Vietnam – Hue & Hoi An & Jungle Beach & Saigon

We left Hanoi on a night train to Hue arriving with plenty of time to explore the old Imperial city and the night market for some cheap eats. Next day was a motorbike ride out to the Royal Tombs (Khai Dinh, Minh Mang, & Tu Duc) and the Thien Mu Pagoda before we headed towards Thuan An Beach for a relaxing afternoon with food and drinks at the Beach Bar Hue. Just before sunset, we made our way over to the old Japanese covered bridge (Thanh Toan)…spectacular sunset with mesmerizing scene (duck herders, water buffaloes, etc). The day wasn’t complete yet though. We decided to support a blind massage center where we got an hour massage for 60,000 Dong (less than $3). Poor Tig ended up getting gently stroked for an hour but we actually got proper massages so its pretty hit or miss there! From Hue, we left by private van to Hoi An, stopping along the way at the lookout point of Hai Van Pass as well as Marble Mountain. Once in Hoi An, lunch was on our minds and we found the epic burger joint at Jim’s Snack Bar…yum! Best burgers of the trip so far. Hoi An is famous for its picturesque historic district and technically, a ticket is required to enter the tourist zone. Since we weren’t keen on visiting any of the historical buildings, we told the ticket sellers that we were headed to our hotel by the waterfront to avoid purchasing a ticket and amazingly, that excuse worked all 3 days we were there. Most of the group got tailored outfits in Hoi An as the tailors are renowned for being able to replicate almost any outfit. After a day of lounging about Hoi An, we decided to rent a motorbike to visit the nearby Thanh Ha Terracotta Village and Museum. Surprisingly, the Terracotta Park ended up being the highlight of the day and is a not to be missed sight! From Thanh Ha, we drove out to Cam Kim Island where we got to see several carpenters and ship builders in action. Then we zipped over to two of Hoi An’s pagodas (Chuc Thanh and Phuc Lam) before catching sunset at the Cua Dai Bridge and fishing port. It was great to squeeze in a full day of sightseeing in Hoi An before the night sleeper train to Nha Trang. From Nha Trang, we drove about 45km away to Jungle Beach, which had rustic bamboo bungalows, all meals included, a nice sandy beach and a bioluminescent bay to enjoy. It was bliss for two days with the highlight swimming at night with millions of glowing microscopic dinoflagelates (bioluminescent phytoplankton) in the calm sea. We had read that there are nearby salt fields and were keen on checking them out at sunrise. Unfortunately, the salt harvesting season was completely over by August so we missed out but hopefully we’ll have a future opportunity to check it out! From Jungle Beach, we made our way to our final stop in Vietnam, the chaotic city of Saigon. We were finally able to ditch our heavy backpacks (camping gear, winter clothes) with the family in Saigon so you can imagine how thrilled we are to be traveling light again! Saigon is a great place for street food and drinks so we ate and drank our way throughout the city. We did spent a full day at the Dam Sen Waterpark which was loads of fun. And that is it…out time in Vietnam came to an end and now we are headed to Cambodia where we will spend a week.

