Phu Quoc to HCMC (November 24)

Our last full day in Vietnam, we had most of the day to relax in Phu Quoc. I walked downtown, but the town was sleepy, and there were no banana rice treats to be found.

I stopped in at an air-conditioned coffee shop and enjoyed some watermelon juice which I thought looked a bit like a turkey…but probably just because I had Thanksgiving on the brain.

I continued walking, and wound up near a pagoda and temple, with some nice views. Unfortunately, my phone camera decided to start acting up (not focusing properly) so I didn’t get any good pictures.

A hot walk back, I cut through the restaurant where we’d had dinner, and walked along the beach toward our hotel.

I ran into one of the Canadians, who was sitting on the beach, painting. We chatted for a bit, and then I took her recommendation and went back up the beach to a place where I got a beach-side aloe vera massage. Cooling, but sticky.

Then, back to the hotel, a lunch of banh mi and banana smoothie nearby, and relaxing/reading by the hotel pool until it was time to head to the airport.

Our flight to HCMC was mostly on time (a first for VietJet?) and our hotel was just a short, 10-minute obstacle course walk away.

Last supper at a local noodle shop (yum!)

Then it was early to bed ahead of our early morning flight home. All in all, a good trip!

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Turkey of the sea (November 23)

Another great hotel breakfast, then we walked up to the main road, where we met up with some Canadians also waiting for the snorkeling bus.

The bus was only a few minutes late, and they took us up to the boat, which then took us to Turtle island (so named due to its shape, NOT because there are turtles there, unfortunately). The boat ride was pleasant, and the upper deck had comfy lounge chairs and a roof that provided shade.

We snorkeled for about an hour, then headed over to Fingernail island – only to turn around at the last minute. The dive operator’s other boat had gotten there first, and radioed back to ours — Apparently, some Vietnamese men had set up some ropes around the island and claimed that the waters were theirs, and were yelling at people in the water. It sounds like they wanted boats to pay them to snorkel there. Instead, we returned to Turtle island and snorkeled on the south side, which actually did have quite a bit of different things to see.

After our second snorkel, they fed us lunch on the boat, and we enjoyed the ride back into town.

It being Thanksgiving, we had made reservations at a nice restaurant along the beach, and while on the boat, we invited 2 groups of Canadians (both from the Vancouver area) to join us. It was a lovely meal with good company.

After dinner, we walked home along the beach.

Phu What? (November 22)

Our hotel had a fantastic breakfast buffet included, so we filled up on Vietnamese coffee, fresh juice, seafood noodle soup, and banana pancakes. Then we headed out for a day of adventure. We rented scooters from a couple of places near our hotel. The first place we stopped wanted 200k vnd, but just a few doors farther, we found some for 130k – each place just had one, though, so E & A rented from one place, and I from another. I’m not sure what type of scooter theirs was, but mine was 125cc (woohoo!) and the lady renting it to me had me actually fill out paperwork AND looked carefully at my drivers license (she seemed satisfied once she saw the motorcycle endorsement). And, we were off! First to the gas station to fill up our tanks, then to the well-reviewed dive operator to book a snorkeling trip for the next day, and finally off to explore the island. It was pretty easy riding through town, and then beautiful newly-paved roads through the hills and national park. With one lane for each direction, separated by a median/divider, and very little traffic, it was really pleasant riding.

When we got to the North shore, we stopped for a break by the water, where A and I sipped fresh coconut juice while E took a dip in the water and checked out the hammock.

Then, back on the road to circle down along the eastern side of the island. Smooth riding for awhile longer, until it wasn’t. The road turned into a muddy dirt track, which went on for many miles. Where did our beautiful pavement go??

It was very bumpy and slow going, so when we finally spotted a hotel advertising food, we stopped for a nice lunch (and hammock time) by the water.

Then, back on the dirt road for another 7km until we finally hit pavement again. The girls’ scooter was low on gas, and although mine had half a tank left, one of its tires was a bit low. We stopped at a scooter mechanic and they were kind enough to air up my tires, but they didn’t have any gas. About that time, I put on my rain jacket – not because it was rainy or cold (quite the opposite, in fact!) but I was worried about getting a sunburn, so took my cue from the locals and covered up. Since we were back on paved roads, the airflow made it bearable.

