Mekong Delta, Saigon, Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Halong Bay & Sapa
04.04.2012 - 23.04.2012 33 °C
We were being collected at 10.30am from Kep to travel to Can Tho to join our Mekong Tour. At 10.10am I knocked on the window of a reversing Mekong tour minibus, which turned out to be ours and we nearly missed it AND there was only 1 seat available for 3 of us? Rearrange the bags, Lisa and I shared a seat to the border (which apparently you can get a visa there for $20 rather than doing a normal visa for $45 or an expressive for $55 in advance and you need $1 to exit Cambodia). Past the border we change onto another minibus to Chou Doc (where you normally stay a night and start the tour from here), next onto a minibus to the big bus and big bus to Can Tho arriving around 6pm...no one there to collect us...mmm ok. Manage to find someone to help, taxi to the homestay - Hungs homestay - brilliant! really friendly, sociable, nice rooms and they get you to help prep dinner which is true Vietnamese food! Next day a fab tour to the floating markets (not what I expected, more like a wholesale market where you had to buy a minimum quantity of the product they were selling, which was indicated by a stick with the product on the end sticking up out of the quite big boats). It was busy though, starting at 5.30am, we were there for 6am after breaky on the longtail boat, then worked our way through a network of tributaries of the Mekong, stopping off at rice factories, watermelon farms, nurseries along the river and glass noodle factories, all really interesting! makes such a difference having a good guide that you can ask questions to!!
Now from here, we thought we had made our way to the homestay where we joined the tour group...this apparently wasn’t the case! we ended up having to get a taxi to the hotel where our group was for lunch, then had to argue for our included lunch, put on a bus to My Toa where we were supposed to be staying in a homestay, which they finally sorted out, but this ended up us missing that afternoon and mornings activities, being fed breakfast at 10am, and lunch at 11am (clearly we were really hungry!?) then our group arrived at 1pm!...FOR LUNCH! anyway the rest of the arvo was good (apart from the fact we had to lug our backpacks around with us). Went to the coconut candy factory (really tasty warm coconut candy), held a python (as you do!), got serenaded by our tour guide down a small stream in a rowing boat surrounded by water coconut palms (very romantic), before tea to some traditional Vietnamese music and a bus back to Saigon (which we were made to swap buses, causing that bus to be delayed 30mins, and then our bus arrived before us in Ho Chi Ming City - HCMC!?! - FYI don’t book with Mekong Tours - double the price and useless!)
In HCMC, Justin (from Bali & Lombok) happened to be in town and stumbled in on us having dinner! awesome to exchange stories, and he definitely is taking the more relaxed approach to travelling vs. our whistle stop tour haha! Next day we had a stroll around town, visiting the Independence Palace (quite modern), then we went to the Museum and OH MY GOSH! most harrowing museum I’ve ever been too! the list of torture methods, THE PICTURES! no details spared! it was also interesting reading 1st - the way they talk about Americans, and 2nd - the camera men who captured these event! saying "hold it" (snap photo, walk away, bang bang pooowwah) just watching or hearing and seeing all this happen in front of them! I was exhausted coming out of there!
Next day, as if we hadn’t had enough history, we headed to the tunnels ($4 transport and guide, $4 entry). Again not what I expected, thought we would go down into the tunnels more but actually they have no reinforcement, they are tiny, even for Asians to fit in, let along white heffers! So instead we watched a video (made in about the 80's) before walking around the forest, which has now re-grown after the orange agent that was sprayed over the area. Tony (our guide), showed us camouflage entrances, booby traps, methods to avoid being discovered by the Americans, and informed us of a number of facts, e.g. only 20% of the bombs per drop went off, as the force from the 1st 10 would make the bombs land horizontally and wouldn’t detonate, so the Vietnamese would cut the bombs up and make mines against the US. All in all a great day!
Back to town, another stroll around, cocktails in Hotel Rex overlooking the bustling city, and then through the park which was a hive of activity, badminton in the paths (courts even marked out on the paving), hip hop dance routine choreography, this funny kicking disc thing that you rally with and people just hanging out! really nice vibe!! Then...guess what, another night bus! 11.45pm and this time it was actually a sleeper bus, but we were put in the back next to the horn (which they use incessantly), and you are right on top of each other, the other seat are separated by aisle!).
