VIETNAM

The Mekong Delta

By on 1st August 2015

In my previous post I wrote a little bit about the Sinh Tourist, which is one of the (if not THE) most trusted travel agencies currently operating in Vietnam. While in Saigon we bought a couple of tours from them: Tour 1 would be one day spent in the Mekong Delta and Tour 2 would be a two-day tour package including one day in the Mekong Delta, but different villages / islands than Tour 1, and then a speedboat trip all the way to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.

To be honest the two Tours were pretty similar, even though we visited different villages of the Mekong Delta, the activities were very similar, so I would only recommend doing one of these if you are limited on time. I am not going to give a detailed account of both tours to the Mekong Delta, just a highlight of the activities we did, but I will include links and itineraries at the end of this post in case anyone is interested in going on these.

To say I was excited when I found out about the tour package that would take us all the way to Phnom Penh was an understatement! I really wanted to do a tour of the Mekong Delta and our other option to get to Phnom Penh would have been a long coach journey. Getting there ON the Mekong sounded way more exciting!

Also, the tour itself was incredibly reasonable priced. We paid 3.4million VND, which sounds like a small fortune, but actually it’s only about £100 for two people. Considering we had to get to Cambodia anyway and this tour also included one nights accommodation, this represented an incredibly good value to us. (Although if your aim is just to get to Phnom Peng from Saigon as cheaply as possible, bus tickets only cost 200000 VND per person, £6!!)

When you go into the office of Sinh Tourist, you can immediately tell that they have been in the business for a long time and we found them very organised and professional. On the day of our departure we had to be at the office at 6.30 am to check in with our tickets which we had bought a couple of days beforehand and with our passports. Passports were important remember, as we had to cross the border into Cambodia on day 2.

By about 7.15 all luggage were tucked into the coach and we all took our seats and we were off. The bus took about an hour and a half to take us 100 km down to the shores of the Mekong where we boarded our small sightseeing boat for the day. We had a great tour guide, his English was good and he was friendly and knowledgeable, so we felt in safe hands.

 

 

It was great being back on the Mekong. We had already had an encounter with this mighty river when we travelled through Laos. It felt significant to be back on a boat and cruising on it and eventually leaving Vietnam on it.

Firstly we took a boat trip to discover Cai Be floating market where local people sell, buy and exchange goods on their boats. We had heard a lot about this floating market and had already been to a floating market in Bangkok. I also watched a fantastic documentary about this exact market in Cai Be – it was a production by the BBC called The Mekong River with Sue Perkins and it was in episode 1 of the 4-part series that Sue visits exactly the same market that we went to see. I had great expectations, but unfortunately for us by the time we got to the main floating market area most of the trading had been done for the day! The Vietnamese are early risers! They basically get up way before the sun rises and so it was no surprise that there were only a couple of boats on the river at the time we were there mid-morning. There was a lady there with her fruit boat, I’m pretty sure she is there specifically for the tourists every day. Quite a few people bought fruit for the novelty of it and it was a hot day, so a bit of fresh pineapple or coconut never goes amiss on a day like that! 🙂 
For the rest of the day we visited various local villages to observe traditional crafts and processes, like rice paper making, coconut candy producing, and honey producing.
We had a lovely lunch of a crazy looking fish, where a table of 8-10 people got to share it and some Vietnamese spring rolls and also some pho. I never say no to a bit of pho. Even if it made me ill in Hanoi…. 🙂
The absolute highlight of the Mekong Delta tour for me was our trip on a small hand-rowed boat between My Tho and Ben Tre. We were on a tiny boat operated by two lovely Vietnamese ladies who skillfully rowed the boat through a small creek in a jungle of coconut trees.
I think Adam’s favourite was when we went to see this nice lady who had a pet python and let all of us tourists to have a little play with the snake. Adam loved it! I am really not keen on snakes, but I had a tiny little stroke of its skin. Adam wanted the snake around his shoulders and he was loving it until the python started squeezing his shoulders just a bit too tightly…
After our tour of the Mekong Delta we all got on our coach again and drove 3 hours to Chau Doc where we stayed overnight in a 4 star hotel – nice touch! The package included dinner and breakfast as well.
In the morning we all made our way to the port by pedicab. I so wish I had a photograph of this padicab journey, because it was priceless! Imagine a bicycle with a teeny weeny little seat attached, barely big enough to fit two people. Adam and I had to get on this, we were both hanging out of it with half our bums, and then we also had to have all our luggage, i.e. 2 massive backpacks and two small ones to hold unto! The rider / driver pulled away with a massive effort and then he rode like a maniac, I almost fell out once when he took a sharp bend 😀 Aaah, it was too funny. We tipped him 10000 dongs, he looked so happy, I think we made his week!!
We then took an uncomfortable, but nonetheless fun speedboat ride that took us out of Vietnam and into Cambodia.
The boat stopped at Vinh Xuong border control for custom clearance and visa processing.
For our Cambodia visa the process was pretty similar to the Laos visa, i.e. we needed to fill in some forms, attach some photographs and pay our fee of $35. No problems with our visas, we got back on the boat and at 4 pm we arrived at the port in Phnom Penh!  🙂
So as I mentioned at the beginning, here are the itineraries for both our tours with Sinh Tourist:
Tour 1
My Tho – Ben Tre – Con Thoi Son
Cost: 360 000 VND for 2 people
https://www.thesinhtourist.vn/tour/mk/tg-sgmt-01/my-tho-and-ben-tre
Tour 2
Cai Be – Vinh Long – Long Xuyen – Chau Đoc – Phnom Penh (2-day 1-night tour) This tour starts from Saigon to Cai Be by bus and then by boat to PhnomPenh.
Cost: 3 400 000 VND for 2 people
https://www.thesinhtourist.vn/tour/mk/tg-m2pp-01/mekong-delta-2-days-ending-in-phnompenh

