02.01.2013 - 22.01.2013 20 °C
We both arrived in Saigon after a 16 hour bus journey, with serious cases of man-flu. So after a day to recover, we headed out that night to explore the city. Saigon is a typical chaotic Asian city. One minute you're getting lost in a maze of tiny alley ways lined with thin, tall buildings that look as if they've had 5 extra floors balanced precariously on top as an after thought; the next you're stood among skyscrapers and bright lights trying to cross an unbelievably busy road. We had never seen traffic like the traffic in Saigon. A constant stream of bikes swarm the wide roads, and the only way to cross them is to hold your breath, step out and edge slowly across as the bikes swerve past you on either side. The parks are filled with free exercise equipment (the first form of exercise we've done in a while!), and people taking part in dance classes, kung-fu classes, playing badminton or football or just kicking around a shuttlecock. At night the streets are lined with tiny bars and restaurants with little plastic chairs and tables, and there's a great atmosphere, with strangers sitting and drinking and talking with each other over 20p pints of beer. We instantly loved the city. We got stuck in straight away trying the Vietnamese cuisine, but it took us a while to find something we liked (and believe me Shaun is not a fussy eater!) as everything seemed to include gristly, tough meat.
Whilst we were in Saigon we went to visit the war remnants museum and the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are a remarkable underground network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. We had a hilarious tour guide who continuously told inappropriate jokes, so the day was unexpectedly light-hearted despite the serious nature of the place. We saw the different sorts of traps used against the Americans and the south Army, we were able to climb through some of the remaining tunnels (which were incredibly claustrophobic and hot), sit in a tank and finish off the day by having a go at firing an AK47 at the shooting range. The war museum however was much darker and more depressing. Outside were old American tanks, bombers and weapons, but inside was filled with horrific images from the war and its aftermath. From whole villages being massacred, to the ongoing effects of Napalm on the ecosystem and agriculture, and the lasting effects of 'Agent Orange'; a 'defoliant' used by the American Army which causes genetic defects that are passed on through numerous generations.
From Saigon we took a bus up into the highlands to a small town called Delat, which despite the cold and rain (which we hadn't seen in months!) was really beautiful. We were lucky enough to meet Mr Hong, an old, local motorbike tour guide with over 15 years experience, that took us (along with his shy, young employee Ha) for an incredibly unique, full-day tour of the countryside on the back of his bike. We started off the day at a temple, followed by a coffee plantation and a place where they ferment and distill rice wine (which is extremely strong and definitely an acquired taste!). We then went to a place where they make 'weasel coffee'. This is where they feed coffee beans to weasels, who are unable to digest them, and then collect their droppings to make coffee - it's apparently incredibly expensive... don't ask me why. They then took us to elephant waterfall, and if we weren't drenched enough from the rain, we certainly were after we'd climbed down to the base of this enormous waterfall. We then saw a huge happy Buddha before going to a local restaurant for a traditional Vietnamese lunch. Even the tofu had meat stuffed into it. There was also a very smelly fish dish and an unidentifiable grey meat wrapped in leaves - but it turns out that bamboo shoots are delicious! After lunch we went to a silk factory, where we saw everything from the little silk worms making their cocoons, to the silk being weaved and embroidered. They even showed us how they boil the worms after they've been removed from their cocoons so they can eat them for lunch (Shaun obviously felt the need to try one). After that we headed to a flower farm and the 'crazy house' (a honey moon resort built by a Russian architect who clearly had some underlying issues) before heading back to town. We enjoyed the tour so much that we decided to book to go on a 3 day tour through the central highlands starting the next day.
Delat - Lak Lake - Buon Ma Thout - Nha Trang
So the next day we strapped our rucksacks onto the back of the bikes and set off with Hong and Ha into the central highlands. We spent the next 3 days riding through dense jungle, sprawling green rice paddies, fragrant coffee plantations, huge fields of sugar cane and tiny villages; past herds of doe-eyed water buffalo and skinny brown cows, children cycling home from school shouting hello and reaching out to give us high-fives, women walking home with their harvest strapped to their backs in huge wicker baskets, and one little boy on his bike taking his enormous water buffalo for a walk. Mr Hong was incredible, it turns out he was brought up in a small village as one of nine brothers and sisters (many of whom fought for the south army during the war). His first job was making charcoal, and now he lives with his wife, kids and grand-kids in Delat, and runs his own tour business. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about his country, and was full of anecdotes. Some hilarious (mainly about his wife), some inspiring and moving.
The first day we went to a temple, a spring onion farm, a minority village where we saw hand-weaving, a mushroom farm, a place where they shape bonsai trees, and after stopping to fix a flat tire (obviously the trip couldn't run completely smoothly!) we stopped for lunch (still no improvement!) and then headed to a small Mai minority village where they gave us rice wine and sang songs for us round the fire (in exchange for us singing a song for them -but I'm not sure they were too impressed by jingle bells). The two oldest villagers were the smallest, oldest looking people I'd ever seen, but Mr Hong told us not to be deceived by their frail appearance, and that they're actually very terrible and killed a great many American soldiers during the war. After that we went to see a floating fisherman's village and a Malong minority burial site, where for the fist three years after a relative dies, they leave a long piece of bamboo sticking out of the ground that goes into the coffin and all the way into their mouths. This is used to pour rice wine and food down to the body, until it is sealed three years later.
