Ventures in Vietnam
Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
9Trip End Aug 23, 2010
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Wednesday, 14th July
Began our day by sleeping late and missing the hotel breakfast. Ah well, we wandered up the road and found a fabulous place called Sozo where we had our caffeine fix to start the day, and some croissants to boot. The café is actually a charity set up which trains street children how to become bakers, and set up businesses etc.
Feeling decidedly peckish, we headed back to a café near the Reunification Hall. Despite it being only three o’clock in the afternoon, it was absolutely hopping. Valet parking for mopeds, young people in stylish clothes, and businessmen knocking back the cocktails. We had spring rolls.
Wandered back through the town and stopped at the travel agent suggested by our guide book on our street. Booked tours for the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Went to the “Black Cat” restaurant for dinner – owned by a US vet and is a fusion of US and Vietnamese cuisine. Also home to the world’s biggest burger apparently – tempting, but we passed. That evening, we went to the Rex Hotel (famous for being the site of many a US news report during the war) and had a few bevvies on the rooftop looking at the madness on the road below us. A pretty cool way to finish a fun and insightful day in a pretty buzzing city.
Thursday, 15th July
Up early to go on our Mekong Delta trip. This was a massive highlight. So basically getting a tour in Vietnam consists of standing at the travel agent’s door with a big group, a series of busses pulling up, mass panic as the destination of the busses are not announced (close call for a few people who nearly ended up going to Cambodia when they wanted a city tour), and then driving around the city picking up other groups before hitting the road. Great range of people on the tours – couples, backpackers, families, the bus driver’s kids. We were reminded of that great line from “Back to the Future 2” - “Where we’re going, there are no roads”. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but let’s just say the quality of road wasn’t mighty. On the way to the Delta, we stopped off at a craft shop that employs people affected by Agent Orange. The quality of the work produced was really magnificent.
Once we arrived at the Delta itself, we boarded a boat which took us to a Coconut Candy making factory.
Lunch was beautiful - a lovely traditional Vietnamese pork and rice dish with noodle soup. Mike decided to go the whole hog though and get the local specialty - elephant fish. Again, we got caught out with regard to how to eat it correctly (rice paper, dip and lettuce appeared later on to make a wrap), but it was really delicious.
Went to a recommended restaurant called “Asian Kitchen” that night. Fantastic food - Lizanne had the traditional beef noodle soup Pho, and Mike had chicken and cashew. We also discovered that giant beers are about $1. Nice.
Friday, 16th July
Off to Cu Chi on Friday morning - a few dirt roads, mad traffic and a craft shop later, we arrived at the tunnels. It’s basically a national park there, and our guide was nothing short of superb. The tour began with a cool propaganda video about the tunnels from 1968, and from there we began to explore the “ins and outs” (bad pun) of the tunnels themselves.
Saturday, 17th July
Up at 5 am to get our flight to Hue in Central Vietnam. Got the bus into Hue Central, and found our hotel. Got upgraded to the suite which was fantastic! Then we headed out to the madness - and there was a bit of madness in Hue. We got our own stalker - a tour guide by the name of Lac who really wanted us to hire him as a guide for the day. He met us before, during and after breakfast. Finally he got the message! We did hire a boat for two hours though that took us down the Perfume River to visit a pagoda which was also a fully functioning Buddhist monk seminary.
Lizanne was feeling pretty tired, so decided to go for a nap for the afternoon (in the suite - did we mention we got an upgrade?!).
Sunday, 18th July
Best bus journey ever! Hue to Hoi An was epic. The bus collected us at 8:30, and then we drove around town for about 45 minutes more picking up other tourists. No problem there - part of the deal. Then the bus driver pulled in, disappeared, and arrived back thirty minutes later with about eight locals to fill up the empty seats. With a capacity crowd (including a jump seat passenger), we headed south. Beautiful drive through the countryside, amazing long tunnel through a mountain, and mesmerizing coastal views. The action on the road itself was far superior though. It’s not uncommon for a bus to overtake an articulated truck whilst climbing a curving mountainous road with oncoming traffic. These guys would have no problems on the Mass Pike!
Another great feature of bus travel here is that they drop you off at the driver’s cousin’s hotel and try to move you swiftly inside before you touch the ground. Once you pass this gauntlet, you must then negotiate the motorbike taxis, and finally the tailors. Hoi An is renowned for suit and dress making, and Mike and Lizanne were caught by Anna at lunch who promised to give us a good price if we wanted anything from her shop. Being courteous, we said we might drop in, and asked for the location. Anna assured us that Hoi An was small, and she’d spot us in the town. More on this later…
After lunch, we walked up to the hotel.
As soon as we got off the hotel shuttle in the town that eveing, our buddy Anna was waiting for us. Off to her shop to check out her stuff. They really put the hard sell on but we declined on getting clothes made - too much of a time commitment with alterations etc over the next few days. Dinner in Tam Tam Restaurant - fried wantons with shrimp were recommended to us by Donagh Hourihan Travel and they were divine!! Gorgeous meal, followed by a lovely stroll by the waterfront where traditional Vietnamese figures were illuminated on the river.
