Tag Archives: Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta

9/6/2011

We set off from the hotel around 9am, for a self-guided walking tour of Ho Chi Minh city. We started off heading towards the site closest to our hotel: The Reunification Palace. This was South Vietnam’s presidential palace, until 1975 when Saigon surrendered to North Vietnam. Since then the building has been left exactly as is. The furniture and everything is still there. It was quite a nice building.

After this we headed to the War Remnants museum, but in the four blocks walk there we got stuck in a downpour. Its the wet season here, so you sometimes get a sudden downpour and then it stops. So we stood under the awning of a shop for about 20 minutes until it had eased up a bit. We walked the last block to the museum to find it was shut. Many of the museums close in the middle of the day, from around 11:30 to 1:30. So we found out from some locals that the Jade Emperor Pagoda would still be open and we caught a taxi there.

We got stooged by the taxi! It cost us $10 (which was a price he rounded up to..it was 197,200VND so he rounded up to 198,000. RUDE!) to travel around 5km, when you can hire a car for a full day for $30!!

Anyway, the Jade Emperor Pagoda was gorgeous. It was a stunning timber structure, with features of jade. It had some fish ponds outside that had a variety of different turtles and fish.

After spending time at the pagoda, we decided that we could walk back to the War Remnants Museum (not take another taxi), and if we stopped for lunch on the way, it would be open by the time we got there.

On the walk we spotted a scooter parked on the footpath, it had a cage full of puppies on the back. There was also one slightly older puppy tied to the top of the cage. He was driving around the city trying to sell them. He had stopped because a girl wanted to buy one. The little doggies were very cute, and it was awful to see this. I kind of wanted to buy one just to cuddle it and make it feel better about not being locked up.

Of course I couldn’t take a puppy, so with a sad look a the puppies we headed of to the War Remnants Museum to see lots more sad stuff. Here they had heaps of photos, stories and artefacts from the war. It was awful to see what was done to the Southern Vietnamese people, both by the North Vietnamese people as well as the Americans.

The effect of the chemicals used during the war, particularly Agent Orange, is still clearly visible in Ho Chi Minh city. In Vietnam there are 3 million people affected by Agent Orange, born with deformities and disabilities and are unable to look after themselves. In the market we saw a guy who couldn’t use his legs, they were folded up and tucked under his armpits as he dragged himself down the street with thongs on his hands.

After visiting the museum we wandered up ad down the main streets of Saigon, down to the Saigon river and back up. (When referring to the big city area you use the term Ho Chi Minh city, when referring specifically to the center of the city, Saigon is generally the term used). Then we headed to Banh Thanh market, but by this time (6pm-ish) it was closing up for the day. This really surprised me since all shops and restaurants are typically open till about 10pm!

So after all this walking we found restaurant to sit down for some dinner and a drink. It was a pretty average meal. By this time it was dark, and with all the crazy traffic I wanted to try and take some night time shots, so we went for another little wander. We also happened across a small night market & had a bit of a sticky beak.

All up we spent about 12 hours wandering around. It was nice to see many sights, but I have to say I don’t particularly like it here. Its really just another big busy city where people just want your money.

Oh and so far no one has tried to steal from us, but in our travels, basically everyone who had been here has had stuff stolen or people have attempted to steal from them.

10/6/2011

At 8am we were collected from our hotel to head out to the Cu Chi tunnels. It was about 50kms out of Saigon, in the country-side of Ho Chi Minh City. It took us about 1.5hours to get there.

The town of Cu Chi became a military target at war time, so to be able to stay alive the Vietnamese dug tunnels and rooms underground. There were three different levels, but I don’t remember if each level served a different purpose. The tunnels were used to get from room to room, the rooms may have been family ‘houses’, kitchens, uniform rooms, weapons manufacturing rooms etc. There were also many different tunnels heading up to the surface.

We got the opportunity to go through some tunnels (they were especially widened for tourists). Stopping low (not so low for a shorty like me) we walked along a 30metre tunnel about 3.5 meres underground. I didn’t find it scary at all, but it was certainly stiflingly hot!

At one point I also got to climb into an emergency escape tunnel..it was tiny. We lifted a tiny square of timber out of the ground and I dropped into a tiny hole, and ‘covered’ my tracks by putting leaves on top of the square of timber and pulling it down over my head once I was in the escape hole. It was a tiny space and pitch dark!!

We were also provided some of the food that the people lived on – boiled tapioca and you could dip it into a mix of sugar and crushed peanuts. The little dry mix was much tastier than the tapioca!!

So for 20 years the people at Cu Chi lived underground, they came up at night to tend their crops, to watch themselves and to get some fresh air (by the way, there were ventilation holes into the rooms and tunnels, but its not quite the same as being out in the open). All the food they had access to in this time was white rice and tapioca. I found the tunnels very cool, and would have found it interesting to do some more exploring, but the idea of living there is awful!

At the Cu Chi site there was also a shooting range where had the chance to shoot AK47s, M16s or M60s. I would have been keen to shoot an AK47, but you had to buy a minimum of 10 bullets, and I only wanted to take 2 shots. So I gave it a miss, but many other people had a go, and we could hear bursts of gun fire throughout our visit – I guess that also makes the concept a bit more authentic, only the guns weren’t pointed at us!

Back at the hotel, we had some time out before heading off again. We wandered the streets of he backpacker district, mostly just to found some cheap lunch. Unfortunately for us there was some sleazebag Englishman at the same restaurant, being a complete tosser and very loudly implying that the Vietnamese girls are rude for not wanting to f*** him. It was disgusting!! The minute we finished out meal we left!

