Phu Quoc

Phu Quoc island is my last stop in Vietnam! I’ve spent 5 days on this island. I came here without any expectations as I had heard mixed reviews about this place. Some people loved it, some hated it, some thought it was so-so. I realized I’d have to come here and find out for myself. I am certainly glad I did. The major part of this island is still a forest, a lot of areas still have just dirt roads and there are so many beaches, some good but some really dirty. Phu Quoc has real potential to be a stunning island. If the smaller beaches were cleaned up, if the national park had some hiking trails and if there was a road by the coast throughout the island it would be perfect. As it stands, there’s more focus on building resorts which means that more trees/forests will be felled. This is obviously needed for the island to grow but it has to be contained, I just hope somebody who matters knows when to stop.

So anyways, of the 5 days on the island, I spent about 3 days just relaxing. I stayed in a really good hostel with loads of hammocks and a beach just 2 minute walk away and I made the most of both these arrangements.

On other days, I took a tour for the south part of the islands. We visited pearl farms, fish sauce factory (which smelled disgusting but I managed not to throw up!), pepper farm (where we tasted delicious mangoes sprinkled with fresh ground peppers mixed with different spices), coconut prison (where the US army used to hold and torture the Viet Cong), a pagoda and the beautiful Sao beach. Each stop was short but it was still interesting to learn a little about each.

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Sao Beach
Sao Beach

Another day I went with some Canadians on a bike ride to the northern part of the island. This was so much fun! The path we took didn’t have much of a road a lot of the times, it was mostly just dirt roads and then we hit some really tricky spots where it felt like an off-roading experience but on a scooter! It was just incredible. I had to hold on to the bike with both hands, trying my best not to fly off my bike and somehow I found it super funny and I could not stop laughing, may be it was just the nerves. lol Bits of it were scary too, like when we had to ride our bike on a bridge made of bamboos and a couple of these came loose! Stephan coined this ride as ‘Tandem Off-roading’ 😀

Dirt roads along the north east coast of the island
Dirt roads along the north east coast of the island

 

I decided to walk the first bridge as we didn't think the bridge could handle all the weight!
I decided to walk the first bridge as we didn’t think the bridge could handle 2 people on a bike! 

One (other) thing I really I really liked about this island is the people. They were very friendly. One evening I went to a restaurant (it was just tables put up on a massive patio and the family cooking for customers) and I was sitting by myself waiting for my food and this group of locals on another table asked me to join them. We had a nice conversation and they insisted on buying me dinner and drinks! I’ve had a local man walking up to me in a restaurant simply to say hi and to welcome me to his country. It’s always very comforting to know that there are people who are genuinely nice without wanting anything in return. I’m glad I visited Phu Quoc!

Beautiful sunset at Rory's Bar
Beautiful sunset at Rory’s Bar

Can Tho – Mekong Delta

I didn’t spend more than 1.5days in the Mekong Delta. I guess I was let down by my expectations, my bad. The city that I stayed in is called Can Tho, it’s the biggest city in the delta and it felt like any other riverside town/city. What I had in mind is tiny towns surrounded by rice paddies and small rivers surrounded by coconut trees and mangroves. I’m sure this is what the real Delta looks like but these are more off the beaten path and hence more expensive for accommodation and not that safe if you are traveling alone (based on what the locals told me). So I gave these a skip.

I did the only other thing I was keen on, visit the floating markets. This was a real treat despite having to wake up at 5am. Even that early the city was awake. People were busy preparing their food carts, loading fruit onto their stands or sitting in cafes enjoying their morning coffee. We took a boat to Cai Rang which is the biggest floating market in the delta and is about 7kms from Can Tho. It was a very pretty and peaceful boat ride to the market especially coz we set off just before sunrise.

Sunrise in the Mekong Delta
Sunrise in the Mekong Delta

On the way there we enjoyed watching people living on houses on the river, hanging up their laundry or eating their morning meal or brushing their teeth.

Locals going about their early morning routine.
Locals going about their early morning routine.