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VIETNAM

Saigon sightseeing

By on 22nd July 2015

I had been looking forward to coming to Ho Chi Minh City, or formerly and really still to this day known as Saigon. To me it was the place in Vietnam with the most mystery and where we could learn most about the country’s history. By the time we came to Saigon though we were a little bit disillusioned with Vietnam (despite having spent a few lovely days in Hoi An) and just in general, approaching the halfway point of our travel in Asia, we were becoming a bit tired and restless. We had decided that we will not spend much more time in Vietnam, we needed a change of scenery and decided to make our way to Cambodia and then to Bali as soon as possible. But I still really wanted to see Saigon, so here we were. You know you are in Saigon, when you see this:

 

 

 

We stayed near ‘the Khao San road of HCMC’, Pham Ngu Lao Street, not by design, more by luck as that was where we found the best value accommodation. But it turned out to be a good location for us anyway as we could easily walk to the city’s official Sinh Tourist office and arrange for some excursions.

The Sinh Tourist was founded in 1993 and was originally called the Sinh Cafe. It really was a cafe on Pham Ngu Lao Street where travellers would meet and share travel stories – and hence the Sinh Cafe travel agency was born. The agency became so popular with travellers that many impostors and fake Sinh Cafes started opening up all over Vietnam. So when you are in the country, be careful when choosing an organised tour, make sure it is the real Sinh Tourist otherwise you might get false offer or a sub-par tour in exchange for your money.

We signed up for a two day tour – on day one we would tour the Mekong Delta and on day two we would make our way to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penhon the Mekong river via speedboat. What a cool way to get to Cambodia! 🙂 But more about this in my next post.

Before our two day Mekong river tour we spent some time exploring some of the sights of Saigon.

We asked our hotel reception desk to call us a taxi and take us to the Emperor Jade Pagoda. We wanted to make sure the taxi we used was from a verified company – there are so many stories about taxi drivers that are rip-off merchants here. Vinasun is the most trusted taxi service.

Our first stop was the Emperor Jade Pagoda. The pagoda is definitely for the locals, I don’t think there were any other tourists there. While I enjoyed experiencing the religious rituals of the locals at the same time I couldn’t help feeling as if we were intruding on an intimate family activity on a Sunday morning. The pagoda itself was small, but very atmospheric with lots of statues inside and hundreds of incense sticks burning and filling the air with their fragrance.

 

 

After the Pagoda we tried to walk to the Museum of Vietnamese History, which is next to the Zoo. Since there were absolutely no signs in English, only in Vietnamese (which is fine by the way) and we only had a totally useless map of the city (on which the streets were not named and the scales were totally off), it’s needless to say we got lost. We had to hail another cab and try to explain to the driver where we tried to go to. Explaining it was not easy. The driver spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese. We pointed at the map, we tried to use words like ‘Museum’ and ‘Zoo’, which we thought were pretty universal, but nothing. After driving around for a while he first took us to the wrong place. Then more pointing and more loud repetition of the words ‘Museum’ and ‘Zoo’ and ta-da, somehow we ended up in front of the museum! 🙂

The museum was really lovely actually, but we could only enjoy it for 45 minutes as it shut for two hours for lunch and a bought ticket was not valid for the whole day only for one entry, so we couldn’t return. As we exited the museum, we went straight to the zoo.

 

 

Well, what can I tell you about the zoo. It was pleasant enough and it was obvious that this is where families come for a nice Sunday afternoon with their children. We enjoyed walking around, but mainly for the beautifully landscaped public spaces rather than the animals themselves. While the animal enclosures were passable, the zoo still made me feel a bit uncomfortable, especially as we got to the elephant enclosure. After learning more about the issues of South-East Asia’s elephants I was a bit more sensitive about seeing these beautiful animals in such an unnatural environment, especially that almost every single one of them were clearly mentally unstable! They were constantly swaying back and forth with their legs chained to posts as a nearby loudspeaker blasted dance music all day. It was heartbreaking, especially as the locals and even some tourists were totally oblivious to this and thought the elephants were dancing to the music! I couldn’t really watch, so we quickly moved on. I think what this zoo reminded me mainly of what zoos were like in Hungary when I was a kid about 25-30 years ago: little regards for animal welfare from the zoo operators and visitors’ ignorance on animal issues. Times have changed though, and while Hungary moved on with its zoos it seems like Vietnam hasn’t yet. Although a bit of Google research has revealed that the Saigon Zoo will be closed shortly and all the animals will be moved to a larger scale safari project, which sounds promising.

