I promised Liz I would write the post on Dalat, Vietnam and since it’s been over a month and 2 (going on 3) countries ago I thought I better get this up before I forget how awesome it was.
Dalat, sits in the mountainous western part of Vietnam between Danang and HCMC so the weather is not the hot humid jungle you expect in Vietnam but pleasantly cool.
We only had 2 nights to spend in Dalat so we started with a little hiking.
On our way back from the hike we finally learned why it’s important to have your “ducks in a row” apparently that’s how you market them to sell (hint: it helps if you tie up their feet).
The true highlight of our time was our easyrider trip. Motorbikes are in intricate part of the culture in Vietnam and no trip is complete without letting a local that knows the area like the back of his hand show you around. We’d done our fair share of adventures on a moto in Vietnam but I was looking to having someone that actually knew where we were going directing us. Our easyrider trip was arranged by the owner of the Wolfpack Hostel (seriously that’s the name and it is AWESOME!). I thought it’d be more fun if I drove a bike too (instead of sitting 3 deep all day). We meet our guide, Hung, first thing in the morning and we were off.
Our first stop was to see the amazing dragon sculptures at a temple in town. It was HUGE! And we learned about Chinese unicorns, the don’t have horns and look kinda like dragon/lion hybrids.
Then we were on our way into the countryside to visit a flower farm.
Then it was more riding (i really liked driving through the country side!) and a stop in a little tribal village with a really friendly family that showed us their home and let us take a few photos.
From there we rode to a place that makes civet coffee. That’s coffee made by weasels (the civet cats to be specific). I won’t go into details of how the weasels make it …
As part of the tour we got to see their homemade rice “wine” still… AKA Moonshine. I imagine the civet coffee business isn’t that profitable, but if you can make some rice wine, and in true vietnamese fashion, throw some dead things in it, you can sell it as an elixir. We tried it, sans dead things, and it wasn’t too bad. Our guide lit some on fire to show us how strong it was.
Our next stop was to a silk production farm. It’s was amazing seeing little worms go from devouring leaves to crazy machines and hot water unraveling their cocoons to machines weaving silk fabric like a player piano. The whole process was pretty neat, and Liz really like the boil silk worms, she said it tasted like a mix between pecorino and ricotta cheese, I think she hasn’t tasted cheese in a while then.
From the silk farm we went to Elephant Falls. A little waterfall that we were able to hike around and under.
We rode to another temple with a GIANT Buddha and some more dragons.
We stopped on the side of the rode and watch some farmers harvesting a plant that’s used in curry we’re were told it was sometimes used as lipstick, I made Liz try it.
More riding to another little waterfall, a mushroom farm, an orcid farm and a visit to a village that is named “Chicken” after giant statue of a roster with 9 spurs and a story of forbidden love.
We got a little rain on the way back so we suited up and then we ended the evening with a “family dinner” at the hostel sitting around the dining room floor.
I think I have a bit of a love/hate relationship going with Vietnamese food. Food here is a symphony of fresh bright herbs, crisp greens, addictively salty savory umami, subtle sweetness and spice. It’s complex, satisfying, yet refreshing. It’s also why I’ve gained about ten pounds since we got here!
Y’all know I love trying new foods, and I’m game for trying pretty much anything, so Vietnam is a playground for my curious taste buds. I love experiencing a culture and people through the food.
In our travels through Nepal, India and a little of Thailand, my curiosity had not led me astray, but alas, my winning streak comes to an end here in Vietnam. Even with a few food fails, I’d say I still came out on top.
Build it yourself spring rolls of heaven! I don’t even want to admit to how many of these I’ve eaten. They bring them out by the plate and count your empty dishes and skewers to calculate the bill. Verdict: WIN!
Bo Taye Chahn
Like a cross between beef carpacio and ceviche but with Vietnamese flavors. Thin sliced steak that is marinated in lime juice to cook it a little. Then topped with a slightly sweet, spicy, garlicy vinegarette, green onions and cilantro. So good! Verdict: WIN!
Tasting Menu of Vietnamese Tapas style dishes
One of the highlights was getting to go out to a very locals spot with our friends’ Vietnamese tutor. She and her husband just kept ordering and delicious small plates kept coming. Verdict: WIN!
Banana Blossom Salad
It’s awesome flower power. I’ll leave it at that. Verdict: WIN!
