I didn’t know what to expect from this country which had seen so much trouble in its past. After Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City was delightfully chaotic but also had lots of hidden charms.
We stayed in a guesthouse where our room was about 6 floors up and of course there was no lift. By this point in our travels our rucksacks were full to the brim with various trinkets that we’d picked up along the way, as well as some new clothes that Joey’s parents had bought from home for me. Some of these trinkets included a pink hammock and a bowl carved out of coconut that we’d fallen in love in Siem Reap. We still have both of these items and that bowl saw a lot of instant noodle consumption during our last few weeks when we started running out of money. So upon arrival it was shoes off as per Asian culture and climbing those stairs whilst trying to not fall backwards down the shiny slippery stairs. It seemed that something happened to our memories during the stay here as it felt like every time we tried to leave we forgot something and one of us had to climb those stairs again to go and retrieve whatever we had left behind!
In Siem Reap when we had met up with Joey’s cousin he had warned us about crossing the road. There are no pedestrian crossings, so you have to step out and just hope the motorbikes drive around you, and to give them their dues this is exactly what happened. It’s scary at first and that fear never really went away but you get used to it. I was glad that we started in HCMC as Hanoi was even more chaotic.
We visited the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, both of which were incredibly interesting and thought provoking and help to put into perspective the history of this previously divided country. Much is made of the imprisonment of the former senator John McCain. The Central Post Office is also worth a visit, a remnant of French Colonial Vietnam, decorated with old maps and still functioning as a Post Office.
We were on our way to yet another museum, when we saw a sign for a bowling alley. We’d visited quite a lot of museums by this stage so decided it was time to have a little fun so we diverted to the bowling alley for the afternoon.
After HCMC it was time to experience the famous Vietnam trains. We had booked a daytime train to Na Trang. The train class options are as follows: Hard Seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper.
The hard seat is basically a wooden bench, and often full of smokers so not recommended unless you are really broke. The soft seat was the option that most closely resembles trains in the UK and was the option we booked for this day train. I will talk more about the sleeper options later.
Trains in Vietnam always take longer than the timetable suggests. We arrived in Na Trang in the late afternoon. We’d booked a guesthouse with reasonable reviews and to the most part it was perfectly acceptable. We had a balcony area from which we had planned to dry our washing. Unfortunately for us the sink was not fixed to the wall so washing clothes or anything was challenging. We decided to splash out and get our laundry done for us.
Na Trang is a beach town that has seen tourism increase, particularly with tourists from Russia and the Ukraine. At the time of our visit these were countries who could visit Vietnam without requiring a visa in advance. It is unfortunate for me that I had a rather unpleasant encounter with one of these Russian tourists at the beach where he felt he could help himself to a feel of my bottom whilst I was lying on my sun lounger. I was not impressed and now mortified that I didn’t make more of a fuss at the time.
We spent our mornings in Na Trang on the beach before walking 45 minutes each way to a shopping mall with a decent food court and supermarket. The residents of Na Trang found it highly amusing and perplexing that we would walk anywhere, let alone as far as we did. The supermarket was my saviour. I was very wary of the food hygiene standards in Vietnam after witnessing something in HCMC, so Joey spent a lot of time trying to coax me to eat something. I mainly survived off instant noodles cooked in our room using our travel kettle and coconut bowl. At the supermarket we would buy dragon fruit and passion fruit and occasionally a loaf of french bread and laughing cow cheese triangles.
From Na Trang we took our first night train to Da Nang, the stopping point for Hoi An. We opted for a hard sleeper for this journey. This is a cabin with 6 beds in. The bottom bunks are the more expensive and roomiest. The middle ones are acceptable for space but the top bunk has about a foot of head space so don’t expect to be able to sit up, they are the cheapest flat bed option however. Joey had both our rucksacks on his bunk and slept like a baby whereas I had all the space but barely slept a wink.
Hoi An and International Women’s Day
From Da Nang station we took a taxi to our guesthouse in Hoi An, about 45 minutes away. We took a chance with our booking in Hoi An, the guesthouse had recently opened, so didn’t have any reviews online but the photos looked great and the room was only $10 a night between us including breakfast and a pool. We booked 2 nights and we struck gold with it! The staff were so friendly and helpful, the room and bathroom were clean and intact! We loved it so much that we asked to stay another 2 nights, then we asked to stay another 2 nights and then another 2 nights, staying 8 nights in all. As I mentioned the staff were amazing, they made an effort to learn our names. Well they learned Joey’s ok, but for some reason they couldn’t say Rebecca, so they kept calling me Jessica. In the end I went with it and was known as Jessica for my time in Hoi An.
Needless to say we loved our time in Hoi An. We arrived on a full moon day so caught the locals (and tourists) taking part in the lantern festival. This involves candles being set alight and set to float on the river as an offering and to worship their ancestors.
We also explored the famous tailors and got myself a fancy new coat made. This was great fun and the hardest part was deciding what to get made, they have catalogues with hundreds of designs and materials to choose from.
Hoi An is also close to a beach so we borrowed bikes from our guest house and cycled there a few times.
