Day 15: Farewell Vietnam!

**WARNING** This post was draft written 3 years ago and I’ve only just my lazy arse around to finishing it. Everything from here on was written from a combination of notes and a fading memory…

I woke very hungry and hurried downstairs for the hotel breakfast. Back to the usual frankfurter sausages, but I didn’t entirely mind. I was ravenous! I had the morning to kill while I waited for my afternoon flight, so me and another couple of girls from the trip went for a little explore of Saigon. We went to a pagoda and saw some botanical gardens. We had fruit juices at another local hotel – mine was lychee flavoured, obviously! Then back to the hotel for a final pack and to catch the taxi to the airport. I was hungry again by the time I got to the airport and spotted Burger King. I couldn’t….could I? Turns out I could. I ordered a Double Cheeseburger and Fries and yes, it tasted the same as home. It felt so wrong but also so right!! Back to modern living already.

Thankfully the flights were uneventful. They served us chicken and beans (boring, but edible) and a beef pasty thing (weird, but edible). I watched The Artist – not one for watching while you’re half asleep by the way! – and The Big Bang Theory. I was too tired for anything more intellectually stimulating. I remember the 5 hour wait from midnight to 5am in Doha for my connecting flight was possibly the worst part of my whole trip. I just wanted to be home! And there was no where to sleep or even sit comfortably. So I was very bored and very tired. But eventually the flight was boarding, and 8 hours later I was back in London.

Vietnam was the first Eastern country I’d been to, and I went partly for that reason. I expected it to be entirely different from the UK/Europe/US, and it most definitely was! The food was amazing and the scenery was just stunning. I loved how basic it was and – quite frankly – how cheap everything was. It was a real novelty after being a stingey student for so long to not have to think twice about ordering something from a menu or having a second (or third!) beer. I loved it so much that my next stop (and next blog series) – Thailand!!

Day 14: Saigon

**WARNING** This post was draft written 3 years ago and I’ve only just my lazy arse around to finishing it. Everything from here on was written from a combination of notes and a fading memory…

I slept right through the night on my very comfy camp bed (although seemingly I sleep through typhoons, so a few crickets and mischievous rats were never going to stop me!). We had a breakfast of banana pancakes, which seems to be the standard offering to Westerners. It’s very yummy, but my tour group all agreed that we would’ve liked a proper Vietnamese breakfast instead – i.e. a noodle soup beefy broth called ‘pho’. We caught a boat to the mainland and transferred to a coach headed to Saigon. It was weird to be back in a huge modern city after so long in small towns and villages. I must admit I didn’t enjoy it as much, and wished we’d had a couple more days in the jungle or Halong bay instead of Saigon. We took a cyclo tour through the city early in the morning to visit the war remnants museum before the crowds hit. It’s a museum dedicated to the Vietnam war (which the Vietnamese understandably call the American war). It contains lots of the usual war museum stuff – tanks, planes, uniforms, guns etc. But one of the rooms was full of jars of malformed embryos in liquid. So very very creepy. The embryos were essentially miscarried as a result of Agent Orange being dumped on the land by the Americans (and associated troops). The museum walls said the negative effects of Agent Orange still persist in the country today. After a sombre morning, we then cycloed off to reunification palace. By this timing it was raining, which fuelled the already dampened post-museum spirits of the group. We eventually cheered up on a full cyclo tour, during which we were taken down the posh streets (Prada, Gucci etc!) and eventually ended at our final hotel for the trip. Our guide arranged for us to go to a lovely lovely restaurant for our final meal which had an AMAZING view across the twinkling lights of the city. I had an incredible beef curry, which reminded me of more typical coconut-based Thai-style curry – apparently this is typical of richer southern Vietnamese food. I also had a lemongrass/lychee cocktail which was soooo nice! It still felt weird to be back to richer Western-style living, but that cocktail and that food made everything ok! After dinner we were allowed up onto the rooftop for a proper look at the amazing view, and took a few final photos of the group as a farewell. It was bittersweet having to leave, but by now I was looking forward to going home. By the time we got back to the hotel I was shattered, and very ready for bed. So at that particular point I was rather glad of my Saigon Western-style mattress and Western-style duvet!!

