So we're in the homestretch now with just 6 days left of our trip. We've really had an amazing time and although there have been ups and downs and we think we spent too much time in Vietnam, we have great stories and memories and can't wait for our next adventure!
But back to Mai Chau. This wasn't on our original plan at all, in fact, we had hoped to go up to Sapa if we had time, but after reading about Mai Chau, we decided to head there after the junk for a couple of days. It's way up in the mountains and a 4 hour drive from Hanoi so easy enough to get to and back from. It's known for its minority villages made up of White Thai's and Vietnamese, local traditions such as weaving and embroidery, and its stunning landscape.
As soon as we arrived at our hotel, which was the only one in the area, we headed out with a guide for a walk around the villages which was fascinating. We did a 5km loop, visiting about 5 different villages and the guide even took us into people's houses. All around were hundreds of rice paddies with various locals in their conical hats tending to their plots, tons of local made scarves, bags and tablecloths hanging outside houses for you to buy (which I did, in abundance!) and people just going about their day which I love to see. We visited one house where the husband was stirring a vast pot of rice over burning wood which would eventually be turned into rice wine, another where there were 9 tiny piglets running around, one where they were training c*** for fighting and another where a lady was weaving a tablecloth that she was planning on finishing that night, but had taken her 9 days so far. They were all so polite and happy for us to walk around and look and our guide told us all about village life and history.
Along the way back we heard screaming and shouting and as we turned a corner we saw a huge field where 2 local teams were playing football with quite a few villagers on the sidelines cheering and shouting. Kav was ecstatic and we stopped to watch for a few moments and get the lo-down on who was playing and what the score was, but I practically had to pull Kav and the guide away so that we could finish our tour!
Unfortunately, there were no places to eat outside of the hotel so every meal we had in the restaurant. It was all typical Vietnamese food, as a set menu which was great but very boring when you have it 4 times in a row. The food in Vietnam is really quite good and actually quite different to both Thai and Cambodian food. For one, it's a lot less spicy, and in fact, I think in 4 weeks I've haven't not been able to eat anything because it's been too spicy which can be a problem for me in Thailand. Of course the staples are the same, rice, noodles and vegetables, but what comes with it can be a lot different. Things aren't as saucy like the curries and amoks you find in Thailand and Cambodia, but tend to be fried, dry or BBQ'd. We've both really enjoyed the food, but have to admit that after 6 weeks, recently we've turned to a lot more western food and have indulged at least once every couple of days in a sandwich, burger, pizza or pasta.
A quick tip for when in Vietnam and eating. Never say "yum". Apparently, and I only learnt this the other day from an Australian couple we met, it means, "I'd like to take you home and take you to bed" (but ruder). It's amazing that 1 small word can mean all that and I fear I've been saying far too much without a care in the world and presumably offending many waiters or waitresses!
Our second day in Mai Chau was a Sunday and we had booked to go to the Sunday market up even higher in the mountains. We left at 9am and the drive up was not nice at all. The weather was really bad, raining and cold, and there was a thick cloud of fog from the moment we left all the way up the winding road to the market. Easy enough to handle if you drive carefully and slowly, but in Vietnam they don't understand those words when it comes to driving. Our driver was overtaking, speeding and generally driving like a freaking pillock and I wasn't happy at all. I was furiously sucking on my thumb, with my eyes closed and singing to myself to help take my mind off it but thankfully we arrived safely at the top 20 minutes later.
The market was definitely for the locals and was selling all kinds of cut up animal meat, fresh fish still alive in huge metal pots and other household items. It was chucking it down with rain, incredibly cold and extremely miserable. And to make matters worse, someone was selling tiny piglets and so all I could hear was the squealing of piglets being picked up by their legs, chucked around and shoved into tiny wicker hold alls for people to take them home in. I must admit, there were tears and I had to walk away for fear of screaming and shouting at the sellers and making an utter fool of myself. But like everything else I've seen on this trip to do with animals and the way they are treated, I have to block it out because that's just how it is over here.
Thankfully the next day we headed down from the mountains and away from the freezing cold to a very odd place indeed - Ninh Binh. It was honestly the smallest and quietest town I've been to in a while and wasn't what we expected at all. The reason for going is to visit Tam Coc, a beautiful, mountainous fjord type attraction.It's not on the top 'things to see in Vietnam' list but is a usual stop for long stay tourists so we thought we'd check it out. Our hotel was awful and backed onto a railway so we got little sleep and due to a lack of restaurants, we ended up eating all our meals at the hotel which although could have been worse, wasn't a fun experience.
We booked a car to take us to all the sights the next day and first stop was Tam Coc. Even though we were led to believe that this is high season, honestly, no where we've been to has been inundated with tourists (apart from Hoi An) and so everywhere we've been has been pleasantly quiet. Tam Coc was no exception and when we turned up to get our tickets, we were the only people there and in the little metal boat within a minute. Our rower was 80 years old, although didn't look a day over 60, and our secondary rower, who was sat next to me, was a 40 year old lady who's first question to us was "are you married", quickly followed by "how old are you?". The ride up the river to the end was about 25 minutes and although stunningly beautiful, was very cold and windy and then another 25 minutes coming back down the river. It's a lot like New Zealand's Milford Sound, but smaller, and all around you are huge rocky mountains which in the advertising photos are covered in lush green trees but were leafless for our visit due to the current weather. We saw some mountain goats and locals fishing in the river and rowed through three natural caves in the rocks to be able to continue our journey. I'd read in the Lonely Planet book that Tam Coc can be a huge tourist trap and that on your way back down the river, you are bombarded by locals boats all selling souvenirs and drinks and that they can be very persistent and rude, sometimes encouraging the rowers not to take you back until you've bought something, but, and probably due to the weather and season we were left alone. That is until our lovely lady rower next to me suddenly pulled out embroidered bags, tablecloths, napkins, t-shirts and other bits and pieces, shoving them under my nose trying to get me to buy something. I'm terrible at saying no and haggling as Kav well knows, so he left me to it to try and dissuade her, but after a relentless 10 minute sell, I was forced to buy a little embroidered bag which I managed to get for $2. Kav was actually very proud of me, and is encouraging me to do the haggling on some things we've bought recently. I'm actually getting quite good and Kav has now threatened to make me haggle on our new bathroom!
