Saigon – Ho Chi Minh
Landing in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam the original impression was great…there is a quiet zone inside the airport where you can get money, arrange airport transfers and local phone cards entirely in peace. Once these simple logistics are sorted you then step out into the throng of spruiks, touts and general madness that exists with every Asian commute.
We headed to our hostel to find our room was not ready so we bounced around the streets in a range of local bars killing time and a wide variety of beers waiting for our room. Beer here in Vietnam tends to range in price anywhere from 10,000 dong all the way up to a ridiculous 50,000 dong (50 cents up to $2.50). We had the obligatory wet season afternoon downpours and generally enjoyed the sights and sounds of a new city.
Room ready, we dumped our gear and ventured out for an evening meal. Jill had booked our hostel in the middle of the tourist bar and nightclub district. This brought about a new game for Jill. She would walk about 10 metres behind me and laugh as the local hookers and bar girls would see me and commence their patter and then she would appear and they would all go oh…and stop. She thought that this was a fun game.
On the food front I had been dreading the next couple of legs and the Ho Chi Minh foray saw a lot of my fears come to light…Jill on the other hand was fine. I have a long held dislike for cucumber and I find that coriander overpowers everything in a dish. As such these are my two most disliked items (brussel sprouts are high on any list too) and Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand tend to use them all liberally. Jill loves them so she is having a ball while I am hunting for and eating around some of the staple foods of the land. The fresh spring rolls and bowls of Pho have Jill in bliss and I have had 2 spring rolls each one was laden with one or both of the offending items so I stopped trying them. Thankfully the Pho comes with a plate of fresh herbs and you can add your own…so I have the opportunity to eat this at least.
The next day we headed out on the tourist trail starting with a walk to the Ben Thanh market which is in the heart of town and sells almost everything on the planet…cheap…if you are wiling to fight and haggle. From here a walk to the opera house, around to the peoples convention hall, past the revolutionary museum and on to the Notre Dame cathedral.
At this,point we had reached the war remnants museum (which was formerly called the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” and before that the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”). This is possibly the most confronting war museum in the world. There were images and stories so graphic as to turn people’s stomachs and visibly queasy people could be seen. Photos of dismemberments due to shelling and more of the napalm and agent orange victims abound.
Possibly more confronting was the photos of the disfigurement and retardation caused by the Agent Orange bombings, a generation on… No doubt there was elements of propaganda throughout but either way this was one of the grittiest war museums I have been to…highlighting the bad sides of war rather than the heroism that is normally displayed. As a positive the ground floor had stories and photos of people overcoming and living with their disabilities and deformities.
The one thing that Vietnam has that is new for us since leaving Australia is a rumble…the sheer volume of motorbikes on the roads means that the entire place rumbles. No one bike is overly noisy but the constant stream of thousands of bikes means that there is a constant vibration. Having left China where all the bikes were electric and silent this was quite the change for us.
The bus from Ho Chi Minh to Can Tho was something that we had dreaded…to get there we had to get a taxi to the bus ticket office, get our tickets, get a small bus to the big bus terminus, find our bus and get on for the 3-4 hr ride to Can Tho. We imagined the worst with chickens in cages, pigs oinking and flying feathers. Surprisingly it all went very smoothly.
The guy from the hostel followed the cab and sorted our tickets, a whining child on the small bus was the worst part. We got to the big bus and were met by a bus dude who checked our ticket and escorted us to a very nice bus indeed. Only one child (of a good age), Wifi throughout the journey…perfect…until…about 15 minutes in he turned on the entertainment. A local comedy movie…starring a tantrum throwing, fishwife, drama queen mother, and 5 semi adopted kids, all delivered with the nasal twang that accompanies most Asian languages…I swear a fishwife sounds the same despite the language…in reality this was just a constant discordant cacophony of noise that just kept going…and a speaker above everyone’s head.
Anyway the movie eventually finished and we arrived in Can Tho which is the main town in the heart of the Mekong delta towards the southern tip of Vietnam. The main reason was to come and poke around the Mekong delta, cruising the canals and just look about. We did this on our second day with a 5am start and a cab to the dodgy little boat that would be our transport for the day. We sat in this boat and putted up the river watching the sun rise over the Mekong delta. Pretty special.
