17 05 2010

Well, the train was late and everyone was waiting on the platform in the dark for the train to come. On the upside, it meant we arrived in Saigon at 5am, not 4am. After finding a suitable room and bananas for 10,000/kg we caught up on sleep.

Lunch was across the road from the hotel at Zen vegetarian. Lara didn’t like it so much although it was full so obviously popular. The meal sizes seemed a little small and boring (no garnishes or salads) for the price, although we still both ate for under $7. We had garlic fries (surely 5 cloves of garlic over a small bowl of chips), wheat tofu in coconut sauce, green cabbage stirfry with tofu and mushroom, mango juice and tamarind juice.

Back to the hotel to rest from the heat and sunburn, out for dinner at Ngoc Tho, one street away. We had fresh coconut juice in the shell, guava juice, fresh spring rolls, sweet and sour tofu and cashew nuts and cauliflower.

The hotel, while cheap, had some construction work happening near by so the power and water was turned off intermittently. For the sake of Benno’s sunburn we decided to change hotels. However, before we even spent one night, at around 10pm Benno decided that his sun burn was bad and he needed a doctor. So we went to the hospital where he was checked out and given painkillers and a cream and dismissed around 11.30pm.

Next day, another day off. Moved hotels to one with stronger wifi and air con. Lunch at Sen Com Chay a couple of streets away. Had fried tofu with fragrant knotweed, coconut juice, fried spring rolls and vegie meat with sweet and sour.

Dinner was at Dinh Y, a family run place by some markets. The crockery was green plastic picnic wear and we had strawberry juice, sapote juice, fried eggplant fritters, vermicelli with fried spring rolls, and fried rice with veg. Then we went to the supermarket for breakfast foods and snacks. In between meals we watched lots of TV- the Biggest Loser, Gardening Australia, P.S. I love you, and a doco on leopards and baboons.


Cu Chi and Coconut Candy

17 05 2010

May 16

Took a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels 90 minutes outside of Saigon with Sinh cafe, who had been recommended, but were perhaps a little too popular given that the bus had 45 people. The tourist scene seems to be changing- the bus was full of Asian tourists who took silly photos of themselves in front of everything, not western backpackers. This trend we noticed in Cambodia as well, where the tourists that were most plentiful and spending the most money  were the Asian travelers.

We past a giant jackfruit tree to a secret hidden tunnel entrance that was covered in leaf litter and very small. We saw booby trap tunnels, swinging door traps, fighting trenches, fake termite mounds with air holes, tunnels that stretched all the way to the river, weapon workshops , uniform and tyre sandal workshops.

Next to the rifle shooting range we watched rice paper being made by hand over a fire steamer.

We got to crawl through a tunnel that had thankfully been enlarged slightly and had lights installed- even so it was dark and cramped and hard to know where to go. Then we watched a DVD on the tunnels that was really bad quality, stopped several times and eventually they turned it off half way through and said it was over.

We returned to Saigon after a shopping stop at a handicapped handicrafts centre, had a 15min lunch break of bananas, take away spring rolls and mango shakes and got on another bus for a half-day Saigon tour.

We visited the War Remnants Museum, which was very interesting if not very sad at the destruction the American war (Vietnam war) caused to the people and land of Viet Nam. Some of the cruelty inflicted was truly barbaric, and brings to mind more recent American army acts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s amazing that even now there is no recognition or compensation of victims of the chemical warfare (Agent Orange, mostly).

After that we toured the opulent Independence Palace and explored the basement War Command Centre rooms with ancient radio equipment.

From there we went to the French-styled Post Office building and Notre Dame Cathedral which was packed with the Sunday mass goers.

Dinner was at Punjabi Indian, then we wandered the Ben Than night markets.

On our last day in Saigon we took a Mekong Delta tour. The Mekong is 4500km long and is the third longest river in Asia after the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China. The Mekong is fed by melt waters in Tibet.

Our first stop was My Tho, where we got onto the boat. We were about 50km from the South China Sea. We went past fishing boats to a rice paper shop where we watched rice paper being made again. This one was different as they made coconut milk, rice and sugar paper then cooked it to make a sweet and crunchy snack.

From there we went to Ben Tre village, saw bee farms and items made from coconut. Then we took a horse carriage where the driver said he made 20000 dong a day since we were his only ride that day. We listened to awful traditional music and ate tropical fruits until it was time to take a row boat to the coconut candy workshop. Yum! It tasted so much better fresh.

Dinner was at Ngoc Tho where we ate crispy rice noodles and tacos with black beans and tofu.

