Country Number 2: Vietnam
Just a short flight from Manila after an eventful last night in my beloved Philippines, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) for my first taste of Vietnam. First things first – the most mental traffic situation I have ever come across in my life. Now I know people will say this about most big Southeast Asian cities and it’s probably true but this place is really something else! Motorbikes and scooters. As far as the eye can see. On the right side of the road. On the wrong side of the road. On the pavements. Travelling in any which way they please with seemingly no regard for pedestrians or anyone else for that matter. And yet when you step out into the road (after 10 minutes of psyching yourself up to do so…) they just seem to glide around you without hesitation and carry on about their journey. And that, I have learnt, is the key. No hesitation. You have to step out like you own that road and that no one or nothing is going to hit you…not even that bus that is travelling towards you at an alarming speed and blaring his horn at you!
My first night in the city I got an Uber bike (yes that’s a real thing!!) across town and was treated to dinner and wine by Dan and his lovely girlfriend on their rooftop terrace with amazing views across the city! Perfect way to start off in a new country! Also pretty ace to catch up with Dan since the last time we saw each other was in the rather less luxurious surroundings of Sierra Leone! I’m staying in a fab little hostel called “Himalaya Phoenix Saigon Hostel” – bang in the backpacker district of Saigon and near to the Ben Thanh Market. The hostel is like a palace compared to a lot of the hostels I stayed in in the Philippines! Aircon as standard, hot showers, nice and clean and space! Space is nice! Also free breakfast – always a winner!! Especially since it includes coffee! I have developed a lifelong love affair with Vietnamese coffee! 🤷🏽♀️ Sue – I take back everything I said before about the condensed milk! I’m converted!
Deciding to be grown up and sensible (…..) on my first day, we ventured to the “War Remnants Museum” since my knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War is limited at best. I was definitely not prepared for what I saw and what I learned. Whilst I’m aware it’s likely a very “one sided” account of what happened, it was still pretty harrowing to read about and see photographic journals from throughout the war and how families are still living with the devestating consequences to this day. Suffice to say I left the museum in tears and needed a very strong drink. We headed to the backpacker district and spent the evening watching the craziness of the world go by with a very bizarre glass of ice cold red wine! 🤔
Day 2: Cu Chi Tunnels. Again, my lack of knowledge of the Vietnam war (and lack of understanding of our tour guide’s English) I was going into this one fairly blind. A fascinating place though – exploring the series of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war as means of getting around but also transporting food and supplies all round the country. The vast network of tunnels were built so small that the US soldiers wouldn’t be able to fit. I mean I’m pretty small and I struggled to fit, and the section of tunnels I crawled through had been made bigger to allow tourists to fit through them. A particularly claustrophobic experience if ever there was one.
After another school day, we headed back to pack up to leave in the morning for Phu Quoc, a small Vietnamese island off the south coast of Cambodia!
After a short flight, we were dropped off to yet another fabulous hostel – Q Hao. A beautiful Chinese inspired building with a rooftop terrace and hot tub – perfect for watching the simply stunning sunsets this little island has to offer. Would totally recommend this hostel to anyone heading to the island. Their private rooms are fab too and we paid about $6 a night!! Yes – this is a hostel!! 😌
Our first night there we found ourselves signed up to one of their twice weekly bar crawls. When will I learn my lesson with these bar crawls? I always get lured in by the free t-shirts and drinks, dammit!! This one turned out to be no better than the last one I had the misfortune of taking part in in Airlie Beach 3 years ago! 🤦🏽♀️ A few drinks in and we’re told to get in “these taxis” to go to the next bar. So we pile in….and our taxi takes us back to the hostel….and charges us 30,000vnd for the pleasure! Marvellous! No more bar crawl for us then! Probably for the best as it turned out the next morning I woke up with a horrific allergic reaction to something. Still no “official” idea what it was but I have my suspicions on that £1.50 litre-bottle of “gin” I bought in the corner shop! 🤦🏽♀️ I shan’t inflict those particular photos on you but suffice to say a trip to the hospital and 2 days in bed with an ice pack and the aircon set to 12 degrees got me back to a ‘just-about functional’ state. Here is us at the bar crawl though before it all went wrong.
Having wasted 2 whole days on this island, the last day we were on a mission! Rent bikes they said. It’ll be fun they said! Well, turns out I can make a smaller U-turn in my car than I’m prepared to do on a motorbike and it’s not “just like riding a bike.” These things are bloody heavy and they hurt when you fall off them. Another thing I can vouch for! 🤦🏽♀️ Without a sat nav or any clue how to get round this island, we set off to try to find “Starfish Beach” on the northern tip of the island. After 40 minutes of riding in the obscenely hot sun we pulled over to check on our progress towards our desired destination. Excellent. We were driving South. Totally the opposite direction of where we wanted to go. Of course. Alas, we changed our plans and continued South this time aiming for Sao Beach. Somehow, God knows how, we made it and spent the afternoon lazing on the beach and swimming in the sea which was approximately the temperature at which one would normally have a bath! Not refreshing in the slightest but beautiful nonetheless.
We had an “interesting” ride home (whereby I fell off) but made it back in one piece just in time to explore the night market on our final night, get some Thai rolled ice cream and find some dinner. Yes, dessert before dinner – I’m on holiday – it’s allowed! 😌 We were heading back to Ho Chi Minh in the morning.