In the afternoon we went for a walk in Tao Dan Park, which is a beautifully manicured little park. The grass was so inviting, we wanted to have a little sit down for 5 minutes but as soon as we sat on the grass an official looking fellow turned up and told us we couldn’t do that! But there were locals sitting on the grass, so not sure what that was about .. 😀 We also desperately needed some water and Adam went in search for a bottle. After walking around in the area for about 20 minutes, he returned with a teeny cup of fizzy drink. He said the only person he found selling water was a lady on the street who wanted a ridiculous amount of money for a small bottle. Adam was so offended by the price that he just walked off… He came back with an equally expensive cup of fizzy drink, but it was the principle.. 🙂

 

 

 

From the park it was a short walk to the War Remnants Museum. I looked at the map and had a rough idea how far away it was, in which direction and how long it would take to walk there. While walking we were constantly beeped at by taxis and shouted at by cyclo drivers for a lift. We told everyone politely ‘no thank you’ and most of them moved on immediately, except one man who told us we were going in the wrong direction and for 100000 dongs he would take us to the museum. Now while that may only be about £3, taxis in the city cost around 30000-50000 dongs for an inner city journey and I immediately knew he was up to something. I firmly told him ‘no’ and walked on. I think Adam was sick of walking and would have gladly taken the ride, but my cynicism won over. Also as we got to the museum it was clear the driver would have literally ‘taken us for a ride’ as we were going in the right direction anyway and it took us precisely two more minutes to reach the museum.

War Remnant Museum was humbling. And shocking. The photograph exhibitions were thought-provoking and horrendous really. What went on in Vietnam in those years of the Vietnam War seems incomprehensible, how could something like this ever happen? And Vietnamese are still very much feeling the effects of its atrocities today. I want to give a balanced opinion of the museum though and to me it also sounded a lot like communist propaganda in certain cases. But that still didn’t take away from the power of the exhibition. I actually got a little light headed in there after walking around, reading the stories, looking at the pictures… I had to have a little sit down. It’s a heavy topic and the photos and descriptions are holding nothing back.

As we left the museum, the skies opened and a massive thunderstorm ensued. The rain was coming down really hard so we decided to hop into one of the taxis that were lining up outside the museum. Wrong decision!! We let our guard down and went for the first car, instead of making sure it was a trusted company, like Vinasun. Within about 3 minutes we knew the guy fiddled with his meter as we both watched it jump from 30000 dongs to 36000 and then up and up and up in quick successions…while we were sitting in traffic!! We quickly looked at each other to make sure we both saw that, and Adam told the guy to stop the car immediately! I think by this time in the day, we got a bit fed-up with people trying to scam us, so we were like ‘we’re taking no bull*shit’, pointed at his meter, threw 30000 at him and jumped out the car into the pouring rain. We waited for the first good taxi, hailed it and headed back to our hotel. No-one messes with us!!! 🙂

In the evening we had the most amazing pho in a pho-specialist fast food joint. It was amazing and it had purple noodles 🙂

 

 

I know that in a couple of days we spent in Saigon we hardly scratched the surface of this very complex city. But we did our best. Looking back I think I actually prefer Hanoi as a city, and I never thought I’d say that. We weren’t quite done with Vietnam yet however, we still had the Mekong Delta to discover .

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FEATURED | VIETNAM

Hoi An – town of lanterns and tailors

By on 16th July 2015

Hoi An was hands down our most favourite place in Vietnam.

It is one of those towns that you just don’t want to leave and want to stay to soak up the atmosphere, savour the local delicacies, sip Vietnamese coffee, walk around in the beautiful streets every day. Hoi An also looked to me a lot like a ‘toy town’. I call places ‘toy towns’ when they appear to exist solely for tourism, as if there were no locals actually living there, only coming in every morning to open up souvenir shops and restaurants for the flock of tourists and then at the end of the day the whole city shuts up and goes quiet as the locals go back to live their real lives in real cities. Of course this is untrue and I am sure plenty of people do live in Hoi An. It just doesn’t feel that way to me. Another city I could describe this is Florence in Italy (one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world), but just on a much bigger scale. Places like this, ‘toy towns’, make me think: what would happen if the tourists stopped coming one day…? Of course it didn’t used to be like this: Hoi An used to be a very important port town, but now it exists almost exclusively for tourism.

When you first see Hoi An, its foreign influences are evident: it looks a bit like a European town, but with a real and very well preserved local flavour. As you walk further and further into the old town it has more of a Japanese and Chinese feel to it. The town is situated over the Thu Bon River, with one side being a lot more quiet and the other the more touristy side where the old town is. We stayed on the quiet side, which was perfect, we could then just walk over the river for the day to explore the old town. When walking over the main bridge there is a ticket office where you can pay a small fee and buy a day visitor ticket. This is basically a fee towards the upkeep of the old town, which seemed very fair to me. It also gives you free entry to 5 museums or historical places or temples within 24 hours. It;s a great way to see a town. The whole ancient town is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed town. Apart from being incredibly beautiful, nowadays it is most famous for two things: its tailor shops and its lanterns.

You cannot visit Hoi An without noticing the lanterns hung up everywhere. The Vietnamese believe that hanging a few lanterns in front of their house will bring happiness to their family. Even during daytime, the beautiful colourful lanters of all shapes and sizes hang on every building, street, by the river, over coffee houses and temples… they are everywhere and they are delightful! But it is during nighttime when they truly come to life as they light up the whole town. It’s a pretty magical sight and if you are lucky enough to be in Hoi An during a full moon celebration, all other lights of the town are switched off and only lanterns and candles light up the streets.

