i can't claim to be a prolific traveller but i like alternative holidays, lying on a sunbed is boring. i want to be seeing amazing things, experience the culture, meet interesting people, be a bit outside my normal comfort zone, do things i've never done before, and if there's a story to tell i want to remember it, so the notes and observations i make on each trip can now be read here by anyone who has the patience.

VIETNAM

Vietnam, November 2010
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 Hue, junk boat and  kayaking in Halong Bay, weasel coffee, cakes and bia hoi in Hanoi

A diary made journeying through the amazing and brilliantly diverse country of Vietnam, the hours spent travelling by overnight sleeper trains were used to write this diary.....

HO CHI MINH CITY  15.11.2010
Lost Luggage and motorbike madness

Crazy place! Just had our first chaotic taste of HCMC made all the more crazy by the fact that our luggage is still in Heathrow! Yep, so our first mission was to go and buy clothes to wear and not knowing where to go or how much to pay was similtaneously stressful and enjoyable. We got pulled about in Ben Tanh market and haggled in a few shops which is interesting on your first day when your not used to the money and have no idea whether we're being ripped off or not. I thought we kept relatively calm considering we had only the smelly clothes we travelled in and the contents of my wallet which did cause Bec and me to argue a bit* (*a lot). Singapore airlines did give us some compo of 800,000 dong each to keep us going so 1.6 million then! millionaires? sounds good but i worked it out to be about £50 which to be fair will keep us in clothes, food and beer for a little while it seems.

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!

Some things I've seen today;
+ 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.
- At the rooftop bar in the Sheraton the very moment we finsihed our very expensive but 2 for 1 cocktail another drink appears at the table. Upon protesting that we dont want another and will just pay for the one and go they explain that no its 2 for 1 for the same person and for the same drink so here have your free ones I've already made them so you must pay for two.

DAY 2 - HO CHI MINH CITY
phở, walking and fellow travellers
went for a bowl of phở for breakfast (pronounced fur). Went to Pho24 or Pho2000 cant remember which one but its a bit like Subway with noodle soup instead of sandwiches. We had found a map for a walking tour of the city and decided to try and follow it to see some of the sights, the route apparantly takes about 6 hours but probably doesnt account for the hour we spent lost trying to find the start point on the map. 
We walked for a while taking in the crazy traffic and the many unusual sights on the streets until we reached a street market where Bec challenged us to buy each other a gift, I found this quite difficult but Bec managed to find me a repulsive tie which I proudly posed wearing it for a photo, it really is disgraceful, its lime green with a flowery design on it. A bit more walking and we stop at a cafe bar for food and drink, I had some grilled frogs which ok I know I'm supposed to be veggie but I thought I'd try it. When I paid the bill I managed to get rid of a dodgy 100,000 note that nowhere else would accept, its only got a little tear at the edge but I've had it refused 3 times so far, I felt quite pleased with myself as the guy didnt spot it sandwiched between some smaller notes.

We walked past the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, looked interesting buildings but didnt go inside, rather see local street life than walk around museums for hours with other tourists. Next we found Notre Dame Cathedral and the post office, a post office doesnt sound very exciting but this one is a big fancy one, a bit of a landmark and looks good even next to the cathedral. I'm not a postcard man usually but I sent one to mum and dad just for an excuse to go inside the building although I'll probably make it back home before the card. Set off to find The Jade Emporer Pagoda, it was amazingly peaceful considering a very busy avenue with 10 lanes of traffic was 30 seconds walk away, the pagoda was very colourful and had several little rooms leading from the main one with different shrines and statues and people walking between them bowing holding incense. Its a stunning building and amazingly peaceful
and relaxed. Our walking did take about 6 hours altogether and we even made it back to the hotel without getting lost.

We're gonna be travelling with a group of other people who we went to meet at night, went for some food at a street market and then on for a few drinks. The others all seem nice, 12 of us altogether I think, there are some interesting characters and no complete idiots as far as I can tell so far....  We booked onto a tour to organise our travel and transfers through the country, being as we've only got two weeks didnt want to go completely independently and get stuck somewhere.  Hoping to benefit from having the travel from place to place planned out then go off and do our own thing along the way.

Some things I spotted out and about;
+A neat lawn outside a posh financial building which had a man carefully trimming the borders of the grass with a small pair of scissors
+Lots of loose chickens pecking about around the markets which is not a problem unless you have a phobia of them like Bec. I didnt tell her quite how many of them I saw
+Motorbikes, mopeds, motorbikes, scooters, mopeds, motorbikes, bikes, mopeds

DAY 3 - HO CHI MINH CITY
China Town, Pagodas and Xe Oms

Had a brilliant day today, loving HCMC!

