Tuesday 6th February, 2001 Hanoi
Our first impression of Vietnam is not great – a dull, misty, grey afternoon and only about twenty degrees. And passing through immigration is painstaking. We see David get off the plane and try to dodge him but he spies us and tries to bum a lift into town. He knows we’ve got transfers into Hanoi and we wouldn’t mind giving him a lift but then we don’t want to get stuck with him after that. Luckily our driver is a bit late and David ends up going with some other poor suckers – they’ll be wishing they had earplugs by the time they get there.
Our transfer is a red four-wheel drive with tinted windows – no this isn’t supposed to happen! We want adventure not comfort! The forty-minute drive from the airport is along a newly constructed freeway with ugly billboards all along the way. Beneath advertisements for western luxuries are farmers working bare-footed in cold, wet paddy fields. Rice paddies stretch as far as we can see and workers in conical hats are either still in the fields or heading home on bicycles. We’re driving on the right hand side of the road and it takes a while to get used to it. There’s traffic chaos as we come into the city that looks much nicer as we pass through the Old Quarter. It’s dusk by now and lights are twinkling from street stalls and we pass pretty parks and old French architecture. The streets are jammed with people and bicycles and cyclos. The Old Quarter is a maze of narrow streets that are each named after the merchandise they sell. There’s Lace Street, Tin Street, Gold Street, Button Street, Silk Street and more, more, more.
Our van finally turns off into a dark, muddy side street to pull up at the Hotel Hong Ngoc. This is a tiny, elegant French boutique hotel and a lovely surprise. A doorman rushes out to get our bags while Mark jokes with the funny guy on the desk. The foyer has antique looking furniture and mirrors, a marble floor, a carved staircase and potted palms. Our room is on the fourth floor and there’s no lift but we get help to carry them up the eight flights of stairs. Our room is as elegant as the foyer and we love it. Don’t mind foregoing adventure for comfort for a couple of nights when it means staying in an old French hotel which is actually part of Vietnam’s history – sounds like a good excuse anyway. We have a tiled floor and one whole wall consists of French windows which lead out onto our own balcony. There are maroon velvet curtains and white lace curtains, carved furniture, paintings, a writing table, bedside lamps, potted plants as well as a fridge, air-conditioning, a television, a bathroom with a bath and best of all hot water. A hot bath can’t wait and we jump in before we even unpack.
In search of dinner, we take ages to find somewhere to eat. The streets around our hotel are very dark and I feel slightly nervous which isn’t like me. We find a Vietnamese café called Smiling Café on the first floor of an old corner building. Up a set of old, rickety stairs we sit on plastic stools at a tiny table on a balcony overlooking the street. Below is total chaos. There’s no rest from traffic noise as horns blow relentlessly and we feel almost culture shocked after the peace of Laos. As advertised on the sign outside, the food is fast and good. Vegetable soup, chips and an unusual hamburger of four tiny slices of bread topped with minced meat, tomato and cucumber. Saigon Beer is as awful and warm as the beer in India but at least it’s beer.
From here we walk around to the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre on the shore of Lake Hoan Kiem. We’re here for the 9.15pm performance, which only costs us twenty thousand dong or $3AUD. Along with a large crowd of mainly western tourists, we wait in a large tiled room that smells damp and mouldy. The theatre upstairs is nice and we have good seats. Someone gives us paper fans which also smell of mould so we chuck them away. The performance starts with the band playing truly beautiful music on wooden and bamboo stringed instruments. The single stringed ‘dan bau’ produces a range of haunting notes and is played by a young woman who sings just as perfectly. After a few solos, the water puppets start.
This one thousand-year-old art form consists of wooden puppets operated by puppeteers actually standing waist deep in the water behind bamboo screens. There’s a story behind it and it’s not too hard to follow with lots of funny bits for us non-Vietnamese speakers. The costumes are great and we really enjoy it but are both almost falling asleep by the time it finishes. I still find it a bit threatening as we walk back through the streets but we find an interesting side street where most shops have artists copying photographs and other paintings. Our street takes a bit of finding as we didn’t really pay attention to our bearings when we left. Relieved to finally get to bed after a long day. We watch some television just because we can, then have a good nights sleep in our so, so comfortable bed.
Wednesday 7th February, 2001 Hanoi
Today is wet and cool – not impressed. Mark accepts it as it is but I really am the worst sport when it comes to bad weather. Breakfast is in the cute dining room downstairs at 7.30 and then we’re out into the wet streets in the misty rain. For some reason, it takes ages to get a taxi to stop for us. First time to have trouble getting transport anywhere in Asia – usually beating them off with a stick. When we do finally get a taxi to stop we have trouble explaining in our Aussie accents where we want to go but at last we arrive at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
Here we find some very strange protocol. The first rule is to leave our bags in the ‘Put Bags for Free’ office. Then we’re herded with a group of Vietnamese tourists into a large room full of wooden school-type desks to watch a propaganda film on Ho Chi Minh. Can’t understand a word but there appears to be lots of happy, waving people. Anyway, it works on us and I’m in love within minutes – what a sweetie is Uncle Ho. Next we’re marched two abreast towards the Mausoleum. This is a huge square ‘communist looking’ building if there is such a thing. It’s encased in a blanket of mist which adds to the wonderful, eerie atmosphere of the whole experience. Uniformed honour guards make sure that no-one strays off the path and Mark gets screamed at for getting out of line. Cameras and videos must be left at another small office and then we continue marching. It’s hilarious and we’re having a great time. At the Mausoleum, we must have hands out of pockets and hats off while guards in snowy-white uniforms are standing around inside to make sure no-one goes berserk around Uncle Ho. We solemnly walk around the body which is in a glass case in the centre of a large darkened room. This is wonderful – he just looks asleep and especially handsome.
Outside we tag along with a group of Chinese tourists with a guide. Since we don’t understand a word it’s totally pointless and we go off on our own. A fine mist still hangs in the air and partly obscures the beautiful old French Presidential Palace set amongst the trees. We finally come to a small lake teeming with huge gold fish and fringed with weeping willows. On the bank opposite is Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house where he lived for eleven years from 1958. Not far from here is the One Pillar Pagoda which is a pretty temple sitting in the middle of a pond. Steep stairs lead to the entrance and I’m determined to have a look despite having to fight off a band of Japanese tourists. On, then, to Ho Chi Minh’s Museum which is surprisingly huge, modern and beautiful. Our favourite exhibition has Ho’s words inscribed in a metal plaque: ‘All the People on Earth are Equal. Each People has the Right to Life, Happiness and Liberty. Ho Chi Minh’ – how fantastic!
The rain has eased off now so we hire a cyclo to take us to the Love Planet Café. Margaret, a friend from our India trip, recommended The Love Planet as she’d been here last year and said the service is good. It’s an open-fronted room lined with travel books and a few tiny tables and chairs and a booking desk. We’re greeted by a sweet, smiling girl who offers us a chair and gestures that the other girl, ‘my friend’ as she calls her, will serve us next. She’s also friendly and smiling and speaks good English. Mark books our tickets for the overnight sleeper-train to Hue on Friday night as well as a two-day trip to Halong Bay starting tomorrow. We pay a deposit and it all seems too, too easy.
From here we wander around the Old Quarter and eat at another café-cum-booking office. This area is littered with them and most aren’t cafes at all like the popular Sinh Cafés that operate all through Vietnam. Another cyclo now and we’re in amongst heavy traffic with a herd of motor bikes hurtling towards us. The roads are wet, we’re heading down what seems to be the wrong side of the road and surrounded by all sorts of vehicles – all of which could squash our cyclo like an ant. Cyclos are different to the samlors of Thailand and the cycle-rickshaws of India where the rider pulls the carriage behind him. Vietnamese rickshaw carriages are right out there at the front with the driver pedaling from the back. Probably dangerous as hell but great fun.
We’re on our way to Lake Hoan Kiem and the Ngoc Son Temple. This 18th century temple is situated on an island on the lake and we reach it by crossing a picturesque, arched, red painted bridge. The temple covers most of the tiny island which is surrounded by trees and flowering shrubs. Inside, elaborately carved statues are decorated in vibrant colours, candles are burning everywhere and flashing Christmas-type lights make the whole scene incredibly beautiful. Vietnamese worshippers are burning incense and oils and making offerings of fruit and flowers. Just love watching these Buddhist rituals.
Another cyclo to our hotel so we can ring home. Talk to Mum and Dad and Angie and they all seem okay. Miss them all and feeling very sad for Benny today. Best thing is to keep busy so we hire a taxi to take us to Hoa Sua which is a French/Vietnamese restaurant that takes in and trains street kids to work as cooks or waiters. It’s situated at the back of an old colonial building and is surprisingly up-market. The décor is a perfect mix of Asian and French colonial and so is the food. We’re not hungry enough for a meal so we order a cheese platter from some sweet kids. One young boy is really loves Mark and wants his photo taken with him out the front.
From here we head to the Relax Bar only a few streets away. This place is a scream and we enjoy is so much. It’s set in another lovely old colonial with columns and tall French doors opening onto a tiny balcony surrounded by plants and potted ferns. The two young girls who work here are lounging over the counter and we’re the only customers. The ‘bar’ looks suspiciously not like a bar and we’re even more suspicious when we see what’s on the menu. Besides beers and spirits you can also get all sorts of massages from full body ones to a ‘Face Massage for Anti-Obesity’. Think we’ll pass on the last one and not game to go out back for the full body routine, so we both opt for a ‘Legs Wash’. No idea what this involves but soon the ‘boss lady’ appears and two electric foot vibrators arrive in a car. Next a bucket of hot water is brought in through the front door and we spend the next twenty minutes with our feet dangling in scolding hot water in the electric massagers. Along with our beers we’re proudly presented with free peanuts and mandarins and have a great time with the girls showing them pictures of Angie and Lauren. The girls then give us half-hour foot massages while we drink our Tiger beer. Definitely worth a visit to the Relax Bar.
The rain has stopped and we have a dry cyclo ride back to the Love Planet to pick up our tickets. We dodge bicycles and cyclos and tourists and flower-sellers. Wherever we look we see women in conical hats with two cane baskets bouncing from the ends of a long wooden pole balanced on one shoulder. The baskets can contain anything from vegetables to breadrolls to flowers to garbage. At the Love Planet we’re met by the smiling girl who again gestures us to wait for ‘my friend’ who’s serving a couple of people ahead of us. We tell the smiling girl that we’ll go for a walk and be back in a few minutes.
In the street behind the Love Planet is a market selling flowers and foodstuffs. This includes live chickens whose throats are being cut and the blood drained out of them into a metal bowl. Mark buys me a long stemmed white rose which I love but obviously can’t keep. A young woman is selling disgusting animal entrails and blocks of congealed blood, and she admires my rose. Mark hands it to her and she and all her mates on the other stalls are screaming laughing. The market is amazing but we have to get back to the Love Planet. Here we present ourselves for our sleeper-train tickets but ‘sorry, no ticket’ – ‘why?’ – ‘you not here’ – ‘but we’d paid a twenty dollar deposit’ – ‘sorry, no ticket’ – ‘but we told the other girl we were just going for a walk’….. Apparently the only English words the smiling girl knows are ‘my friend’ and she had no idea what we were talking about. Great, this means we can only get seats and we’ll have to sit up the whole twelve hours to Hue. Oh well, Mark says it’ll be an experience.
