Wanders in Japan

Hey there, welcome back! 

In the last blog post, Jack and I were taking a yakatori exam in Tokyo, Japan. 

After multiple excursions with our Kyoto posse, and a really fun day with some of Jack’s family (Bob, Linda & Kim), we sadly all went our separate ways. 

Most of the Kyoto Posse.
Remembering some great times in Kyoto.
For relaxing times, make it Suntory time..

Some people booked flights for home while others were off to new countries. Jack and I had our backpacks ready and planned to remain in Japan.

We were preparing for an escape from the grandeur of a city with over thirty million inhabitants. The feeling wasn’t somber as the farewell was temporary. In about three weeks we’d be crashing at an airbnb in Shibuya for one final weekend before flying to Seoul, South Korea. 

With sixteen days to see as much of Japan as possible, we first went to the nearest Japan Rail station (located at the Tokyo Shinkansen station) and purchased a seven ride JR West rail pass. Train officials told us that buying regional passes were a better deal than national passes. A seven ride West pass was $172 whereas a national pass was $261. We elected a JR West pass because our next stop was:


The Osaka Castle ran out of sunscreen…

Located almost four hours southwest of Tokyo, Osaka is Japan’s second largest city. We made Osaka our temporary hub for five days thanks to its close proximity to smaller cities that seemed worth visiting. We stayed near the Namba ward which is popular for its nightlife.

We hovered around Dotomori Street, a walking street that sits along a long canal. It’s similar to Amsterdam but without the coffeeshops and fewer trees. We also enjoyed walking around the Osaka Castle and made friends at the Mahi Mahi bar. Osaka is a charming city. 

Glico’s Running Man Signboard (an Osaka must)



We took a forty minute train from Osaka to neighboring Kobe during an essential part of the day: dinner time. Upon arrival, the sun had already dipped below the skyline and we were greeted with drizzling rain. It was the dead of night, wet, and we were starving. To our fortune, the vast majority of restaurants offered the sole reason why we came to Kobe in the first place: Steak. Kobe is a kind of Wagyu beef that’s exported all over the world and some of the highest quality cattle are raised near the city that bares the same name. A glass of red wine and a fabulous steak dinner was our lone yet highly memorable moment in the city. 


Yayoi Kusami’s yellow pumpkin on Naoshima.

A miniature bohemian oasis tucked away in the Seto Inland Sea, Jack and I visit the island of Naoshima. Scattered around the island are contemporary art installations, art museums, and random sculptures. Only a handful of hours from Osaka, we took three trains and one ferry to get there. The recommended means of navigating around the island is by renting bicycles.

We visited one of the famous pumpkin sculptures by Yayoi Kusami and the Benesse House Museum before our visit was interrupted by the disappearance of blue skies. Evening snuck up on us and in the darkness we luckily made it in time for the last ferry to the mainland. 

Biking around Naoshima.
Views that bring echos from home in California…


Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Located two hours southwest of Osaka is Hiroshima. Jack and I didn’t have much knowledge of this city except for what we learned in school. An atomic bomb was dropped there. World War II ended nine days after the Enola Gaye flew over this city on August 6th, 1945.

Back in school, reading about Hiroshima only felt like a multiple choice question in a written exam. It was just a name on a page. It didn’t seem that a real event that took place until experiencing Hiroshima in person. Seeing this city, walking on its streets, and wandering through its parks gave a sense of tranquility. It was eye opening because in the blink of an eye everything around us had been erased from existence during one point in time. It was a sad reminder of the horrors of war, no matter which side you’re with.

The bomb was dropped to “prevent” further casualties. It made me question whether it was an honorable decision because thousands of innocent people died without warning. The dance with somberness was also led radiant beauty. Modern day Hiroshima is lush, vibrant, and full of life.

We strolled down a path towards the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a building that survived the blast. The Shukkeien Garden was peaceful and we did some hunami. Before heading back to Osaka we went to the top floor of the Orizuru Tower for a beer in its sky garden. Overall, Hiroshima reminded me that we’re all just human beings on this planet. I highly recommend this city to anyone.  

Zenning out at the The Shukkeien Garden.
The top of the Orizuru Tower.


Finding a ramen oasis in Sapporo.

