It is almost Christmas time in Vietnam (December 2016) and there are plenty of Christmas trees and decorations around to remind us of the impending visit from the big man. Nothing like Winter Wonderland in London of course but more than I expected.
It is also my sister’s first time overseas EVER. Our flights to Hanoi were around the same length of time (approx 20 hours including airport time) from other sides of the world. I flew with Emirates from London via Dubai and Yangon. My sister flew with Singapore Airlines from Australia via Singapore. Arriving separately 4 hours apart, we were happy to finally see each other at the hotel to officially start our adventure.
Hanuman Travel, a local travel company recommended to me by TravelLocal had a 12 day itinerary planned for us to explore Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh city. And we were ready!
12 tips for your adventure in Vietnam:
- You might need a Visa depending on your passport nationality – if so, you’ll need to apply for a Visa Approval Letter in advance (I used the www.vietnamvisa.govt.vn website and the cost is $17 though you can also arrange one through your tour company)
- Save money on transaction fees and ATM withdrawal costs with a travel money card from the Post Office or airport (take ID with your address on it e.g. driving licence)
- Drink bottled water and look out for trustworthy brands like LaVie, Dasani and Aquafina (cost for 1.5l is 10,000VND)
- Cross the road with confidence at a steady pace and don’t hesitate or run – the traffic is chaotic but will weave around you
- Check your change – my sister got a 10,000VND note back instead of 100,000
- US dollars are accepted in most shops though check the currency exchange (I use an app on my smart phone)
- The Old Quarter in Hanoi is closed to traffic on weekends so you can wander the streets with less stress!
- Research your choice of boat for your Ha Long Bay adventure – do you want to stay on a party boat in the main tourist area or on a quieter boat in a quieter area?
- Bring a waterproof camera or Go-Pro to video your kayaking adventure through the limestone islands
- Check attraction opening days and times e.g. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is closed Mondays and Fridays and Ho Chi Minh’s body is taken to Russia for maintenance every year for 2 months
- Don’t forget to barter if there are no fixed prices (for most purchases we settled on just over half of the initial price they suggested)
- You can exchange US dollars for VND at a range of different places – I used a local travel company
Friday / Saturday – Flight to Hanoi and Water Puppetry
The big day! One week after quitting my job to travel. My Emirates flight from London was delayed about 1 hour and departed at around 2:30pm. Whilst I didn’t sleep on the flight, my arrival time in Hanoi of 3:15pm meant I didn’t need to stay awake for too long before bedtime.
The visa process wasn’t too difficult. All you need to do is:
- apply and pay for your Visa Approval Letter online (I’d recommend doing this a minimum of 5 business days before your arrival date; cost $17USD)
- ensure you have $25USD in cash to pay for your visa upon arrival
- you’ll need at least 1 visa photo (the kind you get from a Post Office)
- fill out the Vietnam Entry and Exit Form in advance to hand over with your Visa Approval Letter
It took about 10 minutes once I’d handed over my passport, paperwork and photo before I received my Vietnam visa and was asked to pay the $25USD. Success!
After collecting my bag I found Phu (Hanuman Travel tour guide) at the airport holding a sign with my name on it. There was a car waiting for us outside and after about 30 minutes we arrived at the Annam Legend Hotel. Along the way Phu explained that our itinerary had changed slightly because Vietnam were holding a national day of mourning for Cuban leader Fidel Castro on 4 December (the following day).
First impressions of Hanoi / Vietnam:
- cudos to the ladies in heels on their scooters
- so many beeping horns
- seeing a small child riding a scooter with his parents still managing to hold his teddy bear and chocolate bar
The change in itinerary meant we were seeing the water puppetry show tonight instead of tomorrow. Probably a good incentive to stay awake! After reuniting with my sister we got ready and ventured out onto the streets of Hanoi. We found the show location (there are more than one and it’s not at the lake where you would imagine it to be), then tried some street food – rice paper rolls with a peanut sauce. Cost 20,000VND which is about 0.70GBP or $1.20AUD. We sat outside with the locals on chairs that seemed more suitable for small children as we watched the people go by. Starting to really feel like we’re in Vietnam!
It was soon time to line up at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. The show started at 6:30pm and they recommend you arrive 15 minutes beforehand. Phu explained to us that this particular Water Puppet Theatre has been protected for tourists and students to learn about the tradition of water puppetry dating back to the 11th century. It was a full house! Cost shown on the ticket was 100,000VND though was included in our overall tour cost. The lack of sleep in the last 36 hours was catching up with me and despite my head dropping back a few times during the show, I would highly recommend this experience. It’s different to anything I’ve ever seen before. Hanuman Travel describe the experience in their itinerary as follows:
- puppeteers stand in waist-high water and manipulate their puppets in a skilled way
- music accompanies the action including the dan bau, an instrument made from a dried watermelon rind that produces haunting sounds
You can experience part of the show on my Vlog here.
