9. Hanoi // Vietnam

I often asked myself in Vietnam, was the Conical hat inspired by the Wok or was the Wok inspired by the Conical hat? I’ll never know but the street we stayed on in Hanoi was named after the Conical hat as that was all it sold back when the old quarter was a huge market. In fact, all the streets in the old quarter are named after an item which used to be sold on that street. To help people navigate their way through, the emporer at the time named each street things like Bat Su (china bowls) Cha Ca (roasted fish) or Hai Tuong (sandals). However, all the streets could probably now be aptly referred to as Tourist Highway and very few of them still sell what the street sign says.

We spent our final days in Vietnam in Hanoi – a city we had been told was even crazier than Saigon. I still don’t believe anything will ever surpass Saigon but I do believe what gives this illusion in Hanoi is the fact the streets in Hanoi are so narrow. Whatever traffic passes through looks and feels a thousand times worse due to the tight congestion. And, despite how much care I took, I did still look up one day whilst crossing the road to find two girls on a scooter apologising for the tyre print they had left on my leg.

hanoi5 hanoi4

We couldn’t leave Hanoi without one last walking food tour so we booked this in one night and was shown around to yet another world of Vietnamese food, vastly different from what we had tried throughout the South and the Middle. Dishes like Bun Cha (grilled pork over rice noodles and herbs) and Pho Ga (rice noodles in chicken broth) were two that stood out.

Although we had consumed enough Vietnamese Coffee along the way, we discovered one of our favourite places in Hanoi, Cafe Pho Co, who made Caphe Trung Da (coffee with a silkily smooth beaten egg white). This may sound gross but in essence this is exactly what an Espresso Martini is, but without the vodka. Needless to say, we frequented this place daily, sometimes doubling the order, and sipped our coffee’s from the balcony, overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake below. The beauty with this place is how hard it is to find. You firstly need to locate and enter the silk shop, continue through the antique-bedecked courtyard and then make your way up a tiny narrow stairwell. Impossible to innocently stumble upon. So I would suggest doing what I just did and cut and paste this from the Lonely Planet guide.

photo 1 (1) hanoi1 hanoi3

We’ve mentioned several times our dire quest to find Bia Hoi, only to find it no longer in production over the Tet period. Hanoi finally delivered this gem to us and we did our best to try as many bars in the city as we could selling this. If you can’t recall, this is beer that is made fresh and lasts only one day due to the absence of perservatives. Away from the tourists, you drink this amongst the Vietnamese who seemingly love a drink just as much as us. A little concerning to see them climb on their scooters afterwards though. Hopefully the 3% alcohol content is enough to keep the roads safe but, let me tell you, I struggled to keep up with some of them.

photo (2)

Being our last place in Vietnam, we thought it prudent to stock up on medical supplies. So we went to a chemist and loaded up on valium, antibiotics and painkillers just in case we would later need these throughout Europe. I find it staggering what you can buy over the counter here, how cheap it is and how easily it is to do. I remember once trying to purchase Sudafed in Australia – a mission to say the least. The chemists hounded me with a thousand questions and then tried to steer me towards another product. Are they really so naive to think I was going to make spped with it? I’m pretty certain if someone was going to make speed, they’d find a way to get their hands on a lot more ingredients than what they could get from that one packet of Sudafed. A bit too overregulated I feel and no room for logic. Which also reminds me of my gripe with the staff at the 7 eleven (a completely unrelated story). I purchased some chewing gum there once and paid on card. For a good 10-20 seconds the guy scrutinised my signature against the one the back of the card. Seriously? Yes mate, I’ve just stolen somebody else’s credit card and, right before I go to buy that new flat-screen television, I just thought my breath needed freshening. Where would the world be without you? It would be Gotham City without Batman. So idiotic. I’m still venting about it 4 years later on.