But the cheeky cow didn't stop there either. As we were pulling up to the dock to get off the boat she started rubbing her fingers together saying "tip, tip" to us, and again when we were out of the boat, so Kav tipped the guy rower and we strode off in amazement at her boldness.
I must say, this wasn't the first time we've encountered such abruptness and rudeness in Vietnam and we've actually been incredibly surprised at the difference in attitude between the Vietnamese in comparison to the Thai's and Cambodians. Don't get me wrong, some have been very sweet, welcoming and helpful, but there seems to be an air of arrogance and attitude among the general population and we haven't taken to them or the country as much as we have Thailand and Cambodia. I would even go as far to say that I probably wouldn't come back to Vietnam, now that I have done nearly everything there is to do and see here. It's been wonderful, but not as full of happy memories as we had hoped.
After Tam Coc we drove to Mua Cave which is a 500 step walk up a mountain to a shrine at the top. It was a hard walk, with many stops, but an incredible view once you reached the top. It had views for miles around Ninh Binh, although with the 'Vietnam haze', you couldn't see that far, and a view of the boats on the river at Tam Coc. We were exhausted when we got to the top and it was a tough walk back down but totally worth it for the views.
Next stop was Hue and, making it our 5th flight, after driving back to Hanoi, we flew. In 7 weeks, we will have done 8 flights!! Not my first choice and I've had many tears on takeoff and panics at airports but it's been worth it just for the time we've saved and horrific long coach journeys we've avoided.
We landed in a rainstorm and the rain didn't stop for the whole 2 days we were there. Our hotel was fantastic and right on the river with a great view of the city. Our first night we had dinner and drinks up on the 18th floor to take in the view some more and the next day headed out to the Citadel to see all the old royal buildings. After only half an hour we were done and so cold and wet from the rain that we decided to take refuge in a KFC for lunch and then head back to the hotel to watch a movie and relax. That night we had a great dinner in the hotel's Japanese restaurant and after quite a few beers decided to head to the hotel's casino! Well when I say Casino, I mean a room with 10 fruit machines and 3 computerised machines where you could play roulette, blackjack and baccarat. We were probably in there for an hour and after initially changing $10 into chips, Kav walked out with nothing and I walked out with my original $10 after some unsuccessful roulette and then successful blackjack. Not enough for us to go to Australia instead of coming home, but we had a good laugh.
The next day we were picked up and driven to Hoi An, which has been a huge highlight for us in Vietnam. It's a smallish town built by a river and has so much charm to it that it's not hard to fall in love with it. It's architecture is beautiful, everywhere you look there are lanterns adorned on walls and windows, the market is charming and great for tourists and even the people seem to be happier and friendlier. We spent our first afternoon just walking around all the little streets and shops and eventually stopped for a few beers on the river bank before heading somewhere for dinner. Although it's a stunning little town, there's nothing to actually see apart from the shops and restaurants so the next day we had booked to go on a half day cooking course and strolled into town to meet everyone at 11am. We were then taken to the market where our host told us the names of fruits we didn't recognize, how you know when fish and meat is fresh to buy and showed us typical Vietnamese cooking utensils. Then we boarded a little boat which took up river to the cooking school. There were 11 in our group and we were sat in a line watching the chef cook various dishes such as fresh spring rolls (which we'd done on the junk boat!), Hue spring rolls, aubergine in a clay pot and food decorations, which we then had to recreate. It was great fun and all the dishes were yummy, and after all the cooking we sat down to a huge lunch where we ate all our dishes and then headed back to town, just as it started raining again.
The next morning we were up at 4.30am and being picked up at 5am to go see My Son (pronounced Me Son) which is a similar but much smaller version of Angkor. Our minibus picked us up first and then a young Australian couple and the 4 of us headed to My Son where we were met by a guide and 2 amazingly gorgeous puppies to go walk around 2 of the 5 areas of My Son. These are religious ruins from hundreds of years ago and because they were built so well are still standing strong, apart from damage due to war bombings and general wear and tear. The other plus is that unlike Angkor, they haven't been touched by people trying to restore them or rebuild them and are covered in natural plant life so have an eerie but magical atmosphere to them. We were also the only people on the entire property so it felt even more special and peaceful.
As soon as we got back to the hotel we were packing and jumping in a taxi to go to Danang airport to head back to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) for a couple of days before flying to Bangkok ready to come home. Saigon has been a nicer visit this time. For one, we stayed in a far nicer hotel compared to the last time we were here and we were next to the Ben Thanh market where I did some serious spending! We didn't venture out much past the market and getting dinners etc because we kind of saw everything we wanted to last time and decided instead to put in some hours by the pool to get some colour before we come home otherwise no one will believe we've actually been away!
So here we are, back in Ho Chi Minh and I'm sat on our bed in a dingy hotel by the airport in preparation for our morning flight tomorrow back to Bangkok where we've got our 5 days all planned out. I shall do my final blog from there the day we leave and look forward to seeing you all and sharing even more stories when we return!
Can't wait to see you all,
Lots of love xxx