As we rode on, back toward the main town, E suddenly slowed down and pulled over. “We just passed a gas station” (we did? I didn’t notice it…?) but okay. So we made a U-turn and looped back around to a little roadside stall, where the girls were able to buy a liter of gas from a lady who poured it into their tank from a gallon jug. Not like any gas station I’d ever seen, but it worked!

Back into town, we cooled off at the hotel pool before heading to the downtown area and night market.

We paid a guy to park our scooters along with some others (probably a tourist tax, and not actually required, but it was very low cost), and then headed into the night market on foot.

Life’s short, so we are dessert first – a banana wrapped in sticky rice, toasted on the grill, and served with sweetened condensed milk. Amazing.

Then, on to the seafood restaurants where we picked out a bunch of things to have grilled up for us (pineapple fish, scallops, squid, giant shrimp, barracuda, and eggplant). The pineapple fish was moist, delicate, and seasoned really well.

Bellies full, we retrieved our scooters, and worked through a couple of scary moments to make it through the chaotic night market traffic. It started to sprinkle on our way back, and it started coming down HARD right as we got back to the places to return our scooters. So happy to have gotten there just in time, because the streets completely flooded with the heavy downpour. We waited it out in the shops, waving to one another from across the street, and when it let up a bit, we walked back to our hotel.

Hanoi to Phu Quoc (November 21)

In spite of the loud music, hooting, and hollering coming from the party at the hotel next door, we still fell asleep early and were up early again. First breakfast: back to the bun bo hue place. Second breakfast: pain au chocolat from a bakery we walked by, and egg coffee at the place where it originated, Ca Phe Giang. They had some interesting options. Egg with rum and chocolate sounds pretty good. Egg with beer… not so sure about that one… but 7:30am didn’t seem like the right time to try it. We stuck with the original, which was quite good.

We still had a little time before we needed to get going, so we walked around the lake again, and enjoyed seeing people exercising in all sorts of ways – badminton in a large median in the road, tai chi and dancing next to the lake, and many people just out walking & running.

Then, off to the airport (3rd breakfast: more coffee & wifi) and our flight to Phu Quoc. Only delayed slightly “due to military operations” (we had seen and heard military jets taking off at the airport, earlier).

Phu Quoc is lovely, and our hotel is cool, with an outdoor but enclosed (and partially covered) bathroom. We were instructed to keep the bathroom door locked when we leave, and at night. Something about monkeys and trees…

A few hours (including sunset) on the beach, showers, and dinner of fresh grilled seafood at a nearby restaurant. The sauce that came with it was amazing – green from fresh herbs, but with a tanginess that may come from the local, famous fish sauce. A local cat was persistent enough to be rewarded with some tasty morsels.

Hanoi (November 20)

Breakfast at the bamboo hotel in Ninh Binh, then we piled everyone (and our bags) into a small car arranged by the hotel, and we were off to Hanoi.

We had apparently hit some race condition in the hotel booking process, and they had double-booked the type of room we needed, but had arranged for a room for us at their nearby “Brother hotel” which was fine. We dropped our bags, and headed out for a walk around the lake in Hanoi and explored the old quarter a bit, stopping for some snacks along the way, before putting J in an Uber to the airport (she had to head home earlier than the rest of us, so she could spend Thanksgiving with her family).

An afternoon of wandering around, a sub-par massage (we’re connoisseurs at this point), streetside beer & people watching, and then following our noses to find more good food – spring rolls, noodles, and bun bo hue (yum!)

Moto-madness (November 19)

E convinced us to rent motorbikes rather than bicycles, and it was awesome! The scooters were easier to ride than a motorcycle (though the one I drove stalled if I didn’t keep my hand on the throttle at a stop or slow-down, which made things interesting a couple of times). Ninh Binh was a great, quiet area to ride around in. Little traffic, and plenty of small roads and lanes through rice paddies that were fun to explore. Without much of a plan for the day, we headed out roughly in the direction of Hua Lu (ancient city), but allowed ourselves to get lost among the country lanes. We stopped at a small cafe for Vietnamese coffee (no English), and eventually did wind up at Hua Lu.

