Vietnam Adventure

It’s a long way from anywhere –  21st April 2012

We arrived in Hanoi at dawn on Saturday 21st April feeling shattered. The flight was not too bad and we arrived to a warm , wet , grey Hanoian morning.

Our hotel taxi driver was there to meet us and we soon lost our grogginess taking in all the sights , sounds and smells of Vietnam in the early morning. Mopeds zoomed around the car , most of the drivers seemed to be young women, wearing hoodies and matching face masks . Some motorbikes were carrying crazy loads – stacks of birds in cages , a man with two full-size ladders . We passed markets , roadside stalls and over several bridges before entering the city centre.

Everything carried by motorbike

Our hotel, Sans Souci IV is in a quiet street of mainly backpacker businesses . It is run by Yen , who is always cheerful and friendly and looks impossibly young for her job. We have a spacious room and it is surprisingly quiet at night . The top end of the street has several food hawker stands which seem to be busy day and night.

Street hawker near our hotel

We had a snooze and then went off to explore the local streets and walk around the lake and enjoy the energy of Hanoi . It is easy to escape the noise by walking into a side street and we even managed the art of crossing the road without mishap.

Hanoi Street Scene
Temple Bridge on the lake
Afternoon concentration

We had a pre-dinner cocktail on the roof of the Marilyn cafe where we could observe the life around the Cathedral. Young people like to congregate in the cafes there and drink lemon tea and eat sunflower seeds. It was fun to watch from above as the night fell and bats swooped around us .

We ended our first day with a fantastic meal at the classy Madame Hien restaurant nearby . A beautiful old French colonial building with a Vietnamese/French fusion menu and many unusual and interesting flavours . A really great end to a full-on introduction to Hanoi.

Madame Hien restaurant

Hanoi kids and Secret Places – 22nd April 2012

Our Hanoi kids were two bright young gentlemen in their final year at Hanoi University . We went by taxi to the Temple of Literature where we saw some students having their graduation photos taken and learnt about the history of the temple as a place of learning and respect for knowledge and how a clever young person might become a mandarin in ancient Vietnam .

Girls in Traditional dress for graduation

The boys took us to the West lake and the oldest pagoda of the city where they tend to come themselves and pray. We learnt how important this is to them , how respect for the ancestors underpins Vietnamese life and how  the young educated generation still wish to maintain tradition.

More practically for us , we marvelled about how the boys recognised the fake tourist ” umbrella taxis ” and made sure we did not take them . The boys were keen to learn about David’s camera and about what life was like in the UK , particularly for young people . We were amazed at how sure they were that they would be married at age 27 and how their parents would look after their children ! Their concerns were the same as other kids their age in the UK , exams , girlfriends, family , getting a good job and being able to travel . The similarities struck as as much as the differences .

They took us to Pho 10, their favourite pho cafe and showed us how to eat pho bo . We also went to the secret Cafe Giang , hidden at the back of an alley and much liked by Hanoian youth.

With Hanoi Kids at Cafe Giang

We also explored the Museum of Ethnology and its fascinating outdoor buildings of different ethnic tribes.

Ethnic Minority House in Museum Grounds

Among the Flower H’mong,  it is forbidden for a girl to climb a loft ladder in case a male sees her “secret place”. This greatly amused the boys!

Exploring the Ethnology Museum
Water puppets in the Museum of Ethnology grounds

We said goodbye to the boys . They had been excellent hosts . We had dinner at La Place near the cathedral and headed off to the station for our overnight train to Sapa. The hotel manager , Yen , sent a staff member with us in the taxi and to our berth on the train as she was anxious about ” mafia around the station ” , a thought which gave us some anxiety . All was well and we boarded the Orient Express carriage for our long bumpy journey to the far north of Vietnam .

Sweaty Pants and Fansipans – 23rd and 24th April

We arrived in Lao Cai station at dawn on the 23rd and it was misty and raining . I had slept perhaps a bit more than David , the train was noisy and bumpy . We were glad that we had a private sleeping compartment although it was pretty basic overall . We were met by our hotel minibus and arrived at Sapa Eden hotel. The hotel is old-fashioned but with fantastic views and we had a lovely suite with two balconies and loads of space.  We explored Sapa town and market which was atmospheric in the fog. A modern but touristic town . Fun to sit and have a coffee and see how the gangs of young ethnic minority women sell their handicrafts to tourists  with sales techniques that would win the heart of Alan Sugar on The Apprentice !

H’mong Ladies making a sales pitch
H’mong ladies in Sapa

We did the walk to Cat Cat village , taking about 3 hours for the round trip  to the village and the waterfall .

Cat Cat waterfall

It was quite steep in places and we had to dodge all the persistent Hmong sellers who demand to know ” Where you fro  ?”  at regular intervals .

In Sapa market
Sewing in the market

We ate at Sapa Rooms Boutique which has a small restaurant and is very popular. Lovely spring rolls and a great green mango salad. reasonable Aussie wine as well which combined with the walking and early start made for an early night and a long sleep .

Sapa views
More terraces

The next morning was hot and sunny and we booked a trek with Sapa Rooms hotel . We walked from Sapa to the villages of Lao Chai and Ty Van . Our guide was an ethnic Red Dao lady with perfect English and she was charming and informative . We also had the obligatory gang of follower ladies who went with us for the first two hours, babies strapped to their backs . One lady helped me down steep paths and when she did her baby yowled a scared protest until his mum had let me go again . The trek was 10km , hot and moderately strenuous . Ourselves and an Italian family of four made up the group . The rice paddy terraces stretched ahead of us with the peak of Mount Fansipan and the other hills ahead and beyond that, China.

