We arrived in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) after a very pleasant bus ride and border crossing. We drove through Cambodia along some rough, bumpy roads and crossed the border into Vietnam with smoother tarmacked roads. We stopped in no man's land for lunch where we tried to order toasties but they took 45 minutes to make and we only had 30 minutes for lunch, luckily Asia in general doesn't stick to keeping time so the bus waited for us. Once we pulled up in Ho Chi Minh we got off the bus and a taxi man grabbed Jeff's bag and told us we'd travel by meter. Having been in Bangkok this is what you should ask for because they turn off the metre and charge you a lot more. However in Ho Chi Minh they are known to scam tourists by having their meters rigged. As we were driving along in this taxi San mentioned to Jeff that the meter was at 200,000 dong (about £5). This doesn't sound like much but when we arrived at our hotel we realised that the bus stop was actually across the road from our hotel. We had been scammed, if anything the journey should have cost about 20p. Anyway we turned up at our hotel which was actually a family's house and the old man was very sweet. He showed San a travel agent where we booked our Chu Chi tunnel tour and Mekong Delta Cruise. We were excited to try the local delicacies and ate hot pot (beef/chicken with spring onions, lemongrass, sweet basil, carrot, onion and broth), crispy noodle, pho (beef or chicken noodle soup) and local baguettes at food stalls.
The Chu Chi tunnels were inhabited by the Viet Cong during the war which stretched 200km from Saigon to the Cambodian border. On our way here we stopped at a workshop were people affected with Agent Orange work, most with limb deformities. The Viet Cong hid and lived down in the tunnels, they had a kitchen, hospital and a workshop (where they would create traps and explosives). They cooked in the morning when it was foggy so the smoke could not be seen. They worked in the rice field to produce food at night by moon light when they weren't fighting. They have expanded part of the tunnel system for tourists as the ones used by locals were tiny. Their main defence was that big Europeans and Americans physically couldn't fit in the cramped tunnels to come and find them. The tunnels were incredibly hot and claustrophobic and these were the bigger ones so it must have been horrible for Viet Cong living down there for years. The Viet Cong had set up numerous traps, which were very brutal. We also had a go at shooting an M16. This being Vietnam you just buy the bullets for whatever gun you want and they take you down to the firing range. On the bus back, dodging the hundreds of motor cycles and bikes we arrived safely back in the city and stopped at the War Remnants Museum. The propaganda we saw in Chu Chi continued here and we saw some brutal and powerful pictures of the war, especially how Agent Orange affected the locals. There are numerous retired tanks, helicopters and planes on display. We got a bit lost and stuck in a very heavy monsoon shower on the way back.
The Mekong Delta is a beautiful area; unfortunately the river itself is quite polluted. After being loaded onto a bus in an unorganised way we were finally on our way. We stopped at another Agent Orange workshop. We got on a boat and on the first island stopped at we tasted the local honey, lemon and pollen and saw the bee hives. We held a python; we weren't really sure why they had a python, one minute they were making us honey tea then they said come over here and wrapped a python around our necks. On the second island we tasted different fruits, pineapple, dragon fruit (like a kiwi except white), pineapple and lychees while listening to traditional folk music. Our next stop was a coconut sweet factory, we tasted peanut butter and durian (a very smelly fruit found in Asia and banned from hotels) which we weren't so keen on but we bought some coconut and chocolate sweets. We hopped on a small row boat next and travelled down a small canal within the delta, two local ladies were rowing us. It was so peaceful and beautiful, we were told to keep our hands in the boat as alligators lurk around but we didn't spot any. The lady near San tapped her on the back as we approached the boat we were getting onto next and said "bye bye money", she did this continually and wouldn't take us to the shore until we gave her a tip. We stopped for lunch next and had a long journey back.
We have developed a love for Vietnamese coffee; it's very very strong and sweet because it's served with condensed milk. It's a great way to start the morning and we ended up buying some coffee and a filter from a market so we can have it back home as well.