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant, but realized it was an overpriced tour bus stop and left. Instead, we returned to see our friends from the previous day, and they were so happy to see us again. They hung out for awhile and wanted to know all about us – how old we all were, whether we were married, etc. One woman was particularly interested in me due to my very pale skin, which was a bit awkward… eventually we headed out (them making sure our jackets were all zipped up so we’d stay warm on the scooters).

Next stop: Mua cave (and the peak above it) – with a detour down a cute country lane into the rice paddies / fishing pond.

Then, one last coffee / juice before heading back to our hotel before dark. A super fun day, and no rain (thank goodness!). We capped it off with cocktails on the floating raft just outside our hotel.

Night train to Ninh Binh (November 17-18)

A leisurely morning in Hoi An – noodles from a cart on the sidewalk, coffee brought over to us from a different cart across the street. Then I tagged along with E & J as they visited their tailors to have some final fittings and adjustments made on their new clothes.

A stop in the market for some fruit for our train ride, then a lunch of white rose dumplings, and banh mi (A tried one from the Anthony Bourdain recommended place and said it wasn’t anything special, so I tried one from another place – also just okay). Afternoon spa/massages for everyone, then we hailed an Uber and headed to the Da Nang train station.

Given that Da Nang is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, I had expected that the station itself would be enclosed, air conditioned, and have some restaurants. That turned out not to be the case, but it was pleasant outside with a nice breeze, so we settled in at a sidewalk cafe just outside the station and waited, there. At least, until the numerous rat sightings prompted us to head back inside.

The train was fun – we had a 4-bunk cabin to ourselves, with a locking door, and plenty of room to store our bags (including a cubby above the hallway, for the upper bunk sleepers). We shared a bottle of wine, played a game of spades, and fell asleep to the steady rocking of the train.

In the morning, we had a breakfast of fruit we’d brought with us, along with a steamed bun and coffee we bought on board. The Ninh Binh station was quite sleepy, and we let ourselves be lured into the restaurant across the street, where we had some mediocre and overpriced food. Then, a taxi to our bamboo guesthouse (no Uber in Ninh Binh).

We walked from there, pausing to take photos of the karsts, and wound up timing it perfectly – our sunny and warm day turned into driving rain RIGHT as we got to the shelter of tourist shops/restaurants across the street from Trang An. Having learned our lesson at the train station, we walked past the first few restaurants and went all the way to the end, where the women were extremely excited to have us. In fact, they were so eager for business that they’d interrupt anything they were doing to wave people down if they saw anyone walking their direction. Although it wasn’t on their menu, we showed them a picture of some fried spring rolls from earlier in our trip, and they happily whipped some up for us from scratch, with a little of this and a little of that. They were great! The soups and beer hit the spot, as well.

By the time we were done eating, the rain had stopped and we had some new friends. We headed across the street to Trang An and got tickets for the boat tour (route 1, with 9 caves). A few minutes into the tour, it started raining again. Heavily. The caves provided a steamy warm respite from the cool rain. Our ponchos kept us semi-dry, but our seats and shoes got very wet. A couple of times, we paused so our boat captain could bail out rainwater. It was still beautiful, but we had to put away our cameras to keep them dry, so we didn’t get many pictures.

I think the last time I was in Ninh Binh, we must have gone to the other location (Tam Coc). The women rowing in Trang An used their arms (not their feet) to row, and there weren’t any people working in rice paddies along the way. It was still a great trip, and the caves were fun to negotiate by boat. Our captain would shout out, “head low!” (Not, “hello!” as we originally thought) when we needed to duck to avoid stalagtites.

After the boat ride, we were wet and chilled (the temperature had dropped into the 60s), so rather than walk back, we decided to get a taxi. After trying for several minutes to wave one down, we finally had someone call one for us. Back to the hotel along the bouncy gravel road, warm showers, a hot meal (and hot chocolate with baileys), another game of spades, and off to bed. The bamboo huts were fun – the walls & doors were just bamboo lashed together vertically. They let air (and noise, and little critters) flow through, but the beds had mosquito netting and soft mattresses, so we slept well.