Brendon Kearns

photoweblog

Tag: Vietnam

Saigon and Farewell to Vietnam

Our final stop in Vietnam was Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City. After being officially welcomed to the city by a cab driver who wanted to rip us off for an extra $15, we settled into our room at the Suite Backpackers Inn on the main tourist drag in District 1.

View from our hotel room

Saigon is so hot that everyone seems to spend most of their time outside in the street trying to catch a breeze. Shopkeepers hang out in front of their stores, chatting and fanning their faces. Men take off their shirts and allow their bellies to flop freely, while women wear cotton pajamas, often with face masks and gloves to combat the sun and keep their skin pale. Old people lie in hammocks, gently rocking.

Everyone talks about how crazy the traffic is, but we found it no worse than Hanoi. The drivers seemed less murderous and more laid back – perhaps it was the heat. There are also loads of little alleyways filled with shops, bars and restaurants, which provide a good escape from the full onslaught of rush hour traffic. We spent an afternoon in the dimly lit Boston Sports Bar while an extremely high American guy in sunglasses played Tupac videos and shouted enthusiastically to no one in particular. Just like the real thing.

Saigon is way more vegetarian-friendly than Hanoi, and we easily found a restaurant – Quán Chay Yêu Thương – within a few blocks of our hotel. Hidden away at the end of an alleyway off Lê Loi, the restaurant seems more catered to vegetarians as we know them in the west, rather than people observing Buddhist holidays and skipping meat for a night or two. They serve alcohol, which is unusual in Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants as it’s generally assumed you don’t eat meat for religious reasons and therefore don’t drink either. But for those who love animals and ice cold beer this place is worth checking out.

Mushroom seaweed rolls – everything’s better deep-fried

We walked home through the park and watched a huge group of women energetically dancing in sync, following their teacher, while a techno beat thumped out of massive speakers.

The next day we decided to check out Saigon Zoo. Little did we know that we would be the most exotic attraction. As we walked in we noticed heads turning, fingers pointing, and young children staring. ‘Tây!’ they exclaimed, looking at us in bewilderment. A group of teenagers rushed up to us, giggling excitedly. ‘Take picture?’, a girl asked Brendon. Puzzled, he offered to take a picture of the group. ‘No, take picture with us!’ they laughed, pulling us in. We got about four more of these requests throughout the day. I guess Brendon is pretty funny looking.

Bored zebras

Tâys’ day out

We checked out a pagoda and then spent the rest of the day looking for a few of ‘Saigon’s hidden coffee shops’ that were indeed extremely well-hidden – we didn’t find any of them. Instead we comforted ourselves with margaritas and bad nachos from a Mexican restaurant in the tourist stretch. After about four drinks our waiter came over and asked if we could correct his English – he was practicing his responses for a job interview the following day. We spent the next two hours delivering drunken career advice, explaining how sales commissions work and offering grammatical suggestions while he shirked the rest of his tables to hang out with us, joke around and listen to our ‘wisdom’. Eventually his manager told him he would be fired if he didn’t stop slacking off, but by this stage we were all sure he’d be a shoo-in for the job. Hope he’s out there selling furniture right now!

Maybe we’d adjusted after visiting Hanoi, or maybe it was because everyone had said that if we hated Hanoi we’d really hate Saigon, but we ended up kinda liking it. Perhaps it’s not as ‘pretty’, and there are less sites of historical interest, but the weather is nicer, the people are cooler, there’s better food and it’s generally easier to get around. We were only there for two nights but it has a certain charm that we didn’t find in Hanoi in two weeks.

All up we spent two months in Vietnam. We went from hating it to trying to accept it, to liking it, to hating it again, to loving it – sometimes all in the space of a day. At times it reminded us of the worst aspects of the US – the people could be loud and hard-headed and you constantly had to be on your guard to avoid being played for a sucker. We won’t miss the hawkers, the hustlers, the honking, the dog meat, the taxi drivers or the pointing and laughing. But we will definitely miss the food, the women cooking up amazing things in alleyways, the Vietnamese hipsters munching sunflower seeds, the sweet milk coffee for 70c, the girl from Muse Cafe who gave us friendship bracelets for being regulars, the cross-stitch obsession, the folk tales about awesome sword-wielding turtles, the super-kitschy names like ‘Miss Longlife’ and ‘City of Eternal Spring’, and everyone who helped us navigate the linguistic and cultural divide.

 

Dà Lật Days

From Nha Trang we moved onto Dà Lật – a former French colonial resort town that was spared bombing during the war. It's since become a holiday destination geared primarily at Vietnamese on vacation or honeymoon. Due to its temperate climate it's known locally as the 'city of eternal spring' and is the source of most of Vietnam's flowers, wine and produce.

Our arrival coincided with the start of the rainy season- the bus pulled in late in the afternoon after a four hour ride through heavy fog and drizzle atop the surrounding mountains. We spent the ride passing by motorbike drivers in wind-blown ponchos who, with legs tucked up out of view and the visors on their helmets dropped, looked like something out of Star Wars as they glided along the mountainside.

“Normal room, normal price”

We settled into a local guesthouse situated at the bottom of a hill called Chu's House for $10 a night- we liked it so much we remained there the entirety of our stay. The staff were friendly, cleaned the room each day, and poured double sized glasses of wine at night for 25,000₫ (~$1.25) each.

The only downside was that they, like most places in Vietnam, had one soundtrack they would put on repeat for foreigners. A lot of our time was spent drinking wine while listening to covers of Simon and Garfunkel's “The Sound of Silence”, The Carpenters' “Sha La La La” or, for some reason, The Cascades' “The Rythm of The Rain” – a song neither of us had ever heard before coming to Vietnam but which followed us from Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh.

At times we wondered if a salesman had come through each town and sold every business the same “Soundtrack for Tâys” to be popped on ten minutes after noticing tâys in your establishment. After a couple failed attempts at explaining that we were okay with Vietnamese music, we gave in to “Fields of Gold” or whatever mellow cheese was enqueued and tried to appreciate the intent behind the beaming smiles and knowing nods that seem to say “Hey- we know tâys, check out this sweet compilation we got just for the occasion.”