Have you heard of the magical creature that is the Mantis Shrimp?!? It is one of the coolest animals on the planet – The Oatmeal does a pretty great job explaining it.
It’s a specialty of Ha Long Bay but it was a fail because I didn’t get to try it. And we kept meaning to get it, but it was either too expensive, or the place would run out of it, or we wouldn’t have time to sit and enjoy the meal. Check out these bad boys though!
Crazy dessert drink, there are dozens of varieties, but most include some form of sweet bean custard. The green bean custard is more mild, red bean is more fibrous and beany, think flan meets kidney beans cooked like refried beans. Then layered on are these cubes of “jelly” made from seaweed and flavored with black sesame or coconut; while they’re called “jelly” I would say it’s close to the result of that time you tried to make Jello but only added half of the amount of water called for. Then you might get these little things that look like tiny pink and yellow caviar. You might get some fruit pieces in there. And it’s finished off with coconut milk. You mix it all together and switch off between spoon and straw to get all of the delicious sweetness. I’m a bigger fan than Rick is, something about “if it’s a vegetable, it’s a vegetable. If it’s a dessert, it’s a dessert. No playing both sides.”
Unlike our French friends, the Vietnamese don’t mask the snail flavor with a butter bath and the results are equally, if not more delicious. Verdict: WIN!
Sort of a fondue style experience. A burner and pot of broth come to your table, along with a big plate of fresh veggies, raw shrimp and squid and a packet of dry noodles. You make it yourself. Fun experience and some of the freshest most flavorful shrimp I’ve ever had. Verdict: WIN!
Sour Fish Soup
I asked the owner of the restaurant what he recommended and this is was I got. It was sheer will that I ate it. The fish that came in it (as you can see the gray lump of ick) had been cut into sections like you would cut a summer sausage, so you got pieces of spine surrounded by cartilidge, bone, organs, vessels and buried in between a smidge of meat. But the broth was the really special part. You know when you pour off the water that’s in the can with your canned tuna? Well they took that water, made it about three times as strong, then they somehow extracted the sour flavor from Sour Patch Kids and Warheads and added that to it. And then maybe let it sit out for a day or two. I think there were veggies in it to, I can’t remember though, my memory and taste buds were seared with the lingering flavor of the fishy-foulness of the broth. Verdict: FAIL!
Fresh Grilled Squid
I had no idea how good squid could be. Super fresh, right off the boat, on to a skewer and over some charcoal — it just melted in your mouth. Makes for some entertaining photos as well. Verdict: WIN!
It’s not just for breakfast… ok, maybe it mostly is because it’s near impossible to find good Pho any other time of day! But we did get some very delicious pho that puts anything I’ve had in the U.S. to shame. Verdict: WIN!
The Jars of Doom
Filled with potent rice liquor and a whole bunch of dead animals – lizards, snakes, starfish, scorpions, birds and more. They are supposed to help your sexual potency. I was feeling pretty confident in that area on that particular day, so I opted out of these. I did try the Honey Rice Whiskey though, mostly because it was offered to us as a gift of appreciation by a local restaurant owner after we had dined with him a few days in a row. It was strong, it burned, it made Jack Honey look good (shout out to Will Jacobus!), but we got it down. Verdict:FAIL!
The variety of sauces was awesome. We had at least three different kinds of fish sauce with every meal. We also learned from some locals that took us out that you do not mix and match sauces. Each sauce is meant for a specific dish, get it right or be shunned. The sauces were even better when I started putting them with the right stuff. Verdict: WIN!
This one is particularly sad for me because I had been wanting to try this from the day we got into Vietnam. It sounds so exciting, light, delicious! And a break from the rice, rice noodle, rice cake, rice dumpling, rice noodle of a different size, rice noodle #3, rice diet. It came to the table as a beautiful tangle of translucent, almost iridescent jellyfish pieces on top of fresh greens, sprinkled with peanuts and a bright acidic dressing. I dug in, big piece of jellyfish, the initial flavor was light, almost lacking in any strong flavor, just picking up a little of the dressing… but then it was time to chew. And oh the texture of the jellyfish…
<<shutter, mild gag>>
Each time you bite into a piece it feels EXACTLY like when you bite down on the inside of your cheek really hard, like really hard, and your tooth goes through and breaks the skin. There’s a softness, then a pop, and you break through, and it’s squishy. It’s truly uncanny. It’s disturbing. I kept trying to eat it, thinking “oh I’ll get over that”, nope, no getting over it. To the point that I could almost taste blood because it felt so much like I was biting through my cheek or tongue. I tried smaller pieces. I tried smaller nibbling action. Nothing helped. I’m sad to say I finally, after gagging down every piece I could, gave up and we left most of the jellyfish there. UGH even just writing about it I have goose bumps from the sensation of biting it. Ick ick ick.
