Weasel Droppings & Easy Bikers- South Vietnam

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December 15th 2010
Published: February 18th 2011
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Good Morning Vietnam!

OK, so we did in fact arrive late afternoon, but that doesn't sound as good and Robin Williams never said it! Anyway, we got in to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City these days if you are a Vietnamese official or a particularly proud communist) really looking forward to discovering Vietnam, after hearing so many good things from everybody we know who has travelled here (although admitedly we didn't talk to any American war vets).
We settled in to an area of the city that is swamped with guesthouses and headed straight out for what seems to be a Vietnamese tradition, sitting on kiddie sized plastic chairs, having a beer on the side of the road (40p a bottle, sweet!), watching the chaos unfold in front of us. It is actually quite calming to be a spectator, and not a participant in the madness on the roads, and it truly is madness.

Saigon is a bustling city with a constant background buzz of the thousands of motorbikes that throng the streets. Road junctions at traffic lights are clogged by the bikes as they thread between the few cars and buses on the roads, often mounting
Cocoa pods collected for harvestingCocoa pods collected for harvestingCocoa pods collected for harvesting

Let the magic work to convert them to lovely, chocolately goodness!
the pavement in order to get to the front of any congestion ahead. Anybody who is anybody (and even people who are nobody!) in Vietnam, it seems, owns a motorbike and likes to use it's horn. The chaos on the streets led to us trying to avoid road crossings where possible. Where there was no option, we would look each way multiple times and cross the road by stopping and starting as the bikes would weave around us to get past. It is a highly nerve wracking experience and the hope is that the bike riders have spotted you and aren't too distracted by the mobile phone conversation many of them will be having while driving (we have no idea how they could hear a thing over the roar around them).

Another Vietnamese tradition we encountered early on was the love of Pho. This must surely be the national dish and versions of it are dished up in every location possible and for any meal. It's a breakfast favourite although popular at all times of the day. Pho is noodles in a bowl of thin broth, accompanied with slices of meat, beansprouts and lots of fresh green herbs and
Images of of the Vietnam WarImages of of the Vietnam WarImages of of the Vietnam War

On display at the war remnants museum, Saigon
salad leaves. Soy sauce and chilli sauce is then added to give as much flavour as required. It is more than the sum of its parts, mainly due to the depth of flavour they get in their broth, and the fabulous huge varied pile of fragrant greens that you add to taste. Our first Pho experience was certainly not our last.

What is also fascinating are the variety of locations where you'll find it - street corner stalls, all regular restaurants, and Pho only joints (the Vietnamese equivalent of fast food). Enterprising locals also set up impromptu 'cafes' on any stretch of pavement that is available, cooking up the Pho on little gas burners and serving it to people who squat on tiny little plastic stools and eat off little plastic tables. Any walk along the road will mean weaving on and off the pavement in order to avoid all the street stalls that have been set up. The number of these stalls particularly peaks in the evening when everyone seems to camp out on the street for their evening dinner. It creates a really lively experience as you walk around at night, with lots of noise from people
Hoi An waterfrontHoi An waterfrontHoi An waterfront

Beautifully preserved French colonial houses line the waterfront
chatting and slurping up their noodles!

"Manuel, don't mention the war".....

The reason of course that most people have heard of the country of Vietnam is through the war with the Americans, and there are plenty of reminders even today of the scars that the prolonged battle left on the country. The south of Vietnam, centred on Saigon, was the democratic part of Vietnam and supported by the Americans throughout the war, while the north of Vietnam, centred on Hanoi, was the communist part under Ho Chi Minh. After the retreat of the Americans and the taking of Saigon by the communists, many of the symbols of the past in the south were destroyed, leaving not too many historical sights to visit. People were 're-educated' in communist ideals and many remaining sympathisers who had fought with the South were imprisoned, or faced years of persecution by the new government.

Despite all this taking place almost 40 years ago, there are still many reminders around the place of the communist victory in Vietnam, including Government propaganda posters on the streets. A particularly poignant, albeit rather one-sided account of the battle is to be found at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. The museum details, in very graphic detail, many of the atrocities carried out on the Vietnamese by the invading Americans, including the use of Agent Orange and its ongoing horrific after effects, various massacres that were carried out in villages, and the conditions Viet Cong prisoners were held and tortured in. It's pretty horrific stuff to look at and serves as a reminder of the kinds of horror humans can inflict on each other. Both of us were pretty shell-shocked coming out of the museum, having really only previously had knowledge based on Hollywood movies about the Vietnam war.