Chu's House was also close to a vegan resturant called Hoa Sen- due to the Buddhist influence, the Vietnamese eat vegan meals on certain days of the lunar cycle and Đà Lật was full of vegan resturants.

A feast's worth of food at Hoa Sen for ~200,000₫ (~$10) – eggplant fritters with tamarind sauce, lotus rice, pyramid dumplings (already eaten), fermented bean curd with braised veges and soy pieces with lemongrass and chili

A clean and herby breakfast of Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang noodle soup at Hoa Sen for 30,000₫ (~$1.50)

First eggs over easy we had seen in Southeast Asia

Aside from Hoa Sen, we became regulars at Góc Hà Thành which had the best western breakfast we've found in Southeast Asia. It's on the main backpacker strip and owned by a husband and wife who work the kitchen, wait the tables, juggle their young kids and chat with customers. The street has a strong community vibe as the husband often hangs out smoking cigarettes with the shopkeepers next door. Kids from up and down the street play on the sidewalk or loiter around different shops for amusement.

One of the best parts about the backpacker area of Đà Lật was its sparseness. There wasn't much to it except for a road that meandered up a hill. The traffic was by far slower than we were accustomed to elsewhere in Vietnam although no less dangerous- over breakfast one morning we watched a light rain lead to three guys laying their bikes down around a sharp corner and one lady driving head on into the side of a parked van.

Impatience leads to burned fingers

Apart from resturants, there were some good cafés and Vietnamese coffee to be had at about 15,000₫ (~75 cents) a cup. We liked Góc Hà Thành, Muse, and Bicycle Up Cafe best but the local chain Windmills was a good alternative for a more western style latte or an Irish coffee.

Bowls of shellfish for steaming or grilling

Like everywhere in Vietnam, Đà Lật had copious amounts of street food vendors. We happened upon the Lễ Hội Văn Hóa Miền Đông Đà Lật (Festival of Eastern Cultures) where they had closed off the center of town at night and set up market stalls and food stands along the streets with a few stages for entertainment.

Rice paper grilled over coals with quail egg, tiny shrimp, sesame seeds, green onions, and chopped chillies.

Aside from the Bánh Tráng above, we didn't try much of the street food as most contained meat and we were excited to be back in an area where it was practical to be a vegetarian. If you are in Đà Lật and looking to try what the street side can offer, we found vietnamcoracle.com had the best run down of the area.

You can put your Soilent Green fears aside

The Bành Tráng lady we visited was set up in an alleyway across from a bakery named Liên Hoa that had a wide range of baked goods, we returned a couple times for the coconut cakes at 5,000₫ (~25 cents) each.

During the day time the central market is open and sells fruit, produce, and flowers in the bottom while tailors and clothing vendors populate the upper portion.

Elsewhere in town we visited Đinh 3 (a.k.a. Palace 3)- the third residency of the former King Bảo Đại who was ousted during the Vietnam War. The decor had a sleek World War II era vibe but the form of the structure itself reminded me of the YMCA that I took karate classes in as a kid.

Seeing this kind of architecture out here was surreal as most traces of the French occupation are no longer that obvious. I recalled a scene from The Quiet American where Fowler, the aging British journalist, bets Pyle, the naïve young American, that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London but there will still be rice paddy fields, produce being carried to market on long poles, pointed hats, and boys riding water buffaloes. It indeed felt like the tide of day to day Vietnamese life left only a few uneroded oddities remaining.

From the Palace we were able to walk to Nhật Liên, an upscale vegetarian restaurant, and on to another attraction known as “Crazy House”. It was nice to have things close enough together that we could cover distances on foot instead of hailing cabs although we seemed to be the only tourists walking to destinations this far out of the city center.

One of the half finished towers at Crazy House

Still crazy after all these years

Russian girl vogueing atop Crazy House

Crazy House turned out to be an elaborate structure of concrete and rebar painted to look like a big tree house out of a 70's cartoon. It's still under construction after twenty some odd years of opening even though the proprietor is now elderly and rarely makes appearences. Like a lot of things in Đà Lật, it was set for maximum kitsch factor but ultimately felt like a narcissistic display of wealth as it failed to hold any religious or administrative purpose in the community.

Further out of town we visited Linh Phước Pagoda – it contains a massive Quan Âm (akin to The Virgin Mary), a multileveled tower of increasingly celestial Buddhas and a main pagoda that contains a shrine area dedicated to its founder.

Interior of the tower

The elaborate designs on the buildings are constructed from fragments of broken pottery. At the base of the main tower is a large bell on which people stick pieces of paper with handwritten wishes before sending a hanging wooden ram into the side. The operation was overseen by an old nun who, during our descent from the tower, motioned that she wanted to lock us in during her lunch break. We were under the impression that monks aren't supposed to have physical contact with the opposite sex, but she had no problem poking and prodding me in the gut for a few laughs.

Pigsy

Katie liked the statues of characters from the TV show Monkey Magic that had been hidden away in the parking lot behind the main pagoda.

In contrast, we later visited Thiền Viện Trúc Lâm which was a much more somber complex housing a sect of Zen monks.

Bodhidharma with his iconic beard, bug eyes and shoe on a stick

We found this temple interesting for its Bodhidharma-centric imagery and well groomed grounds. If Linh Phước was visually akin to a Catholic cathedral then Trúc Lâm was more a Puritian chapel with its plain and simple style. Likewise, the monks appeared much more serious as they stood and stared silently within temples, tapping the side of a small metal bowl to release a reverb upon each person's entry.

The ride out to the temple can be done via taxi or cool gondola ride that carries you over the pine forests and provides a view of the surrounding greenhouses.

View from the gondola

Back in town, we took a walk one day around Lake Hố Xuân Hương and out to Đà Lật Flower Park.

The park is full of flower beds and dotted with gazebos, swing sets, benches, and statues of characters from western fairy tales and Vietnamese folk stories. Up on a hill to one side of the park are rows of greenhouses selling shrubs, flowers and small trees- adjacent are hedges trimmed into animals around pieces of modern art.

In the end, we were in Đà Lật for sixteen days total but only saw a subset of everything there is to do in the area. We never took up one of the numerous Easy Rider guys who constantly called to us, but in a way that was the best part – for the first time in Vietnam they were the only guys around shouting at us. And they were actually cool guys who offered a real service – for a small fee they'll ride you all through the mountains, over to outlying villages, lakes, vistas – whatever you want on the back of a chopper.