 

 

 

And while I knew all about the lanters before arriving, I must admit I did not know the towns famous tailor traditions. The town is full of tailors and tailor shops where you can get measured up and good quality tailor fitted clothes made. Even if you are not aware of this, once you are near enough the town you will soon know of it. We first heard about the tailors when in Hue a local asked us where we are going next and as we answered ‘Hoi An’, he proceeded to tell us we must go to his friend who is a tailor and get clothes made. We didn’t really understand this at the time.

Then at Hue train station as we were about to board the train towards Hoi An, someone else also approached us and asked us if we wanted some cheap tailor made clothes, because he knew someone in Hoi An… By now we started to cotton on. Then as we made our way from Danang station to Hoi An in a taxi, at one of the junctions a young woman jumped into the taxi (apparently a friend of the driver’s and was just helping the driver with the directions to the town, yeah right… ;-))  but she quickly started questioning us about what we wanted to shop for and if we wanted some clothes, especially if Adam wanted some new suits…. As soon as Adam told her he was a builder and didn’t need suits she immediately looked disinterested and gave us a look of  ‘but if you are a builder and not businessman, how can you afford to travel, you are not rich…’ 😀

Once we arrived at our hotel in Hoi An the receptionist guy quickly told us to go to his friend’s shop who will make us some nice suits and clothes and then as soon as we stepped out of the hotel to go into town another young woman rocked up by our side and tried to persuade us not to go into the tailor shops but instead go to her aunties stall at the market who will make us a nice suit and some clothes for cheap…… Phew…. We hadn’t even stepped foot in Hoi An ancient town and already we had to say no to suits and clothes at least a half a dozen times, some times it was easy to ward off unwanted sales-talk and other times they were really persistent and had to be very firm with them. Of course once you are actually walking around Hoi An and see the tailor shops it is very quaint and very inviting. No sales talk needed, you will want to go in and get some lovely affordable clothes made. So yet again, this pushy sales technique from the locals that I had already described just doesn’t work. Well maybe it does work with some tourist, otherwise surely they wouldn’t bother right?! If you do go to Hoi An, please be very careful: almost everybody earns commission from referring tourists to tailor shops and it is a typical tourist trap as the quality or the price might not live up to the sales-talk…Read this article to find out more about ‘The Darker Side of the Tailors of Hoi An’.

 

 

 

Another lovely aspect of Hoi An is that it is only 3 km from the coast and the nearest beach. We rented bicycles and rode to An Bang beach and had a fab day frolicking in the sea. The sand was fine and white, the sea was choppy but a lot of fun trying to keep upright and not loose my bikini in the waves and we had lunch in the nearby restaurant that was sold to us with the free use of a sunbed. Again saleswomen on the beach everywhere trying to sell sunbeds to tourists at every turn. All of them guarding their turf, their own sunbeds, their own tourists. We cycled back to town in the afternoon and got sufficiently sun-burnt on the 20 minute ride in the afternoon sun.

 

 

 

 

The road leading from Hue to Hoi An is the famous Hai Van Pass made most famous by Top Gear. To travel to Hoi An along this pass you can either hire a private car (this is the most expensive option, but the car can stop anywhere you want) or get the train (The Reunification Express between Hanoi and Saigon) to nearby Danang station (less expensive and still has lovely views). We got the train and it took 2 and a half hours and cost 260000 VND per person (approx £8) for a soft seat in an air-conditioned carriage, very comfortable and affordable. If you are more adventurous you can hire a motorbike and follow in the tyre-tracks of Top Gear. There are also many motorbike tour companies operating in Hue on the back of Top Gear that will offer to take you over the Hai Van Pass, just make sure you research the companies well before signing up for anything.

 

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VIETNAM

Hue city tour

By on 16th June 2015

It’s been a while since I’ve updated our travel blog. This is because the past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind – we returned home from Asia, spent running errands, trying to see friends and family and get ready for the next leg of our travels in Europe. So now we are actually in Europe.

In spite of that, I am going to continue with our travel tales where we left off in Vietnam. My last blog post was a bit of a negative one, so this one is going to be nice and easy including lots of sightseeing 🙂

Once we both recovered from our bouts of travellers’ sickness we got back in the road and made our way down towards the middle of Vietnam, towards the royal city of Hue. In my previous blog post I described how we had to reorganize our onward journey and accommodation from Hanoi. The hardest part of that was getting our overnight train ticket changed at Hanoi train station. Vietnamese are not great at waiting in line. Even with the number system, where you have to take a number and wait your turn I had to become very pushy and stand my ground if I didn’t want 5 opportunistic locals to push in front of me. I took full advantage of my 5ft 9 frame and towered above the pushy Vietnamese passengers, guarding my position at the front of the queue.