Another major war 'attraction' located near to Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels. These are a complex network of underground tunnels that were dug out by the Viet Cong who had infiltrated into the South and were used to evade capture by the South Vietnamese and Americans. Before seeing the tunnels, visitors are treated to a wonderfully biased black and white propaganda video detailing the heroic exploits of the Viet Cong soldiers in overcoming the 'American Aggressors', including stories of individuals awarded medals for being 'Hero American Killer' (I kid you not!). After seeing some jungle bamboo traps used to capture American soldiers in the jungle and then passing up on the opportunity to fire live bullets from an AK-47, we crawled into the tunnels themselves. They were used to hide in when American forces came through the area and were less than 1m high, some as low as 60cm. One has been widened especially for foreigners to walk through and even that felt incredibly claustrophobic for the couple of minutes we were in there. The ingenuity in designing them was incredible though - they had different levels for different purposes (escaping, sleeping), and were very effective at frustrating American efforts to find the enemy.

Dalat and the Central Highlands

Moving north, we travelled inland to the small town of Dalat, located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and with a much cooler climate than Saigon. Dalat was the place where many of the French, during the spell of colonial rule, moved to during the summer to escape the heat of the lowlands. There are still a number of impressive French-styled villas located around town, although these days all occupied by the Communist Party. The town is in a wonderful spot, surrounded by
Drying coffee beans in the Central highlandsDrying coffee beans in the Central highlandsDrying coffee beans in the Central highlands

A common sight during our motorbike journey
rolling green hills and with a small lake in the centre, although currently dried up so not quite so pretty!

Dalat and the surrounding area is in many ways the fruit and vegetable capital of Vietnam as the cooler climate means many plants that cannot grow in the heat that often dominates the rest of the country, thrive here. Particularly obvious as we travelled through the small towns that surround Dalat are the many coffee plantations, dotted everywhere around the countryside.

The annual coffee bean harvest was in full swing and the plantations were dotted with people picking the ripe beans. Once picked, the beans are then placed out to dry for a week or two before being sold on to the factory for roasting. Every spare space, including people's front yards, were covered in coffee beans drying in the daytime sunshine. This created a wonderful smell in the air as we passed through the small towns and villages of the Central Highlands.

Probably heavily influenced by the period of French Colonial rule and their love of the bean, coffee plantations are big business in Vietnam. Families are often able to supplement annual income fairly substantially by
Coffee beans growing in the Central HighlandsCoffee beans growing in the Central HighlandsCoffee beans growing in the Central Highlands

How they look before passing through a weasel!
selling dried coffee beans to the roasting companies, and many families in this fertile valley have taken to this. In fact, Vietnam has now become the second biggest coffee producing nation (after Brazil of course) in the world.

Unlike other coffee exporting nations though, the Vietnamese people have a love of fine coffee themselves and breakfast consists of a couple of cups of very strong, fresh Vietnamese coffee, served either black or, and this was quite a discovery, with a helping of condensed milk (which really tastes great if you like sweet coffee). They are such connoisseurs of fine coffee in fact that the absolute highest quality of Vietnamese coffee available is known as Weasel Coffee. Somehow (and no-one could really tell us how they discovered this fact), the Vietnamese discovered that weasels are big fans of eating high quality Arabica coffee beans from the plants. These beans, once they have gone through the enzyme digestive process and are expelled by the weasel, are then collected (what a job!), cleaned and roasted as normal. It is believed the 'processing' of the beans by the weasel's digestives juices helps create the finest coffee in the world.

During our time
A flower farm in the Central HighlandsA flower farm in the Central HighlandsA flower farm in the Central Highlands

The cooler climate means flowers are grown and exported all over SE Asia
in Vietnam, Mike did try a 'Weasel coffee'. It was incredibly strong and bitter and did indeed taste like a very good coffee, with no floating weasel hairs in the cup or anything! But whether the strength was due to the weasel or the roasting process is anyone's guess...