Just to comment on that concept..it is pretty common to see older white guys here with younger vietnamese women. I call it ‘rent-a-wife’. Not very nice. But then I guess if $100 a month is an average workers wage, then hitting it off with a foreigner who makes that much in a day might not seem like a bad idea. I wouldn’t make that choice for myself, but I can see why some people might.

Since it was only fairly early in the afternoon we headed off to Benh Thanh markets while it was open. It was quite a nice market and the people weren’t too pushy. Mostly every stall has exactly the same as the last, but you occasionally find little gems amongst them. We ended up blowing all our cash on cheap clothes.. so after a while we had to go back to the hotel to get more money to change.

With our Aussie dollars we headed back to the backpacker district to find a money exchange. You just go from one place to the next until you find a rate you are happy with, or you get sick of it. Yesterday we got 21,600VND for $1 and today we were less lucky (got sick of hunting for a good rate) and got 21,300 for $1. Either way it works out well because in the shop if they try to sell you something for $1, they convert with 20,000VND .. so more money is left in my pocket. I don’t remember if I already wrote about it, but in Hoi An I actually bargained with the people to get the rate I wanted..it was great!!
Its a pretty crazy currency. For the last two weeks I have been a millionaire!!!

Anyway, we spent the whole afternoon dawdling and eventually sat down for some food. Mum got some weird conical shells in coconut milk. Its so gross..you just suck the creature out of the shell. I took a photo, but that was as close as I was getting!!

11/6/2011

We had a morning pickup and headed off on the 3hour bus ride to the boat terminal at Cai Be. Also on the tour the young dutch couple on their honeymoon (who were also on the Cu Chi tunnels tour) and a family of 4 from Sydney.

At the boat terminal we all got on board a narrow wooden boat with a thatched roof, and we each got a lazy sling chair to lay back into. We headed off to see a wholesale floating market. Here each boat sells goods, maybe only the only thing maybe more. On top of the boat they have a stick and they tie one example of the product that they’re selling onto the stick. Then people who are looking for that product can easily find it. They may be looking to buy or they may be looking to trade. Everywhere you looked were boats loaded up with Pineapples, or Sweet Potatoes, Rice or Fish and much more. There were also lots of smaller boats zoofing through the masses, some of these were floating take-away restaurants, or drinks stalls. It was pretty cool to see!

After we had passed through the whole market we headed off to a little factory where they produced rice and coconut products. We saw how the popped rice, then made a sugary syrup and mixed it all together to make sweet popped rice cakes…tasted great! We saw the production of rice wine…tasted disgusting! Like the firewater in China. Then we got to see how they made coconut candy, through using the all the coconut juice out of the flesh and cooking it with a caramel syrup until it produced a thick caramel sauce, which when cooled was a tasty chewy coconut lolly. I bought some of these for my students to try when I get home. At this factory it was great to see everything was used. The rice husks and coconut shells were used to feed the fires cooking of each of the products I mentioned.

After checking all this out we sat down and were provided with a cup of lotus tea, which was delicious, and a plate of sweets, including some of the ones we had seen get made. We also had a little look around their shop, which is where I bought the coconut candy. Here is where we also got the chance to try some snake wine. They have a big jar of rice wine, and fill it with dead snakes..it was really rancid! Even worse than firewater.

We hopped back on the boat and headed o the next stop: Asian House. Its a house built in the french colonial style on the outside, but the interior is very traditional Vietnamese. We stopped here for some Pandan leaf tea (disgusting!) and to watch a short folk music/ singing performance. It was pretty cool – but the show we saw in Hoi An was much better.

Back on the boat again, next stop was a ride down the river in a Sampan. The step off our boat onto the sampan was huge, so mum didn’t go on this one. Instead I went with the lady from Sydney. We were both given a conical hat and away we went down the river. Every now and then the lady rowing, who couldn’t speak much english, would point to a tree and say ‘Yum’. So along the way we saw bananas, coconuts, jackfruit and mangosteen growing by the river.

Our next stop was a fruit tree nursery where we saw all the teeny tiny trees ready for sale. I think we saw just about every tropical fruit there is!! Guava, Banana, Coconut, Mango, Mangosteen, Pomelo, Rambutan, Lychee, Longan, Jackfruit, Durian etc. After getting the chance to try some Guava, Pomelo and Jackfruit, e continued on to our lunch destination.

We pulled up at a teeny tiny village where a set menu lunch had been organised for us. Here we had about four courses and all of it was beautifully presented. The fish was upright as though swimming and had been cooked whole, they made all the scales stick out which looked kind of cool. Most of the other dishes had little men made out of cucumber on them. A cucumber man rowing a sampan, a cucumber man carrying baskets of rice etc. Very cool!!

By now it was time to start making tracks/waves to our destination. We headed off on the 3hour boat trip through all the little waterways of the Mekong Delta. We laid back in our lazy chairs and watched the gorgeous landscape pass us by, we saw some local people bathing, swimming, fishing, riding bikes along he river banks, trimming trees. It was so relaxing to just observe the lifestyle and enjoy putting down the river, until…. the big rain clouds rolled across the sky and it started bucketing with rain, the wind came up and caused big waves. Our guide gave us each a little plastic poncho and we all tried to huddle in spots where we would stay a little bit dry. We also had to pull up along the river bank until the rain and wind eased off. In such a shallow boat the waves can be very dangerous, especially since we ere coming up to cross one of the main branches of the Mekong river.