Dollar for dollar Đà Lật was the best place we've been and we'd recommend it to anyone looking for a cheap place to retreat for awhile.

How cheap is cheap? To make things more concrete, I tracked some daily costs as follows:

 

Typical Tourist Day

Breakfast: 80,000₫ @ Bicycle Cafe – Two Viet style coffees with condensed milk (cà phê sữa nóng), one weird juice drink we thought was a breakfast item, and a tomato and cheese omelette with a baguette

Taxi to Tourist Attraction #1 “Crazy House”: 40,000₫ with tip

Entrance Fee to “Crazy House”: 80,000₫ (40,000₫ each)

Lunch: 153,000₫ @ Nhật Liên – Braised Malaysian style spicy tofu, sautéed spinach with mushrooms, spring rolls, free tea, a bottle of water, and steamed white rice

Entrance Fee at Tourist Attraction #2 “Palace 3”: 30,000₫ (15,000₫ each)

Taxi to Lake Hố Xuân Hương: 35,000₫ with tip

Drinks: 70,000₫ @ Nhà Hàng Thủy Tạ – Two glasses of local wine by the side of the lake

Afternoon Coffee: 64,000₫ @ Windmills Cafe – Two Western style lattes

Dinner: 220,000₫ with tip @ Bingo Pizza – One large vegetarian pizza with jalapeños added, two cokes and a soda water

Bottled Water: 10,000₫ @ convenience store – 1.5 liters of local mineral water for back at the room

Accommodation: 210,000₫ @ Chu's House – Basic room with double bed, private bathroom with hot water, and a window with low street noise

Total: 992,000₫ = ~$47 USD (~$50 AUD)

 

That comes out to about $23.50 USD (~$25 AUD) per person for a pretty packed day of checking out tourist attractions and eating a couple big meals.

But that's not everyday, since we often like to alternate between chilling out and venturing out, so if you were to take away the cab fares and entrance fees the new total would be 807,000₫ or ~$38 USD (~$40.75 AUD) which equates to roughly $19 USD (~$20 AUD) per person.

If you really wanted to take it one further and cut out luxuries like the coffee and alcohol it would drop down to 643,000₫ or ~$30 USD (~$32.50 AUD) which equates to roughly $15 USD (~$16 AUD) per person.

This is in keeping with another day I recorded:

Simple Long Term Traveller Day:

Brunch: 138,000₫ with tip @ Góc Hà Thành – Two Viet style coffees with condensed milk (cà phê sữa nóng), two omelets with French toast and fruit

Afternoon Coffee: 64,000₫ @ Windmills – Two western style lattes

Dinner: 201,000₫ @ Hoa Sen – Two pyramid cakes, a plate of fried eggplant, lotus fried rice, fermented soybeans with braised vegetables and lemon grass chill fried gluten pieces with a plate of fresh herbs

Bottled Water: 10,000₫ @ convenience store – 1.5 liters of local mineral water for back at the room

Accommodation: 210,000₫ @ Chu's House – Basic room with double bed, private bathroom with hot water, and a window with low street noise

Total: 623,000₫ = ~$29.50 USD (~$31.50 AUD)

 

If you then wanted to go even further, you could eat twice a day while regulating yourself to street food and local eateries (putting your meals in the 40,000-60,000₫ range), skip the tourist attractions, haggle your way into a room for 170,000₫ a night and live on roughly 300,000₫ per day; divide that by two and you're looking at about $7 or $8 per person.

Keep in mind that this is for two people sharing accommodation costs- it might run you a few bucks more a day if you're on your own depending on if you want a separate room or are just going for dorm beds at hostels.

There were days where we'd wake up late, get a bowl of pho for lunch, eat at the markets for dinner, maybe get a coffee in between and wouldn't spend much more than $20 all day with nothing to do but read, take a walk through some temples, snap a few photos, do a little bit of life planning or listen to a podcast while playing cards. Not exactly nonstop travel adventure- but for two people in their early 30's, it's nice to have a break and regroup before jumping back into workaday life.

 

 

Đà Nẵng, Hội An and Nha Trang

We took the next stretch of the Reunification Express from Đồng Hới to Đà Nẵng. We're getting more comfortable with doing our own dirty work, so on boarding we motioned to the guy chilling in our seats to hop up.


Đồng Hới station early in the morning

This was by far the prettiest train trip we've done in Vietnam. The track goes along the coast so you get a passing view of fishing villages and deserted beaches edged with trees. You can buy pretty decent food on the journey too – we picked up some tofu in tomato sauce and a giant disc of addictive local peanut brittle stuck on top of a rice cracker (called kẹo đậu phộng), put in our earphones to drown out the pop music on the overhead TV, played peek-a-boo with the little boy in the seat in front of us, and enjoyed the ride.

Đà Nẵng is Vietnam's third-largest city and, like most of Vietnam, is under major development – skyscrapers and apartments are flying up all over town, and the coastline is filling with resorts. It's also the gateway to Hội An, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Vietnam's tailoring Mecca.

Enjoy Hội An

We'd heard a lot about Hội An's chilled out riverside atmosphere and its famous lanterns so we headed straight there instead of hanging around Đà Nẵng, despite our taxi driver's attempts to take us to a stone carving village, a pagoda, his sister's jewellery shop and the ruins at Mỹ Sơn before dropping us on the hotel strip. We walked around looking for a decent room. In front of a skeevy looking backpackers' hostel we got talking to two Australian guys who were eating tiny snails out of a bag using a long skewer (this is a common pastime in Hội An). 'How are the rooms?' we asked. 'Well, the door closes…', one guy replied. At the next guesthouse the only available room was what looked like a converted birdhouse on the roof.

Eventually we settled at Hội Phổ Hotel and headed out to get acquainted with the town. We immediately loved the pedestrian-only areas and the well-preserved old buildings. We checked out the riverside, fought off offers for boat cruises, grabbed a cheap dinner then stopped in for a terrible cocktail before hitting the sack.