But back to the topic. We visited a few more museums in Hanoi. Even though these were really cheap and there were some amazing collections of artefacts and memorabilia from their centuries of history, we were often frustrated by the lack of information and context provided. It was really hard to get a sense of what we were looking at without going home and reading up on it. The only problem with that is that you then have an interest for it but you’re no longer at the museum. Drats. The one thing I did learn from looking at royal jewellery several thousand years old though is not to buy Jade if you are considering a gift. The colour on those things seemed to have faded really badly!

photo 2 (1)

My last suggestion for Hanoi is that they change their name. I’ll be honest here – my allegiances lie with the South. Saigon won for me in terms of a city and an experience. And I feel sorry for them that in 1976, the north renamed it Ho Chi Minh City after their communist leader. Could you imagine Brisbane or Melbourne just one day being renamed Tony Abbott? Shudder. History aside, I also found that on a personal level I always got Hanoi and Hoi An confused. Could they be seriously anymore similar? I like Hoi An more than Hanoi too so I think it’s only fair that if one of them were to change their name, it should be Hanoi. I’ll leave that one with them though. As I am someone who likes to mumble about problems but never offer a solution, they’ll also have to come up with a new name as I have nothing.

Wrapping up Vietnam, it is one crazy place! I cannot wait to return their one day. I have serious plans to perhaps spend 3 months there on the way home to possibly give my long ago forgotten about novel another look at. It’s an incredibly diverse and beautiful country, affected by war and moulded by many different cultures that have, at some point, called it home. But, despite the beaches, the cities, the landscape and the history, the real attraction for us was of course its food.

During our one month there, we consumed:

53 Vietnamese Coffee
39 Pho Bo
18 Banh Mi
5 Banh Xeo
3 Coa Lau
2 Ban Bo Hue
2 Pho Ga
2 Bun Cha, and
1 Hot Pot

If anyone was to say “You must be sick of Vietnamese food by now” I’d throw a hammer at them. It’s amazing. I miss it. And salivate everytime I think of it. If I was on my deathbed right now, I think my dieing wish would be to swim in a pool of Pho Bo. Great – now I’ve gotten myself hungry!

But all good things come to an end. We did one final crazy thing and that was to try and catch the local bus to the airport so we would only have to spend $1 to get there. We were almost pro’s by then, however, and got ourselves to the terminal (with a few headaches of course). We flew out of Vietnam on the 15th of February, exasperated by some things (such as the 2.5cent change I never received) enlightened by others (first hand glimpses of war ravished areas) and ebullient about the rest (every other waking moment.)

And now, for the rest of my life, I can tell people stories and start them with “Back when I was in Nam!”

hanoi2

 

8. Sapa // Vietnam

I was excited to go to a place with the name of one of the six mealtimes – Sapa!  But forget tea and cookies, let’s go back a step.

And forget the sleeper bus from the last blog. Our adventures only got worse! Much worse! The absolute worst night of our life came the night we caught the soft-seater train from Hanoi to Sapa. In our bid to save $24 a ticket, we had instead booked a reservation in hell. The train ride to Sapa takes about 9 hours and, as previously stipulated in the last blog, you could pay extra to be in a four-man berth and have a bed. We, however, had chosen to be on a soft-seater, which meant sitting amongst all the noisy locals on these grimy seats for an entire night. Firstly, upon arriving at the main train station, we sat and waited in a noisy hall full of Vietnamese as we awaited the announcement our train was ready to board. In fact, the only two non-Vietnamese in the hall sat directly beside us, a couple from America. So we chatted briefly with them about how much they paid for their ticket, when the train was leaving and why a constant line of Vietnamese approached a desk before us and paid for a ticket worth only 2000 dong (10 cents.) I never worked this out but it seemed they were able to travel a lot cheaper due to the subsidising our ticket price was providing.