Once it was safe enough we travelled then last 20 minutes to Can Tho city, which is the hub of the Mekong Delta. We walked through the drizzle to our hotels where we checked in and dried off.

By this time the sun had set and it was time for food, so mum and I headed off to wander the streets and see what we could find. After not too long we found a restaurant that had english menu’s that wasn’t too westernized. Here the ‘Speciality Dish’ was snake, so we thought we’d better give it a whirl. We ordered a sate flavoured snake dish, and as a backup we ordered some fried rice and squid. The snake had a rather non-descript flavour. It was grainier than most meats and didn’t have a heap of flavour (though it may have been masked by the sate sauce). All in all it wasn’t too bad, the worst part is knowing what you are eating.

After bit more of a wander we headed to the top floor of our hotel to have cuppa at the rooftop cafe overlooking the lights of the city.

12/6/2011

The aim for the morning was to get to the market early, before there were too many tourists and before it got too hot. So we left the hotel at 6am, hopped on another little boat and headed down the river. This was another wholesale market, but being in the morning it was much busier. Boats were heavily loaded with their fruits and vegetables. In trading good they would throw their fruit across to the person on the other boat.

Because many people can’t be bothered going to the effort of getting out in a boat to buy their food they go to a local (land-based) market to buy stuff. Of course all the people selling at these markets had already been out on the river themselves to buy their goods. So after, we had passed through the floating market we were dropped off at a local market to check it out. We got off the boat and walked through the dirty mud around the market.

One of the first stalls we passed had big tubs of live fish, one of the fish was squirming and carrying on like a pork chop until it flew out of the bucket and slapped me on the leg. I squealed like a little girl!! For the rest of the morning, until I had a chance to wash my feet/legs, I was very conscious of my fish slime leg..uggggg!!!

Around the market we saw all the usual fruit, veg, meat and fish as well as the additional stuff like tripe, pigs liver, pigs head, frog, chicken foetus etc. It was interesting to look at but very smelly and dirty. We spent about 2.5hours exploring the floating and non-floating markets before heading back to the hotel for breakfast & to pack up. I was very happy to wash my feet and legs once we got back to the hotel!!

Once packed up we hopped on the bus and headed back to Saigon .. yet anothr 3 hour bus ride. I must admit, I did lay down (very uncomfortably) and doze most of the way.

Once back in Saigon, we weighed up our options for the afternoon before deciding to have some lunch and then go to the Zoo.

Next to our hotel is a Beef noodle house. So we popped in for a bite to eat and I ordered what I thought was pretty stock standard beef noodle soup. Much to my displeasure the meat didn’t look a whole lot like normal beef. We decided that based on appearance it had to be some kind of organ. I voted mum be the taste tester. She couldn’t really tell what it was but I am pretty sure it was cows testicles. Having already eaten these disgusting things in China I was not prepared to do it again! So I chucked all the pieces of ‘meat’ out on to a separate plate and proceeded to eat the rest of the noodle soup. I was very cheesed off!!!!

So with one unhappy duck, we caught a cab to the zoo. We ere lucky with our cab this time, our tour guide had told us to stick with the cab company ‘Vinasun’ because they are always fair and honest. So this time we travelled further than when we went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and it only cost about $2.50. Much better!!

The zoo..I’m a bit of sucker for the zoo. I really love to look at animals, especially monkeys, but in China and now also in Vietnam I have been horrified to see the animals. They are all in tiny enclosures, mostly made of concrete, and they all look sick and unhappy. I think a part of the problem is the Vietnamese people who visit the zoo. They throw food and rubbish into the enclosures. I saw an obese orang-utan drinking ice tea from a plastic bottle. I saw a man throw a coke can at a tiger to try make it move. I saw people poking their hands into crocodile and lion enclosures…of course the animals were going to snap at them! It was pretty awful!

After the early start and several hours wandering in the warmth of the day, we headed back to the hotel for some time out. Catching up on blog writing, doing some reading etc.

By late evening we headed out to the optometrist to pick up our new glasses. They’re so pretty!! I am stoked with them. They are pretty pink (imitation) Miu Miu frames. Mum got some nice orange frames and she’s really happy with her glasses too.

So then we went to find somewhere to eat. Just down the street from the optometrist we found a nice local restaurant. After my lunch disaster I really wanted something nice and non-freaky to eat. But curiosity got the better of me and I ordered something called Four Seasons Beef. I tried to ask the waiter what was in it and he couldn’t really understand what I was asking, and even if he could he wouldn’t have been able to answer me.

Out came my food, it was a clay pot with a lid, sitting on top of a plate that had chunks of white stuff (looked kind of like kopha, must have been same kind of fat). Then the guy lit the white stuff and over the next 10-15 minutes, my dish cooked in the pot while displaying an assortment of different coloured flames. Eventually when I got to eat it, it was delicious! It was beef with oil, herbs, some green veggies, and peanuts and I got some steamed rice to go with it. I took a risk and this time it paid off!!

To top off the evening we stopped off at the super popular cafe across the street from our hotel and had a vanilla milkshake..yum!

13/6/2011

After attempting to sleep in (I managed to sleep till 6am, mum till 8am), we got up, had some brekky and started packing.

Once we had checked out, organised our airport taxi and stored our luggage for the day, we headed off to spend another half day in the city. We started by catching a taxi to the market in China Town ‘Binh Tay’. This market was huge, and the hallways so narrow. You had about 30cm width to walk through, in which you had to pass other people, workers carrying loads of boxes would push past you, mum actually got pushed into a stall and fell against the stall holder. The products weren’t very interesting and with all the pushing ans shoving we got pretty sick of it pretty quickly. I lost count of the times I got shoved, almost run into by trolleys and almost run over by motorbikes.

