Xin Chao from Vietnam
I have just completed my final tour in SE Asia before heading to Japan via China. It has been an immense trip during which we have travelled the length of Vietnam using various different modes of transport like minibus, overnight trains, taxis, a Vietnamese tuktuk (not to be confused with the normal tuktuk), cyclovelo, overnight boat, small boats, dugout canoes and lastly my own feet!
Vietnam is an amazing country full of stunning landscapes, lovely people and amazing food and has put itself firmly in my top 5 favourite countries.
My 2 weeks in Vietnam has been non-stop, much like my time in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand! I could do with a holiday from my travels!
Anyway…enough introduction on with the storytelling.
We left of previously with me along in Phnom Penh awaiting my bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The bus journey and border crossing itself was relatively uneventful apart from me recognising the Cambodian woman sitting in front of me, who I confirmed was the other Female Intrepid tour guide and the guide my friends had in Cambodia and a colleague of Rous (my Cambodian Guide).
The other person of note was the owner of a truck/bus stop restaurant we stopped at for a toilet break and lunch halfway through the journey….myself and an American elderly couple who teach English in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) were attempting to work out the food ordering and payment system. You got given some ropey old chicken in curry sauce which was full of shards of bones and far too much salt, but no one to pay! Unbeknown to us some old, angry chinese mafia triad lady comes along and barks a price at you. She has huge gold and precious stone rings slathered across every finger/knuckle and a fierce stare! The American guy asked to pay, she pointed at the table and said ‘2 curry, 2 beer and a water – $6’, he then had to explain that the water was theirs that they had brought them and again asked how much to which triad womans reply was ‘$5, $5’ in this angry shouty bark! She snatched the money out of his hand and waved her red talon dripping in gold and diamonds at him to move aside! Brilliant! Sadly I didn’t get a photo of her in all her mafia gloriousness, was slightly concerned she would lob my camera on the floor!
After finally arriving in HCMC, I checked in and then Fiona (from Cambodian trip) for dinner in the loud and busy backpackers street where we were both staying. Thought I would start as I mean to go on so went straight in for a Vietnamese curry with rice! Afterwards we headed to a cute little ice cream cafe and sat on the miniature rooftop listening to the pounding music from 15 different surrounding bars whilst devouring a very nice rum n raisin!
Got back to the hotel to find an army of ants following each other in a trail across my bedroom walls, they came out of a hole in the skirting board in one corner…marching up the wall, across to the wardrobe, behind the wardrobe, along the top of the table, up the door frame, across the top and over onto a third wall where they disappeared into the door frame! Christ knows what they were doing and where they were going. I ventured downstairs to tell reception, who looked resolutely disinterested and although saying someone would come and sort it, after 3 hours no one had and I was tired so I went to sleep (thankfully no ants in or around the bed!) leaving my anty roommates to march around! Come morning there was not an ant to be seen!
Thinking about it now, I should have lain a trap and caught all the ants and sold them in Cambodia where they would have been fried!
The following day I had some free time to myself so wandered around the streets of HCMC taking in the cathedral and a hindu temple amongst other buildings. The cathedral is meant to replicate the Notre Dame.
That evening I met the group I would be travelling with in Vietnam……16 of us, mainly Antipodeans! We had the Brady Bunch (Mark, Sue and their kids Bec and Ben), friends Liz, Peter, Liz and Josh, Grant and wife Fiona, Phoebe and Peter (surrogate Ozzie but born and bred Slovakian), Liv (surrogate NZ’er but born and bred Brit) and Nicola and Justin (fellow Brits). Our tour leader is a lunatic called Bac!
Day 1 of the trip and we got straight to it….8.30am we left on a minibus down to the Mekong Delta and a town called Ben Tre. There we got a boat around the Mekong Delta stopping at loads of different places….firstly a local village where we sat and enjoyed loads of fruit, tea and traditional music and singing, then a coconut sweet production place where we sampled the sweets and had shots of different rice wines. The rice wine tastes as rancid as it did in Cambodia…we tried the normal one, a banana one (that hadn’t been near a banana from the taste of it) and a snake rice wine! This is basically a rice wine that has got pickled snakes in it! When offered a shot I thought…in for a penny in for a pound! Actually tasted the best out of the 3!