Before we left Saigon we visited the Renumification Palace; the old presidential palace until the war in the 70's. The front gates were destroyed as the tanks rolled through to plant a flag for the North and the palace has been deserted ever since. We took a sleeper bus to Nha Trang a beach resort, which took 12 hours. It was our first sleeper bus experience and we were right at the back crammed in with another British girl (they tend to put foreigners on the top bunks and at the back). We found our hotel ourselves in fear of getting scammed again but actually realised that you get a feel for where you are, the only problem is our really heavy bags! We spent the day at the mud baths and hot pools (which were extremely hot) but very relaxing. We found a local restaurant where we shared a beef hot pot and it came to the table raw so we cooked it ourselves over a flame. It was so delicious! We also discovered crispy noodles and more baguettes on the street. We weren't overly impressed by Nha Trang, the beach was beautiful but it didn't seem to have a centre and it was also full of Russians who are extremely rude (sorry to stereotype but the ones we came across were). Apparently Nha Trang is like their Costa del Sol, they can get a free visa for 2 weeks. But all of the locals seem to really despise that Nah Trang is a Russian holiday centre, but I think that may just be because they don't seem to spend as much money on tours and on restaurants as European's do! We had a very relaxing time here and enjoyed swimming and reading on the beach with a few cold beers.
Our next sleeper bus wasn't as comfortable, the air con kept breaking and we had to keep pulling over to fix it but it was terminal so we just suffered the heat. It was 39 degrees and at times when we drove through towns we'd get those unpleasant Asian whiffs of toilets or fish. We were almost asleep and heard a bang, the tyre blew on the bus so we pulled over again and it took about 3 hours to change the tyre. We finally arrived in Hoi An (the place to get anything tailor made; shoes, suits, clothes, jewellery) and again found our hotel and avoided cyclos and taxi's. We stayed at such a nice hotel and the family were so friendly, the guy told us our room wasn't ready yet but offered us a shower which we gratefully took. It had been a very hot trip on the bus! Hoi An is a beautiful old town, we went and explored a few tailors (there are hundreds) and they all have Trip Advisor reviews (some hand written and with really bad grammar, meaning they have be written by locals not real reviews). As well as a love for coffee we have become addicted to lemon juice with sugar, it's so refreshing! After a few fittings we had some local Pho street food which didn't agree so well with Jeff. We wondered around the beautiful magical streets of the old part of town, the river had lanterns with candles scattered all over it and the night market had lit up lanterns across many stalls. We tried some local delicacies; white rose and country pancakes. Jeff collected his tailor made suit and we headed off to Hue the next day.
We travelled on another sleeper bus but were only on the bus for 3 hours and it was day time so that made a change. When we got to Hue we avoided taxis again and made our own way to hotel. We walked to the train station and bought tickets for our Hanoi trip. In Hue we saw the Citadel which is the former Imperial City. It was heavily bombed by the US and is currently being reconstructed. There are ruins of deserted gardens, palaces and ceremonial halls. We paid the local market a visit and they sold everything. Jeff has noticed that a lot of local people brush past him to touch his tattoo; he has also had a few people stop him on the street and ask for their photo to be taken with him.
We wrote most of this we are on the train to Hanoi. We were in a soft sleeper berth which we were sharing with two Vietnamese ladies who's phones wouldn't stopped ringing and their ringtone sounded like Super Mario. The guard came in and closed the curtains and then music blared out from the speakers. They got off at a stop and a French couple joined us.
We were in carriage 10 and San explored the train to find some food and mimed to a guard where we could get food. He gestured to follow him and 10 other guards, once in carriage 1, San ordered some Pho (noodles) and they all laughed and said "No, No just Cam (rice)". San arrived back with very dry chicken and rice.
After a broken night's sleep for Jeff and quite a good night sleep for San, 12 hours later we arrived in Hanoi at about 4am. We dodged all the cyclos and taxis again and found our way to one of the local parks close to our hotel. It was lovely to walk through the streets of the capital at 4am; there was no traffic or people trying to sell you things. We relaxed in the park for a couple of hours and watched the locals exercise and do Tai Chi. It's nice and cool in the morning before the sun rises and the place was full of people. We walked towards our hotel and found a breakfast place which was open and coincidently next door to our hotel. We visited the Turtle Temple, turtles are present in all temples in Vietnam and are a symbol of good luck and later saw a Water Puppet show. The Water Puppet show originated as a source of entertainment for farming families in the rice fields. It was very impressive. When we arrived back at our hotel, Jeff had to fight off a huge tarantula, San ran downstairs until Jeff had subdued the mutant creature. The room was a tip but at least it didn't hurt Jeff.
