Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

Galapagos cruise day 5-8

Day 5:

We started extra early this morning, to finish our walk at Punta Moreno before the sun got too strong. We started with another visit to a mangrove forest and in addition to turtles and birds we saw lots of golden rays and eagle rays. Cool! The 2,5 km walk was entirely on 500 years old lava from an eruption from the Sierra Negra volcano (25 km away). We could also see another volcano from the path. In some areas the lava had collapsed after earthquakes, and in some of these holes there were water and vegetation. In one of them we saw 4 flamingoes and in another one several sharks were swimming around. On the lava itself there were not much animal life except lava lizards, but we saw one of them catching and eating a cricket which was quite cool. Also a Galapagos hawk flew just a couple of meters above our heads.

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As soon as we got back to the boat, we got ready to go snorkeling. Again we saw several large sea turtles, and a few tiny sharks (possibly babies). We searched the sea weed for sea horses, but only found fish everywhere. Also a single penguin was swimming around in the area. We were back at the boat at 1030, and since we had no more activities this day, we decided it was beer o’clock. We relaxed on the sun deck watching the spectacular landscape and hundreds of birds diving into the sea to catch fish. We had an early lunch before reaching the rough waters on the south side of Isabela island. After lunch most of the group took a siesta in the room, while a few stayed on the sun deck watching for wildlife in the strong wind and rough sea.

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At 1730 we arrived in Puerto Villamil, a small port where most of Isabela’s almost 3000 inhabitants live. It was strange to be this close to civilisation again, but we stayed on the boat the entire evening. The water was really clear, so while waiting for dinner we stayed on the sundeck watching turtles, sea lions and several Galapagos sharks swim by. We even saw 4 male sea turtles mating with one female just a few meters from the boat. Felix, the chef, brought us some popcorn, since it was longer than normal between lunch and dinner. After dinner we showed the edited GoPro videos to the rest of the group, before going down to the swimming platform in the back. We brought torches and could see hundreds of small fish flocking around the light. Even more sharks swam by, and several sea lions were playing around, sometime so close that we could have touched them. Even though we have seen hundreds of them, we’re still fascinated.

Day 6:

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We went ashore in Puerto Villamil where a minivan was waiting for us. It took us to a Giant tortoise breeding center, where we arrived just in time for feeding. There are 10 different tortoise spieces on Isabela, but several of them are almost extinct. In the past both pirates and whalers took thousands of tortoises on board their ships. Since they can survive for a long time without water and food, they were a source of fresh meat. Additionally introduced animals like dogs, cats, donkeys and goats destroy nests, kill baby tortoises and eat the same food. Tortoises born in the breeding center are protected there until they are 8 years old, before they are released into the wild again. It was fun to see the newborn tortoises and the different spieces, but the museum was outdated.

We had a short stop at a flamingo lake on our way to Sierra Negra Volcano (the second largest in the world). It was raining when we arrived, and the visibility was very bad. After walking on a muddy path for 40 minutes, we arrived at the viewpoint, where we could only see a few meters. Back in the van we ate our box lunch, and went back to the city, where we had more than 3 hours to do whatever we wanted. Some went swimming or snorkeling, and a couple rented bikes. We walked around the in the city center, did some shopping (we were almost out of sunscreen) and had a couple of beers in a local bar. At the pier there were several marine iguanas, sea lions laying on benches and anywhere in the shadow and we also saw a few eagle rays swimming by.

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Back at the boat a few went for a swim and jumping from the dingy, and in the evening we enjoyed another wildlife show behind the boat. Several reef sharks, a sea turtle and three sea lions chasing and catching fish. It’s amazing how fast they can move!

Day 7:

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During the night we had sailed to Floreana island and our first landing was at Punta Cormorant. We started at a brown sand beach with green olivine crystals. There were several sea lions on the beach and playing in the water, and even a couple of penguins. Several birds were sitting on a cliff, among them a young and fluffy blue footed boobie. We stopped at a lagoon where several flamingos where walking around, making a lot of noise. They even walked on land so that we could really see their long legs. On the other side there was a beautiful white sand beach with lots of turtle nests, and a sea-lion relaxing in one of them. A few turtles were relaxing in the shallow waters, along with several stingrays looking for food.

