And so the story continues.
After leaving Hanoi, I flew to Hue. At this point, I was feeling mellower, and getting more into the routine of being by myself. Hue was pretty in its own way – a mix of beautiful rustic countryside, smaller-town atmosphere, and an abundance of history with its Imperial City of palaces, shrines and emperor buildings. The city overlooks the glittering Perfume River, and the main stretch is really walk able. Though not as pretty, it felt less touristy in comparison to Hoi An – my next stop. Hung Vuong is the main street where most of the hotels are located. Walking north (and it really felt south because you walk downwards), you hit a promenade (which houses a night market on occasion), then a long bridge overlooking the river, and on the other side, there is a big market.
For the most part, when my mood was up, I liked exploring Hue, but as Anthony Bourdain pointedly wrote in ‘Parts Unknown’, the city is ‘in many ways, a city of ghosts, memories and spirits’. Here in Hue is where I experienced absolutely some of the toughest moments on the trip, and where my depression really began to feel even more pronounced.
I woke up each night in cold sweats deep in nightmares; some that foreshadowed in some ways the next few months of my life. One night, it was so intense, I called JH and cried so hard I could barely breathe (a cry that I am so accustomed to now, but still shocked me in some ways back then). He told me to come home. I knew I could, that option was always available, but back then I was so deep in my head that leaving felt wrong (if I could even explain wrong). The thought of that option made my leaving Toronto seem without purpose, but then again, all I was doing was getting in my own head. Usually after the nightmares, I could never fall back asleep so I would lie there in still quiet for hours until the light came out. I would then force myself to get out of bed and start walking aimlessly.
The bridge dividing the city (and another one I would later meet in Laos) became my personal demon. I had many racing thoughts about jumping, drowning in the water, and suffocating. Every time I crossed that bridge, I remember stopping in the middle and having those personal demons wrap themselves around me – engulfing me until I could barely breathe. My head would cloud, my eyes would tear, and I would sob – in the middle of the bridge. There was one day I think where I stood there for probably two hours zoned out having twisted thoughts, trying to talk myself out of everything that would possibly be a wrong choice. Some of that memory blacked out for me, but whenever my focused thoughts went awry, I tried to focus hard on something in my line of vision. Often with the river, it was a moving boat.
At home, in my own kitchen, where I faced knives, pills and bathtubs, I focused on the window looking outside. Focusing so hard on an object would somehow snap me out of the cloud. I would wipe away my tears, and in Hue, take pictures to re-focus myself. I would then remember to continue walking. For all of this, Hue is one of those places where I do not think I can ever go back. It would just be too overwhelming. But for all it’s worth, I was a tourist for some parts of my visit, and can remember some good things too.
- Mood – Still fairly retrospective.
- Focus – Keeping myself together through these narrations and conversations.
- Craving – Bún Kèn from Phu Quoc Island.
- Feedback from the husband – We tried to talk and message every day, but it was always difficult. I told him a bit about my nightmares, but we never talked about ‘leaving‘ until I got home. It would have freaked him out. Nothing was fair to him already.
I stayed at the Jade Hotel on 43 Hung Vuong right along the hotel strip. It was literally a few minutes walk to the promenade, bridge, as well as many restaurants. The historical sites were also mostly across the bridge, and I would consider walk able. This hotel was pretty basic, but at only $20 a night (booked on Expedia in 2016) for a private room with a bathroom, I really had no reason to complain. The hotel overall was dated and dark. I stayed on the second floor (there is no elevator, just stairs), and had a bit of trouble working the clunky keys to open my door. Luckily everyone was really happy to help out, so every time I locked myself out, someone usually ran down the hallway to help. WiFi was not great, it kept on dropping. The TV also only had 5 Vietnamese channels. Breakfast was included, but once again, I opted to keep it light because I wanted to try as much street food as my stomach would allow.
