Published: May 2nd 2009May 1st 2009
If you ever visit, make sure you have pens and sweets for the children!
We left for the Vietnamese border the next morning. It was a long drive - 5 hours, we crossed the border with no problems and within 45 mins we arrived at Chau Doc. The afternoon was spent on a riverboat cruise and we saw floating fishing villagers at work.
We arrived at a small place where, after a nerve jangling walk across a rickety wooden bridge we met with some local children. They were keen to strip us of sweets, pens and when these were depleted - cash.
It was a lovely day and in the evening we had a dinner in the hotel restaurant. I had a Vietnamese dish which is popular for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacking called Pho Bo - its is beef noodle soup served with fresh mint and basil leaves, lime wedges and sliced red chilli.
The next day, we travelled by coach (again) to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We arrived in the afternoon and after we'd settled into our rooms we headed out on a walking tour of the city. The first lesson when walking in Vietnam is learning how to cross the street. Unlike everywhere else I have ever been,
you do not wait for a gap in the traffic, nor do you stop or pick up pace if a car or (more likely) a motorbike is heading straight for you. No - you step out, walk straight ahead, maintaining the same pace and allow the vehicles to move around you. Its not a past time for the faint-heated and I found myself repeating a confidence boosting mantra as I crossed... 'just keep walking, look straight ahead, keep walking...' My secondary fear... after being squashed on the street, is that I continue this method when I am home - I wouldn't last 5 mins!
The many markets were a big draw, and I spend a couple of hours wandering through the stalls of clothes, perfume, jewellry, coffee, fish, meat and baked goods. A typical market, yet quite different from any I'd been in - its very intense in this city and the market was no different.
After a change for dinner back at the hotel we head out to Pho 2000 - a restaurant specialising in Pho, where their reputation is enhanced by the fact the Bill Clinton chose to eat there while on a non-official, post-presidential visit.
Ho Chi Minh City
Our cyclo drivers - the best!
This is very surprising when we get inside as the plastic chairs and bolted down tables are much more like the inside of a KFC, but hey, the Pho was good and the photo on the wall proved that he was indeed at the restaurant.
The next day, most of the group wen to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Vietnamese lived for the duration of the war - hiding from the US troops. I chose not to visit because it was a 2hr bus ride (one way) and although I would like to learn more about it, after the day in Phnom Pehn I can't face seeing people traps and tools of torture.
Instead, Anna (who was feeling the same as me) and I found ourselves a couple of cyclo drivers and booked then for a 2 hour sight seeing tour of the city. Cyclo drivers are one of the poorest in SE Asia - they own their bikes and sleep on them. Sometimes they go for days without a fare and this usually means they also go without food. My driver (on the left in the photo) had learned English. He was one of the
lucky few... it costs $200 US per month to go to English School and he was sponsored by a rich relative. These days he's lucky to earn $300 a year! He is pleased to be able to use his language skills and enjoys pointing out every embassy in the city, the post office and also big office buildings - a relatively new yet fast growing addition to the city.
I love this - really seeing the city as it is rather than through some coach window. Its scary at times - especially going the wrong way round roundabouts... I don't understand the rules! Oh yeah... there are none... eek!
My camera has been playing up so we stop at a department store to see if it can be fixed. Sadly he doesn't have the parts so I buy a new camera... less megapixels but it will do the job. By the time we'd left the luxury of the department a store, (everything is so beautiful, clean and shiny and I feel guilty for enjoying it so much) it has started to rain. The rain covers go up on the cyclos and I am covered in a heavy tarpaulin...
Its very early...
I feel a bit daft but its dry. Eventually the rain eased off and the sun came out and we continued our sightseeing.
We passed Notre Dame - a smaller version of the original; a Buddhist pagoda - where we stopped and went into the courtyard. Neither of us had shoulder coverage so we stayed outside the temple and looked at the pools of koi carp and turtles - hundreds of them. Next we visited the Reunification Palace, where, when the tanks crashed through the gates, signified the end of the war.
We headed back to the hotel and enjoyed more sights of the daily life in HCMC ... office workers suppling coffee from cardboard cups; children leaving school in droves of matching blue and white uniform and heading straight for the cinema and malls; and outside the nursery - 30+ motorcycles with parents waiting for that final school bell. There's a widely used saying in SE Asia and probably across the world... "same, same but different" - its so true.
