Motorcycle Sir? - No, I want Pho Bo!
27/04/2012 40 °C
Following our time in Luang Prabang and Laos we caught a flight to Hanoi to begin our adventures in Vietnam. We arrived at the airport expecting to see my name in lights as we were due to be picked up and taken to the hotel, but there was nobody there at the arrival gate. After waiting 10 minutes we realized that there was a gate A and gate B so Ramsey hot-footed it to the other gate and there was the man waiting for us. It was a 45 minute journey into the centre of Hanoi. Our hotel was located in the old quarter where we had a very warm greeting by the hotel staff. Ramsey unfortunately had a bad night, again testing his "gut management" skills.
Next morning Ramsey wasn't feeling much better so I took a walk around Hanoi so that he could get some rest. The hotel supplied me with a map but instead of the 10 minutes it was meant to take me to walk to the lake, it actually took me almost an hour - need to improve my map reading skills! Mid afternoon I arrived back at the hotel where Ramsey was starting to feel better. We booked a tour for the following day to take us to Halong Bay for a three day trip then went out for an evening wander round the city. We walked down to the lake - which took the suggested 10 minutes with the map in Ramsey's hands, then walked to the French quarter which was a little less hectic than the old town, eventually stopping at a little restaurant for some noodle soup and spring rolls.
Next day we woke up to find grey clouds and Halifax style drizzle (only it was still 30 degrees). By the time the we arrived at Halong Bay the rain had stopped but the clouds remained.
Once aboard out junk we were given a massive lunch while we sailed out in to the bay. The first stop was a huge cave (10,00m sq) that was used as a hideout during the war.
This was followed by an hour of leisurely canoeing round the bay. Complimentary wine and fruit was served upon our return.
The evening meal was not quite up to the standard of lunch and a evening was whiled away trying to catch squid and playing cards. The next day we were up early for breakfast and then took a short trip to 'James Bond Island'. We took a small boat to a little floating office with loads of people queuing for rowing boats. After 20 minutes we got our boat and were paddled through a little cove in to a sheltered bay, fifteen minutes later we were on our way back - what a load of tosh (at least it was better than sitting on the boat for the morning though).
Next stop was a 'Floating Pearl Village' where they implant beads in to Oysters (to make them grow pearls) and farm them - the owner took great offense when I asked him if the sold any naturally occurring pearls. We then switched on to a smaller boat and headed to 'Monkey Island' where we saw lots of cheeky monkeys messing around and enjoying some cabbage provided by our guide.
We then moved on to Cat Ba Island. We had a 4km bike ride round the picturesque Island to a small village where we would say the night in huts.
In the afternoon we went on a short walk to a cave and did some bug spotting. The camp was very peaceful and a nice place to spend some time.
Day three of the tour we are up early again to cycle back to the harbor for pickup by the boat. We didn't really do much apart from swap boats then cruise back to the Harbor (at which point the Halifax Drizzle joined us again). A poor lunch preceded the four hour ride back to Hanoi. We then had thirty minutes to grab some snacks before we boarded the night bus to Hue.
After eventually finding a spare seat on the bus we laid back and contemplated what the next 13 hours would be like. Quite simple really - not much sleep, sore shoulders, cramp in my feet and a general feeling of discontentment. After 15 hours we arrived in Hue at 10:00 the following day. We quickly found a place to stay with an average room but a pool to make up for it. We chilled around the pool having drinks and lunch for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. By late afternoon we were ready to head out to the town. We walked down the the old town and to the citadel but it was just closing. We decided to take a 1 hour cyclo tour of the old town - this was quite good fun with the driver (cyclo) pointing out some interesting sights and even a place to chow down on some dog!
We were dropped off back at the citadel and found that it was reopening as tonight was the last night of a four day music and dance festival and the finale was taking place inside. We each bought a ticket for 60,000d (about 1.80GBP) and headed in. The grounds inside the citadel were huge and were tastefully illuminated with candles and lanterns. We enjoyed some good local beer and food then went to see some entertainment. The music was a bit on the Eurovision side and the dancing was more comical then entertaining. After a couple of hours Elaine was still having a good time however, while I appreciated the ambiance of the setting my face and ears were starting to melt off. In a bit to relieve my pain we headed out and to a slow stroll through the city back to the hotel.
Up early the next day we sorted our accommodation for Hoi An then hired some bikes and went out to find some pagodas. The roads were mental and while I enjoyed bullying my way through the traffic Elaine was not quite so happy. After seeing a couple of pagodas, gaining a few gray hairs and loosing about three kilos of body weight through sweat we headed back to the hotel. A quick lunch (the worst sandwich I have had on the trip) was had before we boarded the bus to Hoi An at 13:30. Oh joy, another sleeper bus. Three and a half hours laid down on vinyl seats and me and my sweaty back (speaking for myself and not Elaine) arrived in Hoi An. Pitching for convenience as opposed to personal safety we took motorcycle taxis to our accommodation at the other side of town. After relaxing in out giant room we spent the evening strolling round the chilled (albeit very touristy) old town centre. We had an average meal of local specialties (blame the chef and not the dishes) that evening and settled for a relatively early night relaxing in the room.
