Published: May 15th 2012May 15th 2012
Onwards to Hanoi!! We flew to Hanoi on the eve of independence day so the streets were absolutely heaving with people and scooters and the complete extreme from Luang Prabang! If I'm honest it was really quite overwhelming so we ducked into a rooftop restaurant and observed the chaos from behind a bowl of beef pho noodle soup! Deeelish!
The next morning we set our alarm for 7 so we could pack in an entire day of sight seeing as we didn't have long in Hanoi. We started with muesli and Vietnamese drip coffee (the first decent coffee in a while) and took a cyclo (bicycle taxi) to the one pillar pagoda which is exactly what it sounds like - a pagoda build on a single column rather than 4 legs. We then walked to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum which is where he lays in a glass sarcophagus and is still highly revered among the Vietnamese. He is considered as the communist ruler that saved Vietnam from colonialism and defeated the USA. Unfortunately we were not there at the specfic opening times so didn't get the go inside but it's still quite an impressive monument. We settled
instead for the Ho Chi Minh museum which was a weird mix of surreal art and communist symbolism that I didn't quite understand but interesting none the less. Next stop was
Hoan Kiem Lake where the legend has it that the Emperor was given a golden sword by the gods that gave him the power to drive out the Chinese. One day, once he had succeeded, he was walking by the lake and giant golden turtle stole the sword to return it to its rightful owner in the bottom of the lake. You can see the embalmed remains of a 450kg turtle in the museum but I'm convinced it was actually plaster of paris! Another museum set on a little island in the middle of the lake and filled to the brim with different artifacts which collectively give an overwhelming feeling of chaos rather than tranquility.
We escaped the hottest part of the day in our air conditioned hotel room. Dinner that night wasn't as successful as the first night as Arie had to fish 6 ants out of her soup!
One of the 'must see' UNESCO World Heritage sites in Vietnam is Ha Long Bay. It's a beautiful
collection of over 3000 limestone islands which emerge from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin near the boarder of China. I really am starting to wonder about my coincidental timing as the day we were going on our cruise was the last day of Ha Long festival on which they had officially been given the certificate for becoming one of the New7wonders of the Natural Wonders of the World! It was decided on the 30th March but not officially awarded until the day we were cruising so once again our timing couldn't be better!
The streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi were full to bursting with Ha Long bay booking tour companies that had ripped of the name and logo of reputable agencies and we had been told of so many scams so we went to the biggest most well known youth hostel in Hanoi to book our tour. Everything is in dollars and English and loud music pumping with happy hours and pub quizes so for a second we forgot we were in Vietnam.
We had a good time and did join in but we are both in agreement that our 2 day brush with the
hostel-staying beer-bonging youth was enough. I have nothing against it and I'm sure I would have done the same when I was younger but we were surrounded by all this beautiful scenery and no one paid any attention to it but instead had Black-Eyed-Peas blasting, were playing drinking games, and the guys found it hilarious to keep taking their trousers off!!! Maybe because I was raised in a Muslim country or maybe im getting old but I was genuinely offended by the complete lack of respect for the Vietnamese hosts, the intense aggressive drinking and rude nakedness!!! To top it all off Aire had money stolen from her wallet which is always a horrid feeling. It was locked in the room and hidden in a bag whilst we kayaked but we can't prove anything so have to write it off...
We're now on the night train to Hué, south down the coast and I had been so looking forward to the night train as I love them in Thailand, But after I had killed 3 cockroaches, I wasn't so thrilled! Despite today being a little tough we're in excellent spirits and I really do think the hard times are
all an important part of traveling. We can laugh it off and I read an excellent piece of advice the other day which is: Frame every so called problem with the following words "In 5 years time will this matter?" it really blankets out most minor issues and is a fantastic attitude to have whilst away!
Hué (pronounced whheaayyy) is a beautiful riverside city, buzzing with life but capturing that gentle Vietnamese calm. We stayed in the most lovely family run guesthouse called Phong Lan, they were the loveliest people we have met so far, so kind and helpful, they brought us a home made welcome juice of raspberry an hibiscus flowers and we had a large clean ac room for $6 per person. Hué is an interesting town because it's south of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) but north of the main boarder post when Vietnam was divided into North and South so it was very much in the middle.
