Saigon


Saigon is one of those cities you know is going to be fun. Home to 9 million, it’s the oldest city in Vietnam, much older than the young upstart Hanoi, the locals will tell you. The city is huge, but the first thing that strikes you is the volume of motorbikes on the road, my rough estimate is around a 1:250 car to motorbike ratio. The second thing that strikes you (or hopefully not) is the motorbikes themselves. There are very few traffic lights in Saigon, but the city streets are built in a New York-style grid system, with crossroads and roundabouts everywhere. Crossing the road is an art to be mastered, and certainly not for the faint hearted. Pick your spot and start walking at a steady pace, do not at any time stop for a vehicle or change pace, just let the traffic wind its way around you. It works, but as Jeremy Clarkson would put it, it’s squeaky bum time.

We arrived in town late in the afternoon and spent that evening organising our time and booking various tours. Excursions from HCMC are dirt cheap – we booked a half day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels for $5 each and a whole day in the Mekong Delta, including lunch, for $10. Admittedly you are with a whole coach full of people which is sometimes slightly too large a group but it’s still great value for money.

The Cu Chi tunnels is about an hour’s drive outside of HCMC and the site of intense fighting during the Vietnam war. The network of underground tunnels was built by the Viet Cong (South Vietnam communist guerrillas) in the decade before the war but was used in battles against the Americans. First stop on the tour was an ‘educational video’, not one of the most objective accounts of history I have ever seen, describing the Americans as ‘crazed capitalist devil dogs’. We were not the only ones stifling giggles as we watched, it’s no laughing matter I know, but like I said, a tad biased to say the least.
Next we were guided through the forest and taught all about the tunnel network – how they were built, what they were used for, how the Viet Cong concealed their existence, what traps and weapons they used – before being taken into a 100m stretch of the tunnels themselves. They have widened the tunnels to enable tourists to fit down them (us Westerners are somewhat fatter and taller than most Vietnamese) but they are still very hot and pretty claustrophobic when you have people in front of you and behind you.

I’m trying out some new photo format, as with all photos on this site, click to enlarge!

Saigon - Bui Vien

Cu Chi - education

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi - man trap

Cu Chi - tunnel entrance

Cu Chi tank

By lunchtime the tour was complete and it was back to the city for an afternoon of sightseeing and more Vietnam propaganda. First stop was the War Remnants museum, a national project to document the Vietnam War and all the atrocities that came with it. We are quick to realize that we are not being treated to an objective account of the war which is a shame as they have a fantastic collection or photographs and articles from the troubles. My advice is to go and look, but not to spend much time on the commentary that partners the displays.

Next we get lost, have a terrible cup of tea, find ourselves on the map again and spend the next two hours looking round the Reunification Palace. When the first Communist tanks rolled through these gates, American diplomats and families fled from helicopters on the roof, and North and South Vietnam became one again. To commemorate this, the building once home to the war command and President’s office has been left as it was in 1975. Thus, within, you will find some rather incredible 70’s kitsch styling plastered all over this astonishingly symmetrical building. The bar room and rooftop dancefloor are just awesome, think Starsky and Hutch vs Casablanca. But the highlight for me was the lower levels containing the old communicating equipment, cinema and war bunkers. I sneaked a photo of myself in the command chair whilst nobody was looking, although my serious face actually makes me look a little constipated.

Reunification palace

Reunification palace - roof

War room

Reunification bar

War museum

War museum - gun

We stop off at a great restaurant call Ngon, which turns out to be quite flash. The Vietnamese elite seat themselves around us, us in our flip-flops and grimy t-shirts. We didn’t have a clue how the menu worked, but managed to get a few dishes which were not only superb but also dirt cheap. Saigon’s KaoSan road equivalent, Bui Vien, sells food twice the price to foreigners and half the quality. Our meal came to around £4, so we decided to book a table for Chinese New Year.
The next day, it’s back on the tour bus, this time for a trip around the Mekong Delta. First stop is a temple with two enormous Buddha statues which are pretty impressive looking and provide a great opportunity to add to our growing collection of Buddha photos. Next, we hop on a boat and head up the river, stopping after about an hour for some lunch on Tortoise Island, slap bang in the middle of the Mekong Delta. The rest of the afternoon is spent sailing between various other islands where we get a taste of Vietnamese village life, including a coconut candy workshop, some traditional music and singing (watch the video to get a taster!!) and a cruise through the backwaters, being punted by a lady so old she looked like she might best be in a museum.

