Tuesday, November 18, 2008


We're seeing some sights while in Hanoi, but our focus is on food.  Thanks to the Gastronomer, we're finding good restaurants. My favorite so far has been Cha Ca Thang Long where there's only one thing on the menu: Cha Ca. The marinated fish is added along with scallions and dill to a grill pan on the table. You eat it with bun (rice vermicelli), nuoc mam (fish sauce), fresh veggies and peanuts. 

We also went to Wild Rice as a last meal with Spice Roads.  The food and service are impeccable. Standouts in my mind are the Nem Tom Chuoi (shimp and banana fried eggrolls) and the braised eggplant.  Any fried banana dish usually stands out in my mind, and the braised eggplant was perfectly sweet and succulant.

Xoi Xeo at Xoi Yen was another great suggestion from the Gastronomer. You have your choice of one of three xoi (sticky rice) and even more choices of meat to go on top.  Perfect (and cheap) lunch if you're in the Old Quarter.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

Cave in limestone karst in Ha Long Bay

Fifteen days, 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites, ten hotels, 281 miles on the bike and 15,815 feet of climbing. We have a few more days in Hanoi for eating, sightseeing and shopping, but I feel like the trip is winding down. Looking back, each day of the trip added something new to our perspective of Vietnam. No day was "more of the same," so we've gotten a good first taste of the country's variations in personality and landscapes.  On the other hand, the constant change in hotels was difficult for us. I think our next trip here will focus on the Mekong Delta (we haven't gone there yet), Dalat and Hoi An.  (Note that the last two were places where we had fantastic chocolate croissants.)  We didn't have that much time in Saigon, so we'll probably spend more time there too.

On another note, the cruise to Cat Ba Island and back through Ha Long Bay was excellent. The scenery was lovely, and the incredibly fresh seafood (shrimp, clams, squid and  fish) along with fried taro were just amazing.  On the way to a cave in a limestone karst, the boat stopped at a floating fish farm to buy the ingredients for lunch.

Fish farm where we stopped for lunch ingredients

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hai Phong to Cat Ba Island

Today's ride was the last ride, and it was broken up into two parts: ride from Hai Phong to the boat, and after a 3 hour boat trip, ride from the port to the hotel in Cat Ba. Of course, the boat ride on a traditional boat offered stunning views and a delicious lunch with fresh shrimp, fish and squid. The ride through the middle of the island was challenging with long, winding climbs. These are definitely some of the most brutal climbs Pete and I have ever done. 

After all the riding, I think that people with reasonable fitness can make the journey. There were days when I didn't want to get on the bike anymore, but I was always well rewarded when I did. Sometimes the bus couldn't follow us on the same road due to road conditions, and those were often the days when I was so glad to be on a bike.

Friday, November 14, 2008

National Park in Cuc Phuong

Hue & Ninh Binh

Fisherman in Ninh Binh

We took a tourist boat down the Perfume River (Suong Huong) to a really nice pagoda. Surprisingly, I liked the boat ride. While it was noisy, it gave us an nice slow view of the river banks and the weather was perfect.  Afterwards, we headed out to the Citadel.  That evening, we took an overnight train to Nam Dinh. I was grossed out by the dirty sheets and had a hard time sleeping. Even though we had a few hours to sleep in a hotel nearby, the night was a total disaster. I was ready to high-tail it to Hanoi.  

We started the ride in Ninh Binh, and the pain of the previous night was forgotten. In the morning, we saw limestone karsts rising out of the land (and some water due to the recent floods).  We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant where a woman and her children cooked for 18 in a single wok in a matter of half an hour.  It was one of our favorite meals so far. In the afternoon, we rode next to (and possibly through) a small mountain range on our way to the National Park and the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Cuc Phuong.

Flooded house & tombstones in Ninh Binh

Da Nang to Hue

Kids riding water buffalo

Man working a plow

The sun came out for our ride from Da Nang to Hue, and it was one of my favorite rides of the trip.  We rode up High Van Pass, which rises 500 m above sea level over 9 km and descends back to sea level over 11 km.  The views going up and down the pass were just stunning. We continued down the coast to a lovely beach resort (Lan Co) for lunch.  

We turned off the main highway and went through the country roads to see the ornate tombs of Central Vietnam.  The citizens of Hue bury their dead in the countryside outside of town, and we often saw massive tombs with simple houses next to them.  Over 40 km, we saw more tombs than people.

Another highlight was the gaggles of preschoolers walking home from school on their own.  They didn't have anyone guiding them, but they seemed to know where to go. They're also the most enthusiatic and genuine when they're waving their hellos. Western cyclists are still a different enough sight that they'll run out of their houses to wave hello to us.  

Pete also did an awesome job of riding today. He rode nearly 50 miles! It definitely took me more than a few weeks of riding to build up to a half century. 

Hoi An

Ships along the river in Hoi An

Things I recommend doing in Hoi An:
- Go to Cargo Club Restaurant at 8 AM and get the chocolate croissants.  They come out of the oven at that time, and they're best right then.  Later on in the evening, drop by for a really rich  dessert.
- Go to Thung Bac for Cao Lao (found only in Hoi An). The Banh Xeo is also tasty.
- Get tailored clothing.  While there are store fronts on every few steps, they all go back to 2-3  big tailor shops.  Choose the one with the best stitching on their samples, the best cloth selection and the best prices.

Pete taking a picture of me in Champa Ruins in My Son

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Photos in Vietnam

Village kids out for a high-five

The countryside of central Vietnam is just gorgeous with lush greenery and mountains as the backdrop. We're just having problems capturing the beauty in our photos. The wide-angle on the SLR would probably help, but I'm not very comfortable riding with an SLR slung on my back.