That night we walked to the Citadel across the river and we were once again very lucky with our timing because it was 'Happy Birthday Buddha' so there were beautiful giant lit up flowers floating down the river
and people burning incense and offering food to the spirits everywhere. We dined in what looked like a giant bamboo hut which was lovely apart from the rats gagging for any morsels we dropped!!!
One of the best things to do around Hué is to take a motorcycle tour around the city and it's surroundings. On every corner someone will offer to pick you up and take you on the back of their bike for a full day of sightseeing for $10. So armed with advice from Arie's bf on who to go with, we booked in a tour for the next day.
At 8am these two riders showed up at out hotel, one spoke such fast English that I struggled to keep up and the other didn't say a word! We donned our helmets and off we zoomed! We hadn't really read much about the tour so each stop was a lovely surprise. We started driving to the Japanese bridge, built in 1776 and, all wooden and still standing strong. It's apparently never been renovated and even withstood two full submergences, the latest in 1995 when the water reached 5'8" above ground in the floods!
stop was the pagodas. A lovely collection of temples, pagodas and graves set in beautiful gardens and due to the 'Happy Birthday Buddha' was once again filled with paper flowers and people. We learnt some interesting things here: Vietnamese monks are different to Thai and Laos monks as its not something that every boy has to do at some point in life but rather a complete life choice, you can tell how long a monk has been a monk by his hair style (fully shaved is reserved for the most revered of monks) and they only wear the orange robes for special occasions and normally just wear black or grey gowns. We also learnt that monks tombs have 7 levels to them but normal citizens tombs have to be low. Apparently the monks used to receive a lot of money from the eunuchs that worked for the Emperor as they were paid well!
We drove up (don't tell mum, but off road dirt biking) to the top of a hill to the some French bunkers left from the war. It's so hard to imagine such a beautiful peaceful country in such conflict for so long buy seeing these bunkers
is a raw reminder of how much bloodshed there was.
Next stop was the late Emperor Tu Duc's Tomb. He ruled from 1843 to 1883 and used to live in the grounds where he is now buried.
Last stop was the beautiful citadel, though it was heavily bombed in the war it is still beautiful and the walls still stand. Its a moated city which was constructed by Emperor Gia Long in 1804. Arie has a much longer concentration span for sight seeing an knows a lot more about the history of Vietnam than I do so I spent the last half hour of the tour dreaming of lunch an not fully appreciating the stunning remains. Still I felt like it was a completely culturally filled day an really enjoyed it.
Some compromises in traveling are just compromises but sometimes by being flexible you get to experience the most amazing things! Arie really wanted to take a motorcycle taxi from Hué to Hoi An but I wasn't too keen. I was worried that my back would hurt and it was 8 times the price of the bus buy wowowowowow! Taking the motorcycle taxi was possibly the best decision
of our trip,
They expertly strapped our backpacks on the back which acted as a comfy back support and off we went. What an amazing day, totally worth the extra money and the route taken on the bike is different to that of the bus. It's apparently one of the most beautiful roads to drive along in the world. Top Gear have done an episode on that trip, words cannot do it justice but the weather was amazing, sky blue, sun shining, hills, mountains, forests, beach just everything so special. If any you ever travel from Hué to Hoi An if you listen to just one thing from my entire blog, TAKE a Motorbike, you won't regret it. We also stopped off at a fishing village and 'Elephant Waterfalls' and Danag boarder post that was the crossing from north to south and American and French lookout towers still stand.
Hoi An... A beautiful old sleepy town situated on a river and 4km from the beach. The Old Town has set hours for pedestrian and bicycles only which is lovely as I swear half the worlds collection of old motorbikes is in Vietnam!! There is also classical music pumped out
on every corner during these 'pedestrian' hours. The whole sleepy town had a really majestic feel to it with boutique coffee shops and river boat tours.