Following morning, after the best hotel breakfast we have had so far, we headed out into the town for a stroll. Went to a couple of tailors where Ramsey considered buying a suit and I considered buying a dress - but ultimately decided against it, and after stopping in a few more shops we decided to retire from the heat in a nice bar for a cold drink and a bite to eat. Ramsey ordered a baguette and I got a salad - which turned out to be some of the nicest food we have had so far. We then decided we were in the mood for some BOGOF cocktails, which were also very good.
We headed back to the hotel where we spent some time relaxing by the pool. Later that evening we met some friends we met on the Halong Bay boat trip for dinner - David and Elke who live in Germany. After a beer we decided on a curry restaurant which had been recommended, which was a nice change to noodles and rice.
Next day we met David and Elka again for a trip to the Marble Mountains - five limestone and marble hills (although you can only walk up one) where there are pagodas and caves to explore. Ramsey had lots of fun climbing in the caves and the final largest cave was very impressive. It was a really pleasant place to spend the morning.
In the afternoon we decided to rent a moped and head down to the beach which was about 4km away. After Ramsey had had a practice run we set off. First we fired down to Cua Di Beach which is the main tourist beach. After about 5 minutes of sun the clouds moved in, it was still warm but it is not so much fun sitting on the beach while it when it is cloudy. We decided to jump back on the moped and head down to An Bang beach - the locals beach (plus this would give us the opportunity to get our monies worth with the fuel that we paid for!) We took a stroll down the beach and decided that it would be the place to spend the following afternoon when the sun was shining. We then had a bez around the town centre on the moped - riding the moped was good fun.
That evening we were both a bit tired from all the climbing and running around of the morning. We found a small place selling Bia Thoi for 15p a glass, and good local food - we ordered a hot pot which came served in a massive bowl with a load of hot charcoal in the middle - having it on the table in front of us made us sweat but the food tasted excellent.
On our third day in Hoi An it was time for a cooking course. We had been recommended the course at the Morning Glory restaurant run by Ms Trinh Diem Vy (The Rick Stein of Hoi An) so booked for the morning course, including market tour. Firstly we were taken round the local market and stopped at a fruit store where we tried some fruit, we then stopped at a spice store and finally a fish store - where they had the biggest mackerel I had ever seen!
Back at the restaurant it was time to cook, and we were a little disappointed to find out that another group would be joining the market tour group - which made a class of around 20 people. We cooked cabbage soup with shrimp parcels, fresh spring rolls, crispy pancakes and grilled fish with mango salad (try and guess who is chef A and who is chef B...).
The recipes were really good so the food we cooked was delicious. Some of the ingredients were already prepared which was a little disappointing, and with the class size so big it felt a little rushed, but we will hopefully be able to cook some of the dishes when we get home. In the afternoon we jumped back on the moped and headed down to Cua Di Beach for some sun bathing - as soon as we got on the bike the clouds came over... again! Once we got to the beach we spotted some grey clouds in the distance which were slowly coming nearer and nearer. We realised we would have to make our escape or sit out the impending rain - we decided to sit it out. The rain shower quickly turned into a massive storm - we were taken in by some locals to shelter in their hut where all the shutters were banging and the wind was blowing everything around outside - it was pretty exciting for us. An hour later the rain started to ease and we made our way back to the moped - stopping to take some good photos on the way (unfortunately I didn't bring my good camera with me as we were planning to be on the beach).
We went down to the river front for our final meal then stopped at a cafe for excellent cake and cocktails.
Following morning we were picked up from the hotel and taken to the airport (the driver took great pride in pointing out his brand new car and letting us know we were the first customers to ride in it!) for our flight to Saigon. Arriving at Saigon and eventually working out where the bus into the centre would stop we hopped on board for towards the centre. Finding our guesthouse was easy thanks to the training we received on how to cross roads in Hanoi (without that training we would still be waiting to cross the road now!). That afternoon we visited the local Pho house (noodle soup) as recommended by our host and had an excellent lunch for three squid all in! We then strolled down to the Ben Thanh Market to checkout what was on offer.
While shopping for chopsticks we bumped in to Dave and Elke. After finishing our shopping we all headed off to a fancy bar for cocktails - Vodka Martini (shaken not stirred) and a Singapore Sling. Feeling a little under-dressed we headed off to a local joint to sample a plethora of steamed and fried spring rolls - I thought they were spot on but Elaine was not too sure about the steamed ones. After the food we took a leisurely stroll back through the local park to our guesthouse, scouting out a bakery near where we were staying for a future cake stop.
Following an extensive overview of the map from our friendly host on the second day we headed out for our own walking tour of the sights (or at least some of them) of Saigon. First up was a visit to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum - this was billed as giving a detailed overview of the industrial and commercial history of Saigon while also revealing some secrets about some of the tactics used during the Vietnam war - in reality the building was very grand and the exhibits did not live up to their surroundings. We learnt a little and enjoyed time out of the sweltering heat. Overall worth the 50p entrance fee!