Arrive Dalat, 5am and by George! Its cold!! Now up in the mountains, there is relieve from the stifling heat we have been in for the last month! Find a hotel, sleep a couple of hours then we’re off! We grabbed a taxi and headed to elephant waterfall (500,000 VND return for 3 of us) where we were able to climb down to the waterfall and get some good pics, as well as get a little wet from the spray – woke us up nicely! When we returned I did actually see a cannoning tour, which looked appealing, so would prob try that instead if you’re heading there! We then walk the town. It’s a funny town, its quite built up and everywhere it is like a garden, a bit kitch, but surprisingly well maintained, and there seems to be a pretty massive museum being constructed atm which is all along the bank of the lake on one side!! After we headed to the crazy house – this alone would be a reason to go to Delat! Its this Alice in Wonderland style house, which you can stay the night in. Incredible forms and walkways health and safety standards would not permit access to the public haha! But stunning views out over the mountains!
Next day we bused to Nha Trang, Vietnams biggest beach town. Stunning bus ride, as much as the bus rides are a method of getting from A to B they also give you a great view and insight into the countryside and way of life! There were 200m plus cascades down the mountains rock façade and valleys that wove in and out of the undulating hills! Beautiful! Arrived by lunch time and straight to the beach! It was like the south of france, well maintained parkland strip before a nice wide long beach and cool waters! Next day went for a dive (supposed to be the best in Vietnam), wasn’t the best diving I’ve done, but for $40 you cant complain!! We were back by 1.30pm so we headed to the mud baths. It was 100,000 VND in, but well worth it! We went in this terrace of empty baths which they assign you one and turn a tap on which spills watery mud into the bath until half full. After a 15min soak its up to the bathing area to dry off. Feeling crisp and starting to crack we showered off, soaked in a clean bath, walked through a corridor of sprays blasting water at you, before dunked under a waterfall and finish in a hot swimming pool! Very relaxing! That night we were on a sleeper bus to Hoi An!
Unfortunately we had the very back! you're on top of each other, next to the horn and bumped all over the place! Hoi An is totally different, far more character, and more what I envisaged a Vietnamese town to be like! I’d heard you could get clothes made super cheap here! Well…I was hoping to get a couple of jackets and dresses made. As I was designing them, with help from a number of pictures, it all tended to add up. It is better 1st to have a look around a number of shops for ideas, then go to the market with a picture of exactly what you want to be made. They are better at copying than designing or advising! After an afternoon of picking materials, and discussing designs we sent off our orders! Another stroll around town – great place, got some really good cafes, 3000 VND beers (like 15c) and a really nice vibe with all its old buildings! We ended up doing another cooking class, an evening one which ended up being just the 3 of us! It was great! Another trip to the local market (that’s when we were shown the clothes making area in the market which is a lot cheaper! Doh!), then cycle ride into the countryside – amazing you only have to travel like 10mins before you’re on a dirt track surrounded by rice fields! Arrived at his school and we were shown the government land, which is immaculately hand farmed by the community, and where I was put to shame by a 70 year old lady who was watering the plant and offered me a go! Harder than it looks! There is a bar you rest on your shoulders then you fill up (one by one) watering cans, then rock them, sprinkling water over the rows of crops! Easier said than done! AND she does it 3 times a day every day..they are not light! We got shown how to present our food, making carrot and tomato flowers, slicing spring rolls and making it look pretty. Then we made a banana flower salad (delish!), these pancakes with bamboo shoots and wrapped in rice paper (AMMMMAAAZING!), spring rolls, and a chicken clay pot, all very tasty and was stuffed to the brim by the end of it!
Next morning we were off to My Son, similar to Angkor Wat, but more destroy by the war and not as big, but interesting! It was ridiculously hot that day though! We had lunch and a boat trip to some wood carving places but don’t bother, waste of time! Spend your time around the towns historic buildings! It’s a real walking town!
From Hoi An we’d decided to Easy Riders to Hue. It was only about 100km, but you are taken by locals on motorbikes, 1st to Marble Mountain – we went at the crack of dawn so got free entry and the place to ourselves and its an amazing place with huge caves and great viewpoints! 2nd stop was a mountain pass, meandering up and over the mountain, before a beach stop in Lang Co, before onto Elephant Waters (think it is called that), but basically a stunning series of pools in a mountain river which refreshing and crystal clear waters! Beautiful!! For lunch we were offered a chicken, which they showed us alive and were about to kill when we changed our order to the fish that was already being grilled on a charcoal BBQ. Best fish we’ve had!! Sore bottomed we arrived in Hue around 3pm. Great way to travel, and amazing the crazy scooter driving that goes on! Ridiculous number of scooters on the road!! And when you cross the road you just walk out when there is a bit of a gap and they will go around you! Funny also how quickly you get used to it too! Ha!
Hue, we timed perfectly! It was the penultimate night of the Hue festival, which occurs every other year. We had a walk around the city, found some live music, then headed into the Citadel for lots of music, dances, performances all in the ancient royal buildings! We were looking to stay for the closing ceremony but decided not to due to time restraints. Instead the next day we did another motorbike tour around the Royal tombs, pagodas, tiger and elephant fighting arenas, lunch from some lady monks, sat on a bridge where the locals hang out (as it provides natural AC to cool off), and a great viewpoint. We walked around the Citadel again (55,000 entry) before catching our night bus (this time requested not to be at the back and it was the best night bus we’ve had! Actually slept ha!) to Hanoi!
