We landed in Hanoi ready for action. And by action, I mean ready to eat everything in sight. I’ve always loved Vietnamese food, so I was very excited to eat how the locals eat – tasty soups which pack a punch in the flavor department, and also those Vietnamese fresh spring rolls with peanut dipping sauce that I love so much.
What we found was a little different.
For one, the most prevalent street food in the Old Quarter of Hanoi (where most of the tourists, including us, tend to flock) is big, crusty, delicious baguettes stuffed with pâté or doner kebab and salad, as a result of the French colonization in the 1800′s.
Not what I was expecting, and although they looked delicious (and our travel buddies insisted they were amazing), I was determined for my firs meal in Vietnam to be a traditional “pho bo” (beef soup) from a tiny local spot. I tracked one down, ordered a big bowl of steaming soup and prepared to have my mind blown.
I was sadly disappointed – the flavour was that of a soup anywhere back in Australia, there was no spice or “WOW” factor – it was just ok. Maybe so many spicy Thai meals for so long had numbed my taste buds, and I was traveling with friends who’d been living in Thailand for as long as I had so we all felt the same way about Vietnam’s almighty pho bo – it was just ok. And those fresh rice paper spring rolls were almost impossible to find, and even when I did track some down the rice paper was hard and chewy and not soft and wet. I gave up on the food hunt, and switched to drinking – after all we were in “Bia Hoi” country, where a particular area of Hanoi is home to streets lined with small bars selling glasses of 5000 Vietnamese dong (US$0.25c) ice cold beer till all hours. The kicker is that the seating at these bars are child-sized plastic tables and chairs, and big overgrown men struggle to delicately place themselves in those tiny chairs to drink the cheap beer, and inevitably start to get drunk after 10 or more beers (because at these prices, who’s really pacing themselves…) and end up on their asses after the frail little chairs finally give out. It’s like Vietnam’s revenge on the white invaders.
It’s a rowdy, busy atmosphere, with Vietnamese people hollering at passing tourists, drunk white people (usually Australians) talking too loudly and the music is cranking from nearby nightclubs… It’s like Friday afternoon every day.
The following morning we started a 3-day tour of the amazing Halong Bay. We’d chosen to go with a cheap-ish company – Central Backpackers charged us $110 for all 3 days and we were expecting bargain-basement accommodation for that price but we were pleasantly surprised with our boat cabin!
And the bungalows on the island were pretty sweet too.
The tour started with all 20 of us cramming onto a bus for a 3-hour journey to Halong Bay’s port, and 20 minutes into the journey two of our new American drinking buddies from the night before fell ill (hungover or food poisoning, the jury is still out) and lurched puddles of chunky vomit out the door of the bus, much to the driver and bus conductor’s disgust. We were quickly told if anyone needed to vomit, they would have to do it in a bag – if anyone dared to spew out the bus again we’d be charged for it. Oops. We were “those” people, the rowdy ones set to disturb the tranquil peace for all the tourists on the cruise – we didn’t know it then, but we later found out we were in the company of a whole cruise full of “those” people. We were in good company, and the 3 days of this cruise saw us all get very drunk very frequently, laughing till our sides hurt, partial nudity, gender-bending clothing swapping, shotgunning beers and drunken missions. Halong Bay was AWESOME with these guys.
The very afternoon that we returned to Hanoi from the Halong Bay trip, we hopped straight onto a overnight sleeper bus bound for Sapa for a 2-day hike through rice plantations, mountains, bamboo fields and villages.
We had an overnight stay in a local villager’s home, with a spread of amazing food washed down with shots of rice wine with our Sapa “mum & dad” – this old couple loved having us stay with them, and they kept the rice wine shots coming. Things got crazy, and by 6am we woke up to the sound of Sapa Dad spewing into the pond, and he was too hungover to even wake up and say goodbye – haha. Safe to say they never had a homestay like us!
After Sapa we returned to Hanoi once again and took to a week of solid drinking, hangovers, eating and occasional sight seeing trips – those 25c beer bars are hard to beat. Eventually we tore ourselves away to head to Hue, a small city featuring the Citadel… We saw the main sights, got lost, then booked a 3-day Easy Rider motorbike trip to Hoi An for the following day. We had wanted to drive the bikes ourselves but it seems being the passenger is all the rage here, and the guides said you can appreciate the view more if you’re a passenger. We were set to snake up and down mountainsides all through the Central Highlands, and follow the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the turns can be tricky. We were pumped.
The trip got off to a shaky start… The guy we’d met and decided to go with for the tour was unavailable, but he said “little brother” will take us, very good guide… We strapped our huge backpacks on the back, and off we went. By we didn’t get too far before I felt the backpack strapped behind me go tumbling down the road behind us, and Brett’s driver had to swerve to miss it… “Little Brother” hadn’t tied it off properly. Thankfully Brett’s laptop and cologne bottles survived the rough landing. The second warning came when Little Brother & I were on the bike about to take off, and he accelerated and tried to turn around but lost control and dropped the bike on us.. No harm done but I was a little skeptical of his abilities after that.
