A return trip to Vietnam

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June 24th 2019
Published: June 24th 2019
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What a thrill to have the opportunity of revisiting Vietnam, after a long absence stretching back 20 years. My previous trip in 1999 has always held a special place in my heart, and it seems every second person you bump into in Australia nowadays has recently visited, or is planning to visit Vietnam. The buzz became so great I could no longer resist the charms of this wonderful country. The memories from all those years ago are becoming a distant memory, so it's great to be back in Vietnam amongst the friendly people, wonderful culture, and delicious food for a three week return visit. What's particularly surprising is the prices don't seem to have changed over the years. Travellers will struggle to find a cheaper destination, and there's plenty on offer to make the most of visiting this special country.

Part of the credit for Vietnam becoming such a hot travel destination for Aussies must go to Jetstar Airlines, the budget carrier of the Qantas group. This phenomenally successful airline is fully entrenched in Vietnam, and operate internal flights within the country. After conducting a preliminary online search, I quickly discovered ticket prices from Jestar are an absolute bargain, and snapped up a return ticket without a moment's hesitation. It's less than 9 hours direct flying time from Sydney, and the visa on arrival process was surprisingly efficient. I'd come across some bad reviews from travellers online; but I found the staff to be polite, efficient, and willing to take pictures without delay for the tourists who forgot to bring a passport photo along with the visa paperwork. The new arrivals found ourselves on our way through immigration, customs, and out of the airport in super quick time! For a city of nearly 14 million people, it's incredible to think District 1 is only six kilometres from the airport by taxi. I checked in to the super cool Saigon Marvel hostel, and had a Saigon lager in my hands within 2 hours of arriving in country ... how cool is that! The magic of Southeast Asia remains strong, and I settled down to some serious people watching as this vibrant city continues to hum with street life long in to the night. Saigon is a city that never sleeps, and even kids are wandering around selling their wares at all hours of the night.

The next morning I went down for brekkie, and lined up an afternoon motorcycle tour of the city with the staff. Once that was sorted it was time to go for an initial explore on foot around District 1. The hostel is situated just a block from the famous Walking Street, and I began to slip in to the relentless energy that's a part of the fabric of life in Southeast Asia. People tend to live so much more of their life on the streets, and not barricaded at home while staring zombie like at the TV screen as we can be prone to in the West. I stumbled across a Food Hall with a wide selection of stalls and hunkered down over a good lunch. Then it was time to head back to the hostel and meet my guide, as we set off amidst the traffic madness for a tour of Saigon. He told me there are 11 million motorbikes in Saigon alone, but once you're on the street it's surprisingly orderly, and I'm reliably informed accidents are not that common.

As a long time motorbike rider in Sydney, what is apparent is the respect for motorbike riders from car, truck, and bus drivers. They constantly honk horns on approaching a bike, and during the brief ride with my guide I didn't witness any dangerous driving, or riding for that matter. What looks at first glance to be totally chaotic is surprisingly orderly, although watching how everyone just inches through major intersections from all different directions (without traffic lights) is quite an experience. But everyone seems to squeeze through in their intended direction with a minimum of fuss. The tour was rewarding, and we visited several interesting districts and monuments while my eloquent young guide filled me in on the history of the city. My mate from home recommenced a live venue from his visit a week prior, and I went along to enjoy an awesome philippino rock band to top off the evening.

I woke early next morning and booked a flight to Phu Quoc island after a recommendation from my guide. I figured Saigon will always be there in all her bustling glory, and wanted to explore areas of Vietnam I'd not previously visited. It takes less than an hour flying over Cambodia to get to Phu Quoc island, which is situated in the Gulf of Thailand. I checked in to a high quality hostel, then went for a stroll along Long beach on a very dreary, showery afternoon. The beach was not nice at all, actually I was a little taken aback but it's all good. That evening I met a few nice travellers at the bar and retired in a good mood.

Next morning I arranged a motorbike through the hostel staff, and rode down to the cable car at the south of the island. It's actually a very impressive engineering feat, with the massive pylons stretching over several nearby islands off the coast. The Vietnamese are in the midst or creating an adventure theme park on the island that forms the final destination, and the beach is pretty cool too. The cable car is surprisingly cheap, and a great option for a day trip while on Phu Quoc. Unfortunately the weather has been hell, and I rode straight in to a monsoonal gale while making my way back to town. My goodness, it was teeming and blowing so hard the rain was literally hurting my face. I had no choice but to keep the sunglasses on, so had the added bonus of not being able to see a thing as they misted up! I took shelter at one stage as it was impossible to continue. The rain seemed to ease so I jumped back on the bike, only for the downpour to increase again almost on cue. Wow, what a day; two days out of Australia is all it takes to realise travel can take you way out of your comfort zone!

Next morning it was still teeming with rain, plus I'd picked up a stomach bug already. There was a break in the weather around 11:00am, so I jumped on the bike planning to visit the gorgeous Sao beach. The locals didn't speak a word of English, and my maps app was not behaving either. So despite riding around for ages I couldn't find the idyllic beach, although it certainly looks pretty on the internet. I was a little too ambitious with the benefit of hindsight, and my stomach was churning on the ride back to town. I had to make for the scrub in what was a dire situation, even with a few people around there was no choice. Back at the hostel things went from bad to worse, and first thing next morning I went to the pharmacy where the lady saved the day by dispensing imodium. Things were not going terribly well on the island I have to admit, with the constant rain and my upset stomach. So I decided to cut the island visit short, and went in to Vietnam airlines to book an earlier flight back to Ho Chi Minh city.

It was great to be back with the friendly team at Saigon Marvel hostel. It seems this trip has not got off to the most auspicious start, but it's all part of the travel experience and there's plenty of time still as I plan to head north. My stomach is feeling much improved, and the buzz of being in this bustling city never seems to fade. I'm full of optimism and a sense of quiet excitement for the remainder of my trip, basically all of you should be here now!

"You are your own best friend. Listen to yourself more often than to someone else." Steven Cuoco

As I continue my travels, until next time it's signing off for now


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