After a quick change at the hotel we walk around to the Cyclo Bar for dinner. We’d expected this to be some sort of gimmicky place but it’s surprisingly very high class even though everyone is sitting around in rickshaws. Mood music is playing and the lights are dim and the prices match the expensive décor. We eat a Vietnamese chicken dish, prawn fritters and profiteroles then drink cocktails to round off a posh night. Back to our room then for a hot bath before bed. Tomorrow we head off to Halong Bay.
Thursday 8th February, 2001 Hanoi to Halong Bay
At six o’clock we wake, pack and are downstairs with all our gear in the dining room for breakfast at six thirty. Off then in a taxi to the Love Planet Café where we store one of our bags as we only need a few clothes for the two-day trip. At seven thirty we’re walked around to a main street where a big bus is waiting for our tour group which will be made up of people from lots of small agencies. We’d been given the choice of going in a mini-bus with a small group which is more expensive or with a group of thirty. We’d opted for the cheap trip only to find that there’s only seven of us anyway and we still get to go in the big bus. This is not only big but very fancy with green lace curtains. Mark and I are on first and are very pleased with ourselves for grabbing the front seat opposite the driver. This will give us perfect views of the road ahead through the huge front windscreen. Our happy guide introduces himself as we pull out of the city. His name is Khinh and he’s so keen to please. He speaks English but his accent is so strong it’s still sounds like Vietnamese. We do lots of smiling and nodding even though we can’t make out a word he says.
The road to Halong City is along Highway 5 and very uninspiring. It’s another grey, drizzly day and the scenery for the whole five hours is ugly towns broken up by rice paddies as far as the eye can see. Water buffalo are ploughing paddy fields, most of which contain family burial plots made of huge, cement headstones. Things could be a lot worse than being a bit bored with the scenery as we see conical-hatted people up to their knees in freezing water as they plant the rice. The funniest thing about the trip is that our ‘great’ seats turn out to be a nightmare. Our driver blasts his horn every few seconds and we have bird’s eye views of Vietnamese people ambling all over the road on dodgy bicycles and we see endless near-misses. Young people ride in the middle of the road holding hands as they pedal along next to each other and overladen trucks lie on their sides after tipping over at roundabouts.
After a couple of hours we pull in at a toilet stop-cum-souvenir shop selling hideous souvenirs like polished wooden plaques and lacquered jewelry boxes. Other buses are here as well and we see David from Laos but luckily he’s not going to Cat Ba Island which is our final destination today. He’s with one of the tour groups who stay in Halong City and just do day trips out into the bay. No-one on any bus buys any of the horrible souvenirs and off we go for another three hours of being deafened by our horn-happy driver. Along the route we stop at numerous tollgates to pay for the new road and there’s lots of roadwork as we come into Halong City. The seven of us and Khinh eat at a roadside café for a banquet-style lunch that’s part of the trip price. We get to meet the others: Liz and Tracey from England, Ben and Louis from England and Paul from Australia. He’s a lecturer from UNE and is married to a Vietnamese woman. He’s a total bore but does tell us interesting things about Vietnamese life.
Across from the café is the dock where our boat is waiting to take us on the four-hour trip to Cat Ba Island. I buy a woolen beanie before we board and, besides a blanket we’ve brought with us, it’s the only warm thing we own. The boat is a fabulous big old wooden tub and very spacious inside. There are yellow nylon curtains trimmed with lace at each window and each padded seat is topped with a lace cover – tacky but homey. We all get a padded bench seat each with a low table between facing seats. Mark and the boys spend time out on the front deck and up on the roof but I’m too cold and stay inside talking to the girls. Liz and Tracey are so easy to talk to and tell heaps of funny stories about their travels in India.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage listed area in the Gulf of Tonkin that’s dotted with three thousand limestone islands. These jut steeply out of the water and contain thousands of caves. After an hour we pull in at Hang Dau Go which is a huge cave reached by climbing ninety steps that zigzag up the side of one of the islands. We love it here and can’t believe its size. Stalagmites and stalactites are lit up with coloured lights but aren’t too garish. The view from the top is beautiful and we can see how wonderful this area must be on a good day. The clouds have opened and the water below is the turquoise blue that we’ve read about. By the time we get back down to the boat, though, the weather is dull again. Despite the grey skies, Halong Bay is still incredibly impressive and atmospheric with endless tiny islands peeping through the mist that rises up from the water. By the time we see Cat Ba Island at five-thirty, though, we’ve definitely had enough.
Cat Ba is the largest of Halong Bay’s islands and is inhabited by tiny fishing villages and a row of hideous tourist hotels newly erected along the waterfront. Khinh proudly points to a blue, high-rise monstrosity which is where we’ll spend the night. God knows how safe these things are. They all look like they’re on a lean and ours is no different. Meanwhile, inside the small bay where we’re to dock, we pass hundreds of houseboats and fishing boats and some people have rowed out to meet us. At the pier we grab our packs and follow Khinh to our hotel. Our room is on the second floor with a verandah that looks out over the bay. We have a bathroom with hot water and a television with only one station. This is of a little Asian girl singing and dancing – rivetting stuff. Mark goes for a walk along the waterfront while I get into bed to read and get warm.
After hot showers, we meet the others downstairs for dinner at six thirty. Despite being the only diners we’re all squashed around a tiny table in one corner. It doesn’t even seem to be a dining room but just part of the foyer. No atmosphere which ironically means it’s a great atmosphere. The food is good and then Mark brings down our duty-free Bacardi and Jim Beam which we all get stuck into. Paul doesn’t drink and disappears but the rest of us get very drunk and very loud. We even talk Khinh into downing a few rums. ‘Dewn the hetch’ as he keeps saying and actually tosses back a couple in one gulp.
Don’t remember getting back to our room and manage to sleep heavily.
Friday 9th February, 2001 Halong Bay to Hanoi
Wake to find us encased in a mosquito net – Mark must have been drunk! This morning he’s also feeling badly hungover and sick on the stomach. At breakfast the others are looking just as bad and not looking forward to their trek across the island especially as it’s still raining. Not sure if we’re any better off by heading back to Hanoi today. It means four hours on the boat, five hours on a bus and then twelve hours sitting up on a train tonight. We’ve got to be kidding!
The boat trip is horrid for me but poor Mark is really suffering. He’s able to lie down but there’s not enough room for him to get comfortable and anyway he has to make frequent visits to the loo to be sick. Outside the water and sky are the same dull grey and I’m feeling less than thrilled. I pass the time planning on ways to get home early but I know Mark won’t be in it. At last at the dock at Halong City, I ask about getting a taxi back to Hanoi but it’ll cost the earth so we’ll just have to bus it. We follow the crowd to a restaurant near the bus stop. This is three narrow crowded floors of backpackers and locals all making lots of noise and there’s food and used bowls everywhere including the floor. We add our packs to the wet, mountainous pile near the front door and squash into a seat downstairs. I ask to go to the loo which actually appears to be the owner’s bathroom. Even though we haven’t ordered anything, the food just keeps on coming. Mark can’t stand the smell and I can’t eat it all. We’d escape but we don’t know when the bus leaves and we can’t miss it.
At one o’clock the bus is ready and (great!) we’ve got the same horn-happy driver as yesterday. The bus is packed today and all the Vietnamese passengers seem to have brought everything they own with them. Plastic chairs are set up down the aisle so that we’re five across from window to window and the rain means we can’t open the windows so it’s a stuffy, five-hour drive back to Hanoi. As we reach the outskirts of the city, the traffic is horrendous but we finally reach the Old Quarter about six o’clock. So, so glad to get off this bus. A quick walk around to the Love Planet to pick up our train tickets and our other pack, then find the nearby Kim Café to eat. We like the atmosphere in here but our order comes out wrong twice. From here we walk around to ‘jumper street’, as we call it. It’s cold enough for woolies but there’s nothing we can even force ourselves to buy except for a woolen scarf each. There seems to be the same fashion time warp in Vietnam as in India and we’ll just pray for warmer weather.
A taxi, next, to the railway station where the usual Asian chaos reigns. Train stations are always great places to people watch and Hanoi is the same. Hundreds of people are sitting on the floor inside and we can’t find any English signs. Mark shows a woman in a uniform our tickets and she has us on the train in seconds. The carriage is clean and brightly lit and much more comfortable than we’d expected. The seats are full of Vietnamese passengers and a few backpackers and the aisles are stacked with bags of rice. We get off to buy food at a stall on the platform. Here we make a great find – Choco Pies! These are biscuits with marshmallow on top and all covered with dark chocolate – a chocoholic’s heaven. Back on the train, we’re approached by a tiny man who tells about his new hotel in Hue. The deal is that we get free transport from the station to have a look but no obligation to stay. Fair enough. It’s dark by the time we pull out of Hanoi and, with our seats laying back almost horizontal, we actually go to sleep.
Saturday 10th February, 2001 Hue
Very pleased with the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get. Wide awake at six o’clock and feeling great. Breakfast arrives on a cart and consists of a white doughy ball with a rissole looking thing in the middle. Mark eats it, of course. I just can’t stomach it at this time of day but manage to scoff down a few Choco Pies instead. Disappointed to see that it’s still raining even this far from Hanoi and the scenery is never-ending rice paddies. I swear, half this country must be under water. We’ve been sitting on some sort of transport for twenty-five hours by now and I start to lose it about a quarter of an hour before arriving in Hue. I know it’s got a lot to do with the weather but I’m not at all impressed with this country and getting unreasonably annoyed. I know it also has a lot to do with losing Benny but Vietnam isn’t really what I’d expected. I want to love it here and hopefully Hue will be better.
At nine o’clock we arrive in Hue and it’s raining. Luckily hawkers are here selling raincoats for a dollar each and the van for the Thai Binh Hotel is waiting for us. Two other backpackers jump in as well and within two minutes we turn down a muddy lane and pull up in front of the hotel. It’s typical of the new Vietnamese hotels – tall, skinny, cement rendered and with white pillared balconies facing the street on each floor. Inside there’s also the usual décor of white slippery tiles, plain white walls and lots of laminex – hideous bit clean. We look at a room on the first floor with a bathroom with bath and hot water, a fridge, television and two single beds. For $20 AUS it’s a bargain and we take it.
Breakfast/lunch is at Thuy’s Café (pronounced ‘two’) which is just a few doors down the alley and a real travellers’ haunt. Lots of very trendy backpackers here but we manage to get a table. Thuy is a crazy but friendly Vietnamese woman saying ‘g’day mate’ to us Aussies. She’s learnt all the tourist jargon and deserves her reputation. She tells us that her dream, which may be happening next year, is to make it into Lonely Planet. While we wait for our food I get a shoeshine from a cute little boy about ten years old but then see him smoking in the laneway a few minutes later.