In Hue, all I wanted to find was really great Bún Bò Huế. With some research, I kept on reading that the best place was located at 38 Tran Cao Van. This was great news for me, as this was just a few minutes away from my hotel. So, on my first morning, I headed there early at 6AM because I read it closed at 9 or basically when the pot ran out. The location is a bit confusing, as 38 Tran Cao Van houses a couple of stores. I walked along the street coming off of Hung Vuong, and when I came to 38, it looked like it was a closed store. To my immediate right, there was what looked like a restaurant/café, and then further in the distance I could see some steel tables and plastic chairs set up for what looked like another restaurant. The Vietnamese lady at the café locked eyes with me and asked me in English whether I wanted some fresh Bún Bò Huế. For some reason, I thought this must be it. She ending up bringing out a mediocre bowl of beef noodles – more like straight-up beef pho with some chilli oil added. A good bowl of Bún Bò Huế has “all the blood and stuff in there” (another quip from Bourdain), referencing pork hocks, congealed pork’s blood and Hue-style sausage. This was not even a good bowl of pho. She also then (when I paid) had the audacity to ask me for a great Tripadvisor review. I forgot what the name of the place was (but now as I look back, I think it was called Stop and Go Café, and blindly me, its address was definitely not 38 Tran Cao Van). Lesson learned – keep on walking.
I hate wasting food so I ended up eating the mediocre bowl of noodles, and it dampered my appetite for the real thing. Once I paid, I continued walking the ‘distance’ to that next restaurant. Lo and behold, this was it. The lady at the pot was a bit surly and barely spoke English, but she brought me a beautiful bowl of noodles. The whole area surrounding the restaurant just smelt overwhelmingly good (vegetarians will not love this – but it smelt like really good meat for lack of a better description). I do not order Bún Bò Huế often back in Toronto just because pho is the default, but this was definitely the best Bún Bò Huế I have ever had. The restaurant does not really have signage, but remember the address – 38 Tran Cao Van, and to “keep on walking”. I tried again to look for other Bún Bò Huế restaurants randomly outside of the main strip on one of my many aimless ‘walks’ but never saw anything that otherwise appealing. Restaurant-wise, perhaps stay away from the promenade; it looked pretty touristy, especially at night.
On one of my other days in Hue I ended up doing a city tour. After the tour, I was really hungry, so I decided to find a bunch of snacks. I ended up at Hanh Restaurant, a four-minute walk from my hotel. It was in the middle of a really hot (40 degree) sunny afternoon, so the restaurant was not busy. Everyone just looked like they wanted to take a nap i.e. it was time for a siesta. I ordered a couple of things which ended up being too much food for one person. However, I wanted to try as many dishes as I could everywhere I went, and so these were the sacrifices of travelling alone. I ordered half portions of Banh Loc Goi – tapioca flour meat dumplings in banana leaf, Banh Khaoi – a deep fried crepe with shrimp and vegetables, and Banh Beo – rice flour dumplings with dried shrimp. Everything was so good (especially the Banh Beo – which were so cute served in these little dishes), and my final bill altogether was under $3CAD. As usual, I loved how colorful and beautiful everything looked even without elaborate plating, etc. South East Asian food is definitely a marvel for the eyes and the camera, even though everywhere you eat looks like a dirty hole.
It was hot, dry and sunny in Hue, so I did not always want to be roaming around myself and depressed. I ended up doing a 6-hour city motorbike tour with Hue Easy Rider ($20USD – tip included). My guide Loc was great. He was a kind, older gentlemen – easy and friendly to talk to. Traffic in Hue was not as intense as in the big cities, so riding on a motor bike was pretty calming. Loc picked me up at 9AM from my hotel. From there, he took me to a bunch of places. He gave a little spiel about each place before I went in, but left me to explore all the sites by myself. We visited:
- The countryside where I was able to see a bunch of rice fields and farms;
- Tu Hieu Pagoda – Usually there are monks there praying according to Loc, but we missed them this morning. This was a cute little place with a small bridge overlooking a tiny moat;
- We did a hike up Vong Canh Hill to see the American Bunker. This was a fabulous place to take pictures of the Perfume River, and apparently for Vietnamese teenager boys to take their dates;
- Tu Duc Tomb;
- Thien Mu Pagoda;
- Phuoc Duyen Tower, and finally;
- The Imperial City / Citadel.
