Socialist Republic of Vietnam
– Land of water buffalo, fish sauce, scooters and palm trees –
After our busy 1-week exploration of Cambodia, We arrived in Vietnam overly ready for a holiday. We arrived to find a country full of flavour, vivid colours, exotic people and compelling culture. So much to do and see with only 2 weeks to squeeze it all into!
Northern Vietnam – Hanoi & Halong Bay
The city of Hanoi has 6.5 million people living in it and is the political capital of Vietnam. Hanoi was previously named after a golden dragon whom was believed to ascend from the Red River in 1010. The architecture is a curious blend of traditional narrow homes, French colonial buildings and ‘modern’ structures. It is a romantic, moody city, which has tranquil lakes, colourful markets and active, hard-working people.
We stayed in the Old Quarter, at the tiny Hoa Lin hotel, which cost us only $27 a night for 2 people incl. breakfast. As we bravely ventured out in the chaotic streets we were instantly anxious and claustrophobic as our systems literally seemed to go into shock in our new, frenzied environment. The streets were a sea of cars and scooters all going in different directions and hooting continuously. The pavements were littered with merchandise overflowing from the tiny stores all selling identical goods and were impossible to walk down as the millions of scooters in the city are forced to park on the pavements out of the road so we constantly did detours around them. Hanoi was a like no other city I had ever experienced. It was a mad city on steroids. We nearly did a somersault when we saw a real American-style coffee shop. We raced over willing to literally pay anything for a simple familiar comfort. As we sat catching our breath a man from New Zealand who was working in Hanoi joined us. We sat for ages getting advice on surviving in Hanoi, learning about the people and their culture and hearing about all his interesting adventures.
Feeling renewed and now a little more at ease in this jungle we continued on our way eager to walk every street in the city. Our city walking tour was complicated ‘slightly’ when we realised my travel partner had left our tour book behind at the airport with all my highlighted notes – I say no more. We soon learned that each road had a different theme like ‘book street’, “shoe street” or ‘black smith street’ so we walked for hours exploring, saying no thanks to excited sales people and trying not to knock over any scooters. Once we got into it there was no stopping us as we explored late into the night. We eventually fell into bed with throbbing but happy feet. It took ages for us to fall asleep though as out minds were over stimulated from the multitude of colours, smells and junk filled shops.
By the next day in the city we were well into the swing of big city life. It was a Friday and so the streets were a buzz. We ate pizza (ok too much local can kill a person), went to the Friday street market and saw the delightful, highly entertaining water puppets show at the local theatre. Imagine being entertained for over an hour for $1. We even ate at a street vendor to my roomie’s disgust but as I predicted we did not die but actually quite enjoyed it.
Extremely excited we were later collected for a 2-day tour. The 4-hour, 170KM road took us to Halong Bay, meaning ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’. To quote Lonely Planet “Majestic and mysterious, inspiring and imperious: words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is Halong Bay.” This is the number 1 highlight of Vietnam and an experience of a lifetime. In 1994 the area was designated a World Heritage Site and on arrival we immediately saw why. Over 3 000 dotted limestone islands with cliffs covered in lush green forests dramatically shoot out of the sea. At closer inspection caves, beaches and grottoes can be spotted.
I had booked us onto the Annam Junk boat, which we shared with 10 other people and several crew. I booked us the extra special room at the back of the boat with a private balcony. The spacious room was beautiful with a ‘space age’ massaging shower and killer view. We quickly made friends with the people on board and became the best of mates with 2 couples from Chicago. One of which recently had their honeymoon in South Africa and loved it so much they are planning to retire here. We were all very sociable and were quick to compare travel notes as we’d by this stage all explored different parts of the East. 6 years later we remain Facebook friends.