Before going back to our room for a long hot bath, we book seats on a minibus to Hoi An leaving in the morning. We’d planned to stay in Hue for two days but we want to try and outrun the rain. Back out onto the street, then, to find a cyclo. On the main road we’re spotted by two cyclo drivers who we bargain with to take us to the Citadel. The cyclos here are smaller than in Hanoi so we have to have one each. We cross the bridge over the Perfume River and then turn left into tree-lined avenues that are surprisingly peaceful after the chaos of Hanoi. It’s still raining but we’re wearing our new raincoats and it’s not as cold here as up north so we’re feeling very happy. I’m almost alive again today.
Every traveller’s story about the Citadel is that it’s raining so today is just perfect. It’s not so much raining now as a thin mist that hangs in the air. This creates a wonderful mood for this moated Chinese-style fortress. We wander around for a couple of hours and spend ages with a Yoko Ono look-alike who’s selling her husband’s paintings. Inside a teahouse surrounded by flowering gardens, we buy a bronze incense burner (AUD$16) then listen to a man playing a wooden flute. Very haunting sounds in these atmospheric surroundings. We see huge temple drums and temple bells and the ruins of the Purple Forbidden City blown to smithereens by the Americans during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
Outside our cyclo drivers are still waiting for us and we head off towards the town centre. Lonely Planet recommends the Lac Tien Restaurant which is owned and run by a deaf family. The sign out front proudly boasts ‘Mentioned in Lonely Planet’ and ‘Food is Awesome’. It’s typical of all Vietnamese cafes with laminex tables and little plastic stools. Our dinner is cooked over hot coals in an old metal cooker on the street and the food is great. While we’re eating a man selling silk paintings approaches us and we buy two for $1US each. This seems criminally cheap but he’s overjoyed.
Off in the rain again to the Post Office to ring home. It’s Jacky’s birthday but she doesn’t answer so I ring Mum and Dad to tell them to ring her for me. Had enough of the rain so we ask to be taken back to the hotel. Now we’re cosy and warm in bed, reading our books and don’t plan to go out again till dinner. The rain is a good excuse to stay inside and sleep. We wake at seven thirty and walk down the alley to look for a different café. The rain has stopped now and it’s so nice to walk around at night. At a souvenir stall we stop to buy bronze rice paddy workers (AUD $4 each) then we wander around the corner to stumble across the Mandarin Café which is another Lonely Planet favourite. Every other backpacker in Hue must have a Lonely Planet as well because it’s packed. We like it though for its quick service and just the right amount of dinginess. Music is playing but it’s not too cool or too loud and there’s framed travel photos all along the walls. We have a great meal of garlic squid, garlic shrimp and ice-cream. Back then to our three-quarter bed and our books.
Sunday 11th February, 2001 Hue to Hoi An
At six thirty we wake and wander down to Thuy’s Café for breakfast. For some reason we’re the only ones here so we get to chat with Thuy. She’s very pretty and obviously intelligent and ambitious. The music is Simon and Garfunkel and we’re given complimentary green tea in tiny flowered ceramic cups and a tiny teapot. Breakfast of cheese and mushroom omelets is good but, like everywhere else in Indochina, if you ask for ‘toast’ you get a huge French breadroll that’s always fresh but a bit much at seven o’clock in the morning.
At eight o’clock we meet the minivan at the end of the laneway and stash our packs in the back. As usual we’re the first to turn up and we get the best seats. There are eleven of us including an unfriendly American girl and some nice young English people. Sitting opposite us and facing backwards the whole trip are two crazy English guys aged in their thirties. They’re having a ball in Asia getting pissed and taking any drug they can lay their hands on and they keep us laughing the whole way.
We make our way out of Hue and soon start to see mountains ahead of us. This is the Truong Son Mountain Range that divides Vietnam into the cool north and the warmer dry south. It’s why we’re on our way to Hoi An where we tell ourselves it’ll be warm for sure. We’re travelling along the famous Highway 1, which winds its way down the coast of Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon. It’s a pot-holed mess and dangerous on the sharp bends of Hai Van Pass which crosses the mountains. The scenery is lovely – a dramatic, sandy and rocky coastline and low clouds suspended in the valleys below. We stop to take photos of North Vietnam about half way up the pass then another hour of crawling upwards till we reach the top. Here we stop for a toilet visit and to take photos of sunny South Vietnam on the other side. Well, it’s a little bit sunny down there so we’re still feeling optimistic. Aggressive hawkers surround us as we get out of the van. They get shitty when people won’t buy their stuff. Mark and I buy some tiny orange flowered bowls but then lock ourselves in the van to get away from them.
The trip down the pass is quick and after travelling through a few small towns, we arrive at Danang. During the American War this was called the ‘Saigon of the North’ and is still Vietnam’s fourth largest city. The American girl and a couple of others are being dropped off here and we all get out to stretch our legs. At last, it’s warm and sunny and we can’t wait to get to Hoi An. Firstly we have a stop at China Beach which is a big disappointment but I really don’t know what I expected. The only interesting thing is some round fishing boats lying on the sand and some young girls trying to sell us shell necklaces. Behind us is Marble Mountain, which is supposed to be part of the trip but the English guys just want to keep on going.
Another hour and we’re coming into Hoi An. The sun is almost shining and the scenery is pretty, green rice paddies and small basic villages. I don’t know why, but Hoi An itself does nothing to inspire us. Despite being known as ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ it just appears to be ‘another shit-hole Vietnamese town’ as Mark so nicely puts it. The weather has also turned dull again which doesn’t help and we drive around for ages trying to get us hotels. We’re all finally deposited across the bridge at the Pho Hoi Hotel. It’s a bit out of the way but very impressive with a lovely foyer with the usual velvet curtains and walnut Chinese-style furniture as well as a wide sweeping staircase. Our room is big with a bath, hot water, a fridge, a television and two beds covered in frilly blue nylon covers. It’s only $20 AUS a night and looks clean but for some reason it stinks so we decide to only stay until tomorrow.
After unpacking, we head across the Cam Nam Bridge to explore the town. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I’m hating this country. To make my depression even worse we’re soon dragged into a café by another ‘g’day mate’ Vietnamese woman. We’re asked to write our order in a book but half an hour later we haven’t even got our drinks. Apparently, they haven’t even started our order and they want us to write it down again. Besides this, we’ve spent the whole time getting rid of hawkers selling postcards and wooden whistles and beggars shoving their stumps in our faces. I feel like the biggest bitch but they’re making me a nervous wreck. I usually love hawkers so I think I must be having a nervous breakdown. Good, then I can go home.
After a gracious ‘up yours’ we move on to another café down the street. This is a lovely old Chinese teahouse with dark, dark wooden furniture to match the dark interior. The atmosphere is great and things are looking up. That’s until I order a chicken and cheese sandwich. This seems reasonable as the menu offers a cheese sandwich and a chicken sandwich but there is no way I can have cheese on my chicken sandwich or vice versa. Totally pissed off by now but give up and we end up having a nice Vietnamese lunch anyway.
We decide to look for a new unstinky hotel for tomorrow and wander around town for a few hours. Hoi An was once a major trading port for the Dutch and Chinese and its strong Chinese ties are reflected in the many pagodas and Chinese congregational halls all around the town. The French influence is also prominent in the beautiful but dilapidated colonial houses and lots have been turned into shops and hotels. Some of the shops sell paintings and carvings and silk lanterns but these are far outnumbered by the tailor shops. They’re everywhere but we can’t be bothered getting anything made. Next to the water, the central market is a beehive of activity as all Asian markets are. All sorts of fruit, vegetables, meats, rice, eggs, chickens and lots of fish. Pretty smelly at this time of day so we’ll come back in the morning.
Near the market we find the Banana Split Café and have fruit-salad splits while we E-mail Jillian. Back across the bridge to our hotel, we lie down for a read and a sleep. Afternoon napping is turning into a habit and the novels we’ve brought with us are definitely becoming addictive. At six o’clock we walk back across the bridge into town.
It’s dark by now and nice walking along the promenade beside the river. We eat at a cheap, atmospheric, upstairs café called Dong Phuong Restaurant that has red Chinese lanterns hanging from the balcony. Beef spaghetti and prawn crackers are good but especially the ‘hot pot’ which is another version of dishes we had in Laos a few weeks ago. A round metal container with a trough around the outside is heated by red-hot coals in the middle. The stewy-like meal is kept hot in the pot then poured into tiny bowls. The BGI beer is also a great discovery.
From here we push on to Champa Bar a few streets away. Love the atmosphere in here. So dark and only lit by interesting bamboo lampshades on the walls. More beers while we sit at the bar and watch the Vietnamese barman slaying a young English guy at pool. The Vietnamese guy is too good for Mark, too, but they have a great time. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to talk to the little barmaid who’s been putting sticky squares like elastoplast all the way up her spine.
Our next stop is the Tam Tam Café and Bar. This is a busy bar at the top of a narrow set of stairs and is full of Westerners. Good surroundings and we’re just in time for happy hour beers. We sit with three young English people who’d been on our minibus from Hue then walk home through the now deserted and very dark streets. Back to our stinky room and our very comfortable beds.
Monday 17th February, 2001 Hoi An
We’re back over in town before eight o’clock to look for a new hotel. Next to the bridge is a cute guesthouse with a café right on the Thu Ban River so this is our first stop. We have a relaxing breakfast here next to the water then we’re extremely happy to find that there’s a spare room upstairs overlooking the street. We race back to check out of the stinky one and into our lovely new room at the Huy Hoang Hotel. We have a balcony with bonsaied bougainvillea in blue and white Chinese pots and colored lanterns are hanging from the verandah roof. The room itself is big with a white tiled floor, a bathroom, cane furniture and a huge window. It’s a bit noisy with a school on the next corner and the market across the road but it’s in a great spot and we’re very happy.
Outside we meet Mai, a pretty boat woman who’s ready to take us for a ride upriver. She’s wearing the traditional straw conical hat that all the women workers wear and a soft purple pyjama-like outfit. Most poorer class women wear these as well and they look comfortable and even elegant. We follow Mai back across the bridge where her tiny boat is tied up and where her friend is waiting. Mai’s friend is also called Mai but she’s much older. She’s so sweet and happy and we all shake hands. Young Mai has the most gorgeous smile which never disappears except when she tells us that her husband is dead. This should be a sad story but she mimes out how he drank himself to death. We’re all laughing so she keeps doing it. She says ‘five children, no husband’ and wipes away a fake tear then starts the whole thing again – best laugh we’ve had in ages. Then, she keeps saying we’re going for a two-hour boat ride although we’d only told her one-hour. Then she says. ‘Okay, one hour and a half’ with a nod and a big happy smile like it’s all decided. Mark says’ Okay, only half hour now’ which makes her scream laughing.