26 Aug – Our train pulled into Hue around 9:30 am. While waiting in the hot sun for Tig to sort out taxis to our hotel, we realized that Hue is a lot hotter than Hanoi! The sun was killer today. Eventually, we loaded into taxis for the ride over to Sunny B Hotel which was our home for the next 2 nights. The rooms were really nice – very posh and comfortable. The hotel staff offered us several tours and we opted to hire our own motorbikes for a self guided tour tomorrow. Robby was able to drop off his large backpack to be stitched up. The main strap was ripping apart from the excess weight that we had been carrying since we left the truck in China. Unbelievably, the staff contacted an old lady down the street who sewed it up in less than an hour. After admiring her handiwork, we decided to have her fix a small carry-on bag, a pants pocket zipper, and add an extra long strap to a purse. Then it was off to lunch at a restaurant the staff had recommended. Within walking distance, we strolled to Hanh Restaurant where we tried some of Hue’s specialties: Banh Loc (cassava, shrimp and pork wrapped in banana leaf and steamed), Banh Nam (rice flour and shrimp wrapped in banana leaf and steamed, served with sweet fish sauce), Nem Lui (grilled minced pork rolls on lemongrass stick with rice paper, greens and peanut sauce), and Banh Khoai (fried pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp, green onion, carrot, bean and sprouts served with greens and peanut sauce). Mmmm, good and cheap. After lunch we linked up with the group and walked to the Old Imperial City and the inner Forbidden City. We were able to purchase a combo ticket that included 3 tombs we plan to visit tomorrow so it was a good deal. This was our second time to Hue’s Imperial City. Quite a bit of the complex has been destroyed and fallen to ruins but they have done a great job of restoring some of it. Exploring the massive complex meant that the two of us got split up, with Becky joining Tig on a walkabout and Robby wandering around on his own. Since there are several exits, Becky and Tig waited for over 45 minutes at the main one but eventually decided to head over to the Dong Ba market for some street food. However, they ran into Helen and Ant who mentioned Robby was still waiting for Becky at the Forbidden city. Grrrr! It took over an hour before we were able to link up with each other…quite annoying to be wandering all around Hue trying to find one another. After backtracking to the market, we realized that the street food scene wasn’t what we wanted so we decided to walk back towards our hotel, stopping at various ATM machines along the way. None of them would accept our card for some reason (perhaps it was blocked?) so we figured we could call our bank once we got wifi. Dinner was at a restaurant near our hotel (Bun Bo Hue and Bun Thit Nuong). Once we verified our card was not blocked, we found another ATM nearby that other travelers had recommended. Success! We were finally able to take out 5 Million Dong in a single transaction so we should be all set for the next couple of days.

27 Aug – Our pre-arranged bikes were ready for us at 7 am but we quickly realized that the bike shop down the street was offering better bikes for cheaper so we opted to go with them instead. The sweat monkeys (our newly dubbed motorcycle gang since we were sweating a lot in humid Vietnam) rode off at 8 am. Gill, Denise and Connie had signed up for a boat tour, while the remaining 6 of us (Helen & Ant, Lars, Tig, and us) rode to the closest gas station to top off. Our first stop was the Khai Dinh Tomb. The stone bodyguards are worth checking out as is the interior tomb detail. Boy was it a scorcher today! We were completely soaked and it was still early in the morning. Next we had a quick stop for breakfast at a roadside shack. The noodle soup hit the spot. Next up was the Tomb of Minh Mang. It was OK but we liked the Khai Dinh Tomb more. Since we still had another tomb on our combo ticket, we decided to ride out with Helen and Ant to check out the Tu Duc Tomb. Meanwhile, Lars and Tig wanted to hit town to do some shopping and get online. We agreed to meet them at the Thien Mu Pagoda at noon. Tu Duc Tomb was worth a quick visit…Helen caught Ant sliding across the wooden floor in a slow-mo video which was hilarious. Near Tu Duc tomb, we rode past an incense village which was pretty cool because the incense sticks were arranged in colorful stacks. Next up was Thien Mu Pagoda (free entry) and we pulled up just as Lars and Tig arrived. This pagoda’s claim to fame is the car of the monk who burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963 as a form of protest against the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhists. From here, we rode out to Thuan An Beach. The Beach Bar Hue seemed to be the only place on the beach that had food and shade and we had to pay for entry. But, the entry fee counted towards any food and drinks that were consumed, so it ended up being an OK deal overall. The Sweat Monkeys spent a few hours in bliss soaking up the sun, swimming, and enjoying our cocktails and meals. By late afternoon, we decided to split up. Helen and Ant wanted to head back into Hue, and we were keen on visiting the Japanese Covered Bridge (Thanh Toan) with Tig. Lars wanted to hang out at the beach for a bit longer so we all did our own thing. Our ride out to the covered bridge was quite enjoyable as the sunset was spectacular. Navigating our way back to town on some narrow dirt tracks while in the dark was a bit tricky due to lots of road construction and diversions but we figured it out. After returning our bikes, we joined Tig for a massage at a blind massage center (1 hour massage for 60000 Dong). First we had to sit in a 15 minute herbal sauna, which was essentially a tiny room with a steam pipe that filters through lemon grass and other herbs. It was actually really nice although super tiny, especially for Tig and Becky who both barely managed to squeeze in at the same time. We enjoyed our massages but Tig demonstrated hers and we laughed as we realized she had essentially been gently stroked for an hour. Our taxi driver had kindly waited for us to complete our massages and he drove us back into town where we met the group at a bar by the hotel for a drink. The bar had a pool table so you know what Lars was busy doing! It was dinner time so we stopped at the first restaurant that looked appealing (Big Ben) and finished off our night with ice cream.