After Hiroshima, Jack and I bid adieu to Osaka and to the south of Japan. We hopped a plane and flew north to Sapporo. Sapporo is Japan’s fifth largest city, situated near the western coast of Hokkaido Island. We came here with one goal in mind: to take a tour of the Sapporo Beer Museum and try samples of Japan’s most iconic brewing label.

In the end, we skipped the tour because it was offered only in Japanese but this didn’t stop us from having a good time. The museum was just one fragment of a campus like setting, with numerous restaurants and buildings that all belonged to the Sapporo beer company. 

The city is located in a mountainous valley. The winter months are chilly and normally greeted with lots of snow. During our stay we checked out a Couchsurfing meet-up and met some interesting folks from distinct places. Nice people, beer, and the mountains. I got attacked by a case of nostalgia because Sapporo reminded me a lot of Missoula, Montana except it was larger and filled with ramen shops. 

Speaking of ramen, Jack and I frequented the Ganso Ramen Yokocho. Another title for this landmark is Ramen Alley. This narrow corridor is crammed with dozens of world-class ramen establishments. We’d been off the Anthony Bourdain track but coincidentally one of the places we ate at was featured in No Reservations in 2011.

We left Sapporo, after buying JR East rail pass, very full and pleasantly surprised by how cool of a place it was.  

In 1983 it was common to enjoy Sapporo beer in a kimono.


Views of Jigokudani.

We trained from Sapporo to the southern coast of Hokkaido island to a town named Noboribetsu. At first glance this is a sleepy coastal town with very few options for leisure. People come to Noboribetsu for two reasons: The first reason is because they’re in the Japanese witness protection program and the Yakuza have a hit on them. Another, and probably more common, reason is to enjoy the bountiful selection of onsens. Jack and I were here for a mix of both…

What’s an onsen? 

An onsen is a Japanese hot spring and typically refers to bath houses or hotels that are built adjacent to one. We stayed in Naboribetsu which neighbors a resort town called Naboribestu Onsen. This town is at the base of a volcanic crater called Jigokudani with a large geyser and numerous natural hot springs.

Dozens of resort hotels have been constructed in Naboribestu Onsen, each offering bath houses that are open to the public. Jack and I spent all our time in the Daiichi Takimotokan onsen because it was the biggest, highest rated, and offered both outdoor and indoor pools. Views were of the Jigokudani valley and it was a great way to recharge some travel batteries. 

The one aspect of onsens that took some getting used to was that everyone was supposed to enter the thermal baths in the nude. Additionally, and logically, they were all separated by gender. It was awkward at first but quickly you realize that this is part of the culture.  

Mt. Fuji: 

After a few days in Naboribetsu Jack and I trained back down to Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Ten hours and five trains later we arrived at midnight to a village called Fujiyoshida. We booked a hostel for three nights here because of its close proximity to Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji is an active volcano, is an iconic symbol for Japan, and we wanted to see if it was climbable. 

Standing roughly twelve thousand feet above sea level, this wasn’t an easy task. Our first attempt was a lot of fun but also a challenge. We started walking up from our hostel to the Yoshida trail head, passing a Kitaguchi-hongu Fuji Sengen shrine, and walking through endless forest. Elevation gained for hours and eventually we were forced to withdraw because the sun was setting. 

The Aokigahara Forest.

It was raining during our second day, so we decided on a hike through the Aokigahara Forest. Serene, lush, and mystical was this place. This is a popular destination for hiking and draws thousands of visitors a year. Ninety-nine percent of the forest’s visitors are people who simply just want to hike in the woods. I was a slightly on edge the entire time because Aokigahara has a nickname: The Suicide Forest. With soil created from hardened lava, Aokigahara is said to have spiritual powers.

For this reason, its become the world’s third most popular destination for suicide. I was hesitant to search deep into the woods, for fear of witnessing someone in the act. Fortunately, we were completely solo during our hike and it was quite a beautiful place. We did however, pass by trees with red ribbons tied to their trunks. A ribbon signified that a body had been discovered nearby and recently extracted from the forest. I walked out of the forest grateful to be alive and to have loving friends and family. 