Started the day off with some breakfast at a little pho cafe out of town. The fella couldnt understand a word we were saying and visa versa but he was real nice and made a fuss of us. We eventually managed to order two bowls of pho and some drinks, had a good brekkie, tipped the man (which he seemed genuinely surprised at) and got on our way. We were heading off on foot to China town in Cho Lon which was about 4km down a long, straight, busy road. Bec was concerned whether we were heading in the right direction and kept checking road names against the map, I said dont worry we are definately 100% going the right way whilst thinking to myself "hope we're going the right way". We got there just fine and headed for an area with lots of herb shops each of which has numerous large sacks of different dried herbs and plants, the air smells amazing around these streets with the waft of aromatic fragrances even managing to overpower the traffic fumes. We visited several of the many pagodas in the area. In a busy bustling street there'll be a colourful pagoda sandwiched between two shops, as you walk in everything becomes quiet and calm and the fumes from the streets are replaced by the strong smell of burning incense and oils. The pagodas will typically have a kind of courtyard area before you reach the main entrance often with a fish pond or turtle pond or both, there will usually be some large pots holding long incense sticks and benches where people just sit relaxing. Inside will be a large main room with the main shrine at the back which will have large gold figures of godesses or emporers with offerings of fruit and lots of incense burning. I feel a bit ignorant because I dont really know what its all about and am unsure whether I should or shouldnt bow, burn incense, take my shoes off, take photos, talk, leave donations.... I just dont know, but we dont seem to be upsetting anyone and thats why we come to these places to learn new things. We take our time in each one we visit and look in all the smaller rooms that lead off at the sides, each pagoda seems really well kept with a slow steady stream of visitors bowing with incense or perhaps burning fake paper money in a furnace which apparantly brings good fortune.


After a few pagodas we set off for Binh Tay Market which is a very large market place that offers up pretty much anything you can think of from sandals to dried fish to pots and pans. We decided to split up and meet in 20 minutes with a gift for each other. I got Bec a chinese fan and she found me a model wooden motorbike, I like it, its cool, all the little parts move and everything. We had planned to go and visit Giac Lam Pagoda which according to what we've read is the oldest and most striking in the area and home to a community of monks. Its another 3km out of Cho Lon and being unsure how to get there exactly we needed to get a taxi. We had a confusing conversation with a taxi driver ending with him staring blankly into space, had a similar conversation with two xe om drivers (motorbike taxi). It took a good 10 minutes to explain that we wanted to visit the pagoda, have them wait for us and then bring us back. We need to be back at the hotel in 4 hours time to go and catch the overnight train so it was fingers crossed. Anyway we jumped on the back of two xe oms and rode for about 15 minutes through busy traffic and crazy free for all junctions. At first I was holding on tight but after a couple of minutes I relaxed and felt quite safe regardless of the unpredictable traffic. Becs bike was faster and kept speeding off ahead and I could see Bec looking around worrying she had lost me but we got there just fine. Giac Lam Pagoda was well worth the visit and we spent a while looking around the different buildings. There's a huge multi-tiered tower before you get to the main pagoda some well kept gardens, a massive white Budha statue and other monuments and tombs. We got to the pagoda just as the monks were chanting prayers which echoed around the place along with the rythmic banging of a gong, its all very atmospheric especially with the massive amount of incense thats burning, they must get through loads of it.  I got frowned at by an old monk sitting in the corner when I tried to take a photo so I hid from him behind a pilar to take some sneaky photos then thought best put the camera away coz these guys know kung fu and stuff..

We hopped back on the xe oms to take us back to the market on thought we'd try some street food. We sat on some of those tiny children's stools while some kid who must have only been about 12 years old (the chairs were probably even a bit small for him) served us up a bowl of noodles and veg and something else which I couldn't identify. It tasted pretty good though and all being well it was free from food poisoning of any sort. Got back to the hotel in good time in the end and set off with the group at about 6.30 to catch the overnight train
.
Weird stuff I saw today;
-A man riding a motorbike balancing a bundle of very long scaffolding poles accross it.
-Little cages on the pavement in Cho Lon containing lots of small birds or mice. I think they end up as street food but who knows?!

Sleeper Train
Our train left at 8pm and will arrive in Nha Trang at 5.30am tomorrow. I had pictured the train basic with shared carriages full of other beds and strange smells but it turns out we have a nice little cabin with 4 bunk beds in it. We are sharing with 2 lads Barry and Matt, they are a good laugh and we stay up for a while with some beers and general chat. Takes me a while to get off to sleep with the noise of the train but got some decent sleep in the end.  Liking it!

DAY 4 - NHA TRANG - 18.11.2010
Rain, Rain, Rain, Bikes, Mud and Budha

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
Up early to visit My Son for the morning. Sorry to disappoint but we weren't visiting any secret illigitimit offspring My Son is the name of a site of ancient ruins built by the Cham civilisation  between the seventh and thirteenth centuries, not as juicy to gossip about but ultimately more interesting.  The towers, sancturies and temples are now mostly in ruins surrounded and slightly overgrown with vegetation which in a way helps give everything a mysterious magical feel especially as we've got here early while the place is quiet (ie. before the gaggle of coach parties).  In its prime the site had around 70 large buildings but lots were bombed during the war in the 60's when the Viet Cong tried to hide here with evidence left by numerous bomb craters and bullet holes and strict warnings not to wander off towards the land mine infested hills!