Mekong delta - big buddah

Mekong delta - mangroves

Saigon - balloon seller

Saigon - New Years outfits

Saigon - New Year posing

Saigon - street flower shows

By mid-afternoon it was time to head back into town to see in the New Year with those that were left in Saigon as many families had already headed back to their home towns, as is tradition in Vietnam. We got some advice from the hotel staff as to where we should head, and were told our best bet was to make our way towards the riverfront. So we take a slow stroll through the streets towards the Mekong, and what was a few hours earlier a ghost town changes, as the streets start to fill as families and friends join our path towards the river.
As we get nearer to our destination, we find streets lined with fresh flower displays, water features and statues. It seems like whoever is left in this city has the same plans as us, so we grab a few beers, squeeze down towards the river and take a spot on the pavement with the locals (much to their amusement). At the stroke of midnight the city put on an enormous fireworks display, HUGE! There were seven displays at the same time all over the city and it lasted for about 10 minutes, putting the Southfields Nov 5th Extravaganza to shame.
I bought Leah a Hello Kitty balloon as it seemed the thing to do and we made our way on foot back to our hotel, the streets still alive with thousands of motorbikes. The balloon by the way was robbed by a small street urchin, who grabbed the balloon and refused to let go. Thinking it would not look good for a man for be wrestling a balloon from small child’s grasp we let the little sod have it. Hopefully she kept it and didn’t just sell it on.
News Year’s day and the city is dead, and many shops and restaurants are closed. That evening we head back to Ngon for an utterly disastrous meal. Having thought we’d mastered the menu first time round we are greeted with an entirely different one, order two plates which we are told will be enough but are clearly not sufficient for us fat Westerners, are told they don’t have one of the dishes we want, try to order an alternative, then wait a seemingly endless amount of time for it to arrive before we finally give up, stop at the supermarket for snacks and head home to watch a film on the laptop. Massive Vietnamese restaurant fail. Cambodia ahead of us – the last country on the first leg of our adventure.

Nha Trang – nothing more awesome than an empty water park

After another sleeper train from Hoi An (they are dirt cheap and heaps more comfortable than sleeper buses), we arrive in Nha Trang for a short two day visit. Leah developed an evil cold on the train so it’s straight to bed for her while I spend some time looking around town.
Nha Trang appears to be a bit of a seaside holiday resort, and the town sits next to a huge stretch of beach on which there are a multitude of bars and clubs. It’s a bit like a Spanish beach resort, and the majority of visitors seem to be either American or Australian.
By the evening, Leah had recovered enough for us to have a mooch around town and enjoy an incredible meal at a place called Lanterns. The set menus were great value and by far the best food we have had in Vietnam.

The next day we decided to have some fun and head to a huge amusement park called Vinpearl on an island just off the coast called Vinpearl Island. It’s a crazy place with a  water park, aquarium, fairgrounds rides, computer games and food courts. Best I not mention the cocker spaniels doing the conga or the monkeys performing handstand on barrels – wrong. It’s a fixed price to get in and then everything is free apart from food, including the great cable car trip over. It’s off season in Nha Trang and it was blowing a gale so the cable car was swaying somewhat and the very few tourists that did head over to the park swore they would all be getting the boat home.
As per water park tradition, we make sure every single ride, slide and back-shredding tube is ridden at least once, and the park was so empty we almost had the place to ourselves.
The aquarium was one of the best I’ve ever been to, loads of fish I’ve never seen in captivity before (best not think too much about that). After a Lucky burger we spend an hour or two at the computer games and a very retro 4D cinema – brilliant.
The boat was out of action so we head back on cable car, and after another night out in town and a temple we get a day train to Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon as it’s still called by most locals. I’m looking forward to the manic pace and mayhem that comes with most Asian cities. It’s just an eight hour train ride, we (and two others) have the carriage to ourselves and there are some great views along the way.
Vinpearl - Tsunami ride

 

Hoi An – cute town, cheap beer

After an overnight train from Vinh, we arrive in Danang feeling tired and grubby and slump into the back seat of a taxi for the 45 minute drive down the coast to Hoi An. As we pass the beaches where the Americans first landed in Vietnam during the war, instead there now stand mammoth luxury resorts. We finally arrive at the hotel and decide a few hours’ kip are in order, but when building works and a rather loud drill start mere minutes after our arrival, we decide to head into town instead to explore.

