Overcome the most challenging pass in Vietnam

Well known as the most balanced city in Vietnam with sandy beaches, fresh air and clean, organized urban landscape, Da Nang is also a favorite destination for riders coming to the central part of this country.

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Here locating the legend pass: Hai Van. Literally means Ocean Cloudy in local language, this 21 km long pass is a breathtakingly scenic route for riders. Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear proved he was right upon exclaiming this is “a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world” while the Guardian puts Hai Van the top great lesser known scenic drives on earth.

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With sandy beaches on one side, rugged mountain on the other and a unique climate thanks to being the boundary between North and South Vietnam, Hai Van pass is a top choice for adventurers.

Source: Da Nang cyclists discovering Hai Van pass.

After many centuries of restricted commuting due to limited infrastructure, in 1966, Hai Van pass was widen and improved by American army. 39 years later, in 2005 Hai Van tunnel was officially built, helps reduce traffic flow coming here which makes it even more attractive for motorbikes and bicycle riders.

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Hanoi’s 5 best kept secrets

Two years ago, Lonely Planet labeled “egg coffee” in Old Quarter as “The best kept secret of Old Quarter”. Since then, hundreds of people have had the chance to navigate along a very small typical lane of Hanoi old town, immerse themselves within the ancient architecture and refreshing view of Hoan Kiem lake as sipping smooth “eggy” texture of that cafe.
 Despite many Tripadvisor users raving about how “touristy” it has become, to me it is just positive. Those kinds of secrets being revealed help balance out various experiences and travel styles of people coming here, blending themselves more deeply to local community, creating a better picture of Hanoi in the hearts of people who just come here once or twice in their lives.
 This post is dedicated to that spirit from personal viewpoint and information gathered from Vietnamese travel communities.

Long Bien Bridge

Long Bien (the side of dragon), the rusty steel bridge built in 1899 has been a history connector to Hanoians. February 2014, when the Ministry of Transportation proposed the plan of destroying Long Bien to build a new one, people almost went crazy. To us, Long Bien is much more than a kind of commuting.

It is where hundreds of young couple solidify their love with cute small locks, where young volunteer groups gathering, playing guitar, eating grilled corns together, singing like no one is listening. Long Bien is probably the best place in the city to hunt sunrise and sunset, a favourite place of photographers.

You can get to Long Bien just by 10 minute walking from Old Quarter. Being there at any time of the day is nice, yet the feeling of watching Red river at night does give you a serene state of flow.

B-52 lake

Ngoc Ha village, 1972. A striking moment of anti-American war (known internationally as “Vietnam War”). After 12 days of consistent defending, 34 B-52 planes were shot down, marking a victorious moment of the “Dien Bien Phu on air” campaign.

One of the planes fell down into a small lake of Ngoc Ha, a peaceful village. A part of the remnant is brought to showcase in Military History Museum on Dien Bien Phu street, the body is still kept there. Very close to Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, you may ask your driver or tour guide to stop there after paying a visit to Uncle Ho.

An obvious scar of war blends harmoniously with the peaceful rhythm of a small village, making me speechless the first time I had a chance to go there.

Catching “sun fish” from Sunset bar of Intercontinental, West Lake

Many people would probably argue that this is not a secret at all, let alone a local experience. Well, “live in culture, stay in comfort” will be contemporary slogan of travelers. After hours venturing in small lanes of Hanoi, treat yourself with a drink, contemplating while the sun goes down. Sun set bar is seperated from Intercontinental hotel, which makes it a truly spacious location to relax. Spoil yourself and your camera at the same time. A potential competitor might be Summit Lounge of Sofitel Plaza, where the views opens to Thanh Nien, the most romantic street in the city.

Cruising West Lake

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Combining “Vietnam” and “Cruising”, people would think of the classic Ha Long bay, not West Lake Ha Noi. Yet that somewhat ridiculous idea turned out to be a pleasant experience. Out of 28 lakes in Ha Noi, West Lake is the biggest one with a peremeter of 14 km. People come here to fish, to swim, to kayak and to enjoy windy, fresh summer nights. Until now Potomac Cruise seems to be the best choice with their good service and regular promotion programs.

Dining out while cruising West lake is definitely not a bad idea if you are short of time in a business trip.

Eating “Bun dau” in Phat Loc lane, Old Quarter

People coming to Vietnam and Hanoi rarely know about anything else other than “Pho”. To them, “Pho” of Vietnam is like Sushi of Japan or Kimchi of Korea, a “signature dish”. I don’t deny that. However, to us, Bun Dau may express even better characteristics of Vietnamese Cuisine.