By the time we got to Cai Rang market, it was in full flow. We didn’t buy anything here coz it was a wholesale market. We then made our way to the Phong Dien market, another 10kms away. This is a retail market and we spent some time here, trying a lot of fresh seasonal fruit and fried vegetable crisps. I bought 3 mangoes for 10,000VND whereas I’d been buying 1 for 7,000 elsewhere in Vietnam! I was so happy!

Tourists taking a break and sampling the various fresh produce
Tourists, sampling the various fresh produce, resulting in a gridlock, ha!

Even though the markets were great fun there was something missing. These are called the biggest floating markets in the Mekong Delta and we were there at what is said to be the ‘best’ time in the morning, it didn’t feel that busy or that big. May be it was an off day or perhaps the size of the market is hyped up, I’ll never know.

Boat ride through the canals
Boat ride through the canals

Anyways, from the markets the boat took us through tiny canals, we took a walk in the plantations and then stopped for coffee/snacks in a shack by the river. After 5 hours on the boat it was time to head back to Can Tho. By then I was super tired and the boat was soooo slow so that the 2hrs boat ride back got a bit too much. Especially seeing that most of the boats were faster than ours! Lol but it was a good day anyways.

I would have loved to spend more time in the delta, but I wanted to take the locals advice about safety seriously and I wasn’t willing to spend $25 for a tour (It doesn’t sound much but a good meal costs $1!)

So after being up at 5am on 2 days in a row I was ready to chill on the beach in Phu Quo, my next and final stop in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh has completely shattered my stand of “I don’t like cities”. I cannot pin point what it is about this place but I love it here. There are so many contrasts in the city, from fancy-ish restaurants to street food stalls, from the glittering high rise buildings to the tiny shacks, from Starbucks to coffee carts, from dessert cafes to hand pulled sweet carts, HCM has got the best of both worlds.

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The high rise buildings of Ho Chi Minh
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Alleyway with my hostel. This street looks tiny but has everything from hostels, guesthouses, street food stalls, fresh smoothie stalls, convenient stores, salons to houses.

There are more motorbikes here than I have ever seen in my life (coming from an Indian, this counts for something). In the evenings, when you are at a big intersection and all you will see is heads covered with helmets as far as the eye can see. And of course, there are cars and busses and bicycles. But you can see the systematic way in which people ride/drive, you can see the order (unlike in India where the order can only be seen/followed by locals but not by outsiders) and this makes it easier to walk around the city.

And the food, oh the glorious food! I made a list of everything I’ve eaten in the city but decided against putting it on here because you’ll either get bored reading the names or hate me for eating delicious food. But if you know me, then trust me when I say, it’s worth coming to Ho Chi Minh just for the food.

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Com Tam Suon, broken rice with sticky sweet pork chops
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Delicious Bun Thit Nuong, with grilled meat, minced meat, fried spring rolls and fresh vermicelli with roasted peanuts, fresh spring onions and fish sauce.
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Bun bo Hue. Lots of meat, delicious broth and noodles.
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Needs no words…

As if all the above wasn’t enough to have a pleasant stay I was fortunate to have amazing company. It was Sev’s last few days in the country so I got to spend that time with him. I also met a fabulous group of Indians who were staying in my hostel. They were the non-stereotypical types and funny, intelligent and really nice bunch of guys, with whom I spent a some 3-4days exploring the city and having long conversations about anything and everything from photography, law, war, to life, food, treks, etc. I am really grateful to have met them and if things work out, m hoping to see them again in India.

Tourists come to HCM for a few days but to really experience this city, you need at least a week. I was lucky to have 10days.

In terms of the sights in the city, there’s quite a bit to see and do.

I spent 1 day visiting the Reunification Palace, Post office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Phap Hoa pagoda, and the War Remnants Museum.

The palace didn’t even look like a palace, just a big museum sort of building so we gave that a skip. The War Remnants museum was amazing. There are displays of jets, helicopters and tanks, a whole floor dedicated to war history and then 2 floors that are dedicated to photographs, some taken during the war and a lot of them were of people who were affected by the chemicals used during the war. After seeing the pictures on one floor I could not take it anymore, it was too horrific, too sad, too graphic. But no visitor/tourist should miss this museum, it shows how low humanity can stoop to prove themselves right when they are utterly wrong. This war, like many others, is something people should not forget and not repeat in the future.