We woke up early the next morning to a beautiful view over Lak Lake, and set off to visit a Malong 'long house' village. After that we went to a rice farm and had a go at harvesting some rice (which is harder than it looks!), to a passion fruit farm and to Mr Hong's friend's house, who happened to collect enormous pythons and antique bikes (I think this was Shaun's favorite stop so far). We then watched some local fishermen before lunch. The food had definitely improved, as we were given Pho - a beef noodle soup that we really enjoyed! We then went swimming in one of the most impressive waterfalls we've seen in Asia so far, and we saw an elephant grazing in the jungle. We then saw a huge soya bean factory where hundreds of women spent eight hours a day sorting the good beans from the bad. We had a quick stop at a place that made huge drums for temples, before heading to the hotel in Buon Ma Thuot. That night we had a venison BBQ and a duck hotpot - which was surprisingly one of the best meals we've had in Asia!
The next morning was another very early start, and we stopped off at a rubber tree plantation, a cocoa bean plantation and a place where they make charcoal before stopping at a place where they make rice paper for a snack. We then stopped at a place that made rice noodles, a black pepper plantation and a place where they made incense sticks (I was excited about this because I got to make some and I'm easily amused). We stopped off at a place that did wood carving, a village that was harvesting tapioca and a place where they made bricks, before stopping for a seafood lunch and a walk around a fisherman's village (Shaun was happy here because he found crabs... also easily amused).
We eventually reached Nha Trang and were completely exhausted from the packed three days, but the trip was easily one of the best things we've done so far on our trip, and we were sad to say goodbye Mr Hong as he set off on the long ride back to Delat.
After a day relaxing on the beach in Nha Trang, we set off to Hoi An
Hoi An is a beautiful, romantic little riverside town filled with quaint, traditional Vietnamese buildings, and at night lit by countless colourful lanterns hung from the trees and rooftops. There are so many cafes, restaurants, bakeries and suvineer shops, that its easy to waste away your days there. There are also hundreds of tailors, and Shaun wasted no time in going to get measured up for a tailored suit. He picked the style, the material, the lining and got his measurements taken, and when we came back the next day for his fitting it was practically finished! He really loved it, and I felt a bit left out so I got myself a dress. We found an amazing restaurant on a balcony over the river where we could finally get a real steak and ale pie and chocolate brownie (after three months in Asia we were beginning to crave home cooked pub food!). When we weren't in the tailors or sitting in cafes and bars over the river, we hired bikes and went exploring the villages, rice paddies and beaches on the outskirts of town. At one point, I'd stopped to take a picture of a rice field when a local farmer ran towards us, stuck his sun hat on my head and passed me his spear. Then he let me have a go of his slingshot, but he said I wasn't very good... then he asked me for a dollar - nothing is free here! We also rode straight into the Argentinians that we'd met at new year, so spent some time with them whilst we were there too. We could have spent much longer in Hoi An, but eventually it was time to move up to Hanoi.
Hanoi and Ha Long Bay
After a days stop off in Hue, we arrived in Hanoi only to realize that Shaun had had his iPhone stolen whilst we were asleep on the night bus. This was shortly followed by getting completely scammed by the taxi driver taking us to our hostel. And to top it all off it was cold and raining and Hanoi felt gloomy and cluttered and chaotic. We had to fight our way down a complete labyrinth of narrow streets alongside nine million other people and their seven million bikes! The pavements are all taken up by everything from stalls, restaurants, women washing clothes, men mending shoes... not to mention countless motorbikes parked haphazardly all over the place. It didn't take long for us to have a complete headache, so we booked to go on a two day boat trip on Ha Long bay and left the next morning.
We started the trip with a sea food lunch on the boat whilst getting to know the rest of the people on the cruise. Everyone seemed really nice, especially the Argentinians; who were just as excitable and had the same insatiable need to dance as the last Argentinians we'd met! We visited Heaven Cave, which was really huge and beautiful and definitely didn't need the water features and neon lights! We then sailed through the huge limestone karst formations that stand majestically out of the sea. Ha Long Bay means 'where the dragon descends into the sea', and you can see how it got its name because there is something completely magical about the place. It was very surreal sat on the top deck of the boat playing table football and ring of fire whilst drifting through some of the most beautiful scenery we've ever seen. We had time for a quick swim before dinner (and when I say we, I mean Shaun... It was way too cold for a bikini!) and then spent the rest of the night playing international, multilingual drinking games. The next morning we had a really early start for a kayak trip around the bay. Shaun did not look impressed at having to sit in a kayak whilst concentrating on not being sick, but when he found a horse-shoe crab he was too excited to remember that he was hungover. Back on the boat we had a go at making some spring rolls, and then after another sea food lunch we sadly headed back to Hanoi.
We decided to give Hanoi a second chance since we didn't really arrive under the best circumstances the first time round. We did find a bar (plastic chairs and a keg on the street) that sold 10p pints of beer, stalls that sold mini doughnuts, crepes and mozzarella sticks, we saw temples and an embalmed turtle and found some great restaurants. We went to a water puppet show that Shaun was not too impressed with, and when I tried to explain that he needed to appreciate that the art-form had been around for over a thousand years, he told me he wouldn't have paid to watch it a thousand years ago. We also decided it was about time we got our haircut, but as the hairdresser didn't speak a word of English, I came out a whole four inches lighter with what can only be described as a bob, and Shaun ended up looking like a freshly sheared lamb. We also got completely scammed at a street restaurant, chased by cyclo drivers, people trying to clean our shoes and women trying to put their hats on my head for a dollar. So after being ripped off, scammed, scalped, hassled and robbed... we were ready to get back to Thailand!
Our 6am airport pick up turned up 45 minutes late, and Shaun tried to board the plane with a weapon - which we thought was an appropriate end to our time in Hanoi!