As we crossed the border into Vietnam we both breathed a sigh of relief. The landscape hadn’t changed much but knowing we had left Cambodia put a smile on our faces. I had forgotten that we had 90 day visas which meant we could spend the rest of our travels around Vietnam rather than heading into Thailand after 30 days as we had been thinking.
We were staying in the back packer district of Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon and it was hectic. Our hotel was down one of the very slim streets that initially looked like a dead end alley, I was instantly wary. Motorbikes were making their way around us along with bicycles all while street food vendors were trying to catch our attention. We found our haven; cool, friendly and calm and with 52 options at breakfast….52!
We had been forewarned about how chaotic the roads were and mistakenly thought Cambodia had prepped us. The shear scale of bikes on the road was incredible, you could see the newly arrived westerners waiting by the side of the roads for some sign that it was ok to cross. You just had to go for it. Walking slowly across allowing the bikes to go around you, occasionally you would have to let a car whiz past your nose, not as much room for them to maneuver around you and the bikes. It felt like you were part of a large symbiotic relationship where everyone operated by the unspoken go slow rule.
There were so many beautiful and also harrowing places to visit in Saigon, Notre Dame Cathedral and the post office were stunning. The Reunification Palace highlighted the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war. Lush conference rooms fill the upper floors whilst in the basement corridors of rooms hold communication equipment and detailed military information of who was placed where in Vietnam. Tanks and fighter planes are dotted over the garden highlighting the force and violence that this building has witnessed. On a deeper level is the War Remnants Museum that held horrific details of the Vietnam War known in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America. Another reminder of what humans are capable of doing to each other when you shut your heart out for your ego.
On our last day we found an old apartment building that held cafe’s, restaurants and boutique clothing shops, despite the dilapidated look it had an easy and creative feel to it that we both loved and spent all morning exploring.
We gorged on street food, our favourites quickly becoming Banh Mi (baguette with pate, luncheon meat, herbs and chilli) and Bun Thit Nuong (Cold noodles on herbs topped with barbecued pork and a deep fried spring roll).
We moved on to Mui Ne after Saigon. The train journey was non eventful, seated in the soft seat air con carriage (you have a choice of soft or hard seat, fan or air con, the same options is given for the berths that held beds) we were surrounded by Westerners and locals and a strange selection of music that played the whole journey through hidden speakers. We were proud of ourselves for eventually finding the right bus to Mui Ne, the windows were open and the cool air as we drove on was much needed. After an upgrade at our hotel we found ourselves with a room over looking a tranquil swimming pool and within a short walk to the beach, we were already falling in love with Vietnam. We quickly befriended the lady selling Banh Mi at the bottom of the road; one day saw us visit her for lunch and for an after dinner ‘snack’.
We did an afternoon tour of the red and white sand dunes and walked through the fairy stream in awe at the red sand and the cathedral like structures jutting out from the banks. We passed through a fishing village stunned by the number of boats in the water and their varying shapes and colours.
Da Lat was our next stop, slightly inland and not serviced by trains. Using the Sinh Tourist company we had an air con bus for a good price. Da Lat was gorgeous, it was like a chilled Saigon. The air felt cool in the late afternoon, there was an abundance of flowers and greenery. Our hotel had given us a room with a mountain view and we caught the deep red sunset as we were checking in.
We sampled the cook it yourself dinner where they provide you with a mini barbecue on your table and you choose the raw meats and vegetables you would like to put on it. I’m not sure they trusted us as one of the lady’s stayed with us and practically cooked the entire thing. We snuck in a go when she had to move to another table. The next night we had a similar dinner but in a restaurant that seemed to have been created out of a garage. As we were deliberating outside secretly gathering the courage to enter a lady shouted ‘menu’ at us and beckoned us in. Typical movie style, the room went quiet and everyone stared at us… normal proceedings followed when we squeezed ourselves into the tiny plastic chairs and attempted to order dinner via google translate.