I enjoyed the river side Phap Hoa pagoda as well, it’s not on any tourist map and we just happened to come across it while walking around. Wanting to get some respite from the heat I walked into the 3 storeyed building, which was very quiet with may be 2 people in there but there was a good breeze flowing from the river and I just dozed off on the floor for like an hour or so. When I woke up there were a few monks there, going about doing their job. But they were very good natured about me sleeping there and just grinned when they saw me wake up!

Cu Chi Tunnels – This 120km network of underground tunnels, spread over 3 levels are the tunnels which the Vietnamese used as hiding spots and also where they lived for 25yrs during the war with the USA. Even though it was 2hr drive and most of it was very touristy and the mosquitoes were relentless, I enjoyed going into the tunnels. These were low enough that you had to stoop really freaking low and narrow enough that my shoulders were rubbing the walls on both sides. Definitely not for the claustrophobic!

China Town – I didn’t find china town very different to any other place in Ho Chi Minh, if anything it was a bit dirtier, but I went there for the pagodas and it was definitely worth it. The Chinese pagodas are very different to the Vietnamese Buddhist ones, they have stronger colours with lots of bold red, gold and black, definitely worth visiting.

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Chinese pagoda in China Town
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Colourful, multi-layered entrance to the pagoda

These were sort of the highlights of the attractions. Rest of my time was spent eating, drinking fresh fruit smoothies, having delicious iced coffees, getting full body massage, etc.

Oh, I am going to miss this city.

Dalat

Dalat is a city in the southern part of central highlands of Vietnam. It is close to 5000ft above sea level and is much cooler than the rest of the places I’ve visited so far. In fact, Da Lat means “City of eternal spring” as the valleys are covered in mist all year round.

Da Lat streets and markets, which resemble a small French town, spread out around the big Xuan Huong lake, are dotted with vendors selling fruit and flowers and homemade strawberry and mulberry jams.

I am here during the wet season so it rains pretty much everyday but unlike the monsoons in India the time of the rains is very predictable. The days usually starts with a lot of sunshine which gives me time to be enjoy the city before noon when it starts getting cloudy. It continues to get darker while the rain gods tease me with thunder and then an hour later the heavens open up for a couple of hours. This too passes for the sun to come out again. Unlike the rest of Vietnam where it’s hot and humid all day long, Da Lat enjoys much cooler mornings and evenings which has provided me with much needed respite from the heat of the last few weeks.

There’s quite a bit to do around Da Lat which led me to extend my stay here by a day or two. I spent one looong day on the motorbike, riding 120kms through twisting roads on pinewood covered hills, visiting Truc Lam Pagoda pagoda, the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lang Bianc village and the Elephant waterfalls.

 

A "village" made with mud @ the Lang Biang mountains
A “village” made with mud @ the Lang Biang mountains
Lady at the end of her "journey" on a mud train!
Lady at the end of her “journey” on a mud train!
Beautiful, vibrant and  mosaic pagoda
Beautiful, vibrant and mosaic pagoda @ Linh Phuoc Pagoda

There’s also the Crazy House which is listed as one of the worlds most bizarre houses. The house resembles a giant tree and has multiple rooms on a few levels all interconnected by stairs that feel like a maze. Definitely an interesting experience and worth going to.

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The “house” looks scared @ The Crazy House

 

Stairs leading to multiple rooms on different levels at The Crazy House
Stairs leading to multiple rooms on different levels at The Crazy House

Another day was dedicated to simply walking around the town (and the massive night market) to sample street food. This day was super fun coz as it turns out Sev is as much of a foodie as me so by sharing dishes we were able to eat Mi Quang noodles, cookies smeared with fresh strawberry jam, steamed pancakes, rice pancakes, bahn mi, chicken vermicelli, fried sweet buns with sesame seeds and fried dough sticks dipped in ice cream all in one day! Even though this was spread out over lunch and dinner we were surprised at how much food we could gobble down! But I think we burned a lot of it off by walking around the town (I am pretty good at deluding myself sometimes).

