Although I knew little of Vietnam apart from what I had gleaned from watching ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’, I was excited to be on my way to Ho Chi Minh City. This was not only because Helena and I had heard good stories from Helena’s brother Simon, who visited in October 2014, but also because we had arranged to meet and travel with our great friend Tessa for a couple of weeks. Oh, and apparently the beer is incredibly cheap too!
Vietnam did not disappoint! So many stories arose from our two weeks with Tessa, far too many to be encapsulated here, but I’ll do my best to recount some of the highlights.
The geography of Vietnam almost determines its own route for travel; being a long slender country you simply either travel from south to north or vice versa, picking your stops along the way. We’d arranged to meet Tessa in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, and work our way north up to Hanoi, the capital. At the time of booking, we didn’t realise that the Vietnamese (and Chinese) Lunar New Year fell at the end of our trip and this was to cause a few complications in the travel department, but more of that later…
Meeting Tessa was fabulous – to travel is a wonderful experience in itself, as we are discovering daily, but to be able to share that experience and create memories with your best friends is even better!
The day we met Tessa we went for a wander around Ho Chi Minh City. In a way, it feels similar to Bangkok; modern, exciting, energetic…very little of the feel of the communist country that in reality it is. Anybody who visits Saigon, however, will be struck immediately by one thing – the scooters! Unlike the chaos of India, the roads do appear to have some sense of regulation but the sheer volume of two wheeled transport is simply staggering! And it creates one simple, but persistent problem: how on earth do you cross the road? The river of scooters is never-ending at every intersection, and the tail-enders from one red light merge seamlessly with the eager anticipators of the next green. Having been hardened by our Indian escapades, we quickly got the hang of spotting a whisker of a break in the traffic and stepping out with mixture of optimism and blind faith that we’d reach the other side alive. On more than one occasion, I had crossed the road only to turn back to see a concerned looking Helena and a bemused looking Tessa standing on the other side of the sea of scooters. Where’s Moses when you need him?!
Our first meal in HCMC was at a small ‘cook your own food’ BBQ place that Hels and I had spotted. It was an excellent affair that I particularly enjoyed as I was missing cooking desperately by that point. We ate too much, and drank far too much – but it would have been rude not to when bottles of Bia Saigon were 12000 Dong each – (you get 32000 Dong to the pound, hence our excitement!)
We then spent a few days using HCMC as a base for tours: one to the Mekong Delta, where Tessa bought a Vietnamese conical hat – I have no idea what they’re called but you know the ones I mean; and one to the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of tiny underground passages that the North Vietnamese Army used to evade the Americans during the Vietnam War. Both excellent days out, and worthy of blogs in their own right. Interestingly, our guide Lu (My name is Lu, L U, Lu. You can call me Handsome Lu) came out with a particularly memorable quote on the bus back from Cu Chi. I can’t quite remember the context but I distinctly remember the phrase, ‘…because in Vietnam we are communists so we are all very happy.’ Propaganda? Actual fact? Who knows! He seemed convinced, just about. Make of it what you will…but it did spark a conversation off amongst the three of us and a couple of other passengers beginning with, ‘What even is Communism anyway?’
Moving north, we stayed one night in Da Nang and ate a meal in a ‘restaurant’ right next to our hotel. This establishment was no more than a collection of tiny plastic chairs and tables in a gravel space that resembled a car park but the food was good quality and cheap, even if we did get a few bizarre looks from the locals. The next morning, Hels and I went for a walk to the beach and were a little surprised to see absolutely no evidence of the restaurant remaining in the space at all…
And so to Hoi An. A beauty of a town located a few kilometres from the coast, quaint, full of markets, street-food sellers, and tailors who could make you anything you desired in an unfeasibly short amount of time. One of our biggest problems in Hoi An, however, was the now increasing list of alliterative Vietnamese locations beginning with the letter ‘H’. Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An – OK so far, but add in Hue, Hanoi, and Ha Long Bay and you have a problem! Particularly in the case of the mutual anagrams Hoi An and Hanoi. The problem reared its head immediately when, although I thought I’d booked us into a hostel in Hoi An, it turned out that the booking was actually in Hanoi…and the Hoi An hostel was full!
Tessa to the rescue – generously treating us to a stay in an excellent hotel… With a pool, a gym, and a breakfast buffet you would literally die for!
Hoi An turned out to be one of our favourite destinations. We went to a cooking class, on the recommendation of Helena’s brother, and it was truly excellent. We opted to spend an hour before the class going around the market with a guide to buy provisions. He did tell us his name, but we all promptly forgot it. When, for fear of being rude, I finally plucked up the courage to ask again, our guide simply smiled and said, ‘Just call me Jackie Chan.’ No amount of pleading would get him to repeat his real name, so Jackie Chan it was. He showed us all sorts of things including the special Hoi An noodle that is made with water from the special well in Hoi An to make their speciality dish, Cao Lau.
