Retrospective: Vietnam – 15 Sep 2013

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Our Asian Holiday – Day 17 to Kết Thúc

Day 17: We awoke in our hotel room to the sound of the cleaner’s vacuum outside of our door. For our last morning in Vietnam it was almost a fitting way to be roused from slumber; an abrasive yet not out of place sound in incredibly hectic country.

Breakfast soon followed and then came the game of who carries what in which bag. I’m an incredibly light traveller. To put this into perspective my backpack and small travel bag weighed a combined 7.1kg when we left Melbourne 17 days ago. Carly’s suitcase failed early in the trip and she had been lugging around a sizable sports bag ever since.

At 10:00 the hotel reception called and told us our driver had arrived to take us to Han Oi airport for our first leg to Kuala Lumpur. We had an hour to kill before boarding and 200’000 dong to spend in the airport. So we enjoyed a coffee and a few snacks and were soon on our first flight back to home.

The flight to Kuala Lumpur went off without a hitch thanks to Angry Birds Star Wars and The Hungover Part 3. Fun fact: Malaysian Airways heavily censored the film.

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With a 4 hour layover I tucked into a Whopper from Burger King while Carly watched on in disgust. But soon I was following her around different Duty Free Shops; awesome! We sat and had a coffee and tea before heading through security to our gate for boarding the plane to home.

I spent the rest of Day 17 watching Iron Man 3, John Carter and listening to music.

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Day 18: The remainder of the flight was uneventful until we landed in Melbourne. Thanks to a sick passenger we were quarantined on the tarmac until AQIS cleared us and then we boarded a bus in the rain for the long drive to the terminal. Melbourne airport and I have had a love/hate relationship for a number of years; Fun Fact: EVERY time I have flown to Melbourne for work my baggage has been delayed and had to be delivered to where I was staying.

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So after 10 minutes in a smelly bus we stopped next to the rubbish bin area of the international terminal and disembarked to clear immigration and customs. This was relatively pain free and as we pushed our way through the crowd outside the arrivals gate our Asian Holiday came to an end.

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We both thoroughly enjoyed our short trip to Cambodia and Vietnam; but with all good things it has come to an end. It is now time for the inevitable trip back to Canberra and to resume the working life again.

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Our Asian Holiday – Day 15 to Day 16

Day 15: The morning started off like most others. Wake up, get dressed, have breakfast, pack bags and check out of the hotel. Our itinerary said we were due to be picked up between 08:00 and 08:30 by a shuttle bus for our 4 hour trip to Ha Long Bay for an overnight boat cruise.

There were four other Australians waiting for the bus and traveling with the same company and on the same boat. But alas when the tour guide arrived to collect us he checked the names of the other four people, ignored us and promptly left. We waited another 10 minutes and then asked the hotel to call the tour company. They advised us that it would be 15 minutes for another bus to collect us.

Well to our amazement the same bus came back with the same guide and the four Australians that left 20 minutes before. The guide told us a second bus was supposed to pick us up even though our names were on his list. I call bullshit!

With a bad start behind us we embarked on the 4 hour bus ride along Vietnam’s finest rural highways. They were rough and bumpy; but a second class drive is better than a first class walk any day.

We arrived at Ha Long, boarded the boat and quickly checked into our cabin before enjoying lunch.

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After lunch we got on the little boat and walked through Bo Nau Cave “the most beautiful cave in all of Asia”. A bit of stretch considering we have been through some fairly impressive cave systems in Australia without 800 other people; but with some good old fashioned framing in a photo you can avoid others spoiling your shot.

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Later in the afternoon we went to Soi Sim Island; an area where the beach is man-made and the monkeys are kept in a cage. We walked up the steep hill to enjoy the “panoramic view”; but instead found a tiny area with enough room for two people to look through the trees. After working up a fairly heavy sweat walking up and down the dirt tracks we were keen to jump in the water at the beach. But alas swimming in absolute filth and garbage wasn’t high in our list so we waited on the beach while some others swam with the poo.

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After we got back to the boat we had some time to ourselves for a shower and lounging around on the upper deck with some fruit and cocktails. We watched an amazing sunset over the bay before enjoying a huge Vietnamese banquet for dinner.

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The highlight of the night was when the crew brought out a cake for “a special couple on their honeymoon”. Everyone was looking around the room for us so I joined in and speculated about who it could be. The cruise manager then pointed at us and brought out a delicious cake for us and the other guests to share.