Our festive hotel room at Hội Phổ Hotel

Stepping outside the next morning the famed old world charm was overridden by the stronger sense of desperation coming from all the people who had moved to Hội An to try to get ahead. Shouts followed us down the streets – 'Hello! Where you from? Where you going? You want a suit? Shirt? Dress? Come into my shop please!' Apparently the number of tailors in town has increased from around 140 in the early 2000s to over 600 these days, and there are not enough tourists to go round. There's an almost mafia vibe to it all, with the hotels trying to get you to use a particular tailor so they can collect a commission, and the tailors interrogating you about who sent you and what tailors other hotels had recommended – even the cab drivers are in on it.

The night prior we had agreed to a $15 room after having no luck finding something decent in the $10 range. We offered to stay for four nights if they were willing to drop the price down to $12 as the place appeared to have some empty rooms – they were cool with us staying one night but when it became clear to that we wouldn't be going to Kimmy, their recommended tailor, or booking any package tours, their friendliness cooled and the lady behind the desk picked up the telephone, pretended to speak to someone, and informed us they were fully booked the following night.

We packed up our stuff and started doing the rounds again – we ended up down the road at Hop Yen Hotel. They were out of $10 doubles but we snagged the classiest room in the building for $13. Check out the totally rad feature tile.

With a few sprays of DEET around the doorframe it felt just like home

If that seems like a lot of effort for what ended up only being a few bucks difference, it was. Since we're traveling long term, we try to stick to our guns on keeping accommodation costs consistently low. This is especially true when we're unsure of how long we'll be in an area – switching guesthouses frequently can knock out a couple of mornings but a few dollars difference a night multiplied can quickly add up to what could have been another night's stay. In this case, we only stayed in Hội An for five nights so it would have made more sense to stick with a $15 room as we lost a morning waiting around until check out time to pop our heads into different places to see what was available and ended up only saving 6 bucks in the long run. It's always a fine line when it comes to time versus money.

We spent the rest of the day checking out a few historical sites – Hội An has a number of museums, assembly halls, temples and preserved homes of notable local figures, and for 120,000đ you can visit five of them. Our favourites were the Cantonese Assembly Hall with its fountains, gardens and shrines, and the Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built in the 16th or 17th century when there was a big Japanese settlement in town.

Cantonese Assembly Hall gate

It was just after Tết when we visited so the altars in the Cantonese Assembly Hall were laden with incense sticks, different food offerings and flowers. Big coils of incense hung from the ceiling.

Dog god by the entrance to the Japanese Covered Bridge – the other entrance contained a similar statue of a monkey god. In the center of the bridge is a small altar to Bắc Đế Trấn Võ, the Vietnamese god of weather, who we thought might be the same as the Chinese Taoist deity Xuan Wu.

Detail from the Covered Bridge

The real highlight for us, though, was the food. Vietnamese food is a lot more regional than we knew before arriving. Every region – north, south and central – has its own cooking styles and some cities also have their own particular specialties. The food in Hội An was a lot lighter and more varied than the meat-and-rice/noodle combinations up north. Being beside the river means lots of fresh seafood (Katie's been on a steady downward slide from vegetarian to a vegaquarian who occasionally gives up and eats meat) and one of the major central and southern Vietnamese dishes is bánh xèo (crispy pancake), a favourite Vietnamese food from home. As well as the ubiquitous phơ, there were a bunch of different noodle soups to try – cau lầo (vege version included crispy tofu, vegetables, fat udon-style noodles, a little broth, bean sprouts and fresh lettuce and herbs, with croutons on top), bún bò Huế (spicy Huế-style noodle soup) and mì quảng seemed to be the most popular. White rose dumplings – steamed dumplings stuffed with prawns – and duck spring rolls were two other notable local dishes.

One of many crispy pancakes consumed

Mì quảng (rice flour noodles in pork and shrimp broth, topped with pork and shrimp, quail eggs and herbs) from Streets Restaurant

20,000đ (~$1) vegetable phơ from Restaurant Như Ngọc, the food stand across from our hotel

Tofu, prawn and lotus flower salad from Fusion Cafe

There are a number of shops and eateries in Hội An that focus on providing work and training opportunities for people who have disabilities or are otherwise disadvantaged, which was really cool to see. We liked Streets Restaurant and the Reaching Out Tea House, a silent tea house run by people with hearing impairments. You fill out a paper form with your order and you can talk to the staff using little wooden blocks that say 'Thank you', 'Water' etc. or by writing them notes.

The teas, coffees and biscuits on offer were amazing, as was the tableware, which is all designed and produced by artisans with disabilities. And after a few days of being shouted at by tailors the silence was very welcome!

We did end up getting some clothes made by a tailor called Miss Forget-Me-Not. We brought some favourite clothing items along and she and her staff copied the patterns for us and ran up two pairs of linen pants, two blouses, a shirt and a skirt in the space of 24 hours.

After a few days we were keen to get to the beach, so we headed out of town. In hindsight, we probably should have stayed in Đà Nẵng and just done a day or two in Hội An – driving back to Đà Nẵng station the city seemed a bit more chilled out, the beach looked beautiful and more suited to swimming than the choppy beaches in Hội An, and there wasn't a tailor or lantern in sight.

Waiting room at Đà Nẵng Station

Our next destination was Nha Trang, a beachside town about halfway down the Vietnamese coast. It's a fun place to chill out and re-up on Vitamin D. There's not a huge amount to do except drink coffee, relax on the beach, hit the bars and enjoy a big dinner.


Designer dogs

Nha Trang is by far the most touristy and developed place we've been in South-East Asia, which has its pluses and its minuses. Everything is very easy – all the locals speak English, the streets are relatively clean, there's restaurants galore, a KFC, outlet stores (with western sizes), a massive shopping mall with a cinema and rooftop bar, and all the seedy massage parlours your leathery old heart desires. They even have a brewhouse that produces its own craft beers. But it also makes the place very generic – you end up feeling like you could be anywhere in the world, from the Gold Coast to Kuta to Cancun. The legions of glammed up Russian tourists only added to the strange sense of place – there are three direct flights from Moscow to Nha Trang each day and all the shops have signage and menus in Russian as well as English.

We got to talking with a local at a coffee shop who was afraid that the mass influx from Moscow was ramping up property development while driving up prices in what he feared was a bubble that could pop as soon as it becomes too expensive for the average Russian tourist.

