Published: May 27th 2006January 5th 2006
Relaxing on a boat trip
In what seems like a former life, I can remember sitting at home and watching a TV programme that followed a woman's travels through Vietnam. And what a journey it was. She took trains to remote destinations, drank ant 'lemonade' with the locals, and downed a stiff drink that had a freshly removed and still beating cobra's heart floating in it, amongst other unique experiences. Our
travels weren't quite so eye-opening, but I've tried the independent travelling thing and as adventurous as it may be for some, the reality of it just isn't for me. Plus we were pushed for time as I only had two weeks of my four week visa remaining - a visa that I'd had to buy in advance in Bangkok.
There's a lot to see and do in Vietnam, and being a long and thin country, the geography makes it easy to visit a lot of the major towns and sights without having to backtrack. Thus the existence of 'the well trodden route': a north to south (or south to north) trail that takes you between the capital city of Hanoi and the famous Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
A Water Puppet Show
Devised to kill boredom hundreds of years ago when the rice fields were flooded in wet season.
crossed into central Vietnam from Laos, but we were soon on an overnight bus to Hanoi in the north.
I was delighted to be somewhere else in South East Asia where the culture and way of life was so different to what I had become used to. That's the beauty of travelling and I wasn't phased by the sudden change from quiet Laos to bustling Vietnam. Fern had been able to speak to people in Laos, although Vietnam was a different kettle of fish altogether for her. This was the first time that she'd been somewhere where she couldn't converse and her feelings of being out of her comfort zone were compounded by a minibus ride on our first day where driver spent more time staring at her in his rearview mirror than he did looking at the road. That's no exaggeration.
Our initial opinion of the few Vietnamese people that we had met were that they weren't a friendly bunch, so it was nice to arrive at a hotel in Hanoi and be greeted by a receptionist who spoke good English and did her best to give us all of the information that we
would need to make our stay an enjoyable one.
Wandering around Hanoi was interesting. The streets are narrow, congested with thousands of motorbikes and mostly closed in from direct sunlight by buildings, although I don't remember seeing too many high rises. Similarly to Thailand, people like to sell food and eat outside on tables and small chairs sprawled all over the pavement. There are conical hats everywhere, and women carrying their wares hanging from large sticks on their shoulders are a common sight. The roads however, are very different to Bangkok. In Bangkok it's often stationary traffic, every third car is a taxi, and cutting people up, weaving between lanes and just general bad driving is rarely acknowledged with more than a tut. In Vietnam the traffic moves almost continuously, although this is because everybody seems to be on a motorbike, not because there are less vehicles. The motorcycle horn seems to have many functions: warning somebody of your presence; indicating; accelerating; expressing irritation; saluting friends; alleviating boredom... you would have to hear the cacophony to believe it. It seems to be so ingrained into their way of life that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that mute Vietnamese
prefer to converse using motorbike horns rather than sign language.
The other thing to strike us most in our first day was the lengths that most women went to to keep their skin out of the sun. Hats, elbow-length gloves, thigh-length socks, neck scarves, and the type of mouth mask that people wear to avoid germs or pollution were common sights. And this wasn't because of a fear of skin cancer or toxins in the air, this was good old fashioned vanity. Similarly to Thailand, white skin is considered beautiful and the Nivea, Johnson’s & Johnson’s and other creams that you can buy back home are all sold out here, but all with 'special whitening ingredients'. I think it derives from a class thing, where those with tanned skin are believed to be poor because their tan is a result of them having to work out in a field all day. A load of old cobblers, but no doubt cobblers that helps the skincare companies rake it in!
After trying to take in our new surroundings, we ate in a small Vietnamese restaurant with a huge menu. Being half French it is obviously my duty to eat frogs'
legs (in the spare moments one gets between playing petanque, eating garlic, drinking wine, making love, and deciding which beret and striped t-shirt ensemble looks best), so I was keen to finally be somewhere where I could give them a try for the first time. I expected measly morsels of meat on spindly bones and I was really surprised when they arrived. They were huge! And they tasted really good too; I'm afraid I have to say it: "they tasted like chicken," although the meat was much softer. There's a photo below.