During our final day, Jack attempted a second trip to summit Mt. Fuji. I was feeling less motivated and opted for a visit of the Chureito Pagoda instead. Jack took a bus to Station Four of the mountain and ended up catching some wonderful views. The sun was shrining that day so he captured some amazing photos. It was still the hiking off-season and we learned that hikes to the summit were closed due to the danger of ice and snow. 

Honorable Mention: Nara

Also, when we were still in Kyoto, we went to a small town called Nara with Kristen! This is a famous for Nara Park, where the deer are tame and like to receive snacks from humans.

Jack learned how to tame deer in Nara.


Celebrating our last weekend in Japan with out buddy Jae.

We ended our odyssey in Japan with a fun weekend in Tokyo. Jack’s good buddy Jae flew in from Seoul, making it even better. 

It was icing on our Japan cake and it tasted like Ichiran ramen fused with French electro thumping in the background. 

In what seemed like a flash, our straight to DVD movie through this interesting country reached its credits. It was a wonderful journey and only took five weeks to learn two phrases in Japanese (Thanks and hello). 

South Korea was in our sights and floating on our minds. 

Inside, I was intrigued because a new culture was waiting for us. 

Swirls of melancholy circled my consciousness because after South Korea a final plane would eventually be boarded. 

Soon we’d be going to perhaps the strangest and least familiar destination of our entire trip…



This was an epically long blog post, so thanks for your time and for reading. 

If you have any questions about places we visited in Japan, please feel free to contact me!

If you have any positive or constructive feedback for this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas 🙂

Have a wonderful day, I appreciate you a lot. Thanks for being you. 

Love and bye for now,


Asia, DACKasia2019, Travel, Travel Guide, Uncategorized

Five Ways to Get Lost in Hong Kong

A handful of moons ago, my best friend Jack and I went to China.

Well, depending on who to speak with, it wasn’t technically China. It was Hong Kong.

At its origins, Hong Kong was a sleepy fishing village. Nowadays the city is at the epicenter of world trade.

The Qing Empire ceded Hong Kong to the British Empire after the First Opium War. It would remain a British colony until 1997, when power was transferred back to China. Even with a completely contrary system of government and a fierce sentiment of independent pride, Hong Kong is classified as a “special administrative region” to mainland China.

We didn’t have an opinion about whether it was a territory, colony, or space station; we just came to explore and to eat.

We left the tranquility of island life in Bali, we were greeted with a Bali from a parallel universe.


Bali and Hong Kong share something in common: They’re engulfed in nature. Between the tropical monkey forests of Ubud or the endless coastline of Seminyak, travelers in Bali get a sense that the’ve found Valhalla. Hong Kong is no natural slouch; it consists of two hundred and sixty three islands which leave plenty of outdoors to be enjoyed.

I didn’t notice any of Hong Kong’s islands, however. I was distracted by the forest of gigantic concrete buildings, the ocean of pedestrians swimming between metro stations, and the sensation that I was a helpless spectator to an event called progress. Valhalla comes as desire for success and the constructing of buildings that race towards the sky.

Our friend Becca had a connecting flight back to the Bay Area from Hong Kong so she was able to join us for part of our stay in the city which was nice. We based ourselves in the Wan Chai district and our itinerary in Hong Kong was pieced together through many welcomed recommendations from friends.

Ozone Bar

This is the tallest rooftop bar in the world, located on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. During a chilly evening we ordered a beverage and contemplated the endless horizon of building lights. Ozone technically isn’t the highest bar in the world as the Ritz was built almost at sea-level, but it’s still a noteworthy place to visit. 


Kam’s Roast Goose..

Kam’s Roast Goose

Up until Hong Kong, I’d never eaten at a restaurant with a Michelin Star. This all changed when we ate lunch at Kam’s Roast Goose. What should you order here? It’s simple: succulent roast goose.  We stood for about an hour in a line that brought back horrific memories of our December visit to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Lunch cost about $15 and was well worth the wait.


Butterflies saying “hi” in The Iron Fairies

The Iron Fairies

Sukhumvit is a lively district of Hong Kong that takes on a new face when the sun sets. Bars, clubs, and destinations for all sorts of entertainment await there. Jack, Becca, and I were looking for a place to go in Sukhumvit, and our friend offered us an incredible recommendation: The Iron Fairies. Over ten-thousand paper butterflies on copper rods dangle from the ceiling and we were welcomed with one of my favorite genres of music: Latin. I was sold.

