From Hoi An to Hue

In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author describes how riding through the countryside on a motorcycle differs from driving through it in a car.  He likens driving in a car to sitting in a climate controlled box and watching the world pass by as though on a TV screen, whereas riding on a motorcycle forces you to be present in the scene around you.  Feeling the wind and the sun, seeing the views from all angles, smelling and tasting the elements around you – it all comes together in a more full experience than you could ever have in a car.

I’ve always agreed with that sentiment when it came to road biking – viewing the beautiful passes in Colorado is far more amazing on the back of a road bike than in the back seat of a car.  But I’ve never experienced a long ride on a motorcycle.  So when the opportunity presented itself for us to enjoy the most scenic part of Vietnam on the back of a motorcycle behind an experience guide (rather than crammed into the back of a crowded bus or through the dirty windows of a train car), we decided to take it.

These tours are called Easy Rider Tours here in Vietnam, and are quite popular.  We rode from Hoi An up to Hue along the East coast, which took about five hours with frequent stops.  All of these photos were taken from the back of the motorcycle as we were driving (with the exception of the shots from the top of Marble Mountain.)

Our guides planned to take us to China Beach for a quick stop, but John rerouted them to Marble Mountain just outside Danang.  The beaches in Vietnam are lovely, but we are far more interested in temples and caves.  You can see the temple at the top of the mountain below, and the tower next to it which houses a giant elevator.  We skipped the elevator and climbed the stairs instead, just to prove to ourselves we are still hearty travelers.At the top there are several lovely temples and statues.More impressive than the temples, however, are the caves.  Most of them were too dark to photograph, but they housed several beautiful sculptures.  It’s hard to tell the scale of the buddha statue on the right, but it’s massive.After our quick stop, we crossed the bridge out of Danang, heading north.There is a lot of smoke and haze in this part of the country at this time of year.  We couldn’t get a clear answer as to why from our guides, but I later read that farmers burn their fields at the end of the dry season to prepare them for the next round of crops, which causes the area to be very hazy this time of year.The road over Hai Van Pass.These bikes were so much more stable and comfortable than the little motorbike we had in Bali.  Our guides easily strapped our big bags on the back which then served as little back rests for us while riding.  The seats were padded and cushy, and the shocks made the ride smooth while allowing me to move around a bit to take photos without disrupting the driver.John and his guide, passing us on the highway.We had a fantastic lunch at a local restaurant in this little village.  Vietnamese food never ceases to impress me.Ocean on one side of the road, mountains on the other.
One of our guides used to be a bank manager, but decided that he preferred riding through the mountains every day to sitting in an office.  He’s 55 years old, and makes the trip twice a day nearly every day of the week.  I can’t blame him for preferring this scenery to a cubicle.We made our way into Hue in the afternoon.  Satisfied with our choice of transportation, we checked into our hotel suite (have I mentioned you can stay at a luxurious 3 or 4 star hotel in Vietnam for $25 a night??), and headed out to enjoy a cheap beer on the riverfront.  It was a pretty good Monday.  :)

Caffeine Buzzing in Vietnam

(These photos are John’s photo handiwork.  I’m trying not to be such a photo control freak and let him have a turn at documenting our trip!)

It doesn’t take long for the heart-palpitations to start.  Vietnamese coffee is sweet, rich and incredibly strong.  I think John (who has an incredibly low tolerance for caffeine) was getting a contact high just from watching me drink this coffee.

Coffee plays an important role in Vietnamese culture.  There are little sidewalk cafes with short plastic stools and tables on every corner, and people hang out for hours chatting and playing games over a cup of coffee.  It’s a Vietnamese version of French cafe culture, learned from the French when they colonized this part of world.  We have the French to thank for the delicious baguettes here, too.

The coffee itself is a finely ground and strongly brewed dark roast.  You can order it black or white – white meaning it comes with a layer of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom of the glass with the coffee poured on top of it.  You stir it up with a spoon to create the milky colored coffee I’m holding above.  I think it’s best served iced and enjoyed over a long span of time.  It’s so delicious I could drink three of these in a day, but I had to limit myself to one every few days.  Can’t have caffeine withdrawal kicking in when we get to Laos and these little cafes aren’t everywhere…

Cycling Around Hoi An

Though we frequently take 50+ mile rides at home, John and I haven’t been on bikes since we were in Nicaragua several months ago.  The countryside around Hoi An is ripe for cycling – rice fields, fishing villages, temples and more – which meant it was time to hop back on some bikes and go for a ride.

