We are travelling through IndoChina for a few months. We start in Laos and head south into Cambodia, then we cross into Vietnam and head north. Our journal is separated similarly and while each stands alone, they are part of one journey. We loved Vietnam’s energy and while it is one of the five remaining Communist Countries in the world it is bustling with capitalists and entrepreneurs.
Down the Mekong: Its morning, the three day Festival in Phnom Penh is over and its safe to go back in the water, we take the ferry down the Mekong to the border crossing at Chau Doc. We pass a few straggling dragon boats and their crews being towed home by provincial ferries, then its rice paddies, and fishing villages all the way to Vietnam.
The ferry is fast with few passengers, we check out of Cambodia, down river a few hundred metres we check into Vietnam. At bustling Chau Doc in time for a light lunch and the 2.30 mini bus to Can Tho, another three hours along the Mekong.
The bus is full of locals, including Theodore a Vietnamese fuel injector mechanic from Michigan. The landscape changes from the Cambodian ‘rice paddies and occasional village’ to ‘continual village and occasional rice paddy’. There are no animals on the road, and no music on the bus, instead our driver plays ‘chicken’ with trucks and motor scooters. Its like playing Scissors-Paper-Rock, truck beats bus, bus beats scooter, scooter beats bike, but ox cart wins every time.
At Can Tho its dusk, peak hour and raining, Theodore organises a covered tuk tuk for us, and recommends the hotel where he was married. On the way scooter touts suggest boat rides, and ‘better’ accommodation. We recognise the hotel immediately, another wedding is in progress. The wedding is up to the bit near the end when they sing karaoke at full volume, we check in using sign language, the receptionist speaks English but no-one can hear over the karaoke.
The rain stops, we take a walk to the riverside for a bite to eat, and to be interrogated by the local touts selling Mekong delta and floating market tours, most however are watching a football broadcast. Later that night in the South East Asia Games, Vietnam beats Singapore, the streets go wild with pedestrians cheering and horns blaring.
The next day we see few other travellers, it seems most take a delta day tour from Ho Chi Minh City. In the local supermarket John is a stand out, hello mister, girls giggle, and brave boys reach out and touch, its friendly, noisy and pushy, there is little queuing etiquette, especially at the check out, where agility and stealth wins over size every time… well almost.
We are charmed by a local tout and take a delta boat tour – ‘visit the Venice of Vietnam, special small boat, go to small canals’. Its dawn, two of us, a ‘captain’, and some broken English in a small boat. As the sun rises, we travel downstream, and ride the wake of huge barges and their cargoes. Most of the ‘captains’ are women, it’s surprisingly tranquil until we reach the hectic floating markets, then we relax and have coffee at the floating café.
We take a detour up a small canal, past the huts squeezed onto the banks, an hour later the scenery turns rural. There are flower gardens, vegetable gardens and orchards, the canals get narrower, and ‘monkey’ bridges are lifted to get our boat under.
Ho Chi Minh City: On the mini bus to HCMC, we score seats 14 and 15, the best ones for western legs. For the ferry ride across the river we have to ‘unpack the bus, and then repack the bus’. Five hours later we arrive downtown, its hectic, frantic, noisy and polluted. Our pre-selected hotel is 9 floors high and one room wide, two rooms and a lift each floor, that night the street noise and the disco next door gets HCMC off to a very, very bad start.
But it recovers well when we move around the corner, down a quiet lane, with some multi cultural food, espresso, and a few friendly touts selling tours, t-shirts and books. The ‘re-published’ book vendors carry metre high libraries of novels and travel guides. John buys his own small library of guides, then has them prowling the streets for a guide to Russia, the best they can do is the Trans Siberia Railway…..sold.
The next day at the Post Office…, ‘you can’t send books by post from Vietnam unless they have been published in Vietnam’, ‘re-published’ in Vietnam is not a concept they understand. Aware a backpack with an extra 5 kg off books is not fun we find a private carrier, he has a similar issue with the books, then he is overcome with short term memory loss as a result of commerce.