The end of the tour marked the beginning of the class, and we bade ‘Jackie’ farewell as we donned our aprons and started chopping various vegetables, noodles and other ingredients. Chef Son Trang was particularly impressed with my knife skills, I might add with modesty! The food we cooked (with a vast amount of assistance from Son) was excellent – clean, fresh flavours, simply delivered, presented without pretensions. Our meal of stuffed aubergines, spiced pork patties, Sea Bass steamed in banana leaf, and five spice chicken spring rolls was one of the best we had in Vietnam. Thanks for the recommendation Simon!
That evening was our last in Hoi An as we had booked a guided day trip riding scooters to Hue for the next morning. Common sense would say that an early night was perhaps in order, and that was the plan … until I fell into a game of card based ‘horse racing’ organised by one of the hostel guys affectionately known as ‘dreds’. (Yes he had dredlocks, not the most imaginative of nicknames on that count I suppose!) We met a bunch of English girls, Jane, Suzy, Ellie and Emma, and together with a motley crew of other travellers, and increasingly lubricated by the result of ‘betting on the horses’, the inevitable drunkenness ensued. Hels and Tessa were feeling a bit sleepy, and as I got more inebriated it was clear that this night was only going one way … out to sample Hoi An nightlife! I tagged along with the bunch and headed off to Tiger Tiger.
It turned out to be a fabulous evening of partying and dancing the night away but the highlight has to be the game of beer pong. For those who are unaware of this game, I won’t go into too much detail on the precise (and often much debated) rules, but safe to say it involves a long table, a triangular arrangement of cups at each end filled with beer, and a couple of ping pong balls. I teamed up with Jane against Suzy, Emma and Ellie, and the contest began. I could perhaps say at this point that Jane and I had superior, unassailable skills in the realms of beer pong, but it is more likely that we simply got lucky. A lot lucky! We took it in turns to try and get the ping pong balls into the opposition’s cups. Each time one hits the target, the opposing team has to drink. We were so successful at this (and the others so poor) that soon, we were drinking our own beer out of choice rather than forfeit! We ended with a spectacular victory, but, in all honesty, everybody ended up happily drunk and I turned back up to the hostel thinking it was a good idea to wake the sleeping Helena with repeated assertions of, ‘I’m a beer pong legend!’
I paid the price the following morning. The hangover was enough to cure me of any legendary aspirations I may have had! And yet, this turned out to be one of our best days, probably the best day, of our whole trip.
We’d packed the bags and I was downstairs eating an egg filled baguette and drinking a second cup of 3in1 coffee when I noticed a pleasant looking chap in what appeared to be motorcycle type clothing. He was sitting patiently on the benches outside the hostel and he caught my eye. I wandered over and enquired if he was was our motorcycle guide, which indeed he was. He introduced himself as ‘Number 10’. I was a little confused, thinking I had misheard him, but he eagerly pointed to a large 10 on the fuel tank of his bike. ‘Number 10’, he repeated. ‘Fantastic, I’m Chris’, I said shaking his hand, wondering at the name. It seems the Vietnamese have become accustomed to anglicising their names for the benefit of tourists.
I swiftly made a third cup of coffee and was hastily drinking it as Number 10 loaded our bags onto his bike. ‘No rush, no rush,’ he repeated. Tessa, Helena and I weren’t convinced that it was possible for all three of our large bags to be carried on a single bike, but Number 10 seemed unperturbed as he strapped them securely to the back, and then reached for my hand luggage as well. He was well used to it it seemed!
We’d heard about this particular tour from a South African couple that Teasa had got chatting to on our Cu Chi tour. ‘Lefamilyriders’ came highly recommended, and now we know why. We had a fantastic day working out way north from Hoi An to Hue with various stops along the way including: the Marble Mountain, the Hai Van pass, lunch at an incredible seafood restaurant, swimming at the ‘Elephant Falls’ and finally the city of Hue itself.
Tessa and I had opted to ride with Helena travelling on the back of the bike with me. Initially, the road was flat and tracked along the coastal road parallel with the beach. After our stop at the Marble Mountain where we explored caves filled with huge statues of Buddha carved into and out of the rock, we continued north. After passing through Da Nang, the road began to climb. We knew then that we were on the Hai Van Pass, made famous by a recent Top Gear Special. The road winds and climbs its way up and over the mountain revealing incredible views of the coastline along the way. Our feelings of excitement and expectation were rewarded with stunning scenery and we mutually agreed the climb would be fantastic to tackle on road bikes – that is if the road surface wasn’t treacherous of course, which it was in places. The descent was equally as exhilarating and soon we were scooting along at the edge of the sea once more.
Number 10 then took us to a fabulous restaurant that was built on a ‘pier’ of sorts reaching out into the bay. We were then fed, and fed, and fed some more, and the food was phenomenal. We had huge plates of steamed cockles, grilled mussels, crispy crumbed squid, morning glory with insane amounts of garlic, stir-fried tiger prawns, a beautiful omelette of sorts, and rice, all washed down with Huda beer (but just the one can!). Best meal ever…? Quite possibly!
