It has become kind of a tradition with my family to take a week-long vacation in early summer. Since most of us work in academia, it’s the most convenient time (later in the summer we would be busy preparing for the upcoming semester); plus, the kids won’t have to wait too long for their vacation.
This year our destination is Da Nang, a city in Central Vietnam best known for its beaches. Most travelers skip it altogether or only use it as a transition point between two more popular destinations – the ancient capital of Hue and the old town of Hoi An – but we’re all about avoiding the crowd, so to Da Nang it is.
To shake things up, we also decided to take the train instead of flying. Sure, the trip takes 15 hours instead of 1,5, but it’s fun to sleep on the train (we had an entire compartment to ourselves), and you can catch some epic sunrise and sunset too.
Another great thing of train travel is you get to go through the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass, the most beautiful coastal road of Vietnam (called “a ribbon of perfection” by Top Gear). You can’t get views like these from a plane:
In Da Nang, we rented an apartment right by the beach. It’s in a newer part of town, so we had the beach almost to ourselves. To avoid the sun, we only went to the beach very early in the morning (I’m talking about 5 AM early) or late in the afternoon.
If you go early enough in the morning, you can see the fishermen coming back with their catch in distinctive basket boats. You can even buy their fish – it doesn’t get fresher than that!
Of course, being so close to the famous old town of Hoi An (it’s only 30 km away), we had to take a day trip there as well. However, it wasn’t easy with two kids in tow, so I didn’t get to see as much of the town as I’d wanted. I’ve been there once before, but that was years ago and I didn’t remember much of it, except that it was very pretty. It’s still pretty now, like a more compact version of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, only with Chinese and Japanese influence on the architecture rather than French. Unfortunately, it was also very hot and insanely crowded. Otherwise, I would’ve gone back there by myself to really explore the place.
There are also plenty of day trips and hikes that can be taken from Da Nang, but I was feeling lazy, so I just wandered around the waterfront area of the city, which isn’t far from our apartment. It’s a great place for people watching, and when Da Nang’s many bridges, the most famous of which is Dragon Bridge, are lit up as darkness falls, it is quite an impressive sight.
All in all, it was a good trip. I still prefer the “discover and explore” type of travel, but it’s fun to just relax once in a while.
I wasn’t going to write packing post for this trip, but then I realized that, like every aspect of traveling to Cuba, packing for Cuba also has its own specificities that I’d like to share with you. Plus, any excuse to post more Cuba photos, right? 😀
So, for 10 days in Cuba, here is what I packed:
– Tops: 5 T-shirts, 1 long-sleeved shirt, 1 chambray shirt (it was so hot that I went through these faster than I thought, so I had to do laundry a couple of times.)
– Bottoms: 2 linen pants, 2 lightweight jeans, 1 dress (the dress was strictly for SIA, but it came in handy when I was too lazy to wash my tops.)
– Outerwear: 1 cardigan, 1 sweater, 1 light jacket (though I never wore the sweater and the jacket in Cuba. We transferred flights in Moscow, so they were for keeping warm inside the airport/on the plane.)
– Shoes: 1 pair of sneakers, 1 pair of sandals, 1 pair of flip-flops (for the beach/walking around the casa.)
– Accessories: 2 hats (1 baseball cap and 1 straw hat I bought in Trinidad), 3 scarves. These are life-savers; I used them to cover up from the sun and the big one was used as a sarong when we went to the beach. They can also double up as face masks in dusty/smoggy places. We got some funny looks walking around Havana with scarves wrapped around our faces, but trust me, your nose, throat, and lungs are going to thank you.
– Don’t bring anything too nice, anything you don’t want to sweat through or get sand or dirt on. If you’re planning to go dancing, maybe bring a cute dress, but honestly, it’s all very casual.
– I know it’s hot, but don’t bring just tank tops and shorts if you don’t want to be burned to a sizzle. The sun is relentless, even during February.
– Pack all the toiletries, make-up, and medications you’re going to need. You won’t be able to buy them here. And sunscreen. A lot of sunscreen.