We floated around checking out two different types of floating markets (Cái Răng and Phong Điền Floating Markets) and generally being afraid that the water may touch us. It started with comments such as “remind me not to eat the seafood here”. The Mekong is the lifeblood of this area…but on initial glance it is filthy and terrifying. Surprisingly after a day on the canals you are no longer afraid and see the murky brown colour as quite normal…and dinner was seafood. While we putted along…our boat lady was busy behind us doing pineapple leaf origami. At one point she presented the girls with her creations.
We had a walk along the banks of the canals, checked out the rice noodle making factory and headed back to the hotel for a nap as 5am starts are less than thrilling these days. The Mekong really does offer the world to the people of the region. It is the transport superhighway, the market, the bathtub, the laundry, the water source and the sewer…all at the same time. The next major thing was for Jill to finalise an assignment.
The highlight of Can Tho for me was the walking food tour…the hotel offered a walking tour with a uni student who showed us to all the local haunts to eat at the little side street restaurants and get a handle on Vietnamese street foods. So off we went…we hit stall after store after cart and ate a variety of delicacies, some specific to Can Tho only. The menu for the night was:
Re tranh – a corn tasting juice thing
Nen nuong – BBQ pork fresh spring rolls that you compile yourself
Banh cong- a savoury muffin
Tau xu txo – pork, ginger and tofu in a clay pot
Ecx – BBQ bullfrog
Ca txo – pork and eggplant in a clay pot
It was finished off with sweet sticky rice but I forgot to ask the local name for this. The tour was free with you paying only for what you ate and a recommended $5 tip to the guide. A great meal as you walked around the city and an awesome way to demystify some fairly daunting looking culinary experiences. And an entire tour that avoided the two dreaded ingredients.
Well we had a really easy commute to Phu Quoc island on a Vietnam airlines turbo prop. It was a wet and rainy day so the landing was a little on the rough side as we hit some serious turbulence on the way in. The female pilot had it all under control…I made the obligatory cockpit/box office joke…Jill was unimpressed…but we did hit a vew potholes on the way in that caused some people to almost soil themselves. It was pretty funny really.
We arrived at Phu Quoc island (which is essentially a series of beach resorts) at the end of rainy season. So of course it rained that evening and was torrential all of the next day…we sat and caught up with our blogging, reviews of various places and had a short walk for a meal when the rain briefly eased. We found a co-op store that sold cheese so bought some Edam and Gouda with some crackers, tomato and a local version of a cabana. A bottle of sav blanc and some beers and the afternoon just flew by.
Our neighbours in the next bungalow decided to cut short their plans and moved on…big mistake…the next morning (and the next two to follow) we woke to stunning sunshine, calm warm waters and an idyllic island lifestyle. We hired motorbikes for the grand price of $7.50 a day and off we went exploring. Zipping along dirt tracks alongside a beach for hour upon hour is pretty sweet. We climbed up what passes for a mountain (on the bikes) and headed to the southernmost tip of the island to the pier where all the fishing boats come in, dock and sell their wares.
After a good day we dropped off our bikes after getting more cheese etc for a late afternoon nibble and that night headed up to the closest thing that resembles a decent restaurant. This place is a culinary vacuum…the whole island. There are many restaurants but they all serve some form of fusion food. Given the wide variety of tourists nationalities that come here…this fusion is vast…and wrong. This is a theme that we have discovered throughout our travels…in every country…western food is tailored to suit local tastes and vice versa…and it does not work…ever. We have stopped trying to eat western food as it just gets destroyed. Eat local, it is cheaper, and better.
Phu Quoc island is currently pretty idyllic but the signs are bad…the place as it is, is full of beachside bungalows and little resort style accommodation… but the big hotels are coming. While doing the motorbike ride we passed the building sites of about 10 big 5 star hotels…side by side. This will greatly change the nature of the place so get in quickly before it changes forever.
We settled in to a few days of lazing by the beach, swimming in the surf, having late afternoon cocktails while watching the sun set and having evening meals at one of the crapy fusion joints. We found a decent coffee place which was about a one kilometre walk up the beach…so we made a daily trek…interspersed with dips in the ocean. We seem to have finished the hard travelling section of our trip and the places we are visiting have comparatively little to see…just things to experience.
