6. Hoi An // Hue // Vietnam

Clinton has said my last blog was good enough that I am “allowed” to continue and write Hoi An….lucky me! I’d also like to confirm that no…Clinton has not yet lived up to his end of the deal..I still am booking everything for Europe tsk tsk…

We arrived in Hoi An bleary eyed and thankful to be alive right on dawn. We exited the bus and were met by a group of Vietnamese trying to get us to go in their taxi
to their cousins hotel just down the road and blah blah blah. When we mentioned we had already booked a hotel, this was not enough to get them off our case! Apparently, our hotel was too far away and we could not possibly walk it. Of course, we already had directions to our hotel in our hands so set off on foot with our backpacks strapped to our backs, left them eating our dust, and walked … the short 800m distance to our hotel…easy! We dumped our bags and headed out into the ancient city of Hoi An.

Hoian3

 

Hoian14

Apart from being the present day food mecca of Vietnam, Hoi An is also a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is an exceptionally well-preserved example of South-East Asian trading ports dating back from the 15th-19th centuries. It has history as a trade port going right back to the 1st century with the Champa Empire. Needless to say, history abounds and the culture is reflective of the many influences and inhabitants the city has welcomed. Many buildings have wooden saloon like doors and one part of the city was separated by a Japanese bridge, built during the war.

Hoian1 Hoian2

Hoi An has been on my must do list for sometime. I had heard from several friends and from my own research that this was the food capital of Vietnam, so I didn’t care how much we had to eat, but determined we were going to eat our way through this city and not stop until we’d tasted it all. Our first stop was a place that came highly recommended by our dear friend Lisa – Ms Nam’s. Being rather early in the morning, we were still after breakfast and the business card Lisa provided stated that Ms Nam’s was open so we were on the hunt! I had been told that Hoi An was extremely busy and full of annoying suit makers trying to pull you in at every moment, but this early in the morning the streets were bare and it was so lovely walking the streets and breathing it all in, uninterrupted. We followed Lisa’s directions to a tee, however we were obviously getting something wrong as we could not find this place at all! We walked through various backstreets, peering in at Vietnamese homes as they cooked their breakfast, getting increasingly hungry ourselves! After what seemed like hours, Clinton finally admitted defeat and allowed me to ask someone who pointed us in the right direction – only problem was still being Tet (which seems to last at least a week) Ms Nam’s was closed. Damn! Now starving, we took off in the direction of the market knowing we’d be able to get some kind of street food, and sure enough within minutes we were sitting down to a bowl of a Hoi An speciality, Cau Lau. Cau Lau is a noodle dish that dates back to the 17th century and is not made authentically anywhere else but Hoi An. The difference is the noodles have a much firmer and chewier texture, and there is very little broth. It is usually served with bean sprouts and greens, some slices of pork and some crunchy fried pork rind for texture. This particular rendition also had tomato and pineapple in it which added to the salty/sweet/sour/spicy taste. Washed down with a sugar cane juice, this provided the perfect sustenance for the morning.

Hoian13 Hoian12

Our next hunt for the day was Bia Hoi. We had read much about this beer and had hoped to find it in Saigon but were unsuccessful. Basically, it is a beer that is brewed every day and consumed by the locals. It has no preservatives or additives in it at all, so spoils after a day. (Totally making it a healthy choice!) It’s also quite
light, 3.5% and is very cheap even in Vietnamese terms ranging from 4000 to 10000 dong per glass. 20 to 50 cents Australian. We had seen various signs at restaurants saying that they sell fresh beer, however every person we spoke to said that it was currently unavailable, not being brewed due to Tet. We had to settle for a La Rue instead which was becoming more prominent the further we moved North away from Saigon.

We had been recommended by Clinton’s friend Justin to do Neville’s food tour of Hoi An whilst we were in town. We had emailed Neville while we were in Nha Trang hoping to get a spot on this tour, however of course because of Tet his team were on holidays. Tet was proving to be an absolute bitch! He was so very kind to us though, and sent us an email with about 10 to 15 restaurants and street stalls to try whilst we were in Hoi An. Brilliant! We spent the rest of the first day trying to locate some of these restaurants and street food stalls. We didn’t have much luck as most were still closed because of Tet (bloody Tet!) however we did find an amazing vegan restaurant he recommended. I’ve always enjoyed vegetarian food, but must admit it is not something I cook regularly, always living with a man in the house (ie my father or Clinton) who really appreciate their meat! This restaurant though blew me away! I have never experienced the depth of flavour in vegetarian food like this
before. Clinton and I consumed another Hoi An speciality, White Rose, which are similar to Chinese dumplings, however are made with rice flour as opposed to
tapioca flour and are filled with a mix of mushrooms and topped with a sweetish sauce and crunchy fried shallots. Simply Amazing! We also shared a vegetarian version of Cau Lau and a fried eggplant dish with lashings of chilli, peanuts and coriander. Simply delicious! After a few more La Rue beers and a quick look at the river by night, it was time to call it a night and get a decent sleep after our horror sleeper bus experience the night before.

Our next wonderful experience in this city was hiring bikes from our hotel. We had looked on a map that suggested the beach was only about 4km’s away so still wanting more beach time, we packed our towels and set up riding the back way through rice paddies and old neighbourhoods. I haven’t ridden a bike for a number of years, but absolutely loved following Clinton with the wind in my hair, singing various old songs, (Billy Joel and Don McLean came up a lot…thanks Mum and Dad) finally in control of my own transportation. We reached the beach all too soon and turned right, away from the tourist area and continued along the road. We eventually stopped at a pretty secluded spot, where we had the beach practically to ourselves. What a treat! Still a bit too cold to go for a swim, we happily sat on the sand and read before continuing on our way.