I have decided that if anyone to ask me I would say that Ho Chi Minh city is not worth visiting. Some of the sights in the city are interesting but there aren’t many worth seeing, the sights outside of the city are definitely worth visiting. But Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) is smelly and dirty, and full of extremely rude people.

So after china town we headed back to the main market Benh Thanh and got some last minute souvenirs. We stopped for a frozen yoghurt and then wandered back to the hotel to catch out taxi to the airport.

This concludes the Vietnam leg of the journey…tonight we will be in Cambodia.

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Hoi An

5/6/2011

We had an 8am flight to Da Nang, so this meant we had to catch a taxi at 5:15am to allow for an hour drive and traffic. I was surprised at how many people were up and about so early in the morning. People were out getting their morning exercise, playing badminton, setting up their stall for the day, butchering a cow on the side of the road ready to sell the meat (it was pretty freaky seeing a cow rib cage in the street!)

By 6:15 we were at the boarding gate, so we sat down a a cafe to order a cup of tea. They had two brands of tea on the list: Lipton and Dilmah. Since mum drinks Dilmah at home we both ordered a cup…little did we know that it was strawberry tea! To make it worse, hey don’t put in fresh milk, or even long life milk, they put in sweetened condensed milk. So there we sat with our two cups of strawberry sugar tea. Mum couldn’t drink it so she ordered lipton tea, and while it wasn’t fantastic I drank the two cups of strawberry tea.

We got to Da Nang to 9:30 and the next challenge was to find a taxi that would take us to Hoi An for a reasonable price. The difficulty here is that taxi scams are a major problem in the area. On a bus a few days ago we heard a girl saying she had been dumped in the middle of nowhere by the taxi driver, and then he demanded more money. So in hot weather she had to lug her baggage for several km’s. So we were a little tense, but luckily our driver took us where we needed to go. The only annoying thing was that a few blocks before our hotel he stopped and gave his friend a ‘lift’. She keep chattering to us to try convince us to visit her clothes shop. She was a bit pushy. Later on when we were wandering the streets she spotted us and virtually dragged us to her shop. We had a little flick at the catalogue and said we didn’t need anything. I hate being forced to go places against my will, and I certainly wasn’t going to spend money with someone like that!

So anyway, the hotel is basically in the middle of the city and is a bit of a luxury, it has hot water (every other hotel so far has forced us into old showers) and a swimming pool.

From the hotel it is only a few minutes walk to the ‘old city’ and the river. There are heaps off tiny little streets and laneways, its quite an adventure just to wander around. As many of the buildings you walk past are shops, I was quite surprised that they aren’t all hassling you to come into the shop. If you do go in for a look, sometimes they try to get you to buy stuff, but not all the time…its great to have that more laid back approach, it makes shopping more pleasant.

So in regards to shopping, Hoi An is very well known for all the tailors. It is quite cheap to get tailor made clothes. So in the spirit of things that is exactly what I did. At one shop I picked out a few designs for business shirts and a skirt, and at another shop I picked out some nice business-ish dresses. So they got my measurements, took a deposit and asked me to come back in two days. All these clothes together only cost around $80 or so…bargain!! Just keep your fingers crossed that they fit right and look good!

In addition to shopping we bought a ticket for the old city. This provides admission to 5 sights around the city, cultural buildings, temples etc. The good thing about it is that it doesn’t have to be used all in one day. So over the four days we can check out different things when we feel like it. The one thing we did do was check out the Japanese covered bridge..it was pretty. We had actually crossed it and continued on our way before we realised that just the bridge was the ‘sight’ covered by the ticket. Had I realised sooner I would have walked slower over it!!

For the majority of the day we just wandered the streets, looking in shops, and stopping for food and drink.

The other thing we wanted to see as part of the ticket, was a traditional dancing show, so we dutifully turned up at 8:45 ready for a 9:30 show. But once we got there we saw a sign that said “every day except Sunday”. So we post-poned that one and headed back to the hotel.

On the way to the hotel we bumped into Clive, who we had met on the Ha Long Bay trip, so we stopped to join him for a drink. Was great to have a catch up chat!!

6/6/2011

Our day started with a cooking class with the Thuan Tinh cooking school. We were picked up from the hotel and taken to the local markets. Here we wandered around and bought fresh herbs and vegetables, chicken bones, beef, prawns and pineapple to use for the dishes we were to learn to cook.

The market was another one of those scary smelly experiences where you choose your ingredients while they are still alive, and it is killed and butchered on the spot for you. The other freaky aspect was that the paths between the stall holders were tiny and crowded with people, but even then people on scooters would ride through and toot for you to move. I almost got run over a few times!

Once we had our ingredients we headed to the river and hopped on a boat, this took us for about a half hour trip up river to the island of Thuan Tinh. The location we arrived at was on old holiday resort that didn’t look like it had been used in 20 years. Here we were each given a bottle of water and a conical Vietnamese hat to wear – it was another scorcher of a day.

The first thing we did on the island was to hope in a little row boat and row to the main village on the island. The trip was down a little river flanked by water coconut palms. It was gorgeous. In the village we me a local family and they gave us some fried rice pancakes to taste. They were interesting but nothing special.