Halong Bay was our next stop, we were picked up at our hotel and had a 3 hour drive to Halong Bay. We booked an overnight cruise, we checked into our cabin and had an incredible lunch. The food kept coming and was presented beautifully. We set off and stopped at a few places as we entered one of the 7natural wonders of the world. Surprising cave was our first stop and it was certainly surprising, it was huge with really high ceilings and some incredible formations. We stopped at a beach next for a beer and a swim which was so refreshing. Up until 2 years ago the cruises allowed you to jump off boats and swim around the bays but they have discontinued this due to some tourists dying over the last few years. As we were getting back onto our smaller boat (the main boat was too big to come into the bays) San saw some monkeys running down onto the beach, Jeff stopped one tight rope walking onto a boat. Once back at our boat and moored for the night, we kayaked around the bay and the beautiful limestone karsts, we kayaked through a cave and found a quiet secluded area were lots of baby monkeys were playing, it was fun to watch them swinging from branch to branch. We saw some local fishermen that live on floating villages in the bay and some small floating villages. Once we were back at the boat we had a cold beer and cocktails while watching the sun set. We then learned how to make spring rolls out of rice paper. The trick is to roll it tightly! Dinner was then served and we had a delicious array of different food; shrimp, pork, all marinaded in incredible sauces, spring rolls and tofu with lots of rice. We had a complimentary glass of French wine with fresh fruit afterwards. After dinner we had a go at fishing from the back of the boat, in 3 minutes of fishing Jeff caught a squid which was squeezing out lots of ink. We released it back into the water and spent the next few hours fishing with our bamboo sticks. San had a couple of squid latch onto her hook but didn't catch any. The Vietnamese fish at night with huge lights shining out onto the water, this attracts lots of fish.
We woke up to an incredible view, surrounded by limestone karsts and local fishermen going about their daily lives. We had an early start and enjoyed egg, bread, Vietnamese coffee and lots of fruit for breakfast. We continued our journey back to the town of Halong Bay stopping at a floating Pearl Farm, they take the tissue from a scallop and put it into the nucleus of an oyster, which causes some kind of reaction and creates a better sized pearl although they only have a 30% success rate. Some of the pearls were huge and so expensive on Vietnamese standards. The most expensive one we found was 242,000,000 Vietnamese dong (£6822). We sailed past some beautiful rocks and once back on land we had another tasty lunch.
Once back in Hanoi we explored the city of street food! You can buy street food all over here and get a beer for about 18p. We ordered some random things from a menu in one place and expecting a meat ball we bit into a deep fried cake with egg in the middle! Some places had interesting things on the menu such as chicken feet, dog, pork wombs and pork ears!
We spent our last full day in Hanoi traipsing through monsoon rain with no jackets; we found a historic site where the wreck of a B52 bomber plane lies, in the middle of a pond down a small side street. We had read that the Vietnamese have left this exactly how it landed as it reminds them how courageous they were during the war. We also visited Hoa Lo Prison which was built by French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners. It was ironically known as the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American prisoners of war, they were fed well, looked after well and allowed to exercise and play games. It is really difficult to get a good idea of what has happened in Vietnams past because all of the museums are so one sided making some of the exhibits a bit tiring to look around. After about a 9km walk we sought out some cheap street food and cheap beers.
Vietnam has been a constant sound of beeping horns (sometimes very musical), friendly people, beautiful landscapes of paddy fields, sometimes stomach churning smells as you walk through cities, sometimes delicious smells, plenty of cheap tasty street food, night markets with lanterns, tailor shops around most corners, cyclo's and motorbikes offering you a rides, rats running across the streets in the city, cockroaches creeping around at night. Overall it has been an eye opener and we are keen to come back one day! Next stop is Laos…..