Vietnam Part 2 – Hoi An and Saigon

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Vietnam part 2 – Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

I continued my growing love affair with Vietnam. Hoi An is absolutely beautiful and it trumps Luang Prabang (in Laos) for fabulousness. It’s neatly sandwiched between the Thu Bon River and the South China Sea. They call it the town of lanterns because every inch of this town is covered in bright jewel coloured lanterns strung across streets, restaurants, shops and bridges. At night-time the river reflects the lanterns like a rainbow of stars. It’s romantic and dream like.

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During the daytime, Hoi An is a plethora of ochre hued buildings framed by dark teak shutters. Every shop is a treasure trove of beautiful tailored clothes, silver jewellery, antiques and hand painted art. The tailors here are world renowned, you can show them a photo of any dress or garment and they can recreate it. I didn’t buy any clothes; instead I chose to invest in a unique piece of art by a local artist. It was a real pain to get my painting back home to the UK via Cambodia and Thailand; but well worth it as it’s something I’ll treasure forever (and thankfully can’t be bought in Ikea!)

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I’d been spending a lot time with my new pal Emma, she likes to party, so we partied hard together! I’d ditched my group to a large degree, because most of them behaved like a herd of sheep and I am not a sheep, I’m a tiger! My mentality on this trip was YOLO – You Only Live Once! So I did exactly as I pleased and wandered with abandon.

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Emma & I hired cute retro bicycles and cycled 5K to pretty Ang Ban beach, the route took us past fragrant shimmering paddy fields as well as crazy congested roads.

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The beach was gorgeously unspoilt with golden sand and a palm fringed coastline. The South China Sea was choppy with strong waves that produced that timeless surf sound.

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We relaxed on sun loungers absorbing the warm sun and read our books, then dined on whole crab and sipped on delicious fresh coconuts. I later walked past the crab tank and felt a twinge of guilt when I saw the poor little live crabbies waiting to be picked for the steam pot. I bravely stroked a couple of them and they jolted up looking at me with angry eyes unable to pinch me. I love all of Gods’ creatures… but I love meat and fish more mmmm.

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Beach time was a welcome rest after so many tiring travel days. However, the return journey descended into a nightmare when we got hopelessly lost, racing to get back before the sun set (we had no lights on our bikes and no helmets) the 20 minute ride turned into an hour and a half of riding into nowhere with thundering lorries beeping at us. Fortunately Emma got us back and we ended the day partying with the international backpacker set at Tiger bar, one of the best bars in Hoi An.

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One of the most exciting activities I did whilst in Hoi An was abseiling with Emma, Diana and where I met Spanish beauty Raquel; who later found me in Koh Tao. We booked this excursion through our tour guide. A minivan picked us up and took us to nearby Marble Mountains, a cluster of hills made from marble and limestone. We geared up in harnesses and helmets and began a slippery climb to see the fantastic ocean view, then to start our first descent. I volunteered to go first as I’d abseiled a few times before and I knew the potential panic that some people experienced. The drop went straight into a dark cave; there was zero visibility so it was a case of listening to the instructor and making a backwards jump into the unknown. (Not to get too philosophical but it’s very much like life itself, if you’re brave enough to take a leap of faith, you’ll reap the rewards). Next, we descended down a 25m sheer cliff face in front of gawping tourists who clapped and cheered, followed by a wee inducing 50m descent into another cave. My top tip is don’t look down when you’re at the very top! It was shit scary but I always love getting an adrenaline kick; so I was buzzing.

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The most incredible Buddhist sanctuary lies in a cave underneath the Marble Mountains. When I happened upon the entrance, it took my breath away and I had some kind of spiritual experience in there. Honestly. Beams of angelic sunlight shone down from the roof casting light on the temple and it’s giant Buddha. Photos do not do it justice. I urge you to go there if you ever have the chance.

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My time in Hoi An was full of laughs and smiles and positive vibes. I felt so calm there and it’s a place that I hope to go back to one day.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)

The city Saigon was a bit of a culture shock after peaceful Hoi An. I was met with a sprawling metropolis of endless retail and commerce, from markets selling cheap tat, to high end designer shops. In truth, I wasn’t enamoured with Saigon, our guide took us to see some buildings of note and a crappy market. I just couldn’t understand why we were staying for three whole days. As per my previous posts, the downside of joining a group tour is the lack of autonomy you have with your travel itinerary. It’s much better to wander with abandon.

I was experiencing a few low days during my stay in Saigon. My guide clearly disliked me, I had marginalised myself from the group and their disapproval was obvious. For the first time I felt lonely and badly needed a hug. I’m sharing this to keep things real, travelling solo is hard.

