Vietnam - Part 2

Trip Start Mar 10, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, April 23, 2012

After our bumpy sleeper bus ride from Nha Trang we were woken up early as we had arrived in Hoi An. We were pleasantly surprised at how pretty and quiet Hoi An is. Despite the quietness, there are thousands of tailor shops asking you "Buy something?" when walking by, luckily we were planning on buying some clothes anyway. However, we ended up getting a lot made and fixed for us than we expected (Bryce – a Winter coat and 2 work shirts made and a t-shirt fixed, Terri – 2 work dresses and a pair of shorts made, a pair of shorts and t-shirt fixed = $230 NZ in total for all!) so our bags are just managing to zip up.  All of this took a day to make so we relaxed by swimming in our hotel's pool and wandering through the gorgeous city of Hoi An whilst we waited.  The food in Vietnam has been most excellent but one item we did come across here deserves special mention, it was a dish called “White Rose” which was just incredible (like a dumpling but looks like a rose with whatever meat you wish inside, served with chilli and ginger sauce) – yum!

Hoi An is located close to My Son (pronounced “Mi Sun”), here there are some ancient ruins from the former Cham empire. Despite being heavily bombed in the war, some of the temples are in reasonable condition. We completed the tour to My Son with a boat ride back down the river to Hoi An, where we met a nice English couple who might be living just down the road from us in London! As expected, drinks and a meal were on the cards, where we found some “fresh beer”, which is basically a keg from the local brewery rather than bottled beer – tasted great especially at 30c a pint! Hoi An has a fantastic night scene, the old town is covered in lanterns of various colours and motorbikes are banned. It’s also possible to buy different coloured cardboard lanterns to float down the river, it all adds up to a pretty magical place.

We were told that Marble Mountains in Danang is a must see, Danang not as much as it's mainly a resort town and being backpackers that is just not our style plus we’re pretty sure our wallets wouldn’t enjoy it very much. We hired a taxi to take us to the Marble Mountains on our way to the train station in Danang for our ride to Hue. Marble Mountains involves climbing a lot of stairs but well worth it as there were many caves to explore, incredible marble stones on the climb up and of course a 360 view of Danang - it was most enjoyable! The four hour train ride to Hue included the Hai Van Pass which had incredible views, winding around the coast line on one side seeing the beautiful mountains and ocean and on the other side the greenery of mother nature. A memorable trip and cheap too!

The ancient capital of Hue is set out on the perfume river, one side houses the old Citadel and on the other side, the new town. Hue was at the centre of many large battles between the North and the South and much of the old Citadel has been destroyed. The huge Citadel (built in 1804) contains another Citadel called the Imperial Enclosure, where the Emperor’s lived. We managed to strike one of the hottest days on the trip while exploring this vast (mostly flattened) place, so once we were finished we took a rickshaw (pedal powered tuk tuk) back to the hotel, supposedly 39 degrees according to the rider, but that might’ve been a ploy for a higher tip – either way it was HOT!

The river in Hue is major feature and quite picturesque, a boat trip was in order to escape the second day of sweltering heat. The main attraction of the tour were the ancient tombs of the Emperor’s. Each one was absolutely huge covering massive amounts of land, but you got the feeling they might’ve had a big ego, we heard one of the Emperors slept with 5 women a day! We tried some fresh sugar cane juice in an effort to cool down thanks to a nice London guy we met, very tasty but it wasn’t served in a plastic bag – Terri’s mission remains!

We cheated a bit on getting to Hanoi, could of taken us 12 hours by bus if we had chosen to do that but we thought an hour flight was a nicer option instead. The flight itself was a bumpy ride, thunderstorms were happening right outside our window – Terri wasn’t enjoying it very much! Arriving late at night, our hotel put us in the downstairs bedroom which smelt a little damp, was quite noisy in the morning with it being so close to the reception and had quite a few sand flies in it. However, they did redeemed themselves by offering us another room which was fantastic without us even mentioning it and helped us book our trip to Sapa – we were thoroughly impressed with the customer service they provided and know as they are new they’ll be very highly ranked online in the next few years! Hanoi was more chaotic than anywhere else we’d ever been, motorbikes and people to be found everywhere and 90% of the time we were walking on the road as the footpaths were taking up by markets or kids playing badminton in the streets – crazy!

