As immediately as I left the arrivals and the wall of heat hit me, I knew it was going to be another exciting exotic adventure in Asia. I had heard great things about Vietnam/Cambodia from other group travelers I’ve met over the years, and this was part of the reason I decided upon this trip. At the hotel I discovered that I would be sharing a room on this trip, and I met up with the rest of the group in the evening. The hotel was in a part of town that was seemingly popular with tourists, and I came to call it ‘Backpackersville’ for our short stay there. I had my first taste of Pho, and we sampled some of the locally brewed Bia Hoi, costing a mere 5,000 VND, sat on small patio stools, enjoying the cool night air with the locals and my new travel companions. It was only a taste of Hanoi, however, because in the morning we had to travel to Ha Long Bay, and that would take four hours. I hadn’t quite had time to acclimatize to the humidity, and so I bought some water for the journey and packed a small pack for the overnight stay on the boat in the Bay. We made it there in time for lunch on the boat and it was very nice, all freshly cooked by the on-board galley chef. Some of us opted for kayaking in the bay in the afternoon, and that was a lot of fun. These were two-man kayaks, so my room mate took the front seat and I the back. Rowing was easier than I remembered though some of the others struggled with steering and power in some cases. We paddled around a floating village and through the limestone rock of one of the islands. It was really nice to get up close to the water eroded cave and feel the drops of water raining down as we passed under it. Later we went to Ti Top Island and climbed to the summit to catch the sun setting, and after, went for a swim in the bay by the man-made beach. The sunset was so perfect and it felt so good to be in the water, but we eventually had to go back to the boat for dinner. In the night, the weather turned and we were treated to a full-on electrical storm. I was woken up by the thunder and jumped out of bed to close the windows and put down some towels, but it was one hell of a light show.
The next day we went to see the Sung Sot Caves, nicknamed the ‘Amazing Cave’, a network of large caves and grottoes, before we returned to the shore. The caves were quite humid inside and although we were not inside for long, my t-shirt had completely soaked through. From there, we returned to Hanoi for the afternoon. We had heard about egg coffee and decided to give it a go, and its a lot less weird than it sounds. Its simply an egg custard coffee – Its more of a dessert than a drink, but very nice nonetheless. We bought a few snacks from the local vendors and made our way to the train station to catch our overnight train. There was some confusion over which cabin people belonged in, and a ‘porter’ tried to extort 2 dollars out of me for taking my case from me and putting it up in the overhead compartment. The group leader reluctantly paid him and then he phoned the office to report him. The overnight train was much more luxurious than the ones I had been on in China, but this one had doors on the cabins and seemed a bit anti-social in comparison. I managed to find the Canadian girl’s snacks under my bed and returned them to her, and I could see she was most thankful. Hue was a bit more commercial than Hanoi, and we arrived at the hotel mid-morning. As we were a little bit ravenous, not having a substantial evening meal the night before, we decided to go for brunch, and discovered that we were in a popular area for tourists. Settling on the DMZ Bar, we did have a nice breakfast for 100,000 VND and there was an interesting map of Vietnam’s demilitarized zone on the ceiling, featuring an over-sized Huey helicopter as the ceiling fan. We had an afternoon of visiting various monuments in Hue. The first on the list was the Imperial Citadel. Reminiscent of the Forbidden City of Beijing, the layout of the Citadel was very familiar. Our local guide, Von, was knowledgeable but a little bit pushy, a little like a teacher, making sure we heard all he had to say. Some of what he said was fascinating though. The second stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda. There was an interesting exhibit about Thich Quang Duc, who was the Monk that drove to Saigon and set himself on fire in the street to protest against the persecution of Buddhists in 1963, and at the pagoda there’s a nice view of the Perfume River. The last stop on the tour was the Tomb of Tu Duc, the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. It was an impressive layout by jack fruit trees and a lake, but some of it was undergoing conservation still, and the sun had decided to go in. There was another cloud over the afternoon as one of the group had left a scarf in the van and it had gone missing. The driver insisted he’d taken another group to the train station and that one of them may have picked it up, but I think we all knew it was the driver. The scarf was returned and no questions were asked, but it was silently agreed, we wouldn’t be leaving anything in the vans from that point forward. In the evening we went for a group dinner at a commercial place across the road. It was nice enough, the food was palatable, they plied us with cheap shots, it was happy hour on beer (3 for 2) and it seemed cheap enough. Some Jenga, and forfeits and some of us decided to move on to a club. Some of the others joined us later, but it proved to be a hit. The music got most of the younger members of the group on the dance floor, while some of us stayed at the table quaffing more cocktails. I went for a dance when the music was more to my taste and the crowd parted for a dance off, so I joined in of course. I think we all had a good time together, but it had to come to an end, we had yet another early start in the morning, leaving Hue for Hoi An. This involved a long but spectacular trip through the mountains, and was well worth the trip. Nevertheless everyone was a little bit worse for wear after a night of heavy drinking and if anything, it seemed to be getting even more humid. However, Hoi An was very different to Hue. The only comparison I can think of is, that if Hue was like Camden, Hoi An was Covent Garden. That’s unfair, I know, but Hoi An’s centerpiece