Our visit to Hoi An also coincided with International Women’s Day. This is a huge occasion in Vietnam and is actually a national holiday. I had woken up with a cold this day and wasn’t feeling great, we went out to lunch and afterwards we passed through reception saying our greetings and headed back to our room. I decided a sleep was in order, so as I was feeling full after eating and feverish I stripped off and got into bed. A short while there was a knock at the door. I instructed Joey to answer it and get rid of whoever it was so I get some rest. He answered the door and it was what appeared to be the entire staff of the guesthouse brandishing flowers and a cake and saying ‘Happy International Women’s Day Jessica!’ There were also male members of staff brandishing a camera to capture the moment of my surprise. I certainly was surprised. And mortified as I was desperately trying to cover myself up and look delighted to see every member of staff in my room. Thankfully the male member of staff with the camera cottoned on quickly and beat a hasty retreat. Joey managed to despatch the staff and once I had recovered my pride enough I did get dressed and go downstairs to thank them properly. Joey found the whole thing hilarious and immediately dropped the ‘swamp princess’ nickname I had acquired in Patagonia in favour of ‘naked Jessica’.
We finally dragged ourselves away from Hoi An and caught a bus a few hours north to Hue where we had an onward train booked. Hue was the nation’s capital between 1802 and 1945 and is famous for its citadel, which is worth the trip to Hue alone. Hue is situated on the banks of the beautifully named Perfume river and whilst Hoi An is the capital of tailors, Hue is the capital of converse. Every street is lined with shop after shop stocking converse and trainers. Upon entering a shop if they don’t have your size of a pair you are interested in they will run along the street to find a shop that does. We ended up shamelessly buying 4 pairs between us. We needed to buy another bag to transport these!
From Hue we caught an overnight train to Hanoi. This time we had booked ourselves into a soft sleeper. This isn’t much different to a hard sleeper, except that the compartments had 4 bunks instead of 6 so there was more room. We ended up sharing with two kiwi guys. Throughout our travels in Vietnam whenever a local asked us where we were from and we replied ‘England’ they would immediately reply, in an attempt at a cockney accent, ‘loverley jubberley’. This happened every single time we were asked where we were from so I was keen to know what they did when they asked other nations. Stereotypes rule ok in Vietnam as Kiwis get asked to perform the Hakka.
Upon arrival in Hanoi we tried to check into our guesthouse only to be told that they were full and we had to be moved down the road. I wasn’t impressed by this and was when I started to fall out of love with Vietnam. Walking down a street in the capital is difficult and actually quite dangerous as you’ll encounter motorbikes driving on the pavement towards you. You also face constant hassle every time you leave your guesthouse. I could feel myself getting ‘Hannoied’ and could feel that travel fatigue was setting in. We still had 8 weeks of our travels left and we’d planned to travel through Laos but at this stage I didn’t feel as though we would enjoy or appreciate it as much. So we had ‘the chat’ and both agreed that we needed to do something and actually wouldn’t it be nice to spend the last few weeks settled somewhere? So we decided that it would be really nice to head back to Thailand and to spend the last month in Cha-am, the little beach resort we had fallen in love with 7 weeks earlier. We needed a place to stay, a flight booked and a 60 day visa. We set about arranging all this, all the while being hassled by our guesthouse to book a tour to Halong Bay. It is something that we wanted to do but until we got our passports back from the Thai Embassy we weren’t going anywhere.
My miserable stay in Hanoi continued when at breakfast, after Joey finally persuaded me to eat something, there was an incident with another guest. I was munching on some French bread and almost enjoying it, when this French lady came over to me, and tried to ask where I had got that from. Fair enough, everyone has to eat, but she choose me, out of all the people in the room. And not only did she choose me to ask, but she PRODDED MY BREAD! Why?! Why me? Why my bread? Why did she need to touch my food to ask the question? Why wasn’t a simple point enough? No – she needed to TOUCH MY BREAD! Joey took one look at me and went ‘well that’s today ruined’.
Hanoi did have one interesting sight which I’d heard about and was keen to see. The mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself. This is a very sacred place for the people of Vietnam and visiting the mausoleum has to be treated with utmost respect. There are numerous guards and in the place where his body is demands total silence and definitely no taking pictures!
I was so ready to leave Vietnam. But first we had to ‘do’ Halong Bay. Most tourists do the two day / one night tour but we opted for three days and two nights. This involved one night on Cat Ba island and one night on a boat in Halong Bay. We had the day on the boat with everyone else, sailing to the bay and completing a cooking course. Lucky for me someone else insisted on full on food hygiene so I didn’t have to.
I still refused to try the spring rolls.
We docked at Cat Ba island and as we were leaving the boat to stay the night we gathered our belongings and headed to our guesthouse for lunch and then an afternoon ‘stroll’ up a
mountain hill. We went with a lovely lady who must have been in her late 50s. She obviously does this every day as she was like a mountain goat up and down the hill whilst we were all struggling with it. Cat Ba had some really cheeky monkeys who were opening peoples bags and helping themselves to whatever they find. Along the way they had discovered how to open bottles and drink from them. That evening we went for dinner with another couple who were also spending a night on the island and had a giggle over some laughing gas which was openly available to consume.
The next day we visited a cave and rejoined the boat for a night on board. This night was filled with lots of drink and karaoke with Ukrainians. The next morning we got up early to watch the sunrise over the bay, or attempt to as it was a fairly cloudy morning. It felt very ethereal on the deck in the middle of the bay while most people were still sleeping their hangovers off.
That morning you could choose to go kayaking in the bay which we did. It’s incredibly calm but terribly polluted with diesel from old boats and lots of plastic rubbish. A real shame to see.
We had a night back in Hanoi before our flight to Bangkok the next afternoon, so we spent the morning buying some traditional Vietnamese coffee. I was ready for some chill time in Thailand before heading back to England.