– Bring hand sanitizer and tissue/toilet paper. Bathrooms in Cuba are not the cleanest, so it’s better to be prepared.
– Pack some detergent if you’re going to do laundry. Most casas provide laundry service, but it can be expensive.
Trinidad is often called the second biggest tourist trap in Cuba, after the seaside resort of Varadero. While that doesn’t sound very positive, it is also easy to see why tourists flock here. It has a little bit of everything – colorful colonial buildings, beaches, mountains, waterfalls, and lush farmlands. It is like a miniature Cuba, all packed in a small town. And just because it’s a tourist trap doesn’t mean that you should skip it either.
Our drive from Cienfuegos to Trinidad was the shortest – only 1.5 hours – but for once I wish it was longer, because it was breathtaking. The shared taxi took us through wide pastures with a blue mountain range in the distance, and the sea peeking in every once in a while in a series of pretty little coves. I’m still kicking myself for not asking the driver to stop the car for a photo, but then again, if we stopped whenever there was a photo op along the way, the drive would take twice as long.
We checked into our casa, Casa El Ceramista, so called because the host, Alexey, is a ceramic artist. Be warned: the family has a super cute dog and you may spend so much time playing with him that you forget to see the town.
As it was still early, we decided to go on an excursion to the Topes de Collantes National Park for some hiking. The host got us a taxi to the park (50 CUC round-trip). The drive was insane – all up and down and crazy curves – and the driver never slowed down, but thankfully, we got to stop at a viewpoint and see all the way down the valley to the sea, so the near-death experience was worth it. Just don’t go with a full stomach.
We then hiked to Salto del Caburni, one of the most famous waterfalls of the area (it costs 10 CUC/person to get in). The hike isn’t that difficult, but very steep, so it’s murder on your knees. Bring water and some snacks, you’ll need it.
The waterfall itself is beautiful – a white cascade tumbling down into a jade-green pool, surrounded by towering trees. You can swim there, but the water was too cold for us, so I contented myself with just dipping my toes in.
After we got back into town, we walked to the Old Town for a bite to eat. It was crawling with tourists, so we ducked around the side street until we came to Plaza Mayor. We went up the bell tower of the Convento de San Francisco to watch the sunset, before retreating to a restaurant nearby. Trinidad supposedly has a hopping nightlife, but we were wiped out after our hike, so we just had dinner and went back to the casa to sleep.
The next morning, we went into town early to avoid the crowd, turning down any alley that caught our eyes. It is literally impossible to take a bad photo here – the houses look like a box of Crayola, and there is something worth photographing around every corner. When the crowd started building up and the sun became hotter, we went into the various museums and galleries around Plaza Mayor, including Palacio Cantero, which is a mansion-turned-museum on the ground floor and offers the best view from its tower.
In the afternoon, we continued to wander away from the Old Town and saw more of the “real” side of Trinidad, such as…
A newspaper seller and a vegetable seller
Then, in an attempt to escape the crowd, we walk 3 km out of town to a “Welcome to Trinidad” sign with a replica of the Manaca Iznaga tower (a tower in the nearby Valley of the Sugar Mills, originally built to observe and control the slaves working in the fields.) We had to walk along the highway, but the road wasn’t busy, and clearly we had the right idea, because after we took photos of the sign, several cars stopped for photos as well!
We went back into town for dinner, and spent the rest of the evening wandering around Plaza Mayor enjoying the atmosphere. You can go into one of the restaurants/pubs for drinks, but we opted for the cheaper version from one of the many stalls lining the street (it tasted fine to me, but what do I know?) There is also Disco Ayala, a nightclub inside a cave just outside of town, but the thought of hiking up a hill at 11 PM didn’t sound very appealing to us. It is the one thing on my “to do” list that I didn’t regret skipping. I guess we are old ladies after all.
And then, it was another 5-hour drive back to Havana, one more day in a flurry of souvenir shopping and packing, and, all too soon, our trip was over. Adiós Cuba! It has been absolutely wonderful, and I hope I can return one day.