Our final stop for the night was the Green Tangerine restaurant. Phu mentioned this restaurant to us earlier and funnily enough as we walked out of the puppet show we were handed a flyer for the Green Tangerine! It is full of tourists and not usually my style though it is a beautifully decorated French colonial villa worth visiting even if for a small dessert or drink.
Sunday – Hoàn Kiếm Lake and Museum of Ethnology
Breakfast was included in our hotel booking so we made our way to the restaurant on Floor 8 at around 9am. We enjoyed an omelette, bacon, noodles, passionfruit, fresh juices and Vietnamese coffee (strong with condensed milk). A Vietnamese-western mix. Not a bad way to start the morning. Phu told us later on that traditional breakfast is noodle soup or sticky rice.
The morning was ours to explore so with a bit more sleep than yesterday, we were feeling energised to walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake. As we entered the pathway around the lake a lady asked us for directions. She was looking for the water puppetry show. After some conversation we discovered that despite her Vietnamese hat, she was from Sri Lanka, studied in New Zealand and had been in Hanoi for a few days already. Perfect opportunity to ask her for some tips!
While we were talking, a group of Vietnamese students approached us and asked if we had a few minutes. They wanted to practice their English. The Sri Lankan girl watched on as they took turns to ask us questions like where we were from, when did we arrive in Hanoi, did we like Hanoi, where else were we going in Vietnam and what food had we tried. They were very friendly and seemed to really appreciate the time. We realised why when we had two more groups of students stop us to ask similar questions. All within about 100 metres. The last group even asked if they could video a debate with my sister (to which she agreed) about the first of their two homework topics below:
- Should you go to University after school?
- Should you fall in love at University?
The students told us they came to Hanoi to study and in fact their homes are quite far away. One of them explained that their town is 150km away and another described his feelings of home-sickness. But it seems study is a big thing here in Vietnam and I’m not sure how much choice their culture and society gives them.
My sister and I managed a full walk around the lake. It was actually quite pleasant despite the smog and ‘busyness’. There was a cool breeze blowing and plenty of places to sit and enjoy the view. Kids were blowing bubbles, artists were painting portraits and my sister was devouring a green sticky rice ice-cream.
We had a lunch date at The Old Ha Noi Restaurant on Hang Be Street after my sister discovered it yesterday before I arrived. The staff are friendly and the food is traditional, delicious and reasonably priced. There’s a covered rooftop where you can watch the people of Hanoi go by on the street below. The restaurant is also well decorated with bamboo trunks lining the ceiling and colourful lanterns draping from the restaurant rooftop to the other side of the street. I decided to try ‘bun cha’, a tip we got from one of the students. This traditional dish is pork served with rice noodles, herbs and sweet and sour sauce. It reminded me of pork belly with the mix of meat and fat that is somehow still tasty and not too chewy. Cost around 100,000VND each for a meal, coffee and tip.
At 2pm we met Phu in our hotel reception for an afternoon of exploring. We took a taxi to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology about 10km away. Did you know there are 54 different cultures in Vietnam? I certainly didn’t. Whilst Vietnamese is the largest with around 85%, there are 53 other ethnic groups that make up the remaining 15% (approx), most of which live in the mountains.
You can walk through replicas of their different kinds of houses in the museum at which statues are dressed in traditional clothing. It is all very colourful and Phu told us that many of these groups still live in the mountains today. We had an urge to immediately book a homestay to experience what it’s like though unfortunately we didn’t have enough time. To give you an idea of the journey, it takes around 4 hours (approx 150km) to drive to the closest mountain. Oh well, a tip for you if you’re keen. Other random things we learned from chatting with Phu:
- houses were built on stilts because of the wild animals
- Vietnamese are not really religious people though Buddhism is the most popular, followed by Catholicism
- locals lift up the furniture when it floods
- there is no pension in Vietnam
- family lives with and supports one another
From the museum, Phu took us to a nearby lacquer painting workshop. The paintings take around 2-4 months to make and some are even made with cracked egg shells. The patience they must have! The sun was going down so Phu walked us back to the hotel. For dinner we took Phu’s advice and went to New Day Restaurant in Ma May Street. There were a mix of local and tourist customers. You can get a set menu that costs 125,000VND (around £4GBP or $7AUD). This is where we tried our first real noodle soup. Everything tastes so healthy here. Definitely recommend this restaurant.