All in all, a wonderful stay in a beautiful city, something that should not to be missed on a trip to Vietnam!

Nha Trang

Welcome to Russia! Erm, I mean Nha Trang!

I had heard about the number of Russians in Nha Trang but you have to see it to believe it. Vietnam’s wartime alliance with Russia and a direct flight between Russia and Nha Trang means that you see more Russians than Vietnamese in this city (okay, m exaggerating but there are a lot of white faces here!). The street signs, the menus in restaurants, shop names etc all have Russian translations. In fact, Sev and I passed an outdoor cinema that was showing Ice Age in Russian! Lol. I was told that you frequently get stopped by Russian tourists (to ask for directions for eg) but they speak to you in Russian and when they realize you don’t speak their language they get confused, like they don’t get it how you don’t speak Russian in Nha Trang. LOL!

The city itself feels like beach side resorts in Tenerife for eg, you have really big hotels along the beach and lots of cafes & restaurants along the promenade. The sights within the city aren’t very many. There is a cathedral, the Long Son Pagoda and the Cham Towers, all of which can be done in half a day.

Sleeping Buddha at Long Son Pagoda
Sleeping Buddha at Long Son Pagoda
Nha Trang cathedral
Nha Trang cathedral

The lure for me are sights just outside the city and of course, the street food. I’ve tried delicious sea food pancakes for 10,000VND that’s a little under $0.5 and the best beef pho yet for just $1.5!

 

Sea food pancakes!
Sea food pancakes!
Delicious Beef Pho
Delicious Beef Pho

 

Outside the city there is the Chua Suoi Do Pagoda which is around 17kms to the west of Nha Trang and is set in the mountains. I’ve seen better pagodas but the bike ride to the countryside and then the walk up the mountains was definitely worth it.

Riding to Chau Suoi Du Pagoda, nestled in the mountains.
Riding to Chau Suoi Du Pagoda, nestled in the mountains.
View from the top of the mountain at Chua Suoi du Pagoda
View from the top of the mountain at Chua Suoi du Pagoda

On the same day I decided to go to the Ba Ho waterfalls which is around 27kms north of Nha Trang. There were 3 sets of waterfalls that you can swim in, I decided to stop after the first one coz I had no incentive to go further. But I’ve realized that the more time I spend around a water body the more I crave to learn how to swim (something I really want to do this trip!). The ride from the pagoda to the waterfalls there was pretty shit as most of the road was under construction AND it was the start of Vietnamese public holidays so the traffic and pollution was terrible. At the end of the 90km ride, when I reached the hostel I saw that my face was caked black with dust, yuck! Of course, I had been walking around the town without realizing what my face looks like! No wonder people were looking at me funny! 😀 But the return trip from the waterfalls to the city, along the coast was pretty good!

Fishing village on the way from Ba Ho waterfalls to Nha Trang
Fishing village on the way from Ba Ho waterfalls to Nha Trang

Thinking back, my favourite things to see/do in Vietnam have been when I was on the bike, regardless of who was riding. It’s just the best way to get to some away from all the noise and get off the beaten tracks. Some people buy bikes and ride the whole length of the country, for me it would be too much, I prefer renting bikes for the day.

