One month in VietnamMike - 10 January 2017
After a month in Vietnam, our time in the country has come to an end. I’m writing this sat about half an hour from the Cambodia/Vietnam border. It's been a mixed month, with some incredible sights, flavours and experiences tempered by hospitalisation and an emergency appointment at the dentist for a chipped tooth.
Unusually, we started our Vietnamese adventure in the middle of the country in Danang after getting a bus from Pakse in Laos. The bus journey was hell, but that’s a story in itself.
Hoi An is many travellers’ favourite city in Vietnam and it was our first major stop. We were immediately won over by the charm of the city, with crumbling old shophouses painted golden yellow and silk lanterns hung across small alleyways. Emma made the most of Hoi An’s tailoring reputation by having a few items of clothing made from scratch. We only had to wait a couple of days for them to be made and adjusted until the fit was perfect. With local draft beer at 2,000 Dong per glass ($0.09 / £0.07) it was very easy to while away any spare time people watching from a street side table.
Our original plan had been to take a train from the centre of Vietnam to Hanoi in the north, but it turned out to be much cheaper and faster to fly, so we begrudgingly did. Hanoi was pretty much as expected... mad. Throngs of motorbikes swarm through the narrow streets with no discernable laws being enforced. Somehow it seems to work and we only saw one accident (car vs motorbike).
Once we’d got our bearings in Hanoi, we embarked on our Christmas treat: a cruise around Halong Bay on a boat called Treasure Junk. At $160 USD/each, this was our most expensive splurge to date. While more expensive than many Halong Bay cruises, this one had an excellent reputation and took us to Bai Tu Long Bay, a far less visited area of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Incredible scenery and seven-course seafood feasts made the two-day cruise one of the best things we did in Vietnam.
The next day, food poisoning struck! We have no idea if it was the seafood on board Treasure Junk or something else, but I got hit hard by something. For several days I was bedridden, with no desire to eat or leave the hotel. This culminated in fever-induced lucid dreams, which had me genuinely believing that I was climbing Mt Everest and suffering from hypoxia. Long story short, the following day I was taken to A&E in an ambulance, and got to enjoy the hospitality of a Vietnamese hospital for a couple of days. In between hospital visits Emma managed to see more of what Hanoi had to offer, including the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison, Vietnamese Women’s Museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and museum, Hoan Kiem Lake, the water puppet show, and numerous cafes. Once I could convincingly feign good health to the doctors I was discharged. After a couple of days more recovery time in the hotel room cautiously eating bananas I was ready to finally leave Hanoi.
A last minute flight got us to Ho Chi Minh City just as dusk was falling on Christmas Eve. We hadn't known if we'd be able to make it, so we were really scraping the barrel with accommodation (93% of places were fully booked, according to booking.com) but we lucked out and got a big two bed apartment in the middle of the business district! Christmas Eve was spent roaming the streets of Saigon soaking up the festive atmosphere. While nothing like Christmas back home in the UK, it was endearing seeing people who have never seen snow spraying cans of fake snow in the air, wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers, and dressing their toddlers up in full red and white fluffy attire (surely so hot!)
As places in Vietnam go, Ho Chi Minh City was pretty great for Christmas, as it is so Western! A luxurious western brunch in the morning, great pastries and coffee through the day, and a surprisingly satisfying Domino's Pizza delivery for Christmas Dinner made a bizarre but fun Christmas away from home. It was also the first time in two months we’d had any western style food, having stuck to local cuisine throughout Thailand and Laos. Exactly what you need to recover following pretty major weight loss from food poisoning!
It's worth dragging yourself away from the western luxuries to visit some of Ho Chi Minh City’s highlights. We particularly ‘enjoyed’ the Cu Chi Tunnels, War Remnants Museum, and the Reunification Palace. The inverted commas around ‘enjoyed’ are because learning about the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it is known here…) is always difficult. It's hard to leave the War Remnants Museum in particular without feeling moved by some of the photos and exhibits on display.
On a brighter note, we loved the roadside beer we found in the backpacking quarter, although the children’s garden furniture you're expected to sit in is always a bit challenging! If you have been to Vietnam, you know what I mean. When we finally left, it was to head further south by local bus to explore the Mekong Delta. We were desperate to avoid the typical canned tours around this area, and experience it for ourselves. Instead we ended up taking a boat ride around Ben Tre’s backwaters by a 75 year old survivor of the Vietnam War, driving motorbikes along tiny country lanes shaded by coconut palms 120km from Ben Tre to Can Tho, seeing the floating markets at Can Tho, and then going by local bus to Rach Gia. It was a packed and enjoyable few days in an area famous for being the ‘rice bowl of Vietnam, and we ended up eating everything from snake to buffalo to frog!
Our final stop in Vietnam was Phu Quoc, an island at the very south of Vietnam, so close to Cambodia that you can see it. We'd initially hoped to go to Nam Du, a more rustic island, but it is technically in a restricted military zone, so foreigners weren't allowed on the ferry. But Phu Quoc was a fantastic plan B! Relieved to get some well earned beach time, we spent a few days there swimming in the clear water, eating fresh mangos in the sand, and feasting on locally caught fish.
And that takes us through to now. Sat in a small border town waiting to cross into Cambodia, and see what adventures we can find there!