After dinner we walked around the surrounding streets. The beauty of exploring this area on the weekend is that no traffic is allowed through. We saw people smoking shisha, eating what looked like large bird seeds, drinking beer in what is known as ‘beer corner’, and just so – many – people. It was packed! I took a short video of the area you can see in my Vlog here.
Monday – Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and traditional tube house
At 8am Phu picked us up from the hotel with the same driver that picked me up from the airport. We noticed more people in the streets wearing masks over their noses and mouths and finally realised they were wearing them because of the smog, not because they were sick. You can even buy masks with different decorations on them. Trendy ones!
Along the way we drove past Lenin Park and Phu told us that Vietnam learned their way of communism from him. How interesting! I didn’t realise Vietnam was a communist country.
The Temple of Literature was our first stop for the day after seeing the long line for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Here students aged 3 to 7 years old learned the ways of Confucianism. They were allowed to take the Royal Exam every 3 years. If they failed, they had to wait another 3 years before they could take the Royal Exam again. In those days Hanoi was the capital of Indochina and everything here is in the Chinese language.
In total there are 82 turtle stones for each student that passed their Royal Exam. They even got special clothing once they passed. The stones were buried underground during the French war to protect them, especially seeing as the markings on the pavement for the first students that passed their Royal Exam were damaged and lost. The first Royal Exam was held in 1442 and the first turtle stone was made in 1484. You can see this stone in a specially marked area of the Temple. The Temple itself was built in 1070.
The most impressive areas of the Temple for us were the Confucius statue and buddhist section of the temple. In the past not even the Kings were allowed in the Temple where Confucius is located. What an honour it was for us to step inside and see it. Confucius is surrounded by his four best students that face towards him. In my sister’s words: “seeing it was overwhelming”.
The buddhist area of the temple is a stunning scene of gold and food offerings and the air is filled with incense. Phu explained that the purpose of temples are to worship real people and Pagodas are for worshipping Buddha. The confusing part is that the buddhist area of the temple is within the grounds of the Temple of Literature which is primarily to worship Confucius. Don’t worry I’m confused too. The other brainteaser for the day was the paper iPhones and iPads that they burn at the temples for the dead. You can buy them at the markets!
Our driver picked us up outside and took us to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. His body was not in the Mausoleum (currently in Russia for annual maintenance) and even if it was, the Mausoleum is closed on Mondays. But you can still walk through the grounds and see the houses in which Ho Chi Minh lived. Phu shared some history with us outside before we went in including:
- in 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence
- in 1954 Vietnam was liberated from France during the French War
It seems Ho Chi Minh was widely respected by the Vietnamese people, and there is a wall that illustrates the highlights of his role as President and after his death in 1969.
After the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Phu walked with us around the local markets back near our hotel. Quite the experience. Sadly we saw a dog’s head at one of the market stands. Phu explained that some Vietnamese people eat dog and cat but not to worry because they do not sell it in any tourist areas. Also dog and cat meat is more rare and expensive and therefore generally you would know if you are eating it. Needless to say for the rest of the day we ate vegetarian food. I had an instant feeling of dread at the thought I had supported a country that eats dog and cat though remembered quickly that it’s their culture and it was unfair for me to have such feelings. You can find a great vegetarian restaurant next to Handspan Travel in Ma May Street. It has both vegetarian and meat dishes though we can certainly vouch for the vegetable stack and mango and avocado salad!
The rest of the market was intense. It’s busy. Everything is so fresh. Even the fish swimming around in buckets of water are cut into pieces right there in front of you. Not something I’m used to that’s for sure. There’s clothes too though Phu explained that a lot of them come from China.
In Hanoi you’ll notice that a lot of houses are built upwards with several levels. Traditionally they were built long and narrow with the bottom level for business and the top level for living. You can see inside a traditional tube house at 87 Ma May Street. There’s not much in the way of windows though there are open areas with no ceiling inside the house built in for ventilation and sunlight.
We said bye to Phu and did some exploring on our own. There are lots of Vietnamese ladies on the streets selling donuts. Don’t forget to tell them to stop as they’re loading up the bag, and check your change. Instead of a 100,000VND note they gave us 10,000VND. Lucky I checked! We walked around the Old Quarter enjoying the last night of the week there is no traffic allowed. The Old Ha Noi Restaurant (where we went for lunch yesterday) had a vegetarian menu, so that’s where we went for dinner!
