xe oms, pagodas, crazy traffic, noodle soup and China Town in Ho chi Minh City mud baths, big budha, cycling and rain rain rain in Nha Trang beach, tailors, cooking lessons, cycling and My Son ruins in Hoi An amazing scenery at Marble Mountain and Hai Van Pass motorbike tour, Imperial City and Perfume River in Hué junk boat and kayaking in Halong Bay weasel coffee, cakes and bia hoi in Hanoi
Anyway enough about all that theres a mental city to talk about! The first thing that instantly grabs all our attention is the traffic and the constant swarm of mopeds and motorbikes, feels intense at first with the bikes by far out numbering cars and the first few attempts at crossing the road were very nearly fatal. Quickly learnt that the best method is to have faith, start walking infront of traffic, steadily edge out across the road (sometimes eight lanes wide) letting the bikes weave around you. Got changed into our new gear and went exploring. After a beer by the river found a roof top bar at the top of one of the big hotels which apparantly is one of the "things to do".. Up on floor 23 of the Sheraton Hotel the drinks cost literally 5 times more than the bar we were at 10 minutes ago but the view is fantastical and we are enticed to stay by the offer of a 2 for 1 cocktail. We slowly sup our hugely expensive (even if they are 2 for 1) cocktails while it goes dark and get a little longer to enjoy the amazing view when the barman insists we must buy 2 drinks to qualify for happy hour....
The best way i could describe this city is that its alive and not just alive but ALIVE. Its constantly busy and full of life, movement and noise all day and all night. love it!
+ Bikes, bikes, motorbikes, mopeds, bikes, mopeds, bicycles
+ Groups of fellas sat on the pavement crowded around a checkers board of some sort in deep and animated conversation about the next move.
+ Bikes being riden stacked high with boxes or wooden panels or water bottles or absolutely anything you can think of, dont know how they keep balanced.
+ A man operating a sewing machine outside on the pavement at the crossroads of a very busy junction.
+ People sit eating street food sat on tiny chairs at a tiny table that looks like its been borrowed from a childrens play set
Had a few drinks of my favourite new beer '333' with our meal at night and went to find a bar called Voodoo. We found it after a bit of a search and sat at the bar watching the 20 or so attractive bar girls chat up a handfull of middle aged male tourists, its like being back in Thailand again! We were both a bit shattered after a busy first day and all the travelling to get here and were both nodding at the bar after a while trying to stay awake so time to get back to the hotel. Got completely lost trying to find the hotel, our map reading went to pot and everything looks so different when it goes dark especially after a few beers. Eventually after a while of being completely confused and lost we got our bearings and got back to the hotel to find what looked like our backpacks slumped against the reception desk. We had been lead to expect that our bags would be sent on to us in a day or two and had been planning what to do if they didnt before we moved on but they've turned up! Great stuff, its cheered us up especially after getting lost (Bec says getting lost was my fault - it definately wasnt but I didnt mind anyway, its all part of the experience)
Scams for first day tourists
- When buying a t-shirt at the market I argued in vain when given the wrong change. Several large signs on the stall say tshirts 25,000d but "no, no, no the one you chose is 50,000 not 25,000"
- In some bars and restaurants you get charged for anything thats put on the table whether you ordered it or not. A lot of extra stuff seems to be appearing on our table today.
Today I discovered that I have never seen rain before. I have now experienced rain.