Monday, 19th July
An early start where we enjoyed the buffet breakfast in the hotel, and then cycled into Hoi An. We had mulled over how to get up north from Hoi An, and in true “flash packer” mode, we decided to fly. Went to a travel agent that morning who set it up for us. She very kindly advised us to pay cash to avoid a hefty transaction fee. ATMs in Vietnam are quite a recent phenom (apparently ten years ago there were only two in the whole country), and they didn’t seem to like our cards! In fairness to the travel agent, she took Lizanne up to the local bank to get cash over the counter.
A nice light lunch as we spent the rest of the day on the beach swimming and in the pool area of the hotel.
Tuesday, 20th July
An absolute scorcher of a day - decided that we would spend the morning by the pool working on the tans. It was like being a rotisserie chicken - lasted sunbathing for about 20 minutes. Frightening heat. Thank god for the pool to cool off in!
Very easy flight to Hanoi, and arrived in our hotel via bus just after dinnertime. Took a wanderino out and found a fun restaurant called “Alfresco” that served up Western food - it was time for a change! Mike enjoyed his ribs and Lizanne tucked into an old favorite - quesadillas. Us flash packers can’t be authentic all the time!
Wednesday, 21st July
We intended to do a three-day, two-night trip to Halong Bay south of Hanoi for a section of this trip, and we began the day in earnest trawling around various travel agencies trying to find the nicest and best options. Our book recommended a travel agent called “Sinh Café”, so after visiting three other places, we were happy to find one. Booked a deluxe tour for Thursday-Saturday, and left feeling pretty good about our choice. More on this one in a moment…
Headed up to the market area, and Mike was accosted by street sellers who wanted to adopt him.
Back in our hotel, we were greeted by a group of English backpackers who had bought their Halong Bay tour from the hotel staff. Most unhappy, they told us about cockroaches, ants and a lot of aimless bobbing around. They had booked a standard tour, as opposed to us with a deluxe, so we felt pretty affirmed in our decision. However, as we strolled up the road, we came across another Sinh Café tourist office with more irate tourists who had booked the deluxe tour. Then the hearts started to pound. Frantic googling later, we discovered that the “Sinh Café” was once a very successful tourist operator, but the name had since been hijacked by sub-standard cowboys. The hearts were now gone into a murmur. The office that we had booked with was closed, so we retired to the hotel worried about the days to come! Left with no option, we packed the bags and prayed!
Thursday, 22nd July
God works in mysterious ways - due to a typhoon approaching South East Asia, boats were not allowed in Halong Bay and the tour was cancelled. We feigned disappointment with the travel agent, and declined the offers to reschedule. After a spirited discussion on when VAT applies, we got all of our money back! What a sigh of relief! We then visited another recommended agent, and were delighted to find that we could book a specific boat, rather than a package, through this group. A couple of Trip Advisor reviews later, we settled on a two-day, one night visit to the bay from Saturday to Sunday, giving ample time for the typhoon to clear off.
So with the day free, we decided to do our own little Ho Chi Minh trail, and go up to his mausoleum and the famous “stilt house”.
A very fun evening then where we explored the French Quarter where lots of the embassies are located, and happened upon a newly-opened restaurant called “Annie’s Corner”. Filet mignon for $5 in a beautiful setting worked fine for us! It certainly beat the prospect of battling cockroaches in a typhoon. From there, we went for ice-cream, but we have yet to top the “Big Island Dazzler” of Hawaii fame! A quick nightcap in a tiny bar where three fantastic musicians were keeping the crowd in good spirits. Mike even joined in, and regaled everyone with a great version of “Maggie in the Woods” on the fiddle. I don’t think the Vietnamese have been too exposed to Irish traditional music as of yet, but Mike laid a solid foundation for them!
Friday, 23rd July
Having acquired a “bonus” day in Hanoi, we had a little bit of a lie-in, and began our day by visiting the Temple of Literature, which was home to the first university in Vietnam almost 800 years ago.
A real treat for the evening - being the best husband ever, Mike took Lizanne to the five-star Sofitel Metropole Hotel for dinner at the Spices Garden restaurant. A fantastic dining experience with really lovely staff and a great atmosphere. There was a huge international conference in Hanoi this week, so lots of foreign dignitaries mulling around. We dined next to the foreign minister for Cambodia. Not too shabby! Got a Vietnamese traditional tasting platter to start with - felt pretty good about ourselves that we had sampled most of the food on offer already!
Saturday, 24th July
It was lovely to wake up and look forward to our trip to Halong Bay! We were collected from the hotel by the bus, and enjoyed the journey south-east from Hanoi. Highlights of this three and a half journey included a traffic detour due to an accident on the highway through a series of villages (we got the sense that the traffic coming through was the most exciting thing to happen there in a number of years), and seeing how Vietnamese transport cattle. Nearly impossible to explain but basically: farmer on the front of the moped + cow on the remaining seat + ropes = day at the mart. Found a video online that sums it up well! http://www.vixbase.com/v/239258
Arrived in Halong Bay safe and sound anyway, and got a smaller boat out to our junk.
Sunday, 25th July
Woken early by our guide for brekkie, and then we set off on the seas again. Lovely and relaxing trip through the bay - the sights seemed to be a lot more vivid and close than they were the previous day, and Mike got some excellent photos despite the slightly dull conditions.
More photos available here:
Enjoy the below video as well!