Our 3 hour tour cost us £12 - we gave them a juicy tip which hopefully will see them right for a few days.
On the way to market
leave Hanoi at 6pm and head to the train station - we have been warned not to risk eating the food served on the train so I was prepared and picked up a pizza to eat cold for dinner. On the way to the station I looked at the photos the others had taken of the Cu Chi tunnels and although it was very interesting, I am glad I didn't go. I would have been too claustrophobic to actually go into the tunnels and seeing pictures of the traps were enough for me.
The train station was relatively quiet when we arrived and we got straight on the train. There were 4 bunks per compartment and I was to share with Anna, Gussie and Alexa. As it was Rory's birthday we celebrated with cake and a few beers. Our room turned into the 'party room' which thankfully was very tame and by 8.45 everyone had left and gone to bed. It was very early to be trying to sleep - I listened to some of my audiobook 'Bookseller of Kabul' and although I didn't actually sleep, I rested in the dark. I felt a bit motion sick after an
Girl on a Motorcycle
hour laying down so I took a pill which took ages to kick in but eventually I got comfy.
At 5am, music was played to alert the sleeper that we had arrived in Nha Trang and it was time to get up... a rather surreal experience as the chosen track was 'Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Pokka Dot Bikini' - priceless. We all thought we'd have about 30mins to get ourselves together - sadly it was more like 30 seconds and it was a mad scramble getting clothes on and bags packed before stumbling off the train into the darkness.
Our hotel was just 10mins away and thankfully our rooms were ready. We had an hour or so to get settled before breakfast so I had a shower and changed out of my now very ready to wash clothes. After breakfast we went to the beach, but the waves were so huge it would have been far too dangerous to try and swim so we headed back to the pool. It rained almost as soon as we'd got settled on the loungers so I took this a sign and went back to bed to sleep in a bed
Sights from the bike
that wasn't moving.
I set the alarm for midday and at 1pm we met for some lunch. We went to a place close to the hotel - I ordered Beef with Noodles but gave most of it away - still tired and not very hungry. After lunch we got some taxis to the Mud Spa Baths.
After getting into our bathing suits we all got into a communal mud bath and soaked ourselves in the earthy liquid goodness. We slopped the green tinted mud all over ourselves and each other and I got so much mud in my swimsuit that when I stood up it looked like I'd had a big accident in my pants - everyone had a good laugh.
After the mud bath we took a mineral shower and then hit the hot pool - at 40c it was lovely, especially nice as I haven't had a bath for ages so soaking was extra bliss. The final stage was a swim and dip in the jacuzzi - very relaxed by the end of it!
Dinner was taken in an Italian restaurant - I ordered shrimp in garlic butter and mashed potato. The mash arrived
Just stunning... unlike the Top Gear gang, I didn't find a bar
first (its considered a starter) and it was real potato and delicious. I was half way through when the shrimp arrived - it was tasty but they only served 4, so that was disappointing. After dinner we headed to a bar but half of us were too zonked to stay out late and we wandered back by 11pm.
The next day we were up early to go on a boat trip. We were at the harbour within 30mins and got on a big boat with 60 other seafaring tourists. Sadly it wasn’t that big a boat and we were all squashed like sardines… I prepared myself mentally for a day of hell, which was not helped by ‘funky monkey’ - the ‘MC’ for the day. He broke the ice by asking for volunteers for karaoke - needless to say we all stayed pretty cold at this and eventually he gave up.
Fortunately things picked up and we ended up having a good day. Most surreal experience was seeing my cruise ship, the Diamond Princess anchored off Nha Trang. I knew it was heading to Asia but I certainly hadn’t expected ever to see her again. Made me feel
I am a fire starter...
happy and brought back some nice memories - especially of the luxury and top class service.
We had some stops where snorkeling could be done but I didn’t fancy it. We had lunch served but I wasn’t really hungry so I just picked at some fruit. After lunch they gave us a concert - the best boy band in Nha Trang! The drum kit was made out of pots and pans from the kitchen but they were very good and got us all dancing.