Left the sleeper train and headed for the Vien Dong Hotel in Nha Trang, got there about 7am, sorted our bags out in darkness due to a powercut and went out early to find somewhere to hire bicycles from. After a quick walk along the beach we found a place hiring them for only 20,000 per day (about 70 pence). Bec's bike was a shopper with a basket and a bell and mine was a bright yellow mountain bike set up for a Vietnamese sized person so my knees were knocking my chin when I pedalled. We set off only a couple of kilometers away to find Po Nagar Cham Towers, the traffic is a lot lot calmer than HCMC so its fairly easy going. When we get there its a nominal entrance fee and then just 1,000 dong to park our bikes and have someone look after them which confused me only because I though surely it cant only cost 3 pence! I was tempted to tell them to put their prices up, maybe even get a bit greedy and start charging 6 pence. Anyway, the original site here is about 10,000 years old and constructed by the Hindu Cham people on a hill and is now being restored with one or two of the buildings being surrounded by scaffolding. There is an alta (or shrine- not sure which is correct) in each of the towers and the main tower is devoted to the godess of.......(couldnt work it out). There are offerings of fruit in baskets often along with a few chocolate bars thrown in and the altas are as always very ornate and interesting but then will occasionally be be decorated with some tacky neon lights. It starts raining really heavily while we are there but we decide its so heavy its not going to stop so lets go and get wet..... We cycled on to Lam Son Pagoda to see the big white Budha monument, it was raining harder than I've ever known possible and our anorak things transformed from being practical to pathetic to powerless. No match for the rain. There was no point even attempting to keep dry so we just messed around singing as we cycled along. We went the wrong way slightly at first but eventually ended up at the entrance and paid someone to look after our bikes. the big Budha is at the top of a hill and to get there we have to walk past a temple and several flights of steps. On the way up a a man stops us telling us to be quiet because the monks are praying or sleeping or something, wasnt quite sure what he was on about but he stopped us and diverted us a different way. We follow him and get to a big sleeping Budha statue half way up where he gives us some half burnt incense sticks, tells us to bow and then asks for a donation so the monks can afford food. I had been dubious about him all along but now he is insisting i hand him some money rather than put it through the slit of the donation box. He even has the cheek to complain that the 10,000 note I had in my hand was not enough and that 100,000 was more appropriate! I made a point of putting some money safely in the donation box whilst he tried to coax it off me which suddenly ended our little guided tour. We continued climbing the hill in the pouring rain until the huge, massive, enourmous giant Budha confronted us at the top. Its definitely big. Cycled back with it still raining heavily to go and dry ourselves at the hotel ready to get covered in mud.
Left at 2pm with most of our travel group to the mud baths and hot springs. It was very confusing when we got there, we all wanted to do the mud bath, go in the hot springs and then have a massage but the staff there kept going on about a package deal that included "special mud". The package had two differences to what we were asking for 1.special mud 2. it was double the price! We declined on the basis that mud was mud and proceeded to climb into a large bath of normal non-special mud. Bec and me sat in the mud with a few others from our travel group; Richard, Ashlee, Barry and Matt and had a good laugh pouring the mud over each others heads etc which made an unusual way of getting to know new friends. After a shower down had a hot mineral water bath which did feel amazingly refreshing after all the mud. The massage was a bit weird, the girl walked on my back and all that kind of stuff and then in an attempt to get a better tip she kept saying things like "mmm you very handsome" whilst stroking my face and giggling and towards the end kissing my ear and cheek! Bec was actually in the next room having her massage and I was thinking if Bec can hear this she'll wonder what kind of "massage" I'm having so I try and strike up sensible, boring, polite kind of conversation "so do you live in Nha Trang?", "how long have you worked here then?".
We taxi back and decide it would be sensible to go straight out in search of some umbrellas to buy and so venture out in the terrential rain. The first shop we come to doesnt seem to have any but we ask anyway. The woman goes out back, returns with an umbrella and asks for 100,000 dong. I protest that she's taking advantage and try and haggle because although it only converts to about £3.50 i was expecting her to say about 20,000. Bec shouts at me "John, I dont think you're in any position to argue!" as I'm standing there drenched looking like I've just been swimming with my clothes on. I ask if she has 2 please and after some rummaging around she produces another slightly tatty umbrella, it seems we are buying her own umbrellas that she's probably had for years. She wants 150,000 for the two, I try and offer her 100,000 but when Becci sighs I decide its best to just go with it. The brollies came in useful when we went out for a meal and drinks later as it was still raining hard. Went for a meal in a place called Mecca which was ok but not brilliant and then went drinking around the bars which was good fun. Later on we got stuck talking to an extremely drunk Irish lad who was amusing at first but eventually we had to make our escape. We made our way back along the road that was now a river with our trusty umbrellas in hand, I think these will turn out to be a great purchase!