28 Aug – Breakfast was at a restaurant just across from the hotel where we got caught up with Connie and Denise (who had done the Hue river boat excursion yesterday). By 9 am, we were ready to go in our private van that was to take us from Hue to Hoi An (with a stop at Marble Mountain enroute). Helen and Anthony had decided to take a motorbike ride all the way town…which meant more space for the 7 of us in the van! From Hue we made our way to the Hai Van Pass (military bunkers) which was worth a quick stop for photos. Then we drove to Marble Mountain where we had some free time to explore. In mere minutes, we were sweating profusely from our hike around the mountain. The views from the top of Marble Mountain and its caves made our stop worthwhile. Then it was onward to Hoi An, our final destination of the day. Our driver dropped us off at the Thanh Binh II Hotel which was a nice base to explore Hoi An. Becky had scoped out a burger joint for lunch on Tripadvisor and led the gang there. Thankfully, it did not disappoint! Jim’s Snack Bar was the bomb with some amazing burgers and fries. Opened only a few months, this burger joint’s high ranking was well deserved, especially after meeting the humble owner in person…what a nice guy. Hoi An is legendary for its tailor shops so after lunch, Becky joined Gill and Denise for a walk around town to see if the tailors could replicate Denise’s Turkey skirt. Meanwhile, Lars and Robby just wanted to stroll about town. It was another super hot day, and we quickly sweat up a storm. After several hours of wandering around Hoi An, we were ready for some pool action. Gill joined us and we spent over an hour cooling down in the pool. At 7 pm, we joined the gang for drinks and dinner. It started raining but thankfully eased up as we headed out for the night. First stop was the bar just across the hotel where a glass of beer was only 5000 Dong. Tig mentioned having dinner at “The Chef” restaurant in town, which offered some fancy cocktails and a nice menu for dinner. More posh than we are used to but a nice upgrade from the norm! Then we had a bit of window shopping around Hue at night. Lars was interested in buying a miniature replica boat souvenir and after looking at the level of detail, we figured the asking price was pretty fair (especially since he could get free shipping back to Norway). Hoi An at night offered some nice photos, so we wandered around before calling it a day.

29 Aug – To beat the heat, we got up early for a wander around the old town and market for a few hours before returning to the hotel for breakfast. And what a breakfast it was! One of the best of the trip for sure. Our breakfast buffet was served at a sister hotel around the corner where the staff had laid out a massive spread of food. Eggs to order, tons of bacon, fruits and nuts, pastries and yogurt, juice, tea and coffee. We stuffed ourselves silly and then chilled in our AC room to beat the heat during the middle of the day. Everyone else went out to get outfits made. By early afternoon, we saw dark clouds on the horizon so we wanted to get out for a few photos before the storm. Boy it came pouring down! We managed to escape the weather by ducking into a nearby restaurant for some of Hoi An’s local specialties: Cao Lau, Mi Quang and fried wantons served with beer. The place became packed as everyone waited out the rain. After an hour, the downpour became a light sprinkle so we hit the streets for a few more photos before stopping at the Cargo Club for some sweet treats (Chocolate truffle and Victoria Chocolate Cake). If you are ever in Hoi An and you have a sweet tooth, do not miss this place! The most heavenly desserts…yum! We should have split a dessert between the two of us because one each made us feel sick. In a good, I’m about to have a calorie coma kind of way. While heading back to the hotel, we picked up a cheap bottle of vodka for the train ride tomorrow night.