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Day 13: The Mekong Delta

We rose bright and early for breakfast in the hotel before boarding a bus to the Mekong Delta. A couple of hours later we arrive and pile into a tourist boat with a driver and a female tour guide. The boat drove us around one of the waterways, while the guide told us about life on the Delta. Most of the boats have creepy eyes painted on the hull to ward off river monsters, thought to be the crocodiles which have now been hunted to extinction. We saw lots of floating houses and houses with stilts built into the river bank. Our guide told us that some house boats farm fish, and have nets suspended underneath which can grow up to 30 thousand fish a year. We also saw a huge flat boat, which apparently is used to transport sand collected in the Mekong Delta to Saigon.

After our introductory tour, we stopped at Unicorn Island to see life on land. We went to a small house and saw pigs, ducks and tiny kittens, and then walked up the road to see bananas, coconuts, dragon fruit, ‘fish egg’ fruit (tastes like sweets) and jackfruit all growing in peoples’ front gardens. Our guide then took us to sit in the shade to try a variety Mekong-grown fruits, including pineapple, dragon fruit, papaya and mini bananas, all served with tea and musical accompaniment.

**WARNING** This post was draft written 3 years ago and I’ve only just my lazy arse around to finishing it. Everything from here on was written from a combination of notes and a fading memory…

After a random afternoon of music and fruit, we got back on the boat to another island, where we were transferred in twos and threes to our rowing boats! We rowed through narrow canals with overgrown trees either side – very Little Mermaid ‘Kiss the Girl’ esque. Except I was on a boat with two other girls, so no romance here thank you! After about an hour we stopped at another (very)mini port and tied the boats up. We were headed to a coconut sweet factory but stopped at a sort of open air cafe on the way (probably because another tour group was already in the factory, but with our elusive tour guide, we never knew!). At the cafe we tried some sweetened coconut (like crystalised ginger, very yummy) with a sort of orangey tea (yuck). For some very random reason there was an ENORMOUS snake in box which the cafe people took out and let us drape it around our shoulders and take pictures. I eventually plucked up the courage to hold this thing – which was not an entirely enjoyable experience! It was weird and smooth and cold and heavy, and I subsequently decided holding a potentially deadly animal was not exactly my cup of tea. Orangey flavour or not.

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After our snakey tea experience, we eventually got taken to the coconut sweet factory. It was cool to see how the coconut was mixed with water and heated to form a sort of toffee. They then used rice paper to wrap it up, which as it’s edible can be eaten wrapped up with the sweet to avoid sticky fingers. Very clever! I bought lots back for the office, but ended up eating most of it myself. We then got another boat to a rather snazz open air restaurant for a very yummy seafood lunch with noodles. I remember there being an ENORMOUS butterfly, which had the most beautiful colourful wings I’ve ever seen. Sadly it soon was being chased across the ceiling and then devoured by a couple of geckos. It’s a dog eat dog world out here!

Boaty day over, we got tuk tuks to our next homestay. This was a slightly more formal affair; rather than sleeping in the house with the family, this time we were sleeping outside on campbeds (or hammocks for those who wanted) which were draped with mosquito nets. We took a walk around the village paths  and climbed over bamboo bridges. We were soon back for dinner, which comprised marinaded and barbecued rat, caught by the homestay family from the surrounding coconut trees. They said it was the best rat you could have because the rats are just gorging themselves on coconut all day. I’ve not exactly got much to compare it against, but it was definitely yummy! We also had banana flower (weird and squishy), morning glory (like pak choi), yummy chicken noodles and coconut lemongrass curry. It was amazing! I definitely think the homestays were the best bits of the whole holiday, particularly because of the food they served. After a desert of lychees and numerous ‘digestifs’ of rice wine, we were shooed to bed at about midnight by our guide. Falling asleep we could hear the crickets chirping and the rats running around in the coconut trees….an odd mixture of creepy and idyllic!

Day 12: Saigon and the Cu Chi Tunnels

We got up early and met for breakfast at 5:30am, ready for our flight to Saigon. The poor hotel hadn’t quite reckoned on the group’s thirst for a hot morning drinks, and the calls for coffee were loud and strong! Once everyone was fed and caffeined up to the hilt, we were loaded onto the bus for the drive to Danang airport. There was very little at the airport save a lone Burger King (which tempted a few people!), so we headed straight for the gate and boarded on time at 9am. An hour later we landed in Saigon and transferred to the hotel.

