We never could have dreamed up the things we saw packed on scooters as high as the sled from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. We watched men and women with stacks of coat racks, refrigerator sized boxes, enough flowers for a wedding, and the contents of an entire dollar store weave in and out of traffic on their daily commute!
The streets are also squeezed even tighter by the simple fact that there is nowhere for all these scooters to park so they have taken over the half of the sidewalk that is left after the shops have expanded their retail space outside. Also, sandwiched in between the scooters and shop souvenirs are the mobile charcoal kitchens of the women cooking noodle soups and kebabs, along with the local customers sitting on kindergarten sized plastic chairs. If all the sights and sounds weren't enough, we set out to visit five places and follow the entire coastline up from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. We enjoyed some places much more than others and the behavior of some of the taxi drivers, hotel staff and restaurant servers definitely tested our patience.
We traveled by night buses, which were not made for Western sized people! The discomfort of the seats was only compounded by the fact that the roads are not maintained and the drivers like to stop several times in the night for smoke breaks, and snacks. By our third bus we finally figured out the top back seats were the longest, and they didn’t have side rails so we could at least watch a movie on our computer to help pass the 15 hour journey!
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
We spent three days exploring the local market, museums, and took a day trip to see the Cu Chi tunnels. On our last day there, we took a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels that are 60km away.
The Viet Cong used the tunnels to control the area during the war against the French and were later expanded during the US/Vietnam war. The tunnels are tiny by any standards (but especially to Westerners!) and were infested with poisonous spiders, snakes, millipedes and malaria carrying mosquitoes! We walked around the secret tunnel entrances, saw the trap doors and weapons the VC used and even tested out walking through a portion of the tunnel.
Ryan made it through the full 150m, but I was too scared to venture in too far
We arrived in Nha Trang after a nine hour night bus. We managed to check into our hotel at 6:30am fresh off the bus, so were able to take a much needed nap and make ourselves more presentable before we hit the streets. On our favorite day there, we rode the cable car to Vin Pearl Island to cool down at the water park.
We had a blast on the slides until I got whiplash at the bottom of devastating double raft slide that didn't curve at the end but rather hit the bottom at a sharp angle!
Our favorite place in Vietnam! We loved almost everything about it. It’s a beautiful town with tiny little streets that are for "Primitive Vehicles Only!" The shops and houses in the old town are very reminiscent of old towns in France or Italy. Colorful plastered walls and old wooden shutters line the narrow lanes. It’s perfect for just wandering around, and had a totally different feel from the hustle and bustle of SE Asia we had experienced so far. The streets are brimming with tailor shops (Ryan had a suit made for our best friends wedding!) and local artisans making everything from silk lanterns to abstract and embroidered paintings. The bridges across the river are lined with the lanterns in every imaginable color and size and their lights stream across the river as sampans effortlessly glide past.
The town is also a food destination to be reckoned with. Many dishes served in local restaurants are specific to the area and have been closely guarded family secrets for generations. One of our favorite meals was at Ms Ly’s where we had the most incredible fresh spring rolls stuffed with pork, shrimp and numerous herbs bought from the famous Hoi An market.
We also indulged in their famous wontons that are topped with a fresh tomato relish. Delicious! The open kitchen was a sight to see with three generations of family members working together like a well-oiled machine peeling, chopping and frying up the orders in record time. Our hotel was just on the outskirts of town and provided a free shuttle and bicycles to explore on. For only $20 a night with a buffet breakfast it simply couldn’t have been beat and we were the most comfortable we had been since arriving in Vietnam! We also happened to be there during a full moon festival, although we didn’t know it until we had finished with dinner and noticed the entire town was lit with lanterns and floods of people were dancing around and eating local street fare! We strolled down to the river where hundreds of paper lotus lanterns floated by, and took a ride on a sampan.
This was very special for us because the restaurant in Wales that we got engaged in was also called Sampan named after these ancient Indochinese boats, and we have very fond memories of it!
We would have liked to have stayed in Hoi An for much longer but our time was quickly coming to an end and we had a few more stops to make.
We boarded the train to Hue, which was supposed to be one of the most scenic train routes in the world. At the station we were told the train would leave from platform 2 which turned out to not be a platform at all, but actually just the other side of the tracks that you get to by climbing through the train on platform 1 with all of your luggage! It was quite an experience. I was expecting the Hogwarts Express to come screaming by! The train was not as well kept as the buses, and the grime-covered windows spoiled most of the scenic views. Luckily it was only three hours long. We only had one day to wander around Hue’s Citadel and historic parts, but enjoyed seeing the ancient ruins.
By the time we arrived in Hanoi we were worn down by the heat, hungry from eating mostly noodle soup and ready to bid adieu to SE Asia. We stayed in the hectic, but historic Old Quarter and spent our time perusing the stalls at the night market and people watching at the lake. We found a great rooftop bar that had sweeping views of the city from 15 stories up, and a lovely tapas restaurant we wished we would have found much earlier.
Of course we couldn’t leave our last destination without any hiccups, and our taxi driver provided one last great story for us to share. Apparently he didn’t think to fill his car up before the journey to the airport, which is 30km out of town. About 1km from the departure terminal, we ran out of gas while on the highway!!! We pulled onto the hard shoulder of the road and our driver had to flag down another taxi to take us the rest of the way! Despite paying the full fare in advance to the original driver, upon arrival at the airport the guy who picked us up started asking for more money. After we made it very clear he wasn’t getting another fare he asked for a tip, and we told him to sort it out with the other driver. And with that we boarded a plane to start our journey to South Africa!
As we spent over two weeks in Vietnam we discovered a very different side of SE Asia than we had experienced before. First of all, after nearly two months of acclimatizing to the heat we thought we were getting used to it, but we were wrong! The temperatures and humidity were at best oppressive and we found ourselves spending more time enjoying the inside architecture of buildings in the comfort of some much needed air-conditioning. We also noticed several things that were unique to Vietnam like the crazy amount of traffic that constantly roared down streets that were not prepared for the burgeoning city populations. The traffic does not stop for anything so you have to band together with other people and slowly walk into oncoming traffic while scooters, cars and trucks weave around you.