We then went on a ride on a Vietnamese tuktuk which is basically a trike with a metal seating area on the back…the seats are not fixed so when you fly round a corner the whole bench slides across the trailer! We were given helmets to wear which at first seemed overly protective but then when we starting speeding along through single track village dirt tracks with overhanging tree branches whipping at our faces the need became more clear!
After the trike off roading we got in a small dugout row-boat for a trip around the narrower canals before arriving at lunch. Lunch was an amazing home cooked affair of elephant ear fish (it’s supposed to look like an elephant) with pineapple, cucumber, noodles and Vietnamese mint all rolled up into a rice pancake, rice and pork and a fried vietnamese pancake. We were stuffed afterwards!
We then arrived at our homestay for the night which was nothing like the Cambodian one…it was more like a guesthouse in traditional style. We had basic wooden twin rooms with mozzie nets and a shared shower and bathroom. The dining area had a spectacular view of the river and the full moon that night…the setting sun did peculiar things to the colour of the sky!
That night we ate another amazing, home cooked, 4 course meal before settling down to a few games of Uno. It was Slovakian Peter’s first time playing, but as soon as he sussed the game he was off! Majorly competitive with a serious face on him…he was even sweating with the stress of playing! Hilarious!
Sleep eluded Liv and myself that night due to a combination of a really squeaky fan which was totally ineffective, hideously slidey nylon sheets and pillowcase which not only made you sweat but every time you threw your head on the pillow in exasperation, the pillow slid off the bed! We also had a dog which launched itself at our door several times, scratching profusely trying to get in! Fun times.
The next day saw us head back to HCMC for half a day before getting a night train to Nha Trang that evening. Liv, Phoebe, Peter and myself went for a stroll around HCMC together…having the infamous pho for lunch (amazing noodle soup with meat and loads of Vietnamese mint), we then wandered the markets, took in some Japanese toilets in a shopping centre before going up a sky tower to the 52nd floor for the most expensive drink of the whole trip so far and amazing views over the city.
The night train was good fun, a relatively new train and very clean. The 4 of us shared a cabin so it seemed rude not to sit and play Uno again!
Slept relatively well apart from when the driver kept stamping on the brakes….its as if the stops at stations though the night were unexpected! Depending on which side of the cabin you were on you either got pretty much thrown from your bed before rebounding back and face planting the wall or you face planted the wall first before being thrown from your bed! Either way it makes for broken sleep!
Arrived in Nha Trang early, dumped bags and went for an orientation walk around town and some breakfast…found a bakery…amazing croissant and passionfruit macaroons! I bloody love passionfruit and I bloody love macaroons! The croissant was immense too! Best croissant in Vietnam! Lol
The group then headed off on a boat trip, snorkelling and swimming whereas I decided to have a day to myself and take in some of Nha Trang. I took a long walk along the beach promenade…past the busy spots full of Russian men wearing speedos and stupid white hooded kaftans which made them look like a beach version of the dude from Assassin’s Creed! Once away from the busy area I had the whole beach to myself! Miles of lovely beach with no one on it…I walked for a good hour along in one direction all the way to a pagoda before turning back and simply strolling along alone back to the set of Assassin’s Creed for lunch.
I then walked right up to the other end of the beach before wandering through town back the hotel where the group arrived back red and burnt slightly afterwards!
That evening Bac took a few of us to a local BBQ restaurant where locals eat. It’s a bit like a raclette without the cheese! We ordered plates of meat…chicken, beef, pork and goat and a plate of veggies and sat cooking them ourselves at the table! Great fun but very hot and smokey!
Afterwards Cambodian Fiona met us in a nearby shisha bar and a few of us had drinks and shared an apple mint shisha.
The following morning Liv and I went exploring on foot and walked 45 mins to an hour to see a Pagoda renowned for a stunning white buddha on top of a hill. It seemed like a good idea to walk at the time but what with the 35 degree heat, the 90% humidity and the sheer concentration taken to cross endless Vietnamese roads (you basically just walk out into the road, taking slow steps across and dodge the motorbikes) we arrived sweaty and shattered, still it was a beautiful pagoda which we pretty much had to ourselves.
