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Vietnam Part 2: Central Vietnam

June 3, 2016

Part 1, featuring south Vietnam, is here.

If there’s something pretty much everyone who travels through Vietnam can agree on, it’s that Hoi An is wonderful and that you’ll stay there longer than you plan to. Johanna and I immediately fell in love with Hoi An on our first day there. It’s a quaint town with an endless number of shops and charming restaurants to choose from. In the center of town, only bicyclists and pedestrians can wander the streets, which was such a nice change of pace from the bustling streets filled with motorbikes in every single Vietnamese city we’d been to already.

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Johanna and I spent most of our days in Hoi An wandering the streets, enjoying time spent in quirky coffee shops, and, of course, getting clothes and shoes made since Hoi An is filled with tailor shops. On our first day, we had a really fun time working with some women at the shop we chose to create whatever we wanted. I walked away with a blue dress, and Johanna had some beautiful jumpsuits and pants made. The entire experience was so fun, and because we had so much fun we ended up getting some shoes and bags made, as well. And there lies Hoi An’s downfall: this place will take literally all of your money. But really, it was money well spent.

When we weren’t buying stuff, we were wandering the streets. Every business in Hoi An is decorated with gorgeous lanterns, and they really add to the ambiance of the town. At night, all of Hoi An lights up and becomes a little slice of heaven. Most of the time, I forgot I was in Southeast Asia at all, and would feel like I was walking the streets in a tiny French or Italian town. (For the record, that feeling would only last until a Vietnamese person would start following us and try to drag us to their tailor shop/restaurant/boat/etc.)

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Then there was the food. I’ve had some great meals in Vietnam. Everything here is so fresh and healthier than any of the countries I’d been to so far on my trip. Hoi An has plenty of specialties and we tried (almost) all of them – I missed the white rose. We spent one day on a cooking tour and explored Hoi An’s bustling market before heading outside of town by boat to learn how to cook some local Vietnamese dishes. It was a really fun day, and we ate so much delicious, fresh food.

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After five really lovely days, both in town and at my stellar hostel, it was time to continue north. Somehow, we’d already spent two weeks in Vietnam, and with Hoi An close to the half way point between north and south, it was time to make our way north for the second half of our time there. Johanna and I really wanted to find a way to ride motorbikes to Hue, which is about three hours from Hoi An. We thought that maybe, possibly, we’d work up enough courage to do it on our own, but after reading some horror stories online about the winding road to Hue, we opted to convince a French guy named Hugo and a German named Tom, who Johanna had met at her hostel, to let us ride with them to Hue. We hired an Easy Rider guide to show us some cool stops along the way. I hopped on the back of his bike, and had my camera out the entire trip, and man, it was beautiful. Our first stop was touristy Marble Mountain, about 40 km outside of Hoi An in nearby Danang. We were hot and miserable there, but still enjoyed the views.

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From Marble Mountain, we headed to Hai Van Pass, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving through. The best way to experience the pass is via motorbike, and I’m so happy we chose to do it that way. We rode through for over an hour, stopping once at an old American bunker. A few hours later, after ending our day with a swim at Elephant Springs, we made it to Hue.

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Hue was nothing special, and we knew it wouldn’t be. We spent a single day there walking around and exploring the old citadel before heading off to our next destination: Phong Nha National Park. Phong Nha was such an adventure. The national park is filled with ancient karst mountains and is home to the world’s largest cave (and lots of smaller, still amazing caves). We immediately booked a cave tour upon arriving to our hostel, and the next day we set out to explore Paradise Cave and Dark Cave.

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I’d only ever really been in one cave before, and that was in Chiang Dao, Thailand. The cave there was dark and creepy and filled with bats. I wasn’t really a fan. And because of that experience, I wasn’t exactly excited to spend all day in caves in Phong Nha. Paradise Cave proved to be a fascinating experience, though. I still feel a little freaked out and disoriented when I’m walking around in caves, but Paradise Cave was huge and beautiful and amazing. Johanna and I walked through in awe.

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Our next stop was Dark Cave, which has been turned into one giant adventure activity involving kayaks and zip lines and a mud bath. I wasn’t terribly excited about it, but it ended up being one of my favorite tours in Vietnam. I went on my first ever zip line before swimming in some crystal blue water to the entrance of the cave. From there, we walked further and further inside, slowly making our way into deeper and deeper mud until we finally made it to the natural mud bath deep inside the cave. It was a bizarre, but truly enjoyable experience, floating in the mud and covering ourselves in it. It was a really wonderful day with a good dose of adventure. Sadly, it was way too risky to bring my camera along for this part of the day, but I’ve got lots of snaps in my brain to make up for it.

On day two in Phong Nha, we took a boat through the national park and visited Phong Nha Cave. The park is absolutely amazing, and it was so nice to sit on a boat for hours and just stare at the scenery.

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We’d been told from the beginning that the scenery in Vietnam would continue to get more and more beautiful as we travelled north. It reminded me of when Alex and I made our way from north to south in New Zealand, and everything just kept getting more and more unbelievably beautiful. Phong Nha was lovely, for sure, but it was just an introduction into the incredible scenery we were about to encounter in Sapa and Ha Long Bay and (my very favorite) Ninh Binh, where we headed next.

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