sapa1

We eventually got the all clear that we could board and we joined the herd of people bustling through the doors to the train tracks. Like cattle, we then had to cross over several sections of train tracks before finding our carriage. Just as I was about to step foot onto the train, it jolted forward a metre. That could have taken my leg! Really having no idea what to expect, and always preparing for the worst, we got on board and found everything to be worse than we could have possibly expected. We were on the bottom level and I had to duck my head as we walked down the aisle towards our seats. The entire floor was covered in dirt and grime and food crumbs, blemishes and dust was over everything. The entire cabin stank. Elisha whimpered as we sat in our seats, too small for me to possibly get my legs comfortably in, and we tried to plan for the night ahead. If the person who designed these carriages is reading this, let me just tell you that you are some piece of work. You have nasty bolts, screws and painful pieces of metal protuding for no apparent reason all over the back of those seats. I offer a Jihad on you! Initially, the carriage was rather empty and we thought we could perhaps seperate ourselves across two sets of seats for extra comfort. However, after just 20 minutes of travelling, the train jolted to a stop (always jolting, never an unnoticeable glide to the platform) and hords of Vietnamese piled on board, filling every last available seat. They turned all the cabin lights on, talked in loud, obnoxious voices and constantly moved around. We took off again with another jolt and, 20 minutes later stopped again! The procedure was again repeated, with some getting off, more getting on. More noise. More lights. More movement. Next thing I know, a game of poker is being played beside me with noisy raucous. The train jolted again. I bumped my knee on the protruding bolt. Elisha squirmed for comfort. Oh wait! This might have been the train home. The train which took us to Sapa didn’t even have us sitting together! I remember now (sorry, in my attempt to forget this horrible night, I have done my best to forget most of it.) Elisha was sitting in front of me, unable to move her seat into a declined position because, everytime she did, my knee would be stabbed. I had to sit next to a little Japanese guy who thankfully did not move one inch the entire night. Elisha was awoken repeatedly as everytime the train stopped, her neighbour would exit and a new person would rustle in beside her. Noise. Lights. Jolt. One hour would pass. Lights. Poker. Jolt. Another hour. Noise. Jolt. Maybe ten minutes this time. You get the idea. It was the train from hell. It wasn’t until two hours from Sapa that most of the locals disembarked and we were able to snare atleast one hour of decent sleep. I wanted to say never again but I knew we’d have to do this all over again on the way home. Curse me.

sapa2

The end of the train line is in Lai Chau, just south of the Chinese border. We had read that a small minibus commutes between there and Sapa regularly for $2 a person. Upon exiting, a guy quickly huddled us up and told us he would take us to the minivan. Always dubious, I was not surprised when he took us to a taxi his non-English speaking friend was driving and quoted us $20. We walked away and he yelled at us that all the minivans around us would quote the same. We asked them anyway and true enough, all their prices seemed much higher than the Lonely Planet guide had estimated. A Dutch and a Russian girl approached us and we agreed to take the taxi together so that it was only $5 a person for the hour drive. We jumped in, bleary eyed, and the driver took us up the mountains and through the fog to the beautiful village town of Sapa.

sapa4

Some blogs we have read say that Sapa is an entirely different place to the Sapa of ten years ago, before tourism entered and completely changed the landscape of the city. But not to worry. The main attraction here are the small villages nearby that we planned to trek to the following day.

The villagers themselves (known as H’Mong) are impossible to miss. Dressed in vibrant pink and green outfits, they fill the town of Sapa and constantly approach you with a smile, eager to know your name, where you are from and how many siblings you have. The real reason behind their friendliness is to get your money of course but we wanted a tour from one of them anyway so negotiated a price with a girl called Me to visit her house and village the following morning. With that organised, we went to explore what we could of Sapa. When I say “what we could,” I mean what we could as the town was covered in fog and we couldn’t see 5 metres ahead. Literally. Sometimes using our voices to find each other again in the street when one of us had walked too far ahead, we saw very little in our initial few hours in Sapa. So back to the hotel we went to catch up on some invaluable sleep.

sapa3

Upon awaking later in the afternoon, I found myself to be sneezing a little and had a painful scratch persisting in my throat. Oh dear. Could I be getting a cold? I’d spent close to a month in the warmth of Southern Vietnam – one day in the cold and my body had given up! I’d think the possible germs that floated through the carriage of that train the night before and my weak immune system, decimated by weeks of constant drinking, were the culprits. Determined not to miss seeing the villages, I was adamant I would try and beat this adversity that night. And apart from a beer I had whilst skyping Craig in Canada, I had my first sober day in a long time (Yes, yes, I get all that is wrong with that statement.)

I haven’t mentioned how cold Sapa is.  Elevated 1500 metres above sea level, it’s cold. Very cold. I’d fortunately found a knock-off North Face store the day before in Hanoi and had purchased a mammoth size jacket in anticipation of Europe. I can confidently say this jacket is the only reason I’m alive after being in Sapa. That and the fact Elisha and I beelined it to the nearest store to buy a pair of gloves to add to the beanies we had also purchased the day before and our thermals we were wearing for the very first time.