The first night's entertainment was a water puppet show. I'd not heard about water puppetry before, but I learnt that it was invented many years ago by a bored farmer who wanted to liven up the long wet seasons when all of the fields were flooded. The show was about an hour long and despite being narrated in Vietnamese it was a good new experience. The puppets were floated out on a water 'stage' and scenes were acted out that were accompanied by traditional music. It wasn't in the same league as drinking a pulsing snake heart cocktail, but I felt that I'd done something cultural and
went to bed happy!
Legend has it that in years gone by, the Hoan Kiem Lake was the scene of a giant tortoise surfacing briefly and stealing the king's sword, only to resurface later and return it. We went to this lake and crossed a small bridge onto an island that housed a temple. The temple was unspectacular, but there was a large embalmed tortoise inside that had apparently been captured from the lake at some point in the last hundred years. There were also snaps on the walls of a blurry and distant object on the lake waters, taken in the 1960s and offered as proof that the lake is home to these giant reptiles. I'm unconvinced about giant tortoises living there. As for explaining the photos - maybe the Loch Ness Monster got bored of the chilly water in Scotland and chose Vietnam for a bit of summer sun?
We visited another lake, took a cyclo ride around town, went to an indoor market, and ate very well on our second day in Hanoi. The cyclo is a taxi bicycle where the driver sits and pedals behind you and it's a great way to save energy
(for the passenger!) and take to the hectic streets. The mind-numbing haggling beforehand was well worth while and I'd recommend a cyclo ride to anybody who visits.
Before heading south from Hanoi, we decided that we had just about enough time to visit Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which didn't mean much to me at the time, but sounded quite impressive. It is an area that has over 1,500 small and uninhabited limestone islands jutting out of the warm waters and our two day boat trip took in some amazing scenery. On our first day we stopped at a huge cave that had been jazzed up with lights and a fountain for tourists, but still retained much of its natural charm. We also had time to dive off of the boat and have a swim around - a welcome distraction from island-spotting! The weather was much better on the second day so we got to top up our suntans and laze around on the top deck, which was a nice break from the hectic nature of the days leading up to the boat trip.
Unfortunately, and as usual, the
photos that I took don't do justice to just how nice the views were.
After a final frogs' legs dinner and a rush to get checked out and ready, we left Hanoi on an overnight bus to Hue. Not much to report here as we knew that we didn't have enough time to stay in Hue for more than the few hours that we would have to wait for our connecting coach south to Hoi An.
I don't get great sleep anywhere but in my bed, although train sleeper berths are sometimes ok. Coaches, however, rank very lowly on the comfort scale. I'm not particularly tall for a westerner, but Asian coaches seem to have been designed for people under five and a half feet as the headrest barely reaches my neck, making sleeping difficult.
On arrival in Hue, we fought the urge to curl up next to our backpacks and sleep, instead hiring a motorbike and taking to the roads, Vietnamese style. I intended to drive sensibly, observe other drivers and stay off of the horn, but best laid plans went to waste and it wasn't long before my finger was glued to
the horn. If you can't beat them, join them.
Our brief tour of Hue didn't unearth too many places that I felt sorry about missing out on, although I'll reserve judgment as we didn't get time to see everywhere. We did manage to visit the tomb of Tu Duc, where 'tomb' actually refers to the expansive complex that the Emperor (Tu Duc) designed to be his place of rest. The beautiful tomb complex was built in the 1860's, but he didn't die until 1883, giving him plenty of time to live there with his many concubines and wives. Interestingly, despite the grandeur of the site and the amount of time Tu Duc spent there, he was actually buried in a different, secret location somewhere in Hue. To keep the secret safe, the 200 labourers who buried the king were all beheaded after they returned from the secret route. To this day, the real
tomb of Tu Duc remains hidden.