For the whole hour she’s yelling out to fishermen and people on the shore. I guess she knows everyone here. There’s so many different types of fishing techniques that we’ve never seen before. One man is sitting on the very front of his tiny boat so that it’s sticking up out of the water at the back. He’s paddling with one foot and unravelling a net. Nearby two men are standing chest-deep in the water while they push long poles into the muddy bottom. Further down, bigger boats are tied up ready to go out to sea after dark. Here Mai stops to roll the biggest tobacco rolly we’ve ever seen and then keeps paddling with it hanging out the side of her mouth. The town looks lovely from here. It spreads for a couple of kilometres along the river which is lined with coconut palms and cafes. Even when it starts to rain, it’s still lovely on the calm water. Mai takes off her conical hat and insists I wear it. The air is warm and I feel so good out here. After an hour, Mai and Mai drop us off at the market and we give them toy koalas to give to their grandchildren.
No sooner are we on the wharf, than we’re ‘kidnapped’ by a young girl who takes us to her mother’s shop. This is in an old wooden warehouse at the back of the market. It’s smelly and dirty around here but we like it. The shop sells materials and within minutes I’ve been fitted for a pair of black kashmir pants. We must look easy prey as we’re abducted again as we walk out the back door. A pretty lady called Thuy tells me I’m ‘beautiful’ while we’re both cuddled and whisked us away to her beauty parlour. It seems that I’m to have a manicure with Thuy and Mark a hand massage with her daughter. The ‘beauty parlour’ is about the size of a double bed so Mark has to sit on a plastic stool outside with his hand sticking in through the door. This also makes him a prime target for hawkers and beggars. I’m luckier inside and get two coats of nail polish and one of nail hardener. Now I have to write how much I love it in Thuy’s little book that she keeps to show prospective customers. For $3.50 AUD it’s a bargain and worth more just for the great experience. Feeling so much happier now that we’re meeting some of the local people.
As we head off in search of lunch, we get dragged into another tailor shop called the Hoa Clothing Shop and there’s no escaping. Mark orders a silk shirt and I order a skirt and top in black Chinese material – don’t even want the bloody things. We escape to our room to rest for the afternoon but are back up again at three thirty to walk down to the Post Office. We need to send off postcards and to cash in traveller’s cheques. This is quite an experience as we line up with other frustrated travellers who also can’t understand the time-wasting rigmarole. We fill in long forms that ask the strangest questions while five people behind the desk are very busy processing one person between the five of them instead of taking one each. Back to the market to try on my black pants that I don’t want. They don’t fit and I want them even less now but I promise to come back tomorrow for another fitting.
Outside the market is a sea of conical hats and we wander around with another wrinkled, sweet boat-lady who also tells me I’m ‘beautiful’. I say ‘you’re beautiful’ which she really is. The women we’ve met here in Hoi An are all so gentle and kind. They’re poorer than anyone could be at home but seem to be happy maybe because it’s a close-knit community. I suppose we can all be happy or at least accepting of what we’ve got, if everyone we know is the same. Or maybe western values have just been fucked up so much that we don’t even know what it really means anymore. Along the river next to the market we stop to talk to a young man selling vegetable cutters. He’s so enthusiastic carving carrots and parsnips into pretty shapes for us that we can’t not buy a pack. It’s all for ten thousand dong or about a dollar and we even get a photocopied instruction sheet. He tells us that we’re his first customers today which, sadly, is probably true.
Further along we sit under umbrellas in tiny blue plastic chairs. Mark squeezes his rear end into one which stays attached to him when he gets up to move. This sends Thu who owns them into hysterics and she calls him ‘big bum’. She sells us beers and cokes from an esky then brings out a letter and a photo that another traveller had sent her after they’d arrived home. She wants us to do the same so we take lots of photos and get her address. Next her husband turns up so there’s more photos. All Vietnamese people ask us ‘what name?’ then ‘how old?’ and Thu’s no different. She wants us to write down our ages in a book then falls into hysterics again when she works out that I’m fifteen years older than Mark. She tells everyone around and it’s all a great laugh – ha ha. Definitely having a good day today.
It’s so busy down here along the river especially now when school is finished. The school ferry is tied up just near us and is overloaded to the hilt. Everyone seems to have a bicycle which goes with them. As they float off towards the island, it looks like it’ll sink any minute but I guess this is what it’s like every day. Back through the market we watch fresh fish being sorted then find our way to the Banana Split Café to book a trip to My Son for tomorrow. Here we also buy a fresh bread roll with cheese and then order a salad and, at last, a cheese-salad roll! Finally getting the hang of this place.
Half an hour later, we’ve had hot baths and are on our way to happy hour at the Tam Tam Bar. It’s dark by now and a nice walk through town especially one street full of amazing old Chinese shops that sell herbal medicines and spices. After French fries and huge tankards of beer at Tam Tam, we head home to the Huy Hoang for an early night. It had better be sunny tomorrow.
Tuesday 13th February, 2001 Hoi An to My Son to Hoi An
Guess what? It’s raining! Fuck it – hate to be here in the wet season. We’d set the alarm for 6.30am to go to the market next door but we’ve heard the goings on since 3am so we’re wide awake anyway. We want to get there early so we can watch the fishing catch that’s just been brought in. It’s even busier here than usual and there’s hundreds of conical-hatted women buying and selling all sorts and sizes of seafood.
Try, then, to go to the Banana Split Café for breakfast but an old lady from the place next door literally pushes us into her café. Most cafes around here seem to have an old lady, presumably the grandmother, perched at a table on the street ready to drag in passing tourists. We’re the only customers, breakfast is good and it’s a nice family atmosphere so it’s a good move.
Now the mini-bus for My Son is ready and we spend the next half-hour driving all over town picking up other tourists at their hotels. Of course, we’re all squashed in like sardines, hot, uncomfortable and gasping for air. We drive through the usual grotty towns but also see lots of beautiful countryside including endless brilliant green rice paddies. It’s not planting-time here in Central Vietnam so there’s no-one working in the fields like we’d seen everywhere in the north.
The best part of the two-hour trip is when we’re held up by a huge funeral-march. The mourners are walking behind the body which is elaborately decorated and carried by a group of men who smile and wave to us as our van crawls past them. At last we pull into a muddy area near some rundown cafes and where other minivans are also arriving. We’re told to go ‘that way’ so we head off with the others for a kilometre to where jeeps are waiting to take us to the ruins.
A lot of ugly, old German tourists are here and we’ve had enough of them so we decide it’s our turn to be rude bastards for a change. Instead of waiting, we push past them and sit our arses in the back of the first jeep. So proud of ourselves and we laugh uncontrollably the whole way. Great fun but think the weather is starting to make us a bit strange in the head.
We bump our way along a sort of road for fifteen minutes then we’re told to get out and walk the rest of the way. Mark has brilliantly decided to wear rubber thongs which are now either being sucked into the mud or behaving like ice-skates. This means we take ages to get to ruins which are definitely ‘ruins’. After being pilfered and bombed almost out of existence, there’s not much left at all.
My Son is a group of monuments from the Champa kingdom which thrived in this area from the second to the fifteenth century. The site has been divided into ten ‘groups’ which were once temples, meditation halls and other religious buildings. Some are still in tact and look beautiful in their lush setting surrounded by the now mist-covered hills. Before the American War (aka the Vietnam War), the best preserved group was Group A but now it’s nothing more than a pile of rocks after the pea-brained Yanks blew it to bits – brilliant. On the whole the ruins are rather unimpressive but we have lots of laughs. For some reason we find that childishly posing for photos behind headless statues is absolutely hysterical.
Our raincoats are now acting like mini saunas but we can’t take them off because it’s still raining. Let’s get the hell out of here! Back through the slimy mud to the jeep, we dump the raincoats and are soon back at the cafes. These would have to be the most basic place possible to eat but we take the chance. In fact we really like it here with its dirt floor and mangy dogs. I go to the loo in the most ordinary of toilets but we’re having fun. Our lunch is a meat and tomato dish and fried rice and it’s surprisingly good.
The drive back to Hoi An is just as hot and stuffy as this morning. We arrive at one thirty and try to ring Vietnam Airlines from the Banana Split Café. We want to move our Nha Trang air tickets for Friday forward to tomorrow but no go. It’s the end of Tet here in Vietnam which is sort of like our Christmas holidays and people are moving all around the country visiting friends and relatives. This means all the planes and trains are booked ahead so we’ll just have to stay put. I’d met some Australian girls in the corridor of our hotel this morning and they were trying to get out of Vietnam as well. They’re so desperate to get back to Thailand that they’re going overland through Cambodia.
After looking at the weather forecast on the internet we decide to try and bypass Nha Trang where it’s supposed to rain for the next few days. Luckily we can get tickets to Saigon on Thursday where it’ll definitely be hot and sunny. The rain has finally stopped and the streets are dry so we hire a motorbike from a friendly man in a wheelchair. We can have it for only $2US for the afternoon but Mark only gets to do a trial run around the block before the rain starts coming down again. We take the bike back and now it’s Mark’s turn to be depressed. He sulks under the bedspread in our room but then we decide to go for a walk in the rain. ‘If you can’t beat it’ as they say.
Our first stop is the Hoa Cloth shop which is only a few doors down from our hotel. We’re really happy with our clothes and since we’re here for two more days, we order more. Mark is getting two pairs of travellers pants and I’m getting a long green silk dress. The two ladies who work here are Yaun and Hoa and are making a great fuss of us. They’ll probably be able to retire if we stay here much longer. They sit us on miniature plastic stools and give us bottled water and a bowl each of the traditional Hoi An dish called Cau Lan. This is croutons, noodles, bean sprouts, green vegetables and pork and is very nice. In Hoang Dieu Street we drop off photos at Fuji Processing even though the machine inside looks suspiciously like Kodak. The area around here is busy especially now with school kids on their way home on foot and on bicycles.
It’s still sprinkling but it’s warm and quite pleasant. We buy new raincoats and are feeling happy again. We spend hours walking around the tiny streets and even find some Choco Pies in a tiny corner shop. We watch woodcarvers and bamboo wood crafting then visit a lovely old French house-cum-art gallery. There are endless shops selling paintings and even more selling tailor-made clothes. All of these have examples of their designs hanging out the front but the crazy thing is, they’re all exactly the same. Hundreds of shops making the same bloody clothes. Our own designs have worked out, though, and really there’s nothing much else to do here so we’ll probably get more made.
Still on our walk, we wander back down to the river then cross the An Hoi Footbridge to a quiet café on the other side. Love the atmosphere here with it’s basic furniture and Chinese lanterns glowing red in the dimming light of dusk. We sit near the balcony and watch the rain sprinkling on the calm water and local people crossing the bridge to the village on this side of the river. The air is still and warm and the mood is almost surreal. Feeling happy, ‘over the moon’ as Mark says, and we order drinks and ‘Cake Hoi An’.