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After a short stop back at the boat we were ready for the famous Devil’s Crown, the best snorkeling spot in the Galapagos according to lonely planet. It’s 3 small islets surrounded by coral reefs and millions of fish. The currents are quite strong so most of us needed a lift in the dingy (or behind it holding a rope) between the islets. The water was really clear, and there were fish in all sizes and colors wherever you looked. A few sea lions were playing around, and we saw a couple of gigantic stingrays in addition to a smaller eagle ray. The crew could hardly get us out of the water. Spectacular!

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We had one more short stop in Post Office Bay, only 20 minutes away, where whalers used to leave mail in a barrel for other boats to pick up if they were headed in the right direction. The barrel is now used by tourists, and we picked up a card to be delivered in Asker, only a kilometer from where Fredrik lives. A bit higher up the ruins of a Norwegian fish canning factory is found. It was very successful for a short time until the dry period when there was no food or water available for the workers.

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After lunch we started our 4 hour journey to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. Shortly after we were joined by a group of large dolphins swimming and jumping around the boat. We also saw several albatrosses flying close to the boat. We arrived in Puerto Ayora at 4 pm, walked through the main street before sitting down at one of our favourite bars for a couple of drinks with a few of the other passengers. Back at the boat the crew had prepared for a farewell dinner. They were all dressed up, the table was decorated with vegetables formed as Galapagos animals, the owners of the boat were visiting and Wilma served farewell cocktails. We had another amazing dinner, shared contact information, took some group photos and ate way too much cake. After packing our bags we rounded off the evening with a couple of beers on the sun deck while discussing the highlights of the trip.

Day 8:

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We got up at 6 am to watch the bird life while sailing around the island Daphne Mayor. Finally everyone got pictures of blue footed boobies, and lots of Nazca boobies were also sitting on the cliffs. We went to the airport at 8 am where we said goodbye to everyone, and left for Guayaquil at 10 am.

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In summary, the cruise was above and beyond all our expectations. Even though we had read about the large number of animals and how close you could get to them, we were amazed every single day. We learned so much about them, from the guide of course, but also by watching them from the boat and on land. We were never hungry during the cruise. Chef Felix made 3 meals per day, often 2 or 3 courses. We had a new egg dish for breakfast every day, and whenever we got back from landings/snorkeling we were served a juice or a hot drink (also different every day) and some sort of snack (from pizza to Yucca bread with honey). The entire crews were amazing, attending our every need, but at the same time laughing and having fun. And the passengers worked really well together, looking after each other, sharing stories and knowledge, laughing a lot and having the time of our lives!

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Galapagos cruise day 3-4

Day 3:

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Our first landing was in Tagus Cove on Isabela Island, where the landing area was covered in old graffiti (name and year) from before it was declared a national park. We walked past Darwin Lake, a beautiful but dead brackish lake. We walked up to a viewpoint, but there was not much to see on the way. The island was very dry, and we mainly saw small birds, a few lizards and some grasshoppers. On the way back to the boat we sailed along the shore, and saw several golden rays, two sea turtles mating a meter from the boat, a sea-lion and several large birds. The penguins that lives there was nowhere to be found though. A bit later we snorkelled in the same area, and we could definitly feel the cold stream the penguins like. The visibility was not very good, but we still saw a couple of sea turtles and quite a bit of fish.

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In the afternoon we went ashore at Punta Espindza on Fernandina Island. We were welcomed by a lot of jumping fish and a Galapagos hawk. This place was above all expectations. We knew there was a colony of marine iguanas, but didn’t expect thousands of them. They were literary everywhere, often in large groups very close to and often on top of each other. You really needed to watch your step here. In between all the iguanas, there were also a few sea lions, some lizards, sea turtles, birds (Galapagos dove, Oyster catcher etc) and another whale skeleton. We spent a lot of time watching three young sea lions play around in the sand and shallow waters, rolling in the sand and doing acrobatics in the water. On the way back we saw two more hawks, and the first one had bitten the head off a baby iguana and was flying around holding it in his claws. Probably the best site visited so far!