Tuesday – Ha Long Bay
Today we checked out of our hotel and made our way to Handspan in Ma May Street. This is where we departed for our adventure to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site. It was an early morning start (8am meeting time) but it was necessary for our 3.5 hour (150km) drive by bus to the departure location.
If you’ve never heard of Ha Long Bay, it means ‘descending dragon’. The old story goes that a dragon spat pearls over the area and the islands are what came up out of the water. The real story (sorry kids) is that tectonic movement brought the islands up out of the water over the years. There are now almost 2000 limestone islands in Ha Long Bay. Sadly it was still smoggy.
Our first very difficult task on the Treasure Junk was to eat a delicious lunch. There were clams on the menu and we were both unsure about eating them at first but pleasantly surprised by the taste. Task two after a brief rest was kayaking. It took us about 30-40 minutes to get to a sandy beach for a 10 minute break before returning. Local fishermen were going past in their boats. We only spotted one other group of kayakers. Phu told us that with all the tourist boats, the Government has helped the local fishermen by setting up fishing villages for them. Phu also explained that most tourists stay in Ha Long Bay and we were actually staying in Bai Tu Long Bay. It means ‘little dragon’. This area takes a bit longer to get to and is quieter than Ha Long Bay.
When we returned to the boat, we had an opportunity to go for a swim. Phu called me superwoman as I glided into the water. It really wasn’t that cold. Though it wasn’t really that warm either. A few of us swam around and chatted for about 15 minutes before getting back on the boat and enjoying a warm shower.
At 6pm we all met upstairs on deck for a cooking demonstration. The chef showed us how to make rice paper rolls or what he called fresh spring rolls. We all got the opportunity to make our own as an appetiser before dinner at 7pm. With a bit of time up our sleeve, a group of 6 of us (couple from Norway and couple from Manchester) had a chat about work, travel and love life. Interesting conversation! We were lucky to be travelling with such nice people.
For dinner there was a buffet on offer. We tried the prawns, chicken, mackerel, salad, vegetables and cake and fruit for dessert. I’m not usually a dessert person but I went back for a second sponge cake – best I’ve ever tried! Best! Ever! We washed it down with a lovely French Chardonnay. Most wine options on the menu are by the bottle but you can leave what’s left in the fridge for the next day if you’d like.
Our final activity for the day was squid fishing. Other than the small boy already on the boat, my sister and I were the first ones trying our luck with the bamboo fishing rods. We didn’t catch a thing but spotted one or two crabs. The boy caught what we thought was a squid but turned out to be a purple bra! Haha! Later on I spotted a few squid from our room window as the others were trying their luck. No catches but at least we knew that the potential to catch squid was real!
Happy hour (2 for 1) and a movie were available from 9pm if you could stay awake. We could not.
Wednesday – Ha Long Bay Part 2
Tai chi will have to wait for tomorrow morning. My alarm went off at 6am as we had good intentions the night before but my sister and I opted for a bit of extra sleep. Breakfast was at 7:30am and we had eggs, bacon, toast, fruit and coffee. Coffee number two was my favourite from what I’ve nicknamed the ‘Titanic Table’ because it’s on the tip of the boat deck. Doesn’t get much more beautiful than this.
At 8:45am we were ready for our second kayaking adventure. It was longer and more out in the open than yesterday so I could definitely feel the burn! On the upside we got to spend 1 hour on the beach to have a swim and relax.
The highlights of our kayaking adventure were seeing the sunken fishing boat and lining ourselves up to kayak through the small tunnels at the bottom of the limestone islands. Pretty amazing! If I had a Go-Pro or a waterproof camera instead of my iPhone I would have taken a video to show you. Maybe an investment for next time. And a tip for you!
When we got back to the boat, Phu told us we could jump off the deck of the boat into the water. I was chicken for a while but then Marte and I counted down from 3 and jumped together. Fun! But happy with just the once.
After a hot shower it was time for lunch. On the menu – shrimp with a kumquat (lime) and salt sauce or soy, battered beef, chicken and cashew, fish, rice, cabbage and fruit. Delicious. I haven’t eaten this well in a long time! No temptation (or availability) of unhealthy takeaway out here!
The final adventure activity for the day was exploring a nearby cave. This meant a short 5 minute kayak to a rocky shore around the corner. The stalagmites and stalactites look like they’re covered in glitter and Phu explained that it takes around 30 years for them to grow 1cm. The cave is bigger than expected though you only need about 5 to 10 minutes to explore inside.