The two tickets costs 1600000 VDN, about £53. Not exactly cheap, but cheaper than flying. Plus let’s think about it this way: back home £23 won’t even get me to London and back – a 35 minute journey.
The overnight train from Hanoi took 15 hours, which made this journey our longest so far. It wasn’t as comfortable as our overnight trip to Chang Mai, but it was definitely a lot more comfortable than our train trip to Koh Tao! This time we were sharing a teeny-tiny cabin with a Vietnamese tour guide, who was taking a group of 30 tourists to Hue; and a 29 year old Irish teacher who works in an English boarding school. We had a good chat with the Irish guy until he traded our company in for a hot single female. Meanwhile the Vietnamese guy withdrew into his bed by 9pm.. Not to cast stereotypes or anything…
On arrival at Huè the next morning we quickly found our guesthouse. It was quite a comfortable little place with lovely staff (working 24 hour shifts!!!) and a steal at only $12 a night.
Huè itself is a pleasant little town, but its draw for tourists lies on its royal history, its palaces, pagodas, and emperor tombs. The city lies by the Perfume River and is perfect for exploring on one of the many dragon boats that are lining up along the riverbank.

Our first day in Hue was spent walking around the city, being hawked by street-sellers, taxi-drivers, scooter-riders, cyclo-taxis, boat-tour-sellers, and so on… Somehow we still managed to get to the Citadel 🙂 . I did fall for the sad-puppy eyes of a pineapple selling old woman, so we bought some pineapple at over-inflated price, only for her hawker friends to jump at their chance and push us to buy some of their pineapples too. No ladies, I’ve just bought some, stop with the hawking!!!!!

The Citadel was very interesting though and we spent a few hours walking around it – or what remained of it, as most of it was bombed by the US in the Vietnam War. Of the 160 buildings that existed in the Imperial City, only 10 (!!!) remained. Hue itself is now declared a UNESCO site and the remaining buildings of the citadel have been restored.

 

 

We only had a couple of days in Hue, so we wanted to make the most of our second day by signing up to an all day guided excursion of the most popular sights. We briefly toyed with the idea of renting a scooter and touring the tombs around the city ourselves, but we thought the better of it considering the insane Vietnamese traffic.
Looking back on it it was the right decision as we got to see way more with a tour group.
The tour itself was incredibly cheap!: we did the Dragon-Boat tour and paid $5 each for the whole day! This included the pick up from our hotel, 8 hours of programs, a tour guide AND a buffet lunch!! I thought this was all a bit too good to be true, so I did some Googling before signing up and found out that this price will not include the entry fees at each and every place we stop. So we went to the sales office armed with this information and found out that in total the day would cost more like $20 each. We still thought this was a good deal and signed up. However as this arrangement was not made crystal clear at the point of sale, most of our tour group did not realise they had to pay for the entrance fees and kicked up a right fuss. An Irish couple even refused to get off the bus at a couple of the sights because they did not want to pay the fee.
We thought this was a bit petty and our poor tour guide had to explain over and over about the fees. Ultimately we are still only talking about a few dollars per sight, so if people would rather stay in a hot bus for an hour just because they don’t want to pay a few dollars, that’s up to them. But then again we did our research well in advance and knew exacty what we were getting for our money and what we weren’t. $5 would have been too cheap even by South East Asia standards…

Adam and I went along for all the programs of the day and had a very tiring, but packed full day!!!

We were picked up at the hotel at 07.30am and driven out of town to the first emperor tomb of the day, Minh Mang Royal Tomb, which is the final resting place of a Nguyen Dynasty emperor.
The tomb and its surrounding park offers some beautifully landscaped gardens and lovely architecture.

 

 

 

The next tomb we visited was Nguyen Emperor Khai Dinh’s Royal Tomb. This tomb was the most monumental in style and according to the local tour guide Khai Dinh’s tomb was purposefully designed to be difficult to visit: the tomb was built on the side of a mountain with 127 steps leading up from street level, not helped by the scorching mid-morning sun..!!
The climb was worth it though, the views as well as the tomb itself were spectacular!

 

 

 

The last tomb we visited was the Tu Duc Royal Tomb which was designed as a tribute to the fourth Nguyen Emperor’s life. Tu Duc is the longest-reigning Nguyen Emperor on record. Towards the end of his life, the Emperor retreated into his tomb, creating a fantasy-land where he could compose poetry, hunt, and console himself through his concubines.
I must say this tomb was the least impressive out of all three, and as we visited it towards the end of the day most people of our tour group including us were really tired and dragging ourselves around the grounds. The tour guide gave up by this point as most of the group just went off exploring and did their own thing.

 

 

 

Apart from visiting royal tombs we also stopped at a Vietnamese conical hat and incense making village, although to be fair as lovely as this sounded on the itinerary, the ‘village’ was in fact a row of stalls by the roadside where some local hat and incense makers could sell you some of their wares along with some other souvenirs. We bought some chopsticks from a very pushy lady, but we have got used to the fact that in Vietnam even if you buy stuff people are going to be pissed of with you for some reason. I can’t quite work that one out.
We also stopped at a local martial art troupe / school who gave us a ‘very special’ performance. They were actually really good, breaking tiles with foreheads and dancing with swords, etc.

 

 

 

After a rather lovely buffet lunch we continued by dragon boat down the Perfume River. We were taken to our last stop of the day, Thien Mu Pagoda, which is a historic temple in the city. It has seven stories and is the tallest religious building in Vietnam and it is regarded as an icon of Vietnam and a symbol of Hue.