All the main sights in Saigon adhere to the Vietnamese extended lunch (11:30-14:00), so while everything was shut we took the time to stroll down to the river front (not much to see), loose about 2 pints of sweat then stop for the best iced coffee and tea of the entire trip (the place where we stopped claimed to have invented iced coffee!). Following some chill time in another of Saigon's numerous parks we headed onto the War Remnants Museum, which was a somber experience seeing all the chilling and graphic images. After some chill time at the hotel we headed out for a walk round the city and found ourselves at the night market where a big food stall was just setting up - two giant grills had been lit with giant prawns cooking away - we were sold!
Next day we were up early for a trip to the Chu Chi Tunnels where we saw a black and white propaganda film telling us how evil the Americans were, before being shown some of the weapons and traps that were used by the Viet Cong. We were taken to see one of the entrances of the tunnels - which was so small Ramsey didn't dare try fitting in it!
We then went through a 100m stretch of tunnel which had been widened so that Westeners could fit down it - although some parts had been left dark and quite small to give a sense of what it was like living down there. As part of the tour we got shown some of the different traps that he VC used - nasty. Next stop was the shooting range , Elaine was not interested but I had fun blasting off 10 shots on an AK47. It was an interesting trip with an entertaining guide. In the afternoon we went for a late lunch (linner) at KFC - which Ramsey has waited two months for, but was ultimately disappointed. After our late lunch we weren't really hungry for dinner so after a stroll round the markets had some cake and beer and called it a day.
We were picked up at 07:00 the following day for our Mekong Delta tour. The tour got off to a bad start as the boat broke down before we even set off and we had to swap onto a bus. It was soon back on track though as we took a tour round a small village visiting a bee farm and tasting some of the honey. We then took a short boat trip in little canoes down some of the most congested waterways I have ever seen.
Next stop was a coconut candy workshop where we sampled some of the delights. Lunch was awful - the worst food of the trip (I paid for it so I ate it though!). After lunch we enjoyed some green tea and fresh fruit while listening to some local folk music (a bit of a cringe worthy experience). That evening we had a home stay in Vinh Long. We both enjoyed helping prepare dinner and the locals enjoyed my chopping skills. Dinner was an absolute feast - we (I) ate it all and felt like I had tackled a triple Kobeeda!
Up early the next day we went to the local floating market, it was good to see but quiet as it was wholesale only and we just cruised round the edge.
We then went to see a rice paper factory and a soya bean sauce factory (different to soy sauce), the ladies making the rice paper three at a time had some real skill.
We stopped for lunch at the village we had stayed at the previous night, we got a fried elephant ear fish which you make up into fresh spring rolls at the table - it didn't look fantastic but tasted great. After lunch we went out on a leisurely cycle of the local village (but still extremely sweaty as it was about 40 degrees!). I was not content with the level of activity required so I went out by myself afterwards and hammered 5km out. Arriving back 20 minutes later and covered with so much sweat it looked like I'd had a shower I was content. While I was out working up a sweat Elaine was having a snooze in a hammock! That afternoon we traveled by bus on to Can Tho. After checking in to our hotel we had some excellent food down by the river. Feeling a little tired after a busy day we returned to the hotel for an EN.
Up at 05:45 the next day we packed our bags and I went out in search for some breakfast (not included on our tour and too tight to pay the hotel prices), after working up a sweat stomping round for 15minutes I eventually found a little old lady selling fresh baguettes. Nice. We set off to the floating market at 07:00. The Can Tho floating market is the biggest in Vietnam, having said that it was again a little quiet.
The highlight was stopping for a whole fresh pineapple (we we took great joy in devouring a whole half each - PJDOC) and sampling some fresh iced coffee from a seller that cruised up to our boat on their little boast.
After the market we visited a rice noodle factory and a rice de-husking factory - the tour guide pointed out several times that they they export the brown rice as they like to eat white things (rice Nazis!). Back in Can Tho we had 3.5 hours to kill before our bus arrived (it was four but Elaine spent the first half hour moaning about the wait while we sat in the shade by the river). Our free time was spent using the internet and enjoying iced coffees. On route to Chau Doc we stopped off at a crocodile breeding centre (they bread them for meat and to make shoes). The crocs looked happy enough but the highlight was seeing some Spider Monkeys and a porcupine, the monkeys were having great fun teasing a big turkey type bird in the bottom of their cage while it tried to jump up and peck them. We arrived in Chau Doc late and checked into our floating hotel (a bit grotty). Having been given no map of the place and no general pointers we went out on a wander of the rather disappointing town, we eventually found a place for a couple of beers and some Pho Bo.
Following a poor nights sleep we got up early to set out on a brief tour of the surrounding area.
We visited a floating fish farm (a bit smelly but good fun watching the fish go in to a frenzy when they were fed) and a Cham village.
At 09:30 we boarded the fast boat to take us on to Phnom Phen in Cambodia.....
Vietnam was a nice country and the people were really friendly (though it was quite evident that they know how to milk a tourist. We would have liked to spend some more time there to check out a few other places such as the Sapa Hills, Ninh Binh and Mui Ne. Definitely on the list for a return visit; if not for the places we missed, for the food and people alone.