Editor's note: This is the fourth article in a travel series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first three installments.
Just down the road from the developing coastal area in and around Danang is the Vietnam we remembered from our trip there two years ago. The rice farmers are using hand tools and water buffaloes - almost no motorized equipment of any kind. A Vietnam War-era military truck with a crank-start engine sits parked on the side of the road, its friendly owner eager to demonstrate how it works when Ryan shows interest. And the makeshift restaurants on the bottom floors of people's homes, with oddly miniature plastic furniture like we see in American play schools, are everywhere.
There are beautiful beaches, although sadly littered with trash but not as much as we saw in the more heavily populated north near Halong Bay. As we get closer to Hoi An, which is a couple of miles inland from the coast, we can see the area is certainly touristy - there are many hotels and restaurants. The town is able to hold onto its culture and character, though, even if there are tailor shops catering to tourists every time you turn your head. Every traveler we meet has been in for a suit fitting already and understandably so - Ryan gets a beautiful suit custom tailored with lovely fabric for about $70.
Hoi An is a charming place. It's a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, known as Hoi An Ancient Town.
The beautifully ancient Japanese Covered Bridge, constructed sometime in the early 17th century, is one sight not to miss. There are many old houses, temples and museums throughout the town, as well as nearby Marble Mountain. And An Bang Beach, just outside of town, is where the tourists sunbathe as local residents cover up (women wear long sleeves and pants even in 100-degree heat because they don't like their skin to be brown, many women tell me).
Nearby, over Hai Van Pass, views of the South China Sea and coastal mountains are surreal. Heading north toward Hue and just past the beach town of Lang Co, swimming holes known as Elephant Springs are tucked into the mountains. The mountain water is the most refreshing thing on a hot day, which Vietnam has plenty of. The beauty is also endless.
The food in Hoi An is what will make you really fall in love with this place. Local cao lau noodles, made with pork and greens, or white rose, a steamed dumpling made with shrimp, are two of the local staples. Herbs and vegetables are served in abundance, and the fish in this coastal town is also fabulous.
While the touristy restaurants will tempt you with their aggressive employees steering you toward outdoor menus on display, keep walking. The best pho comes from the street carts, usually set up only during breakfast hours. Another woman makes outrageously good spring rolls while kneeling over a tiny charcoal grill on the street (though we noticed she charged the local people substantially less than she charged us, but oh well). And then there is Ms. Loan, a petite, beautiful woman who cooks out of a stall at a restaurant set up like a cooperative - each stall has the same menu, but it seems as though it's every cook for him or herself.
Ms. Loan and her husband don't speak any English, and we don't speak any Vietnamese, but we feel at home here. She cooks for us with care, and everything she serves is made from the heart. When I have to use the bathroom, she lets me into her house across the street. After we eat there three nights in a row and explain to her daughter who speaks some English that it is our last night, she sends us off with gifts (a nifty little cooking gadget that slices, dices, peels and minces and some Tiger Balm).
Ms. Loan is the epitome of what we love about Vietnam. She is warm, honest and good - like many of the people we meet here.
While I could write about Vietnam for pages, I have little room left to fit in the experience of four action-packed days in the beautiful island nation of Sri Lanka.
There it sits, off the southeastern coast of India, tiny in size but massive in beauty. A civil war ended just three years ago, and progress - social and economic - has been under way ever since.
Four days in Sri Lanka is not much time, which is why our driver Udaya couldn't have been more perfect.
We arranged him through email about a week before our arrival, and there he is at the Colombo airport waiting for us, to our relief. He speaks wonderful English and is eager to show us around his country, which he has never left during his 40-plus years of life.
The experience begins with a bang because the roads in Sri Lanka are terrifying. Outside of Colombo, roads are all just two lanes, and there's no such thing as a no-passing zone. Every 10 seconds, you feel like you've just narrowly escaped death, with the most frightening passes coming from the public buses. Udaya is a good driver, but he, too, is a reckless passer. It's all part of the experience, I guess.
And so is the food. The food in this country is spectacular, but they kick up the heat on just about everything, so be prepared. Curries, fresh vegetables and fruit and tons of chili peppers - hot ones - are a part of every meal, and many people eat with their bare hands.
If you can make it to Habarana - a distance that would take a mere hour and a half in the U.S. but takes twice as long in Sri Lanka - there are unforgettable sites to see. National parks and wildlife refuges are scattered throughout the country, and near Habarana, we take a jeep safari in Minneriya National Park and get up close and personal with a herd of about 50 elephants. We see monkeys, peacocks and other exotic birds in the wild, and the elephants even put on a show for us by charging our vehicle. Luckily, the driver is prepared, as he had backed in to face the herd, which makes for a quick getaway when their moods sour.
After the safari, we rest and get up early the following morning for a quick breakfast and more death-defying driving. We are off to the Matale District of Central Province to check out Sigiriya, an ancient town with a massive, ancient rock fortress and palace ruins.
Sri Lanka is such a lush island that Sigiriya just rises out of nowhere as you approach it. It's hard to see it from a distance because there's so much jungle blocking the view, but once you're there, it's simply spectacular. The climb up is intense - there are hundreds of stairs - but not as intense as the protective hornet suit in May when it's humid and more than 100 degrees outside. I peel the thing off near the top of the rock as I would rather risk a hornet attack than bake in that suit for another second. Luckily, the hornets stay away.
Looking down on the gardens and lakes from the top of Sigiriya and imagining that it is virtually unchanged from centuries earlier is a special experience - I think I would have greatly missed out had I not gone there.
Onward to Kandy, though, and to the Royal Botanical Gardens that serve as a peaceful oasis in this crowded city. There we see bats, monkeys (tons of them) and hundreds of plant and tree species. It also seems to be a romantic place for Sri Lankans, as almost everyone else we pass is a couple, usually sitting together very closely under a tree.
Kandy is a lovely town that features natural beauty around every corner. It's packed in tight with buildings and people, but it's not far from escapes to the highlands, where tea plantations cover the hillsides.
That's where the journey that is Sri Lanka becomes life-changing. Udaya suggests we ride a train from the Peradeniya station in Kandy to the Nanu Oya station, and nothing he says prepares us for the landscapes we see along this more-than-four-hour route.
Hillsides are covered in the brightest shades of green, with perfectly planted rows of tea scattered everywhere. It is one of those sights that you almost can't believe exists because it's so perfectly brilliant.
It is our last day in Sri Lanka - a day that leaves impressions that other destinations in this world will have a hard time living up to.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.