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.

Cycled down to the beach and had a bit of trouble parking them up because we kept getting told off by wardons for putting them too close to the beach front.  Had a bit of chill time on the beach and set off back in time to see the sunset by the river.  Stopped at a local place by the riverside for a drink.  A very nice lady insisted on carrying a table and chairs out onto a rickety looking bamboo balcony that extended out over the water, it didnt look too strong but she had gone to all this effort so we felt obliged.  I had a beer, I'm enjoying larue at the moment and the Bia Saigon and 333 are good too.  Bec asks for a tequila sunrise and after a long wait we realise she has gone down the road to ask someone how to make it!  The sunset turns the river orange which looks amazing with a few silhouettednfishing boats drifting up and down.

Stopped at a bar called 'John' a bit further down and had the obligatory photo with me posing next to the sign.  Had a different local beer in this place called Zorok, again nice but they all taste similar really.  before getting back to the hotel we collect Becci's dress from the tailors, it fits perfectly. We cycle back through Old Town in the dark which looks amazing all lit up with Chinese lanterns.

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!

HUÉ
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!
We stop at one of the islands and walk through its massive cave system.  It would be an astounding natural wonder with amazing shapes and formations in the stalagmites and stalagtites in the vast caverns but unfortunately someone decided to illuminate the place with tacky coloured spot lights, place penguin litter bins about the place, stick an open plan office in the centre of the cave and place unecessary water fountains about the place.  Its a unique natural wonder made to feel like a themed area of the trafford centre.  We leave the caves and sail to a little floating village surrounded by tall rocky islands and stop to do some kayaking.  We struggle to control our 2 man kayak at first and I had a good moan at Bec for the dodgy steering before realising the person at the back (me) has more control.  Great fun once we got the hang of it!  Its been foggy day but the mists have cleared as we sail further through the islands.  Returning back to the harbour 5 hours feels a bit too short, longer would have been nice but its still been good.

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
3 hours on the bus to Hanoi and we're at the Anh Hotel in the morning in good time to set out exploring.  The tour group are all being led to the old quarter on a school trip type tour but Bec and me would rather go exploring by ourselves and get lost in the city.  We can already feel that its a lot different to HCMC, the traffic is faster and less forgiving to cautious foreigners and the people seem more abrupt and business like but thats just first impressions.  Wandering around the streets is an obstacle course, traffic whizzing around on the roads while the pavements are packed with parked motorcycles and food stalls, then there's people trying to get our attention selling books, lighters, cyclo rides and oddly shoe repairs!  i keep getting followed by lads inspecting my shoes trying to convince me they need repairing!  We get some very tasty (and cheap) food in Ladybird Cafe whilst sitting on a balcony upstairs looking out on the street.  Round the corner we find Hué Cafe, a little coffee shop selling weasel coffee.  Weasel coffee beans get their distictive flavour from being fed to weasels and collected when they've passed through to the other end, I would describe the taste as earthy and slightly fruity.  They grind the fresh beans infront of you before brewing it up, well thats if you can call pooed out coffee beans fresh.  Bec stuck to green tea, she doesnt like coffee so weasel coffee is a definite no.  Bit more wandering and we find a cathedral surrounded by cafes, seems to be the cool place for young people sitting around on those little stools on the pavement drinking soft drinks and smoothies.  Same set up in England would involve beer not smoothies and probably end up in puking and fighting.
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 drinks
Up 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.
We decide to venture a bit further south to find Lenin Park and the French Quarter, its much less touristy with no souvenier shops and nobody hassling us.  I've got a strange and uncontrollable urge for a cake so we find a nice bakery and take our cakes to eat outside a little coffee shop.  I order my coffee and as usual they bring an iced coffee, seems to happen everywhere but luckily i've gotten a taste for it.  the cakes were truely amazing.
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!


be nice if you left a comment.....

6 comments:

krissy said...

hey this is great! amused by the way you suddenly switch from imformative descriptions to witty insights, hilarious!

Anonymous said...

agree wth prev comment. v detailed gd read. up 2 hoi an, will check back to read rest.thnks

Anonymous said...

Very well written however would be nice if hotel prices were mentioned:):)

sprinch said...

ok well stayed at anh hotel in hanoi- nice place, good location. tigon hotel in hue- nice rooms, fairly central. vien dong hotel in nha trang- nothing flashy, quite basic but clean and close enough to beach and centre. cant remember name of places in hcmc and hoi an. prices? really sorry but not sure. if its not written in the blog then i've forgotten it!

Anonymous said...

Hey,really enjoyed reading this. Heading to Vietnam in 5 weeks time for a similar type tour, though starting in Hanoi and finishing in HCMC.
Was great to get an insight in to what to expect!

sprinch said...

excellent, enjoy the trip!

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