Hoian11 Hoian4

Neville had recommended a seafood restaurant that apparently had the best shrimp spring rolls in the world. Obviously I needed to try this, but navigating ourselves to this off the beaten track restaurant proved to be quite difficult. After riding for what seemed like miles, we finally pulled over to get some water and ask a local about this restaurant. Of course this local spoke minimum english and despite saying “yes” to every question I asked her, I quickly worked out she actually didnt know where this restaurant was or, if she did, she couldn’t tell me in English. Back on our bikes in the opposite direction, I came across a tourist information hut where the owner spoke a little English and was able to tell me the direction the restaurant was in, but that it was far away. Not wanting to admit defeat, we set off determined and, Clinton with a vague map on his phone, managed to get us off the main street and through a backstreet where we were able to see little households with their own growing herb and greens gardens. Simply amazing! After about another hour of riding, we were tired, hungry and lost. We found what looked to be some restaurant chains close to a beach but it was not the correct one. Vietnamese ladies were hassling us trying to get us to park our bikes for 5000 dong and upon asking the lady if this restaurant was located here, we were told no and it was ages away – 30kms!. Oh dear. Increasingly agitated, Clinton spotted a free wifi sign so motioned for me to try and gain some access to Google directions. As i was walking closer to the free wifi I noticed a sign of a shop 3 doors down… “Tuyet Seafood” the place!!! Hooray!!!! We had found it!!! We quickly parked our bikes, paid our money (rip off) and in minutes were seated on the beach requesting Neville’s special menu and a well earned La Rue.

This meal was 5 courses of specialness (totally a word). First up were the much anticipated shrimp spring rolls and they did not disappoint. This crunchy, almost Greek like Kanafeh encasing the spring rolls was something I had not seen in Asian cuisine before. Inside were lovely fresh shrimp, octopus and various vegetables served with the best nuoc cham sauce I’ve ever consumed. Getting very excited by such an amazing course, we didn’t have to wait for long to try the other four courses. Amazing large fresh shrimp again in tamarind sauce, that was the perfect mix of salty, sweet and sour, grilled baby octopus that was so tender, steamed crab with a butter sauce that just allowed the crab to melt in your mouth and finally fish wrapped in banana leaf, which was made all the more interesting of the smoky taste that came through the fish from the grill. No words can do this meal justice. Clinton and I sat at this restaurant for hours just oohing and ahhing as each course was
brought out. We were a bit concerned towards the end that as we had not ordered from a menu, that this meal was going to blow our budget for 3 days, however upon
receiving the receipt we were surprised that we had both just consumed an amazing 5 course seafood lunch with drinks and with our feet in the sand for the large sum of $35! Bargain!! It was getting late by this time so we collected our bikes from the “valet parking” and headed for home.

Hoian8Hoian7  Hoian9

Our evening began with a walk through the night market along the river in the ancient town. This market was just like any other night market in Vietnam, however it was interesting for me to again watch all the teenagers look at Clinton and laugh and point at his height. Thinking he must be getting quite a complex at the moment, it reached an all time high when a group of teenage boys asked if they could have a photo with him. For the next couple of minutes Clinton had to play model as various shots were taken. So hilarious!! Needing some sustenance, we again went in search of Ms Nams and hooray! she was open! We sat down to a couple of cheap beers and munched on some more White Rose – these with meat and equally delicious and another Cau Lau, again a very original interpretation but also very nice. After a few more beers watching the locals and life pass us by, we called it a night.

Our last morning in Hoi An was spent on a tour to My Son. My Son is the name given to a cluster of abandoned and mostly ruined Hindu temples that were constructed between the 4th and 14th century by the kings of Champa. The bus ride passed without any event and before we knew it we were there. The guide took a liking to Clinton and on the walk to the ruins described that today might be his last day because he was sick of tourists who did not speak English! He also went through his working history, explaining that he had been an interpretator for the enemy in the Vietnam war. He turned out to be an excellent guide, very clear in English and we spent the next hour and a half walking around these amazing ruins. It was very interesting to hear that over 70 temples once existed within a 2km radius between these mountain ranges. Unfortunately though, the evidence of the war here is extremely apparent, The majority of the architecture was bombed within one week and only a handful of temples remain. It was interesting to see that the craters from the bombs still remain, and bullets still exist in some of the temples. Before we knew it however, our time at My Son was over all too quickly and we were back on the bus on the way back to Hoi An to catch another bus to Hue (pronounced Hway.)

Hue6 Hue5 Hue4

The bus to Hue was typical, bumpy road with no suspension in the back. The 4 hour journey took us through Da Nang (where we did not stop, but looked beautiful). It also was a scenic ride through various mountains and provided the best scenic views I had seen on the bus rides so far. (I guess I should point out that this is the first bus ride that I was mostly awake for, I think I only slept for about half an hour or so, but Clinton assures me these views were the most amazing). We finally disembarked from the bus, having arrived in Hue, at dusk in a destination that we were not expecting to get dropped off in, just great! The usual onslaught of Vietnamese of course were there, but we set off in the vague direction of our hotel. Hue was once the nation’s capital from 1802 and 1945. Perhaps our expectations were wrong, especially after just being in picturesque Hoi An, but the city seemed dirty, a wee bit smelly and a little unsafe, especially since our hotel ended up being down some dingy little alley way with very dim lighting. We realised quite quickly that there was not much do to in Hue except for the main tourist attraction – the citadel. We spent the following morning walking around the old city and exploring the Citadel, which is what remains of the Nguyen Dynasty. We then went walking through (another) market, but for the first time in Vietnam did not feel comfortable eating the street food. We tried a little bit of the local food at a nearby restaurant, not really appreciating the flavours, it all just seemed a little off. We walked back to our hotel eager to call it a night and get out of Hue the next day, but needing some
bottled water we stopped off at a little place across the road, and ended up staying for a couple of beers with two of the owner’s drunk friends. They did not speak a
word of English, and we obviously did not speak a word of Vietnamese so after about half an hour we had finally figured out each others names, our ages, and that Clinton and I were “in love.” The owner’s 8 year old son was there and able to interpret some of this for us. After 3 rounds of beers, we finally called it a night,
went to pay and of course had to pay for the Vietnamese guys beers! We spent the next day in Hue doing some travel planning, and before long it was time to board our next horrible sleeper bus to Hanoi! Not again!