Hoi an - Street scene

Our hotel is a 15 minute walk from the old town along a rather busy, noisy and dirty main road. But as we turn off towards the river, the scene is very different. French colonial architecture, old fishing boats, cute bars and cafes, a bustling market.  In many ways, very similar to Luang Prabang and just as charming.

Hoi An - Old French buildings

Having survived on crisps and biscuits for the last two days, we decide to sample some classic Hoi An food. We choose Cao Lau, a dish of noodles, greens and pork, White Rose, shrimp wrapped in rice paper, and a couple of draft beers. The food costs about £1 per dish and the beer an incredible 3,000 dong (about 9p)!!

In the streets, the locals are putting up New Year decorations and there are lanterns strung from building to building. On the river are giant paper models of dragons, fish and tortoises. Families are also burning what appears to be money in small bins outside their homes, although we later discover this is not real money and is a New Year tradition – they believe that by burning the money and other offerings, these will be passed to their ancestors in the afterlife. The streets are full of people carrying out this ritual, rice and salt also cover the streets in similar offerings.

Hoi An - Chinese new year offerings

Hoi An is famous for its tailors – I’m sure many of you will have seen the delightful suits that the Top Gear guys got made here when they were in Vietnam. We weren’t planning on getting anything made, but after some window shopping Rich spots a couple of jackets that he’s very keen on and we go for a fitting. The tailors here can make you pretty much anything in 24 hours but it’s better if you have a little longer to allow for alterations. After getting measured we head for a few beers and then bed, it’s been a long couple of days.

The next day it’s back into town for a first fitting and more exploring. We visit the Japanese covered bridge, sample some more Hoi An specialities (Wonton soup this time) and browse the shops full of beautiful bowls, tea sets and TinTin souvenirs. I also decide to buy a pair of boots (tailor made again) and a couple of cotton summer dresses from the same tailor that Rich is getting one of his jackets from.

Hoi An - Thu Bon River

If you’re feeling touristy, you can visit the My Son ruins easily on a day trip, but after our long journey from Laos we decide to just stay put for a few days instead – there are plenty of temples ahead of us in Cambodia. And so we enjoy more great food, beer and even a little wine and soak up the atmosphere of wonderful Hoi An. And having not planned on buying anything, we leave with two jackets, two dresses, a pair of boots and some presents for the folks back at home. Then it’s back to Danang and another overnight train to Nha Trang, the beach capital of Vietnam.

Hoi An - Bridge over river Thu Bon

Leaving Laos

So, the plan was to catch a 29hr bus direct from Vang Vieng to Hanoi. Things didn’t go well from the start as we were put on a slow local bus to Vientiane, not what we paid for. Arriving in Vientiane around 7pm we should have transfered to a sleeper bus to Hanoi. The sleeper turned out to be another local bus, we were late and there were no sleeper seats left. The thought of 22 hours without a sleeper seat didn’t really work with us so we decided to stay the night in Vientiane and re-arrange plans. After a few beers and some discussion we realised that a trip to Hanoi would cost us five days out of our trip and leave the rest of our travels rather rushed, so instead we decided to re-plan our intenery and hot foot it straight down to ,Hoi An.

Another day in Vientiane wasn’t so bad, I found a local computer shop and get a replacement hard drive for the laptop and Leah spent a few hours in an internet shop researching the next few weeks. That evening, we set off on a sleeper bus to the Vietnam city of Vinh, which was still not quite the bus we were expecting but better than the first try.

Laos - Vietnam overland border

We were emptied off our bus around 7am. Outside, visibility was about 10 metres due to mist and the temperature was hovering around freezing. It was a surreal moment. Together with hundreds of locals crossing the border we first gain an exit stamp from Laos and then walk around 1km into the mist towards the Vietnam checkpoint. We had already bought visas in Laos so after validating we wait for our bus, carry our bags across the border, until finally we meet up with our bus on the other side. In all, two and a half hours. To any fellow travellers that may read this I’m not going to say it was fun. It was freezing, some of us were soaked through and it took ages, but it was one of those experiences you do really enjoy, just after it’s ended!

After an onward bus to Vinh we book an overnight sleeper to Danang and camp out in a deserted hotel lobby for five hours with a Swiss guy called Stefan who was on holiday from China where he is studying. Strangely the hotel had unprotected superfast wi-fi so we abused it and downloaded over 7GB of films, sorry about that.

Vinh station

So, 48 hours on the road. We’re a bit tired and probably smell a bit. All reports say Hoi An is going to be a relaxing few days.