Vietnam with Gemma

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Asia » Vietnam
April 23rd 2009
Published: October 7th 2009
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M writes: After introducing Gem to our favourite street caf in HCMC we stroll around Dong Khoi/Nguyen Hue area: posh shops, some French architecture, and opera house. Next morning, thanks to Gem we are able to make some strong coffee in our room before venturing out (ta big sis for the cups as well as all manner of other caring thoughts - vitamins etc, which were a good idea). We've arranged a 1/2 day tour to the Cuchi tunnels - built by the Vietcong as a defensive and protective underground complex: strategically positioned between the Communist North and occupied South. Us 2 found the video and information blinkered - our glorious fight kind of propaganda with little information about the complex context, and horror of the war. Although partially reconstructed (too narrow to safely visit otherwise!), the short crawl we undertake in the tunnels is impressive and gives a glimpse of what the Vietnamese had to endure. The various trap/torture apparatus on show is totally gruesome and defies imagination: we all know about the VC's amazingly effective fight with such limited resources, and this exemplifies it. Surrounding are mainly new rubber plantations and orchards; French then US napalm destroyed the jungle.

When we get back to Saigon it's raining heavily and we love sitting at our pavement bar watching people zoom past on motorbikes in their rain-ponchos: often 2 in a poncho! Next we have a travellers' sorting session: Frustratingly, Gem hasn't been able to withdraw money from her Smile account despite many phone calls (welcome to our world!) - which she resolves, and we buy tickets to Nha Trang beach resort and on sleeper to Danang; train is more pricey but we decide will be worth it. All a little pissed off when they take payment then tell us they can't give us sleeper tickets: we have to collect them ourselves in Nha Trang from a different company. Sounds like we could've been had again, but we can't do much now. To make ourselves feel better we have chic drinks at touristy GoGo2 (waiters literally fighting over us for custom in their part of the bar!), which are more expensive than our whole meal that evening.

The day of the 8hr train to Nha Trang we rise early for fantastic pastries and coffee in a Western-style bakery then visit the War Remnants Museum, which is good, especially the photography with horribly disturbing Agent Orange & napalm photos. Again though, we felt there was yet more simplistic "our glorious past" stuff with lack of context, portraying the whole nation as unified against "The Enemy", & "forgetting" to mention certain events. Americans soldiers are presented as random and cruel individuals rather than young, disillusioned and unhappy pawns in a political game. Information control seems to be alive & kicking in Vietnam.

The journey to Nha Trang is interesting : shouting hyperactive toddlers the whole way and TV with female voiceover for all ages and genders rather than dubbing - how rubbish! Laurent gets a meal for $2, whilst the locals engage in the terrifying cracking-open of duck embryos when the buffet car comes around: Midland Mainline it aint! Gem is traumatised. They do look foul and slightly furry. Enough. Fag-smoking guards are efficient and friendly, and scenery (white and fuschia lily ponds, paddies, shaded residential alleys with lots of greenery) fantastic. At 8pm we are all tired and hungry but can't find a decent cheap hotel, in desperation finally settling for the first one we saw: Perfume Garden. Crap beds for the poorly backs, but pretty authentic tiles everywhere. They demand our passports and promise to leave them in the safe but as usual they go in a drawer with the key left on the side whilst the staff chat at the pavement bar: ggrrr!

Gemma gets to sample the Vietnamese cheese sandwich for breakfast: bread & a cheese triangle, whilst M has Shakshuka: lovely egg, tomato, cucumber concoction. The beach is surprisingly lovely: clean and quiet with some shade under thatched gazebos; we all enjoy the big waves and warm water. More stress that evening when we collect our train tickets and unlike last time they do no have "Foreigner" stamped on them (we're meant to pay more) and the face value is about 1/2 what we paid; the guy won't call our contact in Saigon and when we do she hangs up on us so we are left none-the-wiser and a little pissed off, again!