After the concert and audience participation the ‘floating bar’ was launched and we all went swimming with rubber rings and floated around sipping a foul tasting alcoholic beverage that I ‘accidentally’ tipped away… oops. There were swarms of tiny brown jellyfish in the water and everyone got stung… except me - I escaped unharmed - phew! So that was another experience - dropped in the ocean where the bottom was a long, long way down… I felt very brave.
Our final stop was at a beach but I stayed on the boat and sunbathed on the top deck.
By the time we got back and had some food it was time to
Water puppet show
get on the bus to the train station for the overnight train to Hoi An. The train compartment wasn’t as nice as the last one, but we coped. Once again we attracted visitors, but they were gone by 9pm and we all bedded down for the night.
It was a long night that brought no sleep. The train was really bumpy and kept stopping very abruptly, not many of us slept well and the 4.15am wake up call was really harsh.
By 5.30am we were all in the lobby of the hotel, very bleary eyed and sleepy. It was too early for our rooms so we headed out to take some photos of the sunrise and watch the local market come alive. It was amazing - we watched a fisherman raise the biggest net I’ve ever seen. The market stalls had everything - fruit, veg, flowers, chickens, chicks, snails, eggs in all shapes and sizes and also household goods.
Motorbikes, bicycles, people carrying baskets upon baskets of food and live animals all hurrying to get set up - and it wasn’t even 6am! The smells were offset by the smiles and despite feeling in the way, it
was special experience that probably won’t be repeated.
We found a café for breakfast and I had fruit and yoghurt and an iced coffee - it is served strong black coffee with condensed milk that makes it very sweet and creamy - delicious.
We had a wander around town and found the street where the tailor shops are. I wasn’t sure what I expected from Hoi An, but I really liked it. It was the right mix of bustle and quiet streets where you could wander and enjoy the sights. The little streets were lined with shops selling clothes, souvenirs, art galleries and cafes.
Derek pointed out the tailor shops he’d recommend we use and before we set about getting down to the serious business of shopping, we stopped in a café and had a cooling sorbet - lemon and passion fruit… wow!
We hit the shops… I had decided to get some tops made in the style of one I had with me in different fabrics and also a couple of trousers. To that list I ended up adding a long skirt and a party dress. All in all it was an expensive trip - but still massively cheaper than buying off the peg in the UK.
In addition to my handmade clothes, I stopped in a silversmith and got them to create a ring and pendant with sun, moon and stars on them. I found a design on the web, tweaked it a little and left them to make it overnight… amazing.
The art galleries were amazing - I fell in love with one picture instantly and had to get it. Fortunately it was small and I ended up getting 2! They were 800 dong, which is about £25 - bargain.
It was really hot, so I headed back to the hotel and had a nice swim until our rooms were ready. It’s a lovely hotel - ornate dragon sculptures around the pool and a lovely big bed and a bath! Woohoo!!! Getting the bubble bath out later!
At 2pm we headed out to grab some lunch and found a place near the river. I tried the local delicacy called White Rose, which is a steamed dumpling of beansprouts, pork and prawns.
After lunch I went back to my room and had my bubble bath…. bliss! I headed back to the tailor at 6pm for a fitting - it all looked great and only a few tweaks required to have them finished to collect in the morning.
Dinner was at a restaurant called Morning Glory, which is a water grown green leaved plant that is grown across the area. It was really nice place and I had one of the best meals of the trip. I ordered Cabbage and Prawn soup, which was amazing, and Gussie and I shared another local specialty, called Crispy Pancakes. It was absolutely amazing - crispy pancakes which you fill with all sorts of leaves and vegetables, rolled up and dipped in a sweet and fresh chili sauce. I have no idea what I was eating but it was a taste sensation that just exploded in my mouth.
After dinner we headed to a nearby bar, but some people had to go back for more fittings etc. so it was a quiet one. I began to feel tired and a bit weird so I made my excuses and began the walk back to the hotel. I didn’t make it back the whole way before I was sick and spent the night in the bathroom - not exactly the nicest way to end what was such a nice day but I guess that’s all part of the traveler experience.
