Our Vienamese adventures began in Ho Chi Minh city, aka Saigon. I was really looking forward to seeing the French colonial influence in the archiecture and it didn't dissapoint. The city was far more developed than we'd imagined with huge Chanel and Louis Vitton stores. It felt like a bit of a shock after how basic things had gotten in Cambodia. The first hostel we stayed in was called Madame Cruc's and wasn't far from where the bus dropped us. We got totally ripped off in the meter taxi though- what should have taken about 10 minutes cost us 25 dollars! Be careful which taxis you use! After one night we checked into Mai Guesthouse. It was much better value for money, and was situated in one of the back alleys, so made for a much more peaceful night's sleep. Whilst in Ho Chi Minh we did two trips- one half day trip to the Chu Chi Tunnels and one trip to the Mekong Delta. The Chu Chi Tunnels were used by the Vietnamese during the war. They lived in tiny cramped tunnels that we had the opportunity to crawl through. The ones we tried were not even the smallest as they had been widen for tourists! You can also view all the traps that the guerrilla fighters invented to trick the Americans, most of them are pretty nasty. There is a rifle range with a variety of different guns you can try. Tina and I paid 17 dollars to shoot ten bullets at targets from an AK 47. It was expensive on a travellers buget but totally worth it- don't expect any instruction from the people who work there though, they just let you get on with it! Our trip to the Mekong Delta was really enjoyable. Our guide was very knowledgable about Ho Chi Minh and the islands we visited on the river. We got to try coconut candy, some honey products, went for a ride in a pony-driven cart, went for a ride on a long paddle boat, saw some massive crocodiles, held a snake, I bought a conical hat- it was great!
We booked the sleeper bus pass to get us all the way up to Hanoi with several stops on the way. The buses are pretty weird and reminded me of the night bus in Harry Potter. They were pretty good- you each get an individual seat that reclines nearly flat. The foot space is quite cramped though and there is nowhere to put your bag so you have to find an ingenious way to store it or limit what you take on. I quickly regretted my purchase of the conical hat. Our next stop was Mui Ne for one night. An hour after we got there we went on a tour in a jeep for 8 dollars. We stopped at the fairy river, we weren't totally sure what this was but our guide told us to walk down it and it turned out to be one of my highlights of Vietnam. The surrounding rock was all a rich terracotta colour and the river was shallow enough for you to walk through the warm jets. The rock formations were really impressive, it looked like we could be on Mars. After this we drove to a lookout point over a fishing village to take a picture. Then it was onto the sandunes where we rented a quadbike that I drove around with the girls on the back for about ten minutes. We got a bit stuck when I was trying to get us up a dune and a local boy had to hop on and help us! We were meant to have 20 minutes on the bike and expected a bit more time but they came and took it away promptly before 20 minutes by our watch and wouldn't let us have longer without paying. It had been a bit expensive so it wasn't really worth it. We'd also rented plastic boards to board down the dunes. It was really hard! We were in stitches trying to get enough speed up to slide down and not end up beached.
After Mui Ne we travelled to Dalat. The bus that turned up in the morning was not a sleeper bus but a minibus that was packed to the rafters with people. I was a bit confused and told the driver this wasn't our bus, he insisted it was though and said the sleeper bus couldn't get up the roads to Dalat. A bit annoying not to have been told this before! Dalat is up in the hills and has a colder climate that most places in Vietnam, it definitely felt fresh when we were there. The area is very beautiful though and has lots of strawberry plantations in the surrounding hills. There's not that much to do in Dalat. There are some day trips you can do but we went to "the Crazy House", a structure designed by a Russian architect that has themed rooms that you can stay in. We felt like we were in Alice in Wonderland or some kind of theme park! In the afternoon we rented a padalo around the lake. Dalat is famous for it's wine and we'd already tried some in Mui Ne which was really nice. Unfortunately the bottle we bought in Dalat was horrible- it was red wine and fizzy!