I had read before that Imperial Cities in other countries (notably China) are way more impressive but I loved exploring these grounds still. Because it was so hot, there were barely any other people around, and I basically had the whole grounds to myself. Every time I thought I was done exploring, another section would pop up. At the time, I only had my iPhone 6 with very little photo space (because I am an idiot and opted for a 16GB, and did not even bring a back-up point-and-shoot), so even though I wanted to, I took very little pictures on this tour, and regrettably very few pictures of this city. As I write about this though, I do remember imagining how opulent the grounds must have been. There were these long paths with willowy trees that led into mazes of corridors leading from one building to the next. I got lost there for a while, but being cognizant of Loc waiting outside in the heat, I went back to the entrance to find him.
He ended up taking me to what he said was his favourite local restaurant for lunch. When we got there it was packed full of locals, not a tourist in sight. He ordered us each a bowl of Bun Thit Nuong – grilled pork with vermicelli, and some spring rolls. When the noodles came, he smiled and said this was the ‘working man’s’ dish. Even if I did not love Vietnam for my own reasons, not really any dish failed me (except for maybe one in Ho Chi Minh city); this lunch like every meal I had so far was simple, but delicious.
Finally, after all was said and done, my time in Hue was over. It was time to head onwards to Hoi An.
I had a love and hate relationship with Hoi An. I loved it because it was here where I started to take up super early morning bicycling, and this habit carried into my time in Laos. On the flip side, it was fairly touristy; may be not as extreme as Ha Long Bay, but still pretty touristy.
I opted to hire a motorbike from Hue to Hoi An, costing 400,000 VND (a little over $20CAD). The distance was about 150 km with a couple of stops along the way to see Lang Co Beach (nothing special – just your regular beach) and Hai Van Pass (which was pretty, but crowded with tourists trying to climb rocks to get the best photographs of panoramic views). There was another stop to see Marble Mountain (a small group of marble limestone mountains), but I was growing impatient at this point and just wanted to get to Hoi An, so I opted to skip this stop.
I stayed at Almanity Hoi An on 327 Ly Thuong Kiet Street. This place was basically a five-star resort in comparison to my last hotel, but it did cost $130CAD per night (booked on Expedia as of 2016). It is about a 15 to 20 minute walk to the ancient town where the markets, restaurants and shops are located.
My room was a longer walk away from the reception down a darkly lit hall (the property is pretty big with 145 rooms). The room was huge. There was basically a den area with a TV and a couch, a huge bathroom, and then some stairs leading up to the actual bed area. The windows faced a garden, so there was not much of a view, but I was only there to sleep anyhow. The layout became a bit frustrating after a while though since the bathroom is so far away from your bed. In the middle of the night, I did not like having to climb up and down stairs in the dark (or have to fumble to find lights) just to go to the bathroom. There were no problems with WiFi (included), and the TV in the room had a billion channels.
I made good use of the large swimming pool on the property as well as the spa (where I got a massage). The swimming pool is separated into two sections, each with long infinity pools. From 4 to 6PM, there is a 2 for 1 cocktail happy hour, so you can just sit in the pool and do nothing, which is what I did. Up the stairs from the spa, there is a gym with a couple of machines. I ended up working out there twice in the evening for the sake of it being there and because I hated the idea of roaming alone outside at night. The hotel has a big restaurant, and a breakfast buffet is included. As per always, morning was the time to find street food, so I always kept my breakfasts limited to juices, fruits, and only anything that looked super interesting.
There were only a few dishes I wanted to find specifically in Hoi An, and these were Mi Quang – yellow noodles with shrimp and pork, Cao Lau – viet char siu (barbecued pork) noodles, and the Banh Mi that Anthony Bourdain said was the best in all of Vietnam.
I found Mi Quang at a small restaurant called Hai on 6A Truong Minh Long. I arrived in Hoi An at a weird time, so by the time I was looking for lunch it was 3PM. In these countries when it is hot, restaurants / stalls usually shut down after early morning. I took a risk and ventured to find this restaurant. Luckily, it was open, and even though there was really no one there except for one girl in the place furiously cleaning, she seemed receptive to me asking for Mi Quang and Cao Lau. She told me “Mi Quang” first. She ended up bringing me Mi Quang, but by the time I was done eating it, she said no to Cao Lau. That was fine. The noodles were good and very freshly made. The dish was lukewarm, so it almost ate like a noodle salad. While it was only $2CAD and cheap, the portion was not extraordinarily big, so I took off and went to find Cao Lau.