I skipped breakfast but had to go out for my final fitting in the morning. The plan was to go to the beach for the day, but I decided that a day close to my room was probably more sensible so I stayed by the pool. At 4pm I went to collect my clothes and my jewelry - it all looked great. I still felt rotten so I skipped dinner in lieu of a night in bed in front of the TV. Jumper was on so I watched that between trips to the loo.
I woke up feeling empty but ok - it’s a 5hr bus ride to Hue today leaving at 7am so I take my travel pill and try and prepare myself mentally. Although I felt awful, I was distracted by the stunning landscape that we were driving through. We were on the famous Hai Van Pass that was featured on that infamous Top Gear Vietnam special and it was more amazing than it looked on the TV.
We arrived at the hotel at 12.30 and checked in - I have a small but nice room and another bath… they are really spoiling me! At 1.30 our motorbike drivers arrive to give us a tour of Hue’s countryside. I was very nervous at the start but I soon got into it. Ian, my denim shirted, gold medallion, ray-ban, moustache-wearing driver was a good driver and I soon forgot my nerves and even began taking photos from the back of the bike.
We rode through the city at first, then through rice paddies, through narrow paths between houses, across bridges and up hills and through trees - amazing.
We visited a covered bridge - popular for romantic meetings and a farm nuseum. There was the tiniest old lady there, nearly 80 years old with teeth as black as coal. She demonstrated how to use the traditional farming techniques with more energy and enthusiasm that any of us thought possible of someone who turned out to be 84!
We visited a royal mausoleum, a conical hat maker who was born with a deformed arm. I bought a hat for myself and plan to hang it on my wall next to my straw hat I brought back from Jamaica. It’s a pain to carry round, but I’m sure it will be worth it when I finally get it home. We stopped briefly at an incense maker and also visited a beautiful spot with amazing views of the Perfume River - named after the scent from the flowers that grow on its banks. Finally we visited the silver pagoda and watched the sunset.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day and loved being on a motorbike - who’d have thought!
Dinner was at DMZ bar - I was hungry by now and ready to eat something bland. I chose pasta… the blandest thing they had and thankfully it went and stayed down very nicely. I didn’t risk a drink though and headed back to the hotel for an early night.
I slept late and didn’t leave my room until it was time to check out at midday. The others went to see the Citadel, but I was too tired. We headed back to DMZ for lunch and I had some more pasta and got a pizza to take away for a cold dinner on the train later.
We left at 2pm to get the overnight train - this one is not very clean at all. There are stains on the sheets and everyone opts to stay away from the walls and use their sleep sheets. As had become the norm, the usual bunch came to our compartment and stayed until we enforced our own lights out at 8.30pm. I listened to some more of my book - (still on the same one) and tried to rest. I don’t sleep again and toss and turn in the dark until its time to get up.
We arrive in Hanoi at 4am and pick up the minibus for the 4 hour drive to Halong Bay. We are all really tired and I even had a bit of a snooze on the bus - 5 mins at least! The scenery is breathtaking once we start getting close to the bay. The famous limestone karsting can be seen for miles and it is beautiful.
Our hotel is right on the seafront - the view from my room is stunning. I have a huge window overlooking the bay - its misty and drizzly and I take the opportunity to have a snooze before our boat trip this afternoon.
Sadly the overcast skies continue throughout the day, but its still an amazing place. Lunch is served as soon as we arrive onboard our wooden junk boat. It’s a seafood feast of whole prawn, calamari, stuffed crab shell, rice, chips and baked whole fish (type unknown).
After lunch we spend a couple of hours just sailing through the thousands of islands. It’s so tranquil and relaxing. We sit up on the sun deck (albeit without the sun) and silently glide through the bay.
We stop at an island with a lovely cave inside. It’s a busy and popular place and I feel like I’m on a conveyer belt passing through the stalagmites and stalactites but soon we are back on the boat and finally the sun shines - just as we can see the harbour. Never mind.
It’s a beautiful evening and after a quick shower and change we head out for a walk along the seafront. There is a jetty, a small market and a café where we stop for iced coffee. Very nice.
Dinner is at the hotel - I’m not hungry so I just order mushroom soup - its gross. Good job I wasn’t hungry - only after a large portion of soy sauce and a load of pepper did is taste of anything. After dinner we head back to the jetty via the cheesecake and ice cream shop. My lemon and raspberry sorbet was really good.
