You know, at some point every day I can't believe where I am. Right now I'm sat in a hotel room in Hanoi, in the North of Vietnam having had the most wonderful 2 days on board a junk cruise boat out in Halong Bay and tomorrow we're heading into the mountains for the weekend, but before I tell you about all that, there's a whole lot more to cover starting in Saigon!
After another slightly uncomfortable flight from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) we headed out through customs and found a car to take us to our hotel. The first thing I noticed was that all of the signs were in Vietnamese with no English translation which slightly worried me. In Thailand and Cambodia, all signs are written in both local and English languages, but it is actually amazing how quickly you can adapt and rely on your senses and maps to get you around and not signs. The second thing I noticed was that everyone on mopeds had helmets on, which we are assuming is the law, because in Thailand and Cambodia, no one ever wears a helmet. Apparently Versace and Burberry are now making moped helmets (or do you think possibly they were fake?!!!!).The third thing I noticed, which has slowly driven me mad ever since, is the ever constant sound of car and moped horns. It really is getting beyond a joke and while in Hanoi a few days ago, I was very close to pushing people off their mopeds in a bid to air my anger and ease my frustration. There's no anger in the way they drive, even though you would assume there would be due to the amount of vehicles on their small roads, so they don't use their horns in that way, they use them as a way of communication. They are to communicate that they are coming so watch out, but instead of just once in a while perhaps when someone is in the way or in danger, they use it every 3 seconds, and can you image millions of cars and mopeds all using their horns every 3 seconds? It just gets ridiculous and when you are walking right next to them, they are deafening too. That is the main thing I will most definitely not miss about Vietnam.
While I'm on the subject of transport, I just wanted to give you a list of all the modes of transport Kav and I have used while being on this trip over the last 5 weeks! Even we've been amazed at the choice available over here and the experiences we've had, some good, some bad and some quite harrowing!
-Plane, train, tuk-tuk, private car, mini-bus, ferry, coach, taxi, junk boat, pick-up truck.
So, after arriving at our hotel and dumping our bags we headed out to central Ben Thanh market to do some 'window shopping' and for Kav to take another million photographs. After a few circuits round the hundreds of stalls, which sold all kinds of beautiful souvenirs, fake clothing and bags, bedding and food, we were so hungry we perched on a couple of tiny stools to have some fried noodles with beef and then headed back to the hotel. In the evening we strolled around the corner to a Spanish restaurant recommended in Lonely Planet and had a lovely tapas meal al fresco, while watching the city go by below us. The next day we walked to the War Remnants museum which diplomatically tells the story of the Vietnam War and although the museum itself isn't much to see, they had a fantastic exhibition of photographs (mostly black and white) taken by war photographers of the Vietnamese and American soldiers, but also of the local victims which were both distressing yet educational. We also took a walk down to the Independence Palace (otherwise known as the Reunification Palace or Presidential Palace) which both Ho Chi Minh and President Ngo Dinh Diem lived and worked. It's a horrendously ugly and boring building and from my point of view, a total waste of an hour. That night we headed to The Sheraton Hotel to have drinks, highly recommended due to their 23rd floor bar which has an amazing view of the city. We got there just in time for happy hour and sat for an hour or so with our cocktails taking in the twinkling view and getting excited about the rest of our trip through Vietnam.
After a broken night's sleep thanks to the consistent horn honking and thin glass hotel windows we were picked up at 10am by our driver who was driving us all the way to Dalat. In Vietnam, you can't rent a car unless you have a Vietnamese driving license, making it impossible for tourists to hire cars, therefore, you have to find other ways of getting around. Due to it being actually quite a large country, flying is the best way as most major cities (of which they have quite a few) have airports and they are spaced out wide enough to make each trip worthwhile. Plus, flying is actually incredibly cheap and so far, all of our internal flights have been business class because of it. You can also get around by bus, but we've found private cars to be not only quite cost effective but time saving and so much easier when you have to cart around 7 bags!
