Vietnam vagabond adventures.

The second bit of my Vietnam adventure took in the cities of Hue (pronounced h-way, not huey, like the guy from Yorkshire on our sleeper bus insisted it was), Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (and a lot of loooooong bus journeys in between each one). We’d already booked our sleeper bus tickets in Ninh Binh before we saw on the news that the super typhoon was due to hit Vietnam right on the central coast – right on Hue, the next day – exactly the time we were due to get there. Hmm, not exactly ideal. Luckily for us, it decided to change it’s course and ended up missing the coast completely, although the first day we got there it was very rainy and windy all day (some remnants from the typhoon) so we could do nothing more but have a chill out day. Part of a rainy day in Hue for us resulted in an Indian FEAST because the local Indian restaurant was only a few doors down. Exactly what we did on the first day in Luang Prabang in Laos so we decided to make a tradition. I felt more stuffed than a shop full of teddy bears afterwards but, damn, it was worth it. After weeks of noodles and the like it was bloody lovely to have a change, and reminded me when I was in India back in July.

Hue is an old city with a lot of history, and an imperial city that’s not dissimilar to the Forbidden City in Beijing (although nowhere near as big). Over the couple of [dry] days we had there, we just spent a fair bit of time wandering around the city and hired bikes to get out into some small villages out in the countryside. It was one of my favourite places, mainly because I just had so much fun. My Hue Highlights:

  • Hiring bikes and getting out into the villages. We didn’t have a set route, we just set off down one of the roads out of the city with no map, just a vague sense of direction. We ended up biking through some really small little villages, where I guessed they don’t see many Westerners. Or indeed any at all, judging by the amount of children shouting hello, waving and running after us or taking photos of us and the adults who would nudge the people they were stood next to, and point and stare, mouths almost wide open. Which soon changed into big massive grins when we shouted “hello” to them in Vietnamese. Add to that pretty incredible scenery, the best hire bikes we’ve had so far, and you’ve got one of my most special memories of Vietnam. The real Vietnam.

  • The baguette lady just down the street from our hotel. She did the BEST egg baguettes for breakfast which were cheap as chips, and she was lovely and happy and smiley too. I don’t know what she did to the eggs to make them taste so good but I think it was all in the salt and pepper. We went there every day, and I might have even had two some days, they were that good.

  • The little cafe just down the street from our hotel. We managed to strike a deal with them to get cheap Bia Saigon. They even moved one of their tables and chairs for us so we could sit on the pavement and watch the world go by. We might have just gone there both afternoons for lazy afternoon drinking in the sun.

  • The hotel. We stayed in a really nice place. We managed to bargain the price down making it super cheap (around £2.30 each a night) but it felt like we had splashed out and treated ourselves. It was nice and clean, had air conditioning, the best shower yet, and they even came in every day to make the beds and give us fresh towels! The luxury!

  • The architecture and history. The city, especially the old citadel, is very pretty, in a bit of an old run down kind of way. Lots of old buildings and stuff to look at and photograph. Lots of flowers and green stuff too.

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After Hue, Hoi An was a completely different kettle of fish. Old and historic, but in a completely different way. Very French-colonial and quaint, with lots of old wooden and coloured buildings along the river covered in lanterns swaying in the breeze. It’s an UNESCO world heritage site, just like Luang Prabang in Laos, and it reminded me of LP too. Even down to how touristy it was, Yep, the few old streets near to the river were just full to the brim of tourists strolling round, and all the shops were either art galleries, tailors, handicrafts or bars and restaurants. Vendors from pretty much every shop would shout out as we walked past. When we sat down to have a beer or some food, people would try to sell you stuff while you were sat there, or even eating. I found it a pain in the arse, and I’m even more patient nowadays. Luckily we had learnt the Vietnamese for ‘No thank you’ and ‘I’m not interested’ so once you trotted that out they soon disappeared, but imagine saying it 50 times a day over and over again (and I’m not even exaggerating). Arrghhhh. That aside, it’s a very pretty place, but I couldn’t help but have the feeling that it wasn’t the real Hoi An. Those pretty 3 streets down near the river just all seemed to be geared towards the visitors. The real Hoi An was away from the river, which we managed to explore a little bit before the floods. We found lovely baguette sellers (the Vietnamese like their sandwiches), a smashing little cafe with the friendliest people and the cheapest beers (only about 15p each and buy 2 get 1 free) and the best food stalls for dinner. We never got to explore the beaches because of the floods which is a shame, but all in all I enjoyed my time here, and in fact those few days ended up being a proper little adventure, that I couldn’t have predicted, and that’s what makes Hoi An memorable for me.

