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The Adventure's begun ....

ship's log
Wednesday 28 October 2009
still berthed at Danga Bay, Jahor Bahru, Malaysia

this update - August 2009 trip to Vietnam

With some time on our hands and the budget airlines just about giving tickets away, it made sense for us to do some more land based travelling (so no sailing stories in this update !).

Following on from the recent Cambodian trip, we headed off for 2 weeks in Vietnam. The first thing we realized is that 2 weeks is not long enough to see the whole country - Vietnam is over 2,500 km from top to bottom, and quite diverse in culture, weather, scenery and cuisine, so we only travelled in the southern half (roughly). We should mention our policy of not charging around in a rush trying to cover all the tourist spots - we prefer to spend at least a few days in every place, so that we can try and get more of a feel for wherever we happen to be, plus it's a lot more relaxing going slowly and taking the time to smell the roses (although the predominant aroma in Asia is usually not roses!)

We flew into Ho Chi Min City (previously called Saigon and still called Saigon by most locals), the largest city in the south and everyone seems to have a motor bike ! Like most big cities in Asia it's noisy and busy, and yet we felt quite safe (except when trying to cross the road!), mostly I think due to the friendliness of the locals encountered as we wandered the streets. Food vendors and shop owners all greeted us with smiles and we quickly got into the sidewalk cafes, where we sat and enjoyed morning coffee and baguettes (the legacy from once being French ruled) or icy cold beers (depending on time of day) watching the never ending passing parade. This will sound strange, but we enjoyed watching the traffic! See the video_clip_of_a_busy_intersection and see if you can work out who has right of way - we call it "motorcycle ballet". Also look out for the policeman (dressed in green) who's trying to direct traffic - wonder if he get's danger pay!

French architecture is very evident around Saigon, -this is now the communist party HQ (photos not allowed!)
Wide boulevards on the main streets make
exploring on foot very comfortable
Food vendors on the street - fresh, tasty and cheap !
Motor cycles waiting for the green light, Uncle Ho looking on

After a few days in the big city, we booked a tour of the Mekong Delta, and headed south to explore the huge (and I mean really huge!) river system that is the home of over 1.5 million people, and produces rice for the entire country, plus for export. It was fascinating travelling by boat for 2 days along the river and network of canals, seeing how people live and work on and around the water. The local kids loved waving at us as we went past, and showing off with backflips and somersaults into the river. Floating markets were a great photo opportunity.

Typical view of traffic on one of the many canals
linking main arms of the Mekong River
One of the many waterfront towns and villages along the canals
Location, location, location!
Most women boat operators wear bright colours
This lady hopes to sell donuts and fried bananas to passing boats
Who could refuse to buy when you get a smile so big!
Kids on the river bank racing our boat
Taking water melons to market
Looking out for a delivery boat ...
... with a load of cabbage. All the fruit and veggies
looked to be of high quality
Loading the purchases
"Ferry cross the Mekong"
Young girl watches on ...
... and even dogs enjoy the view
This family water taxibusiness rowed us up
a side canal to a restaurant for lunch
Pretty cottage garden , just off the main waterway

Then we caught a bus back to Saigon, and the next day, took up another bus up to Da Lat. The scenery changed dramatically as the road wound inland and up into the mountains, through thick jungle, with frequent road wash-outs. Permanent road crews were re-building bridges over streams, we couldn't help but think of how hard it must have been for soldiers in the Vietnam war (on both sides) to exist in this difficult terrain. It got cooler as we climbed until we eventually crossed the mountain range and into a very green and pleasant valley and Da Lat town. We got a pleasant surprise to find a very cool climate - not unlike Melbourne in spring, ideal for growing fruit and veggies. In fact we were totally unprepared, arriving with only shorts and T shirts - we had to borrow raincoats from the hotel for a walk around town - not for rain, but to keep out the cold wind, and we put on a heater in our room at night. It's been a long time since we've had to do that!

The bus climbs up into the mountains
Da Lat town is built around man-made lakes, making a pretty setting. French influence even extends to the TV/radio tower !
Market stall - great produce, we enjoyed Avocados in a baguette
for a tasty lunch, strawberries to die for, and more.
Note how locals all have warm clothes!
Billboards like these are all over Vietnam - we presume they're communist party messages to the people, but we just liked the colours
Botanical gardens were very lush in the cooler climate
This shop just sold motorbike helmets , making an interesting pic