DAY 5 - NHA TRANG
Rain, Rain, a Dirty Train and a Boat Trip
Its been raining all night and is still lashing down when we get up in the morning. We accepted we were gonna get a soaking yesterday and had good fun but now we're getting a bit fed up with all our stuff being damp and have gone off the idea of cycling 8km to a waterfall as planned. Just as we are going down to get breakfast we see Richard and Sera who are on their way out for a boat trip around nearby islands with some of the others from the group and we make an on the spot decision to join them. Get our stuff together quickly, rush to taxi, taxi to harbour and jump on boat just in time before it leaves, a cheer goes up because theyve been waiting for us. Apparantly this particular boat trip has the inspired name of "boat trip number 4". there are a mix of tourists on the boat, English, Australians, Indian, Japanese and a handfull of Vietnamese. We are doing a tour of 4 of the nearby islands and by the time we stop at the first one for a swim we've swigged back 2 or 3 tiger beers already....this could get messy. Its still hammering down with rain but it doesnt really matter if we are swimming. The water is quite warm so we indulge in some typical Brit and Aussie behaviour, diving off the top of the boat and floating around in rubber rings chugging more beer. En route to the other islands the brollies come in handy as windshields to stop the ever persisting rain drenching us too much at the front of the boat. we stop for lunch and and then drinking, music and dancing. the guys from the boat have a makeshift band consisting of a guitar and some homemade drums, we had a bit of a dance and then they started pulling people up to sing, Matt, Barry and Jay had all been reluctantly roped in so I thought I'd got away with it but no such luck, they pulled Becci up who was horrified and insisted I had to join her in singing a very very out of tune 'Hey Jude'. As the day went on the rain kept up along with a bit of wind and made getting off at the islands less appealing, it was good fun overall but towards the end I was daydreaming about hot sunny days to take my mind off my soggy clothes.
Late afternoon we taxied down to a bar for beers with Matt and Barry and then the rest of the group joined us later on. They had all been for a massage in a supposedly respectable professional looking place, the girls got a perfectly normal massage but Richard, Hardeep on Jon were all offered a happy ending "would you like a pee wee massage now?". They all apparantly declined although reports suggest that everyone was waiting about 20 minutes longer for one person in particular.
To avoid the rain we ordered taxis to get us to a seafood restaurant nearby but we underestimated exactly how nearby it was. The driver looked bemused when we asked him to pull up literally round the corner from where he picked us up but then was delighted when we got out rather embarrassed and paid him for his trouble. Must be the easiest job he's ever done!
Sleeper train to Danang
We catch an overnight train at 10pm to Danang and will get a bus from there to Hoi An in the morning. This time the train is not so nice, its a bit more basic and comes with dirty sheets on the bed and a variety of weird looking insects scurrying around the walls. We stayed up chatting for a short while but feel a bit too tired to drink all the beers we bought. Becci has wrapped herself up in a cocoon of different clothing so that the insects and cockroaches cant "get her". The train takes about 12 hours.
HOI AN - SATURDAY 20.11.2010
Beach, Tailors and Cooking Lessons
The town is very picturesque especially compared to most of Nha Trang, theres narrow streets with colourful buidings and chinese lanterns. Theres a nice relaxed feel to the place helped by the fact that the sun is out at last! Got some food by the riverside, had a wander around and then went to hire cycles to go in search of the beach. The ride down to Cua Dai beach is amazing, we go past flooded paddy fields with buffalo pulling ploughs, across bridges with views of small one man fishing boats on the river and quiet lanes with locals getting around on bikes and children shouting hello. Doesnt take long to reach the beach, its only about 5km away. The beach is busy mainly with children who are running into the sea getting their clothes soaked, a few beach traders who dont mither us too much and some lads lighting fires. Soaked up some sun for about an hour or so and got chatting to some local guy who I think was using me to practice his English.
Went back to find a tailors to get a dress made for becci, we havent got much time because we have a Vietnamese cooking class at 6.30 so we set out to find somewhere quick. We need to get measured up for it tonight so there is time to have it made before moving on to Hue, its all a bit rushed but we find somewhere that looks nice and Bec chooses the material and style then gets measured up. The one thing i find a bit odd is that with this place being a smart looking tailors displaying all the fine looking suits, shirts and dresses the member of staff is obviously wearing a flashy number showing off the nifty skills of their tailors.....is she? no wait, hold on, just a saggy tracksuit will do wont it? I dont mess around haggling for too long and agree on a price of about £12, probably not the best deal but we're short on time and relative to what a tailored dress would cost at home its great.
