This year we had the most unique Christmas holiday of our lives. We traveled through SouthEast Asia for five whole weeks! It was a long trip, filled with countless new experiences. Today we’ll share some stories from our 12 days in Vietnam…

The quick version:

Hanoi

Our first new experience was a business class flight from Christchurch to Singapore and then Singapore to Hanoi. We didn’t plan on flying business class, but there was a booking error with our original itinerary and we got an amazing upgrade onto Singapore Air!

Business class?!!?

Business class?!!?

We landed in Hanoi in the morning and spent the day exploring the Old Quarter of the city. If I could describe Hanoi with one word it would be “chaos.” A constant barrage of mopeds, cars, horns, hawkers, power lines, people, and food consumed all our senses. We came as close to being overwhelmed as humanly possible without completely losing it, and had a great time seeing pagodas and the temple of literature.

The Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature

Traffic rules are more like guidelines here

Traffic rules are more like guidelines here

There is no limit to how much a single moped could carry

There is no limit to how much a single moped could carry

On our second night in Hanoi, we went on a walking foodie tour. We sampled 8 or 9 local dishes at the same number of restaurants. All the food was very good and we left feeling extremely full.

The dining style in Hanoi is worth mentioning. Many vendors are too small and cannot sit many people, so they place tiny tables and stools on the sidewalk and the road. Grown adults do their best to sit in the chairs as mopeds and cars zip around them as they eat.

One of my favorite photos - mopeds and dining on the same street

One of my favorite photos – mopeds and dining on the same street

Enjoying the night markets

Enjoying the night markets

Loved the atmosphere at night - also check out the powerlines

Loved the atmosphere at night – also check out the power lines

Our foodie tour

Our foodie tour

Some local food

Some local food

We also went to the “Hanoi Hilton,” a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. Before the war, the French used the building to imprison local Vietnamese. The museum explained how conditions were pretty terrible during the French occupation, but then had a pleasant room about how nicely they treated the Americans. We, of course, knew that the Americans were actually tortured. So despite the propaganda, being in the prison was still a pretty chilling experience.

The Hanoi Hilton

The Hanoi Hilton

Riding along like a Queen

Riding along like a Queen

Our favorite meal in Hanoi - BBQ at your own table!

Our favorite meal in Hanoi – BBQ at your own table!

Halong Bay

A few hours from Hanoi is a wonderful place called Halong Bay. When translated, it means “where the dragon descends into the sea.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of limestone cliffs rise up out of the water in a random assortment of awe inspiring shapes. We spent about 24 hours on a boat traveling through the Bay. The food was amazing and the boat was actually in pretty good shape (there are no guarantees of this in Vietnam).

Our Ship - The Calypso Cruiser

Our Ship – The Calypso Cruiser

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

We went on a tour of Sung Sot Cave, or “Amazing Cave”, and it was, in fact, amazing. The cavern was massive, probably the biggest room I’ve ever been in under ground. The only downside is that Amazing Cave was the most crowded place we went on our entire 5 week trip.

The Amazing Cave

The Amazing Cave

 

Master of Tai Chi

Master of Tai Chi

We also hiked up to the summit of Ti Top Island and enjoyed panoramic views of the entire bay. It never rained, but in winter there is this interesting haze over everything. Although it meant we couldn’t see as far, it did add a nice layer of mystery to the bay where dragons descend into the sea.

On top of Ti Top Island

On top of Ti Top Island

Hue

We hopped on a short plane ride and flew to the city of Hue (Huh-way), right in the middle of Vietnam. Hue was the old capital/imperial city and we spent the day looking at the tombs of past ancient kings. The imperial palace was a bit of a disappointment as it was destroyed by bombs in the Vietnam War. Although they are rebuilding it, progress is very slow and isn’t scheduled to be finished until 2035 (supposing there are no delays).

The Citadel at the Imperial Palace

The Citadel flag pole at the Imperial Palace

Restoration in Progress

One of many Pagodas

Thien Mu Pagoda

The tombs, however, were surprisingly interesting. Each one was very unique and featured impressive sculptures, buildings, and nature. The first king could challenge Solomon with his 500 wives and 700 concubines. Few cultural buildings survived the war in Vietnam, but the three tombs we saw escaped bombing and are probably the most impressive example of history still standing.

The first of the three tombs

The first of the three tombs

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Posing at a Royal Tomb

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Morgan greets a new friend

One other thing worth mentioning is the weather in Hue. Our day of touring was one of the only days we had any rain on our entire trip! Pretty incredible over 5 weeks, and the rain in Hue was really only a drizzle.

We weren’t planning on it, but our tour included a kung fu demonstration. The tour guide described every single act as “very special, very powerful.” Naturally, this became our catch phrase for the rest of the trip.

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Very Special…Very Powerful

 

Motorcycles

Our next destination after Hue was Hoi An. We chose to ride there on motorcycles, and it was amazing! We have absolutely no business driving motorcycles at home, much less on the wild roads of Vietnam, so we opted to ride with a guy named Thang from Hue Brothers Motorcycle tours.

We road along backcountry roads and rice fields, the coast, the largest lagoon in Se Asia, by Bach Ma National Park, and over the mountains through Hai Van Pass. It was a scenic day filled with great sites and the occasional terrifying “thread the needle” truck pass on the road. We stopped for tea and snacks overlooking the ocean and enjoyed so many stunning views.

Our first stop on the motorcycles

Our first stop on the motorcycles: A local village temple

Easy Rider!

Easy Rider!