Hue3 Hue2 Hue1

5. Nha Trang // Vietnam

Ok, so Clinton has made a “deal” with me, that if I am to write the next instalment of our amazing adventure, he will assist me with doing some of the leg work associated in researching, planning and booking our European leg. This, I am highly doubtful of, but am taking my chances and thus so fulfilling my part of the deal.

We headed on a sitting (sitting needs to be specified in Vietnam) bus to Nha Trang bright and early with expectations to be lying on the beach with book and beer in
hand by the afternoon. In true Elisha style and much to the dismay of Clinton, I proceeded to fall asleep on the bus about 5 minutes after leaving the station, so
cannot share with you any of the drive! To our surprise we arrived in Nha Trang an hour early, and I emerged from the bus bushy tailed and ready for action! Upon
walking to our designated accomodation pre booked by yours truly, we noticed again the familiar Russian writing on all the shop windows. With a large groan, we
realised that this was yet another mini-Russia and we’d be spending the next 4 nights being confused by the Russian language. Our basic accommodation, 30 metres from the beach, was a steal for $9 a night. Sure it was no Sheraton, but a huge private room in walking distance from all the action was just what we wanted…we dumped our bags, changed into our bathers and headed towards the ocean! The next couple of days went something along the lines of read, beer, beer, chat, order some food, and occasionally I would rush across the road to use our bathroom facilities rather than subject myself to the public squatter toilets. It was just the time out we needed and had yearned for since leaving Australia.

IMG_0125

Upon our arrival at the beach on the second morning, we were shocked to see a large boat basically half capsized on the shore. We had not received any adverse weather the night before, but this boat was super stuck and not going anywhere! Some vietnamese looked as though they were going to try and return the boat to the ocean whilst the tide was in, but alas this did not occur, so for the rest of our beach days this stranded boat occupied most of our view.

IMG_0130

As many of you may be aware, once Clinton has an idea or subject within his mind, he can become quite infatuated with the idea and it can consume him. This thought
lately has been saving money so that we can stretch our backpacking dollars further. Now this is overall a great attitude to have, and I applaud Clinton for this
constantly, but one night in Nha Trang it got far too much. We had been to the local Amart, which is kind of like a 711 and purchased some water in order to hydrate
ourselves. The water was 4500 dong and Clinton proceeded to hand over a 5000 dong note. Expecting 500 dong change, Clinton was very suprised and angry as to not receive his change. When he challenged the shop assistant, it appeared she spoke little english, was unable to understand him and had a monster line behind us to serve. Clinton eventually left and we continued onto our chosen restaurant for dinner. Well for the next hour I had to endure Clinton spluttering and swearing about how this shop assistant probably does this to every westener to get her hands on some extra dong (Clinton is snickering to himself after telling me to write that,) and he couldn’t believe he didnt receive his change. For the first five minutes of this rant I agreed with him, after 10 minutes it was annoying, by the half an hour point I was drinking beers at a rapid pace and trying to ignore him. I eventually told him that he had wasted an hour of his life complaining about 2.5 cents, a coin which
doesn’t even exist in Australia and to shut up! Admitting defeat he finally allowed us to enjoy the rest of our dinner in peace!

Our urge to eat some western food was forever growing, and hit an all time high in Nha Trang when after a few Pho’s we realised this tourist city did not have much in
the way of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. So Clinton (sorry Morgan) eventually got to rampage the nearest KFC and eat all their chicken. After a sunny day on the beach with many beers consumed and a wood fired pizza prior, I noticed Clinton was a bit red from the sun and was complaining of a headache. As it was only early evening on Tet eve (lunar new year), we thought we’d head home for some hydration and a little rest before continuing the new year celebrations. Well lucky we did head home as Clinton spent the next hour heavily heaving around the toilet bowl. A little too much beer, sun and gluten had finally reached its threshold. Feeling very sorry for himself, I put him to bed and had a lie down as well thinking he’d be right in a couple of hours and we would still get to the beach for the midnight celebrations. Unfortunately I only got to hear the fireworks from my bed that night, Clinton sleeping right through the loud festivities… Boo hiss to him.

Luckily for us, Tet was to continue for a week and a lot of the large establishments along the beach were having beach parties. We planned to go to the sailing club
and watch the show along the beach where a DJ set was to follow. Unfortunately upon our arrival we realised the entrance fee was approx $15 Australian Dollars each. Not wanting to spend this amount on entry to basically a night club, Clinton came up with the swifty idea of purchasing some cheap drinks from a street vendor and then sitting on the beach right next to the beach party. Part of me thought this was extremely dodgy, but in an effort to support my man I obliged. It appeared some others had the same idea, so at least we wern’t the only ones. We actaully probably had a better view of the Dragon show compared to a lot of people who had paid money to see it! From there we enjoyed our night dancing on the sand next to the DJ set and watched as Westerners paid high prices to drnk within a rope. Pretty chuffed with ourselves and a wee bit drunk, we eventually ended the night with smiles on our faces and some extra dong in our pants (Again, Clinton insists I put this in.)

IMG_0141

Our hunt for great Pho though was realised on our last night when we went down a few back alleys in our continual search for cheap beer. We came across a small
restauarant that was basically the front of a family home. Upon reading the menu we found beer for 12000 dong which was cheap for this area so hurried inside and
ordered. The man who owned the place kept insiting we try some noodle, and although we werent particularly hungry, I agreed, as I had seen another couple eating and the food looked great and smelt delicious. Upon receiving my Pho, and realising how authentic it was, Clinton quickly ordered himself a bowl. The man then proceeded to tell us he made the noodles by hand each day and included small balls of pork rind within the broth for extra flavour. It was delicious! Although this was only a small restuarant it suddenly began to fill up quickly. We both realised that the man’s family had come over for Tet celebrations. We moved to other seats in order to allow the family to sit together, and then spent the rest of the night observing this lovely family wishing each other prosperity and fortune for the new year. It was amazing to watch them celebrate, serving so much respect to the grandfather who later came outside from upstairs and was in his silk pyjamas. The night went on, many beers were drunk within the family and we finally bid them goodnight, absolutely chuffed to have been able to witness such a beautiful and intimate occasion.