In my research, the recommended Cao Lau could be found at a restaurant located at 87 Tran Phu or else at morning food stalls. By the time I walked there it was closed. I ended up eating at Miss Ly Cafe right in the heart of tourist central because it had a decent looking patio table. I do not remember exactly how much I paid, but it was definitely not as cheap as eating at a food stall. Anyhow, I just enjoyed the atmosphere of sitting there watching hordes of tourists walk by. The noodles were good, but the Mi Quang I had eaten earlier was better. The herbs and sauces were just more defined. The pork was also a bit fatty. I am not really a fan of fatty pork unless it is something like pork belly.
Somewhere along the way, I also had the Bourdain Banh Mi at Phi Banh Mi at 88 Thai Phien. The long was really line, but it went really quickly. It was good, but I actually liked the Banh Mi I had in Hanoi more. The baguette here felt a little less fresh. I also may have been suffering a bit of food saturation by this point in time in the trip.
Similar to Hue and Hanoi, Hoi An has a rich history itself, and the Ancient Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site with numerous historical houses. I opted however not to do a city tour because at this point in my travels, I just wanted to relax, and keep interaction with other people to a minimum.
I did decide at the very last minute to try a cooking class with Vy’s Cooking School located across the Ancient Town bridge at 3 Nguyen Hoang. The cooking class took place from 11AM to 1PM and cost $25USD. The school is located inside a marketplace restaurant (kind of like Marche in Toronto). There are different stalls where you get to try different samples of dishes, and try making Banh Khaoi (the fried crepe), Banh Loc Goi – tapioca flour meat dumplings in banana leaf, spring rolls, and Cao Lau noodles. For my tour, it was just me and two other Korean girls, along with a really nice Vietnamese girl conducting the class. As the two Korean girls took pictures of each other being silly and giggly, I felt a little wistful, and missed my own girlfriends. That day, and at that moment, I missed interaction with anything familiar.
The ‘class’ was a bit better than just a demonstration cooking class, but we also moved very quickly (I felt) through the stalls. Everyone does get their hands dirty though. For the crepe for example, we each had our own pan, but most of the ingredients were already pre-prepped, so working at the station really only involved 5 to 10 minutes before you are actually eating. With how quickly you were moving there was not enough of a chance to really retain information about how the full dish was made. We basically saw snippets and pieces of how each dish came together, just enough so we could taste the final product. I loved the colours and smells of the marketplace, but it felt fairly touristy. There were a lot of tourists inside having lunch, and the place just lacked the authenticity that I think I would have gotten if I did better research and ended up at some surly lady’s house. But really, for $25 USD, I was not going to complain. I have paid up to $100 for a cooking class in other countries, and have had worse experiences. At the end of the class, the lady conducting the class gives you a copy of the recipes, and sends you on your way. I am, at this point, not sure where I put those recipes, or if I even brought them home, but I certainly intend to try making Cao Lau later this year. I made Bún Riêu Cua and Bún Bò Huế both in my pressure cooker last summer, and they were both joyful experiences.
My hotel had about 6 to 8 bicycles that guests could take for free. One morning, I woke up at about 4:30AM, and decided I would try to do a bike loop from my hotel to this herb garden – Tra Que Garden, and up to Cua Dai Beach, catching sunrise along the way. The entire loop was not that much at all – 18km, but I did have to haul ass quickly to ensure I would catch sunrise at either the garden or the beach by a little after 5. Riding a bike this early in the morning was so tranquil, and the wind was still cool outside. It was seriously one of the best bike rides I have ever had in my life. The roads were flat and easy to navigate (basically a loop), and at so early in the morning there was practically no one on the roads.
I made it to the garden in no time, and spent a lot of the next while taking pictures of the beautiful countryside as farmers were quietly going about their early morning motions. I had contemplated signing up for a rice farming experience. It’s something highly recommended for Hoi An. I had seen pictures where you get to work with a buffalo to plow a field and learn how rice is cultivated and harvested. It all looked amazing, but as we all know by now, I wanted to keep tours to a minimum. No regrets, I am sure I will find my way to an experience like this another time, and with JH as well.