We got a taxi back and hit the beach (still swathed in Russian Assassin Creed dudes) for lunch. After lunch a few of us headed to a posh hotel and spa for the afternoon. You fork out for a massage and get access to all the other elements of the spa for free! Good deal!
You get handed a very unflattering swimsuit and herded to the roof for mud baths to start with. The baths are made to look like stone baths with wonderful romanesque sculptures dotted around. Myself, Liv, Phoebe and Peter took to a bath which could have been very relaxing if it wasn’t for the hoards of possibly chinese people shouting and crawling all over the roof and the loud Korean-esque techno pop booming out of the speakers! Whatever happened to birdsong, running water or whale sounds?
After about 40 minutes stewing in mud we were told to get out and shower before we then hit the steam room, sauna, hydrotherapy foot spa, walk through water jets and finally jacuzzi.
After that we were given a robe and sent downstairs in a lift, upon arrival in the spa there was a line of masseuses’ who looked at your locker key number (on your bracelet) and then dragged you off if it was the number they were looking for. In the end the massage was very relaxing, 90 minutes of hot stone massage will always be relaxing..even if the soundtrack to that massage is classical piano concertos as opposed to what I would call spa music!
That night was another sleeper train, this time to Hoi An. Sadly the train was an older wooden affair, the beds were more comfortable, the toilets dirtier and the breaking just as bad!
We pulled into Danang station and jumped on a bus for 30 minutes or so to reach Hoi An.
I instantly fell in love with Hoi An, it’s a beautiful, old small city full of pagodas, old houses, waterways, bikes and amazing restaurants.
We headed to a brilliant bakery for a well deserved breakfast of eggs benedict before having an orientation walk around with Bac. We then had a few hours nap before our normal group of 4 headed into town for shopping! We first went to the tailors used by Top Gear in the Vietnam special and Liv ordered her boyfriend a suit, then we hit another local, family owned tailors where Liv and Phoebe got measured up for outfits. Liv also checked out a couple of leather tailors before getting measured up for a jacket.
After 5 hours of walking around and shopping we were done so we grabbed some dinner in a lovely riverside restaurant called Lantern Table before walking over the river to check out goings on along the riverfront.
The following day was sightseeing..so the 4 of us headed out again for a morning walking around checking out old houses, museums and pagodas.
That afternoon a few of us met with a local chef for a wander around local food markets before having a cooking class. We learnt how to make loads of Vietnamese dishes before eating our spoils! Bloody amazing food, even if I do say so myself!
We had Vietnamese pancake, veg spring rolls, baked fish in banana leaf and green papaya and chicken salad. Will have to try and find the ingredients at home now so I can knock up some Vietnamese fare.
The next day I had a lazy morning with Tom Hardy…ploughing my way through series 1 of Taboo…before heading out to some amazing ruins at My Son. These temples are older than ones I have seen in Cambodia and Burma!
We went in the afternoon on a day when the temperature was approaching 40 degrees which made for a sweaty wander round amongst baking brick buildings but I still loved it!
That night Cambodian Fiona joined us at a great riverside eaterie called Banana Leaf and a wine bar for a drink to say farewell to Hoi An as the following morning we left for Hue.
On the Hue…haha get it! We stopped at the Marble Mountains and climbed up and around taking in temples, caves, buddhas and 2 stone men playing the Vietnamese version of backgammon!
Our drive onwards to Hue took us through the Hai Van pass which is a stunning, windy 35km stretch of road up through the mountains and down towards Hue. The views were amazing of bays, beaches and bendy roads below.
We arrived in Hue later that day and headed into the citadel and our hotel. After a quick nap we then headed out that evening to a local family home for a home cooked dinner.
It was a bizarre but great evening, started off with us all sitting in the lounge area with the 90-year-old woman of the house and her son explaining family customs in Vietnam before offering us some betel leaf and betel nut combination…overwise known in India as paan.