We dropped our bags off and those who wanted to, we continued on to see the Cu Chi tunnels. When we arrived, our tour guide showed us to a bunker, and began explaining about the tunnels and their use in the Vietnam war (the American war to the Vietnamese). The tunnels had everything to survive underground for weeks on end, including meeting rooms, kitchens, and even operating theatres! Our tour guide explained that the tunnels were too small for American soldiers, designed instead to fit Vietnamese weighing just 40 – 50 kg. He told us about the excess soil being hidden in bomb craters, airholes disguised as termite hills, and how smoke from cooking underground was angled out so it crept along the ground rather than rising into the sky. He also showed us an odd propaganda film about the war produced in 1967 by the Viet Cong. We then embarked on our tour around the tunnelled areas, seeing the termite hill airholes, B52 bomb craters, smoke creeping along the ground and underground ammunitions factories. There was even an old singer sewing machine for making the clothing! We were also shown the bamboo traps used to protect the tunnels from the Americans, which looked pretty brutal. It’s no wonder that so many came back maimed.

Then came the bit I’d been waiting for – going down into the tunnels! They had been expanded for us fat Westerners to be big enough that we could walk through stooped over. In the South Vietnam heat they were sweaty and humid and smelt of earthy clay. Some people felt very uncomfortable with such an enclosed space, so they did either the shortest distance (30 metres) or chickened out all together. Some got a bit panicky when were down there. I managed to do 50 metres before surfacing. After the tunnels, we tried boiled cassava, which is what the VC ate when the rice ran out. It was weird, like potato but with a more woody texture. I didn’t like it. We also saw the guns used in the war and had the opportunity to fire them (at a cost per bullet). The noise of each shot was phenomenal! It hurt my ears, and I didn’t even fire them! The tour then ended (in a gift shop, naturally). The whole experience was very odd, from the propaganda film telling us how barbaric the Americans were, to seeing the bamboo hunting traps used by the Viet Cong.

After our tour, we took the bus back to our hotel in Saigon. We had dinner in what our guide called ‘a real Vietnamese restaurant’. I’m starting to get wary every time he says that! I chose a pork and crabmeat noodle soup which was nice, although the piece of unidentified offal floating around in the soup put me off a bit. Plus I flavoured it with far too much chilli, so it became too hot to eat the whole thing. Tonight we have a comfy sleep ahead of us in a really nice hotel, before sleeping outside at a home stay in the Mekong Delta. Hoping there won’t be spiders…!

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Day 11: Hoi An Countryside

The first thing I did this morning was to look outside to see how far the flood water had come up. The road was as dry as a bone! After breakfast, we left the hotel to have a look round by the river and do some more shopping. The flooding didn’t look too bad by the time we got down there, despite the dam not being opened until midnight the night before. Apparently the water had risen to waist height in the tailor’s, but had quickly receded. After having to hunt for survival rations the day before, it was all pretty disappointing! But good for the town not to flood too dramatically, and good for us so we could do some more shopping.

As we wandered around we saw two big diggers on the bridge crossing the river, fishing out all the trees and bushes which were floating downstream and getting trapped under the bridge, and moving them to the other side. We carried on perusing the shops, where I found a beautiful deep purple pashmina. She wanted $10 for it, and I haggled her down to $8. Score! I also found some lovely silk watercolours of Ha Long bay. She wanted $10 for both and refused to move on price. I bought them anyway, although it’ll cost me double or triple that to frame them! Still, they’ll be nice reminders of Vietnam. We had some lunch at a local cafe, where I sank more noodles and a scrummy lemon, ginger and coconut smoothie. Yum!

In the afternoon, we met back at the hotel for a cycling tour of Hoi An countryside. We each had a single speed ‘sit up and beg’ bike and a helmet. We must’ve been the only cyclists on the road with any kind of head gear! I was pretty glad of it though when we cycled head on into junctions full of beeping mopeds. Our guide led us out of the town centre and into the countryside around Hoi An. We cycled along the raised paths between the rice fields and saw lots of happily quacking ducks and lazy water buffalo. We stopped at a small farm and tried our hands at watering the crops with a special watering can contraption suspended from a yolk. It was harder than it looked! We cycled on and stopped again to see a man riding a buffalo. He invited us to have a go, and took each of us (well, those who wanted to) out into the water and back again. I volunteered to ride the buffalo – he was huge and really warm! He kept flicking his wet tail at me so I was out pretty damp by the time I was deposited back at the cycle path. We then cycled on through the fields to a beachside cafe. It had started raining and the ground was already thick with mud from the typhoon so it was pretty hard going. We were glad to get some shelter and have a sneaky beer! The sea was fairly uninviting in the wind and rain, so we cycled back to Hoi An for a lovely warm shower.