It’s dark by the time we get back to the market to pick up my black pants so we head back to the room for a bath and a rest. At seven thirty we’re at Hoa Clothing again and order two more shirts for Mark and a black satin jacket for me. Outside the streets are busy with candle-lit stalls and handcarts selling all sorts of interesting food to the locals. In a deserted back street there’s a sudden blackout but we have our torch so we’re okay and we head to Champa Bar. This is even more atmospheric tonight being lit only by candles and not many people around. We have beers at the bar while we watch a group of well dressed, elderly local men playing pool. They’re all hopeless and roar laughing after every shot. We ask about the traditional music that we’d seen advertised for tonight but we’re told that there aren’t any tickets left so we buy some for tomorrow night. It’s interesting to see that it’s only Vietnamese people arriving for tonight’s performance.
A few minutes later, a cute, smiling man wearing a black, silk Chinese-style costume and hat approaches us. He invites us to the show and insists we follow him up the stairs to the theatre. He pulls aside a heavy curtain covering the door and shows us into a large room with the biggest wooden chairs we’ve ever seen. These are set up in three rows and there’s a screen in the left-hand corner and musical instruments opposite. After getting our seats we’re given tall glasses of lemon drink and the show starts on time. The cute, smiling man is the host and he translates everything he says into English. Since we’re the only westerners here we feel very privileged.
The musicians consist of five men dressed in pale green satin tops and black trousers and a beautiful woman in a pink ao-dai. The musicians are excellent especially a young guy playing a two-stringed instrument with a bow. He’s so talented – like the Jimi Hendrix of Vietnam. There are also eight female dancers and two males. They’re not what you’d call professionals but the costumes are spectacular and they’re having a great time.
The audience is having a great time as well but we notice that throughout the show people just talk to the person next to them or behind them in their normal speaking voice. There’s no attempt to be quiet or whisper but no-one seems to mind – must be a cultural thing.
We enjoy every minute of the show which finishes with the cast standing in front of the audience, who is also standing, while everyone (including the audience) claps and sings at the top of their lungs. They all suddenly launch into Auld Ange Syne in Vietnamese with everyone belting it out and clapping with huge smiles. It’s a scream and an unexpectedly fabulous night. Afterwards everyone asks us if we ‘like’ which is nice. Downstairs then for a beer but very tired so home to bed.
Wednesday 14th February, 2001 Hoi An
Guess what – it’s raining. We decide to look for a different hotel to amuse ourselves. We walk for hours and look at a few rooms but decide we like our little hotel the best. We both order more clothes from Hoa as well as a jacket for Mark and a pair of silk pants for me from another tailor shop on the other side of the market. At this rate we’ll have enough clothes to last us for years. At Fuji we find that our photos have been developed by Kodak like we’d suspected yesterday and the colour just isn’t right. We’ll get them redone later.
Lunch is at the Yellow River Restaurant. We’re working our way through all the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurants in Hoi An and so far they’re all good. I ring home and talk to Angie. She’s quiet but trying to sound okay. I’ll be with them soon but I can’t think about it or I’ll be more worried and depressed than I am already. Back to bed to read for hours then a hot bath. Feeling unmotivated today but we make ourselves get up and we pick up clothes from Hoa, order shoes from a tiny shop across the road then pick up Mark’s jacket. He looks gorgeous in everything he’s had made which isn’t at all surprising.
As we walk back through the market we’re ‘kidnapped’ again by two sisters who tell us we’re both ‘very beautiful’. With arms around our waists we’re ushered through the little back alleyways to their tiny massage parlour/hairdresser/beauty shop. It’s among a shantytown of lots of these little businesses and where tailors are actually sewing all the clothes ordered from the dress shops.
Before we know it Mark’s agreed to have a half hour back and leg massage and I’ve agreed to have a hand massage and a ‘skin washing’ whatever that is – hate to think. All this is to cost a mere $8AUD so who cares what it is. You get what you pay for as they say and no wonder it’s cheap. Neither of them have a clue what they’re doing but we have heaps of fun. Mark is on the bed opposite and is doing a lot of yelping while my face is being slapped and scrubbed so hard it’s red raw and I’ve got a scratch down the side of my nose. It’s hilarious especially when they pull faces at Mark’s hairy legs then roar laughing when he isn’t looking. They think they’re doing a great job and we tell them they’re fabulous but thank God we’d only agreed to half an hour.
Dinner is at LY Café 22 in a part of town we haven’t eaten in before. It’s a nice atmosphere and good food – pork salad, wonton soup, prawns and vegetables. Back at the hotel we book transport to Danang for one o’clock tomorrow afternoon then up to bed to read – Mark is obsessed.
Thursday 15th February, 2001 Hoi An to Danang
We wake early but lay around having hot baths and reading till eight o’clock. We’ve got till one o’clock before we leave so we decide to do a last minute walk around town. At the river we have breakfast at the Dong Phuong Restaurant (also in Lonely Planet) and sit on the upstairs verandah overlooking the street and the water. The sun is shining and everything looks so different today. Mornings anywhere are one of the best times to watch local daily life and from up here we can see all sorts of small boats on the river going back and forth to the market.
After breakfast, we cross the Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built in 1592 and is still used to cross the small stream that runs through this side of town. The bridge not only has a roof but it’s also walled with windows looking out onto the stream and wide doorways at either end. It has that wonderful ancient feel that transports you back to another time. On the other side are lovely old houses and art galleries and we stop to take pictures of a cute baby.
Back to the main side of town, Mark barters for eight silk Chinese lampshades. The three ladies are very excited and pretend to cry when Mark tries to bargain them down to AUD $5 each. We spend ages here and all have a good laugh. Further along we buy three wall plaques with ‘happiness’ written in Vietnamese and then to another shop to buy an opium pipe (AUD $10) and an incense burner (AUD $12).
Mark heads off to the bank to exchange US dollars for dong while I go back to Hoa to pick up the last of our clothes. Now I have a black brocade skirt and top, a green brocade skirt and top, an orange Japanese silk skirt, a cashmere skirt and jacket and a pink satin top. Everything fits perfectly and I’m thrilled with my new wardrobe.
It works out that for five tops (AUD$10 each), five skirts (AUD $18 each), a jacket (AUD $18), a suit jacket (AUD $24) and two pairs of pants (AUD $18 each) I’ve spent a grand total of AUD $218. Mark now has three silk collarless shirts (AUD $16 each), two pairs of travellers pants (AUD $20 each) and a corduroy jacket (AUD $36) all for AUD $126. Mark arrives and jokes around with Hoa and Yaun while we take photos and videos. They tell us that we’re ‘beautiful’ then get me to put on my suit for a photo in front of the shop to show other customers – fame at last! Very attractive in my walking boots, too.
Back to the room to pack and check out and store our packs in the foyer. Outside we meet a pretty boat lady called Lan who wants to take us for a ride out on the river. She’s so, so sweet and tells us that he husband drowned last September in the flood – ‘he die in big water, September, water high, he no swim, I swim, he no swim’. She’s only thirty-eight and has two sons who she has to support by paddling around tourists in her tiny boat. She pays ten thousand dong a day to have her littlest one minded and only gets that much for each hour she works. Some days she doesn’t get anyone and today we’re her first customers.
When we pass small covered boats with whole families inside I ask her if that’s where they live. She says that they’re ‘very poor, no house, like me’. We can’t believe it, but she lives in this tiniest of boats with no roof. It’s unbelievable that people can be this poor and I feel so sad for her. She’s told us all this only because we’ve asked her. There’s no self-pity, just a gentle acceptance.
Lan paddles us up past the market, which looks wonderful now that the sun is shining in a brilliant blue sky. Old fisherwomen in the same tiny boats as ours, float up beside us to tempt us with baskets of miniscule fish. We feel sorry for the ladies but, I mean, what would we do with raw fish. As we come to the footbridge we all have to lay flat in the bottom of the boat to pass under it and we’re all laughing.
Lan drops us off at the Han Huyen Restaurant which is floating on the river. This is another Lonely Planet recommendation and it looks wonderful. As we climb ashore we watch her paddle off in her little boat and my heart is so sad for her. Here are Mark and I going to a fancy restaurant and Lan hasn’t even got a home. We paid her a lot more than she’d asked but now we wish we’d given more.
The restaurant looks out onto the prettiest area. Palm trees, old French houses, boats, and the footbridge. The river is so calm it looks like glass and the coconut trees and boats tied up on the banks are perfectly reflected in the still water. We see old Mai in her conical hat busy unloading a boat of vegetables and an endless stream of village people on bicycles crossing the bridge. The food is good and Mark orders eel.
It’s time to head back to the hotel but on the way we stop to watch some woodcarvers sitting on the floor of a lovely old shop. Within fifteen minutes we’ve bought a beautiful carved wooden sideboard decorated with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. The AUD $1200 price includes shipping it to Sydney and we’re ecstatic.
Our walk back to the hotel takes us past colourful Chinese temples which we visit before picking up our shoes. Both pairs are a tight fit but we’re quickly assured they’ll stretch. Suddenly we hear Lan calling us and waving her arms. She’s brought her little two-year old boy to meet us and he’s immaculately clean and dressed in a navy baby suit. It always amazes me how these people who have nothing always manage to be spotlessly clean and fresh. An absolute contradiction to the arrogant western perception of people in underdeveloped countries as being smelly and dirty. Lan looks lovely in her apricot-coloured pyjama suit. She has the face and body of a model but doesn’t have a clue how beautiful she truly is.
While we wait for our transport to Danang to arrive, we sit with Lan on a low wall outside the hotel. Mai turns up with two other friends all wearing conical hats and huge smiles. One friend is younger with fair skin and freckles so she’s probably a war child. The other lady, called Nguyan Thi Nga, has her front teeth missing. She tells us ‘husband gone, no good’ and then pretends to drink from a bottle and staggers all over the road. She has us all in fits of laughter and keeps doing it. We video her and there’s more squeals when we play it back.
Sitting here I feel like one of the girls and wish we’d met them all on our first day in Hoi An instead of when we’re about to leave. For the first time we know this is genuine friendship. When the van arrives we throw our gear in and then there’s cuddles all round. We get more cuddles through the van window and we’re waved off with bit beautiful smiles.
Driving through the streets of Hoi An we feel sorry to be leaving our new friends but happy to be on the way to our next adventure. The one-hour drive to Danang is interesting and with the sun shining we’re feeling excited and happy. The driver is playing the ubiquitous loud, daggy music but it fits our good mood. Small villages line the road and we dodge endless bicycles and school children on their way home.
Coming into Danang, we cross the wide Han River with its busy docks and river transport. At the Vietnam Airlines office in town we stop to pick up our airline tickets to Saigon. Because someone has processed our names in the Vietnamese way of surname first, only people called Scott Mark and Kibble Virginia have tickets for the flight. We make a snap decision and decide to keep our original tickets to Nha Trang for tomorrow and so we’ll stay here in Danang tonight.