I loved Hoi An. As with Vang Vieng in Laos, I hadn't heard too much about the place before we arrived and I was soon glad that we'd decided to spend time there instead of
Our first full day there, the 15th October, marked the halfway point of my travels. Although time passes quickly, I had done so much since leaving London that it probably ranks as the 'longest' six months of my life. The four and a half years that I spent at Sony went by in a whiz, as the following years would have, had I stayed put. Leaving Sony was a really hard decision, but I don't regret it, not now I've seen that there is more to life than the routine of working nine to five.
ANYWAY - we hired bicycles and rode to a beach about 4km out of town on our first day in Hoi An. The beach was nice, but not a patch on some of Thailand's finest. The water was cooler than we're used to and the waves were quite strong, making it difficult to relax in the water. Determined to still have fun--a characteristic of Thais--Fern decided that I should bury her in the sand. I did quite a good job, if I do say so myself! Photo below.
Hoi An is a charming town on the river with a historic
feel and a calm pace that we didn't come across in any of the other places that we visited in Vietnam (which isn't to say that such places don't exist - we were on the tourist trail after all). Apart from the lure of the nearby beach and lively market, Hoi An is also a shopper's paradise with countless tailors, cobblers, and other craftspeople plying their trade and soliciting for business from their open shop fronts. It's possible to get shoes or clothes made for you that you pick from a designer catalogue and get fitted for. You are then made a copy and are sold it at a fraction of the price of the original. But competition is fierce; walking down the street and hearing "Hey you, buy from me" was a common occurrence, although it was all good natured and people took 'no' for an answer, unlike many other places in Asia.
Like in Thailand, Vietnamese food is gorgeous and finding a nice little restaurant with a riverside view was easy. It was after dinner while we were having a stroll around the town when we randomly bumped into our friend Clare for the second time in
as many weeks. Small world!
We woke on our second day in Hoi An to find it pouring with rain. We changed our plans to ride to the beach again, instead waiting for the rain to die down a bit before we ventured out with our brolly. Fern's shoes were broken so we thought we'd take a look in some of the shoe shops but it seemed impossible to find a shop that sold shoes off the shelf. Instead we would have had to have had them made, which we weren't too keen to do as you're obviously not in a position to try before you buy. We visited a Japanese-built bridge over the river and then had a wander on the opposite bank before the heavens opened again and had us rushing for the nearest shelter we could find. It turned out to be somebody's porch and after some embarrassed mumbled apologies when the owner came out to see what we wanted, we dashed to a restaurant a few doors down. Being the only customers, the family that owned the restaurant came to sit with us which was very friendly, but it was difficult to converse as their
English and our Vietnamese was almost non-existent. The son of the owners kept telling me how handsome I was, and when Fern and I finally left(/escaped) she seemed surprised when I told her that he was a raving iron, not just a very nice man!
It was the night of the full moon and Hoi An always celebrates this by having street festivities and by floating lanterns along the river. It all sounded very nice and we were keen to see what it was all about, although rain stopped play unfortunately. The night didn't get any better when I sat through a dire West Ham performance as we went down 2-1 to City with Zamora bagging an undeserved consolation late on.
The next morning we visited some old Cham ruins on a half day trip. I've already been to Angkor Wat, the pinnacle of ancient ruins, so seeing these small ruins was a bit like going to see Scarborough v Halifax, after a lifetime of supporting Real Madrid. We came back to Hoi An on the river and made a stop off at a wood carving village where we saw some of the carvers in action. The level
of skill, patience and expertise that I witnessed put the low prices that were being charged for the finished products into perspective. These people could have made a packet working in the western world.
A late lunch and a trip to the market completed our last afternoon in the town, although we brought some takeaway spring rolls and other bits and bobs onto our overnight bus with us, along with some herbs, chilies and garlic that we'd bought at the market. That was our dinner and breakfast!