We were told to visit a place called Fanny, an ice-cream parlour, as they served such dishes as sushi ice-cream – such creativity! Terri enjoyed a spring roll dish which was berry sorbet in cookies and cream ice-cream wrapped in crepes and served with white chocolate, whipped cream, strawberries and chocolate sauce whilst Bryce enjoyed a blue lagoon which was a blue curcao, mint ice-cream and whipped cream – YUM! The beers in Hanoi were also a treat, we tried a local beer called Halida which was the best beer we had in Vietnam and of course Hanoi beer which was nice but still nothing on Halida. We visited the lake in the Old Quarter which was very pretty and is rumoured to have tortoises still living in it after many years of having taken a sword from an Emperor after battle, sadly we didn’t get to see any. We also visited The Women’s Museum which was very fascinating as we read many stories of brave women over the years and what they did for their country in battle.

After a fairly painless nine hour sleeper train we arrived in the mountain town of Sapa, close to the border with China. It was about 7am and the town was shrouded in mist, with the odd glimpse of gigantic valleys here and there. We chose to do a 3 day trek with two nights in village homestays, our Guide’s name was Ze and she was from one of the many native villages around Sapa. The mist on the first day was only broken by the occasional rain storm – at least it cooled us down a bit. The trek followed a valley downstream, switching from the steep banks on either side, very stunning with the landscape covered in rice paddies. You are joined by plenty of villagers getting to know you and eventually trying to sell you something but they’re all dressed in very colourful clothes, with each village being different. The first day was rather busy with many day trippers on the same path, it was a relief to reach our homestay with seven of us there. Much to our surprise, all the villages are wired with power, so cold beer is available, we were even served fried chips as an appetiser both nights!!!

The second day was the longest, we covered a large distance but as the mist had cleared to a stunning sunny day (yet another one in SE Asia!) the valley revealed its scenic views. After lunch we were down to three tourists and proceeded to a further away village for the night. This homestay was even nicer and the family running it sat to dinner with us, it was completed with complementary rice wine! The third day was pretty relaxed, only a short walk in the morning and then a swim in the local watering hole to cool down – a lovely way to spend our 4 year anniversary!

That night we were heading for Hanoi on the sleeper train and the end of our time in Vietnam as we had a flight to Vientiane in Laos booked for the next morning. However, Vietnam had a bit more of an adventure in store for us. We had a few hours spare between the train arriving and having to be at the airport, our hotel in Hanoi had even been kind enough to offer us breakfast and a shower, this wasn’t going to happen though. Firstly the train was late, but in Vietnam they don’t tell you what’s going on so you have no idea. After an hour we finally left the station – great, not a problem, still plenty of time. However, after about 30 minutes we ground to a halt, 10 minutes later we were off again – no idea what’s going on. This happened quite a lot before we managed to get to sleep. Waking up the next morning, we had been sitting at a random station for about half an hour - clueless, it was about 7am and we were meant to be at the airport at 8. Turns out it is only one station from the main Hanoi station which the train wouldn’t get to for another 2 hours because it was so out of sync with the timetable and it was rush hour. We jumped off the train and into to a taxi who immediately (as expected) tried to rip us off, we finally agreed to a little over the “normal” price and we were off – thinking we were all set. Five minutes down the road, we pull over for apparent no reason, the driver jumps out and strolls into a shop, he comes back wheeling a car jack… off comes the front wheel! An American guy who we are sharing the taxi with (who’s plane leaves a lot sooner than ours) is now getting rather animated, he somehow manages to flag down a car who happens to also be going to the airport and is happy to give us a lift for free. It’s not over yet though, the Taxi Driver sees what’s going on and decides he still wants the fare and locks the boot (with our bags still inside). Whilst the American guy “distracts” the driver we manage to pull down the back seat and free our bags. A little bit of traffic and we were finally there, made the plane without too much hassle in the end but we aren’t too sure if the American guy did.

Vietnam certainly lived up to and exceeded our expectations; the people, food and scenery are just outstanding. It is incredible to look at how far the country has come in the short time since the War.  We’ll be more than happy to come back at some stage to attend to some unfinished business (Ha Long Bay) and visit some other wonderful places that Vietnam has to offer.

Bryce & Terri (Chiang Rai - 8 May 2012)

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