was its Old Town, where many of the buildings kept their French Colonial appearances, and here and there you’d find preserved houses and museums. Artisans still ply their trade as tailors and potters, and there are now many bars and restaurants within the Old Town to take advantage of the many tourist visitors it gets. It wasn’t too far to walk to the Old Town, but it wasn’t very big, and I don’t think any of us were used to the heat to be honest. We had lunch rather late and everyone wanted to do their own thing for dinner. My room mate and I went out for a meal at a place in the Old Quarter and we took a wonder across the bridge, but found that it was full of loud bars and no one in them, so we walked back towards the hotel when we found a place called the Dive Bar, which had a live band. We met some other travelers in there, including a Brazilian girl who had spent four years working in Birmingham, so it was nice to swap stories of home. The next day, I’d booked onto a Cave Rappelling activity. As always, I try to push myself on every trip and do something that scares me. This sounded amazing on paper, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. There were four of us in total which I think was just the right size of group. We got picked up and taken to our destination, we then had to hike up to the staging area, which was in the middle of a group of Buddhist Caves in Da Nang. This area was accessible to tourists and they looked at us quite strangely as we geared up and took our practice attempts. We abseiled into a small cave, then off the cliff face, and then we had lunch and a walk around. After looking into one of the other caves and meeting some friendly locals, we undertook our last rappel into a cave that would take us all the way down to ground level. It was very scary, but it was almost a blessing I couldn’t see the bottom when I attempted the drop. After getting to the bottom, I was so glad to have done it and not chickened out. We had a little bit of time to explore the cave, which looked like something out of ‘Big Trouble in Little China’, and then it was back to the hotel in time for our cooking class. When I’d arrived back at the hotel, everyone was ready to go. and our guide grabbed my t-shirt and laughed, because it was soaked right through. I had to have a very quick wash and change, which I achieved in record time. The cooking class was a charity-funded initiative called Streets International, which helped poor and underprivileged children learn English and develop skills in the catering and hospitality industry. We learned how to use rice batter to create different types of noodles and learn their names. We then had a lunch made for us which was really nice, but of course the four of us who had gone rappelling in the caves had already had lunch. Later in the afternoon, after some shopping, we retired to the hotel pool but when asked about whether or not we would take part in the cycling tour early the next day, there were a few of us who thought better of it. Seven of us in total decided that we would hire some bikes early the next day and drive out and do something a bit more adventurous, we met up at the Morning Glory again, as the food was so good, to plan a route. It was really hot in the restaurant and we were put upstairs. The Greek girl who was with us asked out loud if anything could be done, and I said: “At least you can take your knickers off if you’re hot,” as she was wearing a dress. She responded loudly and without thinking; “For your information, I’m not wearing any knickers!” The room came to an abrupt halt and we all erupted in laughter. So much so, in fact, that I’d dropped my napkin on the floor. As I went to retrieve it, my room mate pointed out; “Look, Steve’s going to take a look for himself…” With the route planned, My Son Ruins first, and then the beach, we set off at 8:30am to get the bikes. We had a rough route mapped on an offline map and a dodgy gps on an ipad, we had five bikes between the seven of us and it cost about £3 to hire each one. What the guy hadn’t told us is that we’d need to pay about £4.50 in fuel, which some were reluctant to pay, seeing it for a scam. In any case, we set off around 9:00am and headed for the main road. Getting used to the bikes and the traffic was fun, and we had a couple of ‘speed junkies’ among us. We had a couple of hiccups to start with. My room mate had his cash card swallowed by an ATM (he eventually got it back), we spent a lot of time trying to find cheaper petrol for those who didn’t get a fill up at the start, and then we got lost a few times, but in any case we managed to get to My Son by about 1pm, which gave us plenty of time to walk around the site. The ruins were pretty good, and we got some really nice pictures, but the sun was incredibly hot, and we decided to head back, rather than try to get the beach in as well. On the way back, disaster struck again when one of the girls ran out of petrol. I rode on ahead seeing if there was a petrol stop nearby and we soon got her back on the road again (though she developed some Richard Hammond-esque issues with her bike). It was a good day, and the bikes made the trip worthwhile to be honest, though I had caught the sun a little and was a little bit lobster-ish for the next few days. We didn’t have an awful lot of time when we got back to town, but we did some last minute sight-seeing, taking in a few of the small temples and houses in the Old Town, then we had a light lunch on the street, which consisted of a refreshing drink and some caramel thing over ice. Either way, it was tasty and different. Some last minute souvenirs and a walk back to the hotel and we had to pack to leave. I think aside from seeing the rice terraces or taking a boat ride, Hoi An had very little left to offer us anyway, as nice as it was, we had exhausted it, it was time to move on. So in the evening we took a bus to the airport at Da Nang, and once again, someone left something on the bus but luckily realized before it was too late. We got to Ho Chi Minh City for sundown and went out for a meal half an hour later as a group. Ho Chi Minh city had a character all of its own, but I actually liked how a lot of the sight-seeing opportunities were on our doorstep. Our meal wasn’t liked by all, but I enjoyed what