Outside are two motorbike riders who offer to take us to a hotel. We like them straight away and they introduce themselves as Quang and Van. We hop on the back of a bike each while the guys balance our packs across their laps. The Hoa Hong Hotel is on the other side of town and we love riding around on the bikes. The streets aren’t too busy and Quang and Van are safe drivers. We check into a room on the second storey with a slightly sloping floor and the usual bad taste décor. We like it.
Back down on the bikes in minutes, we ask Quang and Van to take us to the open-air Cham Museum. The buildings here are old and picturesquely set amongst trees and gardens. The guys drop us off to pick up their kids from school and we plan to meet them out the front in an hour. Inside, we’re approached by a tiny Vietnamese man who wants to be our guide. He’s straight out of Lonely Planet and I recognise him as Monsieur Louis or Nguyen Phu Luy. He even reads his bit out of the guide book – ‘friendly old man who speaks relatively good English and is highly knowledgeable in Cham art’. Of course he fails to read the part about how he overcharges everyone. Naturally we can’t pass up meeting a ‘celebrity’ so off we go feeling like we’re back at school.
After each room he tests us to see if we’ve been listening then hurries us off to the next room saying ‘this way, very complicated’. It’s a scream and we can barely understand what he’s saying. He’s so bossy but very enthusiastic and we have fun. For the last ten minutes we look at a map on the wall and get a long-winded history of the Cham empire – definitely too much information! At last we escape and hand over US$2. He’s not overly impressed and rushes off to nab a better paying customer.
Out on the street the guys take us down near the river then drop us at Christies Restaurant for a snack. It’s in an air-conditioned upstairs room with no atmosphere but memorable anyway. From here we ride out to the Cao Dai Temple on the outskirts of town for the six o’clock evening prayers.
It’s just on dusk and the temple looks empty with its tall wrought iron gates closed and no-one around. Quang manages to get an old man’s attention and he happily opens the gate for us to come into the garden. Leaving our shoes at the door, we’re welcomed inside to watch the worshippers doing their thing. They’re all wearing long white gowns and are kneeling, standing and bowing to the main altar. Behind the altar sits a huge eye which is the symbol of Caodaiism. After the prayers, two priests come to speak to Mark. They look so tiny next to him and peer at the silver Moslem and Hindu symbols around his neck. They’re so sweet and patiently explain their religion to him. I stand back as they only seem to be interested in Mark – maybe it’s a religious thing. I’m not sure, though, as Quang and Van seem to be taken with him as well. They keep telling me I have ‘handsome man’.
Caodaiism sounds nice as the priests show us a sign above the huge eye that reads ‘Van Giao Nhat Ly’ which translates as ‘All religions have the same reason’. The sign also shows the founders of the world’s great religions; Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Laotse (Greek Orthodox Jew) and Confucius. Afterwards they walk us outside and wave us off. We’re so glad we came here when it’s so quiet and had the chance to meet these lovely people. Always best when you don’t feel like a tourist.
On the bikes again, it’s another fifteen minutes back to the hotel and we arrange for Quang and Van to pick us up early in the morning to take us out to Marble Mountain. Down the street to look for dinner, we find a noodle stall and sit on baby-sized plastic stools at a baby-sized table and eat delicious noodle soup for fifty cents. On the way home, we stop to buy Choco Pies then rush back to our room to eat them in bed. Feeling happy today especially with our unexpected time here in Danang.
Friday 16th February, 2001 Danang to Nha Trang
At six thirty we shower and pack before meeting Quang and Van downstairs. We head through town then across a small bridge to pass through endless villages. These are alive already and the roads are packed with bicycles and motor bikes. We feel safe on the bikes and exceptionally free this morning. Our first stop is at Non Nuoc Hamlet which is the village at the base of the Marble Mountain. Here we watch the marble carvers at work and see each stage from the actual carving to the polishing. Some statues are so huge they could only be for the very rich.
Now Mark, Van and I start climbing the hundreds of steps to the top of the mountain. These are carved out of the cliff face and shaded by overhanging greenery. The main cathedral-like Huyen Khang cave has a small opening to the sky in the centre of its soaring ceiling and was used as a hideout for the Viet Cong during the American War. Inside are Buddha and Confucius images which are all overlooked by a huge stone Buddha high up in the darkness.
We visit another smaller cave and the Tam Thai Tu Pagoda and several other pagodas. From the top we have great views of China Beach and the village below. Somehow Van and I lose Mark. One minute he’s there and next minute he’s gone. I have images of him being kidnapped or chucked over the side until a man on the stairs tells us that he’s been seen on the other side of the mountain. I’m so happy to see him when we get to the bottom.
On the bikes again, we head back to Danang to pick up our packs at the hotel. On now, to the airport where we can’t thank Quang and Van enough for giving us a great time. We pay them more than usual and they’re very happy. While we wait for the plane we see the funniest thing. A man is stuck inside a glass phone booth in the boarding lounge. Staff are running around not having a clue what to do while the man’s plane is revving up on the tarmac and his wife is happily taking pictures of him. He’s finally released after twenty minutes having enjoyed himself immensely.
The flight to Nha Trang only takes an hour and the town looks lovely as we land. There are palm trees and sandy beaches and best of all there’s blue skies. The airport terminal is an attractive white building with coconut palms around it and there’s a real beachy, holiday feel already. Outside taxi touts are waiting and we ask to go to a Lonely Planet favourite only to find it closed for renovations. The driver is happy to take us somewhere else and we soon pull up at the Phu Quy Hotel. It’s in a good area near lots of cafes and our room is clean with television, bathroom and a balcony. It’s probably the best place we’ve stayed in so far and only US$19.
After checking in, we walk along the beach promenade. We feel so wonderful to be warm and wearing thongs and singlet tops. The beach cafes surrounded by palm trees remind us of Bali and the beach has white sand just like home. We have lunch of cuttlefish salad and little beef rolls with ham and cheese inside that look like Mr Hankies. From here we walk to the Post Office to E-mail home and then on to Sinh Café to book a boat trip to the islands for tomorrow.
Now it’s back to the room for a sleep, bath and book reading. After blow-drying my hair for only the second time since leaving home, I try on all my Hoi An clothes for the video. To go out I wear my favourite which is the black and gold brocade skirt and top while Mark wears his new shoes, new navy pants and new rust coloured silk shirt. We look very glamorous as we’re planning a romantic night on the town.
At the end of our street is the Vien Dong Hotel which supposedly has nightly shows of traditional music. The huge hotel restaurant opens up onto the pool and we order cocktails and finger food. Mark buys me a cocktail with Baileys and Cointreau called ‘I Love You’ – he’s so good to me. We eat pork spring rolls and drink beers and bacardis. The live Vietnamese band is playing beautiful classical music and we especially love the violins.
Feeling very happy we hail down cyclos outside to take us to the Nha Trang Sailing Club. The night is hot and it’s lovely to be out in the breeze as we pedal alongside the beach. The Sailing Club is naturally right on the beach and is a series of open-air thatched huts. The lighting is wonderful, good music, and everything is made of bamboo, wood and cane. Young backpackers are playing pool and there’s a lot of pretty Asian girls with ugly old western men.
We sit on cane stools at the bar and order the equivalent of a Bali Arak – a one litre plastic bottle with two straws and filled with orange juice and just about pure alcohol. Tastes like shit but it’s fun. Cyclos home.
Saturday 17th February, 2001 Nha Trang
Breakfast is early in the café next door to our hotel. ‘Same, same’ as most cafes all over Vietnam – plastic, laminex and featureless but somehow appealing. We sit at a table in the sun which is a real treat and then walk down to Sinh Café. A couple of guys are loading food into the van that’s to take us to the boat. I sit inside and talk to Lan who’s the pretty lady that runs the boat.
On the way we stop at a few hotels to pick up an Australian couple and a family of unfriendly Germans. We drive along a wide palm-fringed road next to the beach to get to the Cao Da dock which is at the southern end of town.
Here chaos rules. The carpark is full of locals and vans from other travel agencies while hawkers and beggars scramble to get to the door of our van first. The crowd is five deep and everyone is desperate to make a sale. I buy a straw conical hat then we race down the stairs to the water to escape it all.
Red and blue painted boats are also pushing and shoving just like the crowd. They’re all vying for positions at the wharf and just ram their way into cracks between other boats to push them out of the way. So glad when we all board and get the hell out of here. Talk about a relaxing day to the islands!
Our boat holds fifteen tourists and three crew as well as Lan. Leaving the craziness at the wharf behind, we start to enjoy being in the sunshine and out on the beautiful blue waters of the South China Sea. After an hour, the boat drops anchor about twenty metres off a deserted island. We thought we’d be getting off but apparently we’re to just snorkel and swim next to the boat.
Mark and a few of the men jump in and do a bit of swimming around using the masks and snorkels but there’s nothing much to see so they come back. Other boats have now arrived and it’s like Pitt Street. The plan is to stay here for an hour and a half and this is exactly what we do despite the fact that everyone is ready to get going after thirty minutes. I climb onto the roof and Mark and I are alone for the fifteen-minute ride to the next stop.
Unfortunately this looks exactly like the last stop and no-one can be bothered going in the water. We still can’t go ashore so we all just sit there looking at each other. I’m back on the roof and feeling totally nauseous with the boat rolling in the swell even though it’s barely noticeable. Lunch is a great distraction and we climb down to the deck where the food is spread out in the middle. Seafood, rice, noodles and salads are all good but I feel even worse now. Still sticking to the dreaded schedule, we stay for another hour then chug off to another island.
Thank God we can get off at this one and we walk along a path next to the shore that’s lined with thatched raised platforms. Here Vietnamese holiday-makers are lounging around in their swimmers and kids are playing in the shallow water. Mark and I find a shady table and chairs and talk to the lovely Australian couple from our boat. They’re Tom and Desley from Queensland and they tell us of their travels so far in Vietnam. They’ve come up from Saigon so we get lots of good tips from them about where to stay and what to see.
Back on the boat, Lan has afternoon tea waiting for us. This is even better than lunch and I’m feeling wonderful again. We try everything including pineapples, watermelon, mandarins, papaya, sponge cake and dragon fruit. This is a handsome spiky bright pink fruit speckled black with white flesh inside and tastes good too.
The next island looks so pretty and we’re met by young women in the famous round basket boats. Mark and I ride around for ages with a couple of young girls. They let Mark have a go and think it’s funny to see someone else rowing for a change. Back on the boat, we head back towards Nha Trang.
Mark sits at the point of the bow with one of the guys from the crew. He tells Mark that they do this trip every day and earn an absolute pittance. Before we get off, Lan points to Mark’s feet. Unbelievably all the men have had their little toenails painted bright red sometime during the day.
In the van back to town, we make plans to meet Tom and Desley for dinner. After quick showers we walk around to the street parallel to ours to find the Indian restaurant. The food is so cheap and the service quick. We have a lovely night talking about each other’s travels and after a few beers we head back to the hotel for an early night.
