Touring Vietnam with the Irish and Rum!

Trip Start Oct 01, 2002
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Trip End Aug 08, 2005


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Friday, March 12, 2004

Hi Everybody,

Hope you're all doing well out there. We're in Vientiane, Laos having just ended our trip through Vietnam and we've had a fantastic time. For a change we've done it more or less the easy way and have booked tour after tour spending most of the time with a mad Irish couple we met, Mel and Mike.

We started off on Feb 17th with a boat trip which took us from Phnom Penh in Cambodia to a small town on the banks of the Mekong river, just over the border in Vietnam. Our gentle cruise from Phnom Penh started with a long bumpy bus ride, but we were soon on the mighty Mekong passing small rowing boats with cone shaped hatted passengers, paddy fields tilled by water buffalo and hundreds of stilt supported houses that overhang the river.

Chau Doc was our first Vietnamese town and it was quite an interesting place with a small colourful market and busy river traffic. Our hotel overlooking the river, allowed us to catch glimpses of daily life on the surrounding floating houses although the noises of some of the boats chugging past didn't allow for much sleep! We wandered around the town the next day attracting lots of attention (they obviously don't see too many tourists here as the novelty of saying hello and giggling all the time hasn't worn off for them yet). The people were friendly enough especially along the tracks leading out of the town, along the river and into the countryside. The local mountain was a good spot for sunset as it overlooked hundreds of acres of lush, green paddy fields stretching to the Cambodian border and far beyond. On the 19th we took a local bus to Can Tho, a town known for its floating markets. The bus was full of locals amused by our presence although we did get scammed for a couple of dollars when we thought we had bought bus tickets then further down the road the woman who gave us our tickets angrily and violently snatched them back and demanded the full price again. It seems to be a very common occurence here, for people to easily get angry and violent towards each other for very little reason. It's a bit of a shock after Thailand and Cambodia where the people are gentle and it's considered a 'loss of face' to even raise your voice.

After finding that boat tours in Can Tho were outrageously expensive we booked ourselves on a group tour which was better value for money but a little touristy compared to what we are used to. After an early start watching the sun rise over the Mekong from the back of a bumping motorbike trailer we eventually got on a boat to the two biggest floating markets in the Mekong Delta. It was probably a bit late by the time we got there but there was still a brisk trade in meat, fruit and veg going on and as our motorised boat bumped and bashed against the locals' rowing boats in the middle of the river, we felt as though we were in the thick of it. We cruised through some smaller canals under tall, narrow 'monkey' bridges, past paddy fields dotted with bath tub sized tombs of deceased relatives and stopping at a small rice processing factory where they de-husk the rice to create brown rice or then go on to polish it to white rice. Another cottage industry we visited created rice paper for wrapping spring rolls and yet another cooked up similar things with soya beans. It was all quite interesting if not a little touristy and although our hotel for the night in My Tho wasn't that great the local cafe where we ate was highly amusing both for us and the locals. Nobody spoke a word of English but thankfully it advertised as being vegetarian and so we pointed at a selection of unrecognisable foodstuffs and hoped for the best at least safe in the knowledge that it wouldn't be one of the many strange menu items like frog or snake (which we have sampled for lunch). As it turned out our meal was quite edible and ridiculously cheap although we still have no idea what we ate. The next morning we were off again in a boat to some of the islands in the Delta itself. We visited a very simple cocunut sweet making place where all the sweets were individually hand wrapped at amazing speed. We sampled sweets, wine and fruit all day long interspersed with quiet trips floating down narrow orchard or palm lined canals or in between islands, altogether it was a pretty lazy day which was fine by us, before we arrived by bus in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Saigon is yet another big city with bright lights and a lively backpacker area with plenty of shopping opportunities. Sian has fallen in love with the national dress called an Ao Dai, a tight fitting long dress over trousers commonly worn by the girls here whether gliding down canals or zipping about town on one of the hundreds of thousands of bikes and mopeds. It is quite amazing the number of bikes around and the loads that are carried on them. So far we have seen three adults and three kids on one moped, big gas bottles, massive bundles of fruit and veg and one common one in Cambodia, three pigs, presumed dead (or else very relaxed) strapped upside down to the back of one bike. They all make crossing the road very hazardous but actually with a little nerve they actually just move around you apart from when they want to be on the pavement, where they seem to have right of way.

On the 22nd we headed out of Saigon for the day to a rather bizarre pagoda used by the Caodai religion, which combines aspects from many of the world's major religions along with figureheads and ancient celebrities into a sort of a free for all, or at least that's our view of it! The pagoda was a bit bizarre too, brightly coloured, (some would say garish) and imaginatively decorated, (some would say tacky) but it does create quite an impression with Confucius, Jesus and Moses along with others all playing a part. The Vietnamese war tunnels at Cu Chi also created a impression albeit a very different one. We crawled through actual tunnels used by the Viet Cong to infiltrate and attack the U.S. army but they have been widened to allow the larger tourists to enter. The range and network of these underground tunnels, trapdoors and living areas is truly amazing. We also visited a few museums dedicated to the war (which the Vietnamese call the American war) which were at times shocking and not at all politically correct as they talk about the American enemy and the delight when they killed one.