Having left Phu Quoc we landed in Hanoi and our Vietnam experiences changed almost immediately. Up until now Vietnam has had much going for it….the place is cheap, the people are friendly and a hello will greet you everywhere you go, the architectural mix is fascinating and there is an overwhelming sense that people want to help and serve (in a tourism sense)…but it still wasn’t doing it for us.
Maybe it was the food but Vietnam wasn’t grabbing us. There were some minor sights to see in each place but nothing earth shattering…nice but just there… Then we got to Hanoi. This place also has a few touristy things to see, it is choking in smog, the food is still drowning in coriander and cucumber…but it has a whole different feel to everything that we had experienced in the south. The touts were there…but not pushy, the shops are cheap, the people remain friendly… everything’s the same but somehow it feels different.
Jill booked us into a hostel ($14 a night…breakfast included) in the middle of town near the Hoan Kiem lake and a short walk from ancient town (the main tourist area). We found a little corner restaurant in ancient town where, believe it or not, the beers were even cheaper. We are now paying 40c for a 500-600 ml beer. We did the tourist schlepp around and the sights were much the same as they were in Saigon…but this intangible feeling was there that made it somehow better. We went to the presidential palace, the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Hoa Lo prison (the Hanoi Hilton) and all the other usual tourist haunts.
For some reason the majority of modern buildings in Vietnam have a frontage width of 4.5 meters. So you have this steady stream of tall thin buildings…side by side…but in no way connected. It is just the way it happens over here. They are impossibly narrow, long, generally about 4 storeys high and crammed in side by side. This means that each floor has a tiny staircase a corridor and rooms on one side…and that is it. I had an attempt at street side “Manpering” with a haircut and a shave with a cutthroat razor…India still wins.
After 4 days of generally just soaking up and loving the feel of Hanoi we headed off on a commute to possibly Vietnam’s most famous site…Ha Long Bay. Everyone has surely seen the pictures of this place and we were on our way. The scene of our next adventure would be Cat Ba Island. There is a Halong city but all reports we have had was that it is a tourist hellhole and that Cat Ba was the way to go…you got to see big chunks of the bay rather than the Gilligan’s Island tour that was offered from Halong City.
Alas we had a nightmare transit to get there. It was not far (about 150kms) from Hanoi and it didn’t take too long (about 6 hrs) but every leg of the trip was atrocious. We were in a cab at 6:30am to the bus station, for a 7:15 bus to Hai Phong, another bus to the water ferry, a ferry ride over to Cat Ba island, a bus to the heart of town and an uphill walk to our accommodation. I won’t go into the gory details but suffice to say that every minute of this journey was hellish. And having arrived we had still not seen any of the renowned Ha Long bay as even the boat ride took us through the container shipping channel and delivered us to the anus of the island. The last bus ride gave us a smoggy view of the karsts (lumps) we had come to see but our viewing would wait until another day.
Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
After our nightmare transit to get to Cat Ba Island we wandered the streets in search of food and drink…we found a western joint that did the most credible attempt at a burger and chips that we have had since leaving home (with a couple of beers) and then found a little street stall selling 2 litre kegs of local beer for 70,000 duong ($3.50)…and it was a hot day…so we had that..closely followed by an afternoon nap.
We organised our Ha Long Bay day trip through the hostel. For the grand price of $24 a head. We hopped the boat at the harbour at 8am where we sailed around Lan Ha Bay, checked out the seriously impressive karst (lumps) landscapes that we had been craving to see the day before. Stopped along the way to hop onto kayaks where we got to paddle through secluded lagoons, under rock arches and through limestone tunnels…basically every perfect scenario for the day.
Having kayaked we got a seafood lunch on the boat as we travelled to the Me Cung cave (inside one of the lumps) where we spelunked. From here we sailed to a private beach where we swam and some snorkelled (supposedly looking at coral reefs). Continued cruising through Halong bay during the afternoon past the floating fishing villages and on to Monkey Island for another swim while the others took photos of the tree rats (monkeys). After this we sailed back to Cat Ba arriving at sunset…not a bad day…
Possibly the best day we have had since leaving Australia…definitely in the top 5.