Sunday 18th February, 2001 Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City
We wake early to a sunny, hot day. By eight o’clock we’ve had a quick breakfast in a cafe next door, packed, and in a taxi on the way to the airport. Nha Trang looks especially lovely today and we feel in a true holiday mood created by the heat, the palm trees and the beach. The airport is only a couple of minutes from the hotel and we’re in the air on time. The trip to Ho Chi Minh City is a quick forty minutes. Feeling better today, maybe because of the good weather or maybe because this is our last stop before we go home.
By ten thirty we’re outside Saigon airport and in a metered taxi which is what Tom and Desley recommended as the cheapest way to get around. The streets are busy and full of life even though it’s a Sunday. Despite heavy traffic of bicycles, cyclos and thousands of motorbikes, we like the look of Saigon. It’s greener than we’d expected and very exciting.
The hotel that Desley and Tom stayed in last week is in Pham Ngu Lao which is the backpacker area of the city and where we want to stay as well. This is itself at the western end of District 1 which is central Saigon so we’re in a great area. We know when we reach Pham Ngu Lao by the internet cafes, guesthouses tour booking offices, dress making shops, artist studios, souvenir sellers, cafes and beggars.
The Mien Chau Hotel is like all the guesthouses around here – narrow and four floors high with the family living in the foyer and cooking in the back alley. Our room is on the third floor and looks onto a brick wall. We love the fact that it’s big, old and rundown with a faded linoleum floor and thankful that it’s air-conditioned and quiet.
After quickly unpacking, we spend a while walking around the area then jump in a couple of cyclos. The drivers are friendly and take us past the Saigon River, pointing things out along the way. and then on to a moneychanger. After changing some money, they take us to lunch at Restaurant Nineteen and wait for us outside. The café is air-conditioned which is a bonus and the food is good.
From here they recommend going to the Jade Emperor Pagoda so off we go. The Pagoda is unbelievably colourful and full of giant statues of Chinese gods representing both Taoism and Buddhism. Our sweet driver, who’s also kindly acting as our guide, shows us two floors of rooms where people come to worship by burning handfuls of joss sticks and oil. One room has a carved depiction of hell on the wall showing all the gruesome ways to be punished when you get there. A happier area has rows of ceramic mothers and their children. There’s buddhas everywhere – happy buddha and woman buddha and even unemployment buddha where you leave a donation if you want a job.
In the leafy courtyard outside is a pond holding baby-sized turtles and huge goldfish. It’s nice here with a lot of children and families hanging around. Here also are women surrounded by bamboo cages packed with tiny birds. The idea is to pay for one and then set it free for good luck. I ask how much and I’m told it’s very expensive – five thousand dong or about eighty cents. A little bird is put into a smaller bamboo cage and I hold it up and open the door. Should have done this weeks ago – might have staved off the rain till the wet season.
Our next stop is the War Remnants Museum. We get a mini tour of central Saigon on the way. It’s a muddle of lovely old French buildings and rundown newer buildings that have all seen better days. Some have a war-torn look but maybe we’ve just got war on the brain because of where we’re headed. Despite changing its name from the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes to avoid upsetting anyone, the War Remnants Museum is a depiction of the American/Vietnam War from a totally one-sided Vietnamese perspective – which is probably as it should be.
In the grounds of the Museum are some interesting planes and helicopters from the war and a small building showing hideous torture methods. Had enough for one day and ready now for a sleep so we take the rickshaws back to the hotel. Dinner is cheese burgers and chicken burgers after booking a tour for tomorrow to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. An early night in our quiet, air-conditioned room.
Monday 19th February, 2001 Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Mark wakes feeling great but I’m sick with cramps in the stomach and the dreaded runs. Breakfast is at Sinh Café before we board the bus to take us out to the tunnels. Our guide is Skinny Thong who speaks exceptionally good English and fills us in with stories about the war as we head out of town. The two-hour drive is through rural areas and small towns. The road is so bad with potholes the whole way and is making me feel sicker than before.
Glad to arrive at Cu Chi where our bus pulls into a carpark already full of other tourist buses and vans. It seems that half the population of Saigon has turned up for the day but we only get held up for fifteen minutes. There’s a line-up for the film which is compulsory to watch before we’re allowed any further. This is another propaganda film about the evil Americans who came ‘thousands of miles from their homeland’ to kill ‘woman, children, chickens, pots and pans, and ‘burn houses’. The film is accompanied by the daggiest music that makes it seem like an old silent movie.
Skinny Thong then leads us across the road and into the jungle. Love Skinny Thong – he’s so sweet and has the cutest accent, like Tweety Bird. He shows us all sorts of ‘booby twaps’ that the Viet Cong used during the war – terrifying. Horrid things positioned in the ground or in trees and set with bamboo spikes.
We’re shown how the entrances to the tunnels were completely camouflaged. From a patch of bare ground covered with leaves a man emerges from a tiny hole that’s been hidden by a leaf-covered board. I volunteer (very unlike me) to have a turn and can barely squeeze through myself. Mark would never fit.
On now to the shooting range where we both shoot an AK47 at a target. Unbelievably loud despite ear muffs but very proud of doing something so different. We see an abandoned American tank and then we climb into one of the tunnels.
These have been made twice the size for us huge westerners but they’re still unbearably claustrophobic. It’s also incredibly hot and I get out the first chance I get. From here we’re taken to see an underground kitchen and given tea in tiny cups and eat tapioca. This is what the Viet Cong had to survive on because rice was so scarce.
As we walk through the jungle we hear noises like popguns going off then people screaming and laughing. Apparently they’ve put booby trap wires across all the paths so that we can experience what it must have been like.
We’re back in Saigon by early afternoon. At Sinh Café we hail a taxi to take us to the Post Office so we can ring home. This is a huge elaborate building beautifully restored and obviously newly painted. Although impressive inside and out, the service is the worst we’ve come across even in Vietnam. Instead of ringing then paying, you have to pay first so you have to guess how long you’ll talk and that’s if you get through at all. The woman keeps ringing the wrong number and I have to line up again and again. I feel like jumping the counter and strangling someone.
Outside we take photos of the beautiful church of Notre Dame which is a replica of the original in Paris. Now we’re back in a taxi to the hotel for a sleep. Feeling very sick by now with stomach cramps and a headache. Out for a quick snack about seven o’clock and then back to bed.
Tuesday 20th February, 2001 Saigon
Wake feeling much better but we lay around and don’t leave the hotel till nine o’clock. At Kim Café in the next street, we have club sandwiches for breakfast – very un-Vietnamese. From here we catch a taxi to Cholon which is Saigon’s Chinatown. After a twenty-minute drive through congested streets we’re dropped off at the huge Binh Tay Market.
This is a two-storey cement block crammed with stalls and people. The amount of stock is mind-blowing. We really enjoy the ground level area in an old wooden structure attached to the side of the main building. We have fun with some of the ladies who are either swinging in hammocks hung above their goods or sitting amongst it all in shops no bigger than an average wardrobe.
A blind man is walking around playing an electric guitar and singing while two young boys walk with him, one carrying a speaker made from a tin can and the other with a collection tin. We buy incense cones and tall, fat incense sticks then wander around the food area. We sit at a noodle stand and Mark orders soup and noodles while I just watch. I’m still feeling too queazy (is that a word?) to eat Vietnamese food although it looks so good.
Outside we’re followed by a rickshaw driver who won’t leave us alone. We decide to just go with the flow so we get in. Besides that, he’s so lovely and his name is Ngu. He offers to take us to some of the local Chinese pagodas that turn out to be wonderful.
We visit three which are all different but in a way ‘same, same’. Love watching the worshippers who don’t seem to mind us being there. At each pagoda they’re burning oil and incense, giving offerings of fruit and burning paper in open furnaces. The decorations are so ornate and we see two-metre high incense coils hanging from the carved ceilings. I adore these places.
Ngu cycles us all the way back to the Mien Chau Hotel so we can have a rest – how pathetic. He picks us up again outside at three o’clock so we can go to the Thai Airways office. We need to confirm our flight home but we’re also hoping to be able to get an earlier plane. Even if we can at least get back to Bangkok earlier we’ll jump at the chance. No luck as the next flight out of here is the 20th March. Okay that’s it, time to buck up and be happy. At Kim Café around the corner we book a two-day trip to the Mekong Delta for tomorrow. This will keep us occupied till we leave.
Ngu now cycles us to Cong Vien Van Hoa Park near the Reunification Palace. This is a huge walled park with lots of different areas but not many people around today. There are a lot of gardeners, however, and funnily enough they’re all women. I swear, from what I’ve seen, most Vietnamese men are either swinging in hammocks or congregating on busy pavements getting pissed. A young boy passes us making a clicking sound by hitting two sticks together. Apparently this means that if you follow him you’ll be able to buy hot ‘pho’ which is a vegetable noodle dish that’s eaten anytime of the day.
As we ride back to the hotel, Ngu tells us about his family and proudly shows us pictures of his new baby girl. In the cool of our room, we have a quick nap before dressing up for a posh night on the town. Although we intend to grab a taxi, we see Ngu riding past so we call out to him. He’s so pleased to get another fare and off we go to the area of District One near the river. He cycles us around for a while showing us the sights.
The city looks so different at night – exciting even. Ngu drops us off at the Continental Hotel which is where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American in 1954. Outside are sandbags all along the pavement and inside the bar is closed. Apparently they’re in the process of filming the movie which is to star Michael Cain. Disappointing but we still get to see inside the famous hotel.
The other famous old hotel of Saigon is the Rex and it’s an easy walk from the Continental. The foyer is very impressive but smells like shit – literally! The Rex’s infamous bar is on the roof and open to the beautiful night sky. It’s a big area divided into intimate dining and drinking spaces. It’s tastefully decorated with cane furniture, caged birds and bonsai plants. We spend an enjoyable hour drinking beer and eating peanuts then downstairs again to find a taxi to take us to the floating restaurants.
These are a series of boats tied up along the Saigon River and all decorated with strings of coloured lights. The docks are packed with local people watching the guests get on and off the boats. We almost feel like royalty when our taxi pulls into a special dropping off area and we’re led to the gangplank of the nearest boat. Each boat has three levels and we choose the lower level where a band is playing.
This is a big mistake as we’re on the same level as the dock which is only metres away. The poor people stand there watching us eat and drink. Facing the other direction isn’t much better as the view consists of huge hideous neon advertising signs all along the other side of the river. The set menu is also revolting and I’m given a tiny pigeon, head and all. No way can I eat it and don’t eat much of anything. Mark naturally eats everything but we’re both glad to escape the food, the music and the atmosphere. Despite the tackiness of the whole experience we have a good night. Back to bed early.
Wednesday 21st February, 2001 Saigon to The Mekong Delta
The bus to the Mekong Delta is leaving at eight o’clock but we have time to pack, have breakfast and E-mail home. On the minibus we meet Hai our driver. He’s a replica of Skinny Thong – all teeth and crinkley eyes as he smiles and laughs continually.
