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.

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

The Bridge over the River Kwai.

I’ve never seen the film, I didn’t really know what it was about but knew it was an old film, something to do with the war and so not my kind of thing. Apart from now I want to watch it. Because now I know what it’s about. Now I know what it’s based on.

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Kanchanaburi was the place we headed to after Krabi. Two buses and about 15 hours after leaving Krabi we arrived at the bus station before 8am where some unenthusiastic tuk tuk drivers were having a snooze. Usually, when you get off a bus you’re surrounded by them, all asking “Where you go?” or “Taxi?”, unable to move or even have chance to breathe. This time, not so much. We managed to get one chap to take us to the main street but it was a bit of an effort.

We’d not got anywhere to stay booked so we jumped off the songthaew, had a quick look around and headed to the nearest guest house. A quick check of the room saw it was clean, cheap (the cheapest one yet – about £2.50 a night) and set back from the main street so, after dumping the bags and a quick shower, we were on the search for some breakfast. We were STARVING.

We were worried that as a popular, touristy place there wouldn’t be much choice, or street food, but rather would just have loads of Western restaurants serving burgers, pizza and chips but we were wrong! A hop, skip and a jump down the road we headed into the first Thai street-food type place after asking if they did Pad-Ka-Prow. You remember, my favourite dish of minced pork with holy basil, chilli, garlic, rice and a fried egg on top? Their eyes lit up when we mentioned it, we asked for it “phet phet” (very hot) and they were clearly delighted to be serving us a traditional Thai dish. And oh, it didn’t disappoint. 9am in the morning, we ate the hottest, fieriest, chilli-laden Pad-Ka-Prow yet. And it was just delicious (aroi-ma). Set us right up for the day it did.

Our bellies full of fiery chillis, we headed to the bridge. Apparently the bridge in the film [Bridge over the River Kwai] doesn’t look anything like it does in real life (the film was shot in Sri Lanka) but I’ve never seen the film so I couldn’t really compare. And besides, we didn’t come to Kanchanaburi to see a film set, we were visiting to see and learn first hand about the awful history behind the bridge. Which we did, by going to the excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Centre as well as the bridge and the war cemetery. We got to see the bullet holes and bomb blast markings on the bridge which you wouldn’t have normally spotted thanks to a lovely Thai violin player who we chatted to a bit in Thai after he started to play Lady Gaga.

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Now, I’m not normally much of a museum person but the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre was extremely well done. I actually found it incredibly moving and struggled not to cry in some parts. Such awful conditions and treatment for so many brave men. We decided to have a few beers afterwards to toast to all those that died because of that railway, and I can pretty much guarantee than neither Nick or I will ever forget that day.

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We hired bikes the day after to go exploring the outlying countryside. Bikes from the smiling Yanee who no doubt was always smiling because she knew how HARD the bike seats were. I swear I’ve sat on softer floors. Despite this, we clocked up around 25 miles (yep, my arse hurt like hell at the end of it) trying [and failing] to find a waterfall. We did however, get to bike through some stunning countryside, past some (what we think were) Chinese graves and amuse staff in a remote 7/11 who didn’t really get Westerners there that much. Traffic and driving is different to the UK here. Thai people are so friendly and such tolerant drivers. They stop, and let you out. They have patience. They never use their horn (unless it’s a songthaew). You never see road rage. I’m probably safer here on an old rickety, rattly bike with no helmet, wearing flip flops and shorts through manic traffic than I would be in Lincoln. And I certainly won’t get cut up, swore at or overtaken aggressively.

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The final day was spent taking a journey on the so-called ‘Death Railway’. A slow, rickety journey through the Thai countryside, over rivers and through the jungle. Because of the history of the track, it was a thoughtful train ride, only slightly marred by the fact that it was a bit packed with tour groups. It was a bit hard to try and sit and reflect when I had a German lady’s wide angle lens in my face (literally, and it’s not a euphemism) trying to get photos out of the window. We ended up at a small station in the middle of nowhere, so we walked towards [another] waterfall which we never found. We did find however, the bus stop, so hopped on a local bus to make the shorter journey back. The local buses are great; the conductors are really helpful and friendly and it costs peanuts. Around £1 for a 2 hour bus journey. A steal! You wouldn’t get that in England.

Kanchanaburi is a strange place. Despite the awful history, it’s an upbeat place. In fact, it’s a bit of a party place, which surprised us. We stayed at a guesthouse on a road called Thanon Manem Kwae which we renamed ‘Bar Street’. Every other building was a bar. Not normally our first choice but our room was set well back from the street. Handy to get a beer, and during the day the street was busy with street vendors, traffic and people walking. At night though, it took on a slightly seedy feel. Which is not what we expected. The bars were full of older Western gentlemen being entertained by young Thai girls. Or older Western gentlemen waiting to be entertained by young Thai girls. You had young Thai girls so drunk they were falling over one another. Thai girls dancing around poles trying to lure us in to their bars. Bars where shots were only 10 baht (about 20p). Like a Thai Ibiza or Aiya Napa. Shudder.

We had one night where we had a few beers, some games of pool and chatted to other travellers but stayed in some of the safer bars. Mainly for Nick’s sake, I think some of those ladies would have not let him get out alive!

Despite that, I’m so glad we made the stop here though; it was an incredible few days, for all kinds of reasons and I won’t forget it.