Shortly after we set off with our travel group for Vietnamese cooking lessons. On the way down to the restaurant we stop by the river which looks magical lighting up the night with a fleet of coloured floating lanterns. There are lots of children selling the lanterns, its a little coloured paper thing with a lit candle in it, the children crowd around us to sell them. At the cooking class we have a chef getting us to prepare several different recipes, making spring rolls, aromatic cooking paste, seafood salad etc., its good fun and interesting to learn the proper traditional way to prepare the food although i probably wont remember most of it due to supping a few beers along the way. We eat it all after, all 6 courses of it, very tasty and fresh.
Went on to a bar called Tam Tam and played some drinking games, some number game called 21 where the numbers get subbed for different words or something along those lines, anyway it was fixed to land on Hardeep pretty much everytime, he took his punishment everytime to be fair and then sloped off outside later chatting to some random locals as he often does. Theres some cool people in our group, everyone seems to get on well despite there being some quite different characters, we have been spending a bit more time with the others from our tour group now, I enjoy getting to know people and sharing experiences. Bec doesnt always want to and its good to mix it up and go off by ourselves aswell sometimes otherwise it starts feeling like a school trip at times! We've been lucky with the group we're travelling with, we could have got stuck with some idiots but I genuinely like everyone and enjoy eating out, doing a few activities and exchanging a bit of coversation and banter.
DAY 7 - HOI AN
My Son, the beach, Old Town and gastro heaven
In the afternoon we hire bikes again and went in search of a little vegetarian cafe called Quan Chay Dam which was hidden down a back street. It was fun trying to order our food and drink as the family that run the place speak no English whatsoever and after some confusion we were guided to the kitchen to serve up our own food which worked out just fine and the food was good. More confusion when I asked to pay, she was holding up 2 fingers which I think meant 20,000 so I gave her a 50,000 note and she returned with 30,000 change which she placed in my hand and then a few seconds later took 20,000 back which I think was to give herself a tip although I'm not completely sure! 20,000 dong is only 60 pence which is the cheapest meal for 2 I've ever had so she neednt have worried about tipping herself, she would have got one, it was funny though.
We went walking through Old Town admiring the very picuresque streets and colourful buildings and bought a ticket which gives entry to any of the old buildings. We go into an old house and a girl latches onto us guiding us round feeding us information and enthuastically trying to sell us souveniers that we have no interest in. We also visit the Japanese bridge, a large temple (leading off into a little shop), and an art gallery which turns out to be an art shop. I'm starting to realise that we've bought tickets to enter shops rather than experience history and culture, nevermind. Despite my cynicism i really like the place, although the town is touristy its not in a tacky way most of the time and you cant blame the local people for setting things up to make a bit of money.
We get fed up of visiting the shops, oops erm i mean the historical buildings and so decide to head for the beach again to enjoy some of this amazing sunshine. First things first though, I insist we cross the river on the way to get a fresh beer. Lots of places sell freshly made beer which only costs 4,000 dong for a glass or possibly even 3,000 if you're lucky. 10 pence for a fresh beer? its impossible to walk past! The beer is delivered fresh daily and when its gone its gone so normally there's none left by night.
Went out with the group to a restaurant called Morning Glory. Bec and me had some white rose dumplings and deep fried wontons as a starter and whilst we sat having a drink waiting for some of our friends who were running late we decided that our starter was so incredible that we needed another when the others arrived so more white rose dumplings aaaand some springs rolls. We treated ourselves to one of the more pricey seafood meals and ended up with a bill of 600,000VND which felt huge but is actually only £20 for the two of us for very high quality food. Went over to a place called Cargo Club for desert and coffee and again enjoyed the kind of food I couldnt afford to eat back home, brilliant.
Day 8 - MARBLE MOUNTAIN, HAI VAN PASS
Up early for the drive to Hué via the mountain roads of the Hai Van Pass. We stop at Marble Mountain on the way which is one of several huge mountainous slabs of rock that just jut straight up from an otherwise flat landscape. Its raining and most of the others stay on the bus and wander round the gift shops but we never be here again so me and Bec start trekking up the steep steps to the top, Barry joins us too. The views at the top are breathtaking partly because I'm out of breath but its well worth the effort to see the little temples and pagodas and the amazing view.