Sandwiched between the two more famous destinations, Playa Larga (Long Beach) and Trinidad, Cienfuegos is often overlooked by travelers in Cuba, but I think it’s a mistake. This small city is dubbed “the Pearl of the South” for a reason, and there are plenty to see and do here if you know where to look.
The ride from Viñales to Cienfuegos was the longest in our trip – nearly 7 hours. We were picked up by a taxi, driven to a station outside Havana, and changed to a different car (you just pay the full amount to the first driver). The couple who shared the taxi with us was going to Playa Larga, so we had to do a little detour, but I didn’t mind, because the drive from Playa Larga to Cienfuegos was exceptionally pretty – windswept forest on one side, dazzling turquoise water and pure white sand on the other.
Cienfuegos is very pretty too – lots of colonial-styled buildings, like a smaller, more tranquil Havana with a French twist (it is, after all, the only city in Cuba settled by French immigrants.) Our casa, Hostal Colonial D+D, is in one of these houses – it may look small on the outside, but the inside is huge and very airy. The host, Diley, told us that we were only the second set of Vietnamese guests she ever had, which made us feel quite special.
As usual, after checking in, we went out to acquaint ourselves with the town. Cienfuegos is laid out in a grid, so it’s very easy to navigate. We walked along the main boulevard running through the center of town and came to the main square with its neoclassical buildings.
However, a dark cloud was building up on the horizon and it was getting late, so we didn’t linger at the square but pushed on to the Malecón, where we could find a place to eat. The rain still caught us by surprise – it was supposed to be the dry season, dammit! – and we had to duck into the first restaurant we saw. After an early dinner and with the rain showing no sign of stopping, we decided to call it a night. We were having an early start the next day anyway – we were going on a flamingo-watching tour!
The next morning, we were picked up at 7:30 by a taxi (the driver lives right next door to our casa) and driven to the entrance to Guanaroca Lagoon. Our host had made a reservation for us, so we were able to skip the ticket line and joined the first tour group, which left at 8. After a short walk through a woodland area, we arrived at the dock, where the boats were waiting. Three persons went into each boat, and off we went.
We only saw a few common water birds at first, like herons and pelicans, and the flamingos were just a few pale dots in the distance. But then we rounded a corner, and suddenly there they were, in a pink line against the green mangroves. A hush settled over us as we watched them walk in a group, slender and graceful, dipping their heads into the water to feed, their vivid plumage reflecting on the mirror surface of the lagoon.
We got closer, and suddenly there was a rush as the flamingos all took off into the sky like a pink cloud, circling around us before settling down on the far side of the lagoon. Everybody must’ve been holding their breath, because we all breathed out and exclaimed “That was amazing!” I think it was as close to a natural high (in every sense of the phrase) as you can get.
Afterward, the taxi driver took us to the nearby Rancho Luna beach. Here is the turquoise water and white sand we saw on the drive from Playa Larga. It looked so inviting that even I had to venture in, although I couldn’t actually step into the sea (can’t swim, remember?) I just sat on the edge of the water and let the waves wash over me. We had lunch at a restaurant by the beach, where I got adopted by a very friendly cat. The driver then picked us up again and drove us back into town. The whole trip cost just 25 CUC (plus 10 CUC each for the boat tour.)
In the afternoon, we continued our sightseeing that was disrupted by the rain the previous day. We went into the Tomas Terry Theater, but while it was interesting in an imagine-what-it-was-like-in-the-19th-century kind of way, the entrance fee was too expensive (5 CUC). Instead, go across the square to the Palacio Ferrer, a former mansion and House of Culture. It was under renovation when we were there, but you could still walk around and admire its eclectic architecture.
The cathedral’s bell tower and the statue of Jose Marti on the main square
We also checked out the city’s provincial museum, with its odd assortment of decorative and historical artifacts, thrown haphazardly into a building that still retains a faint echo of its former glory. We were the only visitors around. It was all weirdly charming, like an abandoned castle.
We ended our day by watching the spectacular sunset over the Malecón.