Little Brother was a furious honker, like most Vietnamese people – and driving quickly down a long highway he’s beeping to all the other drivers on the road, and then swerves suddenly to the left and into a huge semi-trailer truck’s path… The truck driver honked and swerved, and even the truckie’s passenger was hanging out the window trying to hit my driver, hurling abuse until he was out of view… He almost got me bloody killed! At the next stop Brett wished me luck before getting back on the bike… This guy was outta control.
Thankfully it had already been pre-arranged that the owner of the bike company would take over from “Little Brother” after we visited the DMZ (De-Military Zone, a great insight into the North/South Vietnam’s war, and definitely worth checking out) – I think they knew he wasn’t a suitable 3-day guide. The charming and happy Mr Tu transferred my bags to his waiting bike, clipped Little Brother over the ear for dropping our bag, called him a “ladyboy” and then off we went. I felt infinitely safer with the more experienced, more calm and focused Mr Tu. The trip only improved from there, and the sunset views from the winding mountains surrounding the Ho Chi Minh Trail as we came into Khe Sahn were awesome. We pulled over to take some photos and after studying me for a moment, Mr Tu says to me, “So are you two married, or friends, or…?” he took a drag of his cigarette and points his finger at me, like he’s figured me out: “… Because you look like a dragon.”
I laughed, (like what the hell did he just say I look like a dragon?) and said no not married, but together a long time. He then went on to explain that in Vietnamese culture, your girlfriend is your dragon, all full of fire, but if you marry her she becomes your tiger. He said, “Me – I’m a monkey. I’m all “ooh ooh ahh ahh very funny” until the tiger growls and I go running up a tree. That’s why if I’m coming home without any money I always walk in the house backward, so when the tiger growls I can just GO!”. He also told us all about his complicated love life: “See me, I have a dragon AND a tiger. My Dragon lives in France now, and My Tiger doesn’t know about her. But I had my dragon before I met my tiger, so that makes it OK. You see?! Ha ha!” – very funny dude.
The next morning we visited the nearby US Army Base, bought my lil brother a real bullet from the War, got a jolt of energy from the very strong local Vietnamese coffee and we hit the road again.
We were followed by big black rain clouds for most of the second day, and had to pull over twice to frantically pull on protective rainclothes before we got drenched; but the rain never really came down. We spent the night in a small town just outside of a village in the mountains, where we spent some time getting to meet the kids and the families that live there, chewing on cinnamon bark torn from a nearby tree, and giving out notebooks to the kids for school (the government doesn’t supply them, so our driver buys these for the kids when he comes past). Evening time we had some beers and listened to Mr Tu’s memories from the war (he was 4-5 years old when the War started), and his tales about his “Dragon” and his “Tiger” and why his Dragon will always have his heart. Loves the ladies this guy!
By the end of the 3-day tour we arrived in Hoi An, and after finding us a sweet hotel for our stay here our guides dropped us off at “the best wonton shop in town”, a little local street shop with long wooden tables and benches.
Not only were the wontons delicious, but everything on the menu was amazing – we ate here sometimes twice a day, everyday, for our entire time in Hoi An. The amazing Vietnamese cuisine I was looking for was found here, and the food kept improving as we got further south – or maybe I got better at ordering haha. Oh and I found those delicious fresh rice paper rolls with the sweet soy peanut dipping sauce I’d been looking for, and infact I am living on a solid diet of these. So good.
We were really loving the hotel Mr Tu had found for us in Hoi An, and in the process of researching good restaurants on tripadvisor.com I thought I’d quickly check the reviews of our awesome hotel… I was quickly shocked then alarmed to find that ours was the worst rated hotel on Tripadvisor, with scalding reviews such as “RUN, DON’T WALK, AWAY FROM THIS HOTEL!” and almost every review saying their belongings were stolen out of their room from the cleaning staff, reception staff would refuse to give back your passport unless you paid exhobirant extra fees for things you didn’t buy.. Someone even said a guests guide dog was stolen from her while she slept! Hard to believe, but still worrying. Luckily Brett & I are old hat at this travel business, and had already chosen not to hand our room key over to reception when we left the room – many guests reported that when they gave their key to reception, they’d come back to find their valuables stolen and reception staff refusing knowledge of receiving the key, and thus charging the robbed guests a pricey “lost key” fee as well as refusing to help get their belongings back. It also helped that we’d been hanging out by the pool all day with our room doors and windows wide open, music turned up and nothing of value on display when curious staff had walked past – we made it seem like we had nothing worth stealing so they had no idea us cheap backpackers had a lot of gadgets, cameras, iPad, computer, etc. Even so, we booby-trapped the door overnight, padlocked and bike-locked our valuables to the bed and hoped for the best. Sure it would have been easier to just change hotels… But man I really liked that pool!