Hanoi is how I envisaged a Vietnamese city! Crazy busy, quite dirty/ disorganized but weirdly organized – with different areas selling different things – food, clothes, scooter parts, household products, electricals, etc.. Stayed in the old quarter, had a wonder around, as we arrived on Monday when all museums are shut. We sorted our visas for china, cheaper to do it here ($54 for UK, $148 for US!!), which took 5 days so we booked onto a halong bay 3 day 2 night tour. We cruised through the limestone karsts and the foggy mystical air to a couple of pretty impressive caves, one which had quite a colourful array of lights in the cave. Next it was onward to kayak around a couple of lagoons. It was surprisingly quiet, having left the port with a thousand other boats we were now on our own and had both lagoons to ourselves allowing Lisa to “sing” to me , vocals back by echoes ;-) we also past some HUGE beige torso sized jelly fish with 2m long tentacles!! Apparently the blue and green ones are lethal but the cream ones are fine! Night on the boat, then over to Cat Ba Island the next morning for a hike to the top of a hill, quite the hike for tourist in flip flops, recommend shoes, especially if it has been wet! We missed the shortcut (which, from what I heard is pretty intense but means you miss the slow going fat tourists, and can do a circular route, rather than a return!) but up at the top you get some great views, although there’s not a hell of a lot of room up there!
Back to Hanoi (long journey) then a night out around “beer corner” – great BBQ’s around there and lots of promo drinks. Next day city tour day! Over to the Hilton Prison (ok, nothing compared to the other museums we’ve been to harrowing wise, and actually the American pilots imprisoned hear are shown to have had a pretty decent time - playing badminton, football, getting haircuts from officers.. John McCain was imprisoned here for a bit! Walked the city going to the Ho Chi Ming morsaleum – which had more security than the current presidential palace (pretty) by the look of it. Botanical gardens pretty average and have to pay (2000 – 15p ha!) but ive never had to pay for a botanical garden (I don’t think?) Walk past a number of other city features before collecting our passport and hopping on the sleeper bus to sapa for our next tour ($45). The sleeper bus I was stuck next to a smell Russian and there were sooooooo many stops! Pretty slow going!
Arrive sapa, taken to Summit Hotel for shower (needed!) and buffet breakfast – result! Started our tour, which was supposed to be a 12km walk to a village to stay the night at a homestay then return to sapa the next day via villages and waterfalls…the walk started from sapa town and an army of very small traditionally dressed girls and women (it was a game guessing which was old and which was young – literally everyone was the same height and it was until they turned around that you realized old or young ha!) The bevy of ladies escorted us along our very pretty walk through the terraced slopes of sapa. There was a lovely breeze, the sun was shinning, the terraces were amazing and it was a downhill stroll to a village for lunch. Had about 2hr lunch, with the ladies trying to sell all there handcrafted goods (real guilt trip stuff, especially if you have accepted their plants that they have picked and folded into horses and hearts haha! – it’s a tough call, you try to accept to be grateful, but then you awkwardly have to carry this thing for the rest of the trip, then they guilt trip you to buy things, OR you say “no no it ok,” and they guilt trip you for not taking it, “your friend took it, I make for you, no money, gift.” Anyway, homestay was nice, and next to the river so we had a dip before some garlic and salt chips (yes you wouldn’t have thought very traditional but apparently so?), then a huge dinner cooked over a wooden fire, followed by some rice wine (not the biggest fan). Slept under mossi nets in a bit room on a hard mattress on the floor, to wake to pancake breakfast and a steeper more undulating walk through some more terraces with the buffalo cooling themselves in the terraces with water, towards a waterfall. More like a rock face with a stream flowing down it, but a nice walk. Lunch then back to sapa for a shower, a walk around Sapa – nice town, not much to see, great place for knock off outdoor clothing! Before a minibus to the Chinese border and onto our next Country!!
Vietnam has been great and it is definitely more developed than a lot of the other south east asian countries! My memories of Vietnam are the harrowing history, the crazy scooters dominating the countries roads, amazing spring rolls (fresh and fried), Bai Mein rolls, Mango, street eating – eggs with fetus’ in them, girls in silk tops that have a slit from the waist down over silk trousers, “singing”, clearing the throat pre spitting, the immaculately community farmed land, the laughing Buddha – def gunna get me one of these, big one at the bottom of my stairs, so that every day I walk down and it makes me laugh, great start to the day :-D