After dinner we sat around and chatted while others tried to fish for squid. At around 22:30 when the bay went quiet we headed off to bed.

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Day 16: We awoke to the sound of the diesel engine of the boat starting up which scared the living shite out of me.

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After a quick breakfast we headed out to Sung Sot Cave for an hour of kayaking through the cave and around the cove.

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Afterwards we returned to the boat to shower and change before checking out of the room. The morning went very quickly with lounging on the upper deck and a short cooking class on how to make spring rolls. We sat down to a huge lunch before boarding the smaller boat back to the harbor and the 4 hour return drive to Ha Noi.

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Our last night in Vietnam was spent having a relatively quiet dinner in the old quarter before heading to bed before the long flight back to Australia.

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Our Asian Holiday – Day 13 to Day 14

Day 13: We checked out of our hotel and were picked up by our driver and guide Quyen, for a two and a half hour drive to the Bac Ha Sunday markets. The first sign that this day was going to be interesting was the distinct lack of functioning seat belts in the back of the Toyota Camry in which we were traveling. About 10 minutes into the drive down the mountain I couldn’t help but foresee my own death caused by rapid ejection through the windscreen.

In the end the drive to the markets was uneventful except for the dozens of close calls with buffalos and completely clueless idiots wandering onto the road.

The markets themselves were huge and full of the ‘upland’ people who still dress in traditional clothing. The markets were full of the usual meat, fruit, vegetables and tourist trinkets; as well as buffalo, horse, dog and singing birds. Quyen was ever helpful in explaining some of the customs of these mountain villagers. After wandering the markets for an hour or so we stopped for lunch.

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After lunch we headed out for a tour of two of nearby villages. Quyen explained the daily life of the villagers to us and took us away from the usual tracks to see some of the crops and homes up close. The weather had changed and it was now extremely hot and humid; while it was uncomfortable to us the more overweight and heavily dressed tourists in the central village were much worse off.

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At the end of the walk through the second village we boarded a river boat for a quick cruise on the Chay River. This was quite enjoyable in the cool breeze and Carly even dipped her feet into the water to cool down.

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After a short break from the 40’C and 100% humidity we drove back to Lao Cai to wait for the overnight train back to Ha Noi. As we had a few hours to kill, we visited the Vietnam / China border and heard some stories about Vietnamese women being stolen for forced prostitution and people fleeing from both countries.

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Finally we boarded the train to Ha Noi and soon we were off into the Vietnamese night.

Day 14: Our train pulled into Ha Noi at 04:30. Unlike last time’s shuddering stop to wake us up; soft music played over the speakers before we came to our sudden halt.

Once again it was a mad rush to get off the train and after a few minutes palming off the not so reputable ‘taxi’ drivers (possibly organ harvesters) we found our driver and headed off to the hotel.

We were able to arrange an early check-in at the hotel and get some sleep before wandering the nearby markets and food vendors in the afternoon after the temperature dropped a little.

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Our Asian Holiday – Day 10 to Day 12

Day 10: We left Hoi An and drove to the airport at Da Nang. After a quick flight we arrived in Ha Noi where we were met by our new guide Long and our driver Wei. We had a 45 minute drive into town where we were to do a tour of the city and have lunch. Long was extremely funny when explaining Ha Noi life to us during our drive; always giving us tips on staying safe and avoiding tourist traps.

Our first stop after lunch was the Mot Cot Pagoda or the One Pillared Pagoda built in 1049 in the shape of a lotus flower. Or as I liked to call it… temple #12’500 for the trip.

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A quick walk down the road was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum; unfortunately we couldn’t go inside and see Uncle Ho as it was closed for the wet season.

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Next up was the Temple Of Literature built to worship Confucius and house Vietnam’s first university. Oh yay another temple… We were supposed to visit here first up in the morning, but it was closed due to a visiting dignitary. I would have been happy with it being closed all day to be honest. The buildings and gardens around such areas are impressive but the temples themselves contain crap. I won’t mince words, the original sentiment disappeared decades ago and has since been replaced by thousands of incense candles, cheap recreations of long lost artefacts and locals trying to sell trinkets. By this stage I was well and truly over having shit thrust at me and being told “you buy something!”

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After seeing paper mâché Confucius and paying the equivalent of 10 cents to pee we drove to the Ha Noi Lo Museum; better known as the Ha Noi Hilton. This was built as a gaol by the incredibly brutal French colonialists to basically torture people they didn’t like. Later during the Vietnam War it was used to ‘accommodate America prisoners of war’ including US Senator John McCain.