Verdict:FAIL! FAIL! FAIL!
Half noodle soup, half salad. All delicious. Verdict: WIN!
Crazy varieties of fruits here that I’ve never seen or heard of. Chom choms were my favorites. Followed by Green Dragon Fruit. Oh and Jackfruit, it tastes just like Juicy Fruit gum – it’s super sweet, and the fruit is gigantic, I heard it can be up to 60 lbs per piece of fruit! We ate our fill of Dragon’s Eyes too, dabbled in Custard Apples (or as they call it here Milk from Mother’s Breast, a bit creepy) and enjoyed the usual tropical suspects like mango, papaya, mandarin oranges, watermelon. And I think I drank coconut water from couple dozen coconuts. Verdict: WIN!
Danang is NOT a tourist city. In fact the guidebooks have approximately a third of a page on it, and basically say “oh it’s a city, nothing major here, you can skip it” which is really too bad because it’s such a cool city and has incredible beaches!! It’s modern and growing like crazy with gorgeous new architecture, and fun hip social scene. It’s definitely not on the tourist trail – which was great for us, we wanted to experience the real Vietnam.
As such, though, it’s not a particularly walkable city and we quickly learned we needed a moto (motorbike, scooter, moped). There are very few cars, but about a one to one ratio of motos to people. We rented our scooter from “Mama’s Motos” at Bread of Life Bakery and Café. It was a Yamaha Deluxe LX edition, with faux leather trim that had “LX” embossed into the naugahyde in a very familiar pattern; it looked exactly like a Louis Vutton purse pattern, Our moto affectionately became known as “Louie!” Rick and I really liked calling it a scooter for some reason – and Rick really liked driving it – and singing about driving it while driving it!
We were so glad we had a moto, we would have missed out on so much without it. Here are our favorite Danang adventures on a moto:
Scootin’ around out on the town with friends
This was just after our friends Christophe and Sakura invited us out to dinner with their local friend and tutor to experience real locals food. It was such an awesome dinner. Afterward we all rode around beautiful Danang!
Exploring the Marble Mountains
We took our moto on and adventure to these crazy mini-mountains made of limestone and marble with caves running throughout them. We climbed mountains and dove into exploring the caves. Many have temples and massive Buddha statues in the caves… we got a secret tip that if you really want to see the caves you have to go up on the alters and around behind the statues and there are stairs and pathways to deeper caves there – we had a blast exploring.
Historic Hoi An
We met up with our friends from Cat Ba Island here. Hoi An was a great port city in the 1800’s, but then the river filled up with mud and cut it off, so this grand city was basically abandoned and forgotten. Which means that when the American War (as they call it in Vietnam) was going on, it had no value to either side and was left alone, and therefore not destroyed. It’s main economy now is tourism. And at night the city is lit by lanterns which give it a magical glow. Oh and I got a custom made pair of leather sandals!
Just make sure you know how late your scooter parking lot is open… we found out the hard way when we went to get our motorbike at 9pm and they lot that had hundreds of motors earlier was now dark and empty. Our Louie was nowhere to be seen. Through charades we managed to get a guy to wake-up an older lady that had our moto locked up in her kitchen… we paid a dollar to get it out of “lock-up.”
Admiring the awesome bridges of Danang
Crazy bridges! There are nine in total (some still being built) – We learned a feng shui expert advised the city 20 years ago that to be prosperous it needed to build nine prominent bridges across the river. Here are a few of our favorites: The Dragon Bridge: made to look like a huge dragon and on Saturday and Sunday nights it shoots fire and water out of it’s mouth; The Han Bridge: all lit up with a rainbow of lights that change and at midnight every night it spins sideways; The Sail Bridge: beautiful artistic suspension bridge/scripture that is lit with vibrant colors.