“Bun” means “rice vermicelli” and “dau” means “tofu”. Made of cheap and available ingredients, “Bun Dau” was originally made for poor workers who can’t afford more costly dishes. Over time it has become a favourite choice of most of Hanoians. Luke Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Australian chef once commented

Vietnam cuisine is all about balance

“Bun Dau” reflects that very obviously: the smooth texture of rice vermicelli, the crispiness of just fried tofu slices, the freshness from various kinds of herbs, the exotic taste of “shrimp taste”, altogether creating a hard-to-forget street dining experience. You can eat Bun dau just at any street, yet the vendor in no 55 of “Phat Loc” lane, Old Quarter sets itself apart thanks to delicate selection of ingredients and hustling, vibrant atmosphere you would expect in a truly local favorite dining area.

Exploration starts from your comfort zone

Today In my Facebook feed popping up a quote by Nomandic Matt, a famous long term traveler who earns real cash by blogging.

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Every year, Matt travels for months in different countries and then writes detailed travel guide about those places (opps if everyone is like him tour guides will be out of job :)) ). HIs coverage is nearly all over the world til now.

Nevertheless, exploration doesn’t necessarily mean traveling to the other side of the world. It can happen right within your little city corner.

Listen to the songs you are not familiar with, blend in with a group not of “your style”, choose another route to go home, go to another cafe corner. There are so many ways to enrich ourselves without having to move a thousand miles. It can be fresh even without breaking a routine that works.

So Zoom in and let the map be smaller a bit, without taking all its exciting elements ^^

BUT, wait, gotta make an effort to do this, whereas in an unfamiliar environment, things to explore keep pouring on you. Good stimulation in that case.

Cat Ba’s vibe

“Anh oi, do I need to give you the ID ?”

“No need to. Where do you stay?”

“Little Cat Ba. It’s in Ha Sen street, 2 km from here”

“Ah, mr. Nguyen’s place. I know him. Just come back here 3 days later to give the money then. By the way, the petrol station is just over there, just ride straight ahead then turn left. 50,000 VND is enough”

“Thank you”

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Just like that. No hard sell, no paperwork. Some verbal promises and I get the motorbike rented. Things work that way in Cat Ba island. Surprisingly simple, yes, but the business here is traded with the currency of trust.

Cat Ba has a real vibe with it. A special friend of mine mentioned that when first I brought him here last winter. I totally agreed. The vibe of a coastal town is clear: boats after boats going out to the ocean and come back to dock at harbor every day; market with vibrant seafood trading activities, seagulls and eagles keep flying around, dotting some beautiful white and black colors to the emerald sea water. Things keep arousing my senses as I keep coming back. But Cat Ba is much more than just being a breathtaking beautiful seaside location.

Figuring out direction by asking a random person on street is merely impossible in cities, yet it works that way here . With only 8000-ish people in an area of 59,2 km2, everyone in the town nearly all knows each other. It gives you a safe feeling, a form of family extension. When the breakfast seller wondered how could I wake up so early after the late previous night though I totally don’t know her, a feeling of home just emerged and overwhelmed me, knowing that people care here, that in a sense, I am covered and protected.

The vibe of a specific place in a trip depends on many factors. Weather, your mood at that moment, transportation, fellow travelers along the way, but in the end what matters most is how people treat you. Being in a foreign place, especially as a solo traveler, no matter how many guidebooks carried and read, a person can still feel like an outsider. That may explain why there are always backpacker areas in every big attraction all over the world, whose the main purpose of creating a “comfort zone” for people. There is no such thing here which astonishes me, considering the fact that most of travelers coming to Cat Ba are hard-core big-pack-on-the-back-carriers.

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The gang before hot pot time

I’ve met some people after times coming back and forth here and so many of them have extended their stay from one night to one week, some even stay to work as tour guides in the island and consider it as their second home.

It is something unexpected actually: the emotion journey starts with adventures as you start to explore the island and then gets to the smooth loop when you are so familiar with all the routes and people that it feels so hard to leave.

The exotic location in guidebooks suddenly becomes your second home, just much more beautiful. That smooth loop keeps exciting myself time after time, the point where exoticism and familiarity converge.

I am writing this after a farewell hotpot with four friends: captain Jack, Austin, Mike and Luke. Rain was raining and it was pretty cold outside, but the hotpot was more than enough to warm us up. Jack (Toan) is a hotel owner and the guys are his guests, yet after 10 days staying in Cat Ba in low season, they are comfortable enough to sit around like buddies, drinking wine and share stories. Toan bought the best seafood from Cat Ba market and gave the best wine from his personal selection while Mike sang a song that all of us will remember for a long time, with lovely notes from his Ukelele which ends by two sentences

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You can’t make everybody happy

All of the time…

Yet somehow Cat Ba has given everyone of us something we need and cheers all us up.

How weird that is.

La isla Bonita

As a daydreamer who tend to idealize things, Asia Outdoor has always been in my heart as a crush.