Walking companion

We learned how a buffalo cost $1000 , the same as a motorbike and beyond the reach of most villagers . The rice they grow is used by the villages and is not enough by itself to feed everyone . Children go to school from age 10 to 17 and the villagers hope to preserve their lifestyle while benefiting from change and progress which is hard , really . We saw lovely views , met local people but it was very touristy and I wished we had researched this and gone a little further afield for our Sapa trek day .

Sapa rice terraces
Having a rest !

A footnote- Lao Cai town is not at all pleasant and finding anything to eat was very tricky. Lots of rip-off tourist cafes with laughable prices and nothing near the station that we could see offering reasonable food . We had a plate of chips in a restaurant opposite the station that at least had people in it but at $3 for a tiny amount was still a tourist scam. We boarded the train for the long journey back to Hanoi feeling very tired and hungry .

Halong before the storm ? – 25th April 2012

We arrived back in Hanoi station at 5am and were very pleased to see one of the Sans Souci reception staff waiting on the platform with a sign. The Sans Souci IV charged us $10 for a return station taxi  transfer with a member of staff taking us door to door each way , right to and from our train sleeping berth. Very much appreciated by us .

We were pleased that we had booked our room right through our Sapa trip as we were able to go straight up , sleep and change and have breakfast before the Bhaya cruise rep came to our hotel to collect us . We were off by minibus to Halong bay for our 1 night cruise which cost us $370 , a big part of our trip budget .

The journey was hot and long and broken midway by a stop in the largest gift shop I have ever seen , complete with rows of in-house tailors .

We arrived 4 hours later in Halong bay , it was sunny and hot . We were greeted with a cool drink and told our cabin number on Bhaya Classic 3 and soon we were taken across to the ship. It looked perfect weather , a calm sea . The new government regulation on painting all Halong Bay junk boats  white had just come into force and I have to say , it made most of them look very shabby . Clearly done in haste and peeling off already , even the expensive boats looked awful . The sea was murky and there was a lot of rubbish . Lots of boats around. Another tourist conveyer belt .

We were showered with flowers by the staff as we arrived on board. Probably about 30 couples in total. Lunch was laid out upstairs for us and before we ate the manager , Edgar , introduced the staff and then told us the news…. There was a tropical storm forecast for the night and it looked as though we would not be able to stay on the ship beyond 6pm . The port authorities would not permit guests to stay overnight if there was any storm , no matter how short. We would be told for certain at 330pm and we were told to enjoy our lunch and then the boat would sail to the nearby island and we would visit the Surprise Cave , a trip scheduled for the following morning . There was a tangible air of disappointment as we ate what otherwise would have been a very pleasant lunch with lovely views of the towering limestone rocks . The boat set sail and we headed out for the caves . On arrival , the port was packed with boats with very little space between . Group after group were marched up the steep steps and through the cave chambers . Very crowded and not really very pleasant . Back on board we were told that we would not be spending our night on board. We could swim or kayak or relax in our cabins for 2 hours and then we would be brought back to Hanoi or given a hotel in Halong Bay if we preferred. Anyone needing help with a Hanoi hotel would have it and refunds would be arranged. A French party  struggled with this announcement and I helped with translating it for them. One girl was crying and  told me it was her honeymoon . It was all very disappointing but I was impressed by the Bhaya staff who did seem to go out of their way to make sure everyone was sorted out and enjoying themselves as best they could .

We managed to catch the sunset as we sailed around the rocks .

Halong Bay from caves
Sunset in Halong Bay

The young Aussies jumped off the boat or kayaked . A limited area was cordoned off for this near the boat . We opted to have a quiet drink on our cabin balcony and were entertained by a continuous procession of old ladies in rowing boats with mobile shops trying to sell us drinks or snacks . We managed at least an hour or so of relaxation time , including a shower and a nap so we felt we had some value from our lovely Bahya deluxe cabin . Tea and sandwiches was served at 6pm before we docked back at port .

The Bhaya rep confirmed that we would have a refund and we headed back on the minibus for another long road journey back to Hanoi . My junior doctor days have left me with an ability to sleep on demand so I saw very little of it . David stayed awake and watched Vietnamese evening life pass by through many small dusty towns . Once more , we were so glad we had kept the Sans Souci hotel room and we sank gratefully into bed in our cool quiet room in Hanoi .

So much for Halong bay . We felt that we had our money’s worth , considering the refund given ( £80 ) and we did gain extra time in Hanoi . It is a long way to go for the day , though . I would recommend that anyone booking a trip considers this and asks exactly what happens in the event of a storm. We were told that even if it was only to be a short storm the boats would not sail and this is a high risk from June to October . To keep in mind . We loved the sunset and the rocks , hated the tourist trap of it , the pollution , the journey and the shabby white paint of the boats . So long , Halong !

Unmasking Hanoi – 26th April 2012

We enjoyed a long sleep after our long journey back from Halong bay and started with a late breakfast at the Sans Souci . The restaurant girls were learning English and taught us some Vietnamese , giggling at our clumsy  attempts .