Tam’s epic tales
Christophe suggested we go get a burger at Tam’s Pub & Surf Shop because she had good stories – and that was the under statement of the century!! Tam was 12 years old when the Vietnam/American War started. She was befriended by a Navy man and started selling Cokes and beers to the troops to make money for her family. She couldn’t wait to tell us her incredible tales. She was buried alive once and American troops rescued her. She was told to take a bomb disguised as a Coke can into an American base by the NVA, but instead told the Americans what it was and saved dozens of lives, she was almost killed by the NVA for doing this. She escaped from a war prison. Survived being a cast away on an island. And she absolutely loves to be reunited with American soldiers that she knew during the war – and has the photos to prove it.
Tam’s joy is contagious and we felt so fortunate to get to hear about her amazing life. Oh and she still surfs and rents out surf boards! Here is a video (that we didn’t make) that gives you a quick introduction to Tam:
See a Real Fire-breathing Dragon
I know we already mentioned the bridges, but the Dragon Bridge’s weekend displays really shouldn’t be missed. We parked Louie on the sidewalk with all the other locals right next to the bridge. There are tons of little pop-up restaurants selling drinks, and street food. We saw a big circles of kids with guitars and drums playing music. Just a fun little party that lasts about an hour or so every Saturday and Sunday night. The vendors start setting up about 8 pm the fire and water show starts at 9 pm and the whole thing is wrapped up and gone before 10 pm. It’s kind of like the moto equivalent of tailgating I guess.
Beautiful beaches – China Beach, My Kye, Etc.
The beaches were great and stretch for miles – we played in the sugary soft sand and the surf. The waves were quite strong, in fact they have lifeguards out all day everyday and they only allow swimming in a small areas due to the really strong undertow; they even have a lifeguard in the water keeping tabs on the ever changing currents. But in that area we had so much fun body surfing into the beach. The breaks were just perfect.
Ironically, we’ve spent the longest time we’ve been in any one place since we left, in a city we never intended to go to, in a country that wasn’t in our plans – Danang, Vietnam. And it reinforced for us again that God has us on this journey, and is directing our steps as to where to go.
How’d we end in up Danang? God’s perfect timing.
We knew we wanted to do mission work or volunteer work during our time in Southeast Asia and were excited to get started. We had a couple of contacts and potential opportunities from Indonesia to Cambodia, but those didn’t work out when we started getting into specifics, they didn’t have a need for us right now. Rick reached out to one of his good friends from college who had taught English and helped at an orphanage in Danang… Bryan put us in touch with the Orphan Voice and they were willing to have us, said just let us know a day or two before you show up and helped us with our visas, where to stay, all that.
We hop on a bus from Cat Ba Island (well minibus, to bus, to boat, to crappy bus, to crappy bus, to sleeper bus) and what was supposed to be 20 hours later, and turned into 30 hours later, we were in Danang.
We get to our hotel and call Tony, who leads the orphanage, and he says “well, this weekend is a little different. We won’t be here, there’s a retreat with our church. Want to go? The van leaves in 15 minutes!” I’m in the shower at this moment (30 hour bus rides make you want to shower!) and so Rick yells at me to get out and pack up, we’re headed out.
We didn’t realize how badly we needed re-center, refocus, be around other believers, be reminded of God’s purpose, until we got there. It was God’s incredible plan that we were there.
The retreat was put on by Danang International Fellowship (an expat church). The speakers were incredible – Eric and Rachel DuFour. One of the biggest things we got from it is that we don’t have to have our long term calling figured out right now – Rick and I just the weeks before had been really putting pressure on ourselves to figure out what we want to be doing with this travel and after this travel and really started to stress about it, or at least feel frustrated. But they reminded us that we just have to say “Yes” to God each day and do what he has for us that day – not have the future all figured out, that’s God’s job. What a refreshing truth.
On top of the amazing couple speaking, we met a ton of incredible folks. Jeff and Nancy, a couple who have moved their family to Vietnam to help the deaf here. In Vietnam, a person with any sort of a disability is considered a burden to their family and society – they aren’t allowed to go to school, there is no therapy available, no education even. For deaf folks, there is really no use of sign language in Vietnam… so they will live their whole lives without communicating with anyone, being discouraged by their family, no allowed in school, they cannot get jobs, it’s just a sad and hopeless life.
Jeff and Nancy have brought sign language to central Vietnam. They are training kids and adults. And they have a restaurant that employs all deaf staff, giving them an opportunity to earn a living they never would have had, plus a community of others who have learned sign language so they have people to talk to. They are expanding in more rural areas. It’s really incredible. And that’s just one of the couples.