Biking through the Central Highlands

During our time in the Central Highlands we were met by members from the Dalat Easy Riders, an informal group of motorbike riders based in Dalat who specialise in taking tourists on road trips to see the 'real' areas of Vietnam that foreigners don't normally see. We initially set out on a 1 day tour with our hugely knowledgable and entertaining guides, Hong and Tai. The style of the tour was unlike anything we have done on the trip to date. Taking in the countryside from the back of a motorbike was a unique way to get to see this beautiful area of Vietnam. In addition, stops would be made at a hugely diverse range of places of interest ranging from a waterfall, to a silk extraction factory, to minority villages, to a church bombed by the Americans during the war, to people picking jackfruit on the side of the road.

In fact we enjoyed the one day excursion so much that we signed up for a 3 day, 1 way trip with our guides that would take us extensively through the Central Highlands and down to the coast at Nha Trang. This 3 day adventure with Hong and Tai was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip to date. We had such a good time with our excellent hosts, saw an incredible number of sights, great and small, far too many to list here, and ate some of the best food we have had during our entire time in Vietnam. The feeling of freedom that comes from being on the back of a motorbike, cruising the relatively car and bike free country roads, was really second to none. In particular, the ability to get right into the countryside, stopping at tiny villages and waving to smiling kids from the bike as we went past was a wonderful feeling. We were taken to many people's houses, to take a look at the myriad cottage industries in action - it was incredible how much is made for sale in local markets (rice cakes,
Hong and TaiHong and TaiHong and Tai

Born to be wild!
incense sticks, tofu, silkworm harvesting) literally by hand, in people's front rooms. There is a short video at the top of the blog of a section at sunset from the back of the bike. If you are ever in the area, we would highly recommend an Easy Riders trip (but make sure you go with the originals, the ones linked above, as there are many fakes around).

Hoi An - Lovely city, shame about the people

We arrived in to Nha Trang on the coast at the end of our bike trip in a small storm, with sand whipping across the main road, so we made a hasty exit north on the overnight bus to the old colonial town of Hoi An for a few nights. Hoi An is a lovely old colonial town set on the banks of a river, with mustard-yellow painted, French-styled buildings that have been preserved really well. It's also close to a really nice beach that extends north for many km's.

Hoi An is known as the culinary capital of Vietnam so we were fairly excited to try out some of its highlights. Helen took a cooking class at the Morning Glory
A French colonial house on Hoi An waterfrontA French colonial house on Hoi An waterfrontA French colonial house on Hoi An waterfront

Without the persistent sellers, it would be a lovely town
Cooking School for a morning to try and make some of the local delicacies herself. The dishes were delicious, but what was particularly interesting about the class was the insight it afforded into Vietnamese culinary traditions and tastes. The school is one of several restaurants owned by the enterprising Ms Vy, a young chef who leads the class herself. It was fascinating to be able to ask all manner of questions about Vietnamese habits - for example, in her (upper end) restaurant, Ms Vy has a supply of pork for locals, and another supply for foreigners. The waiting staff will make a note on each person's order to let the kitchen staff know if they are cooking for a local or a tourist. While us cholesterol obsessed foreigners get served a lean cut, this would be sent back by a local, who would expect a good rind of fat on their cut. The Vietnamese diet is naturally very low in fat, so what little animal fat they consume is valued as an essential part of their diet as well as for its flavour. We were taught about the importance not only of flavour and colour in their diet, but also
French colonial houses in Hoi An have all been converted to restaurants and shopsFrench colonial houses in Hoi An have all been converted to restaurants and shopsFrench colonial houses in Hoi An have all been converted to restaurants and shops

This house was used lots in scenes from the Quiet American
how variety of textures (coarser vegetables will be balanced with white refined rice), and tastes (spice will be offset with some sweetness) are equally important on the plate.

It has to be said though that we had less luck in experiencing the famous food in the restaurants of Hoi An. There are dozens of enticing little places overlooking the river or cobbled streets, but whether we went on guide book recommendations or number of people eating, we found the food to be quite hit and miss. The choice was bewildering, and in the end just pot luck produced some of the better results. There are a huge number of tourists in Hoi An, and we suspect this has led to many restaurants surviving on past glory and serving fairly ropey food for inflated prices.