IMG_0161

The rest of our time in Nha Trang passed quickly, we went to the mud baths for the day which was lovely and relaxing and spent plenty of time in the sun on the beach.
It all too quickly ended and before we knew it, it was time to catch the dreaded sleeper bus. We had been told horrer stories of these buses from various friends who had been to Vietnam before us, and a 6 foot 4 Clinton was not exactly excited about spending (hence why stating “sitting” before was important.) The pro of catching a sleeper bus is that you kill two birds with one stone. And those bird’s names are Accommodation and Transport. The con (and it’s a big CON) is that you very possibly could die! 12 hours on one of these suckers was the god’s gift to us that night, but as a cheap form of transport, we really had no option. Upon entering the bus all our fears were realised as we had not really prepared ourselves for just how tight it really was. Walking down the aisle sideways, Clinton and I glanced a look at each other, one of disgust with us both thinking, what the hell have we done? and how are we going to survive the next 12 hours? Luckily we had been told to opt for the back seat, which we were able to get and Clinton was able to stretch his legs, but as two people who get slightly claustrophobic, lying 5 a breast at the back of a bus with 5 people on the level above you and the only light illuminating the small, heck, let’s just call it a cubby-house for ants, was from the window beside you, was not the best. The bus slowly departed at 7.30pm and we made our way towards Hoi Ann hugging each other more tightly then we had ever hugged before. Our constant chatter of how we would die if the bus rolled or was in an accident was not comforting in the slightest, nor was the plan we quickly developed should we have to exit from a tiny window if something terrible was to occur. I eventually took some Valium and fell asleep quite quickly, whereas Clinton was so lucky to stay awake and witness the bus weaving in and out of traffic, constantly with the lights of oncoming traffic in his eyes, very scary experience! At points in the night we would be flung out of our sleeper seats as the bus roared over huge pot holes in the road or we would go around a corner without the driver breaking at all, or breaking heavily at the last minute and Clinton would be flung practically half way down the aisle. Very little sleep was had by Clinton in particular but eventually, the sun reappeared, the bus pulled up, and we were greeted by the mystical welcome of our most anticipated destination, Hoi An.

4. Mui Ne // Da Lat // Vietnam

We left Saigon and caught our first bus in Vietnam in search for some beach time. After ignoring a tip to visit Vung Tau down South, we decided to seek some beach
time in Mui Ne. Although it was only 229km away, in Vietnamese time, this meant we’d be on a slow moving, bumpy bus for close to 5 hours. Mui Ne is located on the
Eastern Coast of Vietnam and is a small fishing village. However, most resorts and accommodation exists on the 16km stretch of beach front leading into it.  As the bus drove in after the 5 hour stint, it dropped passengers off along the way and each time it stopped, you’d look out the window, sum up the hotel outside and wonder if you’d hit the jackpot or been given the one star. If you remember the scene in the movie, The Inbetweeners, where the boys anxiously arrive in the middle of no where to this beaten down hotel, this is what it was like for us. We got dropped off, had to walk back 50 metres and then stagger two blocks back up the hill away from the beach where, amongst the dusty back roads and shanties stood this lone hotel.

IMG_0045

But it all fairness, it was not so bad. In a resort area where people were paying up to $220 a night, we’d found this place for $20 for the both of us and, as Elisha
posted on Facebook, we still had some amazing ocean views from our balcony. The problem with Mui Ne, however, is that it is a tourist hotspot for Russians. As most
of you would know how annoying the Australians can be in Phuket, this place was annoying for the over saturation of Russians. And, as it was tailored for their tourist
dollar, most of the food was far from the Vietnamese we’d been tantalised with in Saigon and instead offered a strip of restaurants offering poorly attempted western cuisine.

IMG_9973

After doing some initial strolling to check out the area, we were also confused by a lot of the beach fronts as the sand had been replaced with cement (I think to
prevent erosion) and lacked appeal. Why Russians came here or the place had even been turned into a tourist destination at all, I’m not really sure.

The silver lining in all this though was our German friend, Frank, whom we had met in Saigon, was staying here as well and, despite all the hotels being along a 16km
stretch, his hotel was only 300 metres from ours.

With ideal memories of the amazing seafood we ate in Thailand last year, we went to a beach front restaurant with him and ordered a 400gram shrimp (asking them “to put another shrimp on the barbie”) and tried some barbecued crocodile, since it was there. Crocodile for me was just another barbecued meat and perhaps a little
tougher than I’d hoped, and once the head was off the shrimp, we’d basically paid heaps for only two bites of flesh. Disappointing. So far, Mui Ne was still fairly
so so for us. Having found little around us, Frank, Elisha and I agreed to hire scooters the following day and explore the coast line a little more and, having never
really hired a scooter before, we thought Mui Ne was probably the best place to start learning as you only had two directions in which to travel.  North or South.

Now, Elisha did a reasonable job of hiding this but she basically had no sleep that night as she anxiously feared what the next day would be – getting on the back of a
scooter in this crazy place called Vietnam, her life in the hands of a rider who admittedly was going to be far from Casey Stoner in skill.

The one and only other time we have attempted to rent a scooter was in Koh Samui, a year earlier. And it went something like this. We built up the courage to head to the reception at our 5 star hotel, asked all the questions about insurance and road rules, helmets, directions and went to select a scooter. We thought it prudent that I ride for a little bit firstly to ensure I could even do this. I got on, stared at the handle bars. And looked back at the owner. “How do I turn this on?”
Surprised by the obvious fact I had no idea what I was doing, he gave me a quick lesson in Scooter Ignition 101. I turned it on, lurched forward, braked, lurched
forward again, wobbled, braked and lurched forward again down the dusty hill. After a minute, I thought I had it nailed down and turned around (another flimsy wobble)
and rode back up the hill to collect a nervous Elisha who stood awaiting as I tried to brake but overshot where she was standing by about 5 metres. She got on. We
wobbled. And again lurched forward back down the hill. With her freaking out behind me, we had about 2kms of dirt road to travel downhill before we approached the main road that circles the island. Once here, we would be entering traffic that made no sense to us and probably imminent death. We approached our first corner and, as I tried to steer us around, Elisha lent the wrong way and we almost ended up straight in a ditch. Another gasp of worry. We straightened up, shaking now, and
continued down the road. We now had a straight, heading down towards the highway. Wobble, wobble. Bump. Shake. Bump. Bump. Shake. Bump. Bump. Bump. Hang on. That’s not us. That’s the tyre! Pulling over, we realised we had a flat and knew we’d have to take the bike back. We gingerly rode it back up the hill and returned it to the owner to let him know. “Ok,” he said. “But this is the only one I have so I can only give you a new one tomorrow.” “That’s fine,” we said. “But I think
we’re done with riding for now.” And, taking our first way out with the flat tyre, we didn’t go near a scooter again.