We also met Christophe and Sakura – and instantly connected with them. (INCREDIBLE people – we heart them so so so much!!!) We met them Sunday of the retreat and chatted over lunch and after for a couple of hours – about long term travel which they had done a couple years ago, about their work and mission in Danang, about their passion for business and providing employment, laughing about stories of crazy adventures in Canada and Costa Rica.
Well they just have huge hearts and the next day we got an email from them asking if we would like to stay at their house while we were in Danang. We “moved in” a week ago and have loved every minute we spent with them. They are our kindred spirits on the other side of the world! We got to hang out with Christophe, Sakura, Noah (4 years old) and Saya (almost 2 years old) – by the way their incredible kids speak French, Japanese, Vietnamese and English!
What about the babies?
We went to Danang to work with Orphan Voice – they run two orphanages and provide vital help to eight other orphanages, as well as run a therapy school for kids with disabilities, and a home for victims of sex trafficking, and a home for youth at risk of being forced into sex trafficking among other things (they’re pretty busy!). We got to help with the elementary aged kids one day and help the prep/paint part orphanage alongside a World Race team which was super fun! The next day we went to see the baby orphanage that was in the rural area. I know this will be a shocker for y’all but as Rick put it I “took to those babies like a fish to water.” I changed my first cloth diaper (really 3 bandanas and a combination of multiple knots that would make a sailor squirm). Sweet faces and sad stories, but in the middle of it you’ve got the laughter of these kids. It was heartbreaking and heart warming at the same time.
We had a blast playing with them but my arms are still sore from holding babies all day!
But then Rick’s graphic design skills were discovered! There were so many things that needed to be designed for Orphan Voice, for the therapy center, for a deaf school, for a Christmas in Danang musical. It was really cool to see him be so willing to jump into dozens of projects and give help that was so valuable! We spent the next few days working on design projects.
From there it was really cool to see how we both got opportunities to put our skills and abilities to work to help a bunch of different folks. Rick got to design art for the walls of Christophe and Sakura’s business’s new office. He helped with newsletters, signage, business cards, letterhead for three different organizations. I was asked to write a marketing plan for a new business that teaches and certifies people to teach English abroad. I also got to teach marketing 101 to a group of college student interns. And (most exciting for me) I got to work on some menu strategy and marketing for a restaurant that trains and employs people who are deaf, and where all proceeds go to continuing to help the deaf community in central Vietnam.
Rick and I were both surprised by how much we had been craving getting to do some work and thinking and be productive and contribute to something bigger than ourselves. We really enjoyed it! God puts people right where he wants them right when he wants them there.
It was not by choice. We had been riding our motorbike all around Cat Ba Island all morning and into the afternoon and we skipped breakfast. So we were HUNGRY.
We were on the far side of the Cat Ba Island, away from town, and wanted to take the long beach road back, so if we wanted to eat it was going to be at one of these houses we were passing that magically turns into a restaurants if you slow down and look at them. It’s really just a house… but if they think you might buy a meal, you’re suddenly being flagged down and called in (in Vietnamese of course!).
It’s mostly fields around us, but we finally find a strip of little houses, and pick one that seems ok and has a friendly lady flagging us down. There’s no sign really… and there is definitely no menu. So we ask
“Rice?” ..we get a perplexed look
“Bo?” (Vietnamese for beef) …shaking head
ok, last try…. “Pho?” …big smile and a big nod!
We feel like it’s a victory. We signal that we want 1 Pho, and then we are able to point to a beer can and get 2 beers. She hurriedly goes off to prepare our Pho.
In the mean time two very sweet Vietnamese girls, about ten to twelve years old come over and start trying to practice their English with us – really it’s limited to Hi, How are you, What your name, My name _____. But we have fun trying to talk with them and playing our now standard game of charades.
Our pho comes out, delicious and steaming, full of cilantro, fresh greens, tender noodles, fragrant broth and sliced meat. We dig in. As I get my first bite of meat, I noticed it was not the chicken I thought it might be… no part of a chicken has that texture. I look closer, and ask Rick “hmm… what do you think this is?”. It’s not a red meat, like beef or goat. It doesn’t have the texture, look or taste of pork. It’s a light gray in color. We keep eating, not thinking too much of it…
But then almost in unison, we notice there a couple of mama dogs with cow-sized udders, running around the house and street but strangely only one puppy. We had learned from our guide the day before that while people ate dog meat, they didn’t eat the dogs they considered pets. They will basically keep a mama dog or two and a male dog, and don’t ever plan on eating those… but they do get those “pets” to make puppies, and the puppies are enjoyed…on a plate.