At around 3:30pm we arrived back at the Treasure Junk for a rest. We tried our luck at squid fishing before dinner. No luck. Dinner was devine. First we had a creamy pumpkin soup, followed by prawns, seabass, pork, and creme caramel and fruit for dessert. We also finished off our bottle of Chardonnay. Spoilt! Squid fishing attempt two was a failure – didn’t even see one! Lots of small jumping fish though.
Thursday – Fishing village, flight to Danang
Instead of snoozing through our alarms today we were up and ready for tai chi. It was a really beautiful experience, all of us moving in a flow-like motion on the deck of the boat in the sun. Worth getting up early for. We had some muffins, fruit and coffee for breakfast before leaving for the fishing village at around 7:30am.
When we arrived we were separated into groups of six and helped onto small boats. For the next 45 minutes a local lady rowed our boat around the fishing village. One of our fellow tourists tried rowing for a while. It’s a different rowing style. More of a push with both oars at the same time instead of rowing with one end of the oar at a time. We went past houses on the water, some of which had dogs and other had nets to protect newborn babies or small children from falling into the water. It’s hard to imagine even after seeing the fishing village on water how they live there. They’ve even been given free housing on the mainland and are unhappy about it. Phu explained that UNESCO are moving them out of the area to protect it. But this life is all they know.
Before returning, we visited an oyster farm where they grow artificial pearls. The pearls range in the number of years it takes to for them to grow once implanted. They grow into different types, shapes and colours.
When we returned to the Treasure Junk we had brunch and enjoyed our remaining time on the boat before reaching land by midday. To get to the airport on time, Phu asked the driver to drop us off at a service station where he had another driver waiting for us. This tour has been extremely well planned so far! After saying bye to Phu we arrived well in advance for our flight to Danang with Vietnam Airlines.
At the other end of course we had a driver waiting for us. He drove us around 30 minutes to our hotel – Vinh Hung City 2. Actually that’s another tip. There are often more than one hotel with the same name, just with a different number. For example there is a Vinh Hung City hotel in the Ancient Town, but our hotel was located OUTSIDE the Ancient Town.
After checking in we followed a helpful man from the hotel to Gidino Cafe, a short walk from where we were staying. This is where I met Meow Meow, a ginger kitten who features in my blog another two times and my Vlog here.
Friday – Exploring the Ancient Town in Hoi An, a UNESCO site
Breakfast today was slightly more westernised with banana pancakes on offer. Yum! It didn’t take long to fill up before we met our guide for the morning. Dung (pronounced ‘Yoo-ng’) walked with us towards the Ancient Town and on the way we saw a local lady chopping water spinach, known here as ‘Morning Glory’. It was an odd scene with buildings in the background.
Just around the corner Dung took us into a Pagoda where 10 monks live. Like I mentioned earlier, pagodas are where they worship Buddha and temples are where they worship ancestors.
After passing through the entrance to the Ancient Town, Dung took us into the Fujian Assembly Hall (Phuc Kien). The temple was built in around 1690 and inside you can find the Goddess of the Sea. The story goes that she rescued the sailors if they fell overboard. There’s also a fertility shrine that couples visit if they’ve not been able to have a baby. Some families also add their name to a yellow tag hanging in the middle of a large incense coil that lasts around 1 month to burn. It was here that Dung reminded us that the symbolic animals in Vietnam are phoenix, dragon, turtle and unicorn.
Next on the agenda was visiting a tailor, something Hoi An is famous for. Be Be Tailor 1 is well known for its quality and came highly recommended by our hotel and guide. It’s the largest of the few Be Be Tailors around Hoi An. When you arrive they give you an iPad to select what you want or at least give them an idea of what you want. My sister liked the traditional outfits the shop ladies themselves were wearing and asked for one of those to be made for her. It’s like a long tunic worn over silk pants (trousers for those of you in the UK). They took her measurements and asked her to return late afternoon for a fitting.
There are some traditional tube houses to explore here too. My sister liked the design so much I think it could feature in her future home! Dung led us towards and over the Japanese bridge. Walk slowly or it will be over before you know it. Locals celebrated its completion with 2 dog statues and 2 monkey statues placed inside each end of the bridge. Dung told us the story that the reason the Japanese bridge was built here was to prevent any further earthquakes or tsunamis. You see, they believe there was a dragon here and when it moved, it caused these natural disasters to happen. By building a bridge on the dragon’s back, there could be no more earthquakes or tsunamis.