We slept and just wandered around the beach town in our first day there. There was some respite in the rain in the afternoon and we even got down to the beach although the waves were strong and swimming didn't seem too sensible. When it started raining again in the evening we weren't to know that it wouldn't stop for the whole of the time that we remained there.
We went out on a snorkeling trip on the second day. My attitude is that if it's raining then so what - we're going to go and get wet in the sea anyway. The rain wasn't too
heavy on our first stop, although the current was pretty strong and the sea was cold. We both swam out from the boat and Fern tried snorkeling for the first time ever and really enjoyed it. The second boat stop saw the boat crew get out their home made musical instruments and start singing and dancing. We all joined in and it brightened up a miserable day, especially when they swam out and set up a small floating bar where the wine was free! We stopped again to snorkel a couple of times but the boat ended up going home early because a storm had whipped up and conditions were pretty bad.
We had a brunch of crab (a real pain in the backside to eat) and a seafood hotpot before taking a trip to a nearby spa on our final day. The visit started with a lukewarm mineral mud bath and was followed by a hot water shower and a relaxing hot water tub. Then a water jet massage and a long soak in the swimming pool rounded off a wet stay in Nha Trang. Another overnight coach took us to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as
Saigon) that evening.
Ho Chi Minh City
After getting more kip than usual we decided to not sleep in the day and head out on foot. A lot of exploring took us from a market, to a church, to a Hindu temple, to a park, and then to the Reunification Palace.
Designed as the home of former President Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-backed leader of Vietnam in the '60s, this building is most notable for its role in the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when its gates were breached by North Vietnamese tanks. The very tanks that crashed through the gates are enshrined in the entryway and photos and accounts of their drivers are on display inside. The rooms in the palace have been preserved as they were thirty years before, and wandering around war command rooms, communication rooms, dining rooms, and the President's office was like taking a leap back into the past.
It was while we were looking around inside that the rain that had seemed to follow us for the past week reared its ugly head again. Maybe more information than you need, but I was sat on the loo at
the time when the thunder clapped directly above us and I honestly thought that a bomb had gone off, it was such an intense storm! Not daring to venture outside, we found a music room inside the palace that had been set up to show tourists a range of traditional Vietnamese instruments. The staff there were very friendly and let me and Fern try everything which was a good laugh, if a little hard on the ears.
Before leaving, we wanted to check out the view from the roof so we were pleased when the rain died down enough for us to go up there. The stone floor on the roof was incredibly slippery and rather than tread carefully, I decided to show Fern my moonwalking. A few strides in and looking good (in my opinion), the next thing I knew I was on the floor, too winded to get up quickly, say I was fine and change the subject! I knew my chin had taken a thump when I fell, but Fern pointed out that it was bloodied and on closer inspection the cut was small, but quite deep. I convinced Fern that there was no way I
Waiting at the lights
You can't quite see just how far back this queue of bicycles and motorbikes stretched
was going to go to hospital for a couple of stitches and I managed to tape it up myself when I got home and surprised myself with just how well it healed. Thinking back to it now, it would have been embarrassing to fill in my insurance claim form and confess that I'd caused the injury by trying to moonwalk on the roof of Vietnam's most symbolic landmark!!
We continued our history lesson on a half day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, 40 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnels were built so that the fighters could evade the troops of invading armies, most notably Americans, and at their peak the labyrinth of tunnels stretched for over 75 miles. A 100m section is open for tourists to crawl through and Fern and I covered the whole distance. Also on display at the site are numerous booby trap devices that were used in the war. They're horrific enough to look at, let alone to imagine somebody trapped in or maimed by them.
A shockingly boring visit to a theme park the following day was bettered the day after by a visit to the Dam Sen Park. We
An amazing skill
thought it would be quite tame so we were very surprised to turn up and find all sorts of attractions and rides there. The place was almost deserted so we didn't have to queue for anything which was a nice touch!
We crossed the border into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia the next day.
There are more photos below