Almost as soon as we give each other a questioning look, both thinking “there’s no way,” a teenage boy pulls up to the house on his motorbike holding a puppy by the scruff of its neck. We curiously watch as he walks from one house to another exchanging brisk words with the lady of the house, pushing the puppy towards here, showing some money, and then getting what appears to be “no.”
But surely no… not our pho.
The two girls are still sitting with us, taking pictures with us and trying to talk. So we decide, we’ll just ask them what’s in our soup. We point to the soup, hold up a piece of meat, and make the questioning face and shrug our shoulders…. Then we start the animal imitations.
We moo – they laugh and shake their heads.
We point to a chicken across the street and cluck, cluck, cluck – they shake their heads no.
We oink – they laugh at us and shake their heads.
I do my best goat baa, Rick has to follow up with a head-butting action to get the point across – they shake their heads again.
We quack – more head shaking.
We look puzzled… so the girls try to act it out for us.
I’m still not 100% on what they were going for, or maybe I just don’t want to be, but it involved bending down and makes a handsign like you were motioning for something to come to you, and they made a sound like “puh, puh, puh” or “ruh, ruh, ruh”, and motioned in the direction of a near by dog.
I suppose we’ll never know for sure, and I’d like to think otherwise, but all signs seem to unavoidably point to dog. For what it’s worth, Rick says he thought it tasted pretty good. I can’t quite get there.
And after that, it seemed like everywhere I looked I saw signs for dog restaurants. I know it’s not in English, and I don’t know Vietnamese, but I can promise you this is not Mutt’s Cantina, not a sign for a dog-friendly restaurant. Do not bring your pooch to the patio here.
It’s definitely on my list of meals to be avoided in the future. And as a public service, I’ve created this handy chart to help you know if you are eating dog in Vietnam.
We just spent three days on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam – it’s kinda of like a fantasy island. The main draw is the crazy topography – all around it is a bay of limestone karsts, fancy word for giant hunks of limestone splashed down right in the middle of the ocean. It’s surreal.
Our favorite day was the boat tour day, which took us out right into the middle of all of the karsts… and got Rick and I lost in the South China Sea for a little while!
We met some great folks from the west coast at dinner the night before and they were going on a boat tour with a guy from their hotel and asked if we wanted to join. Well the price was right and we happily agreed to join. Funny thing about cheap boat tours…. Let’s just say our motto for the day was “Safety Third!” (Mom, Dad: Kidding it’s really wasn’t that bad)
We were pointed to a van to ride to the dock, where we got on a “junk boat” (which is the real name for these boats, although, it was also a good description).
On our way out to the bay we stopped at one of the many fish farms… different than fish farms I’ve seen before, these are floating fish farms. Apparently they catch them as baby fishes and feed’em, fatten them up, then sell them as big fat fishes (hello, Never Finding Nemo). And these little itty bitty ladies balance on narrow floating pieces and flip 30lb fish from one netted enclosure to another.
So our next stop is kayaking. We’ve been totally entranced boating through this landscape, but now we actually get to get IN TO it! Our boat pulls up to a dock surrounded by kayaks and we are pointed to get out…. Then ushered over to the edge.
We wait, thinking surely our guide is going to give us some direction. Or some timing, when to be back. Maybe what direction to go… Or not go… Like go around that island, or stay between these. I mean we’re in the middle of the South China Sea, not just that, but it’s not like we can see more than a quarter mile in any direction because there’s a giant, 10-15 story limestone island.
So… We wait… Nope, no direction. Just a push into a kayak and a hand pointing us out to the bay.
Ok, so surely our guide will be right behind our group. Duh. I mean it’s gotta be self explanatory if he’s just setting us out there.
Oh – by the way, I also note at this time that we do not have life jackets. Why did this stand out to me? Well because every other tourist in a kayak has a bright orange one on. Worrisome? Slightly. More so when I notice the inch of water in our kayak. But it does make it easier to spot the other folks in our group – they’re the ones without the life jackets!
So we’re off paddling towards… Well who knows, just paddling in the direction pointed to us. The group is around us… We see a really cool opening in the limestone, just high enough over the water for a kayak to go through. So of course we have to see what’s on the other side! We veer left and head for the secret lagoon – another couple in our group has already headed that way.