Morgan soaks in the view

Morgan “soaks” in the view

Taking charge

Taking charge

The Hue Brother Riders

The Hue Brother Riders

Hoi An

Our motorcycle tour ended in the small town of Hoi An. This was Morgan’s favorite place in all of Vietnam, and you can see why in the pictures below. A river runs straight through town and each night lanterns shine all around the water. Different shades of purple and orange, red and yellow light up the restaurants and hawkers sell candles that float down the river.

Adding some light to the town

Adding some light to the town

We loved these lights!

The Japanese Bridge

The Japanese Bridge

Surrounded by lanterns at the night market

Surrounded by lanterns at the night market

Making friends with Santa's helpers

Making friends with Santa’s helpers

During the day we visited My Son Sanctuary, an ancient collection of Hindu temples. They were made of brick and covered with bits of moss and grass. Despite some carpet bombing in the war, several structures still stand and are worth seeing.

My Son Sanctuary

My Son Sanctuary

More of My Son Sanctuary

More of My Son Sanctuary

We also went on a nature tour that allowed us to ride a water buffalo. Since riding camels in Australia, Morgan has developed a fetish for riding strange and exotic animals. I can’t say that I was ever comfortable on this 1 ton beast (named Xe), but that may be because his tail kept slapping me in the back.

Attempting to ride the water buffalo

Attempting to ride the water buffalo

Successfully riding the water buffalo

Successfully riding the water buffalo

That tail was dangerous!

That tail was dangerous!

Cheese!

Cheese!

The nature tour also included a ride in these crazy round bamboo boats.Vietnamese people can fit about 8-10 people in ONE boat! I have my canoeing merit badge and thought it would be easy, but paddling them is a serious challenge. If you don’t paddle properly, you will quickly find yourself spinning in endless circles.

Party in the boats

Party in the boats

Racing for the finish (Morgan won)

Racing for the finish (Morgan won)

We spent another day on bicycles touring the old city, inspecting some temples, wandering through the market, and experiencing a Vietnamese massage. Hoi An is famous for tailor made clothing shops, so Morgan stopped by and had a couple dresses made.

Trying some new fabrics

Trying some new fabrics

Getting the right measurements

Getting the right measurements

Some local sales people

Some local sales people

Enjoying our bike ride

Enjoying our bike ride

One of the local temples

One of the local temples

A community gathering place

A community gathering place

Compared to the insane hustle and bustle of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An was a welcome break and we were sad to leave when we had to catch our flight South.

Ho Chi Minh

It’s not the capital, but Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon) is the largest city in Vietnam. Like Hanoi, there were countless mopeds and cars beeping from every direction. Crossing the street is an interesting test in nerve. There probably won’t be a break in traffic, so you simply need to step out into the street and walk at a constant speed. As you go, try not to look too terrified and the mopeds and cars will weave around you.

The chaos of Ho Chi Minh

The chaos of Ho Chi Minh

Imagine trying to drive here...

Imagine trying to drive here…

The highlight of Ho Chi Minh for me was the Cu Chi tunnels. This 250km (155-mile) network of tunnels housed thousands of Viet Cong on the front door step of the American base. The tunnels were less than 3 feet tall and were dug at three different depth levels. Because they are so far south, the area is always hot (over 90 degrees in the “winter”) and the tunnels were even hotter. We were able to crawl through the tunnels (Morgan made it 100 meters!) and learned about some of the guerrilla warfare tactics they used (which were both brilliant and chilling at the same time).

Going under ground

Going under ground

G.I. Morgan

G.I. Morgan

Some rather nasty traps

Some rather nasty traps

Crawling through the tunnels. I'm a bit tall

Crawling through the tunnels. I’m a bit tall.

Morgan fit a little better

Morgan fit a little better

We also visited the War remnants museum and the reunification palace. Both were interesting, but again, carried tremendous bias against the “Americans who came in like crazy devils” during the war.

The Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace

Trying to look cool

Trying to look cool at the War Remnants museum

Despite the propaganda in museums, we found the people of Vietnam extremely kind. Most were delighted that we were American and had come to visit.

Our last day in Ho Chi Minh was Christmas Eve. We spent the day visiting the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is one of the largest rivers in the world. It starts in Tibet and flows through Asia, ending in Vietnam and the South China Sea. On our trip, we sampled local fruit, learned how to make coconut candy (and eat it too!), wore conical hats, and road in a traditional sampon rowboat. The river area was very pretty and our lunch was awesome.

Our hats and Sampon captain

Our hats and Sampon captain

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Trying some local fruit from the side of the river

 

Enjoying the Coconut Milk

Enjoying the Coconut Milk

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Elephant Ear fish for lunch

 

Once night time rolled around, we decided to walk over to Notre Dame cathedral. Turns out, there is a replica of the French building in town. On our way, there was a Christmas miracle: Morgan found an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels! It is one of her favorite places to eat in the world, and we do not have one in New Zealand.

It's a Christmas Miracle!

It’s a Christmas Miracle!

But the miracles were not finished, because right next to the Notre Dame replica I discovered a Popeye’s! It shined like a beacon in the night and a choir of angels began to sing as I walked into my favorite fast food restaurant (which, of course, does not exist in New Zealand either). I tried to convince Morgan that we should make it a Christmas Eve tradition, but I’m not sure she’s convinced yet.

It's another Christmas Miracle!!!

It’s another Christmas Miracle!!!

The replica of Notre Dame

The replica of Notre Dame

On Christmas day we woke up and Skyped with our families. We definitely missed them and all our friends during this time, but are still glad we went on this journey. Around noon we hopped on a bus and started making our way to our next country: Cambodia.