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Heard of Saigon? Or Ho Chi Minh City? It’s the same place, a big sprawling city in South Vietnam. It was renamed HCMC in 1976 but it’s still commonly referred to as Saigon (which I think I like better). It’s a 24 hour bus journey from Hoi An. Yep, that’s right, 24 hours. Honestly, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Really. It was actually two 12 hour journeys, split with an hours wait in the middle to change buses. After all my travelling this year, long journeys are now the norm. It’s short journeys that are out of the ordinary. My next flight, from Cambodia to Singapore, is only 2 hours. How exciting, I can’t wait! It’s going to seem like a bit of a treat, haha. I then have a 6 hour wait in Singapore before a 7 hour flight, but hey, that’s not the point.

HCMC is big, loud, brash, noisy, hot, dirty, a bit seedy and IN YOUR FACE. Just how I like a city to be. Well, maybe not the seedy part. The traffic is a nightmare, there’s thousands of scooters and trying to cross the road is like running the gauntlet. Moto drivers and bar owners constantly shout at you to get your business, and the usual baguette and noodle stands line every corner. I have to admit, I was getting a bit ‘city-ed’ out by the time we arrived here. Still, in true travelling style there was a big city out there to be explored, so we spent a few days walking lots, eating, finding cheap beers (naturally) and visiting a museum and war tunnel or two.

In no particular order, my favourite things about Saigon:

  • The scooters. Thousands of them. I love just stepping out into the road and crossing, having them all weave their way around you. I love watching as people transport everything under the sun on them, as well as trying to eat, drink, talk or text all at the same time. I love the scooter helmets and all the different designs.
  • The food. Oh the food. We found some places that were so good we didn’t really go anywhere else. I had one of the best chicken noodle soups I’ve had, only 50p for a huge bowlful, in a little local cafe that would show films opposite a glass factory and a place that sold ice. We spent a few afternoons just sitting, eating and watching Vietnamese life go on. We saw a woman delivering a massive pane of glass on the back of a scooter (at first glance you couldn’t see the glass and we just thought she was throwing her hands in the air like she just didn’t care). We saw the young guy delivering ice on the back of his scooter, dripping water and soaking from where he’d been sat up against the bags. We watched a bit of Terminator 3 and drank iced tea after our soup. We found a little family run egg baguette place where we’d go every morning; they’d bring stools out for us to sit on, give us water to drink, and sometimes a bit of fruit. While eating some of the tastiest egg sandwiches I’ve had we’d try and have conversations with them but none of us spoke much in the other’s language.
  • The war remnants museum. It was heavily propaganda-ised, however there was an excellent display of press photographs from the war and some related articles, which helped balance it all out a bit. After this last trip here I finally felt like I’d learnt what I wanted to learn about the war.
  • Cheap beer. We found a great little cafe on one of the main streets where they served cheap beer and we could sit and people watch from the tables outside on the street. We went here a few times; the first night resulted in many beers here, then to a lively bar where we drank loads of rum buckets, met some strange people and had a 5am bedtime. Another time we had to move from the front tables on the street because the police came round and were enforcing the pavement space rules (which seemed slightly strange, as the bar was opposite the police station and they saw the tables there every day, and then saw us get up and move the tables away while they were watching. A bit of a bizarre practice.).
  • The people. The local people in Vietnam are cheeky, spirited and generous to a tee. I very much enjoyed the interactions I had with them, especially some of the street hawkers that would come and pester us when we were sat outside drinking beer.
  • City wandering. We had a good old wander and saw parks, cathedral, the post office (we scoffed at people taking photographs inside until we went in ourselves and did the same thing – beautiful building!), statues, skyscrapers, Christmas decorations, posh hotels, the river and other general city stuff. Saigon has a lot of old and new architecture, and quite often both are side by side, and make quite a stunning view.
  • The Cu Chi tunnels. You can go and visit the tunnels made by the Vietnamese during the war, where many people lived underground for years. They were incredible. They’ve been widened by 35% and lights added but blimey, how people lived and used them is beyond me. They are really hot and humid, claustrophobic and even just going about 100m through them was enough for most of us. Seeing the booby traps they used to maim and kill American soldiers was pretty sobering too. A lot of people died in those tunnels. Hugely saddening.
  • Meeting people. We met some interesting people in Saigon; people who were travelling or just on holiday, and people who were living and working there. We also bumped into a few people we’d met in Laos previously. It’s a small travelling world, especially the North>South Vietnam trail so it’s not really surprising, and a wonderful bonus. I love meeting all different kinds of people when travelling; the conversations to be had can be anything from light hearted and fun, to serious, challenging and in depth. I get to find out about how people live in other countries, how they travel, what their beliefs are, what their viewpoints are and it just keeps on opening my eyes even wider to understand all the things that make the world go round.