I met them two years ago when I first came to Cat Ba, leading groups of backpackers bar hopping, being crazy and stupid together while they escape life in vacation and I escape life in work. And just seeing those dynamic climbers for the first time, I was immediately hooked. That hub of energetic climbers are like magnet, pulling us in, evoking in us a wild sensation.

Set up by Slo & Erik, 2 American hard core climbers, Asia Outdoors soon become the climbing monopoly in the area. A group of carefree climbers from all over the world gathering in a blissful island doing what they do best, with passion. A great stopover in life for anyone who loves adventure. YOLO at its most romantic scene.

Members keep changing but may not necessarily be something to be sad about. People come, living their dream wildly for a certain time and when the dream is over, they move on. Energy flows, maintaining a constant gratification for anyone involved.

A friend once commented “That’s a strange island” on a bus coming back to his country. You meet people & have connections there, and it feels like a flash in life. The memories were frozen, people saying goodbye and never meet again. You lived it, loved it but may not want to do it again. It crystallizes into a gem, reflecting your youth beautifully, that’s it. Like a postcard from childhood in a precious box. You still keep it and open once in a while to be nostalgic and wowed again. Maybe when life lets you down.

“Be careful who you make memories with. Those things can last a lifetime”

Explore Hanoi as an independent traveler

Hanoi is a strange city. It gives you mixed feelings: frustration with chaotic traffic, bewilderment with street arrangement, but at the same time, sweet sensation when autumn comes, a rich chill-out around West Lake, and that hustle-bustle vibrant scene around beer corner at night.

Every Hanoian gets super nostalgic when they go out. Complaints out of comparison with other modern cities, yes they do. But the emotion attachment still remains and it’s so hard to explain.

Maybe of its well-kept secrets? 😉

First time visitors coming to Hanoi, don’t be limited by what Lonely Planet offers. And don’t be too arrogant thinking you would feel it all just randomly bumping around either. When I first came to Bangkok, Thailand, I spent my time just lost and confused in Pratunam, and even though that fact helped me meet random nice people. Some homework doesn’t hurt, does it? 😉

1st day – GET TO KNOW THE CITY

Come to classic history destination. Check if you can book Hanoi Kids, a group of excellent students with strong English command and great enthusiasm who are more than happy to be Hanoi ambassadors. If not, just ask Couchsurfing travel mate for travel companions & some will be more than happy to accompany & share conversations with you. Expect they will come to you for English practice, but it may turn out to be memorable interactions.

Suggestions for classic destinations that give you a good look into different sides of the city.

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Political: Ba Dinh complex (with HCM mausoleum, presidental palace and government conference house)

Educational: Temple of literature (1st university of Vietnam)

War history: Hoa Lo Prison & B52 lake (clear marks of Vietnam war from our perspective – biased, which will balance out your also-biased point of view)

Culture: Museum of Ethnology

I really can’t recommend Museum of Ethnology highly enough. Visual, informative & interesting with a modern approach. You can easily spend a whole morning or a whole afternoon there. A great way to access the colorful culture landscape of 54 human groups in Vietnam.

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Check out what other travelers roam about the place.

For 1st night, check out beer corner in Old Quarter. A vibrant hub of locals, expats and foreigners come and have interesting conversations here.

If you don’t like people watching, there’s always some rooftop to go. I recommend Avalon for their good view.

2nd day – FEEL HANOI

After covering the most famous places in your way, get deeper to the contemporary & art/ cultural side of the city. I recommend:

Ma May old house — Old Quarter

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An ancient house kept intact & graceful which portrays Old Quarter through different layers of history, hence it is also named “The heritage house”

Old Quarter culture-exchange center — Dao Duy Tu

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An interesting exhibition of Old Quarter. Invested by a French university. 2 floors with images of unique corners in the area. Numerous books and projects of well-respected Vietnamese scholars are also translated and published here.

Chill & discover West Lake.

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Coming to Hanoi in Autumn without checking west lake is a big miss. You can rent a bicycle from your hotel & ride around this lake (20 km) and just stop to have a beer and chill anywhere along the way

Hanoi unique coffee culture

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Hanoi with all its hidden cafes. If you truly value your solitude time, choose for yourself a nice hidden corner with matched ambiance. Hanoi Hideaway has excellently collected and revealed those for us, with inviting pictures and succinct comments classified either by space or drink quality criteria.

Vibrant contemporary art scene

Hanoi is obviously not known for being dynamic, yet numerous youngsters here are cool-izing the city with their creative projects. Check out Hanoi Grapevine, Nha San Collective and Hanoi Creative City, you may realize some art flows from somewhere we have no idea about.

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Of course, always take it easy & chill. Don’t try to jam everything in if you don’t feel like it. Maybe all it takes is a drink all night long beside west lake, and with that you have Hanoi of your own.
Happy traveling 🙂