The main reason we had headed to the village was not for the pancakes, but to make some rice milk. There was a big stone grinder thing. You put the rice in the top together with some water and turn the grinding stone until the water was gone, the stuff you ground up Comes out at the bottom. You then pour back in what came out, and you keep going until you end up with thick white rice milk.

We took our freshly ground rice milk and rowed back to the old resort where we would do some cooking. Here we cooked four dishes: Vietnamese pork & shrimp spring rolls, crispy fried pancakes with pork and shrimp, beef noodle salad and the traditional beef noodle soup (using the chicken stock we made using the chicken bones we got at the market – I had been stressing when I saw chicken bones as an ingredient, but as a stock, I wasn’t expected to chew any bones!)
Everything we made was really tasty, and it was such a fun experience.

Back in Hoi An, we did some more wandering and some more shopping. At one jewellery store the girl running the store had the most adorable 2 month old puppy (Jack Russell I think). So I promptly plonked myself down on the floor of the shop and played with puppy. Such a cutie, she was called Mimi and she loved tummy rubs and just wanted to chew my fingers.

When we were tired of walking we sat down at a cafe and wrote some postcards while sipping tropical fruit mocktails. It was so relaxing! Hoi An is such a different pace to Hanoi. Its a very refreshing change.

In the evening we had planned to go see the traditional dancing show, since it had been closed on Sunday. We had learned that it was Vietnamese New Year, so being a public holiday the show was to be post-poned for another night. Instead we took a taxi to the nearby beach Cua Dai, we were told that this was the place to go for seafood.

At Cua Dai we wandered a short way along the beach, and caught the tail end of a gorgeous sunset. The water at the beach was full of people swimming..hundreds of people!! But we weren’t there to swim, so we wandered along the beach a bi before heading to the nearby streets to find a restaurant.

We sat down at a cute little restaurant and ordered some beer, prawn spring rolls, charcoal grilled squid and pineapple and stir fried crab and vegetable noodles. It was delicious!

Something I have noticed here is that it is often cheaper to buy beer than it is to buy water. It seems stupid, but either way I’m enjoying the local beers. For those of you dumb-founded at my sudden beer drinking, I don’t mind beer, but only when the weather is hot.

7/6/2011

At 4:45am we were sitting outside our hotel waiting to go on our ‘sunrise’ tour of My Son temple ruins. I was getting a little agitated because it was getting lighter and lighter. Eventually we got picked up, then we had to pick up more people, then we had to stop for breakfast and by the time we were on the way the sun was already up. We, and a few others had only booked the sunrise tour to see the sunrise over the ruins. It turned out it was really only an ‘early start’ tour, to get to the ruins before the day got too hot and before the other tourists. So we were pretty disappointed.

Aside from the lack of sunrise, the ruins were beautiful, and it was amazing that they are 1200 years old, and even after Vietnam got bombed (you could see bomb craters around the place), some of it is still standing.

Once we got back to the hotel we had some breakfast and a cup of tea. Then headed off to wander the streets once more. We spotted a place with awesome sandals, so ended up getting fitted for new sandals – got to choose the design and materials. Continuing along we found some gorgeous jewellery, and then we stopped for a massage. It was more expensive than on Cat Ba Island, here we paid $5 for a 30 minute foot massage. The guy was offering to do a full body massage for $10, so we may go back.

From there we headed back into the old part of town where we found a nice restaurant overlooking the river, and had some lunch. After that we headed to see a traditional folk music/dance performance at the Hoi An Handicraft workshop.

The performance was pretty cool, the band had lots of funky old school instruments, the singing wasn’t fantastic to listen to, but the dancing was beautiful.

Once the performance finished we looked around the workshop, we saw people making lanterns, carving wood, carving stone, embroidering pictures and making jute sleeping mats. It was really interesting to see how each of these things were done.

By the evening we went back to the optometrist to fit and collect our new glasses, then off to the first tailor to fit and collect shirts, and to the last tailor to fit and collect dresses. Everything we had made is fabulous! We still have to go fit out new sandals tomorrow.

We spent some time wandering around before finding a nice restaurant for a dinner. The place we went was great and cheap! It was 15cents for a glass of beer! They also offered set menu’s. So for a four course dinner and beer it cost a whopping $3.65!!

After dinner we popped in o a bar/cafe to have a drink before heading back to the hotel, what I found really amusing was that they had an air-conditioner on to cool the place down…it was set to 31degrees!!

Just another quick observation, Hoi An is stunning in the evening, almost anywhere you go you will see lanterns hanging in trees, on buildings strung across the road etc. Its enchanting!

8/6/2011

As our last day in Hoi An and with no set plans we started the day by sleeping in, at least mum did. I was unsuccessful at my attempt to sleep in and was wide awake by 6am. We had a leisurely breakfast before starting on packing all our purchases … will it all fit?

Todays plans include collecting our new sandals, getting a massage, enjoying some good food, wandering around taking in the atmosphere, and then flying out to Ho Chi Minh City in the afternoon.

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Ha Long Bay, Mai Chau and Hanoi

1/6/2011

We woke up after a restful sleep (much better sleeping in a hotel than in a boat!) and headed off to the jetty shortly after, to get the boat back to Ha Long City. Getting up was a massive challenge!! My calves were sooooo tight after yesterdays hike! I felt like an old nanna hobbling around.

The boat ride was again very peaceful, the haze was a bit thinner and we also travelled through an area of the bay that had a greater density of islands, so the scenery was a bit more colour-rich.