So with this fresh in our minds, we met up with Frank the next morning and went bartering for scooters. I had a male comrade here to beat my chest with so I had to
look confident and so dropped key words like “torque” and “ccs” but Elisha chose to shy in the background as the negotiations took place. We looked at a few places
and Frank and I got ourselves both a bike for the day. Elisha jumped on the back of mine, we rolled into the line of traffic and headed out towards the main centre of
Mui Ne.

After having had a year to discuss in great detail our failings from our last attempt, we were able to turn corners more gracefully and ride with our hair in the wind
(Elisha’s at least) down this stretch of road this time. It was great. We drove into this old fishing village, using an offline map on the iPhone to navigate our way
through the back streets. We rode past blankets of fish drying out in the sun beside the highway, past an ocean of colourful fishing vessels, past local children
skipping to school and the people of the village preparing their fish. It was a refreshing break from the swarms of holidaying Russians. Apart from the time I went
left at the roundabout (remember, it’s right in Vietnam) we had no hiccups. Frank followed us as we found some amazing beaches on the other side of town and, on a recommendation from Maurits, we went in search of a secluded beach towards the south of the town. We found the road we believed this to be on and rode down an open highway only to find it come to a complete end several kilometres later. Weird. Perhaps a resort is to go there soon. But believing this was it, we parked the bikes and walked up some dunes, through some old cemetaries and found this isolated patch of sand. Despite a couple of Russians already there (they are seriously everywhere) we spent an hour swimming out in this blissful water, with some little fishing boats floating on the horizon and got some decent sun.

IMG_9997 IMG_9993 IMG_0035

We then went to find some lunch and went driving further down the highway. As it was leading up to Tet (Vietnamese New Year), practically every place we stopped at was closed and so we had to settle for the one place which had tried waving us down a little while back. As we pulled up, about 8 little Vietnamese kids came running up to us with plastic toboggans asking us to buy one. Alas, we were across the road from the Sand Dunes. We told them to come back after lunch and we’d consider a price. After one of the worst Pho Bo’s I’ve had here (surprising that this correlated with a tourist spot) we told the kids we were not going to pay 30,000 VND for their toboggan and they would need to halve the price. So these poor kids agreed to give us 2 for 1 and led us up these giant red sand dunes. There we slid down the hot slopes and finished with a mouthful of sand. We chomped that down, ran back up and did it again. The girl had been great helping to push us down so we tipped her the rest of the amount she had originally asked for. Hey, we’re not that much of a bunch of arseholes.

IMG_0025 IMG_0020 IMG_0018

Mui Ne also offered Ostrich riding for a dollar but we said no to riding around on a giant chicken and got back on our scooters. We spent the rest of the afternoon
surveying the coastline before returning back home to head out for dinner. With a day of suspenseful riding behind her, Elisha charged a glass of beer and we sat down this time to try some turtle. I’ve previously been told a story by my friend Zeb that some sailors were always asked to bring back specimens of turtle after their
exhibitions for scientific research sometime in the past vastness of history. However, as the turtles tasted so good, they never survived the journey. In retrospect of this, we had to try it. So they brought us out some turtle soup and barbecued turtle. I’d named him Michaelangelo beforehand as he was my favourite Ninja Turtle. We picked the meat away from the claws and the shell and ate away. It was a pretty soft and delicate meat but by no means a chore I’d want to do every night. Meat, in my opinion, should be hassle free and served as a 500gram porterhouse. None of this picking a turtle toe nail from your teeth.

photo 1 photo 2

We thought we’d try a new venue afterwards and went to a place selling some cocktails down the road. We found a table, sat down and who should be sitting directly next to us but the Australians we’d drank with in Saigon. Seriously, I don’t know how a country with the population it does have even allows this to happen. So we partied on with them for a little longer before the night came to an end.

We were pretty hungover the next day and thought we’d give the Vietnamese a break since it was so bad I don’t think the locals would have even eaten it here and walked up the road to a place called Phat Ham Bo Go, famous for it’s burgers. We grabbed the Ozzie and chewed down this amazing burger dripping with beetroot, egg, lettuce, cheese and all the things we’d so dearly missed. We spent our last night catching up with Frank one final time, watched a replay of the Australian Open Women’s Grand Final and ate at a nasty seafood buffet which promised free cocktails and a beach fire but did neither and instead broke our budget.

We awoke the next day knowing we’d have to check out by 12pm and catch another 5 hour bus up into the hills to Da Lat. There were many problems with this as it was Australia Day, my favourite day of the year, and we were stuck in a village full of Russians, with no Aussie Pub, and a bus to catch in 3 hours. But alas, we were not going to allow that to defeat us. So we streamed Triple J through the laptop, the countdown already 6 songs in, opened a bottle of Hanoi Vodka as not a single Australian Beer could be found here, and pranced around our room cheering to the memories of all the drunken Australia Days we’d had previously and enviously scrolling through all our friends posting about theirs on Facebook. It gave new meaning to the word “vicarious.”

photo

Sadly, we soon had to pack up the tunes and cut our Australia Day relatively short so we could get on the bus and make our way to Da Lat. The bus weaved us very slowly high up into the hills, so slowly that it again took 5 hours to traverse 177km. As we rose up, fog soon fell upon the road and, at times, visibility was as little as
10 metres in front of us. When this cleared, we were gifted with incredible views of the mountains and hills of the Central Highlands. At this juncture, I’d like to
share with you a little secret. Our backpacks consist primarily of summer clothes. This posed a major problem firstly, when the fog appeared and secondly, when
everyone in the town was wearing puffy jackets as we pulled in as though Frosty the Snowman was about to visit. Expecting to walk into a blizzard, we were then really confused as we exited the bus to find it was still around 17 degrees, similar to Melbourne where I’d normally just be wearing shorts anyway. Perhaps they just really enjoy puffy jackets and scarves. I don’t know.