As we set sail out into the emerald green bay we were served a 6 course lunch of oversized seafood. We especially loved the giant crabs, which Noah from Chicago (who does not eat seafood) showed us how to devour. As we ventured out deeper into the bay we were all overwhelmed. By now it was completely overcast and even drizzling which made the experience of floating past massive limestone islands and tiny floating fishing villages eerie and surreal. During our time on Halong Bay we tiresomely hiked up a mountain to have 360 degree view of the bay, we explored a cave, ate ice cream in the rain (Danny you’d be proud) and went on a small row boat trip through a cave into what looked like the centre of a volcano. As we looked all around us we were completely engulfed by lush forests. Halong Bay was stunning and out of all our experiences in Vietnam & Cambodia the first place I’d return to is Halong Bay, only next time I’d spend at least a week sailing on a Junk!
Central Vietnam – Hoi An
We stayed at the magnificent 4* Victoria hotel in the quaint town of Hoi An. The homely Victoria hotel was perfect. It was tropical, designer, on the beach, peaceful yet lively and the perfect place to truly relax. We spent 5 glorious nights there and enjoyed soaking up the sun under grass umbrellas, kayaking in the sea, eating plate after plate of ridiculously cheap tiger prawns, taking the odd nap in the giant hammocks in the gardens and having Thai massages on the beach daily to the background sound of gentle waves.
Besides the heavenly hotel, the tiny town of Hoi An, a Unesco World Heritage site, was also most memorable. The town was established as a trading post for Japanese and Chinese merchants in the 15th century, for the trade of ceramics, silk, spices and medicinal herbs. Hoi An is considered Vietnam’s most charming town, with narrow, quiet streets along a sleepy river, filled with old shop houses and busy people. In Hoi An life goes on as it has for centuries. The quaint cobble streets presented us with an array of colours, smells and local trinkets, like sandals, t-shirts, paintings, silk scarves, decorative chop sticks and religious statues. Every street offered at least 12 tailors all very enthusiastic to measure us before we even walked in the door. Not only dirt cheap but exquisitely tailored too. Along the banks of the river were quaint, tiny, local restaurants. Each restaurant had room for no more than 10 people making them warm and personal. The restaurant we chose was not much bigger than a dog kennel and about as tastefully decorated. Yet it’s gently music and comfy chairs under lantern lighting made it a most romantic dinner destination.
We were lucky enough to be in Hoi An on the 14th day of the Lunar month, which is full moon. Soon after dusk the streets are closed off to all vehicles, the streets and stores are decorated with colourful lanterns and everyone gathers at the riverfront for games and song. We found a perfect spot right on the rivers edge and as we sipped on cocktails we saw speckles of light coming towards us as ‘wishes’ gently floated down the river. These ‘wishes’ are small red candles secured in a small square piece of polystyrene stuck to a paper flower shaped boat. The people believe that on this legendary night that if they make a wish and release it into the river it will come true. I found an old lady who took us in her wooden carved canoe up the river. We silently meandered in-between the wishes as they politely floated by us. I made a wish, lit a candle and released it to the river Gods. All around the boat a dim glow could be seen coming from the river and joyful song could be heard from the banks as people celebrated. We eventually retired on a small red bridge built by the Japanese in 1590. As our legs dangled over its edge as wishes passed underneath us. What a magical, almost surreal evening.
The Victoria Hotel went to so much trouble to make Christmas, an occasion not celebrated by themselves, a special time. The entire hotel was tastefully decorated with Christmas decorations and throughout the Hoi An streets Christmas carols could be heard to ring out from all the touristy hotels. On Christmas eve all the guests gathered on the hotel stairs to watch and admire a magnificent show put on for us by the hotel of beautiful local dancers, singers and musicians with weird musical instruments. This was all very sweet except for the ‘dying tiger’ dance done by a young lady. I was sitting right in the front and was sure if she bit me I’d actually get rabies. I did giggle at the other equally horrified guests when I realised they were also shocked as the thought of watching someone painfully die on Christmas eve seemed to lack in appeal. Eventually she died to our relief, although I think this was supposed to be a sad part of the Vietnamese history, we were all only too happy to move onto dinner.