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After the cycle ride, we had a couple of hours to spare before dinner, so me and Roxy decided to nosey on down to the spa across the road from the hotel. I had a manicure and a ‘deluxe’ pedicure, while Roxy had an 80 minute massage! I had so much rough scaly skin on my feet that the beautician whopped out an instrument resembling a cutthroat razor and proceeded to shave my heels. Weirdly it didn’t hurt, but the amount of skin which came off and the colour of it was rank! So good riddance.

At 7pm, Roxy came out of the massage room looking incredibly relaxed, and we wandered over to the hotel lobby to meet everyone for dinner. As the food was so good on the first night in Hoi An, we revisited the restaurant for second helpings. This time I had a beef curry served in a flaming coconut. It was delish! After a couple of strawberry daiquiris, I’ve decided to have an earlyish night ahead of our crazy o’clock flight to Saigon tomorrow morning. At least we don’t have the night train to contend with this time!

Day 10: Shopping and Cooking in Typhoon-Hit Hoi An

Last night, our guide had promised to find us some ‘local food’, which he had slyly implied was going to contain dog. Unsurprisingly, only five of us turned up to sample such delicacies. After the typhoon the night before, our guide couldn’t get a taxi so we hired bikes instead. A couple of people dropped out as we nervously waited for our transport to arrive. When the bikes came, we hopped on and cycled into the scary maze of beeping mopeds, fallen trees and tangled overhead wires. It was actually quite a fun way to see the city, especially once we left the busier parts behind to hunt down our dog. We rocked up to a pretty rough looking place, but thankfully their power was out after the storm. So no dog. Our guide led us to a few other increasingly rough looking places which were also shut, before he agreed that maybe we should head back into the town centre for some more normal food! On the end, we resorted to getting food from the restaurant across the street from the hotel. I had pizza, which was cold and tasteless. That’ll teach me for veering away from rice and noodles!

After lunch, we toddled down to the tailor for my fitting appointment. The shop looked so different from yesterday! They had stripped all the shelves bare of materials and the shop assistants who were so immaculate yesterday were wandering around in jeans and t-shirts. I found Alice and she said that because of the storm, my jacket wasn’t quite ready yet. I asked her why they were stripping the shop the day after the storm, and she said that they were going to open a dam upstream of Hoi An to release the water from the mountains and flood the town. Eek! When we left the tailor’s, we saw a boat on its side in one of the flooded streets with locals desperately trying to bail out the water. Walking around the town, we also saw a coach attempting to traverse the littered streets, with a guy standing on top of the bus clearing the low-hanging wires out the way. As time went on, more and more shops were emptying out ahead of the flood, so we mooched back to the bar opposite the hotel.

As we were sat outside, Alice (my tailor) surprised me by bringing my blazer to try on at the hotel! It was a bit odd, trying something on for the first time in a hotel lobby, but it fit so beautifully. I’ve never had something fit as well as that blazer did. She marked on where the buttons should go and promised to leave it behind reception when she had finished. Sure enough, when I came back from dinner that evening, it was finished and ready to go. So even though a typhoon hit between ordering my jacket and receiving the finished product, it still took less than 36 hours! Pretty impressive.

Here’s a piccy of me posing in the finished article:

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After my hotel fitting we went for a cooking class dinner! We had a very enthusiastic teacher who taught us how to make spring rolls, sweet and sour chicken soup, green papaya salad and fish in banana leaves. It was so much fun! In the first hour we made the rolls and the soup as our starters. The rolls were easiest to make but hardest to cook, seeing as you need a pan of hot oil for frying. The soup was pretty easy, so I’ll definitely give that a go when I get back! Then in the second hour we made the salad and the fish. The trick with the salad was to grate the papaya into long strips so its looked a bit like noodles. She said that cucumber would also work, seeing as papaya is difficult to get hold of in the UK. The fish was yummy, and the lemongrass sauce we cooked it in was super easy to make. Definitely another one to try at home! She gave us a recipe book of the things we’d made, and I bought another one with a wide range of Vietnamese dishes. Now I just need some guinea pigs (to try my food, not to eat!).

After all the yummy food, I was pooped so I headed for bed. We’d been warned that the hotel may flood (though not definite) so we stocked up on Pringles and Oreos (essentials) on the way back so wouldn’t go hungry if we were stuck in the hotel. Our guide said that if the flooding was very bad, we may have to leave by boat! So with that, we’re off to bed with no particular plans for tomorrow, except to eat a bucket load of Oreos.