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I learned so much about Vietnam and the war by going to see the fascinating Cu Chi tunnels, a complex underground network of narrow tunnels used by the Viet Cong to fight the South and the U.S during the war.
Our smiling guide Hai was a war veteran whose side lost. At 19 he worked as a translator for the Yanks and then rose up the ranks to become an officer.

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His stories were heart-breaking, he explained that the young Americans were drafted in, they didn’t know what they were fighting for and every day they cried to him because they were scared of dying. Hai told how he’d have breakfast with his friends and within a few hours they’d all be dead. Half of our group were sobbing during his stories. He then showed us various spiked traps, such an awful way to die. He was an absolute living legend and lucky to live to tell the tale.

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A few of us were given the opportunity to enter the tunnels. Now, I am massively claustrophobic, it’s my biggest fear, so this was a panic inducing challenge for me. But because I am persevering and bloody minded, I crawled through that tiny narrow stuffy hell hole on my hands and knees, breathing so quick and shallow, I conquered it though so I was proud of myself.

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Another top place to visit in Saigon is the War Museum, where Chinook helicopters and imposing tanks stand next to B52s. There were harrowing photos of children disfigured by chemical warfare (agent orange) and I saw some actual preserved stillborn babies. It was sick and hard to look at, but I believe that you shouldn’t turn a blind eye on the horrors of this world. This is what Vietnam really went through and scars last lifetimes.

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Thankfully that evening was more light hearted, I spent it sipping cocktails on the roof terrace of a sky scraper.. very cosmopolitan with a fabulous view of the city below.

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Emma & I went in search of the party scene to get our kicks but we ended up in a club full of Korean princesses. They looked immaculate in their designer dresses but they amusingly stand picking at fruit platters and don’t dance.. So we showed them how English princesses do it!

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I pushed through my hangover and took a boat trip along the Mekong Delta to a scattering of river islands (Dragon, Phoenix and Unicorn). A local lady rowed four of us to Unicorn Island along a calm narrow pass covered with a canopy of ferns, it was a lovely thing to do and I’d highly recommend it.

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We visited a few local businesses on a horse and cart, listened to some serene singers, saw sweets being made and I held a honeycomb covered in busy bees.

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But best of all, I got to hold a big Python (insert your own joke!) which wrapped itself tightly around my leg! Awesome.

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The last night in Saigon was my pal Farzana’s last on the Indochina trip so we went to watch an acrobatic show at the Saigon Opera House.

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My time in Vietnam had come to an end but I took with me some amazing memories that shall last a lifetime and a desire to go back one day.

Vietnam Adventure – Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hue

 

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Xin Chao! Good Morning Vietnam!

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So, arriving in Hanoi was a real jolt to my senses after being in sleepy Laos! The city was loud and furious, the residents drive fast, talk fast and hustle you fast too! There are a gazillion motorbikes on the roads but no proper pavements so walking anywhere involves taking your life in your hands. You have to be fearless, maintain eye contact and just strut across the road like you own it, bikers will drive around you beeping, all good fun!

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I was staying in Hanoi’s old quarter and was pleased to find it full of character with a really sociable vibe. As darkness fell, the streets came alive with sellers,drinkers and local young people, all crowded under the neon lights and mess of cables that hung overhead.

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Locals sell a dirt cheap beer called Bia Hoi on the street corners, it’s about 40p a pint! I sat down with some German guys who told me that they were playing a game, it they walked past a Bia Hoi stall in Hanoi, they had to sit and have one. They were only half way down the street and already quite merry! I felt pretty lucky that so many travellers spoke my native English and had a good laugh with them over some rudely mispronounced Vietnamese phrases.

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Being a culture vulture, I visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. The beloved late president died in 1969 and they have preserved his body since then. The mausoleum is guarded by formidable soldiers who make you walk in two by two. I didn’t stay in the crypt for long, Ho Chi Minh looked like a sleeping waxwork eerily lit by an orange coloured light, it’s just really creepy.

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I also visited Ho Lak prison (aka the notorious ‘Hanoi Hilton). It details the torture that prisoners received, also really creepy. The thing is, you’ve got to visit these somewhat depressing places when you travel because they educate you about the real life history of the country that you’re in. The knowledge you gain gives you a new level of respect for the locals that you meet.

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The evening turned into fun and frolics starting at the bizarre water puppet show (amusing but not mind blowing entertainment) followed by a Vietnamese dinner of Bun Cha where we said goodbye to five of our group and hello to two newbies. I found fellow Brit Emma to be very bubbly, sociable and she was looking to party!

