Although this blog isn’t about telling you places I’m visiting through my trip, I thought I’d share a summary of my adventures in case some of you are interested. I unfortunately won’t have any of my photos to share until I’m back in Oz.
Here it comes…
Vietnam’s capital city: Hanoi. Population: 8 million; motorbikes: 4 million; road regulations… who cares! Cars and motorbikes beep as if to say ‘watch out, I’m coming’ or ‘get out of my way’. Everyone overtakes everyone, the street lines (and lights!) are not followed. I haven’t figured out yet how they use their indicators and high beams… Motorbikes carry as much as a family of four, five big dead pigs, a cleaning business, enough stuff to hide the whole bike… In other words, anything! Crossing the street is an adventure in itself! The way to do it is to cross very slowly so that vehicles can see and avoid you.
Hanoi is great. The food is brilliant (like everywhere in Vietnam), the streets of Old Hanoi are narrow, crowded and they smell… and it’s all part of its charm!
I was really lucky to have my aunt’s partner’s cousin, who lives in Hanoi, come and pick me up from my hotel on day one to show me around the city (read this leadership blog
I’ve written about him). I was slightly surprised to see him show up on his motorbike, but it’s given me a real taste of Hanoi! I also did a guided tour of the city and saw a handful of beautiful temples.
One afternoon, as I was sitting down on a bench by the lake reading my Lonely Planet book, two young Vietnamese guys came to ask me if they could practice English with me. I was surprised (and suspicious, let’s face it) at first, but I agreed. 10 seconds later, about 10 other young Vietnamese people were surrounding me, asking me questions and answering mine. It was a great experience and certainly not something you’d see happening in Australia or Canada. They had no shame. An experience like this happened again and again throughout my trip in Vietnam. I was also asked to be in photos a few times. The locals are so open, curious, keen to learn, smiley and they have a great sense of humour!
I went to Sa Pa on a night train. I absolutely loved the place. Located in the north of Vietnam, Sa Pa is surrounded by mountains and cascading rice paddies and is home to many ethnic minorities who bring so many colours to its market with embroidened everything. They come down to Sa Pa from their villages to try and cash in on the tourists. ‘Shopping from me’ is a sentence I heard about 50 times a day. These women (the men are all at home watching TV! No joke!) first ask you where you’re from, then what your name is and then they try to close the sale!
I did a trek through four villages, going through the mountains and rice paddies. I was accompanied by my guide, Quan, a 21-year old Vietnamese guy and his 23-year-old friend Tuyet (girl) who also wants to become a tour guide. We hadn’t left the village of Sa Pa yet that a Black Hmong woman (one of the ethnic minorities) tagged along and said she’d walk us to her village so that I would then ‘shop from her’. I insisted that I wouldn’t, but she had a few tactics in her bag… As it was raining at times (and it had rained the few days before), the tracks were very muddy and slippery and so the Black Hmong woman would take my hand to help me (tactic #1). She then made me a horse out of some rice straw (tactic #2). She let me take photos of her (tactic #3). She made a heart-shaped grass thingy again (tactic #4) and she was extremelly happy and nice with me (final tactic #5). So when it was time to leave us, I felt bad not buying anything! Unfortunately, I didn’t like anything she had on offer… I bought a bracelet anyway for an amount of money she wasn’t happy with at all (I had to win somewhere!).
And about my tour guides, they were so happy to have met me that they each bought me a little present. In exchange, I shout them to their first ever hot chocolate!
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay means ‘Where the dragon descends into the sea’… It’s a bay with 1969 islands, floating houses, caves… in other words, it’s heaven on earth. Sublime! I did a two-day cruise with a group of about 18 tourists, all lovely people. We went kayaking, visiting a cave, swam at the beach…
I jumped on a ‘sleeping bus’ on the way south of Vietnam. That’s when I discovered how much of a giant I am by Vietnamese standards… The bed was way too small! It was a very long night indeed. It’s also when I had the most peculiar pit stop… Not only did the toilets not have a door (which can get a bit embarrassing), but there wasn’t actually any toilet (or hole in the floor!). I think they had figured out the angle in the floor for things to flow to a drain somewhere… Anyway, let’s skip the details!
In the morning, we arrived in Hue, the old capitale of Vietnam. I did a quick four-hour stop to visit the imperial palace before jumping back on the bus again towards Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam. On the way, we passed through Danang, a beach town. On the left hand side were beautiful, well maintained beaches with multi-million dollar resorts and on the right hand side, shacks (well, the locals’ houses!) falling to pieces… I wonder how often these two realities cross each other or work together… Quite sad really!
Hoi An… a highlight (among so many others!)! The European look alike town sits next to a river, has absolutely amazing food, nice beaches nearby and, above all, tailors all over the place. It was hard to resist to a brand new dress, but I did! It was very peaceful. Plus, I arrived on the night of the mid-autumn festival and the full moon, a big celebration in Vietnam. It was insanely beautiful! Lanterns everywhere, dragon dances, thousands of people in the streets… brilliant atmosphere!