But onto the food. As Sapa is so cold, the meal of choice here is a Hot Pot (and of course, pho bo, which we had chomped down during our negotiations with Me (the villager, not myself.) We initially baulked at the price as it was $12 but in desperate need of knocking out this cold, and in keeping with Elisha’s endless desire to try as much local cuisine as possible, we opted for the vegetarian to boost my vitamins and sipped a cup of honey and lemon tea in the meantime. Ay Caramba! When it came out, we thought we had perhaps ordered for 6! They first bring you a giant plate of rice noodles, followed by a side plate with a mountain of cabbage, herbs, various leafy green vegetables and about 4 different types of mushrooms. Next up, a gas burner is brought out and, on top of it, they place a casserole sized saucepan full of several litres of hot water, potato, tofu, carrot, lemongrass, ginger, chilli and onion. This simmers away before you as all the ingredients cook. You then take a ladle full of noodles and dip these in to cook them, which takes about 20 seconds. Placing these in your bowl, you then add some of the Hot Pot on top with the soup. We ate and ate and ate and ate. And then, when it was half gone, we ate some more. Amazingly, as the stock boiled down, the flavours grew so intensely strong and the end product was what I call “Amazing explosion of flavours in your mouth soup!” The amount of nutrients we got from that one dish would be the equivalent of downing an entire container of Swisse Multi-Vitamen tablets and 18 litres of juice! We successfully hit that cold for six and my body thanked me for once looking after it.

photo (1) sapa6

Me, along with her friend Chu, met us the next morning. Chu smiled at Elisha and said “you buy something from me today too, ok,” which seemed to be a common mindset amongst the H’Mong Villagers. If a tourist buys something from one of them, they seem to think they are all entitled to a sale – despite the fact they are all selling the same thing. Elisha told her she might buy something small and we set off.

First up, Me said she would stop by the local market to buy ingredients for the lunch she would cook for us in her house. We had read that it is custom to offer to pay for this so we whipped out our wallets. However, we were dubious when she said she would need a kilo of pork. “Are you cooking for the entire village?” Elisha asked sceptically. “We are cooking for my husband, my son and us three.” Whatever. Probably getting played. “Just get whatever you think is enough.” She bought some pork and various vegetables before leading us down the trail towards her village. It was still really foggy so most of our view was impeded but we’d seen photos before to know what it should have looked like. Me would often tell us “when it’s not foggy, it is really beautiful out there” and we would nod as we looked down the hill at an endless cloud of fog. We had to pay another $2 each to enter the village. More unannounced costs. How expensive was today going to get?

sapa5 sapa7

With money concerns and whether or not we were getting played aside, the walk in all honesty was utterly beautiful. We left the main road and serpentined our way through paddocks and rice fields and traversed waterways and mountains. We walked 5km before we finally reached her humble abode and it was incredible to enter their way of life. It gives an entirely new meaning to the word “simple.”

sapa12 sapa8 sapa11

Her son, Sean (4 years old) ran out to greet her as we approached this small cement building. I again ducked my head as I entered the small shelter and took my shoes off. There was no carpet, or warmth. Just cold cement. The house consisted of a small fire place which doubled as the kitchen, one small bedroom containing a double straw covered bed, and a living room which consisted of a plastic table and chairs and . . . a tv? There was seriously nothing here but somehow, they had a tv. We sat on tiny wooden stools, maybe 10 centimetres high, (I almost fell backwards off mine,) around the fireplace as she and her friend Chu tried to create fire. Within minutes, the fire was going and a pan of water was bubbling away on the metal rods above it. Food preservation was interesting to observe in her home. About 3 strips of dried pork belly hung above the fireplace and 50-100 heads of corn sat above this. Apart from that, there seemed to be little food apart from what we had brought there. As Me commenced cooking, we sat as close to the fire as we could to keep our feet warm. With only the cold cement as insulation, mine were going numb. Her son had a 5 month old kitten, which looked so malnourished we could have mistaken it for 3 weeks in age, and seemed to treat it very ill-intently. It was difficult to watch whilst being able to do nothing about it as he would punch it on the head, throw it around and grab it by the tail as it tried to escape.  To Sean’s credit though, he did seem to out-man me in the fact he knew how to stoke the fire to keep it going when it was going out.  Yep, a 4 year old knew more about fire than I did.

sapa14 sapa13

Chu soon told Elisha she had to leave and would like for her to buy something. Finding it difficult to say no, Elisha perused through some handmade bags and fabrics before settling on a small purse. We paid $10 (only to find out the going rate is about $2.50 later on.) Chu left with her lottery jackpot and soon Me’s husband, Phluff (they really like their monosyllabic names) entered. We met him and sat down around the table to eat the various meals Me had prepared, mostly in silence due to the language barrier. It was really special to see their way of life this intimately, as well as a little sad they have to revert to this as a source of income – entertaining people in the privacy of their own home. It’s not something I’d be too thrilled about.