30 Aug – After enjoying the hotel’s phenomenal breakfast, we decided to hang out in the room as long as possible until checkout. Finally, at 11 am, we lugged our gear down to Tig’s room (she was keeping it for the entire day) and rented a motorbike for the afternoon. Our first stop was the Thanh Ha Terracotta Village where we were able to see how they make various types of terracotta pottery and other nick knacks. Then we went to the Terracotta Park, which was really the highlight of the visit. There were miniature terracotta world landmarks and buildings, an exhibit of terracotta artwork, a museum and a workshop where you can make terracotta objects yourself. Definitely worth a visit. Next was a stop at the Chuc Thanh Pagoda and Phuc Lam Pagoda, two temples that were supposed to be Hoi An highlights but we just thought they were OK. From here, we drove across the bridge to Cam Kim Island, which was home to the Kim Bong Carpentry Village. Most visitors opt to visit on a boat tour as the village is a bit hard to find but after zooming around the island, we eventually drove up on it. Not only were there carpenters (lots of wood carvings), but there were plenty of shipbuilders in this area too. We watched in horrified fascination as two shipbuilders started swinging furiously at each other, in an all our brawl that took place mere minutes after we showed up. Not wanting to get caught up in the drama, we drove off in search of nuoc mia (sugarcane juice) before heading into town for some late lunch. A row of hawker stalls met our requirement for cheap, filling and quick food before we zoomed over towards the Cua Dai Bridge and nearby fishing port. There were some cool cloud formations in the sky that refracted the light. End result was the sky had partial rainbow colors scattered around the clouds which was very cool to witness. Down by the waterfront, we checked out the fishing port and market area, easing our way through the market crowd. Then it was back to Hoi An to drop off our bike (well worth the $3 half day rental) before grabbing some drinks with Helen and Ant across the street. Gill and Denise joined us and we were convinced to join Gill for happy hour specials in Hoi An. There, we scored massive bucket mojitos for cheap which made for a happy afternoon. Back at the hotel, Becky was convinced to join the gang in grabbing burgers for dinner at Jim’s Snack Shack while Robby opted for cheap street food instead. After dinner, we squeezed in a quick shower in Tig’s room before our van showed up for the ride to the Danang train station. The train showed up an hour after we arrived and we discovered to our dismay that we were in 6 bunk cabins, and none of us had scored a bottom bunk. It was like playing a game of Tetris having to stack our massive bags on the floor in a configuration that would work. Thank goodness the 2 other occupants of our cabin weren’t there when we arrived as we had to manhandle their bags as well. It was a long night train from Danang to Nha Trang as our two bottom bunk room mates weren’t the most considerate with their frequent trips to the bathroom (and leaving the cabin door wide open) all night long.

31 Aug – We pulled into Nha Trang at 8:25 am and our lodging for the next 3 nights, Jungle Beach, had a van waiting on us. Jungle Beach is located about 23 km north of Nha Trang out on a small peninsula so we settled in for the drive, stopping midway to grab a streetside breakfast. It quickly dawned on us that we were going someplace remote, far away from the tourist trap that Nha Trang has become. Once we pulled into Jungle Beach, we were greeted by rustic bamboo bungalows and a pristine beach. All meals are included during our stay here, so we only had to worry about drinks. After checking in to our respective rooms, we hit the beach for some downtime. Luckily, Jungle Beach has built up lots of shady areas to lounge beneath, as the sun would burn you in minutes. Lunch was a communal affair with all guests gathering in the main reception area to share a homecooked meal. Dinner was the same deal. We had heard that we were on the tail end of the season to check out the salt fields nearby, so after some debate we coordinated an early morning bike rental through Jungle Beach. After dinner, a bunch of us hopped in the ocean to see the bioluminescence which was way cool. What an awesome slice of paradise! The staff built a small bonfire on the beach, encouraging all its guests to stay up late to chat with each other.