This is what Indian men chew all day, a natural stimulant, that turns their mouths bright red and leaves red stains all over the ground where they spit! Very bizarre pastime but he wanted us to try it.
Only myself, Peter and Phoebe took him up on his offer, it was another when in Rome moment…having never tried paan in India! I can safely report back that it tastes bitter and rancid and makes your mouth feel furry before it feels like your throat is closing up! Finally when given a tissue and the opportunity to spit the whole lot out you find your tongue and teeth are bright red and the screwed up tissue in your hand looks like it contains some kind of blood clot you have hacked up and spat out! Delightful…still tried it, don’t feel the need to try it again!
Thankfully the throat closing feeling didn’t prevent me from scoffing down a 5 course dinner, which was immense. We feasted on pumpkin and peanut soup (my current favourite dish), spring rolls, jackfruit and tofu salad, pork and tofu clay pot, rice, fried morning-glory in garlic (much to westerners’ amusement morning glory is in fact an asian leafy vegetable like watercress!), stuffed cherry tomatoes, beef and Vietnamese mint soup all followed by fresh pineapple!
The following day, to try to aid digestion of last night’s feast, I spent the day walking and sightseeing Hue with Cambodian Fiona (who if you haven’t gathered was not on the tour but doing solo travelling Vietnam and happened to be in the same places as us at the same time!). We had a quick breakfast at Highland’s Coffee (the Vietnamese Starbucks) before going into the citadel inside the citadel! The buildings and architecture are amazing…aged looking Chinese-influenced. We wandered around until late morning when we hid in the air con cafe for a bit..weather was a glorious 36 degrees with, according to my weather app, the feel of 46 due to humidity!
Upon exiting the citadel we grabbed a couple of cyclovelos and had an hours rides around the outer citadel where we saw Ho Chi Minh’s childhood house, a female pagoda with a lovely statue of the female buddha, a traditional Hue timber house and gardens and just general daily goings on.
The cyclovelo guys dropped us into the main town after, outside the citadel and we grabbed some lunch before taking a taxi to see some Emperor’s tombs outside of Hue.
We went to the tomb of Ming Manh first, which was immense. It went on and on and on…starting with a courtyard with the initial entry gate and statues of emperors and animals.
After the courtyard there was what felt like a mile of steps, buildings, gates, more steps, buildings, gates, a bridge over a moat, more steps, buildings, gates…you get the picture! It took a good 15 minutes to walk to the far set of steps leading up to his actual burial site! Jesus!
We then headed to a smaller tomb to Tu Duc, which thankfully was not so elaborate in size and made for a quicker and easier walk around!
I wandered around alone quickly, leaving Fiona sitting in the shade having lost the will to live with miles of tombs in 46 degree heat!
We headed back to Hue, had a cold drink under some welcome air con and then parted ways.
I walked for another 45 mins or so back across the water into the citadel and to the hotel, arriving back at 5.30pm (having gone out at 8.30am) totally shattered and sweaty, thankful that months in sweltering 50 degree India have clearly acclimatised me to wandering around all day in a furnace!
The next day involved more Tom Hardy (Taboo) before heading out with a few of the group into town for lunch. We hid under the aircon for 3 and a half hours before venturing out into the heat and headed back to the hotel to grab our bags and jump on the final sleeper train to Hanoi.
The train was not as bad as the previous one but not quite as nice as the first. We tucked into our takeaway dinners that had been delivered to the station before having a monster 3 hour Uno session with 8 of us squeezed on the 2 lower bunks of our cabin!
Sleep was, yet again, fitful due to the spectacularly shocking braking in the night! If there were awards for the worse train driver, this dude would have won!
We shunted into Hanoi, arriving early morning and headed straight out for pain au chocolat and passion fruit juice! The rest of the day was spent mooching around the old quarter before grabbing a final farewell dinner with Cambodian Fiona.
The following morning the group all headed off to Halong Bay where we jumped on a junk boat (it was a lovely boat, that is just their name!) for a cruise around the staggering, huge rocks that protrude from the water!
