A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

Mekong Delta

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On our last day in HCMC we went to the Mekong Delta, just a couple of hours on the bus from the city. Along the way we spotted tonnes of gravestones/tombs in the middle of rice paddies. Seemed like a slightly odd place to bury the dead, around your main food supply...

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We boarded a small boat which took us to several drop off points, including Unicorn Island in the middle of the river. Although you couldn't help the feeling of being 'farmed' as tourists (take tourists to stop A... sing to tourists... put box in front of tourists for tips... take tourists to stop B... show tourists what they make with coconut... sell coconut candy to tourists), I am being a tad glib as the stops were all quite interesting.

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Blimey, there's gert big watercress around here...

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Cocoa seeds - they tasted pretty nice, but fruity not like chocolate!

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Front room of typical island dwelling

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Rod photobombing

We did have to listen to a pretty dire musical arrangement. They have no other forms of entertainment so they play their often handmade instruments in the evenings. You'd have thought that with all the practice they'd be a little more tuneful!

Produce is plentiful and the locals are incredibly resourceful with coconuts, using every part... they sell the stringy bits to China to make carpets, the hard outer shell to make a variety of wooden objects - from chopsticks to handbags... and of course the flesh and milk is used in cooking or to make rice paper and candy (which was delicious freshly warm).

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The highlight was a very pleasant boat ride through narrow natural canals lined with mangroves and palm trees, before heading to a smart riverside restaurant for lunch. No-one was tempted by the local speciality, Elephant fish, but Danny did pluck up the courage to try a couple of fat writhing widgety grubs which were panfried live with garlic butter. Mmmm mmmm!

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Christine attempting to photo bomb!

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Elephant fish... must have been at the back of the fish queue whilst waiting to be bestowed their looks. I suppose it's eternally grateful the trunk fitter was off that day.

On our return to the mainland, Ant & I appeared to be given special treatment when the guide said she'd take our photos at the front of the boat and that we could stay there, sipping our coconut juice. Seeing as we both like nothing better than to be on a boat, we were pretty chuffed (deliberate word selection for you Diane, my dear cousin in America!).

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Back in the city, we headed off to the GPO for both a practical purpose and to sightsee. We wanted to ship back our lovely lanterns from Hoi An and a few other souveniers, and to visit because it's a beautiful building. The interior was impressive (for a Post Office anyway), its creator was none other than the guy who designed the Eiffel Tower.

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Although looking back I see our photos compliment the city, we were somewhat relieved that it was time to move on from Saigon and enter Cambodia.

Posted by Galavantie 17:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh

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So I write this having spent 3 nights here. The city itself takes it out of you and, in our opinion, doesn't give enough back to compensate. We've had some ups and downs in Ho Chi Minh...

Although Hanoi is Vietnam's capital, HCMC feels much more like its capital - and it is as far as commerce is concerned. It's big, busy, more westernised and has more structure and order to its traffic (can still be quite challenging crossing the road).

The ups... in one particular area the city has some stunning buildings, especially at night... the War Remnants museum is very moving (more on that later)... we had happy hour cocktails in a bar located 52 floors up the smart Bitexco Tower with some cracking views - was really great to smarten up and throw off our backpacker shackles for an evening! We also had some fascinating excursions from the city; Cu Chi Tunnels & the Mekong Delta (separate entry for the latter).

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People's Committee Building

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Designer shops and fancy hotels

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GPO

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Notre Dame Cathedral

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Bitexco Tower & views from the bar

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Dodgy wiring...

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Love it!

The downs... our hotel was pretty crap, so many things didn't work or we were disturbed by noisy neighbours or a really loud intermittent bang which sounded like steel shutters being slammed closed, the room was boxy and a bit depressing... it was also located a 30 min walk from the backpacker area (which turned out to be very disappointing anyway - it didn't have the charm of Hanoi's Old Quarter)... food was poor to average and not a patch on what we'd eaten in the north or central Vietnam (to be fair partly this was us choosing unwisely from complicated menus)... people seemed rude and on occasion it was service with a scowl... it's a hot, humid, sticky city and one where you're pestered a lot to buy stuff which, all combined, made us irritable fairly quickly. Our patience generally wore thin here.

But, anyway... onto the interesting stuff!