Moloko for sale at the local supermarket

Despite how touristy it is, everything is still cheap. We stayed at Saint Paul Hotel and had a spotlessly clean air-conditioned room with a window, cable TV (we enjoyed watching The Matrix with Vietnamese subtitles – 'Tam biệt, Anh Anderson!') and a fridge, 3 mins from the beach, for between $12 and $14 a night. You can get top-notch breakfast for two at Le Petit Bistro for 110,000đ (~$5.40), and Sydney-standard lattes at Cuppa for 40,000đ (~$2).

Lying on the beach costs nothing, unless you decide you want the 'VIP' treatment, which gets you a sun bed, fluffy towel and access to a shower and pool for 100,000đ (~$5) a day. We never went for that deal, but occasionally rented out a couple chairs with an umbrella for 40,000đ (~$2).

Nha Trang beach

Entrance to Long Sơn Pagoda

To break up the hedonism we caught a green cab out to Long Sơn Pagoda. Unlike at other religious sites we've visited, we didn't see any monks around except the one who was running the attached restaurant. We didn't see any locals stopping by to pay respects either and it had the vibe of a once active temple turned tourist trap.

It was more intense than expected as children, the elderly and people with disabilities begged along the stairways, others installed themselves at the entrances to each section and asked for payment to come in (there is no entry fee), a guy with neck tatts gave us incense sticks (and then demanded 50,000đ) and we had to waive off young people who tried to give us uninvited 'tours' (i.e follow you while talking and then ask for money) – the only sacrilege appeared to be putting money into the official donation box.

Buddha at Long Sơn

Next we drove to Po Nagar Cham Towers, the ruins of a Hindu temple built by the Cham who once ruled part of southern Vietnam. Po Nagar is run like a well-oiled machine in comparison – entry is ticketed, the grounds are manicured and professional guides can be hired for an extra 22,000đ. Proper dress is enforced – those who wanted to take glamour shots in their short shorts and strappy tops were dismayed when staff issued them with dour grey monk robes to cover themselves. The towers were cool to check out, but the ruins at Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand are pretty hard to beat.

Cham towers

Nha Trang as seen from Po Nagar

The food in the touristy area of Nha Trang wasn't exactly exotic but there were plenty of good cheap restaurants serving Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, Russian, Spanish and standard western pub food. Our favourite places were Yen, Lanterns and Ganesh Indian Restaurant (the only place we've found in Southeast Asia that actually put paneer in their palak paneer).

Best chicken phơ from Yen

Seafood paella, glass of sangria and salad for 6 bucks from La Mancha

After a week and some change it felt like time to move on. We went down to the Phuong Trang bus station and bought a 145,000đ ticket to Dà Lật. Back in Hanoi we'd had a few beers with a Canadian woman who had loved Luang Prabang as much as we did – when we asked her what her favourite Vietnamese city was, she answered without hesitating: 'Dà Lật!' Sold.

 

Ninh Bình and Đồng Hới

We wanted to get out of the city and see more of rural Vietnam so we made a side-trip from Hanoi to Ninh Bình with a guide, Mu, and a local driver, Vuong, to show us around. We drove two hours south and stopped in Vân Long (one of the many places in Vietnam that is referred to as 'Halong Bay on land') where we took a boat trip around some limestone cliffs and through a small cave. We could hear birds and gibbons in the forest, but they stayed hidden as it was a cool drizzly day.

20140323-170352.jpg

Mu brought us out here to show us a site we might not otherwise see – Vân Long is less popular with westerners (who mostly do trips out to Tam Cốc) but quite popular with Chinese tourists, who come to visit the nearby temple.

20140323-164454.jpg

Looking up from inside a limestone cave

20140323-164526.jpg

Rower taking us around

20140323-164543.jpg

We stopped at a local restaurant for a massive lunch. We read later that in Vietnam you should always leave some food on your plate to show that you are full and satisfied with what your host has provided – perhaps ordering a few extra dishes is the only way to ensure this when eating with westerners! Mu and Vuong joked about serving us dog – which they claimed tasted like goat – another regional delicacy. We passed numerous places advertising thịt chó and thịt mèo (“meat meow”) on the drive.

 

20140323-170825.jpg

20140323-170804.jpg

20140323-164615.jpg

20140323-170524.jpg

Next we walked through Thung Nắng village, which is located among some very impressive rock formations. We saw a guy with a cage on his bike actually buying a dog for a wedding banquet, which gave a new meaning to the phrase “Going to see a man about a dog”… Being an animal-lover in Vietnam is hard.

20140323-170602.jpg

20140323-170444.jpg

Our next stop was Yên Mô village, where we'd be staying for the night. Mu took us to see a woman making rice noodles – she soaks the grains of rice, runs them through a hand-operated machine and then drains them overnight to sell at market early the next morning. She makes about 100,000 dong per day, which adds up to less than $2000 a year. But that's a pretty decent income in this village, where people grow nearly all their own food.

After that we went to the local market. Brendon had to keep his head low to stay under the tarp that covered the walkways. We received a lot of stares from locals, along with some obligatory “Hello!”s. One man started shouting at us and Mu translated it as “I would like to say a lot of things to you, but I don't know how!”

20140323-164739.jpg

20140323-170501.jpg

20140323-164955.jpg

The next day Mu took us for a walk through the fields of peanuts, rice, cabbage, lettuce and morning glory.

20140323-170620.jpg

Workers were out tending their crops in the rain among the graves of their ancestors.

20140323-164646.jpg

We visited Bích Động Pagoda, which is built on a cliff filled with caverns and caves used as hideouts during wars with China and America. We saw some deep chasms covered in nets into which people had thrown money. We asked Mu what it meant and she explained that during the wars there were so many casualties that the dead could not all be buried. Bodies had to be thrown down into the chasms, and people leave money so that these dead soldiers can have a good life in the spirit world.

20140323-165106.jpg

We stopped in for tea with an older man who works at the pagoda as a guide and musician. He offered Brendon a hit of tobacco from a porcelain jar that acted like a water pipe and showed us some traditional instruments – the Vietnamese cello, the Vietnamese violin and the Vietnamese electric guitar, complete with whammy bar. A large group of drunk guys joined us and took turns singing while the old man played and everyone clapped.