In the morning Gem and Lozz take a boat out to snorkel whilst M - feeling rough - meets some other travellers at the hotel, all of whom are marvelling at the hassle, rudeness and being "had" all the time I'm just inserting that so that dear reader will know it's not only us being moaners. In fact everyone we have met travelling has said the same & that they wouldn't come back: disappointing. We all bump into each other on the esplanade, saving M from harassing motorbike man, and G&L report decent snorkelling despite lots of little jellyfish. Loz has small purple burns on his knuckles. After extremely expensive (but Western - bliss!) coffee at the Sailing Club we visit the Cham Towers. Good job the taxi driver knows where it is because the signs are only in Vietnamese despite all the foreign visitors. At the top there are beautiful plants around the ancient towers and Hindu temples and an incredible view of the huge, colourful fishing fleet, countering the pissed off "traditional" dancers performing for the tourists! As a contrast we then go to see the RC Cathedral in the centre, full of devout Vietnamese. We note that this area, being less touristy, is comparatively hassle-free: we must accept that all Vietnamese can't be as pushy as they appear in the tourist ghetto! The problem is it's hard to find recognisable street food etc in such areas: only sweet packaged bread stuff. We do manage to consume plenty of very cheap Saigon beer and get some good people watching in at a pavement bar though: strange sights such as parents letting toddlers play in the busy street; the bike-cleaning shop opposite metamorphosing into a restaurant for the night, building and immediately dismantling a shrine which they tuck behind a lamp-post: Vietnamese are industrious & ingenious people! Exhausted we head to an Italian with sofas where we eat in front of corny, stupendously bad Cameron Diaz film (which Gemma enjoys, for the record!) then head to station for 11.20 night train: good job there's only 1 line or we'd be stumped!

At the station, a woman tries to charge Gemma approximately the price of a long-distance train ticket for a bottle of water which is just amusing at this stage! We're relieved to find our tickets are valid for our 4 bed compartment, and it's unoccupied though stinks of fags and beer; a guy tries to force his way in but the uber-efficient guards aren't having any of it. Bliss: peace! Decent sleep then abrupt arrival in Danang from where we are proud to succeed in following directions and hailing a local bus to Hoi An. Hmm. It is then announced that in fact we must leap off (they tend not to really stop, even for old bids) and career across the central reservation with all our luggage, when a bus comes going the right way. We are loaded on with various door-panels etc on our feet and are delighted with breeze from windows, until the bus breaks down. After multiple combined attempts to repair the bus using a hammer, we jump ship and get on another bus in haste (seems that if the buses stop they won't get going again!). More adventure on arrival in Hoi An: no transport other than motorbikes here so we each jump on 1 with our bags and find a hotel. Our evening wander in the stinky but fascinating food market reveals than Hoi An is home to many enormous tropical insects, including cockroaches which some people amuse themselves with by attaching to string and hurling about: oh what fun! We try to ignore the constant "hello", "you buy", "you sit down" and resolve to stare straight ahead, focused.

Next day, after luxury coffee and lovely Mango Rooms, we decide to leave our dilapidated hotel for another one across the river - An Hoi: same price and far nicer (if you ignore the JCB right outside the window - almost inevitable!). Then a bit of exploring: Hoi An is a beautiful unesco heritage riverside town and partially lantern-lit and pedestrianised at night: unusual in Vietnam. Cargo patisserie is a real winner in a beautiful Art Deco building. The hundreds of made-to-measure tailor stores seem rather de trop for this small town even with all the tourists but truly impressive. M gets shorts and Gem a jacket made within a day; they even do shoes. Dinner a disappointment: miniscule plate of noodles by the river: how much do noodles cost in Vietnam?! rip off! Never mind, next day we bravely assume the tourist label and visit the beautiful wooden Japanese bridge, Museum of Art & Culture (not great), & C18 Chinese Assembly Rooms and merchant houses (great). We're shown around by a 10th generation woman at the Tran Family Chapel: she explains their placentas are buried there so that they are always "together". Then visit Quang Cong's Temple and the stunning Trieu Chau Assembly Hall filled with statues, a gorgeous ornate roof and woodwork and a lovely old doorman! Gem then goes shopping and makes good purchases before dinner at a riverside "Food Hall" where different cooks have signs up and cook food fresh: lovely, and Bia Hoi at 25C a pop: can't complain.