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As I like to befriend people of all nationalities, Emma and I had a few beers with some American guys who we met in a bar. It turned out they were in the Military and were such a great laugh. We chatted and eventually performed some impromptu karoke (singing loudly at our table), belting out the songs Hotel California by The Eagles and Livin on a Prayer by Bon Jovi. I was just glad to escape my group and converse with some ‘young people’.

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It was an unexpected late night and I hadn’t packed to leave early the next day, causing a whirlwind at check out. This did not impress my group (mainly retirees) who took the opportunity to bitch about me. For me, fun and spontaneity trumps being sensible every time.

The soundtrack of my trip continued to be polluted with squawking drivel. Daily, certain members of my group avidly checked and discussed the temperature and news in their home towns and beloved provinces. It drove me INSANE!!

Personally, I believe in mindfulness and being present. I don’t care about the local news when I’m travelling or what people are doing back home. Travel should be pure escapism from the drudgery of the life you left behind.

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Halong Bay

I was lucky enough to experience an overnight stay on a junk boat in the famously scenic Halong Bay. Friends had told me how beautiful it was and they weren’t wrong.

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The bay is an area off the coast of Vietnam where thousands of grey limestone karsts protrude from the calm teal coloured South China sea like ancient art.  They create a serene blue grey haze everywhere you look and it’s just stunning. The boat slowly chugged around giving me ample time to take photos from the roof deck.

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The weather was overcast but I happily boarded a smaller boat which took our group to a secluded beach. The sun broke through the clouds and so it was bikini time! I explored the surroundings by hiking up to the highest viewpoint, it was sweat inducing but awesome. Then some very naughty monkeys ‘attacked’ my fellow travellers. I just wandered off on my own (as I’m prone to do!) I climbed a big rock in my bare feet and just chilled on the beach drinking in the views.

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I made sure I was back on the boat for the start of sunset, glass of red wine in hand and my camera in the other. And that sunset was truly unforgettable, the fiery orange sun blazed a hot trail across the shimmering water, turning the sky pink, then orange, then purple… Sigh.

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My guide finally let me escape IJ (loud snorer) and bunk in with my soul sister Farzana (howtogreetapenguin.com)

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We are the same age, both British, both were on a career break, both had recently visited Peru, both love photography and both addicted to Instagram. The only difference being that she is caramel and I am vanilla. Hehe! After a much needed decent night’s sleep on the boat, we headed back to Hanoi where we caught a train further South to Hue.

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Hue Baby!

The overnight train to Hue (pronounced Way) was so much fun, four of us girls had our own cabin with bunk beds! So we put on our pjs, drank beer, ate cake and played cards. I took the time to catch up on my journal and amused myself by hanging upside down from my top bunk to scare Farzana. She got used to my ways (quiet in the day and mental at night).

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On arrival in Hue, we spent the whole day on a magnificent motorcycle tour of the town and countryside. They wouldn’t let me drive so I had to settle for riding shotgun.

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There are no road rules or traffic lights, so you place trust and faith in your driver, calmly balance on the back, no need to hold on and just enjoy the views. Would you believe that was my first time on a motorbike! It was so exhilarating, I loved it! The driver kept telling me to get closer, I can only assume he liked feeling my thighs on him!

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The soundtrack looping in my head was Born to be Wild.. “get your motor running.. Head out on the highway”

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We darted around the countryside and stopped at a number of landmarks including: the ruined Royal Palace,

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An Emperor’s tomb

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The Holy Lady Pagoda

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A coliseum where tigers fought elephants, the evidence being claw marks on the walls. We also stopped at a rice milling factory and watched a tiny old Vietnamese lady mill rice. She had the biggest warmest smile on her face!

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Lunch was at a monastery, cooked by a nun; not my average Tuesday! Whilst travelling, my standard days were generally sightseeing and being a culture vulture during the hot humid sunlight hours, but when the sun set…well, The Gremlin came out to play!

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Night time in Hue was no exception, we went to a bar called Brown Eyes. It was rammed full of local cool kids, Aussie back packers, drunk girls and one particularly handsome blonde Canadian guy. Spot him in the pic. I got chatting to him but he disappeared, then I noticed all theses girls swarming around him. They were falling over themselves and pawing at him. I then found out that he was a young Hollywood actor called Alexander Ludvig who has starred in The Hunger Games, Lost Paradise, Vikings.

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I told Emma who got so excited she marched right up to him and asked for a photo! I tried to be cool and nonchalant which didn’t really work. The funniest thing was that the only person he smooched was slightly clueless Farzana who only walked over to say goodbye to me. She did not stop apologising but I found the whole thing really funny.

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Needless to say, it was another late night, I slept through my alarm and did the usual race to wash, pack and chug down some coffee! So it was Tam Biet (goodbye) to Hue and onwards to my favourite place; Hoi An.