The sea is super peaceful. It’s like being in a giant dream lagoon. I guess the giant rock islands put a stop to any waves or currents.
The lagoon is beautiful, we paddle around for a couple minutes. Take pics. And see we’re the only ones in there… So we head off to find our group…
<< cue the Gilligan’s Island theme music. “A three hour tour…” >>
We come out of the lagoon back under the arch, and there’s no one from our group anywhere to be seen. But no worries because we know the direction we came from… So they must have continued on the trajectory past our little lagoon. Take a left, and paddle ho! We’re cruisin!
We make it around the next karst, and between a couple giant ones. There’s an awesome looking, wide, but very low arch cut out of the limestone and we can see light and water on the other side… That must be the big lagoon we imagine our guide us taking us to. There’s another tour group coming out of there… It’s so cool to smoothly glide under the rock. We emerge into a huge lagoon surrounded by jungle – we search the trees for monkeys, but really each of us is secretly, silently, with a calm smiling expression searching the horizon of the water for our un-life-jacketed guide and tour group. No luck!
I finally admit out loud that I’m a bit nervous that we’ve lost them. Rick too. So we decide they must have come this way (there’s yet another group in the lagoon with us, clearly it’s THE spot to go to). You can’t see the whole lagoon because it’s got a twisty, curvy, hidden “shoreline” which is really just islands surrounding us. So we decide we’ll kayak the perimeter so we can find the exit they took. All of the way around… Nope, no exit except the way we came in. I’m feeling those paddling muscles at this point!
So we decide to head back to the floating “dock” more of a big boat/dock because it’s not attached to anchored to any land. We’ll find them there for sure!
Paddle paddle … See other groups, but not ours. As we approach the dock, we search the boats for ours. It’s definitely not at the dock anymore. We search the horizon for it… Nope can’t find it.
Rick suddenly remembers that he thought he heard something about we were supposed to kayak to another rendezvous point on the other side of some island and that’s where the boat picks us up. But doesn’t remember where that point was or what time, or what direction…. Or if it was even the tour we went with… because we had talked with a few different companies before going with this one, so it could have been a different company.
We go to the dock thinking that at least they can tell us if we’re supposed to be there or somewhere else, or maybe which direction our group went, or if they had come back yet or not. We paddle up to the guy at the dock and ask about our boat, if we are supposed to be back or not, if they are coming back. We get very perplexed looks… and eventually get “Noo Eng-liiish”. But maybe we can say our boats name or our guides name and at least get a hand pointing us the right way…. Until we realize we know neither our boat’s name, our guide’s name, the name of the tour or anything. We know the name of the hotel we left from…. And I don’t think “Take me to Ali Baba’s Hotel” is going to get us very far here.
This may be when we start to get a little freaked out. I declare that I will commandeer a different tourist boat if we don’t find them in the next hour.
We start paddling back towards the direction we explored… because… well there’s nothing else to do really. As we round the corner, we see a platoon of un-lifejacketed kayakers headed our direction!! YEA!! It’s our group… well at least half of our group. But no matter, we are celebrating no longer being lost in the South China Sea!
The other half of our group seems to have gone missing like us. Our guide, smiling and completely unaware that we were lost at sea for a good 40 minutes points us toward the sign that says “Here: Danger. No Entry.” And hands us a flashlight.
And somehow I feel much safer entering a pitch black water cave with this guide than I did paddling around on our own. We enter this cave, and it’s awesome – we are going through completely pitch black, narrow, and VERY low ceiling sea cave! How cool is that?! Just when we’ve been paddling for 10 minutes in the dark, we see a light on the other side and make our way out into a secluded lagoon (maybe this is how we lost him, he went through one of these things?!)
After exploring a bit more around the lagoons, we board the boat again and have delicious fresh seafood lunch. The sun has come out now – we’re lucky because it’s rainy season – so our guide tells us we get to go to Happy Beach and swim. It was not so beach because of high tide, but we had so much fun swimming in the clear green-blue water.
After that, off to Rick’s much awaited Deep Water Soloing (the fancy name for when you rock climb up from the water, with no harness, just the water to catch your fall if you fall). I manned the camera from the boat. Turns out it really is an acquired skill to be able to climb all of the way up the limestone rock that manages to be really slippery and really sharp at the same time. Rick made it up the bottom portion really well, but wisely chose not to slice up his hands by continuing to the top.
We slowly made our way back to port, toured a couple of islands on the way and got to see a beautiful sunset.