A group of us from the boat all joined up and headed out that evening to sample the local street food on offer and to tap into those baby beer kegs. Some awesome pancake, rice paper wrap things were found and life was good. The next day we were up and out, hiring motorbikes, for $5 this time, and off exploring we went. This time I went the whole day without crashing the motorbike…but then again…this time I did not try doing donuts in the mud. A little bit of skin lost, some bruises to the ego and a gob full from the wife…no real damage done. This time we just zipped around the island checking out the cool stuff on offer.
We stopped at the hospital cave…a little cave half way up one of the lumps. The 75 cent entrance fee suggested it would be a fizzer but boy were we wrong. This place was huge, three storeys high and built inside the mountain, stairs, rooms, operating theatres, even a cinema. It was used for many years as a bombproof hideaway hospital and as a safe house for VC leaders.
When we hit the water on the other side of the island we sat staring at the sea eagles circling, swooping and scooping fish from the water. This is such a simple activity but is fascinating and an easy way to while away time. We rode back to the tourist side, found a beach and set up camp for a couple of hours. Late afternoon arrived and we were besieged by a tour group of Chinese…they had set up activities on the beach for them (similar to children’s games) and had the doof doof music and MC blasting across the beach. Tranquillity ruined…we rode away.
Cat Ba island only has a couple of real touristy things to see and do and they are good. It has 3 fairly small resort beaches which are ok without being stunning. The key thing it has is as a launching point to visit and cruise through Halong Bay…and for that it is perfect. I cannot think of any way that our stay on Cat Ba could have been better. Google tells me that there are some major 5 star tourist developments planned with bungalows, casinos and expected capacities of around the 6000 mark. If that is he case…plan your visit soon…as such things will ruin the place.
Leaving Cat Ba we were faced with the nightmare transit…but in reverse. After the journey inbound we decided to use a different company on the way out…and it was immediately better. The transit still involved a 45 minute bus to the ferry, a 40 minute ferry to the mainland, a 45 minute bus to the bus station, a wait, a 2 and a half hour bus to Hanoi bus station, a cab to the airport, a wait, a one hour flight to Da Nang, and finally a cab to the hotel. But even with all this it was fine…no screaming kids, no obese Americans with 15 items of luggage each, no obvious skin diseases, minimal loud talking…just a complicated commute.
Da Nang is the 5th largest city in Vietnam and was lovely. Very little to see in real terms but a really pleasant feel about it. Most people come for the beaches and the stunning seaside promenade…for this we chose Hoi An instead. Rather we stayed in the heart of the city and took in the riverside promenade scenery and checked out the local attractions. Temples, pagodas, dragon bridges and churches were the order of the day.
Add to this the street side gem restaurant that we always manage to find and life was good. Our first night we found a tent on the side of the road selling cold beer. It was hot so we stopped. We ended up playing menu point and pray, lucky dip and struck gold with 3 awesome dishes of Kim Cut Roty (quail), Ben Cha (mystery meat with raw garlic) and Cai Xao (pork mince with rice cracker and murderously hot chilli). These with 10 cans of beer came to a total of 240,000 duong ($12). The next night was squid, pork ribs and a different mystery meat concoction.
We hopped a bus for the 45 minute ride to Hoi An which is a tourist beachside town In the middle of the country. It is UNESCO listed thanks to its old town which is apparently the perfect example of an Asian port town between the 15th and 19th centuries. Today it is a tourist Mecca with everything imaginable on sale…but most notably the tailors shops. There is a tailor shop every third store ready to quickly knock together almost anything you like…for very cheap.
A tailored suit, with shirt can be purchased for as little as $65 but more likely around the $120-150 mark. You will be measured up and by the next day or two you can pick up your specially made items. This is a long held thing throughout Asia and I have had 2 suits made (one in Bangkok and one in Singapore)..but this place is even cheaper again. Alas our backpacking does not allow for such purchases…but if you were in the market you could not go wrong here.