Hoi An is world renowned for its tailors, in the little town there are something in the region of 250 tailors who can apparently knock up a copy of any picture you show them in 24 hrs flat! Great, with a friend's wedding coming up I though this would be an excellent opportunity to get a tailor-made dress. So I found a picture online, chose some material and put my faith in a lovey little lady who promised she could do anything! Next day, we skipped back, all smiles and excited but as I got into my new dress my smile dropped and the figure staring back at me in the mirror was across between a mermaid and a cupcake doll. It looked nothing even close to the picture and not flattering at all, looked like a dress that a 6year old princess would wear, it was horrible! I was ready to cut my losses and pay the poor lady who really did try to make what I had wanted but Arie convinced
me to at least try and get it right. We sat for hours trying to explain what it was I had envisaged then left her for the night with the thought that nothing short of a miracle could fix the atrocity!
I spent the morning at the most amazing cookery lesson, I had one-on-one instruction from the owner himself, see we had eaten in his restaurant a few nights ago and when I asked what he could recommend he suggested his signature dish 'Chili Passion Fruit Chicken' I was so blown away by the explosion of flavours in my mouth that I signed up there and then for a lesson. I learnt how to make spring rolls, Beef Pho (pronounced feu-uh?) the passion fruit chicken and a mackerel hotpot! All surprising simple so I hope I can recreate these delicious flavours some time in the near future. The little dress making fairies visited the tailor overnight because when I went back it was a completely new dress! I can't believe how much better it looks!! These tailors really can work magic!
We hired a scooter one day and with Arie on the back we explored the town and drove
down to the beach. There are some incredibly expensive looking resorts popping up along the coastline and as soon as the sun started to set all the tourists headed home and the locals came out. It was like the beach was bring shared but not overlapping. Im pretty sure its because the mercury is nearly touching 40•C in the day and we all know only mad dogs and Englishman would go out in that kind of heat!!
I'm currently writing this blog on the 12hr night bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang. I'd been completely dreading it but it's surprising clean and brand new so not such a bad experience so far- bar the fact that each time e breaks I slide down in my bunk and each corner is a fight not to fall off my top level bunk!
Nha Trang, exactly what it says on the tin: an excellent beach! 6km of of clean beautiful beach forms the backbone of this town. The weather is perfect for the breach as the wind is blowing a hoolie with not cloud in the blue sky. I've had a couple of days of complete indulgence here. We hired
sun loungers for 30,000 Dong for the day (less than a pound, 5dhs) and various vendors came up to us offering fresh fruit smoothies, seafood cooked right there in front of you and something new to me: mango popadoms! We got pedicures and manicures in Crazy Kim's spa and felt good doing so as she has founded 'Hands Off The Kids' charity out here which helps to protect street children from the dreadful sex trade. All profits go towards this project.
Some things here are so cheap...beer can be as cheap as 5,000 Dong which is about 1 Dhs or 17p !! Our dinner last night was 38,000 for a big bowl of pho which is just a little over a pound. A hotel room with ac, tv, fridge, towels bathroom etc is about $12 for a twin. I had banana leaf wrapped tuna steak the other night and it was what I had considered expensive at 85,000 dong (£2.80 or 17 dhs!!) you couldn't even buy the steak alone in a supermarket for that price back home!
Another thing I've noticed over the last couple of months is that bit by bit my 'travel rules' have gone out
the window. When I started, I was cleaning my teeth with bottled water, keepin my mouth tightly closed in the shower, not eating street food, no salad, no ice, no meat, on the verge of OCD with my hand sanitizer, money belt etc. but buy slowly I've slacked on all of the above and *knock on wood * have been absolutely fine. I can't decide if these places are becoming more tourist friendly hence using iodine water to wash salad and filtered water ice or if my body is just building up antibodies from traveling to all these different places. I do think that the anti malarial tabs are assisting with my stable stomach so that's good.
After 2 days of beach indulgence we're now heading to Mui Ne for ... More beach!!! :) we're trying to relax as much as possible before the fast paced and emotionally challenging HCMC and Cambodia.