When we reach the Pass the winding road climbs so high into the clouds my ears are popping. We stop at one of the highest points where there's an old French war shelter of some sort, not sure on the story but again the views are brilliant. Bizarrly there's a couple of little shops up here and knowing that we will only be here for about 15 minutes they are extremely hyper and without exagerating they are literally dragging us off the bus into their shop, not what I'm here for so I walk up away from the road to take some photos. Its really peaceful (away from the shop) and atmospheric surrounded by mist, as I'm sat enjoying the scenery the clouds slide back in and within seconds its absolutely thrashing down with rain, shit! i'm soaked!
When we eventually end up in Hué (pronounced Hway) we decide to go on a motorbike tour, the whole of our travel group get involved making a convoy of 13 bikes. We drive out into the countryside alongside the Perfume River and through flooded rice fields, it feels a pretty cool thing to do and thats because...well it is, its just cool. We stop along the way at an ancient king's buriel site, an old rice harvesting farm where we meet a very nimble 75 year old woman who looks younger than Becci, a pagoda, a forrested hill overlooking the perfume river, navigating busy roads, narrow bridges, winding back lanes and side streets along the way. A favourite moment was high fiving a group of school children as we whizzed past.
Went for a meal with Bec later. We'd read about the Phuong Nam Cafe in our rough guide book being popular with locals. It was quite a basic little place, so much so that we walked past it at first. Its full of local people just like the book said so i convince Bec it must be good. The woman there doesnt speak much English and nobody seems to understand my pathetic attempts at Vietnamese but we manage to order some beers and try 4 different dishes between us. The quality of the food there is brilliant and the bill is only 100,000. Its well worth seeking out these little places. Upon leaving we are presented with a banana each which is a new one on me.
Met the rest of our travel buddies at DMZ Bar, quite a lively place where the decor consists of graffiti covered walls. Its a drunken night of beer and tequilas and Jay owning the pool table
Something that amused me today:
- at marble mountain you had to pay to use the toilet. It was 1000 dong to do a wee and 2000 for a poo
HUÉ AND TRAIN TO HANOI
I've lost track of what day it is now but we need to catch the train this afternoon to Hanoi leaving enough time in Hué this morning to visit the Citadel and Imperial City. We get a tour around which is quite interesting but i felt sorry for the tour guide talking to an unresponsive group nursing a big DMZ hangover. A lot of the place is being or has been restored after being hit with floods, fires, typhoons and termites and then bombed and showered with bullets in the wars! is it the same if its restored for tourists? or would i rather see the original strucures in faded ruins? dunno, cant decide but i do know that i like the history of child kings that ruled here, one of them was only 7 years old. I imagine it worked something like this "I declare today national water fight day and we must all have ice cream for breakfast".
Its a long long overnight train journey to Hanoi from 2:45 this afternoon arriving at 5am in the morning so we get well stocked up with beer and snacks. Bec and me are sharing a cabin with Barry and Matt again. The conversation ranges from top 5 albums, top 5 crisps, top 5 films, top 5 tv shows, so really quite varied conversation. I've now spent far too long writing and everyone else is asleep so best do the same and get myself fresh to enjoy Halong Bay.....
24.11.2010 HALONG BAY
Jumped off the sleeper train at Hanoi about 5.30am then 3 hours on the bus to Halong Bay. A mysterious man dressed as if its winter in Moscow has appeared on our bus, he's stood up at the front talking for ages about regional Vietnamese dialects whilst everyone on the bus is asleep, it 5.30am man!! we can't compute all this info however interesting it might be. Bowl of phở for breakfast and couple of hours on the beach before we get on our junk boat around midday. There are around 2000 randomly scattered islands in Halong Bay each with flat faced cliffs rising sharply from the sea and top with thick vegetation. I'll tell you scientifically how this amazing geoligical feature was formed.....a dragon ran down from the hills and carved out deep gorges by thrashing his tail, when the dragon jumped into the sea waves of water filled the area leaving just the peaks of the islands visible. that clears that one up then!
Back on land we go and do some haggling at the markets and then go for a dodgy meal at night. I'm moaning again but the paw prints and hairs all over the table were a suitable apetiser for the sloppy food, can't remember what the place was called now but it had a black sign with yellow writing, dont eat there its filthy! I should stop moaning because we could have got up and gone somewhere else.