We survived 4 nights without any of the booby-traps going off, and we checked out on the final day without a hitch… God knows how haha. After check out we went back to our trusty faithful wonton shop, and spent a few hours being taught how to cook our favourite dishes on their menu (and then getting to feast on the tasty morsels) for just $15. We’d looked into some of the big organized cooking classes which were twice or three times the price, with 40 or so other people, but I reckon we got incredible value for a private lesson from a really sweet Vietnamese girl and 4 courses of food.
They even threw in an AMAZING free chocolate and banana pancake at the end… God knows how we fit it in after all the other food we cooked and ate.
After a relaxing manicure & pedicure we hopped on our last overnight bus EVER (Yessssss!) to the nearby tourist beach town of Nha Trang. We had intended to spend a couple of nights in Nha Trang but we decided to skip it in favour of spending some time in the less-touristy town of Mui Ne, at the insistence of our motorbike guide. We did have a couple of hours in Nha Trang to check out the city, and wandered down to the beach at sunrise to watch the swarms of Vietnamese people exercising, walking, swimming, doing tai chi and any other organized group fitness you can imagine. These Vietnamese really keep in shape!
By lunchtime we’d arrived in the city of Dalat, 4 hours away from Nha Trang, a cute little town in the mountains with a much cooler climate than the rest of Vietnam – I do so love me some cool weather after so long of being sweaty hot. We met up with some Canadian friends from Hanoi and checked into a sweet hotel, ate too much and checked out the city for a few days. Next on the list was Mui Ne, a cool beach town just north from Saigon. We spent a couple days here relaxing on the beach (well, I did.. Brett hates the sand and somehow even managed to get sunburnt in the 5 minutes he came down to talk to me on the beach!), drinking $2 bottles of local rum and cruising around the sand dunes on quad bikes. Guaranteed hangover cure!
Soon we’d made it all the way to the south, and arrived in the bustling big city of Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the famous “Uncle Ho”. We found home at a sweet little guesthouse in the middle of District One, called Ly Loan Guesthouse – ran by a super friendly Vietnamese woman and her family, with the recent addition of her cute chubby little baby boy. These guys were so nice, which was a refreshing change because we’d become kind of jaded by the number of Vietnamese people who are only nice to you to try and get some money out of you. We got some lunch and then checked out the War Remnants Museum, and were appalled and shocked at some of the imagery on display – dead conjoined twin baby feotus as a result of Agent Orange contamination in their grandparents generation – this is 2 generations later and babies are still dying. Photos of the American soldiers posing with the heads of the Vietnamese people they’d killed, thumbs up smiling, really painted an awful picture. I never realized it was as brutal as all that.
We’d planned to spend a couple of days in Saigon then 2 days checking out the Mekong Delta area before retreating to Phu Quoc Island for the last of our days, but after a particularly-touristy half day tour of the Cu Chi war tunnels, being led around like cattle we just couldn’t be bothered with another tour. The tunnels were cool, and getting to fire a few rounds from a AK47 at the tunnels for $15 was a fun experience, but we’re not big “tour” people and we just couldn’t face the idea of another 2-day tour – plus we’d already thoroughly explored some authentic war tunnels all to ourselves on the motorbike trip, which were way cooler. So we skipped the Mekong Delta and headed straight for Phu Quoc Island, opting to splurge $50 each way for flights instead of another all night bus to the boat dock, because the only thing we’re more sick of than tours is uncomfortable overnight buses. We’re on the home stretch now, and those buses just seem more awful as we get closer and closer to being done with backpacking for a while. Oh, listen to me complain! Tisk tisk (it’s not really that bad).
Phu Quoc island is great – we got a sweet little bungalow on the beach for just $15 a night, with our own little balcony and big 4-poster bed. I’ve spent days playing in the sand and watching the clouds, soaking up the last few days of sunny beachside life, imagining what’s in store after this chapter is done… While Brett stayed in the room hiding from the sun for fear of getting sunburnt haha. Poor kid isn’t having much luck lately, it’s like the universe knows he’s over it all and keeps raining on his parade. Currently he’s sunburnt, covered in mosquito bites, hot, sweaty and refuses to cool off in the ocean – so safe to say he’s actually excited to get back to Australia. At least that’s one of us!
So we’ve got a few more days in sunny Phu Quoc, before we fly back to Saigon for one last day of tasty Vietnamese food, fresh $1 smoothies and cheap massages and manicures… Then on Wednesday May 22nd at 8.35am we board a plane bound for Melbourne… And the gypsy tour is over.
But fear not, I’ve been a busy bee lately writing some “trip wrap-up” blog posts so I’m not done harping on and on about how awesome this trip has been. But for those of you sick of hearing about it… The end is in sight haha.
See you soon Australia!