Mui Ne , kite surf central, super windy coast line and the first place that has completely open sea rather than islands on the coastline. It's 1000km before you reach land again. I embarrassingly had a bit f a geography lapse and thought the next land mass
was Indonesia but had somehow missed the whole of Malaysia! Felt pretty stupid!!
The kite surfers looked amazing, some of the windiest roughest sea I've seen in my life and more than 100 kites were up in the air at some points. I really had to resist the urge to try it out buy two thing stopped me, the $300 price tag and the mass on out of control tourists trying it for the first time!! I just spells disaster so instead I sunned my self on the beac and enjoyed form a safe distance.
The scenery in Mui Ne, well the surrounding areas at least, is in my top 2 or 3 for scenery in Vietnam. It was the most bizzare combination of proper dessert, fresh water streams, palm trees and green forest, turquoise seas and mixed white and black sand on the beaches. Some scenery was almost Martian looking with big dropping kind of sand cliffs with bright red sand mixed with white sand and the way it had eroded it resulted in kind of orange and white pillars standing up out of a stream. This was interjected by huge flat areas of rice paddies and
then green hills then some limestone cliffs!! Ive never seen anything quite so contradictory in terms of landscape in my life!
The town itself is quite strange, apparently there was not much of a town here, just a small fishing village
with shanty houses made out of a few sheets of aluminum but the tourists always flock to beaches and the town has sprung up almost over night catering to needs from backpacker hostels to expensive resorts. It seems this place is very popular with the Russians and a lot of menus were in Russian with some of the Vietnamese speaking what sounded like fluent enough Russian to me! Mental. Some of the resorts were very post looking and one even combed their beach with a rake so the sand was neat!!
One of my highlights was my two minute ostrich ride! I know it's probably not very animal friendy but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to ride an ostrich for a dollar!! It's rare that you get on an animal that you are not in control of. He seemed quite happy with me on his back ad charged and a rather alarming speed towards the barb wire
fence screeching to a halt at the end and then looked kind of bewildered before he turned around and strolled back tot he starting point! Rather surreal experience but for the rest of my life I get to say "I rode an ostrich in Vietnam" worth soooo mug more than a dollar!
One of the main attractions of Mui Ne is sand sliding down the dunes. In Abu Dhabi we have sand boarding which is basically a slow version of snow boarding on the sand and this is what I had envisaged, however this was more sledding except the sled was made of a plastic sheet and one rope. It felt like I had opened my trousers and willingly dumped a bucket of sad down there, one go was more than enough! Hahah the Vietnamese kids made it look really elegant and fun but I somehow hadn't quite nailed the skill.
we're now in Saigon, or as its officially known Ho Chi Minh City, its a vast contrast form the beachy 'holiday' we have been having. We went straight to the War Remants Museum which was incredible, very emotional and tragically sad to see just what
these people have been through. Arie works with prisoners on death row and is very politically clued up but I haven't really studied the vietnam war so for me was a real eye opener and thorugh provoking experience. My heart goes out to all of those that lost their lives or their loved ones in the tragic war...
Arie went to the Cu Chi Tunnels today, the left over and tourist friendly part of the tunnels that played a vital part in the War. The Vietnamese would transport medicine, food and weapons through the tunnels and would spend hours/days or sometimes weeks undergound at a time. The tiny size of them meant that even if the Americans found the tunnels they couldn't fit inside the holes!! I found the whole idea a little claustrophobic and opted for a 'Blind Massage' instead. The government do not offer any support to the blind so this assosciation is set up to give them a skill to be able to earn a source of income. I hadnt realised how much you use facial expressions and hand gestures to be udnerstood in a foreign country so it was quite and eye opening (excuse the
crude use of pun) experience. I couldt find the place at first and when I asked a local street vendor my hand gestures for 'blind' and 'massage' was interpreted as I was blind so she promptly took me by the arm and lead me to a massage salon! I managed to get the point across in the end. Our time in Vietnam is coming to an end, tomorrow we are going to the Mekong Delta and crossing by boat into Cambodia. I'm sad to say goodbye, Vietnam has been such an interesting destination, a real onion of a place with interesting strong people, delicious food and amazing scenery. Only one more blog to go...
There are more photos below