Our next stop- Nha Trang- was my favourite place in Vietnam. It's a cool beach resort and we had a good night out at 'Why Not?" bar. So far we weren't loving the Vietnamese food very much so our diet had turned to the cheese baguettes you can buy from street vendors- these were the saving grace of Vietnam! We then travelled up to Hoi An on the overnight bus. Hoi An is a picturesque town with lots of old low buildings painted yellow with wooden shutters. In the day time the old quater is pedestrianised. Everyone goes to Hoi An to get tailor made clothes. We all started out wanting suits and maybe one other item. In the end we collectively bought 3 suits, 4 winter jackets, 2 skirts, 2 tops, 2 dresses, 2 pairs of winter boots and 2 pairs of shoes. It's easy to get carried away! We figured what the hell, you're only in Vietnam once. There are so many tailors in Hoi An. You must do your research before committing to one. We'd read a big review book that our hotel had and decided to go to "Peace" clothing. The girls there were lovely and made all the alterations we wanted. Everything was always ready the next day or the same day. They don't do shoes but took us down the road to "09" shoes who also did a good job. My winter boots are an exact copy of some lovely ones from Aldo for half the price. We had our favourite Vietnamese meal in Hoi An. The girls had chicken with chilli and lemongrass and I enjoyed grilled fish in a banana leaf.
From Hoi An we travelled on to Hue. If you've ever watched the Top Gear episode where they go to Vietnam this drive is featured. It was raining pretty badly when we drove through it but we could see how beautiful it would have been under clearer skies. A lot of travellers we met chose to rent motorbikes and drive this road themselves which is a popular option. Hue offers a lot of historical sites including the citadel where the Royal Seat used to be held. We walked around this in an afternoon. The next day we took a tour of some pagodas and some tomb sites which were pretty. We also stopped at an incense-making place where we tried our hand at making incense sticks. We were all naturals! We'd only stopped to take a picture of an insence display in the shape of a flower but felt obliged to buy after we'd made some. We later saw the same stuff being sold outside one of the tombs for 1 3rd of the price.
After Hue it was time for Hanoi. The roads were even crazier in Hanoi than in Ho Chi Minh! They advise you to cross the street by just walking out and keeping a steady pace so the drivers have time to swerve around you. If you run or stop you're more likely to end up as road kill. We stayed at Hanoi Backpackers which was 9 dollars for a 12 bed dorm with ensuite. This was a bit more than what we normally would pay but we were meeting some of Tina's friends there. The facilities were really good, you got free brekfast and it felt like being back in one of the hostels in Australia. One morning we went on the waling tour that the hostel organised. We saw some pretty grim things at the market including live frogs being decapitated and heads of fishes on the chopping blocks that were still alive. We got talking to a Welsh guy called Colin who ended up joing us on our Ha Long Bay trip and who will also join us when we get to Koh Phangan for the full moon party!
We booked our trip to Ha Long Bay through one of the tour operators near our hostel. We'd been told to avoid 'Sihn Cafe" and the agent we booked through went under a different name, something like free and easy. We later found out it was the same company! We booked a 2 day one night tour, staying on junk boat that looked like an absolute dream when we were shown the pictures. We were all really dissapointed when our boat turned out to look very different from the pictures and our tour guide was not a nice person at all. Many of the things that they said would be included like free drinking water and late night squid fishing were not- it was just small things but made us feel a bit lied-to. We really enjoyed the kayaking around the bay and Ha Long Bay itself was quite pretty. Don't believe all the hype though. If you want true unspoiled beauty, go to Milford Sound in New Zealand. We were considering getting off when the boat docked at Cat Ba island for the night but in the end we decided to make the most of it and just got pissed on Dalat wine. There were some Polish girls who were also on the same length tour as us and stayed up drinking. We all sat on the sundeck on top of the boat and looked at the stars which were pretty good.
We returned to Hanoi Backpackers for one more night and attempted to have a night out with our new mate Colin. All the bars shut at 11p in Hanoi so it was a bit hard! In our room that night we met some girls- Sarah, Nat and Kat- who were on the same flight to Laos as us the next day- perfect! It had been a whistel stop tour through Vietnam. In our opinion the Vietnamese were not the most friendly people we'd met. It always felt like they wanted more and more money from you and as though there were more scams to watch out for. Some guys we met on one of the overnight buses had been mugged once in Nha Trang, had money taken from them when they were having a massage and even had money taken from their hotel room! In comparison we'd been really lucky. We were all looking forward to getting to Laos- the final country left to discover in our travels.
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