01 Sep – 4:30 am and we were up to get to the nearby salt fields for sunrise. We knew we were cutting it close to see the salt fields as the season generally runs from Feb to Aug/Sep. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the salt mounds were long gone in preparation for the rainy season. No salt mounds and no workers harvesting the salt…boo! The salt fields themselves were flooded with water, and it was obvious they would stay in that dormant state until next year’s salt season. Oh well, we tried and it didn’t work out. No biggie. Instead, we got a consolation prize of an awesome sunrise. Back at Jungle Beach at 6:30 am, we had to wait another 30 minutes for breakfast. Since we no longer needed the bike for the rest of the day, we asked the owner for a discount since the salt fields were a bust, but Lars was keen on riding later on today so we agreed to split the cost with him, keeping the bike for the entire day. We hit the ocean while it was still bearable but once the heat started to rise, had to stay under shade for the majority of the day. Neither one of us were keen on getting sunburned here! After lunch we sat out on our deck until Lars called us down for drinks on Denise’s party deck. We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking and going for a swim. Dinner was a beach barbecue put on by the Jungle Beach staff. The pork ribs were divine! Then the group of us hit the ocean for an evening swim to check out the bioluminescence. Even Denise joined in! Considering the fact that she can’t swim, it was brave decision but she felt it was worth it as the sea sparkled beneath our touch…so awesome! Our human pyramid scheme didn’t pan out because it was just too damn hard with everyone a bit tipsy but that didn’t stop a drunk Robby from recruiting a petite Vietnamese lady from joining in our efforts, claiming that he could support her with one hand. Poor lady had no idea what she was in for but she was eventually rescued by her friends. Back on dry land, Robby and Tig hit the kiddie pool in their effort to rinse off the salt water (versus walking 10 feet over to the showers!) Our bottle of vodka quickly disappeared as Robby peer pressured everyone (other guests weren’t spared) to drink his concoction of “RED TANG”. What a night!

02 Sep – After breakfast, we checked out of Jungle Beach and got a ride the Nha Trang train station for a full day ride to Saigon. It sucked having to waste a full day on travel but we had voted as a group on whether to catch a night train to Saigon. However, it would have brought us into the city at 5:30 am, and we wouldn’t be able to check into our hotel until much later so we opted for the day train instead. Thankfully, the train ride was comfortable and we were able to spread out by claiming the empty spare seats around us. We pulled into Saigon at 7:20 pm and took taxis to the Saigon Odyssey Hotel. What crazy chaotic traffic! Note to self: avoid downtown during rush hour…that traffic was insane. At check in, we were told that the hotel had upgraded all of us to better rooms at their sister hotel just around the corner. After dropping off our gear (yes, we get to offload our heavy bags tomorrow…can’t wait!!!), we hit the streets for some food and ran into Connie who joined us. The three of us ate at a place just a few doors down from the hotel. We laughed when it dawned on us that our food actually came from a bunch of different kitchens nearby. Our restaurant didn’t actually have its own kitchen but was the middle man, outsourcing the cooking to others! However the food was still good and it was cheap, so it ticked all the boxes.

03 Sep – Becky got up around midnight with a bedbug bite. After our horrible incident in Luang Prabang, we knew the tell tale signs and it was obvious that this was a bed bug bite. However, when we pulled the bed away from the wall and inspected the room, we couldn’t find anymore tell tale signs so we decided to wait it out until the morning. Needless to say, it was a horrible night’s sleep but at least Becky didn’t get attacked by anymore bedbugs. As soon as we saw Tig in the morning, she told us that she had been bit dozens of times in her room, leaving a trail all over her body! Oh hell no, we aren’t staying here anymore…we immediately wanted to switch hotels after hearing about her experience. However, Tig was headed out with Lars for the Cu Chi Tunnels and said she would sort it out when she got back. We checked out of our room and dropped off our day packs with Gill and Lars. Our goal for today was to get rid of our massively overweight big bags – something we have been looking forward to ever since we left the truck in Xi’an. The hotel staff called Anh Hai for us, and he offered to come pick us up despite our suggestion of catching a taxi. We were whisked away to his house where we had a nice feast of crabs, tiger prawns, nem sausage triangles, fish, pork greens and rice. It was impossible to say no as food was force fed to us. Robby presented Hai with the wool hat from Uzbekistan as well as a bottle of Chinese rice wine. Silly gifts and Hai seemed to like the hat. After lunch, we were taken over to Hai’s new house and given a tour. He’s got some nice new digs! Then we were dropped off at Bob and Ann’s place where Chi Xuan and Di Phung were waiting on us (Di Tam was off on vacation so our only English translator was gone). It was a happy moment for us to offload our heavy bags. Yay, now we have freedom! It will be interesting to see how we will manage with just a small day pack for the remaining month of travel but we can always buy stuff if needed. Hai wanted to take an after lunch snooze, so that left us with an hour to kill. So we decided to have some Vietnamese lessons for an hour. Boy was it difficult! The lack of ability to communicate with our relatives made us realize just how vital our language lessons will be when we return here in October for a few months. A reluctant Hai came to pick us up and drop us back off at our hotel when we called to wake him up from his snooze. Tig wasn’t back yet so we decided to walk around the tourist district to find an ATM to get a bit more cash out. We eventually linked back up with her and went to inspect the new accommodations at the nearby Beauty Guesthouse, which was just a few doors down from our original hotel. This time we did a full on bed inspection, which annoyed the owner since we were tearing the sheets back and messing up the bed and he didn’t even know if we wanted to accept the room or not. But after a sleepless bed bug night, we didn’t really care if he was annoyed with our thorough inspection. Luckily, the Beauty Guesthouse is cleaned by someone with OCD. Everything was super clean, neat and orderly and there wasn’t a trace of a single bed bug so we happily accepted our room. This appeased the owner and he broke out into a friendly smile, with his entire demeanor transforming. Since Lars and Gill were still out and about, we went with Tig to grab our gear from their room. The gang was keen on a pricey brewery for the afternoon so we opted to hang out in Saigon on our own. The night market near Ben Thanh was in full swing, and the food court was packed. Live music was playing and the atmosphere was welcoming. We found it to be way too crowded so we kept wandering, finding a quiet alley restaurant that served good food cheap. Nearby, the entire backpacker district transformed itself into a makeshift outdoor bar and we were accosted for happy hour specials on our walk back to the hotel. Definitely something we need to drag the others to tomorrow night!