John keeps the guide to the Trans Siberian Railways aside, that night …enthralled, “did you know that HCMC is the start (end) of the longest possible continual rail journey in the world, 17, 852 km via the Trans Mongolian route all the way to Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal…all aboard.”
We take to walking, shops, markets, sights and attractions, its noisy and busy but clean and shady. More walking, tree lined streets, HCM museum, this is where brides and grooms come to be photographed, it’s Sunday and there are a dozen of them. Next, it’s the Reunification Palace with its classic 1960’s architecture, helicopter on roof, armoured tank on the front lawn and out-of-condition western tourists in the living room.
We buy an MP3 player, there are Sony products here that even Sony doesn’t know about…what about an new MP5 player mister? …eh!. We stop for coffee, a new menu announces chicken is no longer available, or allowed on the premises, we gaze across the road to the local KFC, no customers in there.
At the big roundabout in front of the market we study successful road crossing techniques. There is 9.4 million motor scooters in Vietnam, most of them are able to simultaneously appear at the point in the road where you are about to cross. Cathy discovers the secret, ‘don’t make eye contact because, if you can’t see them they can’t hit you’, hmm….we wait for others to cross and use them as decoy cover.
Mui Ne: It’s a toss – up to go direct to Da Lat in the hills or to Mui Ne for a beach break, beach wins. We buy an open tour ticket from HCMC, Muie Ne, Da Lat to Nha Trang for US$15.00. Getting out of HCMC takes ages, the bus manifest is handed around, the bus is full of the young and the restless all born since 1980, we are on the Ho Chi Minh trail with rasto hair, guitars and board shorts, for 200 km and 5 hours.
Mui Ne has 240 days a year with wind over 12 knots, so kite and wind surfing are the pastimes of choice. We get a nice bungalow on the beach, lie around, read, relax, watch kite and wind surfers and eat fresh sea food. Most of Vietnam’s, and possibly the world’s fish sauce comes from around here, we take a tour on the back of some scooters, fishing village, fish market, see fish sauce making in everyone’s backyard, big red sand dune, big white sand dune… Fraser Island has nothing to fear.
Da Lat: Refreshed we head for the fruit bowl and veggie crisper of South Vietnam. Da Lat, kitsch capital and honeymoon destination of choice, there are lots of things to do and many of them are tacky. Its cooler so we unpack the boots and woollens before we interrogate the touts.
Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda approach us and offer an unforgettable highlands bike tour. Disguised as Easy Riders, these touts want to take us on a tour of the highlands on the back of their early model big bikes. It’s raining, so we pass up their two day blockbuster offer.
We walk the lake, see some really good 1970s architecture, visit the flower gardens…closed, try a swan pedalo ride …closed, end up with coffee over looking the mock Eiffel tower post office. Onto the central market where we pay too much for local candied fruit. That night we feast at a classic Italian restaurant, and then to our disappointment we discover we will miss the famous upcoming Da Lat flower festival.
To Nha Trang: On the bus early, there are few others, the manifest shows that Eileen and Sheila from Ireland have a good few years on John, they are travelling south, we are travelling north we swap travel tips as we all head east. We have the front seat views, but its raining with mist and fog, and the road is steep and windy, we stop at a rest point, vendors huddle in the drizzle, the bus stalls and doesn’t re-start, bus door broken, vendors push, passengers pull, the driver climbs out the window…many then supervise repairs.
We continue downhill, more rain, roads washed out, minor land slides and flooding. On the coast the turquoise ocean has turned brown, more minor flooding, some roads are now in the ocean. Like Surfers Paradise, Nha Trang beach is no fun in the continuing rain. We decide to practice for the Trans Siberian Railway and book for the Reunification Express Train to Danang…..clickity clack.
To Danang: Dawn, the train pulls in, the waiting room bursts into chaos and all pretence of etiquette is lost, with allocated seats the point is lost on us, as we amble to our seats.