(By the way, I don’t know why I am making such a weird face in photo above, which was taken by our guide.  I was actually having a great time.  I guess I’m not used to having my photo taken since I am always behind the camera, and thus haven’t figured out how to look joyful in photos the way John has.  I must work on this.)Our first stop was a Buddhist temple just outside of town.  Most people in Vietnam do not practice any religion, but those who do are mostly Buddhist.Don’t we look cute in our goofy straw hats?  The bike tour provided those for us, and I was grateful for mine in the hot sun.  We look kinda silly, but at least we didn’t get sunburned.Below is a shrimp farm.  I had no idea you could farm shrimp, but there are dozens of these farms in the area around Hoi An.
Our tour led us through a vegetable village, where they grow herbs and veggies.  Every morning people from this village carry their produce to the market in Hoi An before coming back and tending to the gardens again.
A little further down the road is a fishing village.  The men go out to the ocean overnight to fish, and the women fish in the river during the day.
Also in the fishing village is a sort of fish cake factory.  There are probably 20 women working under a large tent.  It does not smell pleasant in that tent, let me tell you.
Rice fields are everywhere.  I think our guide was a tad disappointed that we weren’t that impressed by the story of how rice is grown, but we spent two months in Bali watching the process happen outside our villa.  When it comes to rice cultivation, we’re pretty well educated these days.

The flags you see are fabric and plastic bags tied to bamboo poles, which serve as scarecrows to keep birds from eating the rice before it is ready to harvest.  You wouldn’t think a plastic bag waving in the wind would be enough to scare off the birds, but apparently it works.
Our guide snapped this shot as well.  This is probably what I look like 60% of the time while we are traveling – hunched over with the camera pressed to my face.
I think I was photographing this cow at the time.Water buffalo, hanging out in a spot near the local cemetery.  They were taking a dip when we arrived, but I think they slowly exited the water so they could pose for me.After our cycling circuit was finished, we hopped on a boat to ride back up the river into town.Since we were the only ones on the boat, the captain insisted that John take control of the boat for a photo.  Then he hopped in for a shot.  The photo is so touristy and cheesy, but the boat captain is just so cute I had to include it.

From the boat we went to our guide’s house where they fed us truly exceptional homemade Vietnamese fare in their living room, and gave us both foot massages before sending us off for the rest of the afternoon.  I wish my 50+ mile bike rides in Colorado ended that way!

Hoi An

Hoi An is the City of Lanterns.  They are everywhere – hanging on the trees, through the streets, off every building.  The ambiance created by these hanging globes of light is unbelievable and completely wonderful.  It’s no surprise that a city like this ranks so high with visitors like us, who flock to the streets daily.

While Saigon is full of motorbikes, Hoi An is full of bicycles.  Most streets are too small for cars, and while there are still plenty of motorbikes zooming everywhere, there are more people pedaling around on bikes in the quiet streets.
One of the many temples around town.The riverfront is lined with beautiful old yellow buildings that have so much charm and character.It always brings me an absurd amount of joy to see that Vietnamese people actually wear the little cone shaped hats.  They totally do – all the time.  After being in the scorching hot sun for a few minutes I can understand why.  Maybe I should get us a couple of cone hats.  Do you think we could pull it off?  Perhaps John stands out in a crowd here enough as it is (as you may imagine, no Vietnamese people are even close to his height.)
Of course no river town would be complete without boats everywhere.  Many are tourist boats, but most are actually fishing boats.  In the evenings the fisherman go out to the ocean and fish overnight, bringing back their catch to sell at the market in the morning.The city lights up in a big way at night.  It’s absolutely stunning to watch the transformation as the sun sets and the lanterns and candles light up.The entire city seems to come alive at night, especially on the riverfront.  All of the bridges light up spectacularly at night, and there are small children selling candles to float down the river.  The effect is lovely, but I can’t help wondering what happens to all those candles once they float out of view.  I hope there isn’t a heap of them decomposing into the river.I’m pretty sure this couple was posing for some photo class or something, but I took the shot anyway.  It’s a nice way to see the candles in their little floating boxes.The gorgeous riverfront mirrored on the water.If we were coming straight home, I probably would have snagged a few lovely lanterns in Hoi An.  But alas, who wants to carry that for five more months?  There are a few other things I would have purchased in Hoi An if I didn’t have to tote them around with me, but that’s a story for another time.  More soon!