Arriving at dinner was like arriving at a beautiful wedding with everyone excited, chatty and seated according to a guest list. Each couple had an assigned table complete with flowers and a waiter. We could see how they won the war as their precision and attention to detail was exceptional. Imagine serving a few hundred people at the exact same time and not a single table not ever having so much as a dirty fork or empty glass. I battle to get this right when we have more than 2 people over for dinner so we were impressed. The mind boggling buffet dinner was served with so much pride by at least 60 chefs. They served every single dish you would ever be able to imagine and really showed up the likes of Jamie Oliver! After about 17 rounds of dinner we waddled down to the beach to enjoy the bonfire made on the beach – it was so huge I had no doubt they could braai marshmallows from the moon on it.
On Christmas morning we awoke to a beautifully wrapped gift of a lantern from the hotel and then went into the little town to go to the Catholic church. Not knowing what to expect we were amazed to see over 500 people doing all the normal Catholic rituals – just in Vietnamese. We were surprised to see so many people as Vietnam is 95 % Buddhist. The only difference in the service was that men and woman sat on opposite sides of church. After a lovely service, of which we understood absolutely nothing, we returned to our hotel. Here we opened gifts and spent the rest of the day at the spa indulging in a variety of weird and exotic treatments like a honey and sesame seed body wrap, mud wrap in banana leaves, hot stone massage, facial and then a hair wash, trim and blow wave.
Southern Vietnam – Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is a watery landscape of green fields and sleepy villages, everywhere crisscrossed by the brown canals and rivulets fed by the mighty Mekong river. We had been told many contrasting stories about the south and so decided to only spend 1 night in the area. I booked us a private tour where we were collected at the airport, driven 3 hours out of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on the constantly busy roads. Imagine driving from JHB to DBN and having houses complete with kids and dogs running around all the way along the single lane road. No wonder it took us 6x as long to get there as it would have in SA. Traveling through this busy countryside we began to realise how it is possible that Vietnam has 89 million people and is the 13th most populated country in the world. Our slightly dodgy, mosquito infested but more than adequate hotel was on the banks of the Mekong River. In the evening our guide met us and took us out for dinner to a local restaurant overlooking the river. The smell of Nuoc Mam (yuk fish sauce) filled the air and was really something quite special. As the various dishes arrived we politely sifted through them trying to find the least smelly option – often having to tag team the different dishes not to seem rude to our poor guide who was trying ever so hard. The food was not actually bad, just stinky. After dinner we explored the quiet streets and I talked my roomie out of buying a scooter helmet and a plastic remote controlled helicopter. We randomly bumped into our driver and tour guide who invited us to join them. We all sat on plastic chairs on the road side, drank tropical fruit juices like Sapodilla and Soursop and communicated through creative hand signals.
Not so enthusiastically I awoke at 5:30am in order to go and see the floating markets. We attempted to bath before leaving but the water stank so much that we were sure no mosquitoes would come near us for at least a week. The guide met us and took us on a boat trip down the grand Mekong River. The river is so large that it has two daily tides and although the area is primarily rural it is one of the most densely populated regions in Vietnam. It was strange to see the primitive, yet functional homes built often on stilts along the river bank, ladies washing their clothes in the river and men using nets and sticks to fish. When we eventually reached the floating market we noticed that the goods each boat were selling were hung like billboards on sticks high above their boats (turnips seem to be in season). Our guide took us to a workshop where the people made rice paper, coconut sweets, popped rice with black river sand. And various other products made from coconuts. With no machinery making these products was extremely labour intensive. They also sold the famous ‘snake wine’ prevalent throughout Vietnam. This is a bottle with a real cobra / scorpion / bird in it with some potent alcohol which the people actually drink. I bought a small bottle with a cobra back to SA for my mate Si. All a great idea till reading the SA customs form on the plane home – oops! We did not spend too much time in the South and I think that was just perfect. I think we would have missed out on a large part of their culture by not going there but equally might have been put off the entire country had we stayed too much longer.