Next day we're off to Da Nang airport for Hanoi, our taxi driving past the famous Marble Mountains (previously a quarry, now pagodas etc on the hill) and narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic on the wrong side. Bit anxious to do things right when we get off our Jetstar flight in Hanoi, as apparently there's a common scam where taxis take you to a hotel which has "borrowed" the name of the one you want! We are swooped on and as we then deliberate, are subject to much scowling and attitude (G even has to beseach our hating driver: "what is problem?"), before we cram into his minibus to town. Quickly find a decent cheap hotel: Viet An, which if you ignore the cockroach in G's bathroom, is a bargain compared to the double-the-price Backpackers'! We like Hanoi's less frenzied atmosphere and French-Viet architecture. Seems less hassley and more integration rather than one tourist ghetto. Having said that, when Gem takes a cyclo home, he tries to charge twice the tourist price, we negotiate, then he takes her to the wrong address and makes her pay the original price anyway, though he definitely knew and saw the right address on the map! That night we fall in love with the kitsch miniature bar for G&Ts then have crap Italian: all the dishes taste sugary: yuk! We dn't understand why there are giant fresh artichokes on sale at the market, yet the artichoke pizza has 3 thin pieces of the stuff; they seem to use it only for tea. Back at the hotel we aint impressed by the staff all chilling outside with our keys out on the counter. Have to bite our tongues. Seems to us like people work incredibly long hours, often a long way from home, and eat, sleep and live on the job so their work ethic is totally different. It's OK to do other stuff whilst working. We were once kept waiting in a museum queue whilst the attendants plucked their eyebrows!

Vietnamese are not lazy though: at 5.45am the park is buzzing with people slapping themselves (Chinese medicine thing?), doing aerobics and the kicking the shuttlecock thing. OUr quest for today is to book cheap Halong Bay trip but after seeing several blaggers and fake agencies imitating the real ones (really is a problem in Hanoi), we plump for the extremely expensive Handspan 1-nighter. For lunch we have street food which is relatively good in Hanoi, if stinking and unhygienic. It's no wonder M&G both have Delhi-belly. We marvel at the crouching people and all the very mini chairs people use on the pavements - impressive. Then visit one of the famous "tube houses" - narrow merchants' houses extended backwards, only slightly marred by the usual caged songbirds and tons of souvenir -selling! That evening, Lozz and Martha have nasty and quite scary confrontation with guy in internet shop who triple-charges us, won't give us our change then ignore us and starts playing games with his mates; then he goes ballistic when M pointedly takes down the overcharging complaints number. Still no change though! Better avoid this street....

Next day we're off to Halong Bay on the minibus. Tuyen, our guide, is the first person who tells us interesting information about the area and culture. No kareoke and limited beeping; what you get for $137! We see paddies and water buffalo galore and lots of big country villas; housing here generally seems pretty good though Gem finds the fact that houses are only prettily painted out front very odd. The stop off at the "Happy Room" (?!) - toilet - is at a disabled people's workshop which is good, but too brief to buy. Never mind, we enjoy Nguyen drip coffee (pretty good), much needed since the breakfast coffee was literally water. Our traditional wooden "junk" is beautiful though we are amazed at the number of similar ones on the bay. A local woman rows us around the floating fishing village - seems very efficient compared to S American ones - concrete buildings, swimming pet doggies and even waste collection! Cruising around the Bay we are impressed by the huge karst formations. Next we leap off the middle of the boat into pretty cold water for a quick dip then enjoy fantastic seafood (crap repetetive veggie for Gemma) dinner with Glenda (an Aussie - otherwise just us and an American family). We are outraged we have to pay - a lot - for any drinking water! In the morning we're up at 5 as planned but the promised early breakfast and swim clearly aren't on the agenda: the crew are asleep (having kept M&L awake outside their door!) and there's no ladder down. After huge breakfast we visit the "Surprise Cave" - it is! Huge caverns of columns and stalactites and various formations resembling turtle & eggs or giant phallus!

Back in Hanoi we are delighted with Nam Hai 2 hotel: overwhelming wood, coloured tiles and flowery-ness everywhere; crap mattress for the back problem, but they promise to change it. However, after our evening of 15 cent Bia Hoi, which we have to wash down with 50c Hanoi beer, they deny any knowledge of this!! Another 6.45 wake-up call from the street loudspeaker: announcements with choral music, which is common here and reminds me of old Eastern German propaganda announcements I've heard. After a walk around the slightly less frenzied French Quarter we have lunch at a restaurant which trains disadvantaged youth. This is a weird place: several terrified young wait-staff with no English stand there talking and staring. In the evening, we go to the water puppetry by the lake - one of the world's major troupes, and it's fantastic. We love the music (Chinese-style singing: harsh sounds) and weird wooden puppets with their puppeteers knee-deep behind the curtain! Then we're starving as for once, incredibly, we couldn't find a street-vendor nearby for food before the performance (there are v few shops here). Decide on a Thai curry which despite being plugged as mild, is HOT for M, inedible - another English misunderstanding? To bid G farewell on her final night, we wash it down with G&T at Half Man Half Noodle, almost touching the ground on the tiny Vietnamese stools, then Bia Hoi corner, followed by one at a friendly bar which transpires to be a "hostess" joint. Reminds me to note that toilets here are often unisex but with the urinal in the cubicle which means sitting at nose-level with a urinal: foul.