We went out to do the hotels’s Old Quarter walking tour with their helpful map . David was always ready with his camera . He took lots of photos of street sellers . The traditional basket ladies with pineapple, mangosteens and rambutans .

Hanoi traders

The streets of Hanoi each selling the same type of item eg ancestral altar items , baskets , silk, buckets or shoes . Motorbikes buzzing around , everyone with a face mask . Street kitchens and food sellers , barbers working on the pavement , men crouched down drinking bia hoi and comparing their song birds in cages beside them . The streets smell of charcoal , durian and exhaust fumes but there is a buzz and bustle which I enjoy and it is fascinating to watch . We stopped at a coffee shop and tried weasel coffee but at $1000 per kg we decided we could skip on a purchase . David reckoned he could catch and squeeze quite a few weasels for that price !

Weasel coffee shop !

So many things to see. A young monk in a crash helmet trying out traditional drums in a musical instrument shop . Kites , lanterns , lacquerware , bamboo ladders .

Monk trying out drums
Apparently its a craft shop …

We had lunch in Quan an Ngon , like thousands of others before us on Trip Advisor . It is justifiable popular . A beautiful French Colonial house , an airy courtyard and the stalls around showing the dishes being cooked. Helpful young staff although very noisy and busy. I tried Ban Xeo as many others seemed to be ordering it. We also had an excellent papaya salad and a chilli salt beef . Delicious food and so interesting to see it all being prepared . Street food for the nervous !

A stack of roast quail

We walked back via the French Quarter stopping at La Verticale to buy spices and a cookery book and a  strong espresso coffee at the  nearby co-owned DC Bistro . We had eaten at Madame Hien on our first night , owned by the same French chef and had been very impressed by the food and spices .

Colourful Hanoi street

The cocktail hour was spent at the Rooftop bar at the  Pacific Tower, 19 floors up with a terrace for sunset city views . Excellent cocktails , too .

Cocktails with a Hanoi view , Rooftop Bar

Dinner at the Green Tangerine , also French/Vietnamese fusion and totally amazing , inventive clever food which would cost a fortune in the UK and cost us £53 in total , including wine .

Starter at Green Tangerine

Another lovely evening in Hanoi marking the end of our trip to North Vietnam .

Hanoi Streets and Fanny Treats-  27th April

We finished our packing and went for a final walk around Hoam Kiem Lake. Trip advisor recommended a visit to Fanny. Not as bad as it sounds as it is an ice cream parlour popular with locals and tourists for it’s exotic flavours and artistic sundaes. I had a scope of durian flavour and one with chilli chocolate. David has never tried durian before and soon decided it was a once in a lifetime experience. Smelly fanny icecream were his actual words once he stopped retching. To take away the taste we had a proper Italian coffee at the Illy cafe high on a terrace over looking the traffic at the major intersection at the top of the lake.

View from Cafe Illy

We tried to see if we could spot fake taxis and even after our tutoring from the Hanoi kids we found it harder than we imagined, even the reputable Mai Linh seems to have several variants. For the most part we mostly wandered dodging the pineapple ladies, t-shirt vendors and “shoe shine men”.

Street view Hanoi

We had lunch at Madame Hien in a cool empty room of the grand old house. David had the beef 5 ways and I tried the Hanoian speciality of Bun Cha with a lovely banana flower salad. David’s search for a connector for his camera was not very successful as no one really seemed to know what he wanted even in a huge Vietnam version of PC World which was tucked unexpectedly off a main street.

Crossing the road in Hanoi takes a fair bit of confidence. We were told when in doubt cross with a local so we found an old man with a walking stick at a very busy intersection and decided to follow him. When we got across we realised the old man was still waiting. We then saw that his stick was white at the end and he was blind! We felt guilty that we had not helped him but suspected that he may have panicked if two foreigners had attempted to bundle him across the road. Possibly hitting us with his stick.

We made it back to the Sans Souci IV and said goodbye to Yen and her team before heading to Noi Bai airport and the flight to Da Nang. We had a small panic when they wanted to see the booking credit card that David had left in Watford. It was probably for the best that they also confiscated his childhood swiss army knife as it might have been used in an offensive way… By me.

Our driver was waiting in arrivals and our first impressions of Da Nang were the string of massive hotels, casinos and flashing neon signs. A short journey later we were at the Life Heritage Hotel Hoi An. It looked very luxurious with an open plan reception, lotus pond and trees hung with silk lanterns. We were shown to our huge room with a separate living area, bedroom and sunken stone bath. Clearly this was to be our taste of luxury on this trip.

Pure Travel Porn and Silkworm Salad – 28 April 2012

We ate a quick breakfast from the luxurious spread at the Life Heritage Hotel and were then collected at 8am by Van in her van. Van runs the Green Bamboo Cookery School from her home near the beach in Hoi  An. She has many positive reviews on trip advisor and we were joined by a group of young people from Melbourne who were keen foodies. Van took us shopping in the heaving hot local market and encouraged us to try local fruits and answered our questions on the bewildering array of Vietnamese produce.

The coolest job in Hoi An market

We learnt about the herbs, vegetables, fruit and fish used in everyday home cooking. We took photos of giant silvery swordfish, wriggling prawns and crabs bound and resigned to their fate. When our baskets were full we enjoyed a cool drink at the Banana Split Cafe which appeared to be also a travel agent unchanged since the 1960’s.