We had a wonderful home cooked lunch and dinner on board and the evening was spent belting out tunes on the karaoke. I don’t normally partake in karaoke as although I think I am great singer, I am not sure the general consensus matches my view….however…I had another when in Rome moment and happily belted out Africa by Toto, California Dreaming, No woman no cry and Daddy Cool with Nicola (and Liz who helped out on Daddy Cool with choreography!) I then turned my hand to Celine Dion’s Titanic classic…my heart will go on! Well what do you know…not only did I score 100 (out of 100) and get the highest score ever recorded on an intrepid trip but turns out I can belt old Celine out a good un!
Next stop the voice! Move over Adele! HA!
We closed the night as a group singing we are the champions! I am pretty sure the crew and all the other boats moored up in the bay for the night were glad for the finale!
Next morning we sailed back to land and drove back to Hanoi.
It was most people’s last day in Vietnam, so we all headed off to do different things. Liv and I went to a water puppet show! It’s as bizarre as it sounds…a small theatre with musicians and a pagoda stage set with a large pool of water at the fore front!
Puppeteers hidden behind a curtain then move various puppets in the water reenacting 14 different folk stories all to traditional music and singing!
I loved the dragon dance, 2 dragon puppets spitting fire and diving in and out of the water! Very clever but very odd.
After the puppet show we met the rest of the group for a farewell dinner and then a few drinks.
Sunday saw everyone head off at different times apart from myself and the two Liz’s, Peter and Josh. Myself and one of the Liz’s headed out to Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi for a wander round. We crossed the bridge over to an island with a buddhist temple and a 2m long dead turtle! The lake is turtle lake and there is a local legend about the huge turtles in the lake.
We then walked a lap of the lake before lunch, watching all the locals enjoying family time together. There were flashmobs dancing, people selling toys for kids, people dressed as teacups, people walking varying breeds of dogs, kids in remote-controlled cars whizzing about…it was all happening!
We then headed back to the hotel, Liz went to lunch with Josh whilst I watched some more Taboo.
We met again in the evening with the other Liz and Peter for dinner which was a pavement based bbq place where you picked what you wanted and then cooked it! Great fun!
We then returned to the lake to catch the evening’s entertainment before grabbing some frozen yoghurt and saying goodbye.
The following morning I was picked up at 5.30am and headed to the airport for my flight to Tokyo via China.
The day started off crap, as just after checking in the sole fell off my flip-flops. So not being able to swap shoes as the rest were in my rucksack which had left my possession, I dug out the superglue I procured all those weeks ago in Laos only to find it rock hard and dried up. So in a strop I threw it back in the plastic bag and screwed it up forgetting the 2 inch long pin that came with the superglue! That then impaled itself into my thumb pretty much down to the bone! So bleeding and with 1 soled shoe and one non-soled shoe I went though security and passport control before reaching the departure lounge. Thankfully I found a souvenir shop selling traditional Vietnamese wares and they had some basic £3 bamboo flipflops. So chucked the broken ones in my hand luggage and changed into the Vietnamese ones!
Then upon putting my passport away I discovered that the corner of the front photo page had almost been ripped off from where check in clerk swiped it. This corner contains half my passport number on the bit that is swiped and read by the computers! Without the corner my passport in invalidated, well that’s a crisis!
So jobs for Tokyo…buy some more superglue and fix sole back onto flip-flops and find some sellotape to fix my passport!
Flight was on time and even arrived in Guangzhou early which is unusual for China Southern apparently.
I am now sitting in Guangzhou transit area with no Facebook, no Google (not allowed in China), no cash (as bizarrely the chinese don’t see the point of ATMs in a transit area), no food and no places that accept MasterCard! So lunch is some leftover dried mango from the bottom of my bag!
Got a couple of hours until my flight to Tokyo…but at least it gives me chance to pen my blog!
Bloody loved every moment in Vietnam, it is definitely one of my favourite countries full of amazing scenery, food and people.
So to summarise:-
Number of steps done – 187,000
Number of times eaten rice – 13
Number of croissants consumed – 2 (one was a pain au chocolat, does that count??)
Favourite dish – oh this is hard….its a toss-up between the pumpkin and peanut soup or the green papaya and chicken salad!
Number of times I nearly got hit by a motorbike whilst crossing the road – 279