Phew. And that concluded our day tour of Hue. We took a leisurely cruise back to town on the dragon boat and stumbled off, hardly able to walk from tiredness. We went back to our guesthouse and collapsed for the rest of the day. We were so exhausted that that evening Adam and I had our first real fight of our travels so far. Over whether to go out to a restaurant or just grab some noodles by the road. Real, serious stuff. To be fair by now we had been travelling for 6 weeks, spent every waking hour of that in each other’s company AND had both just recovered from travellers’ sickness. I think it was about time to have a tiff. 🙂

 

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VIETNAM

Hanoi Part 2 – The Bad

By on 8th June 2015

If this is your first time on our blog and you would like to read about Hanoi, please read my previous post first: Hanoi Part 1 – The Good. I really don’t want to depress you or put a downer on your upcoming trip to this part of the world. Also, if you are from Hanoi, I apologise, but please bear in mind this post only reflects our own personal experiences and opinions that stem from those experiences.

Hanoi was NOT kind to us. Actually, Hanoi kicked our butts!
In the previous post I wrote about all the things we enjoyed and appreciated about the city. I gave the lowdown on what to see and do if you have 2-3 days here.

In this post I want to write about how and why Hanoi turned a little bit sour for us. Ever since then Adam keeps referring to the city as ‘Hannoying’…

I am going to illustrate this post with some more lovely photos of the city, just to cushion the blow 🙂

 

 

 

We have to go back a little bit in time to when we landed at Hanoi airport. We had to get a taxi into town as there are no train services and since it was really late we did not want to experiment on local public buses just yet. We read upon Vietnam before we arrived and we were aware that we had to be a little bit more vigilant here as people would have more sophisticated techniques for relieving tourists of their money. So we tried to be very careful when negotiating our taxi fare into town. We had heard about how local metered taxis can be meandered with and so to avoid this we decided to arrange for a fixed price, prepaid taxi.

The guy in the office wanted to charge us $30, which we thought was really expensive. Our guidebook suggested that we should be paying around $13. Problem is, that as a new arriver you have absolutely no idea, how quickly prices may have changed, if your guidebook is already dated, if they guy is trying to scam you or if he is being genuine. We said to him that $30 was too expensive. He then quickly dropped his price to $25. I still thought this was expensive, but the guy was not going to negotiate it down any more, so we took it. (As we later found out, the journey really only costs $13 if you ask your hotel to arrange the ride for you in advance).

We gave the address to our driver and then experienced night time Vietnamese traffic for the first time. Well let me tell you you haven’t seen traffic until you have seen it in Hanoi! Apperantly about 11000 people die on the roads of Vietnam every year within 10 minutes we got a preview as to why. There were scooters everywhere and I mean everywhere! And they did not look where they were going, they entered the traffic on main roads without looking, we narrowly avoided them so many times. Lane discipline was non-existent, people casually did U turns on busy roads and started driving down opposite the direction of traffic on dual carriageways! Everyone was just beeping without stop, it was impossible to tell who was beeping who! It was mayhem and it was almost 11 o’clock at night…!
Our driver kindly found our hotel and dropped us. We walked in and were greeted by a guy at reception. We checked ourselves in by signing the reservations book. Straight after we signed the checking-in book the receptionists guy said that due to an unfortunate electrical fault we couldn’t actually go up to our room, I think it was something to do with the elevator maybe, I’m not quite sure, the guy was trying to explain it to us in poor English. But never mind, their sister hotel was just across the road, we can stay the night there. We were grateful that they acted so quickly and resolved this for us and followed the guy down the road to a backpackers hostel. However after about 10 minutes we were told we couldn’t stay there either, for whatever reason, I wasn’t quite following, but it was ok, not to worry, here is this taxi driver who would kindly take us yet another hotel. At this point we were pretty tired and a bit confused as to what was going on. So we just did as told and went with the taxi driver. After driving around for about 10 minutes in the back alleys of Hanoi, Adam and I were now suitably lost. We then came to a stop and were ushered into our third accommodation of the night. Here the receptionist confirmed that we will be staying there for one night and can go back to our original hotel booked first thing the following day.

We were calmed and reassured. All good. That is until we were shown to our room. Thank god it was late at night, and darkness so we couldn’t actually grasp the full horrendity of this room. The smell was enough though. We brushed our teeth in the bathroom and tried not to look at the musty walls and the dozens of flying insects crawling out of the them. That night we made sure the bathroom door was tightly shut and then proceeded to sleep on the hardest bed ever known to man. Now I’m quite adoptable and so far managed to get my head around the hard beds and squat toilets of Asia, but this was something else. I swear that bed was harder than the floor!! I would have happily slept on the floor, but by this time I was too scared to let go of Adam, so we both stayed on the ‘bed’. Needless to say we hardly got any sleep.

The next morning we woke up to a stale air in the room so opened the window to a backyard covered in rubbish. The insects were still crawling out of the wall, so we quickly packed up an went downstairs with our bags to get our promised taxi back to our hotel. And that’s when the receptionist said with a beaming smile: ‘Oh you don’t have to go, you stay here, the other hotel still not work, you stay here for 2 more nights…!’