Another day I decided to go to Long Beach which is deemed as the best beach in Nha Trang and it is around 27kms south of the city. Long Beach was pretty $hit. I overshot the beach by 10kms (coz places are not sign posted very well) and I had to ride back that additional distance but I just couldn’t find the beach. When I finally found it (I had ridden 40+kms by then), it was FULL of Vietnamese people (I chose a public holiday of all days to go there, silly me) so it was cramped, noisy and dirty, to say the least. I managed to find a lounge chair for myself but as soon as I sat down I was asked to leave coz it was for locals only! When I finally found a seat, I put my headphones on and played Sudoku on my phone while sipping on my favourite fresh mango juice. 45mins later I decided to head back to Nha Trang. On the ride back I told myself that my day could have been worse (at least I had mango juice and the snicker bar to salvage my day) and (unfortunately) I was right! I found out that day that there’s been some fraud (of 9000pounds!!) on my credit card (which is my only travel card). After calling my bank they cancelled my card but said they could only send me a new card to my UK address (which is thankfully my friend’s address) which means I have to ask my friend to send that card to an address in Vietnam. Not so straightforward as it means that I have to plan the next 2 weeks of my trip which is a pain coz I’ve been planning max 2 days in advance. And also, I need to figure out how to keep going on the cash I have left without incurring heavy fees by using my debit card. So this was easily the shittiest day of my trip but hey, it seriously could have been even worse! In hindsight, I reckon if I had gone to Long Beach on a quieter day I would have enjoyed it! For now, I am ready for Da Lat.

 

Hoi An

Hoi An, where do I begin? Let’s just say that I L.O.V.E Hoi An.

Located in central Vietnam, this pretty town has everything going for it. From it’s Old Town which is recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO (where the streets are for walking & cycling only), to beautiful houses & buildings, to quaint cafes and riverside restaurants to a beach only about 3kms away. Hoi An has it all and still manages to retain a very peaceful atmosphere. “Hoi An” correctly translates into “peaceful meeting place” in English.

I stayed in this town for 5 days and enjoyed every bit of it. It was great luck that that my hostel was fabulous as well. Well, it was actually a villa which had one dorm but there was no bunk beds, just single beds so it was a very comfortable 5 nights.

I fell ill on the way to Hoi An. I was running a fever, had an upset stomach and a terrible headache. But once I recovered, most of my days were spent cycling around the town (with my travel buddy from Hue), riding at the same slow pace as life moves in this town, visiting some beautiful historical houses, relaxing at riverside cafes (or chilling in a hammock in a restaurant at the end of the town where there were no tourists at all) to sunbathing on the beach to eating delicious food.

One of the old buildings in Hoi An
One of the old buildings in Hoi An
Hoi An by day
Hoi An by day
Hoi An by night
Hoi An by night

I’ve noticed that the more south you go in Vietnam, the better the food gets. In the north, in Hanoi for eg, I did not have the courage to eat street food. It was partly coz I wasn’t ready for it and partly coz the stalls looked so dirty. But it gets better as you move down the country. In Hoi An itself, I’ve eaten delicious chicken pho, white rose dumplings, fried wantons, fresh spring rolls with shrimps and the delicious bahn mi ever!

Beef noodles
Beef noodles
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Bahn Mi at Bahn Mi Phuong, rated by Anthony Bourdain as the best Bahn Mi in Vietnam!

 

White rose dumplings
White rose dumplings
Delicious duck pho!
Delicious duck pho!

We took a day trip to ride the Hai Van pass which is the highest pass in Vietnam (500m above sea level). It is a 21km stretch of mountainous winding roads and hair pin curves offering stunning views and forms a boundary between North and South Vietnam.

View from Hai Van Pass
View from Hai Van Pass
Stunning colours there and I assure you, it's even better in reality.
Stunning colours there and I assure you, it’s even better in reality.
Terrifying winding roads on the Hai Van Pass
Terrifying winding roads on the Hai Van Pass

The roads sometimes pass through heavy mists that rise from the sea, giving it the name “Hai Van” which “Sea Clouds”. This isn’t a destination, just 21km of beauty at it’s best, of lush greenery against the stunning blue sea and well worth a trip from Hoi An -> Danang -> Hai Van. The day was loooong as we rode a total of 150km but I was lucky that Sev (my travel buddy) didn’t mind riding the whole way as I wasn’t well enough to ride at all. On the way to Hai Van pass we stopped in Danang for a coffee and let me tell you, I had the best iced coffee ever! I’ve never enjoyed coffee more (or never missed green tea less). The little I saw of Danang I wasn’t sad that I skipped it in my itinerary, it’s just a big, well developed city, with a lot of resorts and shopping centers, worth it if you want to be in a city but there are more beautiful places in Vietnam.