After lunch we rode on. At the Elephant Waterfall, Helena and I went for a dip while Tessa had a nap, before continuing the final 2 hours of the journey. Having left Hoi An at 9am, we were tired but happy to reach our destination. We bade a thankful farewell to Number 10 and checked into our hostel. I suppose the highlight of the trip, with all its many individual high points, was the riding itself – getting to see, hear, feel the country as you ride the roads, free from the constraints of public transport, the sterilised air-conditioned planes, trains and buses. The landscape unfolds before your eyes, an ever-changing canvas, like an extended symphony gradually modulating through various keys. What a day!
And yet…we were only half way through the trip in reality!! Hue was an interesting city to explore with its citadel and Imperial City. It marked a transition into North Vietnam and the feel is certainly a bit different, a bit more rustic, much less familiar than the modern Ho Chi Minh City. Happily, we actually bumped into Number 10 at a local restaurant in Hue the day after our bike trip. He came over and said hello, helped us order some Hue specialities for lunch, and then showed us how to eat them properly! It felt good to see him again as he’d guided us through such an enjoyable day the day before.
The final part of our journey took us to the capital, Hanoi, although it felt much less like a capital city than Ho Chi Minh City. Our main complication at this point was Tet – the Vietnamese New Year. Pretty much everything shuts down for Tet, and 2-3 days either side of it, which was an issue for us since Tet was on the 19th Feb and Tessa’s flight home was at midnight on the 20th. In an attempt to plan for this, we booked a trip to ‘Castaway’ Island while we were in Hoi An. This 3 day 2 night trip to Ha Long bay would sort all of our transport and accommodation issues while giving us an opportunity to visit the wonder of the world that is Ha Long. What we didn’t fully realise at the time is that ‘Castaways’ is essentially a 3 day debauchery aimed mainly at young travellers who want to feel like they are on a deserted island while getting insanely drunk.
I could write ten blogs about our Castaway experience but … it actually wasn’t that bad – and Tessa came up with a very handy Plan B! In brief (because I realise this is becoming a bit of an epic post), we went to ‘Castaway Island’ (which is technically in the beautiful Lan Ha bay as it happens), went kayaking while most others went booze cruising, and managed to organise our second night on Cat Ba Island instead of staying two nights at Castaway. I don’t really want to give a bad impression of our time though as coincidentally the girls from Hoi An were on the same trip as us and we enjoyed another round of ‘horse racing’, this time led by Suzy rather than dreds, and actually had a really good night. At one point Helena reminded me that I shouldn’t dance on the tables as our agreed refund was based on the idea that we had been sold the trip under false pretences (which we were to an extent) And the scenery was, yet again, incredible. The kayaking in the afternoon was such a liberating experience as we paddled off into the serenity of the bay, dwarfed by huge rock formations and surrounded by placid waters. We went out again the following morning and felt a mild sense of disappointment that the majority of the ‘castaways’ would never really take a look at their surroundings.
‘Plan B’ on Cat Ba was an unplanned yet awesome insight into the Tet revelry. After spending an exciting afternoon exploring the island on scooters (clearly our trip with Number 10 had had an effect on us), we were invited by our hotel to be ‘guests’ at the New Year celebrations on the harbourside. What ensued was an evening of watching a sort of variety performance of various singing, dancing and martial arts acts. The highlight for us though was when the announcer suddenly switched into English and said, ‘We’d now like to invite all the foreigners and tourists to join us on stage for a dance.’ All eyes were on us, and the thirty or so other foreigners/tourists who were sat with us near the front of the audience. So, with no other option, up we got onto the stage and were quickly embroiled in a traditional dance that involved jumping over moving bamboo canes. It was fun, and painless, and didn’t last too long. Soon we were returning to our seats, happy to have been a part of the celebration. But that wasn’t the end of it for us …
Five minutes later … ‘We’d now like to invite all the foreigners and tourists to join the children on stage for a flash mob.’
‘What’s a flash mob?’ asked Tessa.
‘Who knows,’ I said, ‘Let’s just go with it!’ And so we did. We interspersed ourselves between rows of young boys and girls and proceeded to dance along to the South African World Cup Anthem ‘Wave Your Flag’. We didn’t really know what we were doing but soon realised that it didn’t matter much. This was followed by a presentation to all the foreigners of gift bags, red carnations and red envelopes – which had actual real cash money in them!!
And so our time with Tessa came to an end. On the bus back from Ha Long/Cat Ba we suddenly realised that Tessa’s flight home was 24hours earlier than we’d thought (a very close shave!) so we had to say a premature goodbye in Hanoi, waving her off in a taxi from the doors of the Golden Sun Palace Hotel, another one of Simon’s recommendations.
Despite the length of this blog (sorry!), there are so many stories left untold. The Saigon Sky Tower, the wonderful pancake, the chicken legs that were really feet, running in HCMC and Hoi An, the Hue bottle opener, the Imperial city, the detailed versions of Mekong and Cu Chi, watching Platoon (to re-educate ourselves), the visit to the War Remnants Museum in HCMC and its Agent Orange exhibit, the speed boat to Ha Long, the dreds based love story, scootering and trekking on Cat Ba, the repeated examples of Vietnamese wiring… to name but a few. In a similar vein to our Cambodian experience, Vietnam has had a harrowing recent past, and we learned a lot on our journey, and yet there is so much more to learn.