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The rest of our afternoon was spent looking a temple honoring a magic turtle (I kid you not) and touring the old quarter in a pedicab helping to set back Asian/Anglo relations by having old Asian men ride us around town.

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Later in the evening we went and watched a Vietnamese Water Puppet show. Basically these are puppets in water set to traditional music and song. It wasn’t too hard to follow what was happening but being 6 foot tall in seats designed for 5 foot Asians; the night definitely dragged on a little.

Day 11: We awoke and embarked on a two hour drive to Ninh Binh to see ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’. We embarked on a short boat ride up the river and through the ‘three caves’. This was quite enjoyable despite the very obvious tourist trap atmosphere to the area. The locals row you up the river and at the turn around point others in their boats close in and hard sell you their wares and expensive food and drinks. This is after others in their boats take your photo and demand you buy it. It’s a real shame that this area has become like this; ultimately it is the fault of the tourist trade but aggressive selling will eventually be the undoing of this place.

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After spending the last half of our boat ride in a monsoonal storm we drove to the ancient city of Dai Vet wringing wet to see another few temples before the drive back to Na Noi and our overnight train ride to Lao Cai.

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Day 12: We arrived in Lao Cai at around 05:30 to the sweet smell of the train having the septic tanks emptied onto the tracks. Our driver picked us up and we drove up the mountain range towards Sa Pa for an early check in and breakfast before our day trek on the buffalo tracks around the rice fields and villages of Sa Pa.

The short trek was a highlight for the trip as we were able to see the village life up close. Outside of the hustle and bustle of the big cities being able to witness their farming lives was much more enjoyable. The people use all available land to farm and only have small living areas for themselves and livestock. The villagers were very friendly and thanks to the local know how of our guide, the hawkers were kept at bay.

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Our Asian Holiday – Day 8 to Day 9

Day 8: Our eighth day in Asia started with a sleep in until 7am; when the constant horns from the scooter woke me up. The weather had turned the rain on for us and it was bucketing down. I guess that is what happens when you travel at the start of their wet season; luckily for us we don’t really mind and the hotel had provided big umbrellas for us.

Tuyet picked us up from the hotel and drove us to the Dao Tien River View Restaurant for our Vietnamese cooking lesson. We met the restaurant manager Hung, and started walking towards the Hoi An markets as the rain stopped. Hung guided us around the fruit and vegetables, meats, fish and spices areas of the market and explained how the restaurant chooses their produce.

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After touring the market we headed back to the restaurant via the river on a water taxi with Hung. About 15 minutes into our leisurely cruise the rain started again.

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On arrival back at the Dao Tien River View we met the head chef and started our cooking lesson for day. First up was making rice paper and fresh spring rolls.

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After eating our fresh spring rolls we prepared our lunch for after the lesson; grilled fish in banana leaf.

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When the staff whisked away our fish into the kitchen for cooking we started preparing and cooking some eggplant and spices.

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Next was the big challenge of the day, attempting to replicate the chef’s favourite; money bags. These seemed quite simple to put together; stir fried vegetables and meat inside of a thin flour sheet and tied up with a piece of blanched shallot.

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After all the cooking was done we sat down to enjoy the food we had just made for lunch.

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After what was the highlight of the trip so far, we ended the day with a walk through town and a quiet dinner near the river.

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Day 9: With nothing at all planned for the first time on the trip so far and Hoi An with sunny, clear skies; we spent the day relaxing and enjoying ourselves. There were a few trips to the tailors for Carly to buy new clothes, lounging around the pool, sitting out the front of cares drinking coffee and aimless wanderings around town.

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Our Asian Holiday – Day 5 to Day 7

Day 5: Our driver picked us up from our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City at 06:30 in the morning. Even at this early time the people of HCMC were out and about doing group calisthenics in the district parks, opening their shops and speeding down the streets on their scooters.

We arrived at the airport and checked in for our flight to Da Lat. The flight was quick and soon we were on our way to our new hotel just across the road from the lake near the centre of town.

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Before we had the chance to get out and explore the city the rain came pouring down and we were stuck watching terrible Asian MTV in the hotel room.

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When the rain finally stopped we went for a walk around the lake before a quick lunch while the weather cleared up and the blue sky reappeared.