I would’ve added another day in Cienfuegos because there were still so many things that I’d like to see (the botanical garden, El Nicho waterfalls, the Naval Museum), but alas, I made the schedule before I knew what an enchanting place it is. Until next time, I hope…
If you think Cuba is all colonial towns and beaches, think again. Viñales, 2.5 hours west of Havana, is a valley and natural reserve nestled amongst limestone mountains that will show you the natural side of Cuba. When I talked to some friends who had gone to Cuba before for some tips, they all said “Oh, it’s really boring, there’s nothing there,” but I’m glad I didn’t listen, because Viñales turns out to be one of my favorite places in Cuba.
We were picked up from our casa in Havana in a modern minivan, which was a nice surprise. The town of Viñales itself is tiny and rather reminds me of the ethic villages I saw in Buon Ma Thuot, with the red dirt tracks, the small, colorful bungalows lining the streets, and the mountains in the distance. We were dropped off at our casa, Casa Estrella y Celestino, and greeted by the host, Sady. She runs the place with the help of her parents and her sisters, and during our short stay there, we really felt like a part of the family.
Per Sady’s suggestion, we decided to go on a horse-riding tour that afternoon (25 CUC/person, for 3-5 hours). Neither of us have ridden before, but we thought, how hard can it be? Boy, were we wrong. We did not know what we were in for as we blithely followed the guide to the horse farm, but as I climbed on my horse, I began to feel something was not right – the horses were on the small side, yet our legs could not reach the stirrups.
And thus began our ordeal. Every time the horses broke into anything faster than a sedate walk, we would be jolted so violently that it was all we could do to hang on for dear life. The horses were very gentle and knew the way so well that we could have just sat there and they would have taken us where we needed to go. In fact, it was our clumsy handling of the horses that made it worse. The valley is gorgeous, but I didn’t see a lot of it because I was terrified of falling off.
We got some brief repose at the Mural de la Prehistoria (not a real prehistoric mural, but rather a mural inspired by the theory of evolution, painted in 1961). You can pay a fee to go up to it, but we chose not to – you could see it much better from afar anyway.
Later, we stopped at a tobacco farm and learned about the cigar making process, and had our first taste of a Cuban cigar (well, my friend did.)
When the tour was done, I came away with a giant bruise on my hip (from getting hit by my camera) and mad respect for all riders.
The next day, determined to see the valley in a less painful manner, we rented two bikes (10 CUC/person for the whole day) and rode around. This time we got to see more of the lush farmland and the mountains surrounding the valley, called mogotes, or haystacks (it’s the same kind of mountains in our Ha Long Bay – some travelers we met even said Viñales was like Ha Long Bay on land!)
Along the way, we met two kids, started chatting with them in a mix of English and Spanish, and they ended up taking us on an informal tour of the valley.
We went to a lake on the other side of town, in the Valle del Silencio (Valley of Silence) and visited a nearby cave. There were moments when I wondered what we were doing, following two kids we just met through a dark cave that lead to God knows where, but it was fun. They were nice kids, and afterward, one of them even took us home, where his mom gave us a refreshing drink from their well. I really wish my Spanish were better so I could talk more with them and learn more about their lives.
It’s a rock that looks like Fidel Castro!
At 5 PM, we bid the kids farewell and returned the bikes to town. Then, apparently we hadn’t exerted ourselves enough, so we decided to walk to the Horizontes Los Jazmines hotel, which is said to have the best view of the valley, to watch the sunset. You can go there by taxi, but we saw that it was only 3 km, and so, armed with the offline maps.me app, we went on our way.
The road was fine at first – mostly footpaths through farmland, but walkable. But then it got rougher and sketchier, until we were picking our ways through brambles, horse crap, and, on one memorable occasion, a dead bird. My feet were covered in so much red dust that it looked like I had some horrible skin disease. We could see the hotel like a pink mirage in the distance, but the slope just got steeper and steeper, and I was practically on my hands and knees, cursing maps.me and our own hubris, wheezing, “This view had better be worth it!”
And then we made it to the top.