Day 9: Hue Citadel, Hoi An and Typhoon Nari

At 7am we arrived at breakfast for toast, bacon and crepes with chocolate sauce. Yum! Half an hour later, we were assembled outside the hotel for our cyclo tour. Cyclos are bicycles with a built-in buggy in the front and a skinny Vietnamese man at the back to take all the fat Western tourists around the city. We were loaded in and cycled through the streets of Hue to the citadel,which was the residence and administration centre of the emperors who reigned from 1802 to 1945. There were various buildings to house the emperor, the emperor’s mother, the emperor’s wives and his many, many concubines. Our guide told us that one emperor had 104 wives, a thousand concubines and 142 children! Once a concubine fell pregnant, she was made a wife of the emperor. The citadel was interesting, although it was pouring with rain so we were pretty glad when we rejoined our cyclos for the trip back. They’d put plastic covers on, just like on a buggy, so we looked like oversized babies being wheeled back to the hotel.

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At 10am we were ushered onto to bus once more to drive to Hoi An. It was earlier than originally planned to avoid an incoming typhoon. After a couple of hours, we stopped at a beach-side cafe for some lunch. Our guide said that we’d usually have some time for a swim, but the wind was starting to pick up and the waves were looking pretty ferocious, so we jumped aboard the bus and continued on to Hoi An. On the way we went up a steep mountain road, similar to the roads leading up to ski resorts in the Alps. I suspect it was one of the roads they used on the Top Gear special. At the top of the climb, visibility was absolutely nil. I was looking out the front window and couldn’t see a thing! Still, we made it over the top in one piece and rapidly descended down the other side to rejoin the road to Hoi An.

We arrived mid-afternoon in Hoi An, and did a whistle-stop overview tour of the old town as the winds got steadily stronger and the rain came down. Hoi An really is beautiful. The houses are hundreds of years old and they’re all yellow with tiled roofs. The town has been well looked after and was awarded World Heritage status in 1999. Our guide pointed out some of the sights and good shops so that we’d be able to occupy ourselves sufficiently during our two and a half day stay. He left us after about an hour to wander round by ourselves. There are plenty of shops, bars and restaurants in Hoi An, so there was no chance of getting bored!

One of Hoi An’s specialities is tailoring. There are over 500 tailor shops who can make clothes just from magazine pictures, with a turnaround time of a day. Our guide pointed out a couple which he said were good, so we toddled down to swanky-looking one called Yaly. As we went inside, we were shown to a little waiting area which had bookcases stacked full of brown files. I said I wanted to look at blazers, so I was handed one of these books which was filled with pictures of various celebrities and models wearing blazer jackets! I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted so I used the books to describe my jacket to the shop assistant (Alice) who then guided me through the vast range of materials. I chose a heavy navy cotton, white piping and a stripy grey lining. Then Alice took photos of me against a height chart, measured me from neck to hip and booked me in for a fitting the following day. It was pretty fun playing with all the styles and materials, and having the freedom to have whatever you want made (within budget!).

After mooching about the tailor for a bit longer while everyone chose their items, we wandered along the streets to check out the shops. There were lots of shops selling handicrafts, including watercolours, silks and jewellery. We went down to the Japanese bridge and saw the river was already flooding from all the rain we’d had, and the typhoon was still 12 hours away! After getting thoroughly soaked, we camped out in a bar before meeting the rest of the group for dinner. On the recommendation of our guide, I had a dish called cha ca. It came as a plate of beautifully herby fish with rice noodles, balanced over a heater. It was amazing, definitely my favourite dish of the whole holiday so far!

After the restaurant, we found a bar which our guide assured us was open until 2am. We were seated on a bed and sampled their reasonable attempt at cocktails. The power flickered on and off a couple of times, and with the water rising and the wind picking up, we got kicked out of the bar at half past 10. We had a splishy splashy walk back to the hotel and found some beers in the hotel fridge. We sat drinking and chatting in one of the girls’ rooms until the power went out at about midnight. I retired to bed at 2am while the others stayed up to see storm hit at about 3am. The high winds and rain apparently lasted until about 7am. I was pretty miffed that I managed to sleep through the whole thing!!

When we got up this morning, we were advised not to leave the hotel until 10am while the winds died down. When we finally went out we there were lots of fallen trees and wires. The flooding wasn’t much worse than when we saw it yesterday. The number of people out on the street cleaning up all the litter and trees was phenomenal. We walked around for a bit and then headed back to the hotel to meet the guide for lunch. He’s promised to take us for local food, which we think may mean dog…!