Nha Trang

13 05 2010

We survived the sleeper bus from Hoi An to Nha Trang – the pop music was playing all night, there were several stops, the beds were semi-reclined and very narrow (3 beds across  in a normal sized bus), but we got into Nha Trang at 6am.  It was a little confusing as the bus stopped about 3 times in different places in Nha Trang before stopping near the beach where us tourists were allowed to get out – it was a little nervous watching all the locals get out and leave and wonder why we weren’t allowed to get off at our destination.

We ignored the hotel touts and made our way to Sakura Hotel – a little piece of Japan in Vietnam, but only the name.

After a little rest we went for a walk along the beach. Being mid morning most people were still in bed so it was quiet. The beach was lovely – little beach huts along the shore, white sands and blue waters… but the amount of rubbish made it gross. There were bits of food, corn cobs, rubbish bags, plastic bags, bottles, polystyrene and poo in the water and along the shore. Somebody isn’t looking after their tourist beach very well…

We went and booked a snorkeling tour for tomorrow and found a vegetarian (com chay) little diner next store. Again, for 10,000 dong we had a plate of rice with about 5 different options. After that we disappeared inside to escape the heat, venturing out again in the evening to go to the supermarket and to dinner at another vegetarian restaurant for a rice plate and pho. Unfortunately there was a fly in my pho soup so I didn’t feel so hungry after that. While we have been eating very cheaply, most of the family run vegetarian restaurants serve basically the same thing – choice of noodle soup or rice and veg/mock meats.

The next day we were picked up at 8.30am to go out snorkeling all day. The tour was more expensive than the $4 party boat/island hopping with 40 other people tours but we felt that the extra $10 for a vegetarian lunch and small group was well spent. We had 7 people on our boat and went to 3 different locations for snorkeling, about an hour at each site. We saw lots of colourful coral- yellow, blue, purple, pink- and fish everywhere- star fish, bright yellow fish, zebra striped fish, parrot fish chomping on the coral, long fish standing up straight and more. Lunch was good- 3 dishes we could eat plus heaps of fresh fruit (mango, guava, watermelon, pineapple and banana).  Our guide loved to jump off the top of the boat into the water and would say “why not?” “don’t be lazy” to push others into doing the same. The only bad thing about the all day trip was that it was deceptively cool in the water and we all got a bit sun burnt.

We tried something different for dinner – an Indian restaurant around the corner as we were feeling a little bit sick of the “same same but different” com chay. We had aloo gobi and chana masala with lemon juice (like nimbu pani). One bad thing about more international restaurants was that, apart from being more expensive, hawkers come into the shop trying to sell their cigarettes/books/souvenirs etc. You don’t get that eating at the local family run places.

As a result of the sun burn, Benno spent the next day in bed with repeated aloe vera applications, feeling sorry for his sun burn. Lara went out and found more aloe cream, take away vegetarian for lunch and organised our train tickets overnight while Benno stayed indoors.

We took a sleeper train from Nha Trang to Saigon, leaving about 9 or 10 pm and taking 7 hours to get to Saigon, arriving about 4am.

Hoi An

8 05 2010

Took a bus from Hue to Hoi An. It was air conditioned, but very poorly so it was still incredibly hot. We arrived around 12pm (left Hue around 8am) and didn’t want to stay at the hotel it dumped us at so we wandered around in the heat trying to find another place. Finally we found the hotel we were looking for – with a swimming pool and rooms for $15 a night. We had lunch (after watching You’ve Got Mail on TV) at a small veg place down the road. There was a tiny tiny ginger kitten at the shop that was so cute. We ate a bowl of noodles for about $1 each before returning to the hotel for a swim and rest in the air con.

We went out to dinner at a vegan restaurant that was wanting to become a Loving Hut store. We had our cheapest meal yet – noodle soup or rice with tofu and veg for about 60 cents a dish (10000 dong). They had homemade soymilk made by the mum that was so tasty we asked to buy a bottle to take with us. They poured it into an empty water bottle- hygiene and food handling safety mean something different here.

The next morning we went out early to the markets where we stocked up on water, pineapple, bananas, thongs and a Tintin t-shirt for Benno along with a conical hat for shade. 6 bananas or a whole pineapple cost 60 cents (10000 dong) which is pretty cheap. We booked an early morning (5am) tour to My Son for tomorrow and returned for a mid-morning swim at 10am.