Our fellow travellers consists mainly of Europeans and there’s two rude Hungarian couples who speak at the top of their voices the whole time Hai is talking. He’s painstakingly explaining our tour as we head west out of the city but the Hungarians have their backs to him and have also opened the windows. Hai patiently explains that we have to have the windows shut so that the air-conditioning can work and we can all be comfortable. Of course, they ignore him and everyone else is doing the ‘rolling the eyes’ thing.
The roads out of Saigon are packed with bicycles and motorbikes as people make their way to school and to work. A few hours out we turn off the main highway and onto a bumpy dirt road that winds through open countryside. We drive beside a canal where ramshackle houses are built on the other side and connected to the road with arched bridges every few hundred metres. The bus pulls up at a pineapple plantation and we all get out to watch trucks being loaded from small canoe-type boats. Hai explains the process of growing the pineapples and then we all get to try whole pineapples freshly picked this morning. They’re so sweet and juicy.
From here we travel to Cai Be which is a large town on a filthy waterway. We all pile onto an old wooden boat and head off to the floating market – ‘you know flotting mar-ket?’ as Hai keeps saying. Unfortunately the floating market is finished for the day so we keep going up the river to a village where they make rice cakes. This is a pleasant area with grass huts overlooking the water and surrounded by trees and gardens. We watch while the family goes through all the stages of making rice cakes and then, of course, we all buy bags of them – lovely.
The boat drops us off back at the wharf which is really just a plank of wood over a muddy bank. Mark and I have lunch with a lovely couple from the bus. Brian is English and Turid is Norwegian and they live in Cyprus. How boring are we? Mark is Australian and Virginia is Australian and we live in Australia – fascinating stuff! Afterwards we walk through the market which, as always, is fantastic and loads of fun. The ladies are playing bingo and there’s lots of laughing.
We get back on the boat, now, and wind our way through smaller canals. After a while we get off to walk along the water’s edge and see how people live in these little backwaters of the Delta. We’re on Tan Phong Island which is so thick with vegetation it’s hard to tell how many people actually live here.
As we continue on the boat, the people are so friendly and we spend the whole time waving and smiling and some throw fruit at us in fun. Feel like we’re on the African Queen as we chug our way through narrow canals overhung with greenery.
We finally reach Vinh Long town and set off with Brian and Turid in search of alcohol during our one hour break. The Hungarians are late getting back to the bus but we manage to get to the ferry wharf on time. Here huge white vehicular ferries are loading cars and trucks that are lined up on both sides. This is an incredibly busy area and we can see at least six other ferries of the same size crossing the Mekong.
We all pile out of the van and take seats on an upper deck. As we make our way across the huge river, the sun is setting in a golden sky and the Mekong almost looks lovely. At last we arrive at Can Tho City which is the capital of the Mekong Delta and the largest town.
The van now drops us all off at our hotel which is a rundown dump with cold, damp rooms. We don’t take long to shower and meet Brian and Turid downstairs. At the counter, the Hungarian bitch is going on about her passport having been stolen from her room and that it must have been someone from the hotel. Hai is getting totally pissed off and tells her to go back to her room and have a good look. She finds it but doesn’t bother to apologise. Hai is very smug and is all crinkley eyes again. He tells us that he loves coming on these trips which he does once a week. He’s happy to announce that he has a girlfriend here and a wife in Saigon.
With Brian and Turid, we go next door for a beer but it’s pretty horrid so we look up the Lonely Planet for somewhere to eat. Apparently, the best café in town is Restaurant 31 which is in this very street. We all set off the find it only to find that it’s the dump we’ve just left.
Someone suggests we look for the other restaurants down by the river so we set off through the market. This is now closed and reeks of rotting fruit and vegetables. It’s also very dark so we can’t avoid wading through the muck on the ground. We decide it would be better to go back along the main street and get to the river that way.
We find a few interesting restaurants here overlooking a park and the river beyond. We find a table on a balcony that looks down on the market and the busy street. The meal is good and we get along famously with Turid and Brian. They are soooo interesting. After dinner I suddenly feel vertigoed out so Mark and I catch a moto-cyclo back to the hotel. This is a motorbike pulling a cyclo and is unique to the Delta region. Back to our horrid room and bed.
Thursday 22nd February, 2001 Mekong Delta to Saigon
I feel much better this morning and we have breakfast in a café across the road while we watch the local market people setting up their stalls. We’re all on the bus at seven fifteen and drive for about an hour to a small canal. Here we walk down the grassy embankment to find two tiny boats waiting for us.
There’s to be six in each boat and Hai is making very sure that he’s not in the same boat as the hateful Hungarians. Mark and I do the same. The boat is only wide enough for our two bums which are sitting on a hard wooden plank. We hope we’re not going to be in it for too long.
Our first stop is the Cai Rang floating market which is a total waste of time – yet again it appears to be ‘finished’. From Cai Rang, we chug our way slowly through narrow waterways for several hours. The boat stops for us to walk through some rice paddies where women are harvesting the rice with long scythes. It looks such hot, backbreaking work.
From here we have to stop several times to unwind reeds and rubbish that’s been caught up in the propeller. Definitely had enough of this boat but the people down here are so friendly. We never seem to stop waving and ‘helloing’ especially as we get closer to the Phong Dien floating market.
This is much more like a floating market and tiny boats selling food and drinks pull up alongside us. Most of the real produce, though, is on bigger boats that display their wares by hanging a sample from a flagpole on the deck. Some have bunches of onions or other vegetables but we don’t see any real trading going on. I must say, the floating markets are definitely not what we’d expected.
The problem with most expectations is that they’re rarely lived up to. I’d pictured the Mekong Delta as lush and picturesque, which it is in some parts, but mostly it’s a congested, filthy mess with wide, ugly, brown expanses of water where the Mekong River fans out before emptying itself into the South China Sea.
Happily, at least the weather has managed to live up to our expectations of being hot and sunny. I really have been the worst sort of spoiled brat on this holiday even if it’s been mainly in my own mind. Mark may like to disagree with that – ha,ha. I love South East Asia so I know how I’m feeling isn’t normal for me. For some reason I got a set against Vietnam from the start and I just can’t shake it. Will come back one day to see it in my usual (better) frame of mind.
Near the floating market we finally get off the dreaded boat at a sort of shop/café built out over the water. Here there’s a television blaring out old Boney M clips. Hai has a ball turning it up full blast and dancing to ‘By The Rivers of Babylon’ all by himself. Now we get back into our minivan and stop half an hour later for lunch. This is the dirtiest café we’ve ever seen. Old chicken bones are scattered all over the floor and spider webs and daddy-long legs are hanging under the tables. The food is passable but we can almost see the germs.
An hour more on the bus and we arrive at Rung Tram forest and the site of a Viet Cong Army Base called Xeo Quit. Hai guides us across bridges that span small canals though the dense jungle. He shows us bunkers and shelters, lookout posts and a mine field that’s still active. Apparently the Viet Cong chose this area because of the thickness of the jungle. There’s vines and marshes and paperback trees that grew back quickly if they were fire bombed or sprayed by the Americans. It’s a scary, damp place that’s made even scarier when we see a live giant snake about eight inches in diameter in a cage near the entrance. This jungle must be teeming with these monsters.
By now we’re all dying to get back to Saigon – ‘tell me I didn’t hear him say three more hours’, Turid feels the same as me – totally over this tour. After a couple of hours we stop to buy icecreams and Mark and I buy breadrolls with tomato, cheese and chives from a little street cart. Just heaven.
Back on the bus for an incredibly hairy ride back into the city to arrive at Pham Ngu Lao about seven o’clock. No time for showers or unpacking, we head straight to Café Allez Boo for beers with Brian and Turid. Great atmosphere in here with bamboo walls, cane furniture, a bar with a thatched roof, open windows onto the busy street and old Credence Clearwater tapes playing. The place is full of backpackers and hawkers are hanging in through the windows and walking through the crowds inside. After a couple of drinks each, Mark and I decide to go back to our hotel to see if we still have a room. Luckily we’ve got our same room which is starting to feel like home. Back out to meet Brian and Turid at a nearby Indian restaurant for dinner and then an early night.
Friday 28th February, 2001 Saigon
This morning neither of us are well and our toilet is constantly occupied. I’ve also got a sore throat so we stay in the room till eight thirty. We have breakfast in Kim Café but have to hurry back to the room for another toilet stop. Luckily we haven’t got anything planned for today so we lay around reading till lunchtime. We decide to go souvenir hunting but have lunch first at a nearby café – chicken salad roll for me and curried chicken roll for Mark.
Outside the café we ask a couple of cyclo drivers to show us where we can find souvenirs like masks and buddha statues. One driver is so bossy and keeps telling us that all the tourists love him – I doubt it. They ride us a few kilometres away to a sad looking department store – like a mini David Jones but no customers. While we walk around the empty store, all eyes are on us and we feel almost obliged to buy. When we ask if there is more on the next floor, the woman screams something up the stairs and we hear footsteps scurrying across the floor and lights being turned on. Up here are more awful polished wood and lacquer-work ornaments and boxes like those we’d seen on the way to Halong Bay. We politely leave as soon as we can and ask to be taken back to our hotel.
We wander around outside for a while, then Mark goes up to lie down – not feeling well at all. I go to E-mail and find messages from Angie and Jillian. After some local souvenir shopping and money changing I head back to the room to get ready for our night out with Turid and Brian.
We all meet at Allez Boos again and we’re all looking very different in our posh clothes. Turid looks beautiful – the same age as me but has no wrinkles and lovely golden tanned skin. Brian is fifty-eight and looks great for his age. Mark is the handsomest man in the whole world and I’m trying to look my best. After a couple of beers we get a taxi to Vietnam House.
This is an expensive restaurant in a French villa in inner city District 1. We all have a drink at the bar before going up to the lovely dining room. We order a different set menu each so that we can try everything. Meanwhile we’re entertained by three female musicians who all look stunning in pastel coloured ao-dais. So much food arrives and it’s all traditional Vietnamese. The seafood soup and barbequed tuna is the best. We talk so much we don’t even notice that we’re soon the only ones left in the restaurant and the staff are obviously hovering around waiting for us to leave. When they start dimming the lights we finally get the hint even though it’s only ten thirty. We can’t even find anywhere else to party on so it’s another taxi back to our hotels. Brian and Turid’s hotel is totally locked up – people definitely have early nights around here. Luckily we can get into the Mien Chau and it’s straight to bed.
Saturday 24th February, 2001 Saigon to Bangkok to Sydney
Mark is feeling sick again but he manages to have breakfast at Kim Café – our favourite. We buy a wooden mask for our collection and then head back to the room to pack. Mark manages to squeeze it all in before we go out to change some money. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we pass a shop selling beautiful silk and beaded shoes and handbags. Within minutes I’ve bought five pairs of shoes, three handbags, five purses and three silk scarves. Mark somehow crams them into our already bulging bags and we set off for the airport.
We take off at 2pm for a one hour flight to Bangkok. Leave here at 6pm to arrive in Sydney at 6am Sunday morning to catch the dreaded Aero Pelican plane back to Newcastle. Thank God we’re home!!!