm’s length, dodging questions about herself and life here in Hoi An with silence or vague responses like “We’re poor. We need tourist money.” We switched to asking about the market to make her more comfortable and to try and get an understanding for the pricing of things, but we found her responses equally as vague. It was confusing, given that she’s probably shopped this market every day of her life. Then she bought us some snacks for a few thousand VND and it became clear why she couldn’t give us exact prices. Excited to finally have a benchmark for something, I asked her about the price. “Hmmm…” she hesitated, “For you, maybe it would be 20,000 VND.” More than three times what she had paid.

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A traditional dish of prepared seafood (snails) mixed with chilis and green onions, available at the market. Our guide was unable to give us an estimated price for tourists.
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The snacks she bought for us. For locals, you can get three of them for around 6,000 VND.

Though the rest of the cooking class was pleasant and uneventful, I couldn’t shake the fact that every interaction was an opportunity to put on a show and pull more money from us. We took a boat out to our guide’s small village, on an island in the Thu Bon river delta, to continue with the cooking class. They brought out an old woman and introduced her as ‘grandma’, where all of the recipes come from, and she showed us a handful of tasks in rapid succession before shuffling off exhaustedly. The local ‘shopkeep’, a man who drives his motorbike laden with random goods around the island, paid us a visit to see if we wanted anything. And after the cooking class, the guide invited us on a walk that ended up at the house of an old woman, whom the guide told us was widowed. “She sells vegetables for a living…and we all try to help her by buying something or helping her tidy up around the house. Do you want to come in?” the guide asked as she held the gate open. I was only a little ashamed when I blurted out, “No, thank you.” I was exhausted.

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The travelling salesman of the island.
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The ingredients of our cooking lesson.
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Taking the boat back to Hoi An. The net in the background is used for nighttime fishing.

Part of this is my privilege talking. I can, after all, get onto an airplane and be welcomed in nearly any country in the world with my U.S. passport. It’s in immense privilege to be able to go somewhere and have more spending power than half of the local population. It’s a privilege for people to be excited about you coming to their country. You’re not an immigrant or drain on resources—you’re a gift to the economy and a sign of good times to come.

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A woman smiles after we bought two paper lanterns from her to float in the canal.

I also don’t blame the local people for all trying to make money off of tourism. When you see your neighbor bringing in a hundred times what you are by catering to tourists, you’re going to try and do the same. And there’s no way to say who does and doesn’t get to profit off of tourism without being unfair to someone, without shutting out a group of people from the new prosperity. But when everyone does it, when every interaction you have with another human being is a transaction, you’re bound to get transaction fatigue.

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Crowds of tourists in the old town.

The next day we left Hoi An, bound for Da Nang by way of a tour bus. We visit ancient Buddhist temples in the marble mountains, where just outside you could buy carved marble Buddhas to take home. We walk through a sacred Buddhist cave, embellished (recently) with scenes of Buddhist hell to liven it up for the tourist crowd. At the entrance to the cave is plaque to Vietnamese fighters. “What does it say?” I ask our guide. “Oh, it’s for soldiers who fought here against American forces. They shot down a plane,” he says absentmindedly, “But if you keep walking, it is more interesting inside. There are scenes of Buddhist hell.”

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The plaque commemorating guerillas stationed here during the American War.
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A demon roasts humans in a scene from ‘Buddhis hell’. I think this is the sin for eating meat or being a butcher.

We end our tour with a stop at a marble factory, one of those ‘compulsory opportunities’ to buy souvenirs that so common in tours. We take the chance to use the restroom and wander through the store, past gemstones, jewelry, and carved marble of every shape and color. We stop to stare at an ornate marble fountain and a man hurries over to us. “Want to buy it?” he asks.

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A marble statue, as always, available for sale.

Trying (and failing) to hike Son Tra Mountain

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A Buddhist temple and Da Nang’s skyline seen through the midday haze from Son Tra Mountain.

After the amazing nature we experienced in Indonesia, we were ready to tackle Vietnam’s hiking trails. Unfortunately information online was sparse and having not yet fully internalized how poorly the hike from Tumpang to Bromo unfolded, I figured we could just go out to a place, pick up a dirt path, and follow it in and out. There was mention online of biking trails on Son Tra Mountain, which lies on a peninsula just north of Da Nang and wouldn’t be too far from civilization. So one morning we packed our bags and caught a taxi out there to try hiking around the mountain.

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Signs along the road on Son Tra Mountain. This shadeless path seems to be the only path for cars, bikes, and the unfortunate person who wants to walk.

 

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Cars and motorbikes speed past us as we hike up the road.