Derek puts on a show for both our group and the locals that are hanging around there. He uses his poi with fire and its very impressive. After the show we realise that the concrete block we’ve been sitting on has floated away and Rory jumps across and pulls us back in. Phew!
I am convinced there is phosphorescence in the water, but as there was quite a lot of oil also in there it might have been a trick of the light. It was pretty whatever it was.
Up early the next morning and on the bus heading back to Hanoi. We stopped at an art and craft workshop where local disabled workers make and sell their wares.
We check into our hotel and everyone else went out for lunch. I wasn’t feeling well so I went to bed. I woke up with stomach cramps and had another day in the loo… not happy. Although I really didn’t feel like it, I went out for dinner and had ostrich steak (it was the blandest thing on the menu!). The service was painfully slow - this was certainly due top the fact that they were preparing the food from the tiniest kitchen with about 10 cooks. It was grim but I needed food so I pushed the image to the back of my mind and worked on eating at least half of my meal. It didn’t go to waste as there were plenty of people happy to polish it off.
I had a restless night but in the morning I headed out to see the sights of Hanoi. We walked for miles and miles but got to see the main attractions - Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, (where his body is embalmed and on display) was closed but we visited the palace and saw where he lived and studied. We stopped at a post card shop and, to save money, I took photos of the interesting ones depicting buffalo and pigs on the back of motorbikes.
Then we went to see the Temple of Literature where students went to learn the ancient writings including those of Confucious. It was beautiful and serene - such a tranquil place in the middle of the chaos of Hanoi, I could have spent more time there but we had to get back to have lunch before the afternoon’s events.
We went to a modern coffe shop and I had Caesar salad - we then went to a place called Sago where they sell an very unusual drink called Bubble Tea - it’s a vanilla flavoured yoghurty type drink which has lumps of black (jelly-like) tapioca floating in it. I tried some but it really wasn’t for me, so I ordered a peppermint tea and relaxed until the others arrived at 3pm.
We headed 10mins down the road to the theatre where we have tickets to see Hanoi’s famous Water Puppet Show. I really wasn’t sure what to expect but I really enjoyed it.
Traditionally, the show began as a form of entertainment when working in the rice paddies for hours on end. It’s now performed 4 times a day, every day, to a packed audience of tourists. The stories told are of daily life in the paddy fields and also fishing, plus epic adventures and stories of Vietnamese legends. The puppets are manipulated on long poles from underneath a curtain and their movements are very lifelike, albeit a little wooden (geddit?) Animals trot, fish swim and people dance - its really clever. The accompanying music is played on traditional Vietnamese instruments and it is enchanting. It’s very easy to fall into a trance-like snooze but I am fascinated and barely close my eyes to blink.
This evening we say goodbye to Nicola, Louisa, Tom and Abby - and we say our farewells in a lovely place called Little Hanoi. I am full of antibiotics in an attempt to get rid of this bug so I continue to select light options from the menu. I have pumpkin soup, which is homemade and tastes perfect followed by ‘roll my own’ spring rolls. A plate of caramelised beef arrives along with a plate of fresh herbs, pineapple, noodles and rice paper pancakes. I skip the noodles and roll up the rest and it tastes absolutely amazing. I am definitely going to try and recreate this one when I get home!
The others head to a bar after dinner, but we have an early start and I can’t risk my tummy getting upset so I head to bed.
It’s a long day - 15 hours traveling on a coach through stunning yet nausea inducing mountainous roads. The first 10 hours passes slowly and our stops are infrequent and not really what we need. The first toilet stop was basically a plank of wood placed strategically on the edge of a field surrounded by tarpaulin and was a unisex arrangement. It was grim, but I had to go - I guess its no worse than camping as a child but in these circumstances it felt very different.
The lunch stop was a non-starter, the place they took us to couldn’t cater for 12 of us so we stopped at a ‘supermarket’ - I didn’t find anything to eat so went hungry. Eventually we arrived at the border and left our bus to walk on foot over yet another ‘no man’s land’.
$32 US lighter and I have my Laos visa allowing me access to stay for 30 days but ‘employment rohibited’ - not a typo… it actually says that!