To ease all our transport hassles until we reached Hanoi, we decided to book an 'Open Bus Tour' which was really cheap and transported us right to the door of our hotel in each town we visited. A complete luxury for us even if it is the lazy way! Our first stop from Saigon was Mui Ne, an unspoilt, quiet little town on the beach where colourful fishing boats line the shore and locals float by on round boats very similar to the coracles we saw in India. We dined on delicious Bbq'd tuna with Mel and Mike and managed to polish off a couple of bottles of the local rum which came with cans of coke for the princely sum of just over a quid! Of course we repeated the process all over again the next day before heading off (astonishingly hangover free) further up the coast to a place called Nha Trang. This was a busier, bigger resort where we tentatively booked ourselves on an island boat trip that had been described as a 'party boat' complete with a lively Vietnamese host and sounded like our idea of hell. Still it was the only way to see the islands and actually it turned out to be quite good fun (if only we could have thrown the hosts's mike into the sea) and there was a good crowd of people, great snorkelling around a coral reef and gorgeous weather, although we did get just a touch sunburnt. At one beach we hired canoes and despite Mel's assurances that they really were hard to capsize, we still managed it just a few minutes later in full view of everyone on the beach which was hilarious to everyone including us.

From Nha Trang we endured a full day's bus ride to Hoi An but enjoyed spectacular scenery on mountain roads overlooking rice paddies. Our bus ticket entitled us to a free night's accommodation in Hoi An and to be honest we weren't expecting much but when we got there we were very pleasantly surprised. Easily the nicest hotel we've stayed in since leaving home and a really nice, if a little chilly, swimming pool. It was so nice in fact that we simply couldn't bring ourselves to leave in a hurry so we paid for 2 extra nights and as they didn't want us to leave we got the room for the bargain of a fiver a night!!! Normally we settle on a place with clean sheets so you can't imagine how excited two weary packpakers can get when there were real fluffy towels on offer and mini toiletries in the bathroom! Okay, so it's a bit sad but we don't care we were in our element! Hoi An itself was also a really nice place, one of our favourite in Vietnam and somewhere we would love to go back to. There were many old colonial buildings and traditional shophouses with wooden shutters, along narrow streets with small brigdes. Close to the town were the ancient Cham ruins of My Son which of course we had to visit and are rather ashamed to say that these places can no longer enthrall us after our trip to Angkor. After our too brief respite of luxury we dragged ourselves back on the bus and travelled to a place called Hue. It was a brief stop for us and we booked a full day boat ride including lunch, down the Perfume River for the price of $1. We spent the day watching the world go by and stopping at some old royal tombs and another pagoda. We weren't expecting much for a dollar but again we were pleasantly surprised and had a really good time.

It was after Hue that we endured a bus ride from hell. A full 14 hours overnight up to Hanoi where the driver even played music from 2 in the morning to prevent anyone getting the slightest bit of sleep. We were then dumped into the gentle hands of the rip off touts of Hanoi who proceeded to try and scam us at every opportunity as they tried to convince us that we were at the hotel we were looking for and not the fake one it actually was, which had ripped off the name of another and actually lied to us as to where we were on the map. After losing the plot for a few minutes we shook them off and managed to get where we were headed, a tiny hotel tucked down a narrow street where the locals cook and eat with mopeds speeding past their noses. In the mornings, caged birds sing and Communist speeches blare out over the loudspeakers which wake us up early but don't last too long. The city was a bit too intense for us with it's fair share of hassling touts and motorcycle packed streets where you take your life into your hands everytime you cross and pray they'll swerve round you as there's no other way to do it.

Hanoi does have an interesting old quarter with loads of tiny shops selling everything from gravestones bearing Britney Spears's picture (a bit sick we think) to dried seahorses. Hanoi also has some really nice, peaceful pagodas and a really good jazz cafe which we've visited a few times with Mel and Mike. We all decided to charter our own boat (a big motorised junk) to take us on a trip around Halong Bay where an ancient limestone plateau sunk into the sea leaving nearly 2 thousand mountain tops jutting out as small islands. We cruised peacefully around enjoying the spectacular scenery and visited some massive caves with beautiful stalagtites and stalagmites. Our trip also included the use of twin kayaks which we used to paddle around the islands and visit a small fishing commumity living in tiny floating houses. We cruised back to Halong City the next day after spending the night on the boat entertaining ourselves with more rum, a crackly C.D. player and card games with the crew.

We ended our visit to Vietnam with another night of rum before we all headed our separate ways, as Mel and Mike flew off to Bangkok. We're now in Vientiane, Laos after taking the lazy option of flying as we couldn't bear the thought of another extra long bus ride, 24 hours!!! Vientiane seems a really nice and laid back capital after the hectic pace of Hanoi and we are so glad we flew here. Anyway, that's just about everything for now,

Take care all,

K & S.
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