Cafe/ Travel agent in Hoi An

Off we went to Van’s large airy house to start our cookery class. We began with a salad of silkworms. These had intrigued me at the market and Van agreed to show me how to prepare them. We toasted the plump yellow worms and tossed them with herbs, roasted peanuts and a piquant dressing. Surprisingly, even David agreed to give them a go and seemed to enjoy them.

Yummy silkworms !
David cooks spicy beef !

Each of us cooked a typical Vietnamese dish under the excellent supervision of Van. It was so interesting to be in a real Vietnamese household and we felt we learnt much more than just the cooking. We made so many flavoursome dishes eg beef with green beans, prawns with pomelo, and baked fish in banana leafs. Van taught us that Vietnamese food should be a perfectly balanced combination of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy tastes. We all sat and ate our lunch and swapped travellers’  tales.

Lunch is served at Green Bamboo Cookery School

Van told us her husband was Swedish and showed us some amazing photos of local scenes taken by her 13 year old daughter.

We said goodbye to Van and returned to relax at our poolside which was a haven of quiet luxury.

Life heritage Hoi An

Venturing out at night, we realised why Hoi An is described as pure hardcore travel porn. The streets are lit with multi-coloured silk lanterns.

Silk lanterns display

The yellow houses retain their traditional slate roofs. The river is lined with multi-coloured boats and packed commuter ferries. There are a lot of tourists but the atmosphere still seems to retain a traditional charm.

Riverside, Hoi An
Lantern making in Hoi An

Sipping our mojitos at Brasserie Cava we realised why people always rave about Hoi An. It seems to succeed in being tasteful and touristy at the same time. We ate a light supper on an upper balcony of the Morning Glory restaurant and took in the sights and sounds of the town.

Hoi An Sunset

Another full day over – we will aim to have a more relaxing time tomorrow.

A busy day of relaxation – 29 April 2012

It was 34 degrees with 96 percent humidity by 9am. Ideal, we thought, for a long cycle out to the beach. The Life Heritage Hotel provided free bikes . David had decided on a “scenic route” via the country roads. Just outside the town, we saw people drying rice spread out on the road in the baking sun. It was interesting to observe the farmers and rice harvesters as we pedalled along to Hoi An beach. A policeman whistled at us and indicated the compulsory bike parking. The beach was lined with coconut trees with family groups having picnics and coconut drinks. The water of the South China Sea looked quite clear and there was miles of soft white sand in a long stretch. It was much more of a beach resort than I had thought. Resucitated by a diet coke and a paddle in the sea we cycled back into town.

Hoi An Beach

We had a light lunch at the Cargo restaurant in Hoi An before returning to cool in our air conditioned hotel room. We highly recommend the rum and raisin ice cream.

For the afternoon, a spa break sounded appealing and we had spotted the Tay Ho spa just outside the hotel ground. We negotiated a discount to a price of $40 each for a 150 minutes of treatments . We were the only two customers and enjoyed the attention of at least 5 young ladies, two of whom were soon deftly divesting David of his underpants and covered us both in towels. We had a vigourous lemongrass and salt scrub and felt our layers of dead skin peel away. Several staff worked on David’s toenails, particularly his partially avulsed big toe nail. There was a muttered consultation and further tools were found to tackle this. Surprisingly, they seemed to want to consult me rather than David on how much nail removal should be attempted with the scalpel . A consensus was reached and we both had our feet sanded and our nails filed. A small shower room was used prior to the next stage, though we were surprised to find two small girls having there naps next to it. We had Vietnamese aromatherapy massages and hot rice packs pressed on various points. Finally we had facial treatments and we floated back to our hotel room feeling totally relaxed if slightly oily.

Cocktails were on the terrace of the Green Lantern restaurant served by a waiter who was a photograghy enthusiast and was setting up a local photo tour company with a friend.

We ate dinner at Mango Mango on An Hoi Island which was fusion cooking, expensive by local standards but very well presented.

We made our way back to the hotel with streets lit by multi-coloured lanterns. One street hawker was a young girl around ten years old who asked us where we came from and when we said England she replied “lovely jubbily” with a passable Del boy accent. The global village that is Hoi An.

Hoi An Sunset

Cycling with a Craigavon boat person – 30 April 2012

Even hotter today. We tried haggling with the laundry ladies at the hotel gates. They seized our bag of washing like a shoal of hungry pirahna. But at seven times the price of Hanoi we were not keen. We walked out to the market to take more photos and haggle for souvenirs. A quick change then we were out to An Hoi island for our cycle ride with Heaven and Earth company. This business is owned by a French man married to a local lady and our guides were two young local women wearing the usual local multi-layers including woolly gloves to protect them from the sun. The girls were friendly and informative and took us on a 45 minute boat trip up river to an island on the delta. Here life had not changed much in decades. We were given our bikes and visited a typical local house where rattan mats were still woven by traditional methods with grandmother and her daugther operating the simple machinery.

On the road

We cycled down country lanes with local children waving and shouting hello. We stopped for a cold drink at the island shop and our guide told us how she had moved to Belfast at the age of twenty but had been terribly homesick and did not settle. She had lived in Craigavon and had been intimidated by the UDA. She recalled the cold weather and naked trees and how far she had felt from her home. Her marriage had not worked out and she had returned to Vietnam with her child who still talks about visiting grandma in Craigavon. It seemed a long way away from the heat and the paddy fields of rural Vietnam.