By then it was clear as day that we were being scammed big time! The standard of this place was nowhere near that of our original booking and we were being charged for a far superior accommodation!! And trust me the original hotel wasn’t a five star either, but it was supposed to be way better than this one! Adam and I made a pact that if we were told we had to stay here, than we would thank them kindly, walk out the door, and find somewhere else. And so we did.

We were a little shell-shocked by this and a bit disappointed that our first night in Hanoi was such a let down. After that horrendous hotel and almost no sleep we felt like we should treat ourselves and walked into our first posh accommodation of our travels so far. The hotel was perfectly located in the old quarter of Hanoi by Hian Kuem Lake. And it was lovely! I had never stayed in a hotel where people open the door and operate the lift for you and basically do everything in their power to make you feel comfortable. We felt a little bit out of place there with out scruffy backpacks but the staff certainly didn’t make us feel anything but welcome. Once we sorted out our accommodation, we quickly fired off an email to Booking.com to let them know of our adventure the night before. Simultaneously we received an email from Booking.com to let us know that since we were a no show at our reserved hotel, we will be charged a cancellation fee!! Well I wasn’t having any of that, and we made sure their customer services knew exactly what had happened and that we checked in there. Credit to them, they acted as intermediary between us and the hotel and eventually the hotel acknowledged their mistake and backed off. Be aware though if you are visiting Hanoi there are all kinds of hotel scams going on, one of the most common one is when you get in a cab at the airport, give the driver your hotel name and they take you round their mate’s hotel..

Now that we had a shiny new accommodation sorted out we were able to enjoy Hanoi and do a bit of sightseeing.

 

 

Our bad luck in Hanoi didn’t end here unfortunately 🙁

One of the biggest attraction we had been looking forward to was visiting Halong Bay. This UNESCO World Heritage sight is one of the most beautiful and unique places on Earth. A bit wary of being scammed again we just booked a 2 day tour of the bay with overnight stay on a boat (a pretty standard affair) through our posh hotel. It wasn’t cheap, but we didn’t want cheap, we wanted to make sure we avoid any dodgy or dangerous boats. We were really looking forward to the trip, got our overnight bags packed and got an early night, ready for an early start.

Unfortunately something didn’t quite agree with Adam from the night before and we woke to him being really sick and unwell. I was starting to get really worried for him and so we decided to try and postpone our trip to Halong Bay. By this time we had our onward journey from Hanoi all arranged so I went on to spend that entire day reorganising everything and trying to track down medication for Adam. Adam spent that entire day in bed trying to get rid of whatever caused him to be so sick. Not fun.

Luckily I managed to get everything postponed by two days hoping that Adam will be ok by then.

Thankfully he got better by the following day and we spent another day sightseeing in Hanoi. However the story does not end here unfortunately.

In the end we never made it to Halong Bay. On the morning of our trip I woke with the same problem that Adam had two days earlier!!!! Lightning does strike twice it seems!! This time Adam had to go and tell the staff that sorry, we have to cancel our trip again, because this time the lady was ill 🙁 So embarrassing! And quite upsetting as by this time we were delayed in Hanoi by 5 days! This time I spent an entire day in bed feeling sorry for myself, and Adam had the joyous task to rearrange everything else. We couldn’t believe it.

 

 

By now we got so fed up with being in Hanoi that we decided we just wanted to go. We didn’t even care about Halong Bay anymore, clearly we were not meant to go there, some mighty power was trying to stop us by whatever means, if you believe in all that. It was just becoming too hard and we lost our excitement for it. I’m only glad we fell ill when staying in a nice hotel with nice bathrooms. Based on our first night’s accommodation, it could have been so much worse…

So as soon as I got better we packed up, made our apologies once again and left Hanoi. By cancelling our Halong Bay trip we were told we would lose the money we paid for it.

They say that if you travel for a long time you will always feel the least affection towards the place where you fell ill. Falling ill while travelling is almost inevitable, especially if you want to immerse yourself in local culture and the local culinary scene. Almost everywhere we went so far we tried to seek out the street food vendors and would almost always choose street food instead of a restaurant where possible. Since we never had any problems in Thailand and Laos we may have become too complacent and thought we were invincible. We suspect that it may have been the amazing pho we had by the side of the street the night before Ad fell ill. It’s such a shame, it tasted soooo good, and we look so happy eating it…

 

 

Of course this then leads me to another problem with Hanoi. Hygiene. It is entirely possible that the fresh ingredients in our soup were washed in unhygienic water. People seem to have worse amenities here than in Thailand, even in their capital city. But this also applies to their public amenities, like toilets. I had to use a public toilet by the lake one evening. Bear in mind the lake is one of the busiest place in Hanoi, both for tourists and locals, so I would have thought the toilet here would be kept in some kind of order. How wrong was I. I’m not going to go into details, but when I came out of there I almost cried….