We toured the ‘Crazy House’, a Dali-esque home that is still being developed by the lady who lives there, well into her 70’s now but still feeding her dream and asking willing tourists to pay for the privilege to walk around it.
We climbed Nha Lang Biang which gave incredible views at 2,167 meters and an even more incredible work out in the last 300 meters of the climb, my heart would have leapt from my chest in protest if it could.
Our next coach trip took us to Nha Trang, a popular part of the coast for beach resorts. We made the most of beach time. The highlight of the afternoons was around 4pm when bus loads of Chinese tourists would arrive and take pictures of each other pretending to run into the sea or stand with neck scarves blowing in the wind above them, a highly natural and sought after pose. We found a local cafe that offered Chemex and Aeropress coffee for our afternoon games of chess, I’m still working on my killer moves that seem to be taking their time to materialise.
Our next stop was Hoi An. The soft beds on the sleeper train were all booked so we were left with a hard bed with air con in a 6 berth cabin for an 11 hour journey, I was nervous. On boarding Tim and I had the bottom bunk each. I had a father and his daughter above me and Tim had a Vietnamese lady, two English guys also joined us, they had the top bunks. Their faces when they entered the carriage made me laugh as it summed up how I had been thinking all day, however I wasn’t sleeping within inches of the ceiling and the air con unit.
I slept off and on, taking in the view when I could and listening to podcasts and reading. Once in Da Nang we needed to get a bus and then a taxi. Luckily the bus hailed us down then proceeded to try and charge us 3 times the normal fare, we got them down to twice as much and felt satisfied with our bartering.
Our hotel was based just outside of Hoi An old town, with free bike hire we moved between the old town and the two beaches that were within 8km. Our first night saw our hotel offer a cooking course that was great fun and delicious. Being happy eaters we made enough spring rolls for a restaurant, we ate them all.
We braved finding a tailor to sample getting some clothes made. The overall cost is very cheap but living on our daily budget of £30 for both of us we had to find a reputable tailor for a VERY good price. We found one in the first market we came across, the ladies were friendly and honest, kind of. We went back for daily fittings and confidently conveyed where items should be adjusted. We left on the third day feeling ecstatic and privileged to have gone through such a luxurious process. As soon as we got to our hotel that evening we pranced around the room in our new items.
After Hoi An we spent a few nights in Da Nang. We explored the Marble Mountains and took a moped out to the giant Lady Buddha who overlooked the sea. Both places are marked as my favourites so far in Vietnam. The Marble Mountains had pagoda’s and shrines every where, utilising the caves dotted over the mountain. One had even held a hospital for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war with an American base only a stone’s throw away. The large Lady Buddha was soulful. A short drive a long the coast saw this large white statue looming closer. Regardless of the amount of tourists on the site it still felt peaceful and sucked me in so I didn’t want to leave.
Our next train journey was to Hue (pronounced Huway). The train stations are incredible, a throng of activity before and after a train has been. People waiting, luggage every where, all sorts of items being transported. Depending on what platform your train comes in on depends whether you cross the track to get there. At one station an older lady climbed under the train that had just pulled in to get to another platform, her kids quickly followed, all the while shouting at the guard.
Our hotel in Hue was sublime compared to the one we left in Da Nang. The staff were friendly and attentive making us feel welcome. Da Nang definitely left a bitter taste due to the lack of hospitality, a sign that companies are still finding their way amongst the booming tourism. Hue is a great location for exploring the demilitarised zone but on our budget we are saving ourselves for Dong Hoi and the caves there. We perused the markets, that had an adundance of food at every turn. The sprawling citadel is also a must, displaying a large chunk of history when Hue was once the Capital. One evening whilst sitting by the river taking in the sunset a group of students asked if they could practice their English conversation with us. A five minute conversation ensued with both parties understanding the other. I was in awe at their confidence.
I can’t believe it is March and we haven’t been in the UK since last December. We return in less than a month. The time goes at a steady pace for us, and while we have adjusted to living in hotels and moving on every 4/5 days the thought of returning to the UK with Spring in full flow and the Summer still to come does excite me.