What is the real attraction in Da Lat is the inescapable French influence. The French helped establish this as a holiday destination for them in the early 1900’s to escape the heat whilst living down south. During the war, Da Lat was largely spared and handed over without a contest so all its history is still preserved. As you walk around, over 2500 French buildings still stand and it was a stark contrast to the style of living we had seen so far in Vietnam. Both hilly and well-kept, it reminded me of Brisbane’s street lay out in that they lacked a grid format, but with the climate of Toowoomba or Canberra in that it could be quite warm in the day, but misty and
cold at night.

IMG_0106 IMG_0102

Starved for a decent pho bo again, we were fortunate enough to stay with a hospitable host who gave us directions to some highly recommended places to eat. We beelined to his first recommendation, sat down with the locals and ate what was by far the best pho bo I’ve ever eaten. It was the only dish the restaurant served and hotdiggity did they do it well.

The next morning we explored Hang Nga Crazy House, which is a surreal house designed by a local architect and is basically a large maze of contorting rooms, stairways and crevices. We spent an hour or so there losing each other, climbing over roofs and exploring this endless work of “architecture.”

IMG_0095 IMG_0081IMG_0055IMG_0058IMG_0088    IMG_0062

As we had read Nicky and Michael’s blog during their recent travels around the globe (nicknmick.wordpress.com) we often sympathised with Michael for Nicky would forever trek him around to vegetarian restaurants. The boy needs meat! However, the second place our host had recommended here was a vegetarian spot and a must try. I’ll be damned. I’m not a fan of tofu but when they served little bite sized crusted pieces of tofu with a sprinkling of lemongrass, ginger, coriander and chilli, I transformed my chopsticks into weapons and defended the food like crazy from Elisha’s invading hands. Additionally, we were brought a cream of mushroom soup (an example of their French influence) that we then had to order a second bowl of, as I was not going to share this either! Lastly, they brought out sushi-sized eggplant rolls, crammed full of various mushrooms, glass noodles and a fragrant spice mix which finished the meal nicely. Nicky, we may have to join you on your side of the food wall!

Da Lat also makes milk. And if you’ve been unfortunate enough to be in Elisha’s company whilst she is drunk at 2am in the morning, you may have at some point been subjected to her passionate ramblings about how milk should be non-homogenised and how Australian milk farmers are being squeezed out of the market and how milk this and milk that and blah blah blah. (Even as I write this, she has just pointed out that milk should also be unpasteurised, just as an FYI Clinton.) So even though no body drinks it here, Elisha couldn’t resist chugging down a
container of Da Lat milk just so one day she can lay claim to being Australia’s greatest Milk Connoisseur.

IMG_0111

So far, we had been in Vietnam for a week and a half and hadn’t felt that much out of place. However, in Da Lat, for the first time here, I was often reminded of how
tall I was. Maybe as they are in the hills, they don’t get as many tourists but, as Elisha and I walked through the night market where all the teenagers were hanging
out, I could constantly hear a snicker of laughter behind me. As I turned around, I’d always catch a glimpse of 3 Vietnamese girls shying away laughing like they had
just been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, but instead had been caught by the 6″4 white man, alarmed by their laughter – ME!  Initially, it was quite
funny. Elisha thought it quite hilarious to walk behind me and witness the trail of laughs I’d leave behind in the streets.  But let me tell you. After having that many girls laughing at you it leaves you with quite a complex and I had to go home that night, look in the mirror and tell myself “No Clinton, you’re not ugly” and wipe away a tear.

As nice as Da Lat was, two nights in the cold was enough and so we booked a bus for the next morning to take us to Nha Trang and get four more days of sun. So with a box of Kleenex and a copy of The Notebook, we left Da Lat and it’s cruel laughter behind and went back to somewhere where I was not going to be the laughing stock of every girl I passed..

3. Saigon // Vietnam

SAI (MOTHER-EFFING) GON!!!

What a city! I’ve had many friends tell me how crazy this place is but, it wasn’t until we descended below the clouds and got our first glimpse of Saigon’s monstrous layout that we realised we were in for a bombshell of a time. From above, it was vast, hectic and built up as far as the eye could see. There was no hope in hell of pinpointing just where the city centre was from up high. In comparison to KL, Saigon was about 5 times the population, 10 times busier and English seemed as rare as a good movie from Michael Bay.

Mildly freaking out (OK, having an aneurysm every fifteen seconds) we tried to make sense of this new world whilst we attempted to decipher their language, get into the right line and collect our bags. 19 aneurysms later and we were through customs and ready to navigate our way into the city.

Now, in Saigon you can pay for a cab to get you from the airport to the city for about $5-10. However, as we were now backpackers, we elected to embark on the mad journey by bus so that we only had to pay $1. What a brilliant notion.

We exited the airport and entered a flood of Vietnamese awaiting loved ones, each holding a sign up with a language we could not make any sense of and each yelling out as though their version of Justin Beiber was standing right behind us. We pushed our way through, nudging and burrowing through the ocean of people until we reappeared out the other side. We knew we had to get on bus 152 and noticed an abandoned bus right across the road displaying this exact number. We stood dumbfounded outside the door of the empty bus. After another aneurysm and endless unanswered questions about whether we had the number right, we retreated back to the airport and considered maybe spending the extra 4 dollars to catch a taxi. It was here we ran into some help and they pointed us back in the direction of the abandoned bus. Determined to again save us a few pennies, we trundled back to the bus where, this time, we found a mother and her son had boarded. We decided to follow suit and climbed aboard. Another local boarded and we began to think we had this right. Shortly afterwards, however, a bus driver approached and began yelling at us in Vietnamese and pointing for us to get off and board another bus. Confused, we obliged and climbed onto what we hoped was now the right bus. As we saw some other backpackers hop on, we felt a bit more relieved.