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In the evening there was a lot of activity around the boat, but it was difficult to see anything in the dark. Several people found flashlights, which seemed to attract even more sea life. Since the flashlights worked best close to the water, we ended the evening hanging out of our cabin windows watching huge turtles, squids, fish and even a sea-lion catching and eating a sea snake. Really fun!

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Day 4:

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After an early breakfast we went to Urbina bay at Isabela Island, and finally we found lots of penguins. They were swimming around the boat and a few were standing on land drying in the wind. We went for a walk and passed a young tortoise laying in the middle of the path. It had 14 “rings” on it’s carapace (shell), which means it was 14 years old. We also saw a carapace of a dead tortoise about the same size in addition to several large land iguanas, lots of birds as always and another tortoise eating poisonous (not to them) apples from a tree.

We were quite eager to get back to the beach to snorkle, hoping the penguins were still there. Luckily they were, and they were swimming all around us when we got in the water. We were really surprised by how fast they were moving in the water. One of the videos we recorded looks like fast forward. Crazy! We also saw a gigantic sea turtle. Gunnhild was swimming above it, and was clearly the shortest one of the two. Out in the deeper parts of the bay we found more sea turtles, and a very curious sea-lion also came to check us out (or just to show off it’s swimming skills). On the way back to shore we saw two large lobsters and even more penguins. What a great experience!

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In the afternoon we did some more whale watching while sailing to Elizabeth bay (Isabela island). Still no whales, but plenty of turtles. After lunch we took a dingy ride into the mangrove forest. Some of the mangroves are actually like big trees, close to 10 meters high. Never seen anything like it! There were penguins, turtles, fish and sea lions swimming around, and large pelicans and other birds sitting in the mangroves. In this area the sea lions actually sleep in trees, on large branches in the mangrove forest. Lots of penguins and cormorants were relaxing on a tiny islet we passed on our way back. In the evening we gathered on the sun deck to see the beautiful sunset.

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Quito

P1080739Our trip from Norway, via Amsterdam to Quito was smooth and without delays. But after getting up in the middle of the night, travelling for 20 hours and with a 6 hour time difference, we did not have a lot of energy left when we arrived at Minka Hostel in the old town. We had a short walk around the neighbourhood, had a light meal at the hotel and went to bed early.

We had two full days two explore Quito, the capital of Equador. The city is located at 2800 meters at the foot of the Pichincha volcano (4794 m), and is the highest official capital city in the world (or second if counting La Paz). It was very simple to navigate the city with easy recognizable mountains and hills surrounding the city, but walking around was in the beginning a bit tiring, with steep roads and high altitude.

The old town was the first World cultural heritage site declared by UNESCO (together with IMG_1703Krakow) in 1978, and has one of the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in the Americas. Steep and narrow cobbled streets, colonial buildings, beautiful churches everywhere, statues, parks and plazas. The Fiestas de Quito (a week long festival celebrating the foundation of Quito December 6th 1534) was just starting when we arrived, and there were lots of people in the streets and dancing and music in the plazas and parks.

El PanecilloEl Panecillo is a 200 meter high hill located close to the old town, and from the top the 45-meter high “Virgin of Quito” statue is overlooking the city. The statue can be seen from most parts of the city centre, and is a great reference point. It is possible to take a taxi up the steep hill to see the views from there, but it’s not really worth the trip. There are better viewpoints available and the statue is better viewed from the city below.

The heart of Quito’s new town is the La Mariscal area, with lots of restaurants, bars, clubs, souvenir shops and even a few micro breweries, which were our main focus when visiting the area. The beers were not amazing, but definitely a lot better than the standard local pilsners. Skip the stouts though, and try the ambers and pale ales instead.

Mitad del MundoAbout 45 minutes by taxi from the city centre is Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the world. This is a very touristic family park built around the equator monument. There are some small museums, playgrounds, expensive cafes and loads of souvenir shops, but mainly people come here to take their photo with one foot on each side of the equator line, even though the equator actually lies about 240 meters north of the marked line.