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The nearby markets were full of fresh fruits, flowers and random meats; some fresher than others.

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Our fifth day in Asia ended with a quiet dinner for two in the hotel’s restaurant enjoying a traditional Vietnamese banquet and local red wine.

Day 6: We awoke to a sunny Da Lat morning and a few hours of touring some of the sites around town. Our first stop of the morning was the old Da Lat Train Station.

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Next up was the Valley of Love…. OMG! If you are after kitschy over romantic, how do I say… Crap! Then this is your destination. This was one stop I could have done without. The views are spectacular, but they have removed all natural beauty of the area by erecting oversized love hearts, Cinderella statues and ugly bird houses.

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After the Valley we drove to the Da Lat Royal Palace. It is quite interesting to see that the palace has been kept as it was in the 1950’s when the Royal family left Vietnam. By today’s standards it is reminiscent of an old military mess furnished with your grandparents antiques. In comparison to other palaces around the world, even in its prime the Da Lat Royal Palace and its gardens would have been quite tame and understated.

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Our final destination for the tour was the Datanla Falls just outside of town. Aimed clearly at a tourist market the falls were somewhat impressive but the walk into and out of the rainforest was much more enjoyable.

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After returning to our hotel we headed out for a walk around the surrounding suburbs to admire the French inspired architecture.

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Before the afternoon rains rolled in we enjoyed a quiet lunch at a cafe over looking Hoa Binh square; enjoying the Vietnamese sweet milk coffee.

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In the afternoon we visited the local markets again to buy some fresh fruit for an afternoon snack. As usual the market was a hive of activity.

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We took the long way back to the hotel walking through the suburbs and saying hello to the locals while searching for a place to have dinner. As enjoyable as the tours have been so far on this trip it is far more rewarding to spend a few hours wandering around the town soaking up the Vietnamese lifestyle.

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Day 7: Once again our day started early as we were flying out to Da Nang and then driving onto Hoi An. Our new guide Tuyet and her driver were at Da Nang airport waiting for us. She was very friendly and extremely proficient with English.

The first stop for the morning was the Cham Museum in Da Nang. After spending almost all of our time in Cambodia looking at temples and artefacts; it was very hard to distinguish between these 90 Buddha statues and the 1’900 I had already seen. I don’t think I will be going into anymore incense filled museums and temples for the duration of this trip unless it is something extremely special.

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Next we drove through Da Nang to the Marble Mountain overlooking China Beach. Marble Mountain used to be mined for quality marble to make statues, tiles and furniture. Nowadays it is a backdrop for an immense marble market where the locals try to sell their wares to tourists. As impressive as some of the works are I have no need for a 700kg statue of Buddha in my lounge room. It is interesting to note that all of the marble being sold at these markets is imported from Pakistan and not sourced locally.

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Soon we arrived in Hoi An, Tuyet being a local of 27 years, took us to a local restaurant, The Secret Garden, for a Vietnamese banquet lunch. Once again we were not disappointed with the fantastic food on offer.

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After lunch we visited the centre of Hoi An and some of the local tailors who make measured to fit clothing. Hoi An is famous for its many, many clothes stores that make clothes to order or copy fashion trends such as “James Bond’s Skyfall suit!” After a quick size up and some clothes ordered for both Carly and I we headed to the hotel for check in before our tour of Hoi An in the afternoon.

By the time we left the hotel it was pouring down with rain which thankfully dropped the temperature a little. Tuyet took us around her home town and it quickly became obvious that Hoi An was filled with and aimed squarely at tourists. Any speck of traditional Vietnamese style or tradition had been glossed over with a generous helping of kitsch aimed at parting gullible tourists with their money. This is not to say Hoi An doesn’t have a lot to offer, it does, but you need to walk a few streets behind the clothes stores and the neon signs to find it. The street sellers and souvenir traders are more aggressive here and will only stop their attempts to sell you their products after several firm “no’s” or in the case of one determined restaurant bus boy who got in our faces; “fuck off idiot!”

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As night fell and the rain continued we ventured out onto the streets for another visit to the tailor. A quick fitting of our almost completed clothes and we were off looking for a quiet place for dinner. By the time we headed back to the hotel at around 9pm most of the stores were closing and restaurants empty. In comparison to Da Lat the night before, Han Oi was a relative ghost town. With another early start ahead of a Vietnamese cooking class, tomorrow looks like another eventful day in Vietnam.

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