We rewarded ourselves with a huge meal in the restaurant next door and a taxi home (only 5 CUC for the whole ride), because let’s face it, there was no effing way we were walking back through those fields in the dark. But, as hard as that hike was, I’m glad we did it. It made us appreciate the view at the top that much more.
Havana is a city of contrast. It’s the contrast between the constant noise of traffic and the tranquility of people chatting to each other from their doorways, between the grandeur of Parque Central and the crumbling buildings of Habana Centro, between the historical Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and the bustling new town, Vedado. It’s hard to fall in love with, but it has a charm that sneaks up on you and draws you in.
We spent 4 days in Havana, 3 when we first arrived and 1 before our flight back. For the first 3 days, we stayed at Carlos Palace. It is right on the edge of Habana Centro and Vedado, so it has the best of both worlds – quiet and still within walking distance of everything. The host, Cary, doesn’t speak English, but she is very warm and helpful – she picked us up at the airport, took us to get our money exchanged, and generally treated us like two visiting nieces.
After checking in, we walked to the center of Havana, both to beat jetlag and to orient ourselves with the city. The walk took us right through Centro Habana. I wouldn’t recommend it for your first day in Havana, because it is not the touristy part of town and can look a bit rough (though never unsafe). The buildings are rundown and the streets are filled with exhaust fumes. On the other hand, you get to see the real side of Havana and how the locals live, which is great.
Cuba still has a food ration system, so we saw a lot of locals queuing up for their daily rations. It must be a strange sight to the average Western tourist, but for us Vietnamese, it’s just like traveling back in time to Vietnam during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
That doesn’t mean that everything was rationed – we also passed a market place, and there were plenty of carts selling fruits and vegetables on the streets.
Finally, we stumbled upon Parque Central, the main hub of Havana, where most of the grand buildings are located. It was quite something to come out of the Centro area and see these buildings gleaming in the sunset.
The next day, we went on a more proper walking tour of Habana Vieja. My friend knows a Vietnamese student studying journalism in Havana, so we got ourselves a guide. We saw El Capitolio (sadly still under renovation and not yet open to the public), took a tour of the Alicia Alonso Theater (we wanted to see a ballet there – Cuba ballet dancers are renown worldwide – but the shows are only during the weekend), poked around in the Museum of Fine Arts, and walked to the four squares of Habana Vieja – Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza de San Francisco.
A tree growing out of an abandoned building right behind El Capitolio
And the interior, with a statue of Alicia Alonso herself
The Spanish influence is much clearer in the architecture of Habana Vieja, but you never forget you’re in Cuba thanks to the sound of music everywhere and the women dressed in colorful traditional garbs posing at every corner.
On Parque Central, we also met a nice man working a homemade pinhole camera and had him take a photo of us. For 2 CUC, it’s truly a one-of-a-kind souvenir!
On our third day, we did the touristy thing and went on a classic car tour, which we booked on Airbnb for convenience’s sake (we knew the guide speaks English and it saves us from having to bargain with the driver, like we would if we just picked a car on the street.) The tour took us to places that we would not be able to walk to – Hotel Nacional, Plaza de la Revolucion, Parque Almendares (a riverside urban forest), El Morro castle, and the statue of Christ of Havana across the bay – and was a great lesson about the history of Havana.
The guide and driver were also super obliging – they drove us to a restaurant for lunch, waited for us, and later dropped us off at Coppelia, a famous ice cream parlor chain in Cuba.
When we came back to Havana before our flight home, we decided to stay closer to Habana Centro for easier souvenir shopping. Our casa is in a beautiful, spacious colonial building, and we quite enjoyed waking up to the hustle and bustle of Habana Centro in the morning.
There are still a few things I would’ve liked to do and to see (watch the cannon ceremony at El Morro at 9 PM, go to Fusterlandia, a neighborhood-turned-folk art gallery, and watch sunset over Havana from across the bay), but we didn’t feel like rushing things on the last day, so instead we just took it easy, walked along the Malecon, picked up some souvenirs, and returned to the casa early to pack.
Hey, you have to leave something for next time, right? Because I certainly hope there will be a next time, some day.