You might be thinking about how we've been dragging around 7 weeks' worth of clothing? Well, we haven't. We've been living in the same 3 or 4 outfits and getting laundry done each week at our hotel which has been much easier than the last time we went travelling. I had to do all our laundry last time, rushing between washers and driers at any opportunity I had at a caravan park or motel!
The drive to Dalat was long - 8 hours. We think it would have taken about 6 had we not had the slowest driver in the world, but it was quite a drive! One main attraction to renting private cars is that you get to see so much along the way. They don't have motorways here, so all roads go through village after village or through the countryside where houses on stilts are all dotted along the side of the road which is such a treat to see. Seeing all these hundreds of thousands of people just going about their day as usual, with kids riding their bikes to school, women wandering around markets and street sellers peddling their goods, you really get a great insight into their lives. On the flipside, being a passenger on the road can be a stressful time. You just have to put your faith in god and your driver and hope for the best. It's not that the roads are bad over here; it's again just the random and frivolous way that they all drive. There aren't really 2 lanes, there's just one which anyone can use at any time. And overtaking is the norm. In fact, over here is the opposite to at home. Cars are the slowest vehicle, which will be overtaken by pickup trucks and mini buses, who then get overtaken by buses, coaches and trucks. It's pure craziness. But strangely enough it works, and not once have I seen an accident or even thought that one has ever happened. My way of justifying it is that, in order to drive like this you have to be 100% focused on the road anyway, which kind of reduces the chances of an accident.
The weather in Saigon had been hot, but we were aware of the fact that the more north we go, it would get cooler. But nothing had prepared us for the weather that we've had over the last week or so. When we stepped out of the car in Dalat is was cold. Maybe it was because we'd been in 90° heat for the last few weeks but it felt a lot colder than it was. Instead of being in t-shirts, we had to add a jumper or jacket and even wearing flip-flops was a bit too much for our toes to deal with. Having said that, looking around at the locals, you would have thought we were in Siberia. They were all wearing long trousers, fur lined puffa jackets and woolly hats! Our hotel was gorgeous (with a toilet that actually cleaned your bits after a number 2!) but quite a walk from the centre of town, so finding somewhere for dinner was a challenge but we eventually stumbled across a western style café which served one of the best burgers we've ever had. They burn their tiny, thin patties to a crisp, shove some lettuce, cheese and tomato on it and serve it in a sweetish bun, but it really was fantastic. I actually ended up having one for 3 nights in a row at difference places and as soon as I get home I'm going to try to replicate the divine 'Dalat burger' as I now call them.
Dalat is supposed to be known for being a beautiful city set in the mountains, known for its colonial style architecture and local grown strawberries and flowers and is actually the number 10 highlight in the Vietnam Lonely Planet book; however, Kav and I were most disappointed by it. Even though the day trips we did were great fun and we saw some beautiful things, the city itself is not somewhere I would return to nor recommend to anyone else. Luckily we did venture out with a guide a couple of times which made our visit far more appealing and memorable. First stop was Datanla Falls, a small and not visually spectacular waterfall, but what made it special was the toboggan ride you do to get down to see it. You pay roughly 10p to get into the Falls area and another £1 to do the toboggan and it's basically a metal track that meanders down the 200 metres to the waterfall with plastic toboggans ,with brake handles on either side that you operate yourself, that run on top of the track. The ride takes about 3 minutes, but it is such great fun and a truly unique way to get to a waterfall. After seeing the not so amazing waterfall and duly taking your momento photographs, you hop back into your toboggan and get hoisted back up to the top. You can of course choose to use the 400 steps up and down, but I never say no to a rollercoaster!!
After Datanla Falls we were driven to a Truc Lam Pagoda where there is a lookout point over Tuyen Lam Lake which we strolled around, before heading to see the Pagoda which was stunning. A pagoda is basically a temple which is still used for prayer and meditation (temples are used to commemorate gods and aren't usually used in prayer anymore). The Truc Lam pagoda is used by the neighboring monastery and nunnery and there is also a meditation centre where locals and tourists can go for the day for spiritual reflection.