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I loved Vietnam. I really, really did. I’ve wanted to visit for years, and I’m well chuffed that I now have. I learnt loads, had lots of fun, met some great people, saw some beautiful scenery and had a brill adventure. It’s been my most favourite SE Asian country so far but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Just a feeling. I think I’ll be back someday. There’s so much more of the country to explore, and maybe next time I’ll make it even more of an adventure. And get me one of those scooters.

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The flood.

So after missing the super typhoon in Hue, we ended up getting rained on a lot in Hoi An. You might remember because I wrote about it. What I didn’t mention in that blog post is how I wondered where all the rain would go. Because it rained all day and didn’t stop that night, at which point it had been raining A Long Time, and me and Nick did have a brief conversation about where the hell all the rain goes. Well, come the morning, we found out.

It doesn’t go anywhere.

Or, more accurately, it rains into the river, the river bursts its banks and floods parts of the town. More precisely, floods the part of the town that our hotel was in. This was the lobby of the hotel in the morning.

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And the street outside the hotel.

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And it just wouldn’t stop raining for most of the day. The water got to the top of my legs in the end, just below my bum.

 

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To get in or out of of hotel meant wading through this brown, murky flood water. It was an interesting experience – seeing dead cockroaches, rats and rubbish floating past, and seeing live rats swimming for safety. Wading through (in the hotel’s bathroom flip flops – top tip) the water, feeling stuff brushing past your legs and feet and not knowing what it is. Luckily only a couple of streets away was higher than our road and we reached dry land, cheap beer and cafes and settled in for the day to eat, have a few jars and people watch.

We bumped into a few people we’d met travelling over the last month or so and ended up having quite a jolly day. We were careful to limit the cheap beers to a fairly sensible amount though; I didn’t fancy falling over in that flood water when we had to walk back to the hotel. I was successful. Huzzah!

In a way it was quite exciting, all part of the adventure and definitely something new to experience, although at the same time one of those things you kind of hope doesn’t happen in the first place – I wouldn’t wish it to happen just so I could experience it. It was like something you see on TV, and these were people’s lives, homes and businesses that were affected. But in true South East Asian style it was all taken in their stride. No panic, no hysteria, no moaning. Just a get-on-and-deal-with-it attitude. Still smiling, still happy.

We did wonder when the hell the water would go down though, especially with it being so high. How long would we have to wade in and out of our hotel? When would the buses be running again so we could make our way to Ho Chi Minh City? Surely it would be days, if not weeks?

Not so. Amazingly, this was the view from the hotel the next morning.

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All that water. Gone. Overnight.