One (more) thing that Hoi An is really famous for is cheap tailoring. You can get anything made from suits to leather handbags to shoes to leather jackets (for as little as $50!!) and god knows what else. A shopper’s paradise. Me? I avoided all this coz I can’t stand shopping unless it’s absolutely necessary.

A sad thing about Vietnam though can be the money mindedness of people. It’s very much about the money they can get from you. The sheer number of people trying (more like harassing) to sell you things or trying to charge sometimes twice or 3 times the actual cost is a bit sad. For me, it’s got to a stage where if a local asks me the usual opening question of “where are u from?” my first thought is “I wonder what are they going to try and sell to me now”. Having said that, I still believe that the Vietnamese are really friendly and nice and with some luck you’ll meet some genuinely nice people who want nothing more than to know a bit about you.

Hue

Hue, located along the Perfume river in central Vietnam, is the country’s former imperial capital. It is also the city where the famous Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh comes from.

My 2.5days in Hue went by in a blur. 4 people, including me, in my dorm arrived in Hue on the same day and we were staying for around the same time so we ended up seeing the town together which was fab! Hue is the most developed city I have across since the start of my trip and there is quite a bit to see. It was sweltering hot the day I got there (40degrees C with a feel of 48!!) but we braved going out for lunch (which was one of the most uncomfortable afternoons ever!). The humidity was maddening, walking in the intense heat, with sweat pouring and dripping off me was hard work! Somehow, the French and the Dutch in my group were fine which was embarrassing coz I should be more accustomed to the heat than them right? Anyways, after lunch we head out to the Imperial City which is a walled fortress and palace in the city of Hue. We chose the main bits we wanted to see like the Imperial enclosure which is a citadel-within-a-citadel, housing the emperor’s residence, temples and palaces and the main buildings of state. Too much of it was in ruins and without any guide/map it was all about wandering around the ruins and trying to make sense of it (which we obviously couldn’t).

Beautiful corridor in Imperial Enclosure
Beautiful corridor in Imperial Enclosure

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We also saw the To Mieu Temple Complex which has been restored and is pretty impressive in my opinion. There was lots more to the citadel but after 2hrs in the heat we’d had enough and decided to head back to the hostel.

Temple Complex in Imperial City
To Mieu Temple Complex in Imperial City
Inside the temple, To Mieu Temple
Inside the temple, To Mieu Temple

The next day we went to see the royal tombs, around 12-16kms the city, which is a must see if you are in Hue. We rented motorbikes for the day and started our day with a ride along the Perfume river to visit the Thien Mu pagoda.

Thien Mu Pagoda
Thien Mu Pagoda

From there it was another 20kms to Tomb of Tu Duc. This tomb was designed by the emperor himself. There are areas of this complex that were used for hunting, some buildings that were used as temples, some where the emperor’s concubines used to live, etc and finally his tomb.

Inside the Tomb of Tu Duc Mausoleum
Inside the Tomb of Tu Duc Mausoleum
Tomb of Tu Duc
Tomb of Tu Duc

It was a pretty big complex and still in good condition but still not as impressive as described by Lonely Planet. We did get to see a live Vietnamese singing performance which I thought was pretty cool.

The other tomb we went to, Tomb of Khai Dinh, was my favourite.

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Tomb of Khai Dinh

 

This tomb’s exterior gives it a gothic air, which clashes well with the colourful mosaic interior, and is set amidst green mountains. This tomb, though not as big, was more impressive than the former.

There are 7 tombs in total but we decided to stop at 2 and head for lunch at a local restaurant. The menu wasn’t in English but luckily one of the customers was sweet enough to help us with ordering food. After lunch, it was time to head to the beach which was around 30kms away. It wasn’t the best time to go there as it was a very misty and cloudy day and the beach wasn’t that spectacular. Saying that, we managed to find a secluded part of the beach used solely for fishing boats. We climbed into one of the (parked) boats and just relaxed for the next hour or with the sound of waves in the background!

On the last day in Hue we only had a few hours before we took the bus to Hoi An so we simply walked around the massive Dong Ba market, ate delicious fish and rice for lunch and took the bus, ready for the next stop.