Now I’ve always wanted to wave my dong out in public view and, in Vietnam, I thought I might just get this opportunity. The first place this got me into trouble was on this very bus.

The driver told me it would be 20,000 Vietnamese Dong for us to ride. Having just come from the ATM where it provided us with 8 million dong in 500,000 notes, I waved one of these out to pay with. He immediately scoffed at me and signalled he had no change for this. I’d have to run back to the airport and change it. Just as we were about to do this, the first local who had boarded the bus offered to pay. Being the big rich and generous westerner that I am, I said “sure,” and proceeded to my seat. Apparently, the next backpacker on had also just been to the ATM and the bus driver turned to the local again to see if they could grace him with the due fee.

So here we were, scabbing off the locals and making our journey into the city known as Saigon by the locals or Ho Chi Minh CIty by the rest of the world, the most craziest place I have, up to this point at least, stepped foot.

Regardless of whether you call it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, I’m pretty certain the translation is “Crazy Mother-Effing Scooter Land.” As we left the airport, where
I already thought it was crazy, we entered a highway where about 2 million scooters were collectively trying to cross lanes. Aneurysm number 412.

To add to our utter freakout, the bus then decided to veer across 4 lanes at once so as to pull up at what was apparently a bus stop. No signs, no shelter, just a local standing there waiting to get on. How this worked I don’t know but I was soon to learn this was Saigon. To the outsider, it makes absolutely no sense but, somehow, it works. Scooters travel on any side of the road, sometimes on footpaths, sometimes in the wrong direction. Buses enter traffic as they please and pedestrians just have to run like crazy. The only thing that seemed to make any sense to us was that you just toot your horn like crazy – not as a form of road rage but just to let every other crazy mother-effer know that you, as a crazy mother-effer are driving like a crazy mother-effer, and visa-versa. Crazy.

IMG_9764

IMG_9777 IMG_9693

The bus continued to slowly make its way towards the city. The traffic continued to thicken and the horns continued to grow louder. And, after an hour of mayhem, we got off with the other several backpackers at Ben Thanh Market, located in the middle of Old Saigon, otherwise known as District 1.

Having again failed to plan very well ahead and still not familiar with the idea of living without the use of Google Maps, we approached a British couple backpacking
and asked if they minded us tagging behind them as they navigated their way to the backpacker region. Kudos to them as they got us across roundabouts you’d expect to find outside the Mad-Hatter’s house and intersections that seemed to operate without traffic lights.

Our lack of planning again came back to haunt us as we found the first 3 places we tried booked out. It was getting late in the day and we had heard horror stories that Vietnamese can charge you anywhere up to $50 a night when they know you have no option. However, a lady saw us trundling the streets with our backpacks and led us to a guesthouse. The fact we had been approached left us feeling uneasy and we weren’t sure if we were being scammed by paying $15 for the night. Hearing them say $15 in what almost sounded like celebration didn’t help. However, it was late and we were tired, so we took the key, grabbed the wifi password and jumped online to find something more secure for the next night. Once that was booked, I felt more at ease knowing I’d only have to endure this feeling of discomfort and uncertainty for one night. We dumped our bags, grabbed some of our 500,000 notes and went out to probably get run over.

Because everyone in Vietnam drives on the right hand side (well, everyone except for those few stray scooters) it takes a fair bit of caution to cross the road. I think Elisha and I on 3 separate occasions almost became road kill as we mistakenly crossed the road looking in the wrong direction. Foolish Australians.

With the objective to eat 50 Pho Bo’s whilst in Vietnam, we grabbed our first two that night and, after having literally had no where to drink whilst in KL, we took to the opportunity to celebrate our 4 hour survival in Saigon with a Saigon beer. Saigon Beer deserves a blog all to itself. At 450ml in size and at just 50 Australian cents per bottle, these basically replace your bloodstream. As I write, I am about 87% pure Bia Saigon. But alas, we were still nervous about our stuff at the guesthouse so we called it an early night and went back to sleep in these stranger’s house. We walked down their dark laneway, through their family loungeroom, up the stairs past their kitchen and disappeared into our room. Day One in Saigon = Survived.

IMG_9673

For a long time Elisha and I have said that if we were stuck on an island and could only choose one cuisine, Vietnamese would be it. We love their ability to draw intense flavours from minimal ingredients and small budgets, to include an array of fresh herbs in their servings and to ensure the dish includes a fair hit of chilli. For me, life without chilli is like a painting without colour. It’s a painting but more could be done with it. With this is mind, we spent most of our time in Saigon something like this: Vietnamese Coffee, Pho Bo, Banh Mi, 7 Saigon Beers, Banh Xeo, Pho Bo, 6 Saigon Beers, Pho Bo, Banh Mi, Vietnamese Coffee, Pho Bo, Banh Xeo, 17 Saigon Beers, Banh Mi, Pho Bo, Pho Bo, Banh Mi, Pho Bo, Banh Mi, Vietnamese Coffee, 12 Saigon Beers etc etc etc.

IMG_9686

We weren’t too sure how long to spend in Saigon but, considering it was in the South and this would mean more warmth than we’d find up North, we ended up staying 6 nights in total – just because it offered some of our favourite foods at prices not even my grandparents would have paid when they were my age (because they were using threepences at the time) and the there was just so much of the city to breath in.

We thought the best place to breath the city in was from the Sheraton roof top bar. We ordered an overpriced cocktail and gazed out over this amazing and expansive
city, watching the stream of scooter lights weave in amongst each other and the towering buildings emanate a radiant sea of red and green lights across the sky line. But, sooner than later, the streets from down below gripped us with their cheap food and drinks on offer and we caught the elevator back down to where Saigon really came alive.