Flood Day:

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The next day (same spot):

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Incredible huh?

We later heard that there had been flooding over much of central Vietnam, and also landslides in which people had died. It just makes you realise how much we are at the mercy of nature, and that actually, we’re pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

We were lucky; no damage to us or our stuff. Just memories of a new experience, a different adventure and a reminder to be thankful for life, safety and health.

Good morning Vietnam!

It had to be that as a title didn’t it? Of course it did. Even if you’ve not seen the film (I haven’t) you’ve heard that phrase. And my first introduction to Vietnam getting off the bus in Dien Bien Phu and being hounded by taxi drivers. Now, this is normal for countries in Asia, so I’m used to it, but after two weeks in laid back Laos I’d forgotten how in your face it can be, and starts before you’ve even stepped off the steps or got your bag. Where you go? Taxi? I have taxi. You want taxi? Constantly. You get the idea. We knew we were going to be getting an overnight sleeper bus to Hanoi in a few hours so there was no need to panic or need to take any of these good men up on their offers. We just had to fight our way through the melee.

Sleeper bus tickets bartered down and paid for, we got on the bus to find it was an actual sleeper coach. All the night buses I’ve been on in lots of different countries have always either been just normal buses or buses with slightly more reclinable (is that a word? Not sure it is) seats with a blanket. This one had proper jazzy little beds, proper pillows and blankets. The ticket also got us food, a strange little stop at about 9pm in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere with platefuls of grub, our first intro to the world of Vietnamese cuisine. The bus also had disco lights and the way of being woken up at 5am, 10 minutes before getting to Hanoi, was to start the disco lights flashing and play burst-your-eardrums-loud techno music. Definitely the most interesting wake up call I’ve had for a while.

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Arriving in Hanoi at 5am in the morning led to pretty much the same barrage from taxi drivers, in fact it was probably about x100. But, we were in no rush to get anywhere. We had an idea of where we needed to head to but, it was 5am, still really early. In the end, we found we could get a local bus to nearby where we wanted to go, for about 1/10th of the price of a taxi, so we hopped on the number 34 and watched early morning Hanoi go by. HA! Take that, pushy taxi drivers! Tourists-1, taxi drivers-0.

Hanoi is lovely. We stayed here for nearly 5 days and very much enjoyed the vibe of the city. It was noisy and busy, but with an unmistakeable energy. Filled to the brim with scooters and noisy horns, windy maze-like roads that even after 4 days we were still getting lost in. There’s a French quarter that’s distinctly, well, French, and an old quarter that’s pretty, well, old. We spent a couple of days walking* around the city and just soaking up the atmosphere. Enjoying the sunshine and the fact it wasn’t too humid. Actually just lovely temperatures to just stroll around. We went to find the bits of the B-52 bomber that fell in a lake and hasn’t been moved. It’s in a very unassuming place; a small lake in the middle of a residential area. No signs, no memorial, just a bit of a plane. But, it’s actually quite moving. Quite impactive, mainly because of the simplicity.

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We went to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Nick couldn’t get in because he was wearing hot pants. Ok, so not actually hot pants, but shorts above his knees. So, I went in. I have to admit, I don’t really know much about Ho Chi Minh yet, but it was rather strange, trooping in with lots of Vietnamese locals, and seeing him there, lying, all lit up. I’ve not really seen a dead body before, so it was a bit of a first for me. Apparently, it had been closed for 2 months for new embalming, and had only opened that day. So I felt quite privileged.

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We also went to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. This is the sarcastic nickname that was given to Hoa Lo prison by American prisoners of war when they were held there in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s. It’s a museum now, and a lot of it has been built over, but there’s a lot of information on the French use in the early 1900’s. The bit that interested us about the American prisoners was just within two rooms; but it was very heavily propagandised, and had to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt. I found it surprising, after all this time that it is still rife. But, it’s only nearly 40 years, it’s not really that long at all I guess. The war is something I want to learn more about, and throughout my travels in Vietnam so far I’m seeing and learning different things. But, I’m also concious of the propaganda. So, I’ve added it to my list of things to learn more about with my own research. There’s a few documentaries I’ve been recommended which have gone onto my list of things to watch, and some books I want to read. After all my travels I will have enough things to keep me busy for months, and that’s before I get a job, haha. That’s one thing I’m loving about travelling. All the learning, education and the opening of my eyes to things that happened in our world that I had no idea about. It’s so easy to live in a bubble and be so completely blind and ignorant to the rest of the world. So, so easy.