Some seats face the front, others face the rear, now we are moving forwards, but looking backwards. The train is on route from HCMC to Hanoi, passengers look really at home…sleeping, chatting, eating food, playing cards…as if it were their living room.
We race through the coastal plains with occasional ocean views, but inside the train it is just as interesting as the scenery. Arriving in Danang in the afternoon we get a ride 30 km south to Hoi An, a UNESCO heritage listed town.
Hoi An: The historic old quarter near the river is the clothes rack of Vietnam, the streets lined with tailors. Originally it was a significant trading port, catering to Portuguese, Javanese, Chinese and Japanese traders. The old houses, shops, warehouses, pagodas now cater to tourists from even further afield. The whole area is pedestrian friendly, using the term loosely, but what is even more unusual is that touting is illegal!! In practice this results in touts trying to first start a conversation before moving into a subtle pitch, making Hoi An seemingly one of Vietnam’s most conversational places.
Tiring of the inane conversation we revert to Spanish to throw them of the scent, ‘no quiero muchas gracias’, perplexed they quickly move on to an easier target. Most already speak several languages, and it will not be long before this plot is also foiled.
There are plenty of classified buildings to visit some for free, some for a fee, assembly halls, pagodas and houses. A proud sixth generation resident shows us through ‘Tan Ky’ her Chinese ancestral merchant house on the river, where the family still lives despite the heritage listing prohibiting renovations.
Most travellers visiting Hoi An for a few days are in a clothing shopping frenzy, as tailors make promises of next day delivery. We are offered our shirts copied for $2, but after discussion and complex tape measuring, tailor math converts it to $11. Later however we too catch tailor madness and negotiate some hot new travel fashion, only to re-learn …you get what you pay for.
We sample a good mix of restaurants, and while most of the menus appear similar, we observe even the same restaurant is unable to deliver two meals the same. Restaurants overlooking the river flood regularly during the wet, after dinner we are ushered downstairs and out the back door, it seems king tides also cause flooding.
It’s still wet, the rain settles in again, with morning, afternoon, and evening downpours, during the downpours, local entrepreneurs ply the streets with rain coats and umbrellas offering them to their international comrades at inflated prices, but it’s not just during downpours that we have observed the clash between commerce and communism.
That night is football time again, Vietnam plays Thailand, and it seems the evening peace is going to be shattered, but as Thailand takes the upper hand, interest in the broadcast wanes to be replaced with more conversations with tourists.
My Son – Cham Ruins: We take a sunrise tour to these historic world heritage ruins, but it’s raining so the sun sleeps in. The rain turns to drizzle and the wet jungle provides a perfect setting for the 8th to 12th century Cham religious ruins. This is the Vietnamese Angkor, it’s smaller and many of the buildings were destroyed during the American war, but we are still impressed.
Hue: A three hour bus journey north of Hoi An via Danang we go past China beach. The scenery is diverse, built-up areas, country, coastal and then through the mountain pass which sports a new tunnel which seems to go on forever, avoiding the 496m Hai Van pass and saving us an hour.
Hue is wet and cold (16c), so we pass up the Perfume River cruise but a humorous cyclo driver offers us a wet ride to visit the Imperial Citadel and downtown. It’s a miserable day, and our driver earns $2 the hard way.
We find a cosy local restaurant and run into Barbara and Walter from NY, now in their 70’s. Each year they go to Israel for the winter then take to travelling, it seems there are many years of bus rides in us yet. More rain, more cold we need to move on.
It is 658 km from Hue to Hanoi. Its winter, raining and cold and we agree there are few in between travel destinations for us. To get to Hanoi we choose from a night bus $10 – 12 hours, a sleeper train $31 – 12 hours, or a plane $51.30 -1 hour, while we need the train practice for the Trans Siberian Railway, the plane wins.
Hanoi: In Hanoi by minibus it costs $1.50 and takes 2 hours in peak hour to go 34 km from the airport to downtown. The driver is aggressive, no pedestrian or motorbike is given a break, he drops us at our selected hotel. Cathy attempts to calculate how long it could take if the 9.4 million Vietnamese motorbikes were cars?