We also brought some gifts from Gunnhild’s aunt in Norway to family friends (former host family of cousin Janne) in Quito. They did not know we were visiting, so they got very exited when we contacted them. We met Ruth and her son Oscar at their house, a short drive from the city centre. Very welcoming and sweet people. Oscar took us for a sightsseing trip to Itchimbia park while Ruth was preparing lunch. This was a quiet and peaceful park, with amazing views over the old town with the “Virgin of Quito” in the background. Oscar spoke very good English, and told us a lot about the city, the culture and everything we wanted to know. Back at the house we got a traditional Equadorian lunch (rice soup, chicken, corn, potatoes, cheese sauce etc.) and had Norwegian milk chocolate for dessert. Ruth’s son Itchimbia park Albaro also joined us, and showed us his painting studio upstairs. They were all very happy that we visited, but a bit disappointed that we couldn’t stay longer. Next time we or any from our family come to Quito, we are invited to stay at their house.

The next morning we had booked a taxi to the airport at 7 am, but just as we were getting up someone knocked at the door to tell us the driver was there, and we should go early because of heavy traffic. We packed our bags and checked out in ten minutes, and drove as fast as possible to the airport. When we got there the flight was delayed, so we had plenty of time for all the extra security checks, forms and fees needed before going to Galapagos.

Ruth & Famely

Galapagos and Central America 2014/2015

In only 1 week it’s time for this year’s big adventure. We both have a month vacation in December and got one month off (unpaid leave) in January, so we will be traveling for two months. We will start in Quito, Ecuador and continue to the Galapagos islands.

On the Galapagos we have signed up to take the PADI Open water course and certificate at TipTop diving and then go on a cruise for 7 nights visiting Isabela, Fernandina and Floreana on Angelito I.

After a short stopover in Guayaquil, we fly north to Nicaragaua and have almost 7 weeks to travel around Central America before our flight home from Panama. So far we only have one thing booked in this period, and that is to spend Christmas at Hotel Villa Amarilla in Tamarindo, Costa Rica like we did two years ago.

In addition to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we will probably visit Honduras, Guatemala and Panama, but with no itinerary planned we don’t really know until we’re there.

Destination Arrival
1 Quito, Ecuador 29 November, 2014
2 Puerto Ayora, Ecuador 2 December, 2014
3 Playa Las Bachas, Ecuador 7 December, 2014
4 Mosquera Islet, Ecuador 8 December, 2014
5 Dragon Hill, Ecuador 8 December, 2014
6 Rabida Island, Ecuador 8 December, 2014
7 Tagus Cove, Ecuador 9 December, 2014
8 Punta Espindza, Ecuador 9 December, 2014
9 Urbina bay, Ecuador 10 December, 2014
10 Elizabeth bay, Ecuador 10 December, 2014
11 Punta Moreno, Ecuador 11 December, 2014
12 Puerto Villamil, Ecuador 12 December, 2014
13 Punta Cormorant, Ecuador 13 December, 2014
14 Devil's Crown, Ecuador 13 December, 2014
15 Post Office Bay, Ecuador 13 December, 2014
16 Puerto Ayora, Ecuador 13 December, 2014
17 Daphne Mayor, Ecuador 14 December, 2014
18 Guayaquil, Ecuador 15 December, 2014
19 Leon, Nicaragua 15 December, 2014
20 Granada, Nicaragua 18 December, 2014
21 Tamarindo, Costa Rica 23 December, 2014
22 Ometepe, Nicaragua 27 December, 2014
23 Roatan, Honduras 30 December, 2014
24 Antigua, Guatemala 7 January, 2015
25 Lake Atitlán, Guatemala 12 January, 2015
26 Flores, Guatemala 14 January, 2015
27 Caye Caulker, Belize 16 January, 2015
28 San Pedro, Belize 20 January, 2015
29 Portobelo, Panama 24 January, 2015
30 Panama City, Panama 26 January, 2015
31 San Blas, Panama 27 January, 2015
32 Panama City, Panama 30 January, 2015

 

Hoi An – Hanoi – Oslo

P1070286Because of the unstable situation in Bangkok, we decided to spend one last night in Hanoi instead, since we were able to get a connecting flight all the way home from there. We booked a car from our hotel to Da Nang airport, and the driver spoke very good English and had a lot of knowledge about the area, so we had a great trip and learned a lot. Our flight was 30 minutes late, but we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi at 7 pm. We were welcomed by Dragon, who we knew from our stay there at the beginning of the trip, and were upgraded to an even bigger room than the one we booked.

