Hanoi to Saigon: broke & in a hurry

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August 29th 2010
Published: August 29th 2010
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Of all the painful 3rd class trains, 2nd hand Chinese buses and pick-up journeys I've endured Inle to Hanoi was by far the worst. I'm pretty tolerant of sleep deprivation and not eating properly (hence dramatic 2 stone weight loss) but I now realise I do have limits. 48 in transit is my breaking point. I left Inle at 2pm on a bus, arrived in Yangon at 4 am. Spent the entire day in Yangon airport, then flew to Bangkok. Slept on a bench in the airport. Flew to Hanoi that morning and got a minibus to the centre. Driver tried to rip me off by dropping me at a commission paying hostel. Fortunately GPS on iPod is making his job much more difficult and I found my hostel in a few minutes. I then immediately passed out.

Yet again I bumped into my friend Danny. This time we were even in the same dorm by pure chance. After all these chance meetings we just gave up and decided to travel together for the rest of the way. Even our flights from Bangkok are leaving at the same time!

There's not much to see in Hanoi but it's a base for visiting nearby Halong bay. Several people I met complained about how manic the city is but it's a pretty standard developing world city: questionable liquids running in the street, people everywhere and you take your life into your hands every time you cross the road.

Even Lonely Planet says it’s not worth visiting Halong independently so we (along with what seemed like about a 1000 other people in Hanoi) booked a cruise through our hostel. During the bus ride to the boat the weather was alternating between torrential downpours and bleak grey skies. It was shaping up to be a long 2 days! Fortunately the clouds totally cleared and a few hours later I was lying in the sun on the roof of the boat... meanwhile Danny was hiding from direct sunlight in the cabin.

I was actually really impressed with the trip it’s one area that definitely deserves its reputation and is in no way over-rated. I can see though if you're unlucky with the weather it'd be a pretty dire trip!

I've done my time on crappy local transport, as I reach the end of the trip and both money and time run out I'm more than happy to go for the easy option. Tourist buses run the entire length of the country effectively dropping you from hostel to hostel. Hop on hop off all the way to Saigon is $45 which is considerably cheaper than the train. Night buses are pretty decent, almost full length beds! We somehow got assigned the backseats each time. If you can imagine the 5 backseats of a bus except instead of seats you have beds you’ll get an idea of the level of personal space. I woke up several times in the night either spooning or being spooned by my Vietnamese neighbour.

First stop was Vietnam's ancient capital hue. My opinions of Hue are slightly biased. We arrived during a monsoon shower. The rain completely destroyed my phone, briefly knocked my laptop out of action and nearly killed my iPod. Having done about a grand (or 25 million Vietnamese dong) worth of damage I wasn't in the best of moods. We were basically trapped in the hostel for the day.

Luckily my laptop pulled a Lazarus and I avoided a nervous breakdown. The weather cleared up the next day so I got up early to have a look around before the bus left. It's a nice town and there were no other tourists around but it was basically just a much less impressive version of Beijing's Forbidden City.

After a scenic drive down the coast we arrived in Hoi An. To be honest it's pretty debatable what's worth seeing anywhere in Vietnam but Hoi An actually has nothing. The only reason to visit is the fantastic tailored clothing. Tailored suits only cost $50. I needed work clothes anyway for my imminently approaching grad job anyway so Hoi An was an ideal. In spite of the fact I haven't owned a pair of shoes since I was in Latvia, by the time I left hoi an I had 2 suits, 6 shirts and 5 ties in my backpack.

Between the several fittings we basically just ate and drank. Most of the restaurants serve draught beer for around 15 cent. It's pretty easy to kill the time!

Next stop on the standard trail is Nha Thrang. There are 2 groups of opinion on Nha Thrang. Both sides agree on one thing: it's the Benidorm of SE Asia. The difference is one group views this as a positive. We stopped there for an hour to change bus. To be fair it was an impressive sunrise but I'm glad we continued on to Muin Ne. It's not exactly untouched but it's much more chilled out and the resorts are literally on the beach.

Our final stop in Vietnam was Saigon. Again not much/anything to see in the city. You can do tours to the nearby Cu Chi tunnels but we were told we were probably too tall/fat to get through even the fake tunnels that were built for tourists. The city has some nice French colonial architecture and some average temples. Undoubtedly the main thing I'll remember is the sheer number of middle-aged sex tourists. Evidently Saigon is vying for Bangkok's crown as SE Asia's capital of sleaze.

The city is plastered with hammer & sickle flags. Obviously someone decided people were more in need of being reminded the country is officially communist than the north. Of the several fake communist countries I've been to Vietnam is the most ridiculous. Ignoring the abhorrent lack of Mc Donald's and the easily navigated Facebook ban the country is arguably more capitalist than most of Europe.

I had a good time in Vietnam but it has to be the most over-rated place I've been. I thought I had nowhere near enough time but in the end there wasn’t anywhere I would have stayed longer. I would have probably gone to Sapa and Ninh Binh but frankly once you’ve seen one mountain covered in rice paddies... If it was just a Chinese province no one other than the most ardent traveller would visit. The combination of intrigue surrounding the war and the fact backpacking has become so easy you're effectively on a package holiday means the country gets more visitors than in probably deserves. Basically the less travelling you've done the more you'll enjoy Vietnam.

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