Our next stop was a tailor shop that used a lot of silk. Why? Because they had silk worms inside. The process actually seems quite cruel as they open around 20% of the cocoons to allow them to repopulate HOWEVER the other 80% of pupae are cooked alive in water over 70 degrees to make silk. Think of a ball of cotton and what would happen if you cut off a wedge / slice of the ball and how that would affect the long string. Same goes for the silk that comes from the cocoon. So no escaping for our pupae friends…
For lunch Dung took us to the Green Chilli restaurant. The food was really good and we recommend it if you’re unsure of where to go. After my sister’s dress fitting, we walked towards Cam Nam bridge to see the many colourful lanterns hanging above the streets. It was hard to believe it was flooded here a few days ago. It’s so popular with tourists in this area that to get a selfie without another person trying to get a selfie in your photo is almost impossible. We did manage to get a photo of a beautiful wedding couple though.
Near the bridge there are lots of local ladies selling paper lanterns with a candle inside shoved into a piece of cardboard. They’ll charge up to a few US dollars though you can pay less if you feel like negotiating. My sister let it go on the water and we watched it float away as we both made a wish.
For the rest of the night we had a massage (380,000VND / £13GBP / $23AUD for the both of us), strolled through the night markets and visited Meow Meow at Gidino Cafe near our hotel. Curled up in my lap again! The food is really good here – recommended for both the cat and the food!
Saturday – Red Bridge Cooking Class
Have you ever tried a cooking class? I have, but nothing like this. Thanh Nguyen our cooking class teacher, welcomed us at the Hai Cafe in the Ancient Town around 8am. Once he learned we were Australian, he shared with us that the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School is owned by an Australian. The six other ‘students’ arrived (all Germans) and Thanh led us through the local markets to show us where he sources the ingredients from at around 3 to 4am. As we walked from vendor to vendor, Thanh explained that because he does not have any family at the markets, he visits different vendors each day to support more than one local.
The meat area is overwhelming especially if you’re vegetarian. I chose to avoid looking at it too closely and block my nose. Though, Thanh said the reason there are no flies and not much smell is because the meat is very fresh. He also said the meat sells by around 1pm. There is of course a seafood area full of fresh fish and other sea creatures. They’re located in an area of the market right next to the water where the men bring their boats and offload their fish to the women to sell.
It was time to catch the boat to the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School. On the way, Thanh showed me a poster for the Territory Taste Festival 2016 in Australia. He was there with the likes of Matt Moran performing a cooking demonstration. We were in good hands!
Red Bridge is in such a beautiful setting by the water. Thanh showed us around the herb gardens before leading us to our cooking area. We were given recipes and shown how to cook them before being given the opportunity to cook them ourselves. On the menu were Hoi An pancakes, seafood salad with Vietnamese herbs in half a pineapple, fresh spring rolls and Quang noodle chicken. We even learned how to create decorations with vegetables. This whole half day experience including lunch costs all of $32 (USD). We highly recommend it!
In the afternoon we had a final dress fitting for my sister, a rest then explored the streets of Hoi An. It was much quieter tonight though we did stay away from the Cam Nam Bridge area (lantern selfie central). Tonight we decided to try a different restaurant. It’s called MOT. For a Cao Lau (BBQ pork, spices, sauces, vegetables and noodles) and fresh papaya juice, total was 45,000VND. Currently equivalent to around £1.50 or $270AUD. Amazing! It was basic but filling, especially after our day of cooking and eating our creations.
Sunday – An Bang Beach
Despite the rain, we were set on visiting An Bang Beach today. Our last day in Hoi An. Armed with large umbrellas from our hotel, we walked 4 kilometres in the stop-start rain over buffalo dung and dead rats until we arrived at the deserted beach. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but I would definitely recommend either renting a bike or catching a taxi. There isn’t a path to walk on so you need to walk along the road and dodge oncoming scooters.
When we arrived we were ushered into the first restaurant on the left and given the best seat in the house. At first we were the only people there but after a while a few others wandered in for lunch. It was absolutely pouring with rain so we made ourselves comfortable for the day. I tried my first local beer for the trip – Larue. Not bad. A few local ladies came over to sell whatever they could to us. They were really nice and friendly and we genuinely enjoyed our conversation with them.
Out on the water we spotted three fishing boats with one man inside each and one oar. Their boats are round and it looks like they’re floating in a large half a coconut. The sea was rough and one of them capsized. A minute later someone ran past us with a lifebuoy and we all watched on as they made their way into the shore. Don’t worry, it was a happy ending.
After about 5 hours on our best seat in the house, it was time to give it to someone else. So we caught a taxi back to our hotel. Good opportunity to chill inside with the rainy weather and busy few days coming up! Also a good opportunity to visit the nearby Gidino Cafe for a final time before we leave Hoi An. You know, the restaurant with Meow Meow? As soon as I walked in she jumped up onto my lap and fell asleep. It was hard to leave!