Cu Chi Tunnels
A visit to the tunnels was included as a group activity and we were also accompanied by a local guide. In terms of giving information, he was the best guide we've had - he talked about the area and war for most of the 1.5hr journey. Ant & I listened intently as his history 'lesson' was fascinating and he'd experienced the war first hand as a child, but we noticed he'd lost at least half the bus in favour of a bit of head lolling!

The tunnels, used by the Viet Cong and local guerrilla fighters, are located in the village if Cu Chi, hence the name. They were used to transport ammunition and for hiding. Once the Americans eventually found them (corporal Stuart Green was resting under a rubber tree when he felt something sharp underneath him, only to discover a tiny trapdoor entrance), they were generally too big to go into them. So they employed the use of 'tunnel rats' - soldiers specifically deployed for their small frame, and who were sent down to fight and flush out the enemy.

Ant was feeling particularly brave and went into the first tunnel we came to, via one of these incredibly small openings. The only one in our group to do it! So proud :)

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Other parts of the tunnel have now been widened to... errr... accommodate for the expanding westerner and we were all given the opportunity to go through one - was good fun!

We tried VC staple food (boiled tapioca) and saw how they hid bamboo breathing holes to ventilate the tunnels with fake termite nests above ground. A very fascinating morning.

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Viet Cong traps for the American soldiers

War Remnants Museum
Our afternoon was free to explore so we headed here, curious to see if the south portrayed the war any differently to Hanoi -seeing as the US' main base was Saigon and the Americans supported the Saigon Army to fight against the communist north and Viet Cong.

I found the museum far more emotive and harrowing than the Military Museum in Hanoi. They had display rooms entirely dedicated to the effects of Agent Orange and deeply moving images of war crimes and war scenes in general. One image will probably stay with me forever. A black and white photograph showed a US soldier standing, holding a body of a Vietnamese man whose body had been shredded by a landmine. The soldier was holding it by one of its 'tatters' whilst the head, closer to the ground, was still recognisable and intact.

We also saw the original photo of 'Napalm Girl', probably the most famous iconic image of the war. The 'girl' now lives in Toronto, her body heavily scarred from the event.

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The museum disappointingly still portrayed a one-sided view of the war. I certainly don't agree with how the US Government chose to fight the war and had it happened in my adulthood, I would have been strongly opposed to it. The use of Agent Orange affected 4.8m Vietnamese people and children being born decades later are still affected by the deformities it causes.

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However, I don't agree that a national museum should entirely show the account of the victor. There was nothing to detail the brutal weapons and traps used by the VC to fight, maim and kill the American troops. But it was their war, in their country, with horrific consequences to their people, so I guess it's their perogative.

Posted by Galavantie 17:36 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An... oh so pretty

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Our relatively short bus ride (just over 3 hours) from Hue to Hoi An was fairly uneventful. Considering 4/5ths of Vietnam is mountainous, so far the general landscape that we've seen is suprisingly bland and a bit bleak - it's very flat and its paddy fields are nothing to rival those in Bali.

However this section of the trip became very hilly as the road meandered in and around the mountains, affording great views of the coastline below and our first glimpses of the South China Sea.

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Loo break and chance to see some French bunkers

We also passed through Danang, an area with unexpected high end, immaculate and imposing resorts, cashing in on the beaches and a golf course. Apparently they've only sprung up in the last 4 years and there was plenty of further development taking place. Danang also has a well appointed international airport.

Hoi An looks very nice indeed. We're here for 3 nights and our hotel has a swimming pool (big smiles all around from the group on both counts).

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It is tailor central, with every other shopfront being a tailors. Rod recommends one for us to use, a handful of us are tempted, from suits to dresses and shirts. We spent £150 on getting some clothes made to posh it up a bit.

We cycled to the beach for an afternoon, the sea was so warm but quite rough. Not the best beach ever, but hey... I'm not going to complain about being on a beach in October!

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As well as being famed for tailoring, it's also full of lanterns which are all lit up at night. It feels like a holiday destination rather than a place just on a backpacker's route, and the food was superb. Oh, and we also had 3 lanterns made for the home we've yet to get, which we've shipped back to the UK... love this place!

Here's some random pics to capture our chilled time in pretty Hoi An...