20140323-165137.jpg

Brendon eating cơm cháy

We took a rowboat around the lake, snacked on cơm cháy chà bông (big puffed rice crackers with pork floss) and chatted to Mu. She's an ethnic Hmong from Sapa, but moved to Hanoi and now works 28 days out of the month. The rest of her family still lives in the remote village she was born in and it sounded like she was the main income earner.

20140323-164512.jpg

Mu on her phone

She explained how back in her village girls are often married off early through a “kidnapping” tradition whereby during the Tet celebration a boy will kidnap a girl and bring her to live with his family. That night, the girl's family receives a water buffalo horn full of rice whiskey, which they drink if they approve of the proposed marriage or hold off on drinking if they want to give the girl a chance to turn down the offer. A bride price is eventually worked out and, once married, the girl lives with and works for the husband's family.

Mu explained how she artfully dodged all of this by staying home during the New Year celebrations, learning both English and Vietnamese, training to be a guide in her early teens and moving away from home, although she still has some concerns about losing autonomy if she gets married.

It was interesting hearing how she is trying to reconcile her lifestyle with the older generation's ideas and expectations. She tried giving her parents a mobile phone to stay in touch but only her little sister knows how to use it, she has a 90-year-old grandmother who loves to complain about the food, and a father who has health issues but won't stop drinking his rice whiskey – yep, people are people wherever we go.

20140323-165232.jpg

20140323-165209.jpg

20140323-170714.jpg

We saw a few different methods for catching fish and marine life – this was a trap Mu pulled up for us to take a look. There were also guys who used electricity to stun the fish under the weeds then scoop them into the boat.

20140323-170543.jpg

Roadside coconut debris

20140323-170423.jpg

Country roads

We jumped ashore in Tràng An village and stopped for lunch at a fisherman's house. Then Mu pulled out three rusty mountain bikes and we set off down some bumpy country roads for a ride in the rain. After about 20 minutes of Katie's granny-style riding, locked gears and seats that fell down, we checked to see if Mu wouldn't mind cutting down the three hours she'd set aside for the ride to maybe an hour and a half. As a shortcut, she took us down the side of a four lane highway. The trick was to not venture too far to the right because it was all slick mud on top of the pavement but at the same time you didn't want to drift too far left into the wild Vietnamese traffic. To add to the fun, we rode past a very popular temple where we had to navigate through crowds of pedestrians shouting “Hello!” and “Tây! Tây! Tây!” Once out of the fray we biked past a few more families parking their vehicles – parents stopped and pointed us out to the children, who gave us wide-eyed stares and waves.

We finally got off the highway and rounded a corner when a group of roadside workers erupted in laughter. Mu said they wanted to know if Brendon would like to take over some shoveling. A lady drove by on a scooter, pointing and shouting. Mu's translation: “Isn't your other leg cold?” Admittedly we may have looked a little ridiculous – we had both rolled up our right pant legs to avoid getting them caught in the gears.

20140323-165327.jpg

Fisherman's backyard

We biked back to the fisherman's house for a cup of tea before piling back into the car for the ride home.

Once back in Hanoi we celebrated our last night in town with a few glasses of wine and a pizza – so Vietnamese!

20140323-165412.jpg

The next night we boarded the train to Đồng Hới. We'd booked two bunks in a four-bunk sleeper for a journey of about 11 hours.

When we got to our cabin there were eight people already sitting on the two lower bunks. We looked at each other, confused, until a railway employee walked over and spoke to the people harshly in Vietnamese. Four people moved off Brendon's bed and all eight now squeezed onto the one unclaimed lower bunk. Katie climbed onto the top bunk and Brendon sat below trying to motion to the Vietnamese passengers that it was okay if they wanted to go back to sitting on the edge of his bed.

A minute later the railway guy popped back into the cabin and looked at us, rubbing his fingers together. Uhhh? 'Money!' exclaimed the man. 'Money? How much?' '50,000.' Brendon pulled out his cash and handed it over. The man looked up at Katie and pointed. 'Her too? Ối giời ơi!' The man smacked Brendon in the shoulder while the other passengers giggled. Katie fumbled around for her 50,000. Just then the owners of the other two bunks walked in – the man evicted the eight people from the cabin and the process repeated.

20140327-160122.jpg

The owners of the other two bunks were Brendan and Tiffany, long-term travellers (and bloggers) from Canada and Switzerland respectively. We chatted for a while then curled up in our comfy bunks and passed out.

We arrived in Đồng Hới at around 7am and got a lift to Phong Nha Farmstay. It's not actually a farm, but it's out in the country and surrounded by rice paddy fields. The farmstay runs a lot of different tours and it's a good base from which to explore the local national parks and cave networks, if you're into that sort of thing.

20140323-165633.jpg

On Day 3 we did the most popular tour out to Kẻ Bàng National Park. The day started with a walk through Paradise Cave, a large cave equipped with walkways, good lighting, handrails and rubbish bins.

20140323-165523.jpg

20140327-145425.jpg

Next we stopped for lunch, put on our swimmers and kayaked across a beautiful blue lake to another cave, where we'd been told we could swim.

20140327-160104.jpg

This cave was somewhat more rustic than Paradise Cave – the pebbly floor soon turned to mud as our guide Hung led us further and further in. The path became so muddy that you had to hold onto the walls to keep from slipping in the knee-deep muck – unfortunately the walls were also made of mud. Huge boulders had to be clambered over, at great risk to the almost bare arses of all the girls in the group. We were all filthy and sweating profusely by the time we got to a clearing. Was this the swimming hole? No. It was a big puddle of mud. Hung laughed. Some of the younger, more enthusiastic members of the group gleefully threw themselves into the puddle, while the older, crabbier contingent looked at Hung like we were ready to drown him in it.

We turned back the way we had come, sliding down mounds of mud like they were slippery dips. Eventually we turned down a passageway and came out at a big pool of clear water. We waded in and floated around, cooling and cleaning ourselves off. Afterwards we kayaked back, had a few shots of Vietnamese rum and headed back to the farmstay.

That was about enough excitement for us!

Click the sound button to hear a rendition of “In Tall Buildings”

We spent some time chilling with Heidi and Isaac, a couple from Washington State who were playing hostels and guesthouses to cover their accommodation.