After several days in relaxing Hoi An, it was again a bit of a shock to arrive in Hanoi. Lots of traffic and noise, but this time we knew how to handle it. We went for dinner at our favourite restaurant, New day, where we had duck in orange sauce, shrimps in tamarind sauce and of course some spring rolls. We went to the night market for some last minute shopping, had a beer in a very local bar, tasted and bought coffee at a small coffee shop, and spent the rest of the evening with gin tonics and good music at Rockstore. At midnight they suddenly closed the bar, and we tried to find another bar instead. But it seemed that the entire old town was closed down, and police were walking around making sure everything was quiet. So we ended the evening with a beer in our room instead.

The next morning we packed our bags, and with all the shopping we had done, we were actually able to close the suitcases and even had some space left in our hand lugguage! So after breakfast at Le Pub, we did some more shopping at silk street and Hang Da Market. 😉 We also had time for a massage at a posh massage clinique just next to our hotel, before we had to go to the airport at 5 pm. We had our last springrolls for a while, and spent the rest of our Vietnamese dong in the airport shops. We had more time in Bangkok than expected, so we figured that we had time for another massage. Not as posh and relaxed as the last one, but still a great way to spend the waiting time. The flight home was long, but both of us were actually able to sleep a little bit. Still we were quite tired when we landed in Oslo at 6:02 am (45 minutes early, and just 2 minutes after opening time). We were welcomed home by the first snow of the season. Luckily we had new jackets from the tailor, but our shoes were not really fit for winter.

Hoi An

Hoi An

P1070226Hoi An is a small city with around 120.000 inhabitants. The old town is car-free, there’s a beach just outside the city, and it’s possible to go scuba diving on Cham Islands. These (in addition to the tailors) were the main reasons we decided to stay here for 4 days. Although the weather was a bit unstable, so we didn’t go scuba diving or to the beach, and the car-free old town had plenty of motorbikes, we’re very happy we had more than a couple of days here. The city is a lot more relaxed than most other places we visited, the people are very sweet, the local food is delicious and the old town is picturesque with it’s beautifully restored historical buildings.

P1070246Hoi An has been a major international trading port for more than 2000 years, and the architecture has plenty of foreign influences like the Japanese covered bridge,  the Cantonese Assembly Hall, several temples, and hundreds of Chinese-styled shophouses. Nowadays these are mainly used by shops selling art, jewellery, ceramics etc. – and of course Hoi An’s famous tailor shops (nearly 400!!).

After reading several blog posts and lots of reviews on Tripadvisor we ended up with three tailors we wanted to check out. The first one was very large, looked very high-class, and seemed quite expensive and impersonal. The second one was smaller and felt more our style, but the staff was very pushy and started out on very high prices. The last tailor we wanted to check out was Red Rubik. We got a warm welcome from Trâm, who showed us around. They had fixed prices on everything, and these were lower than the other two tailors, even after bargaining. They had a great selection of fabrics, lots of nice designs on display, and their tailors were working upstairs so it was easy to have small adjustments made. Trâm was not pushy at all, and had no problems with us wanting to go for lunch before deciding on anything. She even showed us a few tricks on how to check the quality, in case we decided to go to a different tailor.

After a nice lunch at Secret Garden Restaurant, we of course went back to Red Rubik. We had a few ideas about what we wanted, but pretty much decided on everything there and then. We had no idea there were so many decisions to be made (fabric, lining, angle of pockets, buttons, fitting, trimming, lapel style, length, number of pockets, vents, cuffs etc. etc.). Gunnhild even designed a couple of dresses and a jacket (with a lot of help), based on photos taken in other shops and designs found in their catalogs and magazines. After a while we had more than enough, and spent the rest of the evening by the river, having dinner, a few beers and just watching life go by.