This hike was a failure, though not in its objectives. We were able to hike up the mountain and see some of Vietnam’s natural beauty. No, where this hike failed was in that it was utterly miserable for two reasons: lack of information made it impossible to find a walking trail and it was swelteringly hot. When we arrived at our destination, we asked the staff at the InterContinental Hotel about hiking trails and though they spoke English, they didn’t seem to understand the hiking part. They directed us to the vehicle road leading up the mountain. This shadeless pavement path was our trail for the hike and the noontime tropical sun beati down on us. The sunblock we applied simply dissolved in our sweat and we burned. It was not a fun hike.

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Stoytcho rests in the shade of a tree.
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The sun shines through the tree’s leaves. We never get full respite from the sun.

We realized an hour in that we weren’t going to make it to the top of the mountain and picked a smaller, nearer peak as our destination. It still took us another hour and a half to reach this peak and at the top we collapsed in the shade of a tree, panting and gulping down water. From here we could make out Da Nang’s skyscrapers in the midday haze and see the sparkling blue water along the shoreline below. “We should’ve gone swimming today,” we agreed as we hiked back down the mountain, passed by whizzing cars and passing vehicle debris.

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The shoreline of the peninsula, with its alluring aqua waters. Should’ve gone swimming.
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Incense sticks beside a pile of motorbike debris, probably indicating an accident where someone died. 

For those of you who found your way here because you’re looking for a hike in Da Nang, don’t do this one because it’s hot and just not worth it unless you have a motorbike or bicycle. For those of you reading along on our travels, this is a good moment to enjoy the fact you’re at your computer and not thousands of miles away hiking, sweating, and burning in the tropical sun. For us, this experience is a reminder to know there’s a trail before going. While traveling we’re trying lots of new things, and they won’t always work out. Best to keep the spirits up—and remember more sunblock.

Oh! And there was some cool wildlife:

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A Paris peacock butterfly (Papilio paris) collects nectar from a flower.
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A groundskimmer (Diplacodes trivialis) rests on a leaf in the sun.

 

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A soldier ant (unknown species) defends a line of foragers (from us).
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A planthopper of the family Flatidae rests on my hand and nervously eyes the camera.

Halfway through our year of travel

Edit: this was of 2017/04/30

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Our gorgeous appetizer of smoked meats, fruits, and veg.

Guess what today is? Halfway day! As of today, April 30 2017, we are halfway through our year of travels. We’re celebrating by going to a fancy restaurant tonight, Da Nang’s fusion restaurant Fatfish. Stoytcho is having the braised duck breast, the beer tasting flight, and a Vietnamese coffee, while I’m having the duck leg over noodles and a dessert of crème brulee.

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The duck leg at Fatfish.
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The duck breast at Fatfish.

It also happens to be Reunification day in Vietnam, so there are huge crowds gathered at the riverbank and there’s a celebration with fireworks during our dinner.

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The street chaos as a car tries to turn around on a street full of pedestrians and people on motorbikes, post-fireworks display.
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Decorations for Reunification Day.

To six more months of good travel!

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The Vietnamese are serious about their drinks

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London Fog and Vietnamese coffee at a cafe in Hanoi.

Drinks are a cuisine unto themselves in Vietnamese culture, with dozens of drinkable delights that you can stir, sip, and chew. Yes, chew.

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Fresh fruit juice and sweetend milk with sticky purple rice.

Two of the defining features of Vietnamese drinks is that they’re 1) almost always decoratively presented and 2) texturally different. It’s not like in the U.S., where the waiter brings you a cold Coke in a can and if you’re lucky, a glass of ice and a straw. Here, you get a drinks with fruit garnishes or served in two beautiful layers that you stir together to make the drink. A diversity of textures is also common, with many containing infused fruits, jellies, or rice ingredients that are chewy, slimy, spongy, or squishy. It’s a feast for the senses.

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Vietnamese Egg Coffee, which mixes a raw egg into hot coffee and forms a thick, creamy foam with the flavor of tiramisu.
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Lemongrass citrus infusion tea at a local cafe.

The most evident example of these drinks are bubble tea/boba. Boba is originally Taiwanese, but the Vietnamese have adopted it with a passion and made it their own. There are boba cafes scattered throughout every city, ranging from simple street stalls to trendy cafes with brick, handmade wood furniture, and décor straight out of downtown Brooklyn. There’s also way more to choose from than just the brown tapioca pearls known as ‘boba’. There are the poppers containing fruit-flavored syrups that burst open when you chew them, which made it to the U.S. a couple of years ago and are often offered as a topping in Yogurtland.