[...] It wasn’t entirely aimless though, for we were headed clearly towards the old part of town, the veritable perennial festival of lanterns that is the riverfront of the ancient city.  Every night, just after dusk the city comes alight with its myriad lanterns lining streets and bridges, and dotting the water itself in candles floating aboard small containers resembling colorful, translucent Chinese take-out boxes.  The visuals are most definitely worth a look over at Tracy’s blog. [...]

Vietnamese Cooking Class

Vietnamese food is fantastic.  There are so many varieties, so many flavors, and so many vegetarian options.  In light of this, taking a cooking course somewhere in Vietnam seemed like a no-brainer.

Sadly, the class we chose in Hoi An was sub-par.  It involved very little hands on experience, provided zero vegetarian recipes (though they did provide substitute ingredients for certain things, they just didn’t tell me what they were), and essentially taught us very little about Vietnamese food.  That being said, I still got some good photos of our experience.

The visit to the local market was probably the best part of our class (I always love that part), though the school bumped our class from the morning to the afternoon, meaning that most of the stalls were empty or closed by the time we got there.  Many of the shop keepers were enjoying their afternoon nap when we arrived.  I imagine it would have been a bit more energetic in the morning, but I suppose the quiet allowed me to take a few more photos.The guide gave us several tips about how to purchase fresh fish, most of which involved touching the fish or looking at the eyes.  I doubt we’d be able to do either in the US where everything is already plastic wrapped by the time you see it.Durian, my old nemesis…we meet again.The green globes at the top of the stack are a huge variety of grapefruit.  We had some in Bali and they were fantastic.  There’s also a variety of custard apple here that is a bit different than what we had in Peru.This woman sells fresh noodles and fish cakes.After the market tour, we took a boat ride up the river to the cooking school.At the cooking school it became clear that we were in for more demonstration than participation.  We sat at chairs in front of a large table where the chef cooked up each dish like on a cooking show.  Many things were already pre-cooked or pre-made and just blended together.  John was the only one that participated in this part of the class, as the chef called him up to stir things as she added them to the pan.This was the first dish – a seafood salad in a pineapple bowl.  Not the most delicious thing we’ve had here.  (The day after our class we had an amazing vegetarian version of this salad – I wish I had the recipe for that version rather than this one.)We were taught how to make fresh rice paper, which was an interesting process but one that will be difficult to reproduce at home.  We then used that rice paper to wrap spring rolls.  Mine is on the left, John’s overstuffed one is on the right.  He got a little overzealous with adding shrimp, and his rice paper just couldn’t take it.  :)Eggplant in a clay pot, the most substantial dish we made.  I honestly didn’t care for it.In the end, we made three dishes and were served two additional dishes that we didn’t have any hand in (or learn anything about.)  The food wasn’t particularly good, but at least the sunset was nice.Usually when we finish a cooking class we are full, happy, and looking forward to an opportunity to try what we’ve learned.  After this one we were let down, a little hungry, and wondering if there were any other cooking classes we could take in another city.  Oh well, not everything can be a five star experience.  Perhaps we will find one in Hanoi that will actually teach us a thing or two about Vietnamese food.

tracy - March 27, 2013 - 2:32 am

Hi Ben – thanks for stopping by! I’m glad to hear that people in Colorado are enjoying the photos!

Ben - March 20, 2013 - 12:14 pm

Hey Tracy!
Ben here, Jen and Jason’s friend. Just wanted to tell you that I’ve really been enjoying the photos and commentary from your amazing journey!! So jealous!
Take care,
Ben