Getting back to how simple their home was, Elisha was told there was no toilet and she would have to find an area outside. So, with a vista of fog and several ducks and a pig to keep her company, Elisha went to do toilet.

Me then escorted us another 4kms to the next village where we would catch a bus back up the hill to Sapa, ending the day. Full of lunch (and leaving most of it behind) we trundled further along the beaten pathway before we arrived at the bus, which took us back to our hotel. After observing Chu’s success, Me had given Elisha another scarf and said “just pay whatever you think it is worth.” With no defined figure, we just paid a total of $30 for the entire day, about $10 more than she had quoted to account for the “gift,” of which she didn’t seem overly thrilled about, but we’d already been ripped once that day already.

sapa10 sapa9 sapa11

The hill-tribe people from the villages surrounding Sapa are a must see but its disappointing that their only income relies solely on tourism. This means that girls the age of 6-8 persistently come up to you in the fields with handfuls of bracelets, repeatedly murmuring “buy something from me, buy something from me,” and your guide is also trying to weasel anything out of you that they can. I guess this is mostly frustrating as we had already taken great steps to avoid tours where the money goes to somebody else and tried to make our own way there so we could directly support their economy. The moment you feel you are being taken for a ride, however, it’s hard to return the smile.

As you all know from the first paragraph, we had another hell of a ride (not in the usual enthusiastic meaning of the phrase but the more literal) prepared to take us home that night. I won’t bore you with the details again but it equally matched, if not topped, our previous experience as the worst moment of our backpacking lives.

The best part about this is we entered Valentines day on a rickety old train – wishing for death. Being the charmer I am, the most part of Elisha’s Valentine’s day that year was spent on a train ride she’d rather forget, arriving in Hanoi at 3am in the morning and walking several kilometres in the cold and dark streets toward our hotel which, might I add, we had not booked a room for.  (Later in the day, I also got her favourite beanie caught in her jacket zipper and also treated her to a gruesome War Museum.)

Before leaving, the owner had said we could leave our backpacks with him and, upon arriving, could sit in the hotel til the city awoke. Cursing everything that morning after our horror train ride, we had our socks blessed off when, at 4am as we arrived, we found he was awake to let us in AND had a room available for us immediately that we could use. We thanked him immensely and went to our room to fall asleep in the comfort of a horizontal bed, beneath warm covers and beside each other . . . just as the sound of motorcycle horns began outside . . .

 

7. Hanoi // Halong Bay // Vietnam

I’m pretty certain I said after our first sleeper bus that I would NEVER do that again! But no, to get to Hanoi, we would need to do it one more time. 12 hours was more than enough the first time but this trip was going to be 16 freaking hours! A car salesman would say that’s 33% more value! But I can’t stress enough how perturbed this made me. How will I sleep? Will we survive? Is there another way? Should we just stay put? More than once, we gave considerable thought to forking out for a flight but, after much pondering, agreed this was the life we had signed up for and would always need to take the cheaper option, deathtrap or not. But if we were going to do it, we were going to make sure we were with the most trusted company we could be with. We trundled off to Sinh Tourist, the most reliable coach to travel, and learnt they were full! Darn it! More concerns. We researched more, finding another suitable coffin for us. Found one or two. Showed them to our reception and asked them to book this for us. They dialed a pre-populated number on their phone and made our reservation. Uh oh. Why was their number on speed-dial? They’ve booked us with someone else! Argh. Now we were doing a suicidal bus trip on a service we were not familiar with, without knowledge of where it was dropping us off, or if they were safe! In fact, we did learn their name and, after one google search, found the page flooded with forums of “DON’T EVER TRAVEL WITH THIS BUSLINE!” It felt like we were on the other side of the world from where our comfort zones were. Just make it quick, we prayed.