We visited several local craft workshops, an ice maker, a mother of pearl workshop and a local boat builder. We say how circular basket boats were made from bamboo and David attempted to paddle the boat across the river. We had plenty of chances to see local industries such as a brickwork where clay bricks were made, and dried in the sun before firing. Crops were grown and harvested mainly by traditional methods and locals commuted to Hoi An via ferry boats packed with motorbikes. We took one such boat back ourselves finishing our cycle ride.

Brickworks near Hoi An

Cocktails and dinner were in Tam Tam Garden where we enjoyed excellent cocktails and local specialties such as Cau Lau pork noodle soup and white rose dumplings. This was dinner with an added edge as a large rats were spotted darting around close to our table. Two Canadian ladies nearby screeched in horror and shouted at the waitress to do something. The rat sat up and cleaned his whiskers and looked at the ladies and the waitress as though considering ordering a Pina Colada. The waitress looked at him but did not flinch . She simply turned and walked off, as did the rat . The Canadian ladies scuttled off with a take-away . We accepted it as local wild life and decided Hoi An must be a fine place to holiday for rats as well as people. Time to pack up ready for the next part of our trip.

Same Same but Different – 1st May 2012

We have been very impressed by our internal flights and the large and modern airports. They were good facilities at Da Nang and after an hours flight we were in a Mai Linh taxi heading to the city centre. It had taken us a while to realise that the best way to get one of the reliable Mai Linh cabs was to find the agent outside the terminal building.

We checked into our next hotel which was the small Cinnamon Hotel in the centre of the city. Sunny and his staff were very friendly and gave use freshly squeezed juice before showing us up to our large room with a balcony.

We explored our local area which included a large modern shopping centre with an air-conditioned basement supermarket which had an excellent selection, much better than any we had seen previously on our travels. We were told that the locals still call the city Saigon and it seemed to fit the local catch phrase of “same same but different”. There were many elements similar to Hanoi although the overall atmosphere was one of a more modern westernised city. We were struck by the lack of public street broadcasts, a common feature of Hanoi. There were very few traditional street sellers, more western brands and high rise shopping centres. It was a relief not to have to bargain and to actually see the prices of the goods.

Back at our hotel we discovered the offer of a free foot massage which was administered by two young men from our hotel. We were welcomed into a dark room with lemon grass tea and a fresh ginger soak for our poor hot and tired feet. The boys massaged our legs and feet most thoroughly and seemed to have a knack for finding the most tender places, particularly on David’s delicate feet. My attempts to totally relax were interrupted by a periodic yelp from David.

Time for cocktails with a view and tonights venue was Saigon Saigon bar on the 10th floor of the swanky Caravelle hotel. At $7 each drinks were expensive but worth it for the ambiance and stunning views.

We had dinner at a branch of Ngon. This was as noisy and busy as the Hanoi verion and had a 26 page menu of Vietnamese food. We had fresh spring rolls, papaya salad with dried beef and spicy beef noodle soups. The building was a pretty former colonial mansion house and popular with local people. Once again, we were surprised at how quiet our hotel room was or perhaps we were simply exhausted.

Seeing life through Mekong Eyes – 2nd May 2012

Breakfast at the Cinnamon hotel included lovely fresh fruit and juices. We particularly liked the green tangerine juice. We sat at the window watching the local kids travel to school, many sitting in front of or behind a parent on a motorbike.

We were collected at 8am and travelled to My Tho to start our Mango Cruise. Highway 1 deserves it’s reputation as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. We passed one serious accident involving a brick lorry. On arrival in My Tho we were shown to a skiff to take us to our main boat. This boat, the Mango Cruise Bouganvillea, was to be our home for the next three days. Although we had seen the photos on the website nothing had prepared us for the beauty of the boat with its bamboo -clad arched exterior and interconnected rooms all laid out just for us.

Mango Cruises- Bouganvillea
Boat interior
Boat bedroom

We have a huge front observation deck, a spacious bedroom with mosquito net, a small bathroom with full size bath, a living room with TV, a laptop with internet access, an outside deck with sun loungers and outside dining area. We even had bicycles carried at the side for our excursions on land. Pure luxury! The crew of 5 included Tom our personal guide. We were impressed by his friendly manner and knowledge. We enjoyed watching life on the Mekong pass by as we travelled in style. A notable feature are the red eyes characteristic of Mekong boats.

A Mekong boat

According to the stories, this is to make them look like dragons and scare off the dragons of the river. We drank fresh coconut juice and watched the coconuts of local farmers being transported to various destinations. We learnt about the 100 uses of a coconut tree.

Tempting pineapple

At our first destination, our bikes were unloaded and we were off with Tom in the lead to peddle along quiet lanes and visit some local farms, businesses and workshops. We watched the brick makers turn clay into bricks for the building trade and sampled rice wine from a local producer.

Mekong brickworks

On our way to the rice paper makers we got caught in a spectacular storm with thunder and pouring rain. We took shelter in the rice paper makers house and tried our hand at making rice paper wraps.