The beachside town of Nha Trang was our next destination - spectacular beaches and crystal clear water. But it's a major holiday and tourist destination - so wall to wall hotels, restaurants, jetski's, etc. Not quite our thing so we only stayed 1 night, but we did nevertheless have a good (if a little bizzare) experience - we went on a day trip on an small old fishing boat around the local islands, inclusive of lunch and snorkeling stops, all for around US$4/person. So "no big deal" we thought, but turned out we were the only Europeans on the trip, balance of the tourists were mostly all Vietnamese (those who spoke good English were US residents returning to visit families). We were awed by the friendliness of everyone towards us - we were the strangers in a strange land, but everyone made a big effort to make us feel part of the "gang". We enjoyed a pleasant lunch on the boat, and then were surprised by the boat crew who turned into entertainers, setting up as a band for a "sing-along", including an unusual rendition of "Waltzing Matilda" (in English and Vietnamese) in our honour. Next surprise was when one of the crew set up a floating bar (a polystyrene box) from where he dispensed free wine to anyone who cared to jump in and float over to the bar in a life-ring. Needless to say this was a popular idea and we all entered into the fun, and the language difficulties got less and less as we drank many toasts. Along with everyone else, I learnt to yell out something like "Mot, hai, ba, tram!" at which point everybody downed their drink and held out cups for a re-fill (translation "One, two, three, Cheers !" but I've probably got it all wrong!) we finished the day plastered and great mates with everybody. It was one of those memorable experiences where the kindness of strangers was humbling.

Nha Trang - Day trip boat around the islands Boat crews turns into a band
Lunch on the boat We took the "sleeper bus" to get from Nha Trang to Hoi An

Hoi An was next via a night-time sleeper bus, where the conventional seats are replaced by 3 rows of 2 tier bunks. The backrest is inclined slightly, so it's a little like lying on a poolside recliner - you can watch the world outside go by, or doze, unless you're tall like me which means your knees don't quite fit anywhere - still not bad though and we arrived safely in Hoi An, the next morning. Once a port town, it"s now an historical heritage-listed town with a charming pedestrian-friendly centre - strolling around the tidy streets and their well preserved shophouses was enchanting and the most picturesque town we'd seen so far. Hoi An seemed to have a great balance, on the one hand it is very tourist focused, with associated hotels, cafes and souvenir shops, but in contrast, the local people still seem to be able to go about their daily lives (presumably) in a traditional setting. It feels a bit like going back in time.

Young girls on their way to school A quiet street scene in Hoi An
Old man in a canoe
Kids at school
Food vendor works the streets ...
... and veggies come right to your door as well
Chinese lantern shop catches the eye
Old shophouses, now cafes and restaurants

All too soon it was time to move on again, and another bus ride took us to Hue. Located in central Vietnam, once a capital city of emperors, Hue has a walled citadel and moat. Inside, is the Emperor's Palace and the old town, all adding up to a interesting historic city, which was a pleasure to explore. It's also a river city, built up on both sides of the river (named, would you believe "Perfume River"!), so we got really brave and hired a motorbike to explore. We had no problems, and getting the bike proved to be a good way to get around as Hue is quite large, with Pagodas in the outlying areas. Zipping around on the bike was quite refreshing too, as the weather was hot, (damn hot) and walking was pretty exhausting.

Ornate entrance to the Emperors Palace ... ... and another impressive gate
Hue - Moat and entrance gate to the citadel Mosaic detail on a palace building. The old city and place were almost destroyed by bombing during the war, and are still being restored
Pagoda on the river bank Stone tortoise bites tourist!
Another billboard, urging the masses to work harder! (or so we think) Town museum contains lots of war relics
Rickshaw, doubles as a delivery truck Bicycle, doubles as a hardware store

And then .... our 2 weeks was up! And we'd only got halfway up Vietnam, so we"ll definitely have to go back. Apparently, the North (which we didn't get to) is different again. By choice, we deliberately avoided all the war and landmine museums, tunnel tours and so on that are a reminder of the various tragic wars that destroyed many people and cities, but the people seem to be moving on with much spirit. You get the feeling that Vietnam has a big future. Overall we had a wonderful time, and enjoyed the many scenic contrasts, with bustling modern cities, vast river deltas, then splendid mountain passes with green valleys and forests, pristine beaches with clear water, and old towns with history and heritage buildings. It's also very much a communist country, but where the people are now embracing capitalism in a big way. And what lovely, friendly people they are too!

We highly recommend Vietnam for a visit, it's safe and has much to see and do (and the food was great!)

No, not part of a biker gang, just 2 brave tourists about to burn up the road
For the next update, we'll be back on the boat and doing some sailing (if we still remember how!)

So for another month, that's all folks, cheers from Destiny III, keep well and don't forget to send us an email from time to time.

Very best regards
B & G