At one point in our journey we stopped at the biggest floating village in Ha Long. Here mum and I, and four others, rented a little row boat complete with a woman to row for us. She took us on a little tour of the area, and rowed through tunnels into other small bays (I don’t know if bay is the right word… The tunnel was the only way in/out and once in here it was vaguely circular with water at the bottom and sheer cliffs around). It was amazing!!

After our brief excursion we had lunch aboard the boat as it made its way into Ha Long City. At Ha Long city we caught a bus back to Hanoi. The 3 hour bus trip was terrible, it was a bit bigger than a normal minivan, no air conditioning, and we were crammed in 4 per row, and about 6 rows, plus luggage piled up on the front seats. I now know what sardine in a hot tin feels like!

Once we were finally checked into our hostel in hanoi,it was time for some exploring! So for a few hours we wandered around the streets checked out the local shops. I bought a cute dress for $35..pretty sure I paid too much for it, but that’s ok. We also sat down at a local food stall on the side of the street and had some food and a few beers. A big meal to feed 2 people came to a grand total of $5!!

Mum found wandering the streets terrifying at times. Most of the time scooters are parked on the footpath so you have to walk on the road, and the traffic is pretty crazy: bicycles, scooters and cars swerving like mad people down the road! Walking down the street is a challenge in itself, but crossing the road is even harder!! without any pedestrian crossings and no traffic lights for the cars it is a free-for-all. You just have to eye off your destination, walk at a steady pace and hope for the best!

2/6/2011

After brekky our guide for the Mai Chau tour, Hung, picked us up & we headed off down the highway. Excitingly for us, the tour consisted of the two of our,our guide, Hung and our driver. The distance to Mau Chau is 155km, with an expected travel time of 4 hours!!! When you hit a max speed of 65km/h down the highway, no wonder it takes so bloody long!

Once we were out of Hanoi (which in itself takes forever), the drive was through gorgeous countryside. Along the way Hung was more than happy to explain things we came across. For example in the middle of the field it is quite common to see a grave with a big headstone. In Vietnam, they believe in reincarnation, when someone dies they are buried in a wooden coffin on the family land. After three years (when just a skeleton remains) they are dug up, dressed in new clothes and put in a new concrete or steel coffin and buried again. The idea is that you are given new clothes and a new house for your new life.

Getting closer to Mai Chau the landscape was very mountainous, planted into the hillsides were tiers of green tea plants and the valleys were full of rice paddies. In the middle of some rice paddies in a valley lay a village of stilted houses, this was a village called Lac (1) in Mai Chau. We ‘checked in’ (dumped our bags in a room) and had some lunch. It was ridiculously hot, so we had a quick wander round the village before returning to our stilt house to sit in the shade by the fan.

In our short wander we checked out some more of the houses around the village. Virtually each house has a little shop of handmade goods in the ‘downstairs’. At one particular house we were looking at some silk tapestries, and had a look at the tapestry that was partially complete on a loom, it was gold silk. The lady that was making these particular tapestries showed us out the back of her place, that she had a dozen or so trays full of silk worms munching on mulberry leaves. When she is short on leaves she carries a big wicker basket on her head and collects more mulberry leaves from the trees in the mountains. Mum and I were surprised at just how much these villagers do for themselves. Obviously they try to make extra income by selling their products to tourists, but I think they are so self-sufficient that the tourists disappearing would not negatively impact them at all.

Once the day had cooled down a little we headed off on a bike ride around some of the neighbouring villages. We started by riding through the rice paddies belonging to the local farmers (on the little path of course). While it looks like one big rice field, each small plot is separated by a small raised section of land. Beyond the rice paddies we past crops of corn, peanuts and squash. We followed the path up and over a bridge, where we paused to watch the water buffalo cool down in the river, and continued on to the next village, Lac (2).

This village didn’t have any crops as they were separate from the houses and we had already passed them. The village itself was quite dry and dusty and was just full of houses. Here we popped in to visit a friend of Hung, her name was Xiaun (I think). She invited us in for some Vietnamese green tree and was most delighted to have us visit her home, she was also thrilled to show off the photos and postcards she had stuck all over the walls, that she had received from previous visitors. For a living she was a farmer, but also made tapestries, and we ended up buying a few scarf/shawl type things in a range of gorgeous colours. I think they are made of silk, but a coarser grade than we usually identify with silk (it depends on how it is spun as to how coarse or fine it is).

After our visit with Xiaun, we cycled to another village, Van. This one was a little higher in the hills and had a completely different feel to it. The houses were built on a slope, each house had its own crop/fish pond and animals at their house, not separate like in Lac. It was a lot more moist here, and with more trees, it had a real rainforest feel about it. Both villages were gorgeous, but completely different.

After all his cycling we were dripping with sweat, exhausted and hungry, so we headed back for dinner. Also staying at the same house was a big school group, and we were invited by them to go along to ‘dancing and party’. A little hesitant about this idea, going along turned out to be the right choice!

It was the first day of the lunar month, and this is cause for small celebration in the Lac village. Many people from Lac (1) and Lac (2) walked in the dark to a field adjacent to Lac (2). Here a big bonfire was lit, and the local White Thai (the White Thai are the minority group that live in Mai Chau) sang traditional songs and did some traditional dancing. Apart from the very rude and very noisy kids, it was a fantastic experience! To conclude the evening, everyone was invited to drink from a communal jar of traditional rice wine. It was very sweet, and didn’t have the burning sensation of the ‘fire water’ in China.

3/6/2011

With the village lights on all night and loud silly kids in the next room, we got very little sleep. From 5am I didn’t have any hope of sleeping any more. So at around 6am I got up and wandered through the village. It was so relaxing to dawdle around while the farmers were already out working in their fields, and any tourists were still in bed. Also the villagers were still setting up for the day, so weren’t hassling me about buying things.