Vietnam Island – Phu Quoc
The final leg of our eventful trip took us to a mountainous and forested Phu Quoc island just off the coast, between Vietnam & Cambodia. Our Lonely Planet tour book describe it as the future Phuket as it has magnificent white sandy beaches, quaint fishing villages, accommodation ranging from 5* to beach hut and vast coral reefs.
We stayed in a lovely bungalow right near the beach. To make the most of our time on the island we hired a scooter for $10 a day and headed off on the beach side roads to explore. ‘Adventure Shez’ could be seen racing all over the island on my pink little scooter. We found several disserted beaches to swim and lovely beach side places to eat prawns. We also spent a day on a cruise, which took us out to a few of the coral reefs to snorkel. Very beautiful and I am pretty certain I found Nemo.
For New Year’s Eve our resort threw a BBQ beach party under fairy lights on the beach. Both tourists and locals gathered on the beach and all along the beach we could see various festivities with bonfires and dinners taking place. I went huge and ordered at least 12 dishes of crab (my new favorite meal), prawns, scallops, seafood pancakes etc. The music and atmosphere was relaxed and every now and then we’d get up to dance in the sea with the tiny waves tapping at our ankles. As 12pm approached we got Dong the barman to re-play the countdown he’d seen at the beginning of one of the DVD’s they were playing. So more or less on time the count down rang out and the few people left on the beach by this time all shouted out. I ran into the sea and shook open our bottle of ‘high quality’ flat Vietnamese champagne as we did the count down. The funniest thing then happened; the locals saw the tourist were happy doing the countdown & singing the ‘happy new year’ song so they kept hitting repeat. Naturally we were all still in high spirits and were jumping around kissing and dancing with complete strangers and so we enthusiastically did the count down for the second, the third, and then the fourth time! By the 12th time we were laughing so hard at this real cultural misunderstanding that we headed for bed. What a fun evening!
On our last evening in Phu Quoc I arranges with Dong the bar manager, now our new best friend (we even wrote him a reference letter) to put a table not on the beach but in the actual sea for us to celebrate the end to an amazing trip. He thought this was a bit odd but was much obliging. We sat and ate seafood at out wooden, candle lit table with the ocean tapping at our ankles. What a perfect end to a perfect holiday.
I loved Vietnam. It is a rich country full of colour and contrast. The people were friendly, food was amazing and the unusual sites made the trip extremely worthwhile. Vietnam is recovering well from the war and is surviving just fine on its own without capitalist countries interfering just yet – but I am sure that’s only a matter of time. We found the streets most chaotic. The cars and scooters seemed almost equal in quantity. 5 people driving scooters apparently die a day in Saigon. The theory is that as long as you do not hit anyone or anything you have the right of way. Traffic signs are merely guidelines and there is seldom road rage. Showing anger or raising ones voice is seen as loosing face in their culture, which is seen as completely unacceptable. So if someone has an accident on the road they literally just stare at each other and do not exchange a single word. I think I would definitely be jailed in this country!
The government and police force play a large, powerful role in Vietnam and both rule with an iron fist. While we were there they passed a law that everyone riding on a scooter had to wear a helmet from 15 December 2008. On 14 December about 10% of the population wore helmets on the roads but on 15 December 99.9% of the scooter drivers we saw were wearing helmets without any fuss!
They do not have much dairy and so coffee and tea are both served with condensed milk. I have never seen so few Coke ads in a country and not seeing a McDonalds or any other fast food retailer in the 3 weeks we were away was weird but refreshing. There was no warning on cigarettes and people were allowed to smoke in public. Johnny Walker Black & Red are sold on every street corner and I am quite sure they have a better market share thank coke judging by its availability.
Lost: 1 x tour book / 1 x pair of sunglasses / 2 x Vietnamese Christmas hats
Illness: None – who would have thought!
Favorite places/Events: Hoi An during full moon / Overnight Junk trip in Halong Bay / Snorkeling & dinner on the beach in Phu Quoc.
Near death experiences: 6
Currency: 16 000 Dong to $1 in 2008. 21 200 to $1 in 2014.