David makes rice cakes
Rice wrap making

We heard the story of this lady who had thought her husband lost in the war with Cambodia. She had made sweet rice cakes every day waiting for his return. He was a soldier and the rest of his comrades died of fever and she was very grateful for his return after 5 years. At another farm we learnt about typical fruit and vegetable grown. We ate mangos and pineapple and drank a local honey tea. We were transferred onto a rowing boat to explore the back waters and it was quite idyllic to hear the lap of the water, see the flash of the oars and still taste the chilli and pineapple in my mouth. Back on the Sampan our bikes were magically on board.

Along the small canals

We relaxed and watched the sun set before enjoying our five course dinner cooked by the chef, Lien, on a one ring gas cooker beside our table. She showed us how to make fried pork spring rolls, banana flower salad with chicken, chicken cooked with lemon grass and banana fritters. We sipped our wine and luxuriated in a dinner just for two on our own private boat. We moored for the night and David had his first experience of sleeping under a moquito net. It was just as well because there seemed to be all manner of wildlife keen to enjoy our private Sampan.

More Mangos and many other fruit- 3rd May 2012

It was not exactly a relaxing nights sleep due to our mooring next to a local market which started at 4am and the constant river traffic combined with the triumphant calls of the cockerels through the night. We were off on our bikes again after a nice breakfast. We visited an incense factory and two local temples.

Khymer temple

One was a classic Buddhist temple and the second a strange faith called Cao Dai which combined many faiths and had such unusual saints as Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare. We had sugar cane juice from a local roadside stall and bought rambutans from the local market. Back on the boat we had a very leisurely afternoon, reading, blogging and watching the local life pass by.

The many branches of the Mekong are main arteries for produce in southern Vietnam. We saw the transport of everything from rocks, sand, pigs, flowers and coconuts to bricks and bamboo matting. Plenty of fruit of course, and it has struck us how we are eating our own weight in fruit each day. Today for example we have consumed… mango, pineapple, watermelon, jack fruit, rambutans and papaya. We had another delicious 5 course lunch cooked by Lien and including a seafood fix for me. We have eaten like kings on this part of the holiday.

Lots of fruit !

After a lazy afternoon on our boat reading and watching life go by Tom thought we needed a bit more activity and produced a fishing rod the mechanic of the crew had made for himself.

David fishing from the boat

Earlier in the day the mechanic had pulled back a plank in the base of our small transfer boat and proudly revealed a thrashing whiskered cat fish which he had caught late the previous night. The crew had eaten cat fish hot pot for their lunch. It was now our turn to try and using a fat fresh prawn as bait we took turns trying our hand at catching something similar from the murky depths of the Mekong. Local fisher ladies watched us with amusement from their boat and offered us some mimed tips. The fish were no fools and stayed away. Luckily dinner did not depend on us.   As the darkness fell we had beer and gin and watched dozens of bats feast on the river flies and completed circuits. After another sumptuous dinner we travelled across to Can Tho to walk in the night market. It was a hot sticky evening and there wasn’t that much to see so we sat in the park at the feet of a giant smiling staue of Ho Chi Minh. Small children played hide and seek around the statue and hawkers were selling street snacks, toys and ballons. There was a relaxed holiday atmosphere and it was interesting to watch this normal part of Vietnamese life. Our mooring on this night was a quieter location than previously so we slept better under the folds of our mosquito net.

Mekong sunset

Easy to Miss Saigon – 4th May 2012

Our last day with Mango Cruise and promptly at 7am we were off to see a floating market. This was a 45 minute transfer on our small wooden motorboat. For the first time in days we saw other tourists who were going in the same direction. This part of the market just beyond Can Tho,  consisted mainly of wholesale fruit and vegetables. Each large boat had a tall bamboo pole which held an example of the goods they were selling. These included pineapple, yam and pumpkins. Smaller boat were purchasing  and these would then sell on to other markets along the river. We were a bit disappointed we could not go to one of the busier floating markets but as usual time was our limiting factor.

Floating market at Can Tho

We had our last breakfast on board and soon we were on our way back to Saigon by taxi. One striking feature of the journey were the roadside cafes with rows of hammocks. The Vietnamese like to have a lunchbreak followed by a snooze and these hammocks seemed to be an essential feature.

Back in Saigon we returned to the Cinnamon Hotel where we had another friendly welcome and a room at the top of the staircase. Lifts are not a standard feature of Vietnamese hotels or at least the ones we have stayed in though their is usually some one willing to help with the luggage. It was an overcast muggy afternoon and we thought we would try to find a recommended bar/cafe from our guidebook. It was then we discovered just how confusing it can be to try to find addresses in Saigon. We found the guidebook address only to discover a hole in the ground. We tried google and trip advisor which both disagreed on the location. We had almost given up when we finally spotted the sign for the bar which had relocated. We had the same problem finding our restaurant for dinner, Hoa Tuc. The address was given as number 74  Hai Bai Trong , and unfortunately there was an entire street of number 74’s. The restaurant was in fact through an archway in a pleasant courtyard. We booked a table for later and went to have a walk in the botanical gardens.

Goldfish seller near botanical Gardens , Saigon

The botanic gardens were rather disappointing as the Saigon zoo had taken over this space. Like many Asian zoos this was a depressing place where the liveliest animals were the remarkably large free range rats.   We returned to the illusive La Fenetre Soleil which we had found so hard to locate earlier. It was quite stylish and tasteful and a good place to spend our cocktail hour. The Hoa Tuc restaurant was buzzing with ex-pat diners. The food was up market Vietnamese including a tasty beef hotpot cooked in a claypot at the table.  The setting in a courtyard , surrounded by trees and lights is just lovely. The area was once an opium factory but now has a handful of upmarket restaurants favoured by the expat set . Another delicious meal at the end of a busy day .