By about 7:30 we had had breakfast and were packed up and ready to go. We popped in to Van village for another quick look around, before starting the massively long drive to the province of Ninh Binh.

With all the rough back roads, huge potholes and herds of cows I think that we had an average speed of 40km/h. We arrived at the old capital city of Vietnam, Hoa Lu, after about 4.5 hours of driving. Here Hung explained about the first king of Vietnam, and the his successors. It was pretty interesting, but with all the driving and the heat I didn’t really absorb much information. The temples there were very pretty, but there was not a whole lot left as it was not looked after for a long period of time, and the only bit theres now have undergone heavy duty restoration.

By his time we were very hungry so we were provided lunch at a local restaurant. In the Ninh Binh province goat is a speciality..so guess what one of the dishes was that we had for lunch??? You got it, Goat! As everyone knows I am not the biggest meat lover, but I did my part and ate goat. I tasted fine, the way it was marinated and cooked just tasted like chicken. So I ate it and my taste-buds told my head that it was ok, but I can tell you I was having serious mental issues coping with the concept.

The last our item was to be taken for a boat ride down a river between the rice paddies in an area full of limestone mountains. It is kind of like Ha Long Bay with sheer mountains popping up in the middle of nowhere, but rather than being in the sea, it is on land. So we spent a very peaceful 1.5hours being rowed along a river, through caves surrounded by rice green rice paddies and amazing limestone cliffs.

By now the Mai Chau tour module was complete, so we hopped back in the car or the remaining 3hour drive back to Hanoi. After 7.5 hours driving in one day we were pretty over it!

We were also both VERY excited to have a shower!! The ones in the village weren’t all that flash. On the topic of showers..so far they always seem to be cold, or you have to hold the shower head with one hand and wash yourself with the other. I am looking forward to using a shower where the shower head stays attached to the wall, and where I have the option of warm water. Lucky the weather is so hot that a cold shower isn’t too big a problem!

Just another quick comment before I forget, in Mau Chau we saw a girl with VERY long hair. Some girls grow their hair very very long, then when they cut it they sell it. This then gets used for things like hair extensions. Just another creative way to make an income- obviously with the time it takes to grow hair, you certainly can’t rely on it as a steady income!

4/6/2011

Today was a more chilled day, we planned to see a few sights but mostly just wander the streets.

We started by heading off to Hoan Kiem Lake. Its a big lake in the centre of Hanoi. At the top end of the lake we firstly bought tickets for the evening water puppet show, then headed across a beautiful red bridge to a little island to visit the Ngoc Son temple. The little island had many different trees, ranging from big to bonsai. The temple itself was nice, but nothing amazing, the scenery just outside the temple was the highlight.

We headed back over the bridge and proceeded to walk around the lake. Aside from the sweltering heat of a 38 degree day, it was a rather relaxing stroll. We saw an old Vietnamese man with his white hair in a bun on his head and wispy white beard, playing some traditional sounding music on a wooden flute type instrument. It was such a classic shot! Further around the lake we bought some sugar cane juice, you buy it in a plastic bag with a straw sticking out the top, and then we again paused for another musician, this was a slightly less old Vietnamese man playing the violin. After strolling for a while we stopped at a cafe for a breather. We sat in the shade overlooking the lake, mum sipping Papaya Juice and me tucking into a strawberry sundae.

After our little break we headed off again, we wandered some of the main shopping streets and checked out a market, we did make a few purchases along the way. By about 1pm we were pretty knackered and hungry so we stopped at a food stall in some random back street to eat Banh Tom with the locals. This was some kind of deep fried fritter, made of taro and whole small prawns, it was served with some kind of spicy soup that you dip the fritters into. I was fairly weirded out by eating who prawns, heads, legs, shells etc, but they tasted pretty good.

With some food in our bellies we headed off to check out Quan Chuong Gate and Bach Ma temple. They were both very beautiful. There was no information about the gate, but I am guessing it used to be the entrance to the city.

By 2pm we headed back to the hostel for a cold drink and a nap, so we would be fresh for another wander in the evening.

After catching up on some blog writing and a cool down we headed back outdoors. We went straight to the Thanh Long Water Puppet Theatre to see the show we bookd earlier in the day. Inside the theatre was a nicely set up stage, to the left was a band and at the front was a temple type structure, and in front of that a pond (about waist deep if you are standing in it). The band played fantastic traditional music, and the puppets played out the story of the old city being moved from Hou Lu to Hanoi, and the story of the king who saw a golden dragon rising up from Hanoi and this was the good omen to  move the capital to this location. The show wasn’t spectacular, but it was very interesting and I have certainly never seen anything like it.

After the show we stopped at some random food stall for dinner, and it was pretty gross (but for $2 it didn’t matter that we didn’t like it). After that I was a bit sick of all the random food, so we went to restaurant that had a menu in english as well as Vietnamese. Here we ordered a delicious banquet for two: Pho Bo (traditional beef noodle soup), ‘Ha Long Bay’ crab spring rolls and chicken with cashews and pineapple. Yummo!!!

After letting the food settle we headed to the night market. It was so crazy busy that after 2 blocks we spat it and headed back. We stopped at a few nice shops on the walk back to the hostel and got some silk sleeping bag liners for a bargain of $4 each!!!

To get a feel for the traffic, I filmed us crossing the road..this is the back street in the old quarter where our hostel is. In the film you can see the hostel across the road is our destination.