04 Sep – After breakfast at the hotel, we were off to the water park! Catching the bus (number 11) near the Ben Thanh Market was a breeze and cheap at only 5000 Dong. The Dam Sen Waterpark is the last stop so it is impossible to get lost. We inadvertently walked into the amusement park (adjacent to the waterpark) but were quickly pointed in the right direction. Becky had read online that the local women cover up with a t-shirt and shorts over their swimsuits so in an effort to blend in, she did the same. Good thing too because the only scantily clad women were foreign tourists who were getting ogled by the locals! We were told to head up to the second floor area for storage lockers (free) reserved for foreigners. No sunglasses, watches, cameras, etc are allowed to be taken on the waterslides so we dropped everything off at the locker and decided to check off every single ride at the park. What a fun day! Many of the rides probably wouldn’t pass safety inspections in the US but in Vietnam, anything goes. Since it was a Sunday, the place was packed but we didn’t have to wait too long for any of the rides. Lunch was dim sum and we were surprised it was so reasonably priced at the waterpark. After 5 hours of non stop water fun, we checked off every single ride and did our favorite ones multiple times. What a great day trip for Saigon! Catching bus #11 back into town was super easy, and we had worked up an appetite for a decent dinner tonight. So Becky went to Tripadvisor for their recommendation and found a place called “Ngọc Châu Garden” that was supposed to serve authentic Vietnamese food for reasonable prices. The food was good but prices were definitely geared for tourists not on a budget. And honestly, Becky has had better Vietnamese food from her mom’s homecooking. Lesson learned! We were still hungry afterwards and decided to revisit the alley restaurant we discovered last night. A plateful of spring rolls and two ice coffees later and we were feeling pretty good. A fellow diner helped us order our meal (he’s a Vietnamese guy who has been living in California for the past few years) so we started chatting him up and ended up getting invited to eat at his restaurant in San Jose for free whenever we were in the area. After dinner drinks were on Bui Vien Street which had transformed itself into party central after the sun went down. The happy hour drinks were a good deal and we managed to convince Tig and Lars to join us (they had just returned from a late visit to the waterpark and enjoyed it as much as we did). What a nice night to end our stay in Vietnam. Tomorrow we are off to Cambodia!

05 Sep – After having breakfast with Connie, we packed up and were thrilled to only have a tiny day pack to contend with. Watching the others lug their heavy bags around made us feel light and carefree! We had to load onto a shuttle to the nearby bus terminal where our 8:30 am bus to Cambodia was ready and waiting. The bus had free WIFI on board so happy times. The bus driver’s assistant made it clear that he would be handling the Cambodia visa for us, charging us all $35 for his efforts. We tried to argue the fee because we knew the visa only cost $30 but were told that his cut was $5. Either that or we could do it ourselves and the bus would leave us at the border. Not cool to be extorted for money so early in the morning! We were stamped out of Vietnam at the Moc Bai border crossing and had to walk across to the Cambodia border crossing. Goodbye Vietnam and see you soon!

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