I had ordered. One girl made a big deal about being charged for the moist towelettes that had been distributed to everyone without being told there was a charge. One of the Aussies tried to calm the situation by offering to pay for all of them, which she didn’t want to accept. So I felt I had to say something. I think it came across as confrontational, but we’d all been traveling for a number of hours and I didn’t want to waste the evening talking about consumer rights and bad service again. I apologized to the girl afterwards, saying I was winding her up, and she forgave me so it wasn’t a big deal. Anyway she stayed around to have a couple of beers in a local place afterwards, but I think we were all pretty tired and it wasn’t a late one. The next day, we had another early start, as we were off to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. We met out guide called Hai, who was very funny and informative. It turned out he was a radio carrier for the Americans during the Vietnamese War and he knew a lot about the tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels themselves were very narrow, and one of the larger members of our group attempted the sneak holes, but got stuck. I made it through half of the tunnels, but they were dusty and narrow, and it was too low to go on without crawling so I opted out of the full-on claustrophobia experience. It apparently got worse further on, so I picked a good time to leave. There was an option to pay an additional amount and fire one of the weapons used in the war, so I opted to try a few rounds in the M-16. It was much smaller than I imagined but there was a kick to it. I didn’t find it particularly accurate, but it was an experience to give it a go. I’ll do the rest of my shooting with a camera. The rest of the afternoon we had to ourselves, so after a spot of lunch at a place I spotted through a back door, four of us decided to check out the Reunification Palace and then the War Remnants Museum. Reunification Palace was the headquarters of South Vietnam up until 1975 when the North stormed the gates of the palace and the government surrendered. The palace exists as a tourist attraction, preserved as it was when it was stormed. The tanks that broke through the perimeter fence are displayed on the site, and the rooms inside are preserved as they were in 1975 to give visitors a feel for how it looked in its prime. There are a lot of rooms to see on multiple floors, and each room has photographs and explanations regarding what the rooms were for and who visited before the war came to an end. It looked like something you might have seen in an old James Bond film or the Man from U.N.C.L.E. The War Remnants Museum was an entirely different thing altogether. Just around the corner and with several large tanks and aircraft in the courtyard, many of the exhibits within spoke of the horrors and the legacy that the Vietnam War left behind. We were there until the museum closed, and then we headed back to the hotel which was just two blocks away. It was a sad night because it was our last night together as a group. Out of our original group only four were carrying on to Cambodia. However, a new group would be joining us from this point onward. We only met them briefly over dinner, as the rest of the evening we spent with the people we . We went on to a Belgian Beer place and played some games of guess who, and even back at the hotel, we had a drink in the lobby and reminisced over the past few days. We were late finishing, but it was worth it. The next day involved a trip down the Mekong Delta, which consisted of a tour of some of the islands there. While it seemed like a charming introduction to life on the islands it did seem incredibly forced. We went from living exhibit to living exhibit. See this, try some of that, take a picture of this thing, listen to this while you eat some of this, etc. It was a nice morning, and we got to do some unusual things, such as sample honey directly from the hive, wear a python around your neck, and take a traditional skiff down the river, and the food at the end was delicious. The afternoon and evening was largely our own. The four of us from the original group decided to go out for dinner, and we decided to try a place recommended by Trip Advisor, which was a short walk away. On the way, the adventurous eaters I was with saw a local place with a tiled floor that was being washed out with a hose and wanted to eat there instead. It wasn’t really what I was in the mood for, and I made this clear. I may have said it looked like an abattoir closing for the night. The Australians seemed like they wanted to give it a go, but they agreed they may come back for a late bite at the end of the night. Where we ended up was a restaurant in what was an old factory or refinery. It was pretty nice, but not cheap. That said, I really enjoyed the meal I ordered, the other’s less so I gathered. With the Aussies calling it a night early, my room mate and I went out to see if we could go to the top of the Bitexco Financial Tower, the one that looks like Tony Stark’s tower in Avengers Assemble. It wasn’t cheap but it was an impressive view from the top. Afterwards we went for a drink in a random Aussie bar called The Blue Gecko, not far from the place we ate earlier. They had the Tottenham game on live which my room mate appreciated being a Spurs fan, so we stayed for a few. I question how Australian the bar was, but it was nice and honest. They had a dart board and a pool table and were playing classic rock music, so I couldn’t complain. All in all I really enjoyed Vietnam. I think every city had a character all of its own. The food was amazing, the people very friendly, and the weather was glorious. I could have stayed in Hanoi a bit longer though, as I didn’t really see that much of it. The people I traveled with were very nice on the whole, and there are some I won’t forgot in a hurry, though I found it odd that we lost so many from the group after Vietnam. I think the cave rappelling was the scariest thing I did during the trip but it was well worth it, though there were some hairy moments on the bike too when we attempted to cross the freeway. So to anyone who thinks they know Vietnam, but have never been. I have just one thing to say to you. “You weren’t there, man!”