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First few Days in Vietnam

29/5/2011

After a night lacking in sleep, I got up at 4am to get read for the red-eye flight to Melbourne. Once in Melbourne we headed to the International terminal to check into our next flight. Standing in the queue were Vietnamese families with boxes and boxes of stuff. We learned that it is a tradition amongst Vietnamese that you have to give presents to EVERYONE in your family when returning from a trip, so each person has met their luggage limit of 30kg. Its amazing that the plane doesn’t fall out of the sky with all that weight!

Sitting at the departure gate mum and I were wondering what kind of food we would get on the plane. I said “What do I do if I have to choose between fish & pork?” (I don’t like either). So we get on the plane, settle in, then check out the menu, and what do you think was on it?!?! The choice of fish or pork!! I chose the pork…it ended up being ok, but still not on my my list of ‘likes’.

After a 1.5 hour transit in Ho Chi Minh, we were finally on the last leg. We arrived in Hanoi around 9:30 local time, and got to the hotel and to bed around 10:30 (1:30am tassie time). So we had an epic 21 hour first day!

 

30/5/2011

The morning got off to a start with us being picked up for out first our module: Ha Long Bay. The bus took off, expertly navigating Hanoi traffic, the driver did a great job dodging trucks and scooters, as well as the occasional cow or chicken. After driving for about 1.5 hours we stopped for a short break. We took the opportunity to get some water, and cool off with an ice cream. The choice of flavours was interesting and I ended up trying the coconut and green bean…it wasn’t terrible, but I don’t plan on having it again in a hurry!

We hopped back on the bus to continue onto Ha Long Bay. I managed to doze off for the rest of the bus trip which was great! When we finally got to Ha Long City we met the rest of our group (there were 14 of us in total), then all got on to a beautiful 3 storey traditional junk & headed off towards the islands of Ha Long Bay. It was so relaxing to sit on the top deck, soaking up the sun and the beautiful scenery. Unfortunately it was very hazy, so all the pics are rather grey, but it was still stunning.

Ha Long Bay is made up of over 2000 islands, some big, some small. In the middle of a cluster of islands we pulled up o the jetty and got off to go and explore some caves in the mountainside. To get to the caves we had to walk about heaps of stairs, then descend some steps into a cavern. There were lots of stalagmites and stalagtites. The textures on the cave ceiling were amazing! After following through each of the caverns we ended up on a viewing platform on the side of a cliff…great view!!

We then headed back to the boat, where we motored up to a floating market stall hat rented out kayaks. Here I buddied up with nice Englishman called Clive, and we paddled around the floating villages, little islands and in/out of caves for an hour. Though the water looked a bit dirty to me, it was great fun!!

Shortly after our kayaking we were taken to the beach for some swimming – I’m pretty sure it was man-made and the sand imported. Mum and I both went in for a dip…but I felt pretty disgusting afterwards and couldn’t wait to have a shower (pity there was no hot water on he boat) To finish up the day I sat out on the deck chatting to Clive, and enjoying a local Hanoi beer.

 

 

31/5/2011

I woke up bright and early at 6am, opened the door to my room and looked out over a most serene landscape. There was a light mist in the bay, the water was perfectly calm, and there were a dozen or so, beautiful old junks moored in the area. I sat up on the top deck and enjoyed the peace and quiet, listening to the insects buzzing on the islands. After breakfast the anchor was lifted and we started motoring towards Cat Ba Island.

It was a very pleasant 1.5 hour journey, navigating between all the small islands. Once we arrived at Cat Ba we hopped on the bus and headed to the national park, where a select few of us attempted the hill hike to the top. In 30 degree humid weather, climbing up a mountain like a goat, every part of my body was dripping with sweat! It was a gorgeous rainforest on a limestone mountain, I could hear all sorts of birds and also monkeys. Unfortunately we didn’t see any monkeys though. The last 50 metres of he hike was virtually straight up, and climbing rusted out ladders. At the very top was a steel lookout tower, I think it was held together by rust!! I climbed up it nonetheless and took a moment to appreciate the stunning view of the mountains.

When we got back to the bottom we were again bundled onto the bus and we headed to the other side of the island to check in to our hotel. Here we checked in, had a shower to cool down, ate some lunch and were then let loose for a free afternoon. Mum and I twaddled off in the direction of the markets. We got to a massage parlour and decided to spoil ourselves, so for $6.50 mum had a half hour shoulder massage and I had a half hour foot massage. I tell you what..I was in heaven. Hiking 1.5 hours on rocky terrain in flip flops really doesn’t do any good for your feet!!

Once we were done with the massages we continued on for a bit, checking out all the brightly coloured wares for sale. We stopped at a river stall and bought a coconut. They chop the top off for you and you drink the coconut juice out with a straw. Once all the juice is finished, they slice the coconut in half, so that you are able to eat the rest of the fruit. Once again we continued on, and by this stage we had found the markets. Here we could buy just about anything, preserved snakes, dried fish, live chickens or fish that they kill on site for you. We stuck with the safer option and bought some fresh fruit: Rambutan and Mangosteen.

We continued wandering the markets till we had seen everything and then headed towards the river where we wandered, checked out the boats, then sat down to eat our fruit. By this stage we had very sticky fingers, so we walked back to the hotel to wash our hands and stop for a quick breather. When we tried to take the elevator we soon realised there was no power. At this point we realised that power being switched off is a trend.. through the middle of the day people everywhere turnoff the electricity. Very weird!

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