Next stop was the Hang Nga Crazy House, number 12 on the Vietnam Lonely Planet highlight list, which again, Kav and I don't agree with (this is a common theme for us in Vietnam!). It has been a work-in-progress since 1990, was designed by its owner Mrs Dang Viet Nga and is quite simply the craziest house you will ever see. It would be incredibly difficult for me to explain, except to say that it wouldn't be out of place in Alice's Wonderland, so I would suggest Googling it and having a look yourself or waiting to see our photos and videos.
The next day was superb. Our guide took us on a drive around some local villages outside of the city centre to show us everyday life within the minority communities. We stopped off first to have a walk through people's plantations where they were growing beautiful flowers (gerberas, roses and lilies are the most common), fruits and vegetables and to take a look at their very basic houses and living conditions. Of course to us it seems primitive, but to them it's their home and their livelihood and you have to admire their ,what seems to us to be, constant cheeriness and attitude. He then took us to a local family who made brooms and sold them at the market. This really was incredible and my first experience being that close to a real Vietnamese family and home. Our guide led us through to the side of their home, which was 2 rooms with 1 bed for 4 people, a cooking area with a kitchen table and small living area, and there was 1 woman and 2 men all working at different parts of the broom using dried local plant leaves and wire to bind them. It was fascinating for us because all over Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam we've seen people use this same broom, and here we were actually watching them being made. Even more staggering was that these 3 people made up to 100 a day which were then taken to the market and sold to street sellers. The brooms only last 1 year so they have a constant income and work load. Also in this side area was one of the cutest little girls I have ever seen, and all over Vietnam we are seeing the most adorable children who I just want to bundle up and bring home with me. Kav has some amazing photos of kids who all love posing and having their photo taken and giggle when you show them afterwards! It's a real treat to watch how they interact with Kav and his camera for that split second.
After seeing how the brooms were made, we drove over to Elephant Falls, the most popular waterfall in the area. Luckily we were practically the only ones there and made our way down to the bottom on a very difficult and dangerous rocky 'path' climbing over huge rocks and streams to get there, but it was totally worth it. The view is spectacular and even though you get slightly wet from the watery mist that hits you, the rainbow is beautiful and the walk back up is just as exciting. I think I enjoyed it even more due to my extremeness. Not only was I wearing flip-flops which has no grip on the slippery rocks, I was also videoing the whole walk which takes around 10 minutes each way so I only had 1 hand to help me across. Just wanted to get that in there!
Feeling wet and sticky from the walk, we were taken to visit a few minority women who were making and selling scarves, bags and other woven items and who kindly gave us some jasmine tea to cool us down. Of course we felt obliged to buy something, especially after the constant stream of compliments about my eyes, my skin and how lucky Kav was to have me, so we bought a very expensive silk scarf and scurried back to the car before we were guilted into buying something else.
Our last stop was a silk factory which was fascinating.Do any of you know how silk is made, because I absolutely had no idea and had never even thought about it. I think I probably assumed it was a very soft and thin version of cotton which came from the same place. Silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm which is reared in captivity. The cocoon, wrapped in a fluffy type material, is boiled in hot water which makes that material come off and is pulled out of the water by a machine which threads it onto reels and is then treated before being used as silk. The worm inside the cocoon is apparently a delicacy and is sold on. And silk that comes from a cocoon with 2 larvae inside is considered to be off poorer quality and so used for other materials. We stood for ages watching all the different parts of the process and were fascinated at the speed and accuracy at which the professionals worked. Most definitely a highlight of the day for me, education wise.
An exhausting day but for both of us, a highlight of our trip so far. It's very nice being on a beach or walking round a city, but nothing is more rewarding or touching than being up close with the locals or learning about their lives.
Will stop here for today, I've taken up enough of your time (and mine).
Love to all x