On Day 18 it was yet another exhaustingly early start, and back on the bus over the Hai Van Pass into South Vietnam. The pass was so beautiful, with stunning views of the wide sweeping bays below. It was interesting to pass over the top, where several bunkers remained from the various wars Vietnam has been through, just a reminder of how recent they were.
Then it was back down into the south, and past the picturesque beaches and looming abandoned aircraft hangars of China Beach, a former rest area for American troops. We arrived in Hoi An at lunch time, and were delighted to discover that our hotel not only had free internet, but also a swimming pool! Fantastic!
After lunch in a nearby restaurant, it was off to do some exploring of the hundreds of tailor shops in the town. Hoi An is remowned for its cheap tailors, and we were going to be staying there for three days while we had suits made. It was impossible to distinguish between all the shops, and it was a relief to have some of them recommended by Intrepid.
After choosing our clothes based on the tailor's designs and pictures in magazines, then choosing the fabrics and being measured, we headed back to the pool in our hotel to relax, and then out for a delicious meal on the riverfront.
The following morning we were up early for a cooking class. I went with three of the people from my trip down to a restaurant to learn how to make shrimp spring rolls, beef on lemongrass skewers in ginger and sesame, and fish stuffed with garlic and lemongrass. You all no doubt know that I am not the world's best chef, and it was great to be guided through the recipes. It was complicated, but I made sure to write everything down. At the end of the cooking we got to eat the food which was a great bonus - and it was delicious! No more McDonalds drive-throughs for me!
Again after this we spent the afternoon trying on clothes that had been fitted for us at the tailor's, and arranging for alterations to be made. Then it was time for some more relaxing by the pool and another delicious evening meal on the waterfront.
Day 20 meant the final fitting at the tailor's, and while we waited for the last minute alterations to be made, we headed to the nearby beach on bicycles that we had hired. I don't think I have ever sweated as much in my life as I did on that half hour journey, but it was worth it when we got to the beach. It was not busy at all, but the sky was blue, the sand was white and the sea was warm as bathwater. My trip has been so constantly busy that sometimes I feel like I need a holiday - ridiculous I know! But it was fantastic to eat and drink and sunbathe by the sea, especially when we had been told that the rest of the trip would be very hectic.
After this I visited the tailor to collect my clothes. All in all I had perhaps gone a bit crazy - three suits, five shirts, two dresses and two pairs of shoes for about $430 US dollars. Considering I would have had to pay the same amount for things off the rack in England, I was delighted! Because there was no space at all in my bag for any of these clothes, I had to send them home. The Hoi An postal service is excellent, and very efficient. The man drove out on his motorbike to the tailor's, packed up my parcel, weighed it and sent it to England. The good news is that it was only 17 quid for the entire 4kg bundle. The bad news is that it won't be there until October. Still, at least it will be a nice surprise when it finally does arrive! The post office worker even took me on his motorbike to a cash machine to get the money to pay him, and then back to the tailor's! Royal Mail are going to have to work hard to beat that one!
On Day 22 we took a bus to the airport and flew to Ho Chi Minh City. I was nervous about the flight, but the plane had jet engines which made me feel a lot better. It was the worst turbulence I had ever experienced though, and I was very nearly sick! Ho Chi Minh City was formerly called Saigon - its name was changed in honour of Uncle Ho when the war was won by the North in 1975, but most locals still call it Saigon. Saigon is only about 300 years old, so very new compared with other Vietnamese cities. It it Vietnam's largest city with a population of 6 million, and amazingly, 4 million motorbikes. You would not even believe the noise those things made, and the constant struggle to cross the road without being mown down.
In the afternoon we were taken on another cyclo tour of the city - again, a terrifying experience in the presence of so much rush hour traffic. After this we went to the Sheraton Hotel for happy hour. The bar is on the 24th floor and the view was stunning. A very relaxing and enjoyable experience. After this is was back down to earth again, as we went to the night markets to have a bit of a browse, and a reassuringly cheap but delicious meal at one of the many covered stalls in the markets. Some of the others went out that night but I went back to the hotel and watched Babel on Star Movies (can recommend).
On Day 23 we took the bus for a one-hour ride out to the famous Cu Chi Tunnel system, which housed the South Vietnamese resistance in the American War. The Viet Cong (as the Southern resistance were called) dug a rabbit warren of tunnels in which they lived during the day, and these have been preserved for tourists to see. We were first taken to see a video about the tunnels. This explained a great deal about their part in the war, and was from a very strongly anti-American viewpoint. It was very strange, having grown up in the west, to hear the video proudly describing the many awards soldiers received for killing Americans. We were shown examples of the tunnels and trenches, as well as the many vicious and brutal booby traps designed to impale invading soldiers. We also had the chance to climb on a tank which had been blown up during the war, and to fire an AK.47 rifle. That was a pretty interesting experience, and I have kept one of the bullet casings as a souvenir. After that we had the chance to crawl through some of the tunnels which had been preserved. Most of us went down the tourist tunnel, which was 20 metres long and required you to duck very low. Then I went through the locals' tunnel with two of the boys. This gave a more realistic impression of what the resistance fighters lived through every day, and was so low that often we had to crawl. We came out very sweaty and relieved to be above ground. I really enjoyed this part of the trip - I think interactive experiences like this are always fascinating.
I did very little in the afternoon, and it was fantastic. Our hotel room was lovely, and the bathroom huge with a big corner bath and I spent a good hour soaking in it and reading my book (I was somewhat disgusted to see how much dirt managed to soak off me in this time.) I had a browse around the shops, although this didn't take long as most shops didn't stock a size large enough to fit me, and no, I haven't got fat (Vietnamese people think it genuinely funny when I tell them that in my country I am considered slim). Then it was a big sleep before dinner and another delicious meal at the night markets. Unfortunately, due to the large amount of sleep I'd had there was no chance of getting to bed early, and I was up till the early hours having very deep chats with some of the people from my group - a fun and relaxing day.