We also planned our Hong Kong experience with spiritual guidance from our trip’s unofficial shaman:

Anthony Bourdain.

The late food icon visited Hong Kong on various occasions during the filming of his shows Parts Unknown and No Reservations. His tales of the city took us to:


Chungking Mansions

Are you looking for the cheap housing, a used iPhone, and perhaps a warm bowl of curry? In Hong Kong, there’s a place where you can find all three in one convenient location: Chungking Mansions. Built in 1961, this is a seventeen story complex that spans five city blocks. The bottom floors are all restaurants and retail places, while the higher floors are mixed between apartments, guesthouses, and inexpensive hotels. Over the progression of time Chungking Mansions has slowly become the biggest melting pot of cultures in the city. Immigrants from every continent call this place home. I felt like this was the Hong Kong version of the “American Dream” as most people there were seeking asylum, refuge, or simply a better life compared to the country from which they originated.


Leaf Dessert

One of the most savory noodle dishes that I’ve eaten (Cantonese Soup Noodles) was at Leaf Dessert, an open-air corner food stall (dai pai dong) that boasts less than seven tables. If it hadn’t been for a segment of Parts Unknown, when Bourdain and legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle shared lunch there, we could’ve easy walked by without knowing that it existed.

According to Bourdain, one could get a true feel of a city simply by taking a seat on a plastic chair on a street corner and trying a bowl of whatever was cooking in a mysterious pot. He expressed concern that places such as Leaf Dessert were in danger of extinction in Hong Kong, due the unceasing desire for change and new regulations.




After hopping between trains with our Octopus passes for three days, Jack and I said farewell.

It’s difficult to say whether I understand anything about Hong Kong but it’s easy to appreciate its visual grandeur and energy.

We’d only scratched the surface of a city with it’s own entangled history and eight million stories.

As quickly as we arrived, we soon found ourselves going onward and northbound to mainland China…




Thanks for reading this blog!

If you have any questions or want ideas for a trip to Hong Kong feel free to contact me.

Have a wonderful day and take care,


Asia, DACKasia2019, Travel, Travel Guide, Travel Tips, Vietnam

Take Three (Vietnam Part Two)

It’s about ten in the morning and the flavors of powdered coffee are loitering on my tongue as this update gets written.

Jack and I are in Ubud, Bali, a small town on a medium-sized island that belongs to Indonesia

I’d like to talk about the weather and the happenings that are taking place over here, but that will be for a different day!

Returning to where the previous post left off, Jack and I recently concluded our stay in Hoi An, Vietnam. This was on February 10th, exactly three weeks ago. We christened our Anthony Bourdain culinary-inspired quest with an unfortunate fail on the first try, however, we knew that there’d be more opportunities to rebound in our next destination.


A perfectly stress-free Hanoi morning.

Welcome to a Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam

The flavors that circle your palate during each meal are as varied as the visual sites you encounter while on the streets. After a shuttle to Da Nang, a flight to the Noi Bai International Airport, and a Grab ride to our Airbnb, we were already absorbed. Through the haze of either heavy mist or light smog, we felt an eery relation to the movie Blade Runner while we crossed the Nhat Tan Bridge at night. Engulfed in a swarm of motorbikes, none of which were obeying traffic laws, and an endless string of seemingly makeshift stores, I felt like I’d been transported to a future where this was the surviving colony after some grizzly apocalypse. 

Hanoi feels like a place with no beginning or end. There exists a forest of buildings with French and various Asian design influences that stretches as far as one can see. The pinnacle of this tangle of streets is the Old Quarter, also considered to be the heart of Hanoi. Jack and I rented an Airbnb here. The traffic was intimidating so we opted to either walk or call a Grab between destinations. 

The craziness and invasion of the senses make Hanoi a unique spectacle, and its lack of aesthetic beauty left me curiously enamored.

I could spend an entire blog post about Hanoi, but in order to save the headache and potential boredom, I’m going to mention three things that were pretty awesome about this city. 

The Food:

Fried Seafood Rolls in the “Obama Combo.”