This is where is all started to go wrong, not counting the already unfortunate incident of my skin trying to leave my body! On the way to the airport my favourite hat was either lost or stolen! I’m unsure which as it was on my bag when we left our hostel and gone when we got the airport. I even sent Tiia back to look for it but it would appear either some local or thieving traveller is now wearing my lovely Redskins hat! I hope karma catches up with whoever has it because I cried at the airport when I realised it was gone. Just to make matters worse, this numb nuts then went and left her debit card in the ATM at the airport so had to kiss goodbye to that too! 😑 To console myself, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal and went to the very beautiful “Secret Garden” restaurant, recommended by the hostel manager. Fantastic, home cooked Vietnamese food on the 5th floor roof terrace of an otherwise inconspicuous building. The view was almost like that of sitting near the Empire State Building with the full moon perfectly positioned right next to it. The food was the best we’ve had yet in Vietnam….although there hasn’t been much competition.
Day 5 in Ho Chi Minh and we decided to visit a few more “tourist hotspots” now that we had a bit of extra time here having to wait for my new debit card! 😪 We visited the Reunification Palace, City Hall, The Saigon Central Post Office (essentially a big fancy post office that sells a lot of tourist tat) and the Notre Dame Cathedral. We also had our photo taken with Mr Ho Chi Minh himself….well his statue at least! 😌
We headed back to pack up again for what would be our very ill-fated trip to the Mekong Delta.
Let me start by saying this: NEVER EVER BOOK A TOUR WITH A COMPANY CALLED “AN Travel.” You have been warned. They are based at Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão in Saigon and this is their shop front. Avoid it like the plague!!
We set off early for our 2 day trip down to the Mekong Delta. Our first stop was the Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Tho with its beautifully ornate Pagoda surrounded by gorgeous flowers and 3 buddhas, my favourite of which was fat and smiley! ☺️
Our next stop was a local honey farm which Dad would have absolutely loved! We got hot toddies with calamansi, tasted the honey and ate “bee pollen” which was a new one on me. Not one I care to try again either if I’m honest! Also made a new friend! 🐍
We then took a quick ride in a dugout canoe on what can only be described as the M25 of the Mekong Delta! Turfed out of that and into our next, even more random mode of transport for what was about 200yards – a horse and cart! What else?
We were dropped off to a coconut candy factory – seeing all the steps about how it’s made and getting the all important taste test at the end. Best described as coconut flavoured toffee I suppose but delicious! Our next stop was for lunch on a very bizarre island with crocodiles you could feed, very large snakes in very small cages, fish you could feed out of bottles and various other random and entirely unnecessary stuff! Here we got our first glimpse of our ever so slightly terrifying tour guide when for seemingly no reason at all lost his temper and flipped an entire table full of food in the middle of the restaurant and stormed out whilst screaming goodness only knows what at the poor waitress. #awkward. Against our better judgement we got back in the boat with him to head to our home stay for the night. We unexpectedly boarded another small boat at sunset and took a 40 minute ride down the river to our lovely waterside “home stay” where we had nice big double beds and a lovely home cooked Vietnamese meal. The following morning we got up at 6am for breakfast and our boat ride back to the “Floating Market” in Can Tho. Definitely not what I was expecting but interesting none the less. Whatever you have for sale that day you hang from a bamboo pole at the front of your boat so people from all around can see what you are selling! We paid a quick visit to a rice noodle factory which was entirely uninteresting then got dropped off at a restaurant for lunch. What started off as a few questions regarding whether or not today’s lunch was included in the cost of the tour ended up going south very quickly. Our tour guide lost his shit at being questioned and threatened me with an iron bar that for reasons unknown he was carrying around with him. When someone stepped in to help me (my hero) and removed said iron bar from him he sprinted off into the back of the restaurant – we assumed regretting what he had done and fleeing the situation. We assumed wrong. Back he came this time with another iron bar and a machete he had so helpfully borrowed from the kitchen! So now we were being threatened and chased by a knife wielding maniac. That was definitely not on the tour brochure. Despite our pleas to the locals to call the police, they refused and simply told us to run or hide. Great top tip! 😑 So with everyone traumatised and hiding in shops and restaurants, we eventually watched our tour guide hop on the back of a motorbike and disappear out of town, hopefully never to be seen again. Despite my best efforts, I shall never forget the look in his eyes as he stood on front of me with that knife in his hands. Needless to say, everyone is safe and sound if not a little traumatised by what happened. But it just goes to show that in situations like that, people really do come together and I really do have to thank Ali, my hero of the day for stepping in and saving us all. Our bus driver was not a maniac thankfully so we were driven back to the city for many many “celebrating being alive” drinks.
After all the drama, our final 2 days in Saigon were spent trying to chill out a bit and hoping we didn’t randomly bump into the maniac. We watched a terrible terrible movie called “The Demon Within” and visited the “Jade Emporor Pagoda” which was very beautiful even if I didn’t have any understanding at all about what was going on. We tried but failed to go to the History Museum but it was closed.
Not wanting to spend any more time here, we booked our bus out in the morning, heading north to “Mui Ne.”