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Plain boba in bubble tea (right) beside a mix of boba and jellies in bubble tea (left).

Then there’s a lot of stuff that also hasn’t gotten popular in the U.S. yet (although I may be poorly informed; it’s been years since I’ve been near a halfway-decent boba café): rainbow jelly cubes made from tapioca and fruit-flavored gelatin, basil seeds that are squidgy and crunchy when you chew on it, sweet black rice that oozes and sits at the bottom of your cup, puddings with a super-soft consistency that burst with the flavor of burnt sugar and flan when you bite down. All of these options and more are laid out before you at the café in neat little containers, a textural symphony waiting to brighten your drink. If you’re a boba lover, Vietnam is your kind of place.

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A full bubble tea DIY mix in, courtesy of Popping Tea in Da Nang.

Da Nang City Shots

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A boat on the Han River in Da Nang

Da Nang is a seaside city we remember for its gorgeous beaches and amazing food. Tourism isn’t the primary industry in Da Nang, so accommodations can be found that are cheaper and more backpacker-friendly and there aren’t a lot of pushy travel agents and salespeople on the streets. The open-air restaurants lining the streets down to the beach are a mix of traditional Vietnamese and seafood eateries, a dream for those here to eat the ocean. AND it had our favorite boba and banh mi places in all of Vietnam. If we were to come back to Vietnam, it would be to visit this city and Da Lat again.

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Well-enforced motorbike laws.
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Fresh vegetables grow in a plot in the middle of a Da Nang neighborhood.
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A man waters his vegetable plot.
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Locals take photos on a closed-off bridge, before being chased off by guards.
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Men stand on their boat on the Han River with Da Nang’s cityline in the background.
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A man transports balloons on his motorbike.
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A woman hangs a Vietnamese flag on her house for Reunification Day.
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A woman waits with a delivery at one of Da Nang’s open-air restaurants.
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A man looks over a streetside restaurant along Nguyen Van Thoai Road.
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A man grills pork for banh mi at our favorite banh mi stall.
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Our favorite banh mi in all of Vietnam: a few slivers of cilantro and onion, but mostly pure grilled pork meat and pate.
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Stoytcho sits at a tiny table in a local boba stand.
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The Da Nang Dragon Bridge.
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A toad hides along the Han riverbank.
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A man pulls a boat ashore after rowing visitors out to see the city lights.
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Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge spouts fire for onlookers at its weekly show.

Off to Da Nang!

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We line up to march onto the tarmac at Da Lat Airport.

It’s time to head on to our next city, Da Nang. While a lot of backpackers attempt to bus or train around Vietnam, we’ve found it’s insanely cheap to fly. Our average flight per person flight cost is $100 USD, and this flight from Da Lat to Da Nang cost us $121 per person. Sure, the bus from Da Lat to Da Nang can be found through a travel agent at $11 per person, there are some horror stories out there and you have to go through Nha Trang, which we’ve heard from fellow travelers is one of the seediest, unpleasant places they’ve ever visited. So yeah, we’re not sad that we’re skipping the on-the-ground travel in this case.

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Walking the tarmac! Off to Da Nang, now.

Looking for flights? Your best bet is to check Jetstar, which had a ton of deals while we were there. Air Vietnam also sometimes has deals to compete with Jetstar.

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This advert was just so weird, so it’s here. You’re welcome!

Da Lat Bugs

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A jumping spider (perhaps of Plexippinae) crawls along a plant stem.

I’ve got more bugs for you! These ones come from all over Da Lat, whose temperate climate is surprisingly kind to insect and arachnid populations. There are butterflies, mosquito hawks, and of course your favorite, jumping spiders. I’ve tried to ID them where possible:

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A Catopsilia pomona perhces on a blade of grass.
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A jumping spider, perhaps a Hyllus spp. in Plexippinae according to abdomen patterning.
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A jumping spider, perhaps a Hyllus spp. in Plexippinae according to abdomen patterning.
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A haunting shadow of a crane fly, seen through opaque glass.
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A spider from the daddy long legs group (Pholcidae) crawls along a post edge.
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An unidentified salticid takes a ride with us on our swan boat.
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Some kind of weevil or borer. I’m a lot less patient with IDing beetles and beetle-related insects.
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Another unidentified jumping spider (UJS).
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An amazing jumping spider of the family Myrmarachne. They have evolved to look like and mimic ants!
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An amazing jumping spider of the family Myrmarachne. This one has lunch in its jaws.
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An unidentified inchworm.
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An unidentified fuzzy beetle.
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Two ants explore a nectar for flower.