The one thing I loved about Hoi An is that it was easy to bike the back roads, allowing you to see different neighborhoods, and wherever you ended up going, it eventually lead back to the main road. I caught every movement of the sunrise that morning, and by the time I reached the beach, I caught the sun at a beautiful peak. I did not stay long at the beach, but what I saw was beautiful enough. I mean, the beach itself was just a beach (and apparently during the day, Cua Dai beach is noisy, crowded and full of touts), but I always love seeing how the sun hits the water and sand at sunrise and sunset. At the main entrance of the beach, you have to pay to park your bike (not sure how much, did not bother asking), so I continued riding until I saw a make-shift path leading down to the coast. I left my bike to take some pictures, but was afraid to stay for too long for fear that I would return and the bike would be gone.
All along the beach, there are rows and rows of resorts. I was super glad I decided to stay closer to town as I actually enjoyed the experience of sauntering somewhere aimlessly. Staying at a resort would have been way more restrictive (at least to walk – I am pretty sure though all of the resorts would offer some sort of shuttle or taxi service to town for free or at a cost). On my way back, the town was bustling already, so I had the exciting chance to bike with the traffic. Of course, it is always a thrill to sweat, swear and panic through South East Asian traffic as people cut you off, and you scream trying to turn at an intersection. At least I wasn’t in the big city.
Later that day, I decided to go shopping. Hoi An is the place if you want to get custom clothes made. There are literally a billion shops that make custom dresses, suits and shoes. I walked for a long while, and bought some dresses for each of my nieces on Jon’s side as well as my brother’s baby daughter. The little tropical dresses were adorable, and I loved that I could find ones in the same pattern for everyone. I never intended to buy anything for myself really, but I got drawn into a shop located on 76 Le Loi. The shop lady was incredibly funny, and kept on calling me ‘skinny face’ and ‘pretty girl’. When I tried bargaining, she kept on telling me to “stopppppp” and then she would giggle uncontrollably. Finally, we agreed on two short dresses (one red, one blue) for $30USD. I never really shopped around to see what other prices were like because once again, I had not intended to buy anything for myself. But, two custom dresses for $15USD each seemed pretty reasonable in my mind. To this day, I love both the dresses a lot. They are flowy and comfortable, and I ended up wearing them a lot last summer. I don’t know how she did it, but she measured me in pretty much 30 seconds, and the dresses arrived at my hotel two hours later. They fit perfectly. In hindsight, I wish I bought some harem/banana/elephant pants from her as well. I love harem pants. They are so comfortable and cheap in South East Asia, and will probably be all that I wear on my trip later this year to Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan.
I am going to lump in my Ho Chi Minh City experience with Laos, but for the remainder of this story, I will finish off with beautiful Phu Quoc Island.
Phu Quoc Island
I randomly decided to go to Phu Quoc Island one night, and bought a ticket off of Skyscanner (Round-trip on JetStar – $80CAD as of May 2016) on a whim to fly in for the morning, and take an evening flight out. Both flights were only one-hour long. I had actually flown into Ho Chi Minh City from Hoi An the night before and left all my stuff at the hotel. I basically put on a swimming suit and a dress over top, grabbed a small backpack, and headed to the airport. Once I got off the airport, I found a motorbike and driver for about $15USD (I read it’s possible to get down to $10 or less with more negotiation) to drive me to some places around the island. Everyone really congregates around you at the arrivals area, so you just go with whoever feels comfortable.
Phu Quoc has a number of activities you can do – snorkeling and diving boat trips, a bee farm, a pearl farm and pepper (like for the spice) farm (so a lot of farms). I wanted to visit one place and one place really though – the white-sanded Sao Beach. So, with wind in hair, and not really much care in the world, we sped off to Sao Beach.
There are a couple of beaches on Phu Quoc that are accessible to the public (and I think some are blocked off by the government due to excessive pollution and subsequent clean-ups), Sao Beach being the prettiest. I basically spent a few hours there wandering aimlessly and extremely slowly through the sand. The beach was pretty much empty except for the odd person tanning if I walked onwards for a few minutes. The beach was really pretty – smooth white sands, and turquoise blue ocean water. It didn’t seem polluted at all, which was a good thing. Walking along the beach to the left, you reach a swing secured to a palm tree. The swing belongs to a Vietnamese man whose house is right behind the tree. For $1USD, he lets you play around with the swing. For free, he laughs and helps to take pictures of you on the swing. He does not speak a lick of English, and he also took pictures of me on his own phone (a bit creepy), but he was really nice. I asked him to take multiple pictures from different angles and he understood and did so really patiently.