Monday – Saigon City Tour
Another day another place to explore! Today we caught a local flight with Vietnam Airlines to Saigon, the old name for what is now known as Ho Chi Minh city. At the airport we met AJ and Dung, our driver and guide from Hanuman for the next few days. AJ told us that Saigon is the biggest city in Vietnam and is around 300 years old in comparison to Hanoi, around 1000 years old. You can certainly tell the difference with the modern buildings, hotels and shops here.
We got straight into it with a walking city tour. First stop – the Opera House. Second – Ho Chi Minh City Hall. If you’re into architecture you’ll enjoy checking out the buildings here. Especially the Notre Dame Cathedral we saw next which looked a bit like the Kremlin entrance gates in Russia to me. There were University graduates there getting their photos taken. We walked through them and across the road to the Post Office. Sounds boring visiting the Post Office but it is beautiful! And there are a few souvenirs inside with fixed prices if you don’t feel like bartering.
Next! The Reunification Palace (or Independence Palace). It was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam (otherwise known as the Republic of Vietnam) during the Vietnam War. His name was Ngô Đình Diệm and he was in office from 1955 to 1963. He ordered the Palace to be rebuilt in 1962 after it was damaged in an assassination attempt. He was then assassinated in 1963. The Palace is large and somewhat modern, filled with beautiful antique furniture.
The War Remnants Museum was our final stop with AJ for the day. We spent about an hour looking through the three levels of the museum. It is overwhelming and not for the faint-hearted. The pictures and captions will make your heart skip a beat. Maybe even two. The Vietnam War happened in 1954 to 1975 and was between North and South Vietnam (the South had an alliance with the US) though it started against France and the US. The Vietnamese people are still affected to this day with land mines and Agent Orange, a chemical used in the war.
We enjoyed some rest time at our hotel, the GK Central before setting out to explore nearby. Ben Thanh Street Food Market is just around the corner. I tried Korean Fried Chicken (KFC). It was SO good! There’s lot of traditional, western and international food here to choose from. You order and pay then find a seat and wait for your food to arrive! To avoid getting lost we spent the rest of the night walking around the area near our hotel to suss out where we would like to visit tomorrow.
Tuesday – Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple
Ever heard of the Cu Chi tunnels? If not you should read up about them. They’re in South Vietnam but during the war the Cu Chi people supported the North Vietnamese in their fight against American soldiers. It takes a couple of hours to get there from Saigon.
You can walk through some of the tunnels to experience what it was like. I had sore legs the next day! Lots of crouching involved. Also not recommended for anyone who is claustrophobic. I panic before going into confined spaces but just remember to breathe and try one of the smaller sections of the tunnel – around 10 metres. If I can do it, you can do it too.
AJ pointed out the small craters in the earth from the American B52 bombs. He explained that the Cu Chi people built the tunnels in a zig-zag design so if a bomb was dropped into the tunnel, it could be sectioned off. Clever. They made weapons and traps from US bombshell and even dismantled a US tank to bring it inside the tunnels. I wouldn’t have liked to step into one of their animal-like traps! To stay dry they slept in hammocks instead of on the ground. Ventilation was built in by digging small holes at the top of the tunnels.
Remember what I said about being claustrophobic? Well, if you’re feeling adventurous you can climb down into the world’s best hiding spot. Just don’t have a big breakfast or lunch beforehand. Especially because here you have the opportunity to try tapioca, dipped into a blend of sugar, salt and peanuts.
In the afternoon we visited the town of Tay Ninh, headquarters of the Cao Dai religion. The temple there is covered in many colours and symbols and I can’t help but think how beautiful it is both visually and spiritually. Cao Dai worshippers follow a blend of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as Christianity and Islam. Our Hanuman itinerary for the day was built around attending their noon prayer service. It lasts around 30 – 45 minutes and they pray four times a day. Such an amazing experience!
We said hello to the local wild monkeys from a distance before buckling up for the 3 hour drive back to Ho Chi Minh city. Along the way we stopped for a local lunch. More tapioca but this time it was warm and in a bowl with milk. Tastes okay. We really enjoyed the fresh sugar cane juice.
For our last night in Saigon we visited the beauty salon (you can get a mani / pedi for $17USD here ladies!), took a final stroll around the night markets and watched the live music at the Ben Thanh Street Food Markets. Yes we went there for a third time. Different food.