We were very happy to have booked the early morning tour – even at 5am when the sun came up it was hot. We tried to sneak out of the hotel,  but woke up the workers sleeping on the floor in front of the door under mosquito nets. The van took about an hour to get to My Son, then we had lots of time to wander around the ruins of the Cham people. It was about 8am by this time, and getting pretty sweaty. I’m glad we didn’t go for the later tour that left Hoi An at 8am because there was little shelter around the ruined temples and it would have been mighty hot. We arrived back at the hotel around 9am, slept a bit more, checked out, collected some tailored clothes, had lunch, collected some other clothes, went swimming, posted the new clothes home, had dinner and waited for our sleeper bus to Nha Trang. The bus was meant to come pick us up between 5.30 and 6 pm but we were kept waiting until about 7pm – probably good because it meant less time on the bus. The Vietnamese pop music didn’t cease the entire journey.


7 05 2010

We arrived im Hue around 10am. We came out of the station and were surrounded by taxi drivers shouting their “hello taxi” at us. We walked out and thought we would pick up a less hassling taxi on the main road, but ended up walking the whole distance to our hotel (it wasn’t that far). We got a good deal on a room, $12 a night, then had a cold shower before heading out to lunch. 2 of the restaurants on Happy Cow didn’t exist, but we found one, Tinh Tam, that was open and in existance. Only problem was, their fans weren’t working and it was terribly hot. We had sweet and sour “beef” and lemongrass “chicken”  which was very tasty, but we had sweat pouring down our legs so we retired back to the hotel. Once the heat of the day was over around 4pm we ventured out again and visited the Citadel. The ruins and overgrown gardens of the Forbidden Purple City didn’t look tourist-safe but it was interesting enough. We stopped off at the supermarket and tried some coconut candy before having dinner at Bo De on Le Loi street (every city seems to have a Le Loi street). We had Pho, rice cracker, jack fruit stir fry for about 80000 dong ($5 total) and then went back to the hotel to avoid the insects and mugginess of the evening.

The next day we went on a Perfume River cruise. We were picked up by motorcycle and taken to the river. We had no idea what boat we were meant to get on, but settled for the dragon boat with foreigners already on board. We visited a fishing village, Thien Mu Pagoda, Minh Mang tomb, a Kung Fu show, Tu Dac Tomb and a Conical Hat and incense making shop. The guide told us the weather was forecast as 41 degrees so we didn’t go to every temple on the agenda but rested in the shade. We were sweating off all of our lunch on board the boat and really needed a cold shower when we returned to the hotel.

We had dinner at a popular local place called Lein Hoa. There were lots of locals and monks eating noodles and hotpot but we went for the interestingly named “twelve predestined affinity”. Dinner was a bargain at 60000 dong ($4) total.

Halong Bay

6 05 2010

The tour office had free pineapple and watermelon in the foyer before we took a bus for 4 hours to Halong Bay. Then we hopped on a junk, checked into our cabins, had lunch on the boat and sailed away into the bay.

We went kayaking through some little caves/tunnels (avoiding some of the rubbish floating in the sea) and had a swim in the cool water before the boat set off again for the site where we would spend the night. We had dinner, which was presented beautifully- an edible flower arrangement made out of carrot, cucumbet, chili and garlic.

Breakfast the next morning was poor, then the junk went on to the Amazing Cave, which was not so amazing. The rocks had shapes that could be imagined as buddha, the virgin mary, dinosaurs, mushrooms, turtles, a “gun” and more. After that the boat cruised back to Halong Bay where we had a disappointing lunch at a restaurant then took the 4 hour bus back to Hanoi.

We had dinner at the nearby Tamarind (again, again) before taking a taxi to the train station and getting on our sleeper train to Hue.

Pushing on

3 05 2010

We decided to stay with our travel plans but to have a few rest days. Apart from doing washing, going for lunch and going for dinner we did nothing for a day. We watched the Australian channel on the cable tv and felt a bit homesick – in the evening we watched Lantana which was interesting as we had seen it in a play format a year ago.

We caught a cyclo the next morning to a supermarket to stock up on toiletries and breakfast cereals. Then we moved hotels to one closer to the tour offices as we had booked a Halong Bay cruise that left early the next morning.

We had lunch at a small place down an alley in a district about 2km west of the city. The hotel called a reliable taxi company for us (Hanoi TourisTaxi) as even the receptionist was wary of taxis with dodgy meters, scenic route drives or drivers that refused to use a meter.

After lunch we walked to the temple of literature and saw lots of turtle statues. Then we waited out on the street for another taxi of the same brand before having dinner at Tamarind (again).