Gem's last day and whilst buying souvenirs she discovers she's bought weasel coffee: excreted by weasels for extra kick! Thanks for the hammock and other cool bits I would never have got it together to buy G! It's extremely hot today and we struggle along the pretty bridge to a temple on the lake and give up on visiting when we, and several other tourists, are told we had to pay on the other side of the bridge - all in Vietnamese. Sadly, we bid farewell to G and next day, it's our last day in Hanoi too. We explore the beautiful C11 Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius and various scholars, and catch a demo of the weird Dan Bau (like a unichord zither) and Trung (bamboo xylophone). After a treat Western meal at Cafe Moca (mmm) we cab it to the airport bus, bidding farewell to the men outside cafes with their nargiles - we still don't know what they're puffing on? Cab ride is a joke: the meter says 9 dongs then suddenly 49: 5km instead of 1km! When we arrive, all his cabbie mates are gathering around asking if we're going to pay and M feels sure they're going to confiscate our luggage or something, but we pay 10 dongs and he shrugs, laughs and leaves!

Our last stop in Vietnam is Hue: former capital of the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. Typical arrival at airport: taxi drivers shouting in our faces, so we run for a minibus! Then get swooped on again by teenage hotel hustlers, so walk purposefully away and fortunately end up at superb Thai Binh Hotel: huge room, huge balcony. Not exactly service oriented as usual - later, we wait ages for our key whilst the guy watches TV then he comes to sort out our faulty remote, walks out mumbling leaving the door wide open and never returns. Breakfast is an amusing affair: omelette with a cheese triangle plonked in the middle or oily pancakes! We love visiting the Citadel, over the Perfume River bridge, although there are no maps or interpretation boards in English and all us tourists are lost amid the ruins, temples, gorgeous gardens and sleeping workmen! That evening, after a Vietnam-sized (mini) Italian meal we sample new local beers (Huda, Hue, Festival) at the pumping DMZ bar (Hue is just below the DeMilitarised Zone line - former N/S divide).

It's our last day in Vietnam! We hire a scooter from lovely photographer Mr Cu at Mandarin cafe, and drive 15km north to the beach: could be gorgeous but there are c.30 restaurants and absolutely no tourists. We find the recommended bar but strangely they aren't doing food and the peanuts we buy on the beach are all rotten. Starved off, we head back to the road and on the way, see another place of the same name, serving food: we have been victims of the classic Vietnamese re-naming ruse! Never mind, we have a drink at an untouristy roadside bar on the way back: costs about 5p and has beautiful shady wooden home behind the cafe frontage. We can't help thinking these tourist-free areas must be so much more pleasant, but pretty inaccessible. Before continuing the dusty drive, Loz is persuaded to buy some $3 "RayBans", then we have a fantastic ride out into the countryside where we eventually find the famous C19 bridge - thanks to an enterprising local woman who calls and beckons, then makes us pay to park and buy a drink! Countryside is stunning: lily- and duck-filled lakes, water-buffalo and wheatfields; some girls present M with a sheave of wheat and kids wave and shout hello to us: idyllic. Amusing encounter with a fortune-teller on the bridge: an old crone who says we will have a baby boy, Laurent will work late and I will cry and drink: great.

For our bus to Laos (Savannakhet) we are up at 5.30 and join a bus which turns out to double as a DMZ tour via Dong Ha, where we change buses: no A/C and shaky non-reclining seats - not what we paid for ... Anyway, we love the co-pilot seated on a plastic picnic chair in the aisle and admire the scenery to Laos Bao, including passing through Khe Sanh - site of a famous siege. Mostly in Vietnam we had seen decent housing, with shacks and huts mainly village market areas or cafe frontages to tiled and wooden homes, but towards Laos there were some makeshift huts and poorer-looking villages. Is this a taste of things to come in Laos? ....

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