P1070258We thought we would have plenty of time to enjoy the rooftop pool at our hotel, maybe rent bikes and go to the beach take a cooking class etc., but instead we ended up shopping at two more tailors, one leather tailor making shoes and handbags and one making travel clothing from microfiber materials. And with daily fittings at three tailors, there’s not really much time left for other activities. The fitting process was very smooth. At Red Rubiks they made adjustments while we were trying on the rest of our clothes, which probably saved us a fitting or two. The shop where we bought our travel pants used a tailor that was located a couple of blocks away. When there was a small problem with one of the pants at the second and final fitting, the owner asked Fredrik to look after the shop, and took Gunnhild to the tailor to fix the problem. Sadly it was lunch time, so Fredrik was not able to sell anything while he was in charge. 😉 We were really pleased with all our clothes, and after trying them on we even ended up ordering more. In total we bought 2 dresses, 3 suits, 1 west, 1 skirt, 3 jackets, 2 t-shirts, 4 blouses, 7 shirts, 8 travel pants, 2 handbags, leather sandals and a pair of boots! Phew!

Between all the fittings we did have time for a bit of sightseeing, a lot of relaxation, loads of amazing local food and even some local wine (the white one was good, the red one not so much). We had fresh seafood at a small restaurant by the river, lunch at Streets (a restaurant training street kids and disadvantaged youth for careers in hospitality), and dinner at the famous Morning Glory Restaurant. We played pool at the bar across the street from our hotel, made travel arrangements for the rest of our trip, and even bought some christmas presents.

Hue to Hoi An

IMG_1024At 10 AM we were picked up by our driver and started our trip to Hoi An. Our first stop was just outside the city of Hue, where we visited the impressive Khai Ding Tomb. There are 6 royal tombs in the area, but since we had seen quite a few tombs in China, we decided on visiting only one. Khai Ding Tomb was built from 1920 to 1931 and is a blend of Western and Eastern architecture. It is located on a steep hill, has several forecourts leading up to the tomb on the top and statues of guards, elephants and dragons. The tomb itself was quite a sight with mosaic, gold, statues and decorated walls and ceilings. As planned we arrived before the tourist busses, and had the place almost to our selves.

IMG_1039We continued for about an hour before we stopped for a 30 minute break at Lang Co Beach, a 10 km strech of white sand and a beautiful turquoise lagoon. In this area we could really see evidence of the resent typhoon, with quite a bit of damage to roofs and light structures (like lounge areas at the beach), lots of driftwood and sandbags on pretty much every roof along the road. Instead of driving through the Hai Van Tunnel (the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia at 6.28 km), we took the scenic route over Hai Van Pass. It was steep and curvy, but we passed several nice waterfalls and had great views. The pass forms a boundary between the climates of northern and southern Vietnam, sheltering the city of Da Nang from the “Chinese winds” that blow in from the northwest. At the top we could see the old gate from the border crossing and some French bunkers, later used by the Americans.

IMG_1066In Da Nang we visited the Marble Mountains, five marble and limestone mountains named after the five elements; Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). We climbed the 156 steps to the top of the biggest mountain (Thuy Son, or Mount of water). We stopped at Da Loi Tower, Linh Ung Pagoda and three different caves. The most impressing one was Huyen Khong Cave, with several Buddha statues and alters, and light coming in through holes holes in the ceiling. The area around the mountains is famous for stone sculpture making and stone-cutting crafts, and there were thousands of statues in all sizes for sale.

P1070183At 3.30 PM we arrived in Hoi An, a city known for it’s hundreds of tailors. The old town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were told that the hotel we stayed in had over 1 meter of water in the lobby (flooding) just one week earlier, but everything looked perfect when we arrived. We went out for a small lunch, before checking out some of the many tailors. We quickly realized that we were not prepared at all and had no idea what we wanted, how much it should cost etc. And how do you choose which tailor to use? We decided to postpone the problem until the next morning, and spent the night walking around the old town, eating dumplings at a local restaurant and drinking beer while watching the life on and along the Thu Bon River. It looked like they had some sort of celebration, with lots of incense everywhere and hundreds of paper lanterns floating slowly down the river.

Hue

P1070054It was raining when we woke up, so we had a lazy morning. We had breakfast at DMZ bar, where the waiter taught us some Vietnamese. It was warmer than yesterday, so we felt fine in short sleeves, and were looking forward to sightseeing in a bearable temperature. But the locals were freezing, and were wearing winter coats and large wool sweaters. Funny!

Between 1802 and 1945, Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty and the capital of Vietnam. We walked over the Parfume River (named after the aroma of the orchard flowers falling into the river in the autumn) towards the Citadel, the seat of the Nguyễn emperors. It occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the river. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access. This area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although it was considerably damaged during the Vietnam War and was neglected for a long time after the war.