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What a whopper

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Our restaurant on the first evening

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Restaurant for the second evening, overlooking the river

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The pace of life is very different here

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Another Vietnamese roofed bridge

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We visited one of the 'old houses' - very beautiful

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Ant kitted out in his new Vietnamese tailoring!

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Posted by Galavantie 01:44 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hue (pronounced Hoo-ay)

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After our gruelling train journey, we checked in at our Hue hotel... a very welcome sight!

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We were all a bit jaded but after a quick breakfast it was straight onto the full day's activity - a whistlestop tour of the city's sights on motorbikes!

We all had drivers so we could enjoy the scenery. What a brilliant experience! They zipped around Vietnam's countryside, alongside paddy fields and through the narrowest of streets (filled with incense, wood fires and food smells), and stopped off along the way to visit places of interest. We learnt that the villagers still can't use well water because of Agent Orange and they therefore collect rain water to drink.

Sights included an old Colossium where tiger and elephant fighting used to take place (elephant was usually victorious)... a museum dedicated to rice farming (Vietnam is the world's largest exporter of rice)... a Vietnamese roofed bridge... a one-armed woman who makes extraordinary conical hats (hers have images hidden between the leaves which are only visible when held to the light)... a forested area carpeted in yellow flowers looking over Perfume River where US bunkers remain... a pagoda complete with chanting monk (boy those monks like to chant)... a King's tomb... and finally the impressive Citadel, a huge walled Imperial City which was heavily bombed in the Vietnam War, despite some ongoing restoration it's in a pretty bad state.

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On a rice farming thingy majiggy

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The guide pretending to be a water buffalo...

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Symbol for long life

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The large hole is where the elephant came out and the small ones for the tiger

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A fabulous day and at the end, we all got caught up in rush hour traffic which was pretty hairy on the bike at times! Highly recommend this if you ever go to Hue. One of our favourite days.

Posted by Galavantie 08:18 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Sleeper train horror

We had to take a sleeper train - apparently the famous Reunification Express - which runs all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). Our stop, Hue, is roughly halfway down the S shape of Vietnam. Most of us were dreading it as we'd heard the Vietnamese sleepers weren't great and had cockroaches running about the place. Hmmmm.

Unfortunately the rumours were true.

The 4 berth cabins were pretty cosy and had lockable doors which was good. We shared with Dengue Dan & Gemma. Five minutes in, Gemma was putting a sheet on her top bunk when a cockroach ran out from under it onto the curtain. Cue extensive bug hunt and killing spree. All beds were lifted and corners checked, any holes were gaffa taped.

Picture the scene... Ant's armed with his shoe, Dan & I are spotters and Gemma is ready with a full can of hairspray. "There's one! There's one!! Running up the wall! Erghhhhhhh.... (screams) get it! Have you got it? It's dropped! Where did it drop??? Is it dead?!"

Nine cockroaches later we felt a little more at ease to sit and eat our food, but the mood was a tad sombre. But we cheered ourselves up with some beers and settled down to play cards for the next few hours. Three more of the blighters popped up during the game and were quickly dispatched.

We tried to stay awake for as long as possible to delay the inevitable sleep but only managed just after 11pm as our days have been starting pretty early. Thank God for silk sleeping bag liners (a must if you are travelling).

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Not the best night's sleep but did get more than I thought and woke before 6am. Ant told us of his close encounter in the night... he woke about 3am and felt something on this arm... sure enough another critter. Bleurgh.

Needless to say the least enjoyable part of the trip and a relief when daylight streamed through the curtains!

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Rod!

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Lucie & Danny

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Finally off the train!

Posted by Galavantie 04:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Halong Bay

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This was a highly anticipated part of the trip for both of us and it didn't disappoint! It's so beautiful and impressive. Now one of the 7 new natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay consists of 1969 islands (limestone karsts).

We boarded our boat which was our accommodation for one night, we couldn't believe how nice is was. One thing we're really appreciative of is that, other than essential details, Rod doesn't give too much away about places and experiences before we get there, so a few things have been quite a surprise and have exceeded our expectations.

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Our boat... and onboard

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The new guys! (Apart from Danny who's far left)

We were greeted with refreshing hand towels and welcome drink, and were blown away by the style onboard - both our own double cabin, complete with ensuite, and the main eating and communal area. It felt very colonial and from an age gone by. We also dined like kings - the courses just kept coming and the presentation of the food was something else!