The beaches are also quite nice. We're also quite bad about forgetting the camera on the bus.  

Friday, November 7, 2008

Cycling through Vietnam

So, I think cycling is one of the best ways to visit Vietnam. The experience is very different from cycling and sitting on the bus.  There is quite a bit of interaction with the locals - a lot of the kids (and some adults) excited wave/shout "Hello" as we ride by, and they burst into giggles when we respond. In one town where we waited for others to catch up, we literally stopped the traffic. I guess people there get so few visitors, we were something to gawk at.

I can't say enough about the views - they're simply breathtaking.  

Banh Xeo

Banh Xeo

We finally had our local meal that beats anything we've had in the US. We had amazing Ban Xeo Hue, Nem Nuong Mia and Nem Chua Nuong at Quan 52 (Banh Xeo by Cho Dam). This place was recommended by both the hotel receptionist and the cabbie as the best Banh Xeo in Nha Trang. The kitchen was a cart with an extra table for the fryer, and the inside of the restaurant had haphazard tables and plastic chairs. The dough of the Ban Xeo was just crispy enough of the outside with the right combination of shrimp, squid, pork, boiled egg and bean sprouts on the inside. My lesson learned is that we need to eat at more simple stalls with a small menu than the formal restaurants. My favorite meals have all been in places with plastic chairs.  

My rudimentary Vietnamese came in handy - I was able to figure out the short menu and order for us. The longer I'm here, the more I understand and the more I'm able to sound out words. I think I'm going to try to watch the news in Vietnamese when I get home so I can beef up my vocabulary.

Quan 52 from the inside

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Nha Trang

The weather in Nha Trang is a bit fickle. One moment it's dry; the next moment it's pouring. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Da Lat to Nha Trang

GObama! It would have been amazing to mill about downtown Chicago to celebrate this historic win.

However, the ride from Da Lat to Nha Trang was epic. The plan was to ride about 15km out of Da Lat, do 41km in undulating hills in a national forest, descend 30km in the national forest and then ride another 20km towards Nha Trang.

The national forest had towering pine trees, amazing valleys with pockets of fog. Lots of long climbs, and gorgeous views. The sprinkling turned into a harsher, colder rain, and I was miserable. I climbed into the bus and thought I was done.  So the bus decended 3500 ft over 20 km (smelt lots of brake) and stopped to let us descend. So, I climbed back onto the bike and rode another 20km. Holy cows - around each bend descending into the valley, there were more and more amazing views. At the end of the ride, I looked back and saw the 'moutain' that I climbed up and descended down.  This ride was so amazing, I would like to return one day and do it during the dry season. (It ended up being 4000 ft of climbing over 48 miles.)

On a side note, during a wicked descent, Roman caught a patch of oil and took a nasty spill. He's ok to ride, just lots of road rash.

Corrected link to our photos here.  

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

First few days in Vietnam

I woke up super early this morning in hopes of getting any news results regarding the election. The states can't be called until the polls are officially closed and we head out on our bikes at 7:30 AM, so I won't find out until later today. Our tour is composed of folks from around the world (only 4 from the US), and most are very aware of our election. It's interesting that there are parties around the world for expats to watch the results.

The trip started with a warm-up ride to the Cu Chi Tunnels on Monday on very flat terrain.  The kids along they way were really cute and enthusiastic with their "Hellos."  The tunnels themselves are an amazing feat of engineering in a low tech situation. Pretty claustrophobic. They also show some crazy determination - around 60,000 people lived inside the tunnels during the war.

Tuesday was a good cycling day.  we did 15 miles through the hills of Da Lat with a mile long hill that started with a steep grade.  Pete did the whole hill without stopping for a rest! The climate and the hills were just gorgeous.  The climate reminds me of the Bay Area.

Confirmed with the guide - most of the Vietnamese come home for Tet (Lunar New Year). About 300,000 Viet Kieu came back just for Tet last year.

En Route to Vietnam

The flight from Hong Kong to Saigon has more tourists than Vietnamese. This was very different from our flight from Hong Kong to Manila where there were tons of Flips coming home. The Philippines has scores of overseas workers, and Vietnam has done a pretty good job of marketing itself as a tourist destination.  Can't wait to get to Vietnam and try some of the tasty food!

I have to mention that the last 10 days of stuffing myself (and not working out a lick) has taken a toll. Good thing I'll have a bunch of time on my hands when I get back - I need to get back to training weight to make the rides/runs more bearable.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Family dinner in Bongabon after visit to cemetary

We arrived in Manila on All Saints Day. On this day, the custom in the Philippines is to return to the provinces and visit the cemetary of your ancestors. So we took a 4 hour drive to the town of Bongabon, where Pete's grandparents are buried. The local cemetary had throngs of people milling about. People spending time with their ancestors and then walking about and seeing the tombs of other ancestors.  It was also the only time of year that most of the families all gathered at once.

Pete's very gracious cousin, Omi, was our amazing host for our short time in Manila.  She showed us what she could of Manila as we drove from and to the airport, and she explained a lot of the Filipino customs as we came across them.  

Jane & Omi at Tito Vic's home in Bongabon

Leaving Dumaguete

View of Apo Island at breakfast each morning

Our cottage at the Atlantis Dumaguete

Our last night in Dumaguete was a flurry of packing, organizing and an agonizing wait for our wetsuits to dry. We had to wait until the next morning to finish packing the scuba gear, and I'm pretty sure the wetsuits are going to be quite gross by the end of the trip.  We couldn't just shove everything in a bag and handle it when we got home - we had to stay organized as we continued onto Manila and then Vietnam.