While I was planning for the Cuba trip, sometimes I had to wonder why I chose to go there. After all, Cuba is best known for its cigars, rum, salsa, and beaches, but I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t dance, and I don’t swim, so what is left for me to do in Cuba?
The answer is, a whole lot. During our 10 days in Cuba, we have gone on city tours and nature hikes, ridden in classic cars and on horses, chased the sunset from the mountains to the beach, and seen the faded grandeur of the cities, the tranquility of the countryside, and the untamed beauty of the jungle. It is truly a marvelous country, and my photos and words cannot do it justice.
Our itinerary is Havana (3 days) – Viñales (2 days) – Cienfuegos (2 days) – Trinidad (2 days) – Havana (1 day). While I would’ve liked to stay for a little longer, I think this is a good amount of time to get to know Cuba. If you want to relax more or spend more time at the beach (we only went to the beach once), 2 full weeks would be my recommendation.
Onto the technical side of things, there are plenty of Cuba travel guides online already, so I’m not going to get too much into that, only to give you my own experience:
– Accommodations: casa particular (private home) is the way to go. Don’t bother with the hotels. I mean, why would you, when you can stay at places like these?
Most of the casas are available on Airbnb so we booked ahead to save time, but if you’re in the mood for an adventure (and you should be while in Cuba), you can just show up to a town, look for a house with this symbol on its door and ask if there’s a room available. The price is by room, not by bed, so it’s best to travel with a friend.
Casas also provide meals (though usually not included in the price). We ate breakfast every day at our casas. It’s a huge amount of food – fresh fruits, pastries, bread, butter, jam, juices, tea or coffee, and eggs cooked to order – all for $5/person, and delicious. The casa hosts are more than happy to help you with anything you need; just ask!
– Money: yes, Cuba has two currencies, the peso nacional (CUP) and peso convertible (CUC). 1 CUC = 1 USD, and 25 CUP = 1 CUC, roughly. Yes, tourists can use CUP, but I find that small CUC changes can do just as well, so keep them on hand for things like entrance fees, taxi rides, street foods, and tips. Our budget came to about $50/person/day, including accommodations.
– Getting around: the casas we picked are all close to the centers of towns, which means we walked everywhere, except for one taxi ride in Cienfuegos when we were caught in the rain. From city to city, there is the Viazul bus, but we just took shared taxis with other travelers going to the same destination. It’s much easier (the casa hosts can book it for you), quicker, and costs about the same as the bus.
– Food: traditional Cuban food may be unimaginative – just meat or fish, usually grilled, with rice and some raw vegetables – but it’s very filling. In fact, the portion is so big that we just ordered one starter and one main dish and split it (that saved us plenty of money!) There are also street foods like “peso” pizzas (so called because they’re so cheap), ice-creams, fried tortillas, and churros (which we tried, delicious).
Churros and a “peso” pizza place – the prices are in CUP
– Internet: there is no free wi-fi in Cuba. You buy an Internet card and log in at a hotspot. You can always find a hotspot whenever you see a bunch of people gather in one place glued to their phones and computers, and there are usually some guys nearby offering you Internet cards. We bought our cards from one of these guys for 2 CUC/1-hour card (the normal price is 1.5 CUC, but you have to stand in line.) During our trip, we only used up two cards each, mostly to email home to let our parents know we were still alive.
I quite enjoyed being unplugged and realized how much time I was wasting on social media and all that nonsense. That’s another thing I love about this trip. Elsewhere, you have to make an effort to stay disconnected from the rest of the world, but here, life is so slow-paced that you can really focus on the experience.
– Other tidbits: English speakers are easy to find, but knowing basic Spanish definitely helps. I did a course on Duolingo, and even though I couldn’t have a conversation with the locals, I could kinda tell what they were saying.
In touristy places, you will encounter touts offering you everything from tours to taxi rides to discount priced cigars, but a firm “No, gracias” and they’ll leave you alone. We never had any problem. It is perfectly safe, and the people are friendly and always quick to say hello.
More details and photos to come in later posts!