Following the guidance of ever-so influential Anthony Bourdain, Jack and I gained a lot of weight in Hanoi. We sat next to the famous table where he and Barack Obama had lunch at Bún chả Hương Liên. We ordered the “Obama Combo,” a popular choice for foreigners. On our final morning we ordered pork noodle soup at Bún Chửi 41 Ngô Sĩ Liên, also known as “Cussing Noodles” to Bourdain followers. The place was packed to the brim and we didn’t get cursed at by the chef (at least I think), but the experience was as authentic as we could have ever hoped. 

Pork Noodles at “Cussing Noodles.”

Bia Hoi:

Meanwhile, at Bia Hoi Ha Noi

Continuing with Bourdain’s travels in Hanoi, we became fans of an experience he shared during the filming of Parts Unknown called Bia Hoi. What is Bia Hoi you ask? Well, it’s simple. There are specific neighborhoods in Hanoi where locals and travelers mingle on the sidewalk, ordering keg beer that costs about twenty-five cents and sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs that could even reward a child a sore back. In certain places, a passerby can see hundreds of beer drinkers enjoying the water-like taste of beer in plastic cups.

These are either restaurants or bars that have taken over the sidewalk by illegally adding chairs onto the walkway for whoever wants to order something.  Many of these establishments offer a wide range of local cuisine and the magic words here are “Bia Hoi” because this signals to the order taker that you want the cheap elixir. When the police do their rounds, the staff hastily orders everyone to evacuate as they stack all the chairs and hide them from sight. It’s like a sting in a speakeasy except it’s outside. You don’t have to be a beer fan to enjoy this activity, simply watching the thousands of people walking during a now chilled evening by is worth the visit. 

The Friend Reunion:

John and some random guy.

It’s hard to say what was better than catching up with my good friend John. We met back in 2012 at a hostel in Quito, Ecuador and by a grand chance, he now lives in Hanoi. John’s an ESL dojo master and he had some time between classes to show me around Hanoi. I’m thankful for the existence of social media for these moments because if it didn’t exist we wouldn’t have been able to keep in touch. John’s a fantastic guy and I’m thankful that we got to catch up. Hopefully, our next reunion will happen sooner than later.

Halong Bay:

Views from a Halong Bay ferry

Halong Bay and Hanoi are similar to a perfect married couple; Halong is the Ying to Hanoi’s majestic Yang. Where Hanoi severely lacks in visual grandeur, Halong Bay picks up the slack with intense visuals of natural landscapes. Halong Bay is perhaps a culinary dungeon, one of the few destinations in Vietnam which can be given this title, so Hanoi balances the enigma by being a mecca for foodies. We didn’t take a four-hour bus to eat in Halong Bay, we wanted to cruise around the emerald waters and ponder life between towering islets. 

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and enjoys a tropical-style climate.  “Ha Long” translates to “descending dragon” because according to Vietnamese lore an emperor unleashed a mother dragon and her children to repeal an invading force. The dragons spat fire, jewels, and jade into the waters, thus forming a natural barrier to defend against the outsiders. Today, Halong Bay spans one hundred and thirty square miles and consists of nearly two thousand islands. A common stopover for tourists in Vietnam is Halong Bay, and a few weeks ago two good-looking Americans joined the fray. 

Our Airbnb was located in the town of Bia Chay, the nearest mainland town. A vacation hub with large apartment buildings and hotels, the appeal of this place isn’t its looks but its close proximity to the bay. Here are three highlights from our handful of days there:

Renting Motorbikes:

Drivers in Vietnam, especially the ones who sport Vespas, Hondas, or any other brand of motorbike, are a curious case. The driving laws, once again, don’t exist in Vietnam so navigating here can feel like a scene from Death Proof. Halong Bay is sparsely populated, the roads are nearly all straight, and they continue until the horizon practically disappears. This is unfavorable for anyone who doesn’t have their personal method of transport, but a dream to someone who does. Jack and I wanted to be in the latter category and rented a pair of motorbikes at the horrible price of $5.50 a day.

Cat Ba Island

Horsing around in Cat Ba.