20140323-165649.jpg

The rest of our time at the farmstay was spent unwinding from Hanoi with a little reading, writing and relaxing among the rice paddies.

 

Hanoi

Hanoi reminded us of the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner, but without the robots. The city felt loud and aggressive. Though we knew it would be winter we were unprepared for the constant drizzle and gloom. And being so in love with Luang Prabang only heightened the comedown. We spent most of our time eating, drinking and scurrying between hideouts.

20140310-131822.jpg

Hanoi by night

Hanoi by Day

Hanoi by day

We landed late on the evening of Feb 8, grabbed a cab and got to our hotel to check in. Welcome to Hanoi! Would we be going to Halong Bay during our stay?, the desk clerk enquired. Probably… Would we like to take a minute to look through a book of brochures? Er, not really, we’re pretty tired… Maybe tomorrow? Maybe.

The next morning my aunt’s friend Robbie and his wife Thu, who is Vietnamese, picked us up and took us for coffee. Stepping out of the hotel we noticed that the footpaths had been commandeered by shop-owners along with parked motorbikes and scooters. The gutter was where pedestrians walked and it was clear from the drivers’ countenances that it was where they felt we belonged.

What Footpath?
What footpath?

Traffic conditions in Hanoi can be summed up by a slogan we saw on a t-shirt: ‘Green: I can go. Orange: I can go. Red: I still can go.’ Pedestrian crossings and street lights have been installed in many places, but the drivers pay them no mind as they speed onward to their destination. Instead of road rules, Hanoians use their horns whenever one driver wants to pass another – which is constantly. Each driver seems responsible only for what is in front of them with minimal regard for what is going on behind or on either side. This applies to valets backing bikes off the sidewalk and into you as you walk through the gutter or drivers pulling out into traffic without looking. To add, the driving appeared to lack the flow of Thailand as not everyone went the same speed or exhibited the same patience but instead gunned past or weaved around one another.

20140310-131909.jpg

This sign didn’t seem to be working

20140312-155451.jpg

Transporting a festive peach blossom across town

Crossing the road requires a leap of faith. At the sign of a small break in traffic you have to step out and progress at a perfectly even pace so the drivers can weave around you. Robbie guided us across the road like little children. Over coffee he and Thu gave us some tips and ideas for places to visit. Thu is a travel agent so was a great help as our itinerary had no more detail than ‘Get to Hanoi. Head south.’ Robbie taught us key Vietnamese phrases like ‘Cảm ơn’ (thank you) and ‘Tôi không phải là gà!’ (‘I am not a chicken!’, to be said with hands on hips and a head waggle when quoted an inflated westerner price). Learning any Vietnamese is proving very difficult as it’s a tonal language – all words are one or two syllables and your inflection changes the meaning of the word. There are six different tones or accents so each word could have up to six meanings depending on how you say it and what the context is. Say ‘gà’ (chicken) slightly wrong and you could be saying ‘railway station’ or any number of other things that make it almost impossible for the listener to work out what you’re trying to communicate.

20140312-132234.jpg

Cyclo drivers and passengers

After coffee Brendon and I grabbed lunch at Phơ 24 and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake (no sign of the famous turtle). Cyclo drivers circled, shouting ‘HELLO!’. We headed back to our hotel till it was time to go to Robbie and Thu’s for dinner.

Thu cooked a huge meal for us and two French friends, Geoff and Natalie, who live in a village 20km away. They asked about our initial impressions of Hanoi. Chaos! we responded. It’s so intense compared to anywhere else we’ve been. They nodded. ‘Here, everything is forbidden but everything is possible,’ Geoff explained. Robbie noted that the concept of precautions (like safe driving and helmets) didn’t really fit with the Vietnamese way of looking at things – most people don’t understand why you would waste time worrying about something that hasn’t happened.

The next day we were on our own. On our way out of the hotel a different desk clerk asked how we were liking Hanoi. We tried to think of something nice to say. Yes, he cooed. And would we be going to Halong Bay during our visit? Not sure yet, we replied, and exited hastily. We had identified a cafe round the corner where we wanted to go for breakfast but getting there involved dodging not only speeding motorbikes but also ladies selling doughnuts, guys selling knockoff Zippos, women selling fruit and, worst of all, the sneaker shine guy. He could, I believe, sense our fear and, before I knew it, one of my All Stars had been wrested from my foot and he was applying super glue to the sides, scrubbing it with a soapy toothbrush and reheeling it with half a tyre. And where are you from? he chatted away happily. Can I please have my shoe back? I replied. But I’m fixing it for you, see? I have put some tyre here. And how much will that cost? I asked. 150,000 dong, he replied (about $7.50). For both? No, each. I yanked the shoe back and we handed over the cash. This chicken is now walking around with one ‘fixed’ sneaker and one normal one.

20140310-132114.jpg

We arrived at the Hanoi Social Club, a cafe/bar run by a guy from Melbourne, and ended up staying all day. We tried egg coffee (cà phê trứng), which was delicious, like a combination of coffee and eggnog. I can’t explain how excited I was to have a plate of lentil bolognaise after months in Asia. And of course we had a few Halidas! The cab driver who took us back to the hotel was awesome and taught us how to say ‘Oh my God!!’ (‘Oi troi oi!’, pronounced ‘Oi zoi oi’ in the north and ‘Oi joy oi’ down south), which Brendo has been using on a daily basis, much to everyone’s amusement.

20140310-131930.jpg

Mixed vermicelli, no meat (miến trộn không thịt)

On day three we toughened up and sought out some local street food. The first place we went is still my favourite. It was a small shop at 15 Ngõ Tràng Tiến, an alley in the French Quarter that fills with stalls from the morning till about 2pm. We ordered by showing the guy at the stall the words I’d typed into my phone, and received two huge bowls of miến trộn không thịt – vermicelli noodles with tofu, morning glory, lettuce leaves, shallots, herbs, bean sprouts, peanuts, fried garlic and a sauce involving fish sauce, sugar and chili. Usually this dish would also have beef but ‘không thịt’ means ‘no meat’ – asking for dishes this way is the only practical way to get vegetarian-friendly street food in Hanoi. It was 20,000 dong (~$1) per bowl and absolutely outstanding.