Now I know most of these are just unfortunate circumstances, but another thing that was suddenly very different for us was people’s psyche in general. We had become used to mild tempered, polite, smiley faces in Thailand and Laos. It needed a massive readjustment from our part to get used to the way people were behaving towards tourists here – they were definitely a lot more pushy. Suddenly saying no once was not enough. There were hawkers everywhere, and if you kindly declined, at first they wouldn’t accept and then they would with a some mild hostility thrown in (of course there were exceptions to this, but in general this is the overwhelming impression we got). If you did say yes to buying some fruit from a street vendor, suddenly half a dozen others would be around you, pushing the exact same fruit towards you, telling you to buy it. And then you have to refuse half a dozen more, who then in turn will be annoyed that you’re not buying their fruit!! They are seriously getting their sales techniques wrong here… After a while you just stop ignoring them, your gaze down the floor, don’t even stop to look.
People here were also much more brazen when it came to charging tourist multiples of local prices. Charging foreigners more than locals is a common practise in Thailand and Laos as well, but in a much more subtle way, in a way that wasn’t in your face, in a way that made us travellers feel that we were contributing a little bit to the local businesses and it was fine. After all an additional £0.50 for us wasn’t much, but it could make a big difference to our tuktuk driver or noodle lady. But in Vietnam this practice was just ridiculous, where they would want to so obviously just rip us off, that many times we just said, ‘no chance, you’re having a laugh’…! Like the lady who tried to sell us a small bag of doughnuts for 150000 dongs. That’s £5. I wouldn’t even pay that in London.
Unfortunately all these experiences added up to Hanoi being the first stop on our travels that we did not enjoy as much as perhaps we should have and due to unfortunate circumstances we had to spend almost 3 times as long here as intended and therefore couldn’t wait to leave.

It’s a real shame, because time has allowed me to look at it from a different angle and appreciate the city for its beauty and uniqueness. I would no longer rule out returning here one day, if only to see Halong Bay.
Let me take this opportunity to thank the staff at the Gondola Hotel in Hanoi, where they looked after us so well and with such compassion after our awful first night and through both of us being poorly. If I ever come back to Hanoi, this is where I will be staying, no question in my mind. They actually managed to arrange for a 50% refund on our cancelled Halong Bay trip and then went out of their way to get the money to us. Thank you.

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VIETNAM

Hanoi Part 1 – The Good

By on 4th June 2015

For me Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is a tale of two cities: there is Good Hanoi and then there is Bad Hanoi. I don’t think Adam has made it quite as far as Good Hanoi yet. 

It took me a long time to figure out how to write up our experiences in Hanoi. Pouring it all out into one essay would have resulted in a mega-long blog post, which is why I am separating it into two. I think taking my time over this means I can actually write about the good things with enough distance to allow me to have more perspective. And I personally think it is nicer to start with good things, so here we go.

I was really looking forward to coming to Vietnam. Thailand and Laos are quite similar in a lot of ways and Vietnam promised a big cultural change for the first time in 5 weeks. We had our visas, we had our flights, we were ready to go.

And what a big culture change it truly was from the get go! Everything from the people’s psyche, attitude towards tourism, the customs, the day-to-days, the way traffic ‘works’, the towns, the cities, the imagery – everything just suddenly was pushed up a gear and we weren’t quite quick enough to embrace the change! All about exactly how this culture shock affected us in Hanoi will be the topic of the next post.

In this post, I want to tell you what I liked about Hanoi and how to spend 2-3 days here if you ever visit.

I loved the busy city, even though it was madness! This is the first place I have ever visited where the traffic on the road is almost like some weird and fascinating tourist attraction, motorbikes like swarms of bees coming at you from every direction. I loved that I was horrified, mesmerized and entertained by it all.

 

 

It took us one whole day where we just learnt how to cross a road 🙂 By day two we were OK, or shall I say Adam was ok and I got dragged across a lot by the arm. Here you have to forget all that you know about the rules of the road as a pedestrian. There is no green man to aid you across a busy road either. There are pedestrian crossings painted here or there, but I’m not exactly sure why as no one actually respects them, no one stops, no one even slows down! I am also unsure of why they even bothered laying down pedestrian walkways, because pedestrians are not even safe walking on these; scooters, even cars routinely just drive up on them in order to go round someone else in their way. Most pavements are also lined with bazaars and stalls and people sitting on the floor taking up valuable walking space with spreading their wares for sale. And then I haven’t mentioned the noise yet. The constant beeping, the non-stop honking, how do they even know who is honking at who and why??!!

As a pedestrian you have to learn that if you want to cross the road, you just have to step off the curb, and go. Walk with intent. Do not stop when you see scooters heading straight for you, just keep on walking. Let the traffic find its way around you.

Once we mastered walking, we went exploring. Hanoi may be a crazy metropolis, bus as far as capital cities go it is also quaint, with a certain small town charm. This is no more evident than in the Old Quarter.

This is the historic centre of the city and it is so full of life, motorbikes, ladies in conical hats pushing their bikes loaded with fruits and flowers, or balancing a pole across their shoulders with overpacked baskets hanging from them. There are food-stalls and souvenir shops, slim, crumbling buildings which even though they are in such bad condition give the old quarter it’s unique look and charm. Apparently this area was established by commerce guilds hundreds of years ago, and each street belonged to a particular guild selling particular merchandise. While this may have changed slightly with modern times, the street names still refer to this old system: Hang Gai (silk), Hang Ma (paper), Hang Bac (silver), etc.

We visited Bach Ma Temple in the Old Quarter, which is the oldest temple in Hanoi. Most Vietnamese identify as Buddhists in religion, however their temples look very different to those we saw in Thailand and Laos. There is a definite Chinese influence and gifts of offerings are on abundance around the altars in a much more obvious and elaborate way then in other Buddhist wats we’ve seen so far.