Wednesday – Cycling in Cai Thia and lunch on the Mekong Delta River
AJ came to say bye to us at the hotel this morning. It was our second last day in Vietnam and we were off to Can Tho for the night with a new lady guide (Hang) and the same driver. A couple of hours later we exchanged wheels for a boat to visit some locals. We pulled up onto the shore and offloaded the bicycles to start our cycling adventure in Cai Thia village.
Our local guide and Hang led us to our first stop where a 79 year old woman and her daughter live. Here they showed my sister how to make fresh rice paper for spring rolls. Something we’d learned before at the cooking class but always good to refresh! We sat inside and had tea, banana cake, rice crackers and what tasted kind of like a chutney with shredded papaya, pineapple and banana. Hang translated for us and explained that the woman used to sell fruit and the ‘chutney’ at the markets but mostly now welcomes tourists into her home. Across from us was one of their traditional wooden beds with a few straw mats for padding. So enjoy your Sealy Posturepedic!
A short cycle later we visited another home. There was a man cooking banh tieu which looked like a bread roll only it tasted sweeter. Hot and fresh! He was there on his own. His wife was in town looking after their granddaughter.
Cycling around the area was pretty spectacular. Locals said hello as we rode past and we only saw two other tourists in the 1.5 hours we were there. There’s a path to ride on and bridges to cycle over, some of which you’ll need some leg muscle and confidence for! Hang pointed out a giant jack fruit (around 10kg). There’s so much fruit here! No wonder they have fruit for dessert. For EVERY meal.
Well, bikes back on the boat and 2 hours along the river to Sa Dec. Lunch was served on the boat and first to come out was the elephant ear fish. I wasn’t sure about it at first, especially because you can see the head and body of the fish (not my thing). But I must’ve had at least 4 fresh spring rolls, all in which I put pieces of the fish with green salad and dipped them into the fish sauce. The lemongrass chicken was our favourite. Yum! We tried papaya salad for the first time during this experience too. Very good!
Hang pointed out the bridge that Australia financially supported. It was built in 2000 and I can see why they needed it. The Mekong River is wide!
After thanking our local guide, boat driver and cook, we walked a short distance to the ancient house with a famous love story. Ever heard of ‘The Lover’, a story about a French girl and a Vietnamese man? I hadn’t but now I want to read the book and watch the movie. This ancient house is where the man from that true love story lived. But with his new wife and children. As a Vietnamese man, his family did not support his love for the French girl. He contacted her later in life and told her he still loved her. Sad story. Beautiful house.
Hang led us through the nearby local markets before we continued our road trip. We had 1.5 hours in the car before arriving in Can Tho. Hang said there are around 1.5 million people here. The roads were certainly less crazy! And there weren’t as many scooters to dodge when crossing the road.
We checked into the Hau Giang T5 Hotel then explored the night markets. It was nice to see different things to buy there. Saigon had market after market with the same things. On our way to the Ho Chi Minh statue along the water, we stumbled across a place called Vine Coffee playing Christmas carols. It seemed the perfect way to end our trip together – a merry drink. I ordered a big Tiger beer thinking it would be a bit bigger than the small cans. The guy who took my order smiled when I asked for it and I realised why when it arrived. It was big! Well 640ml. For dinner we had ‘takeaway’, a dried chicken and cheese crepe for 15,000VND. That’s £0.50GBP or $0.90AUD on the current exchange rates!
Thursday – Floating market! Last day in Vietnam!
Pouring rain. We had been pretty lucky with the weather so far. But Hang handed us a poncho and helped us onto a boat at the water’s edge. Around thirty minutes later we were cruising past people selling fruit and vegetables in the middle of the Mekong River. You won’t find any meat at this market. They show what they’re selling by hanging the type of fruit or vegetable from a long stick off the side of the boat. People come from all different provinces and there is a number on the boat, often at the top, to identify which one they’re from. Thankfully it was no longer raining.
A full circle later we cruised onto a nearby farm full of fruit. After walking through the fruit trees, we had the opportunity to eat papaya, purple dragonfruit, mango, milk apple (or star apple) and jackfruit. Straight from the farm onto our plates!
At around 11:30am after a quick rest and refresh at the hotel, we checked out and drove a few minutes to Gony Cafe. The menu wasn’t what my sister and I would normally choose though it was a good way to force us to try something different. It was an array of tuna salad, catfish, sweet and sour pork ribs, soup with water spinach and pork and of course fruit.
Back on the road to Ho Chi Minh City airport. In 3.5 hours my sister and I arrived at the airport though bound for different destinations. I was off to Cambodia and my sister had a lonnnnng flight back to Australia. Bye Vietnam!