Dragon fruit and Peristroika – Mui Ne 5th May 2012

On the road again for a four hour journey to the town on Mui Ne on the Southeastern coast. Our driver did not speak any English but was very smiley and apologetic for his faulty air-conditioner. He bought us some fresh coconut drink at a roadside shop and seemed to know all the backroads from Saigon to the coast. This is a difficult journey as the built-up areas of Saigon continue for many miles and the traffic was appallingly heavy. We drove through forested areas where the main industry was the making of heavy furniture made from red wood. We also passed several brightly coloured wedding tents set up by the roadside and already blasting out karaoke at 11am.

As we entered the Phan Thiet area we saw acre after acre of a cactus like plant and it took us awhile to realise that these were dragon fruit plantations. They seemed to stretch for miles, the cerise pink fruit just visible under the spiky leaves. We arrived at our hotel, Cham Villas. This is a small boutique hotel with 17 bungalow rooms.

Gardens at Cham Villas
Our beach villa at Cham Gardens

Our room is on the beach which is popular with kite- surfers and the buzz of jet skis. We had a late lunch at the beach bar, walked along the clean, quiet beach and saw that the area consisted of consecutive luxury hotels. We saw local people collecting cockerels and worryingly  large beached jellyfish.

Strange tree Mui Ne

When we explored the street front area we were taken aback by what we saw. Every shop and restaurant had Russian signage and the supermarket opposite was even called peristrioka . It was a strip of jewellery shops and brightly lit souvenir stores and all where full of tall blond Russians. The Vietnamese origins were hard to see. This place is like Russia crossed with Vietnam crossed with somewhere like Tenerife. We came back to cocktails on our own terrace and a quite acceptable dinner in the deserted hotel restaurant. The only light at night was from the small circular fishing boats which were just visible far our to sea.

Boats at Phan Thiet

All Green and Grey in Mui Ne- 6th May 2012

Cham Villas is a small hotel but it has the most amazing tropical garden. Teams of maintenance staff work all day keeping it pristine and it is the nicest garden we have seen in our travels in Vietnam.

Cham Villas Mui Ne , gardens

Today has been grey and wet but still a warm 28 °C. The gentle light rain and overcast skies have been something of a relief for us. We have been able to laze on our terrace and read without fear of heat or sunstroke. We have been swimming in the sea which was warm and calm. We could see small silver fish jumping out the water around us. We have practically had the whole place to ourselves, no struggle to reserve a lounger here! The hotel pool with its green tiles is unusually warm, almost like a bath. We were able to make full use of it entirely on our own as the light drops of rain kept the garden green. It was great not to have to worry about suncream for one day. It is the first place where we have seen coconut beetles. Large and shiny green, we have spotted them flitting around the many coconut trees. They are not very bright and tend to fly into lights or walls , stunning themselves.

The Head Chameleon at Cham Villas !

Today we limited ourselves to enjoying the beach, the gardens and the pool. We ventured out only once during the day to sit with a real cappuccino in the beach front cafe of a nearby hotel. We ate dinner in the Sandals restaurant of the Mia hotel. This is the new name for the Mui Ne Sailing Club and it has a fine terrace to watch the moon rise. Tonight’s moon was a strawberry red far out across the sea. There were some particularly large moths and bats around. We had squid and steak for dinner and an early night to try and finish watching “Apocolypse Now ” on David’s Galaxy Tablet . Failed again , too tired from doing not very much .

The XO  Girls Show us Saigon   – 7th  May 2012

It was a long , slow , bumpy way back to Saigon from Mui Ne . The car was thankfully air conditioned but we did have some quite spectacular lightning and early monsoon rain . I realised that I have now been here long enough to make out some of the language , such as signs along the road . It took 4 hours to return to the city and we checked in to the A and Em White Hotel, one of several in their chain . This is in a road of hotels, a step upmarket from our previous city hotels. All quite budget bling , white leather , silver furniture and fake chandeliers. This room even has a free room pc set up for us , so more comfortable for doing this blog.

We are quite near the big shopping plazas but they are a disappointment being full of Western shops eg Marc Jacobs, Jimmy Choo , Armani. Like  a Japanese Westfield Centre. High prices and no-one around apart from impossibly glamorous girls in very short dresses and tottering heels. Movie stars or high class call girls, who knows? Someone needs to be buying these expensive brands. We just had an Italian coffee and returned to prepare for the XO girls.

This company , XO tours , is an all-female team of motorbike tour guides dressed in traditional Ao Dai . Our ladies , Nga and Nhi , arrived promptly just as the rain stopped. We put on helmets and ponchos and hopped on . Soon we were whizzing through the Saigon rush-hour traffic . It felt very odd and exhilarating, zooming into the traffic .  Like being part of a swarm of bees , all moving together and zipping along the streets at dusk. Locals found it amusing to see Tays ( Westerners ) on the back of motorbikes, especially David in his green polka dot poncho with his tiny local driver.