20140310-131950.jpg

After lunch we roamed around the French Quarter, which is the ritzy end of town where you’ll find luxury shopping malls, European restaurants and an Opera House built by the French in the early 1900s. Even in nice areas like this it was always easy to find cheap food and drink – we stopped down the road for Vietnamese coffees at Argento that were still only 22,000 dong each.

image

In the afternoon Brendon went to get fitted for a suit for his friend Bilal’s upcoming wedding. The tailors laughed as they reached up to measure the tall American. The suit took about 4 days all up, and we were sort of stuck in Hanoi till it was complete, but the end product was definitely worth it.

20140310-185910.jpg

Strung out and ready for bún

20140310-185938.jpg

Shrimp pancakes

20140310-190000.jpg

Perhaps this sauce is an acquired taste…

Food highlights in Hanoi included bún bò nam bộ – beef, vermicelli, garlic, ginger, peanuts, herbs, lettuce and fish sauce, 55,000 dong (~$2.75) a bowl – from a well-known place at 67 Hàng Điếu, and a visit to Quán ăn Ngon, which is an outdoor food court with a huge menu of regional specialties. I got crispy shrimp pancakes and noodles with fried tofu in shrimp paste sauce – the dipping sauce smelt like the devil’s bungholio. Eventually a kind waiter took pity on me and brought me an alternative sauce to try! Brendon got fresh spring rolls with pork and prawn and a wild duck phơ. We weren’t blown away considering the cheaper and more flavourful street food we had already tried, but they have a huge range of dishes so maybe we just didn’t choose the right stuff. It ended up being 232,000 dong (~$11.50) for two entrees, two mains and two cokes.

20140310-132408.jpg

20140310-132427.jpg

The best thing we tried, though, was the Mexican coffee buns from Anh Tú Bakery. (As far as we know these are not actually Mexican.) These huge, warm, doughy, sweet, crispy buns filled with runny chocolate became an integral part of our morning routine.

20140310-185811.jpg

Atrium at Cafe Phỏ Cổ

20140310-132211.jpg

20140310-185518.jpg

20140310-132258.jpg

Cashing out

These were generally chased with an intense Vietnamese coffee from Cafe Phỏ Cổ, which is like stepping into another world (or about three due to the number of terraces). You enter by walking between a t-shirt shop and a silk shop, then you come out into a big atrium. You order from the girl, head up one flight of stairs past the family altar, then up a spiral staircase to the verandah that looks out over the city and Hoan Kiem Lake.

20140312-155421.jpg

Many combinations of chicken and noodles on offer

20140310-185453.jpg

Brendon took a liking to our local chicken shack which served sliced chicken over sticky rice, chicken pho, chicken spring rolls and chicken miến trộn. All of these came with a dish of tasty pickled cucumbers.

image

Bùn chả with pork patties and crab spring rolls from 67 Đường Thành Street

He went off on a solo mission to investigate a lead on crab spring rolls and pork bùn. He also made repeat visits to one food vendor on Lý Quốc Sư that sold a variety of deep-fried nibbles, including a vegetarian dumpling that, while containing no meat, also contained no vegetables and was really just a ball of fried dough.

20140310-132448.jpg

Detail from Thái Nguyên iron and steel complex (1962) by Búi Trang Chước

20140310-185321.jpg

Detail from Uncle Ho on a military campaign (1985) by Nguyễn Nghĩa Duyện

We didn’t visit many of Hanoi’s cultural venues (unless coffee shops count) but we did go to the Fine Art Museum. There was some interesting art with the coolest being the lacquer engravings.

20140310-185738.jpg

Once Brendon’s suit was finished we headed out to the post office to send it home. We stopped at the place with a big neon sign that read ‘Post Office’ out the front of it. It looked pretty small – one desk and a rack of postcards. ‘This must be it,’ I said trustingly. Brendon looked skeptical. ‘Is this the post office?’ he asked the woman inside. She looked at the big bag of stuff we wanted to post and then said, ‘Next building!’. Calling your knockoff business the name of the other, more popular business next door seems to be pretty standard practice here.

Bygone Days Before Motorbikes

Bygone days before motorbikes

With the suit finished and mailed off we were keen to get out of Hanoi. We wanted to go to a farmstay in Dong Hoi next, but they were booked up so we ended up sticking around town a few more days. When the staff at our hotel realised we wouldn’t be booking a Halong Bay tour with them they moved on to something different. As we came downstairs one morning the boss lady and one of the regular clerks asked how we were enjoying our stay. We nodded and said it was good. Boss Lady opened a drawer under the desk and pulled out an envelope. Would we write a positive review for the hotel on Trip Advisor? she asked, waving the envelope. Sure, we said. She smiled and handed the envelope to Brendon. It contained an ingratiating handwritten card wishing Mr Kearns a happy and prosperous new year. We headed out for the day. When we returned drunk hours later the desk clerk stopped us on our way up to our room. Have you written the review? he asked. We explained we’d do it later. You can use the computer right here! he exclaimed. You can do it now! We made our excuses and went up to bed. The following morning on our way out he asked again about the review. Then again when came home. Then again the next morning. And again when we got home. We flip-flopped between feeling annoyed and feeling bad – they were obviously doing what they thought was necessary to run a good business but they came off as so transparently insincere. And we still haven’t written the bloody review!

On our last day in Hanoi we went down to the train station to book our tickets to Dong Hoi (with a little help from The Man in Seat 61). We took a number and waited to be called to the ticketing window. The system was like what you’d see at an RTA or DMV office – press 1 for ticket purchase; press 2 for refund or exchange, etc. Hanoians, however, had their own systems, which involved either crowding around the ticket windows and talking over the person currently being served, or taking one ticket from each category and seeing which came up first. But, with a little time and patience, we successfully booked two bunks on the sleeper train outta town.

I don’t mean to sound like there was nothing enjoyable about Hanoi. If you have a strong constitution, you love shopping and bargaining, you visit at a different time of year and you stay no more than a week it could be a pretty fun place. But it just wasn’t for us.

Tạm biệt Hanoi! I don’t think we’ll see each other again soon.

© 2017 Brendon Kearns

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