The town and surrounds are beautiful, the food is great, the place is clean and almost everyone speaks fluent English. If anyone is looking for a 1-3 week getaway you really cannot go past Hoi An. There are 5 star resorts if that is your thing, backpacker hostels or in our case a nice 4 star equivalent joint, with breakfast included and a pool for $25 a night for both of us. We had blue skies throughout our time here and the only detractor was the oppressive humidity that leaves you soaked in sweat if you try to exert yourself too much during the middle of the day. We found that this could easily be avoided by lazing by the pool and swimming.
At night ancient town glows from thousands of lanterns and the shops and restaurants are abuzz with activity. We found an awesome little restaurant on the recommendation of fellow travellers and sat down to the set menu (pictured beside). This place was amazing. your food was on the table before your bum was on the seat.
The staff had you watered, and were showing you how to compile the ingredients listed beside into rice paper rolls and how to eat the local delicacies. So mush so that they will dip the rolls that they make into the chilli and satay sauce for you and actually feed you. From here you are on your own. This place was an eat until you are stuffed joint and I am certain that they would keep food coming as long as you were able to ingest. Round one was more than enough for us.
At the end of our meal we had eaten our fill, washed it down with 4 beers and when our bill came we paid the exorbitant price of $15…for both of us. After a few days in Hoi An we headed back to Hanoi for the trip to Hong Kong. At this point we had had a great time in Vietnam with the minor exception of Saigon. As we were only transiting we stayed at a hotel next to the airport, with a pickup service, for a shower and an overnight kip. Alas our parting memory of Vietnam was spoilt by this…the hotel we booked and another one around the corner was owned by the same mob…one cost 50% more than the other…we had booked and paid for the nicer of the two and upon arrival the pick up driver was told to take us to the other one.
Arriving at the lesser one we were relatively understanding…until we found that the wifi was not working and they had lied to us about services available. Jill hopped online using her phone and found the price differential between the two and the ranting white woman kicked in. Within the hour we had walked out, been picked up by a taxi and shuttled to the original hotel, at no cost to us, and were given what we had paid for. Needless to say a gobful was handed out to any poor bugger who came within earshot of my darling bride.
That night we headed into the back streets to find a meal and came across a tent with a street side smorgasbord. We entered, pointed at an array of items which were piled high onto a plate of rice…then pointed at some beers and we sat down to a great meal. At the end we walked up to pay the bill…which came to a massive 80,000 duong ($4)…this was 2 huge plates of food and two 600ml beers.
Vietnam – an overview
Our introduction to Vietnam was not ideal. Saigon was a busy city and we were staying in the bar district which meant we saw the worst that western tourism can bring to a developing country…lots of old fat men trying to pick up small Asian women (LBFM’s for those that know the terminology). This gave us immediate Philippines flashbacks which were not pleasant. Add to this the poor initial food options and little to see and we were less than impressed.
This was followed by the Mekong delta which was a little better but not thrilling…and then the world changed. Everyone who has been here loves the place and from this point on we both understood why. We actually did not have any negative experiences at any point throughout our Vietnamese odyssey but by the same token it had not grabbed us by the throat like India, China, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka had done.
It is possibly the ideal introduction to Asia that you can find. The people are friendly, the food is good (once you learn to avoid the evil weed that is coriander…maybe that is just me), the prices are cheap, the place is safe, the beer rocks, and the sights are pretty without being historic. It is family friendly, has awesome beaches and Ha Long Bay is a must see for everyone.
I think the thing that turned Vietnam around for us was a change of attitude on our behalf. We had been travelling for almost a year, seeing historic sights and taking in the history and majesty of ancient worlds and huge constructions like palaces atop mountains and the Great Wall etc. Vietnam is not about this, it was smashed during the war and is a nation that is, and largely has, recovered. The historic sites are relatively minor…it is like going to Australia which is 200ish years old and trying to compare it with the colosseum in Rome…apples and oranges.
Once we shook off that way of thinking we loved the place. It is the ideal location for a 1-3+ week holiday and we will come back for just that at some point in the future. It would be incredible to do the country by yourself on a motorbike or similar where you can get up into the mountainous regions and explore the place on your own schedule and timeline. Everything that we have seen would mean that this is entirely possible, and every time we hopped on motorcycles here we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh may be tough to negotiate however as the traffic is entirely nutty.