One of the best things about Hanoi though is Bia Hoi. A wonderful invention. Cheap draft beer in little roadside bars, all over Hanoi. Couple this with boiled monkey nuts (which are a bit like little miniature minty potatoes) and a bit of sunshine and you have one of my favourite memories of Vietnam so far. One Tuesday afternoon, after a very busy morning walking lots of miles, Nick and I decided to treat ourselves to some beers and nuts. We found a spot in the sunshine, looking out onto a junction and settled down for the afternoon. I swear we didn’t move for about 5 hours, and spent about £3.00 each. For many beers, nuts and a lifetime of memories.

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And, a never-to-forget moment from Hanoi was the pig on a scooter incident. Now, I’ve seen some scooter sights on this trip. Anything you can think of on a scooter, you’ll see it, and more. But the best one so far, yet to be surpassed, was a whole dead pig, trotters nearly trailing on the ground. There was the guy sat on top of the many bags of rice/sand/whatever it was, or the fridge, or the wardrobe, or the chickens in baskets, or the wheelbarrows. But none of them can beat the pig.

It was a bit of a wrench to leave Hanoi, as we’d got quite comfortable there. Our hotel was lovely, a bit of a treat, even though we weren’t paying over the odds for it (less than £3 each a night), but it had a hot shower, air conditioning, awesome beds and breakfast. We felt very posh. We had a lovely shop just round the corner where we could get everything we needed, a Bia Hoi corner just up the road and a great noodle place down the road. What else did we need? But, the time came to move on. This time to Ninh Binh, a small town about 2.5 hours south of Hanoi. We decided to get super cheap (hard seats) on the train. Wooden seats. The most authentic, I like to think. It was only a couple of hours, and what a lovely couple of hours. The carriage was filled with the most interesting characters, and the scenery flashing past us gave us a flavour of what real Vietnam was like out there.

Ninh Binh itself doesn’t really have a lot going on; it’s not a major tourist destination, just a working town. Which maybe is why we liked it. Not many people spoke English, and all the kids loved shouting hello and waving when we walked past. Not many westerners, a bit off the beaten track. I like this kind of travelling. Wandering round, seeing what’s going on. Watching people just living their lives – seeing how they interact, how they raise their families. We can learn a lot from other people. We hired bikes one day though and cycled out to a place called Tam Coc which is a bit of a tourist destination. It’s like a smaller, land locked version of Halong Bay (which we never went to). We hired a boat and got rowed out (by people rowing with their feet- that was a bit interesting to watch – it actually seemed quite efficient) between limestone karsts and into caves. A lovely, peaceful, serene experience, without hoards of tourists. Perfect. Follow it up with more biking in amazing scenery=a Bloody Good Day.

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One thing I am noticing about Vietnam though, is how many people try to rip you off because you’re a tourist. For anything you buy in the shops, from water, to snacks, to food and so on. You really have to know what things costs (or should cost) and have your wits about you. Sometimes it feels like a right battle, just to go and buy some water. It gets a pain having to argue Every.Single.Time. A bit wearing.

However on the flip side, the people are one of the best things about Vietnam. Most of them are just wonderful. Happy, chatty, friendly, cheeky and smiley. One restaurant in Ninh Binh that we’d been into a few times gave us a free packet of biscuits as a ‘souvenir’ to take with us because they knew we were leaving that night. No real reason to, and totally unexpected (and rather nice biscuits too).

Vietnam, I am loving it here so far. You are lovely. And, if you could just have a 7/11 every now and then you’d be perfect.

*getting lost