The bus picked us up from our hotel at 5pm. For the next 16 hours, we miserably wimpered and prayed, and cried and huddled, and swore and trembled, as we travelled north. If you recall the scene from Dumb & Dumber where Loyd falls asleep at the wheel and is awakened to two blinding truck lights glaring toward him, this was my night. Staring down the length of the bus, I witnessed headlight after headlight head directly towards us, only to avert us in the last ten metres to the tune of a horn blast. Our driver weaved around traffic, across lanes and over potholes. The valium worked a little. But not enough. By the time we arrived in Hanoi at 9am, I was as white as a ghost, godly tired and again declaring “NEVER AGAIN!”

Halong1 halong2

We used Hanoi as our base for the next week so we could do both Halong Bay and Sapa – two destinations we had anticipated since the initial planning of our trip. We thought we would do Sapa the next day for a night, come back, rest another night, head to Halong Bay for a night, back again and then spend our final 2-3 days in Hanoi in the hope it finished the same way it started 3 weeks earlier in Saigon.

Before organising this, we pushed our way through all the Vietnamese trying to get us in their taxis, walked the several kilometres to our hostel and tried to check in. The door was open but the lights were off. I could see someone sleeping out the back, which is not unusual for Vietnam, so I went to wake him and checked us in for one night. We then went across the road to greet the northern part of Vietnam with another bowl of Pho Bo, a vietnamese coffee and a Hanoi beer for breakfast.

Missing out on them for the sleeper bus, we then rushed back to Sinh Tourist to organise what we could but alas, Sapa was also full. With a quick change to the plans, we instead booked Halong Bay for the next day, got a price for Sapa and went back to our Hotel. We had spoken to two girls earlier that morning who had said if you can get to Sapa yourself, you can hire a local villager guide there for just $10. Adament this would be much cheaper than paying for a package, we spent some time researching trains. Most people pay $40-$50 for a four-berth sleeper on the train to Sapa but, considering I’d get no sleep anyway on these minature beds, I thought we could do it for half if we managed a soft-seater. Completing as much homework as I could, we navigated our way to the train station which was completely for locals. Everything was in Vietnamese. It was dirty. Crowded. And made no sense to me. A gentleman who appeared to be at an info booth was able to understand we wanted to go to Sapa so ran us across the street to a Tour Agency. After some miscommunication, they booked us a four-birth sleeper, charged us the $45 each and we said “no sorry,” and walked out. The guy followed us back, again instructed us he understood we wanted a seater and told us to wait whilst he went to organise this. Getting frustrated, we waited. He eventually came back with the tickets but this time they were on the hard seaters – which would mean 8 hours each way on a church pew that vibrates. The prices were also printed on these and the figure he was giving us was twice as much. “No sorry,” we said and tried to walk back to where he had come from, which we now knew would be where the ticket booths were. Angrily, he followed us there. We tried to order these ourselves from the booth but they too sold us hard seaters. The guy was now yelling us at for not buying his tickets. With no grasp of the language or means through which to communicate, we’d now hit our limit and, deflated, we turned around and walked back out.

This was my first low point of travelling and it really had me beat. I’d tried to do something cheaply, without being ripped off and had lost. Resigned, we went back to the hotel and I let Elisha know how I was feeling, how travel was getting the best of me and how deflated I was becoming. Whilst I cowered to our room, Elisha, the little trooper, went to speak to the reception. After a few minutes, she came back to say they would reserve a room for us for when we returned from Halong Bay (first problem sorted,) they would allow us to leave our backpacks with them (second problem sorted) and they would ring the train station and organise our tickets for us for $16 (third problem sorted.) It was a real testament to her character to pull us through when I had completely given up and crumbled.