Our first stop was Chinatown market where we met Tung , a Vietnamese American who owns the company . He told us about the history of the area and our programme for the tour . As usual , we were the only Brits with another Aussie couple also on our Saigon By Night tour . Tung took us to local cafes where the girls and the Aussies bought food. We saw a lake , edged with large brollies and sun loungers which local  couples rent by the hour for “privacy time” , often young married couples who live with family . We rode out across the city bridge to the quiet area of District 7 , where most expats British , Aussies and Americans live. It was much quieter , modern clean roads and Western style shops and restaurants , a world away from the Saigon we had just left .

Our guides , Nga and Nhi , told us lots about their lives as twenty-somethings in modern Vietnam . The advantages of working in tourism , dating , motorcycle holding etiquette . All very innocent by our standards . Nga found my attempts at Vietnamese words funny but was pleased that I had learnt . I had seen more of her country than she had . Tung told us that there was no middle class in Vietnam , merely rich and poor and the gap widening . A doctor like me would earn $200 a month in Saigon and could not afford a private rental in District 7 where the rich turned their money into property .

The girls ate their takeaway and we chatted with the couple from Adelaide about our travels and swopped tips. All too soon, we were back in the city centre after another exhilarating swoop through the city on the back of the bikes.

We went for a late dinner at The Refinery. This is an ex-pat haunt, a Western restaurant in a lovely courtyard setting next to the place we had dinned the previous night, Hoa Tuc. Delicious food, swordfish and mackerel and fabulous puddings and wine by the glass. Still buzzing at 10pm and a short walk back to the A and Em hotel.

Zen and the Art of motorcyle-based photography  – 8th May 2012

Bright and early start on this , our last day .  David had booked a one to one course on street photography with a company called Drift Photography . This was an Aussie guy called Mark who ran the course with his friend Adam who runs Saigon Unseen Tours and uses their motorcycle drivers. Mark asked if I wanted to join in and we decided it would be a good end to the holiday.

Photography tour with Mark Stennett

We were met by Mark and Adam and the drivers and were taken by motorcyle to the local park, favoured  by locals for morning exercise. There were all sorts of impromptu classes going on. Tai Chi, sword fighting, aerobics, running and badminton.

A lady exercising in Saigon park

Mark and David discussed compostion and light and David enjoyed trying different shots under guidance. At another end of the park was a bird fanciers’ cafe which was fascinating. Local men take their caged bird and socialise together, the birds apparently learning song from each other. The men admire and compare birds and feed them small live crickets. It is a very interesting slice of Vietnamese life to observe and photograph.

Saigon Bird Cafe
Bird Cafe

We went to several local markets where Westerners never really venture. David was challenged to interact  more with the stall holders to get better pictures and much fun was had with this .

Saigon Market
A jolly herb seller !
Pomelos and Rice
Demonstration of temple bell

We also went to a small local temple and the larger Jade Pagoda which had shafts of light mixing with rising incense , making for atmospheric photos .

Jade Pagoda , Saigon

We had a break in a cafe and learnt much about expat life as well as photography and I particularly relished another chance to zoom around Saigon as a motorbike passenger .

Travel like the locals !
The Hat lady !

Many photos later, we had a last Vietnamese meal in Nha Hang Ngon and a browse in the shops between monsoon showers. Back to rest and pack, we are off to the airport very soon. The end of our Vietnam holiday and home awaits!

10 thoughts on “Vietnam Adventure”

  1. Sounds you are having good time – fannying about. Pity about Halong – I agree – a bloody long way !! But you are sending a good idea of the tastes, smells, people and life there.
    PS Incidentally – I have had 2 swiss army knives confiscated at airports ( one sent home by post at airport ) that were attached to my keyring! Have finally learnt that lesson!

    1. Thank you Tom ! We are doing such a lot it is hard to find time to keep things up to date . Having a great time – thanks for comments xxx Una

  2. Smelly fanny and cock shop,dont know whether we should be bothering,we are off next week ,so brilliant reading your blog,well done,we may give Halong bay a miss,what do you reckon? and (maybe I missed it ) but did you both enjoy it ?

    1. My wife and I have differing opinions. Her view is no. Too busy, too many tourists, everyone on conveyor belt, pollution, expensive and the time wasted getting there. You also need to check the procedure for storm cancellation especially as the storm season is approaching. My own view is that I mostly agree with the above but it is an awesome sight and very unusual. Really depends on how much time you have in Vietnam – there is so much to see and Halong bay could be missed out.

  3. Thxs for the prompt,we were thinking of substituting halong bay with a trip to Ninh binh ? suppose to be similar only inland,no my comment ‘did you enjoy’ i was refering to the whole trip and experience?

  4. Superb blog,superb photos straight out of the travel book !! Very enjoyable much better than the Lonely Planet guide. Duff1

  5. Enjoyed this so much….. Wonderful photos. We did a very similar trip in April 2011 and loved every minute. Your photos captured the joys of Vietnam.

  6. Great experience for us too,and we were so lucky regarding flights when the mother of all storms hit Hanoi on the night of our departure,mistress wilky says ‘do you think it will rain’ as we watch thick black clouds head towards the lake, ‘no ,they will blow over’ is my expert reply ,within the hour the lake had flooded across the street right before our very eyes,we hastily manoeuvred ourselves back to our nearby hotel ,where they were bailing out from the basement,how the taxi driver got us to that airport is beyond me ,and you know what the journey is like without most of the streets swimming in knee high floods.
    Something to consider!

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