Tucked behind a maze of limestone rocks in Halong Bay sits Cat Ba Island, the largest of the archipelago which also is a Vietnamese National Park. Jack and I took a day-trip here, riding our bikes onto a ferry and taking them to the island to do our own personal tour. It’s too large of a place to explore only on foot, so bikes are a necessary travel tool. People can spend the night on the island, as bountiful numbers of hostels and hotels are located along the southern tip. We explored a cave that was converted into a hospital bunker for the North Vietnamese during the “American” War and hiked up to the viewpoint of the Cannon Fort. Other options for Cat Ba include kayaking, sunbathing, and traversing the diverse landscapes of the National Park. 

Cat Ba Island

Halong Cruise

Ferries around Halong Bay.

Almost every single boat that one can spot in Halong Bay is most likely a part of a tour company offering cruises. Cruises can vary between a half-day, full-day, overnight, or multi-night experience. Part of the allure for Halong is watching the flow of boat traffic and see how small they are in comparison to the countless rocks that inhabit the area. Jack and I opted for a full-day cruise, getting picked up at 8:30 in the morning and not returning until about 4pm. Lunch was provided, along with pit-stops at Thien Cung Cave, Ti Top Island, the Kissing Rocks, and a tour of a pearl farm. A cruise through Ha Long is an obligatory activity, and it’s a nice site for any sort of traveler. 

Views from Ti Top Island.

Ninh Binh:

Lying Dragon Mountain, Ninh Binh

Ah well, here we go. Ninh Binh.

The only thing I can say to you is that Ninh Binh is a small town in central Vietnam. 

It’s a point, on Google Maps, and it’s pretty fast to find. 

It definitely wasn’t peaceful and by no means was it one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen before. 

Everything else, well, I think you have to go there and find out for yourself.  🙂


A major perk of writing this blog is knowing that there are some wonderful people who read it, so thank you for your time. Even if you just skimmed this post, and missed the part where I talked about getting scurvy, it’s totally fine and I still appreciate you a lot.

Have a wonderful day and take good care. More updates are on the way! Until then, lots of love.

-Dan Catena

Travel, Travel Guide, Travel Tips, Vietnam

A Tale of Many Vietnams (Part 1)

It’s Sunday in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. 

The windows of our Airbnb are wide open and a flurry of almost soundless rain is washing the horizon. Through layers of mist, the Bái Đín Pagoda towers in the distance. 

Why are we in Ninh Binh? What the heck is a pagoda?

Firstly, we came to this rural northern town on a recommendation from someone back in San Francisco. Also, we needed an escape from the entanglement of motorbikes, noises, and large crowds of other tourists. A pagoda is another term for a tower built somewhere in Southeast Asia, most commonly to practice Buddhism.  

We dropped our belongings here yesterday, and it’s been nearly three weeks since arriving into the country from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Dense vegetation, a looming pagoda, roosters clucking, and a cyclist donning a conical hat just peddled nearby. It’s a peaceful sight in what has been a beautifully chaotic experience so far in Vietnam. 

It’s hard to connect the dots between the last blog post and right now because a lot has transpired. Because of this, the story of Jack’s and my time in Vietnam will be divided into a few separate chronicles. 

Ho Chi Minh City

Mayhem in Ho Chi Minh City

In 1975 the United States evacuated their embassy in Saigon, officially marking an end to the Vietnam War. On January 31st, 2019, Jack and I set foot in this urban sprawl which has since been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. 

With eight million inhabitants in a Communist country where the national median age is about thirty years old, Ho Chi Minh City is in the south of Vietnam. 

Fifteen minutes was all it took before being confronted with the racing face of death, also known as crossing the street. We soon learned that sidewalks and crosswalks are more symbolic than actually serve a purpose. Crossing streets are like asking a hungry hyena to a romantic dinner. Trust in some higher force is imperative for avoiding a collision. Finding gaps in traffic, followed by no stopping or changing of pace was the key to preserving our bloodlines. 

We wanted to be in Vietnam to experience Tết, also known as the Vietnamese New Year, which coincides with the Chinese New Year. 2019 is the year of the Pig. We anticipated a large party, similar to how the lunar calendar celebration is started back home. We learned that this was actually not the case, and for ten days almost every business would either be closed or have oddly determined hours of operation. The decorations, however, were beautiful and we saw people buying bonsai-style trees as a symbol of good fortune. 