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Fish presented in a carrot net

The scenery was incredible. We kayaked as the sun was setting and enjoyed an elevated view of the karsts from Ti Top island the next morning, followed by a swim in the sea. A really wonderful part of the tour.

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View from our cabin... happy days

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Next morning...
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On our way to Ti Top Island (or breast augmentation island, as I rechristened it)

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Posted by Galavantie 03:49 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hanoi by day

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The first part of the day was included in the tour and was a visit to the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. The latter was closed but was still impressive from the outside.

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The rest of the day was free to explore so Ant & I headed out on our own to visit some of Hanoi's highlights. We picked the Military Museum covering Vietnam's battle against the French and of course the 'American War' from '64 to '73. The museum was fascinating, albeit appearing to offer a one-sided view of the war - that of the Vietnamese. The wreckage, planes and iconic Vietnam war US helicopters evoked all the images we've seen from films on the subject.

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We also visited Hao Lo prison, famously nicknamed Hanoi Hilton by the American POWs. Now this was interesting. Personally speaking, I have never been to a museum or historical place of interest which was so full of propaganda. I'm not a political animal, nor do I have a deep understanding of the Vietnam War, but the information displayed and shown on film, went to great lengths to show how well the US pilot prisoners were kept... how well fed they were, how much recreational time they had, footage showing them smiling, laughing, celebrating Christmas, and a final statement saying how lucky they were to be prisoners of war of the Vietnamese. Perhaps some were well treated, as I say I'm no expert, but the Hanoi Hilton made the news worldwide in the '60s for the brutal mistreatment of its American inmates. Many died at the hands of the guards, so the historical facts given were, let's say, a little hard to swallow.

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General Hanoi...

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Car parking Vietnamese style

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Drinking Vietnamese style... on the street on the tiniest of plastic stools...

Included in our overall tour were tickets to see a water puppet show... errrr a rather strange hour... and one we'll never get back! After this, we met the FNGs (stolen from Ant...pretty appropriate considering where we are... google if you don't know) - five new people joined the tour for the remaining duration (3 Brits - Luke & Louise, and Blair travelling on his own, plus 2 Germans, Annika & Torsten). Slightly strange for us as we're an established small group of 10 who have already formed bonds, but I'm sure even harder for the "newbies" to join midway, so it'll be interesting to see how the dynamics of the group change hereonin!

(PS... not sure if subscribers got a notification, but have gotten round to adding some photos to the first Bangkok entry - mostly of the Grand Palace).

Posted by Galavantie 03:29 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hanoi - you crazy wild thing

I don't use this very often, but OMG (or oi troi oi as it's said in Vietnamese!). Hanoi comes up and slaps you in the face!

Hanoi is incredible... it's frantic, crazy, life-threatening, thronging, an assault on every sense available... I love it (sadly Ant isn't feeling so passionate about a place riddled with people). I'm not entirely sure why I hated the busy dirty streets of Bangkok when this place is three times busier and more chaotic, but there's so much to take in, it feels like such an adventure. It also smells more fragrant than Bangkok.

As I write this we've only had a few hours in Hanoi, but already we have seen so much. You could sit in a street bar and by the time you've finished your beer, seen a ridiculous amount of activity.

I was trying to think how else to describe just how mental it is. Imagine how a huge line of ants go about their day in such an orderly and structured way, each going the same direction... then imagine the same number of ants disobeying their genetic code and going anywhere and everywhere, bumping into to each other and swerving to avoid collisons... well it's pretty much like that. To cross the road you virtually have to close your eyes and just go for it (thankfully my Dad won't be reading this!!). When you do walk out in front of all the scooters, motorbikes and bicycles, it's like a parting of the waves - they just drive around you.

Apparently there are 4 million motorbikes in Hanoi. Katy Melhua missed out on the opportunity for a follow up hit.

We have a full day in the city tomorrow (Sat 5 Oct) with lots to see so I think Hanoi deserves more than one entry. For now here's a few pics from just a few hours in this crazy city.

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Why wouldn't you drive two ways through a narrow night market with pedestrians?!

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I didn't want her to pose but she saw my camera and went straight into it. Pah!

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Annie x

Posted by Galavantie 20:05 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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