We choose the Lonely Planet Guide authors’ recommended hotel – of course it is full. But the owner finds us another place – we have begun the Hanoi Hotel Hop – four moves in all. We later discover that as a result of the LP author’s recommendation the hotel has been full since the guide was published. As a result the owner has bought two other hotels and franchised a couple more, we stayed in four of them – ahh… the power of LP!
The Hanoi old quarter was originally the workers’ guilds with each street having its own trade, some of the original goods remain amongst the plethora of other products, tourist things and all kinds of stuff from China that has invaded the streets. We take a couple of days to wander the streets, get our directions and find Cha Cha street for special fish and To Tich street for fresh diced fruit salad and sweet milk.
Hanoi is not pedestrian friendly, the footpaths are for parking motor bikes, cooking and eating, running restaurants and or generally lounging around and having conversation, we walk on the road with the locals and try to ignore the traffic.
We spot some young Australians in floral boardshorts and thongs, with jumpers and beanies to add warmth, we are glad this dress code has not been internationally adopted.
Sapa: We take a trip to Sapa on a sleeper train, more practice for the TSR. Sapa is in the far North West on the border with China and the coldest town in Vietnam, this is minority village country, its high, cold and often foggy and wet.
We share the sleeper with some locals, it’s cramped, the English is completely broken, and there is no conversation. At Lao Cai on the Chinese border we are given 5 minutes to get up and off.
Its 5.00 am and the sleepy hapless travellers leave the platform only to be invaded by touts and guides. We breakfast and wait 2 hours for a bus to Bac Ha, 2 hours to the east where the traditional H’mong people meet, greet and trade at the Sunday market, its colourful and festive.
After lunch we take a bus 3 hours west up the mountain to Sapa, an old hill town, as the windy road climbs and goes through the pass, the mist turns to fog, its evening, the night is very cold and visibility drops to 20 m. The next day is cold with fog and mist clearing to fog, we take a rest day, walk the town buy gloves and beanies, we have a room with a view but there is no view.
Rested, we take a 6-hour hike down through the valley to visit the traditional villages, and the fog clears to mist. It is muddy and slippery and Se Se our 16-year-old guide confidently assures us she has never lost a tourist. She laughs and giggles as she leads us up and down the goat track along the edges of paddies, and through the slippery muddy creek beds. The villagers are keen to sell us artefacts and their colourful clothing, but we have come to see, not buy, we lunch on soup and then climb out of the valley for the ride home.
Back to Hanoi: We take the overnight train back to Hanoi, at 5.00 am we have a very bad taxi experience, tired and grumpy we have a Vietnamese standoff, instead of paying 10 times the usual price Cathy negotiates and we only pay double.
With vestiges of head colds and sore throats from Sapa we take it easy in Hanoi, markets, water puppets, and museums. At Uncle Ho’s mausoleum with its tight security, John is singled out and patted down because of a bulge in his pocket, the innocent sunglasses are interrogated and then returned with only minor bruising.
Tam Coc: We take a day ride to Tam Coc the ‘Ha Long Bay on land’, 2 hours south, in small boats we float down the canal past the limestone cliffs, through the paddies, into the cave, and onto the pagoda. Half way back our crew turn into pirates and implement a major selling and tipping campaign – Cathy again negotiates and we are eventually delivered back to dry land and the bus.
Ha Long Bay: We take a trip to world heritage listed Ha Long Bay, its picture postcard territory. On the boat a couple of Vietnamese families are laughing a lot and telling jokes.
A tout approaches them and then quickly leaves, they all laugh. Their son explains to us that they told her “if she wants to sell them something she is too late, she should approach them at the start of the tour, not at the end after they have no money left”, their son’s broad accent gives the game up – they are Australian, as is the humour they have no doubt been exposed to, in their hometown – Canberra.
We catch a bus back to Hanoi and dine in style on our last night.