Tet festivities

Our five-day stay in Ho Chi Minh City was luckily pre-Tết, so we didn’t have to worry about sudden changes. By pure coincidence, we booked a hostel (Suite Backpackers Inn) located next to Bui Vien. This street is similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. With the help of the hostel owner, Lin, and another friend we made named Anthony,  Jack and I managed to take in various nighttime events without getting trapped in the neon lights and invasive sounds of this hectic street. 

The highlights of Ho Chi Minh included shopping for vintage shirts at Mayhem, an introduction to Vietnamese coffee, exploring the wonders of Banh Mi and Pho, while also meeting some interesting people. Banh Mi’s are sandwiches with French style baguettes and Pho is a noodle soup that comes in delightful variations. Another somber yet vastly necessary place to visit is the War Remnants Museum. It sheds light on an opposing perspective of the Vietnam War, calling Americans “henchmen” and the former Southern Vietnamese government a “puppet”. 

Da Nang

Da Nanging out…

Da Nang is a coastal city in the center of the country. We were faced with two choices: Hop a fairly priced flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang that would last about an hour, or pay for an outrageously affordable bus ride that would take seventeen hours. We valued our time, and more importantly our fragile sanity, so in the end we headed north on a Jetstar plane. 

Besides a crying baby, water hoarding flight attendants, and a fake landing, we enjoyed the journey.  During the final descent, we were greeted with fireworks. At first I thought, “how did they know that Jack and I were here?” but then I remembered that it was Tết eve, so this was all part of the yearly holiday tradition. 

Morning in Da Nang, Vietnam. Good!

Staying at the Travellers Nest Hostel, we met some friendly folks ranging from the Vietnamese staff to laid-back weed growers who claimed to be programmers. We didn’t have much of an agenda for Da Nang, as it was Tết holiday, but we ended up with one of the best experiences of our trip. 

During the evening of Tết, we wandered the empty streets of Mỹ An and discovered an eating gem. The woman who runs Banh Mi Phan Tic is a wonderful person. The majority of travelers who come here make a visit to The Golden Bridge of the Ba Na. We, on the other hand, opted for a more independent activity and rented motorbikes in order to wander around the neighboring San Tra (Monkey) peninsula. It’s here where one can encounter the 236 foot tall Goddess of Mercy (Lady Buddha) statue. This is part of a pagoda named Linh Ung. We took photos here and then explored nearby San Tra Mountain on motorbike, a destination for spotting endangered Red-Shanked Douc monkeys

Hoi An

We took a forty-minute shuttle to Hoi An, a former trading port that sits along the estuary of the Thu Bon River, a bike ride’s journey from the South China Sea. Nowadays, Hoi An is a tourist magnet thanks to its well preserved historic quarter, culinary scene, world-class tailors, leather goods, and trademark Lantern Festival

When we arrived, the city was still recovering from Tết festivities. The streets were swarmed with visitors, both Vietnamese and from other countries. Hoi An isn’t an oasis from motorbikes, as honks serenaded us along most corners. It felt like we were in a city of aspiring social media influencers because there wasn’t a wall where someone wasn’t posing for a photo. The energy and motion of every street felt like my hometown of Sausalito on performance-enhancing drugs. Overall, Hoi An truly is a visual site to behold even with the vast numbers of crowds. 

Thu Bon River

The fellow backpackers at the Tribee Kinh were fun and the staff there was also really nice. Vietnam has an infatuation with lemon tea, and we tried our first one at Mót. We found perhaps a new favorite food in Cau Lao, a thick noodle soup with pork. Finally, we started our quest to follow in the footsteps of the late great Anthony Bourdain by visiting restaurants he ate at during the filming of “Parts Unknown”. We started our hunt in disappointment because Banh Mi Phoung, in Hoi An’s old quarter, was closed due to Tết.

We eventually hugged Hoi An goodbye and booked a plane to  ___________________.

Well, this is probably a good place to say farewell! Hopefully this post was a nice distraction for five minutes.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, it truly means a lot! Another one or two posts about Vietnam will be coming soon. 

Have you been to Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hoi An? How was your experience there?

I’d love to hear about it. Take care and lots of love.