IMG_0974We found an English-speaking cyclo driver with a lot of knowledge about the area, so he and a colleague took us to a couple of less visited sights before we continued to the Forbidden City. There are seven gates to the Citadel, one for each king, and we visited one of them and were able to climb to the top for some nice views. We also stopped by Ho Chi Minh’s humble house that now had an alter with photos of him and his parents.

The forbidden city was quite different from what we expected. It was built up similar to the forbidden city in Beijing, but because of the neglect it somehow felt more authentic. Since it was raining a bit in the morning there were not many visitors, and this probably enhanced that feeling. Several places we could see bullet holes in the walls, and sadly parts of the area were completely ruined during the war, but the rest was restored or under restoration. Because of the resent typhoon, it was very wet and slippery in some areas, but that was just part of the experience.

P1070091After booking a private car (and four stops) to Hoi An and a hotel there, we went to Nina’s Cafe for dinner. This was a very cosy family restaurant hidden away in the end of a small alley. Definitely not a place people stumble upon, but because of their good reputation and amazing food several people had found their way there. We had to start with a local speciality, where you roll pankakes and various vegetables in thin rice paper and dip it in a very tasteful peanut sauce. Their Chicken curry and Pork in clay pot was also delicious, and we even had some pancakes for dessert.

Ho Chi Minh City to Hue

P1070036It was a slow morning since we had a late flight to Hue. We checked out just before noon and went back to Sozo for breakfast. Since we had a few hours we walked up to the old marked and Fredrik ended up with two new shorts. At 2 pm we were picked up by a driver who took us to the airport.

The flight with Vietjet (a lowcost airline) was perfectly fine for the ridiculously low price we paid. The airport in Hue was very small, and we were out of there in no time. The temperature took us a bit by surprise. It was a lot colder here than in both Hanoi (north) and Saigon (south), but after two sweaty weeks it was actually really nice. We were picked up by a nice driver, and were fascinated by how little traffic there was and how polite everyone were driving. Since the hotel was in an alley where the car could not drive in we were escorted by two young men with umbrellas (it was drizzling) to the hotel. The welcoming was warm and friendly and they served us juice, tea, coffee and fresh fruits while taking care of the paperwork.

We had booked a twin room that they didn’t have, so we got a large double room with an extra bed. After changing to clothes that were suitable for the temperature (trousers and shoes!), we went out for dinner at Golden Rice Restaurant that was highly recommended by our hotel. And what a dinner! We had Chicken in a bamboo-tube, caramelized pork and pancakes for dessert. We ended the evening with local beers and (mostly) good music at DMZ bar.

Ho Chi Minh City Day 2

IMG_0894We had a great start of the day with breakfast at Sozo. It’s a restaurant hiring only people from the streets, mainly with disabilities. Their motto is “Restoring hope, changing lives”, and both the food (western) and service was great. We continued to the War Remnants Museum, which is focused mainly on the American phase of the Vietnam War. The exhibitions here were a lot more balanced than the Cu Chi tunnels, and showed the sufferings and histories from both sides. Outside there were several tanks, planes and weapons, and inside there were 3 floors with different exhibitions. What made the biggest impression on us was the before-after photos, and the terrible stories, photos and long-term effects of the chemical weapons used.

IMG_0920After this we needed a break, and stopped at a nearby brewpub, inspired by German beer. Better than tasteless lagers, but nothing special. We walked past the Saigon Opera House (French colonial architecture) and the Notre Dame (built in red bricks imported from Marseilles). We made it up to the skydeck of the Bitexo Financial Tower (49th floor) just in time to take some photos while it was still daylight. We enjoyed some very expensive drinks in the bar on the 52nd floor, before taking some more photos of Saigon by night.

We really love the Vietnamese food, but needed a little bit of variation and had a Mexican dinner and some gin tonics in the pub street. There’s so much going on here, that we could probably sit here for hours watching whole families on small scooters, food being cooked on the sidewalk, locals selling vegetables, souvenirs and photocopied guidebooks and have fun spotting which tourists just arrived and which that have been here for a while (big difference, especially when crossing the street).