Went for drinks in Amazon Bar and persuaded Matt and Barry to join us, the place is made with tree trunks and branches and the music flicks from pumping techno to phil collins. The barman makes me laugh when he comes over to chat "I made this place for socialising and talking, its not just for drinking, you dont have to buy more drinks, its okay, just stay and relax........would you like more drinks?" Yes please, 4 more beers!
DAY 11 - HANOI
Crazy traffic, getting lost and weasel coffee
When it goes dark decide to walk back thinking it will only take 30 minutes now we know our way round......1 hour 30 minutes later we make it back to the hotel realising we definitely do not know our way around. Met the others later at Cafe 69 for food. I'm enjoying the morning glory at the moment, not what your thinking, its a kind of water spinach dish sauteed in garlic, rest of the food here was good too but the waitress is the person least likely to smile in the world....ever! Went for a drink in a bar called the Cheeky Quarter with Jay, Jon, Barry, Matt and Fon. Sat upstairs in a cool little room with a low japanese table and the oldest most rickety table football you've ever seen. Everyone seems really tired tonight so we call it a night after just the one drink and will no doubt make up for it tomorrow...
HANOI - LAST FULL DAY
Lakes, cakes, thai chi and last night drinksUp nice and early and got to Hoan Kiem lake at around 7am to find the area busy with people exercising and doing thai chi, there's some pretty funky moves on show, some of these people really are in the zone liberating themsleves including one fella who is so into it he's forgotten he's still got his motorcycle helmet on! After a lap of the lake we go to pho 24 for what will probably be our last bowl of pho for breakfast.
Set off again to find Lenin Park again but along the way spot a busy bia hoi place, its the last day we can enjoy fresh beer for 10 pence so obviously we have to stop. We sit on the child size table and chairs in the street which I've now realised are actually quite comfy. There's a man next to us with a huge metre long pipe which every 5 minutes or so (inbetween cigarettes) he gives a quick heavy blast and breathes out thick belows of smoke. No idea whats in it but it looks like every blast is taking 6 months off his life. After 4 beers we decide to make a move, yes I know its only midday but this stuff is only 3,000 dong a glass, thats 10 pence! so a huge amount of self control was required to limit it to 4 glasses and not stay there all day.
On the way to Lenin Park (we do make it there eventually) we stop at another bakery and buy more cakes to eat in the park. Lenin Park is big, some parts are well kept other areas quite run down. We walk around the lakes, watch the locals gambling on card games, eat our cakes and try out the fitness area to work off all the cakes. The parks are a good place to get some fresh air (or fresher at least) and a break from the noisey traffic. I decide I could do with another weasel coffee so we head back up to the Old Quarter. We bump into Johan and Caroline again just like we did yesterday and then Fon also appears from across the road, how do we keep finding people we know in a big busy city. Enjoy another weasel coffee and get the lad to grind me a bag full to take home, its strong stuff but very tasty, will it taste this good at home? Try to do some souvenier shopping but every shop seems to sell exactly the same stuff, just end up with some tshirts. Good day so far, the culture is so different that its fascinating just exploring the streets.
Last night with the tour group so we make sure we get back in time ready for the big farewell night out. Some of them are travelling on elsewhere, Jon is going to Beijing then through Mongolia and Russia, Hardeep is off to Laos and Johan and Caroline are travelling on to Malaysia. Some off the others have another day or two in Vietnam but its home time for me and Bec. Its been a great adventurous journey, I've enjoyed everywhere we've been, its so diverse from one place to the next.
Last night :-(
Everyone is out for the last night, we taxi down to a restaurant called Little Hanoi for a meal. Went next door for a couple of drinks and the obligatory group photos. Moved on to the Cheeky Quarter where we went yesterday, played connect 4 and beat Richard at table football, hahaha Ausies cant play football as we already know. Moved on to a bar called Hair of the Dog and stayed there drinking 2 for 1 cocktails, watching Jay dance and suffering the girls hijacking the jukebox. The bar put the shutters down at one point and locked us in when the police went past, think they get in trouble for playing loud music. A drunken night until the early hours......
Goodbye Vietnam, its been nice knowing you, your cakes are delicious!