Hoi An is very picturesque, and while it's beauty is enough to attract hundreds of foreigners, unfortunately this massive influx of tourists has manifested itself in other negative ways about town. Fierce competition between restaurants, cafes, tailors (Hoi An is renowned for the quality of its made-to-measure clothes, often produced overnight) and hotels, meant we were constantly accosted in the street to "Come in,
Lanterns move across the waterLanterns move across the waterLanterns move across the water

The lantern festival in Hoi An, on the 14th day of each lunar month
look at my shop" or more brutally we would often hear "Buy something from me". We could not walk down the street without being shouted at relentlessly, even from the other side of the road to us. Trying to buy everyday items like water became an ordeal as we would always get quoted double prices. We fairly soon started to feel like walking ATMs in the eyes of the locals. The friendly, unassuming Vietnamese we had got to know from the Central Highlands had been replaced by an unsmiling, screeching, money-grabbing type. The final straw came on the night of the supposedly local, traditional, lunar Lantern festival. No sooner had we reached the river than we were surrounded by gaggle of people shouting at us to buy a lantern to set adrift, and take a ride on a boat. One look at the river showed that not a single local person was doing either, they were too busy harrassing tourists to part with their cash. We really wanted to like Hoi An as a place, but try as we might, we couldn't really get past the horrible dynamic between locals and tourists.

On a more cheerful note, while Helen was experiencing the delights of her cooking class, Mike headed off on a hired motorbike (slightly inspired by the Easy Riders trip) to take in some of the coastline to the north of Hoi An for a day. The beach extends north for around 30km to ultimately change names to China Beach, a famous R&R hangout for American GIs during the war. This stretch of coastline is really beautiful with a white sand beach and turquoise lapping sea. But it hasn't escaped the attentions of the developers either and there are a huge number of resorts currently under construction along the seafront, including a Greg Norman golf course and resort and a Le Meridien resort. I don't think it is going to stay idyllic for too long and it appears the Vietnamese authorities have big plans to cash in on the natural beauty of the area. The view from the top of the Marble mountain (a small limestone hill that rises near the beach with lots of caves hiding Buddha statues) along the coast really showed just how far the beach extends in both directions, and how beautiful it really is.

Driving further north, I reached a beautifully deserted
On the way up to the Hai Van Pass, north of Hoi AnOn the way up to the Hai Van Pass, north of Hoi AnOn the way up to the Hai Van Pass, north of Hoi An

Stunning views along the twisty mountain roads
road that hauled up above the coast to the Hai Van Pass at 497m. The coastline here is totally undeveloped and has beautiful cliffs towering above the waves below. The view from the pass north along the coastline is mightily impressive and was definitely worth the drive. It was a really fun day out on the bike, particularly so the descent on the switchback turns along the empty road, back down to Hoi An again (although obviously staying within the speed limit at all times Mum!)
Back in the vicinity of Hoi An we took a short trip to the ancient Cham empire monuments at My Son, one of its most important ruins yet discovered. The remains here are much less extensive than those of the Khmers at Angkor Wat. They were also significantly damaged during the American War (as the Vietnam War is known in Vietnam) as the complex was a field headquaters for the Viet Cong and located in one of the American 'free fire' zones, so a fair amount of explosives were dumped on the area. Nevertheless, some of the monuments, dating from as early as the 7th Century, do remain intact and are quite beautiful. An
Tribal village lady in the Central HighlandsTribal village lady in the Central HighlandsTribal village lady in the Central Highlands

Will talk when given free smokes!
aspect that is particularly nice is the tranquility as one walks through the rural site, surrounded by rolling hills, which makes it a very calming place. The Hindu style temples that dot the area are also quite impressive, given their age.

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 35


Persimmon fruits on displayPersimmon fruits on display
Persimmon fruits on display

Central Highlands, Vietnam
A church bombed by the Americans in Central highlandsA church bombed by the Americans in Central highlands
A church bombed by the Americans in Central highlands

An attempt to flush out Viet Cong. Many war remnants remain throughout the country

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