The next evening, I played the most amusing bingo game I’ve ever played. You basically get three words. Two singers pick one word at a time and sing the song associated with that word. If you’ve got that word, you earn a flag. If you get three flags before the end of the game, you win a lantern! I didn’t win, but it was fun!
I also decided to do a cooking class to improve my Vietnamese cooking skills… Can’t wait to try them out! 🙂
Another night bus on my way to Dalat… Which was much of a let down! It was raining, which meant I couldn’t do a few things. The town was ok, but nothing to make me want to stay any longer. So one night was enough for me.
The next morning, I was waiting for my driver who would take me to the bus to Saigon. As he had called at 7:30am to confirm my pickup, everything was fine. After waiting for 1h15 (a 1h wait is normal over here, so I only started questioning things after 1h15), I asked the lady at the hotel what was going on. She made a phone call and asked me to wait one minute (with her very basic English). 10 minutes later, the bus company called me to say that the driver hadn’t been able to find my hotel, but not to worry I would have another driver picking me up and I’d go to Saigon today. “Don’t worry. A driver comes and you go to Saigon today. Don’t worry.” I wasn’t worried at all. What happens happens! The driver arrived 10 minutes later. He couldn’t speak English so I didn’t ask too many questions. We finally arrived at the central station for local buses. The driver gave money to them and pointed towards the bus I had to get on. And then, I received the ‘deluxe’ Vietnamese treatment! I was in a A-class charter going to Saigon with local people only. The seats were more comfortable than the sleeping bus, they gave us a free bottle of water, the bus was clean and decorated, people were quiet and there was Vietnamese music to add a bit of ambiance to the whole thing (which made me smile)! The only problem was that I couldn’t understand what the guide said, but my seat neighbour translated ’10 minutes’, ’30 minutes’ when we stopped for toilet or lunch breaks. A 14-year-old girl, pushed by her brother, came to talk to me and said she wanted to become an English breakfast. She was so cute!
I finally arrived in Saigon, Vietnam’s biggest city, around 6pm. As it was dark outside and I didn’t have a good map of the place (and the local bus, unlike the tourist bus, doesn’t drop you off infront of a dozen hotels!), I had no idea how to get to the street I wanted to go to. I asked directions to the bus guide, but that’s right, he didn’t speak English! He asked a taxi driver for some help and he was more than happy to drive me where I wanted to. The only problem: I had no Vietnamese Dong (money) left! I needed an ATM. Plus the driver wanted way too much money! A few minutes later, I had about 6 or 7 local taxi drivers surrounding me and discussing my case. The fact that I had a Mastercard seemed to create quite a discussion… In the end, a local bus driver who could speak very little English came to me. I explained where I wanted to go. He was listening to the locals surrounding me when suddenly, it’s as if he was sick of hearing them arguing, he asked me to follow him, gave money to a motorbike guy and told me he would drive me where I wanted to go – no need to pay him. So that stranger had just shout me a ride! How nice!
Arrived at destination (i.e .a street with heaps of hotels), I started asking room prices around when suddenly, it started pelting down! It was insane! The street flooded. And because I didn’t want to stay in the hotel where I was asking for a price, the woman showed me the side door and let me out in a little alleyway. Nice one! There was a bunch of people standing undercover so I joined them. I spotted a couple of tourists and asked them where they were staying, which was in a family home with a few rooms only down the alleyway. We waited a couple of minutes for the rain to slow down and I went to check it out. It was perfect! Modest, but excellent! Just goes to show that everything happens for a reason…The next day, I visited the Cu Chi tunnels, a 200-km tunnel system dug by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war. I crawled in a tunnel for about 100 metres and it was so small, difficult and hot. I can’t imagine people lived there… I then went to the war museum where I saw photos I couldn’t look at because of how horrific or sad they were!
The second day I had a very lovely encounter… I was sitting on a bench when a 82-year old Vietnamese man, who was slowly strolling along with his walking stick, said something to find out if I spoke English. I said yes and so he gestured meaning he couldn’t speak English. As I knew that older generations of Vietnamese could speak French (for most of them), I asked him if he could speak French. His eyes immediately lit up. He was so happy! He was a doctor during the war. I told him it must have been difficult and his answer, which made me smile, was that it wasn’t because they didn’t have all the instruments and medications of today. His name: Philippe. A catholic who went to school in a convent run by nuns and priests where he learnt to respect the law, his teachers and his parents (in that specific order). He said he was suffering from alzheimer, hypertension, etc. He said he probably wouldn’t survive another year… It was sad, but he seemed so happy. He said he just wanted to live in the present. We spoke for 45 minutes. Before I left, he gave me the titles of two books I absolutely have to read. If I read these, he said, I won’t have to read again as they will teach me everything I need to know. We shook hands and left (after having taken a photo with him, of course!). What a wonderful encounter…
There are many catholics in Saigon. I went past two cathedrals and it was so crowded that there were people sitting outside during mass… It’s not something we’d see in Australia or Canada!
I did a two-day guided tour in the Mekong Delta which included paddling through a mangrove, visiting islands where they produce fruit, honey, rice, noodles and coconut candies (yum!) and going to Vietnam’s biggest floating market. Quite a view!
That’s it for my Vietnam summary. 🙂