After trying some frog in KL, we continued to be adventurous on Day 2 in Saigon as well by trying some barbequed chicken feet and chicken gizzards. Although, I’ll probably stick with Chicken Wings from now on. We thought we’d wash this down with a few more Saigon’s and found a balcony overlooking one of the intersections. Mid-beer, we were mortified to see a local stumble across the street, urinating as we went. Another local came out and held the guy at arm’s length so as not to get any on his scooter. This resulted in a puddle. We then watched on as the urinater walked through a cafe putting his hands on customers and asking them for money. In addition, we then watched people unbeknownst to the cause of the puddle walk through the puddle. This is a story I remind myself of every time I now walk near a puddle.

We thought we’d find a new location and went for a few beers at a place called La Famille. Little did we know that this was to become our local. We were initially drawn in because they were selling Saigon Beers for 10,000 dong but, as the night drew on, we began getting chatty with a few others around us and soon had a table of 3 Germans, a Dutch and about 40-50 beers. The night ended with plans to meet there again the next night and, this soon became the norm for our duration there.

1013748_10203137759908537_1996593617_n

Day 3 saw us make a visit to the War Remnants Museum. Although we would see some confronting things there, I think the real atrocity that happened was on my way there. We’d refused bike rides there from the numerous locals trying to make a buck from the obvious tourists the entire way there and, losing my cool, I was very close to telling the last one to “bugger off.” By the time I got around the next corner, I was petulant and sick of dealing with the locals. However, a nice little chap whom was carrying the traditional rod over his shoulder with baskets of coconuts strolled up beside us and asked where we were from. With a big smile, he commented on how tall I was and allowed me to carry his coconut baskets for a little while. Elisha took a photo of us and the guy started cutting us up two coconuts for us both to drink. Flustered by his friendliness, I paid the 150,000 dong he asked for and then went on our way. Only 10 or so metres later, we did the maths and realised we had just paid close to $8 for two coconuts. A price that may be fair in Australia but one that was near 4 times the price here. If you see this sneaky bugger around, let me know for I would like to throw a couple of coconuts at his little coconuts.

IMG_9708

After a big night again drinking with our new friends, we awoke very gingerly on Day Four to our alarm clock, prompting us to get on the bus for the Cu Chi Tunnels. If you’re unfamiliar with these tunnels, they are basically a massive network of underground tunnels where the Viet Cong would hide, sometimes for days at a time, as they resisted the American Forces during the Vietnam War. They were used as communication and supply routes, as hospitals, as food and weapon caches and as living quarters. Being a tad claustrophobic, I basically climbed out the moment I climbed in but others did have the opportunity to crawl 100 metres of the tunnels on display. All up, though, there are 121km of tunnels in this system and I’m sure it’s very easy to get lost if you were to take the wrong turn. Both Elisha and I fired off a few rounds of an AK-47 alongside some other Aussies we had met throughout the day, mainly to ensure my Call of Duty skills were not lost whilst overseas and then, our guide talked us through some of the booby traps the Viet Cong would set for the Americans troops. Most of these involved sharp bamboo spears that protruded from a pit and the idea was the above ground would give way as soldiers walked over it and drop them to their death. I grimaced a few times with the thought of dying this way.

IMG_9815 IMG_9799

We’d made a booking to do a Mekong Delta tour the following morning and knew we had another early start. However, we again caught up with our German and Dutch friends from the previous night and let the Rivers of Cheap Beer cascade down into our bellies. 4 litres of beer later, the Germans called it a night and left us with Maurits (Dutch) to go and try some snail. We found a street vendor and picked at these slimy snails from their shells and washed them down with another beer. It was past midnight by this point and, with that morning’s hungover still fresh in our mind, we said goodnight. But 200 metres from our hostel, we then stumbled into the Aussies from earlier that day and thought it would be rude if we didn’t share a beer with them too. We drank on for a little longer with them before I randomly got up and went over to speak with a guy from Montana I’d seen around during the tour as well. He was drinking with a few people from France and Holland and mentioned they were going to try dog the next night. Interesting. Now drunk off my face, I agreed to meet them the next night after our Mekong Tour and we’d go try dog. Now 2.30, Elisha and I finally made it home and we tripped ourselves into bed and set the alarm for 6 am.

Day five started worse than day four. Talk about a hangover from hell. Swearing and cursing at one another, Elisha and I scraped our feet along the ground to our bus for the Mekong Tour. To make the matter worse, the bus ride was 3.5 hours long and took us along some potholes bigger than craters on the moon. However, 3.5 hours is long enough for a hangover to dissipate and, by the time we arrived, we were feeling much better (much better being only about 27% of how I’d like to have felt.) We rode on a boat throughout the vast Mekong River and watched as a few local merchants traded with one another. We then walked through a building where they were making local rice candy, coconut caramel and rice paper sheets. We tried some of their local rice wine, which the locals drank here over beer, and some rice wine stored in a bottle that was preserving a dead scorpion in a cobra’s mouth. Venomous stuff. Next up, we were placed in a four man boat and paddled by a standing Vietnamese through a small canal towards where lunch was served. Maybe it was chicken, maybe it wasn’t. But we ate our lunch and spent the next hour perched in a hammock before our bus arrived to take us back home, courtesy of a 3.5 hour bumpfest.

IMG_9936 IMG_9920 IMG_9893

Still knackered from the night before, we arrived back in Saigon around 7pm with a state of fatigue not even a new mother could relate to. We agreed to have a quiet
night and headed back to our hostel to crash head-first into our pillows. We dodged a scooter and rounded the corner only to find the guy from Montana awaiting for us
where we’d met him the night before. We gave our apologies and wished him best of luck with the dog and walked away making “woof woof” sounds. We dove into bed, turned off the alarms and slept straight through until 11 am the next day.

We spent the last two days the same way we started, drinking lots, catching up with friends and eating Pho Bo, Banh Mi and Bahn Xeo. We had another early bus on the last day to Mui Ne so we wanted to rest up as much as we could on Day 6.

Overall, Saigon was one of the craziest and most hectic places I’ve ever been and, in all honesty, we didn’t stray too far from the two blocks where we stayed in one of the 3 different hostels we occupied. But I loved every inch of it and would have gladly have spent over a month there. Saigon – you are one crazy mother-effing place!

“Woof Woof”

IMG_9964