With that sorted, a mini bus picked us up the next morning to take us on our Halong Bay tour. The drive was about three hours to the Eastern coast where over two thousand islands poke out of the water like daggers. The package we had paid for provided one night on a Junk (boat, not actual trash) in the bay and promised kayaking, swimming, caves, squid fishing and tai chi. There were about 20 in our group and we quickly made friends with an Australian and German couple close to our age. Although overcast, Halong Bay was still breathtaking as we arrived and clambered onto our transporting boat. It whisked us across the water where we then climbed onto the Junk (again, a boat, not a pile of rubbish.) “Strange,” Elisha thought. “This isn’t the boat we were shown.”

halong3 halong5

Our tour guide, whose name was Hien but insisted we refer to him as Christiano Ronaldo’s brother, gave us an overview of the trip over lunch as the boat cruised further out into the bay. It was marvellous watching these skybound mountains pass around us on all sides. The Junk eventually pulled up in a small cove where Halong Bay’s biggest cave system was. We were told the crowds were half the size as normal due to the weather, however, I couldn’t help but often feel I was on a human conveyerbelt as we walked through. Regardless, Batman would have been happy here. He could have had 5 bedrooms, 2 studies, 15 guestrooms, 18 bathrooms, a kitchen, a living area, an entertaining area, a games room and a pool area if he wanted to. It was huge and went on forever! Spectating to see a cave system like this. It would have been amazing to be the first person to discover it.

halong9 halong8

Upon exiting, a small Vietnamese lady from a tiny boat called out to us to “buy something” from underneath. Noticing the beers were $2 on the boat (outrageous) I bought 5 from her for a dollar each. Whereas our new friends then paid $2.50 for theirs on the beach, I chugged mine down with the illusion I’d made money. The boat then took us to another island where we were able to climb (and slide) our way to the top for some breathtaking and 360 degree views of the bay.

halong7 halong6

With the sound of one of us sliding at any one point, the six of us then made our way back down to continue our drinking on the boat. Now also wanting to save a dollar, both Andreas and Shawn were also on the lookout for a little lady selling beer. But alas, we did not pass one again on the way back to our Junk. But then, as we drew nearer, a small sillhouette appeared in the water and the familiar “beer?” came faintly through the night. We indicated to her to meet us around the side. However, our guide warned us that there were cameras on board and we would pay a tax making it not worthwile if we bought from her. He also followed this with “just do it around the side from your cabin window.” So all six of us crammed into our small cabin and tried to get the beer down as cheaply as possible. It wasn’t cold but with no where else to buy we bought 20 beers and kicked off.

halong10 1625707_10151963517256033_964435898_n

Keeping our beers in cold water in the sink (the only thing we could think of to double as an esky) we slowly worked our way through our purchase over dinner and then, later, up on deck as we sat around underneath doonahs in the cold mist listening to ambient tunes. As the group comprised of Australians and Germans, it was not long before the beers ran dry. Although the crew had disappeared to play poker amongst themselves, I went to find a fishing rod and threw it in the water to try some squid fishing. Within minutes, a squid the size of Nemo tried to latch on but, as I tried to bring him out of the water, he dropped off again. Determined, I persisted and, each time, this little squishy continued to fall off. (Not too different to fishing with you back home huh Phil?) Not too worry. As Shawn came by to check out how I was going, we again heard the all too familiar whimper of “beer?” Brilliant. I dumped the rod and scurried back to my cabin to again make another purchase from our window. Good for me but I can’t believe this lady’s living came from rowing a tiny boat of chips and beer from Junk to Junk in the freezing cold all on her own in the quiet darkness each night. Shawn and I went back up on deck to join the others to finish our new shipment (or boatment) of beers and talk into the night of travel.

The discussion soon turned to whether or not the $160 everyone had paid for the trip had been worth it. And I was a little surprised no one asked “hang on, aren’t you two backpacking? How can you afford this?” The truth was Hien, our tour guide had approached us earlier to say “Oh by the way, the tour you originally ordered for $85 didn’t fill up, so we’ve upgraded you to this one instead. If the topic comes up, just pretend you bought a package and don’t remember the cost.” Shifty Christiano Ronaldo. Upon walking away, Elisha commented “I thought this was a different boat as we got on board!” Our first win as poor little backpackers! A free upgrade! What made me feel worse though during this conversation was hearing Shawn and Renee say their room was right beside the noisy engine. Surely if they were going to upgrade us, they should have put us in that room! Extremely sorry if you’re now reading this guys!