After that, I just sat and kind of semi-napped on the sand. This is partially where my mixed-up tan became more disgusting. A few hours later, I was finally tired from the sun and decided to find my motorbike guy. He was napping in a hammock back by the beach restaurants.
I asked him what there was to do on the island. He brought me to this area where there are supposedly waterfalls and streams. It looked like it was a public place that families would normally visit to take a decent walk. However, because it was dry season, there was not really much to see because the waterfall had dried out. I think at this point, he was ready to take me to some of the farms, but I was getting tired and irritated so I told him to drop me off at the main town – Duong Dong.
It was really overwhelmingly hot that afternoon, so I moved slowly and lethargically looking for something to eat. The town was a bit rough around the edges, and dirty especially around the market areas. It was pretty though to see colorful fishing village communities at the rare turn of a corner.
As I passed one of the alleyways, I smelt something really good. Even though it was a bit dirty and sketchy, I kept on walking until I encountered this big, smiley mama bear of a lady with a pot of something that smelled overwhelmingly deliciously. I looked more carefully at what she was making, and it appeared to be the specialty Phu Quoc island dish I was looking for – Bún Kèn. The dish is a citrusy amber-toned fish noodle soup. It uses fish-broth for base (to give it the ocean earthiness), and coconut juice and lemongrass (for its tropical tones). It is served with vermicelli, herbs, shredded cooked fish, bean sprouts, green papaya, cucumber and chilies. The noodles and herbs are not served fully covered in broth, so it eats more like a saucy noodle salad. Second to the Bún Riêu Cua and tied with the Bún Bò Huế, this was another one of my favourite dishes. It was sour, tangy, sweet, spicy and every type of surprise to my mouth that I could think of. I also loved how colorful and tropical the dish felt. I guess I was really hungry because I demolished it in a matter of minutes.
I posted this story on Instagram at the time it happened, but mama bear came up to me to clear the dishes, kind of smiled and used a napkin to wipe some sauce off my mouth. She then proceeded to smile and pat me on the arm. Her motherly kindness was so overwhelming that I broke down in tears. For the first time completely, I felt really homesick for my dad, JH, a girlfriend, or really anyone familiar. She said a bunch of things to me in Vietnamese, to which I could only blubber back in English. While I continued to snivel, she actually sat down next to me, bear-hugged me and continued to pat my head. I never felt so far away from home and lost. At some point, (and embarrassingly it wasn’t for a while) I started to calm down, as she continued to say peppy-sounding things to me in Vietnamese. The noodles only cost $0.50USD, but I left her a ten, said goodbye and went on my way. I looked back as I walked away from the alley, and she actually stood there staring at me walking away…just like a mother would watch her kid walk away to school or something. To this day, I still remember her incredibly kind face.
I explored the town for a while, but was feeling a bit of sun exhaustion, so I decided I would take a taxi to the airport for my early evening flight back to Ho Chi Minh City. For some reason I mis-read Google Maps and thought the airport was right outside of town and walkable. I guess I also did not pay attention to a thing when I arrived in the first place. The new International airport is not close to the town and is a decent drive away. Anyhow, after being in the taxi for a while, and moving further and further away from the town, I became concerned. I waved for the driver to stop and then we had a frantic exchange over where I needed to go. He did not understand a word of English, so I started to mime being an airplane. He kept on shaking his head yes, so after a while of us yelling at each other in opposite languages, I got back into the car. I did not have a data plan, so I did not want to pull out my phone to help. I figured all I could pull up were pictures of airplanes, and he seemed to understand my mime anyhow. I should have trusted him. A little while later, we ended up at the airport. I tried to gesture saying sorry the best I could, and then went on my way to catch my flight.
Ho Chi Minh City would become my last stop in Vietnam. I flip flopped between continuing in the country, heading over the border to Laos, or going further to Bali & Indonesia. I ended up choosing to go to Laos, because that was the original plan anyhow but I will save this last story for another day.