Tai Chi was promised at 6.30 the next morning and Andreas seemed pretty excited about this. In our inebriated state, he sold the idea to us and we all agreed to be up in the morning to do martial arts in slow motion. Our alarm went off, we argued with the cosy blanket but got ourselves up and trundled upstairs and . . . no one! Argh. After five minutes, we went back to bed. After finally getting up again later on, our tour guide apologised and said as they had minimal staff due to Tet (still bloody Tet) they were unable to offer it. Could have told us the night before! Shifty Christiano Ronaldo. Andreas claims he was up there at 6.35 and did a weights session instead but I still don’t believe you Andreas. You were sound asleep!

After breakfast, we were taken to a small floating village of several houses where our kayaking would begin. For the next hour, we (Ok, I admit – I let Elisha do most of the work from the front) paddled our way around part of the bay, to another cave and to another village. Maybe Shawn and Renee were on to us because they did get their revenge when at one point they grabbed onto the back of our kayak and let us tow them along for a good hundred metres or so. Making it worse, I was also being sneaky and hardly paddling so Elisha, oblivious to what was going on behind her, paddled for her life with 3 people lazily getting a free ride. Shifty Christiano Ronaldo.

1896832_10151963514621033_943113407_n halong11

Swimming, like Tai Chi, was also cancelled due to the cold (which was ok as it would have given me an inny) so we cruised on back toward the harbour to finish up. I spent most of the bus ride back chatting to an elderly Australian couple from the Gold Coast about our recent Ashes victory and got some general sports talk out of my system. Our other friends were all on a tight schedule to catch buses and trains down south the moment we got back so they were eagerly egging the driver on to rush us home. Supposedly, now Tet was coming to an end so it seemed everybody was on the road that Sunday night returning back to the city. Oh wow. This was the sleeper bus again but in daylight. No joke. This is a four lane highway. More than once a truck in front of us would overtake two scooters on the right hand side. A car at the same time would then veer across the double line to overtake this truck. And then our driver would also take this as a prime moment to overtake this car. So we could be 3-4 abreast as oncoming trucks and buses honked and flashed their headlights trying to do the exact same thing in the opposite direction! By far some of the craziest highway driving I have seen and yes, a few panick attacks were had. But, being Vietnam, it somehow worked and the bus dropped our friends off so they could hurriedly catch their next trip. We said goodbye and returned to our hotel.

Now, even though Elisha had made all these reservations before to put me at ease, we had only been able to find the non-english speaking assistance when we had left for Halong Bay. When we had tried to reaffirm with him that we’d have a room upon arriving, we weren’t too sure if the message had been understood. So as we walked back to our hotel, we again had a premonition that we could have no where to go and be out on the streets. “Oh sorry, someone was tired and needed the room,” they said as we arrived. Fantastic. Just our luck. The universe gave us a free upgrade on the boat and now they want our limbs as payment. “But we have a second hotel down the road that is better. You can have a room there for the same cost tonight.” Yay! Our second upgrade in just as many nights. Always trying to help us out, they pulled up two scooters out the front and told each of us to jump on the back of one, with our 18kg bags, to be escorted down the road! I had no problem with this as I thought racing through the tight streets of Hanoi, crowded with everyone returning from Tet and a palpatating heart was an experience I couldn’t ignore. However, Elisha tried to adamently stand her ground and argue she had no difficulty in walking before she finally obliged and climbed on. What fun. No helmets. No foot stand. Just uncontrolled intersections, endless traffic and wind in our hair. And Karen, don’t worry. We got to our temporary hotel alive.

Even though we’ve been able to find hotels with our own showers and room for $9-13 a night, we’ve been a little shy in sharing how much noise gets through the walls. We often lose sleep when ever anyone walks up the stairs, whenever a car drives down the road or whenever the general hum of the city exists (which is always.) I had been sleeping with headphones most nights and Elisha had been using my snoring as her very own sound-maker. The place we had now been put up in was deathly quiet, peaceful and incredibly comfortable. I checked the clock as I went to bed, 11.27 and closed my eyes. Next thing I knew, I was struggling to sleep again and again checked the clock. 10.55. “Still nightime I thought.” I closed my eyes again when the obvious hit me. That’s before I went to bed! I sat bolt upright in the dark and quiet of our room and tried to wake up. “I think we just slept for 12 straight hours!” After some exhausting days throughout Vietnam, this little upgrade was probably one of the most special and much needed! Very rested, we checked out and walked back to our crummy 2 star hotel to leave our bags with them. We spent one more night in Hanoi before Sapa.

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