April 26, 2007

South to Saigon

Mui Ne is a coastal area lying five hours north of Ho Chi Minh City. Surprisingly there are more resorts here than there are anywhere else in Vietnam, most of these resorts have been built within the last five years. There is one long road dotted with beach side resorts and restaurants. If you want a very remote private holiday relaxing in nice resorts it's the place to come - you'll certainly be spoiled for choice. The resorts look a bit surreal in the sandy barren surroundings.... each entrance has a grand entrance, immaculately manicured green grass, huge shady trees and Disneyland type buildings.
We stayed for two nights and decided to move south towards Saigon. Although Mui Ne is beautiful, everything is spread out, most of the restaurants are swanky western ones or built to house tour groups. The absence of good local food and lack of a central hub made it feel like a place that was manufactured for tourism. Which is exactly what it is ... and what people pay good money to visit... so each to there own .... and now on to Saigon.

:: Typical lightpole in the city ::

It's hot hot hot in Saigon so it's hard to get enthusiastic about sightseeing. We arrived late in the evening and set about finding whatever accommodation hadn't been snapped up during the day. The first area we hit happened to be where the accommodation sharks hung out, after a while you realise they are all related to each other or working for the same cartel at least... in high humidity walking up flights of stairs to look at a room it can quickly try one's patience.
Besides that Ho Chi Minh City is a pleasant place to spend some time. After all the rushing around of the past month we've been uploading photos, catching up on the blog and enjoying lots of cable TV in the coolness of our room. Conveniently the cricket world cup is reaching it's climax so there have been a couple of late nights.

Our plan from here is to leave on Saturday for a trip in the Mekong Delta and make our way up by river into Cambodia early next week.

That's where we'll next pop up on the radar.

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Nha Trang

:: Pho is your friend ::

I'll start by admitting that our first number of days in Nha Trang were spent in a fabulous hotel with magnificent balcony views over a turquoise South China Sea. Staying in the flashpacker hotel was of necessity to be close to our families ... or that's the excuse anyhow!

:: Um, Yeah...probably the best room view yet ::

Nha Trang always receives mixed reviews. For the most part travellers find it to be one of the less attractive parts of Vietnam. It's a beach side city, the core tourist area is a small group of streets containing restaurants, cheap hotels and dive shops. It is a real ugly ducking compared to Hoi An but it's one of those places that's well worth the time when you scratch the surface.
When we'd said goodbye to the Nances and the Littles we packed up the bags and moved to the "Nice Hotel" a bright blue budget high rise hotel slap bang in the centre of the touristy area - it was straight into cheap and cheerful tackiness. If a shop isn't selling bikinis, board shorts and souvenirs then it's a dive shop selling dive courses. Nha Trang is well known as a good dive spot in Vietnam as a result a large number of dive shops have mushroomed and competition is so healthy that it rivals Thailand for cheap dive courses. We did a couple of amazing dives over the national park to see the coral and fish first hand. Marcus completed his open water cert here, and the Littles all went out to experience the depths as a day trip together.

In our final days in Nha Trang we ventured out of the tourist area in search of a highly recommended Pho (noodle soup) stall. Not only did we manage to find great Pho but we also stumbled upon beautiful little secluded neighbourhoods. These were local residential areas under the shade of huge coconut trees, all the houses had big displays of plants and flowers. Men woman and children sat out in the streets watching life go by... a far cry from the touristy Nha Trang only a few blocks away. As always when you take a few steps away from backpacker central you always see real life.

:: We really enjoyed our time with our parents and Maija ; Thanks for coming to see us, it means alot to us ::

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Catchup: Hanoi , Hue and Hoi An

:: Halong Bay ::

Once again we've neglected updating the blog. Both our families joined us on our journey in Vietnam - realistically that covers most of our regular readership, but in case anyone else missed us we're still alive and travelling ;-)

Let's pick it up from where we left off........

After a brief day stop in Hanoi we hopped on a night train up to Sapa near the Chinese border. Hard sleeper trains in Vietnam truly are hard sleeper ... no such thing as a little sleeping mat to add some comfort to the "shelf". Sapa town itself is a tourist town set high up in the hills over a spectacular vista. The dominating Fanispan mountain range, which the sun disappears behind long before it gets dark, serves as an imposing backdrop. Over the years Sapa has become a tourist hub where people base themselves and go off exploring the mountains and visiting the local hill tribe villages. The local hill tribe girls have naturally discovered that there's a fast buck to be made from the tour buses so the town is awash with girls all dressed up selling jewellery and clothes chanting "buy from me". They hook onto their targets fast and are pretty pushy with their sales tactics....following you anywhere you try to run.

:: How can you refuse ::

We rented a motorbike and zoomed off around the countryside to take in some of the natural beauty of the area. The hill tribe people were all busy making new rice terraces. All men, women and children were on the arduous task of breaking up hard soil - I'd opt for the town selling gig any day of the week.

We headed back to Hanoi in time for St Patrick's Day. A crucial final day of the Six Nations Rugby Championship was watched in Finnegan's Irish Pub, Hanoi. Despite a winning Irish result France still managed to pip us on points. Luckily the Irish Cricket team were able to give us something to celebrate later on in the day.

: Everything going every-which-way.... ::

Hanoi is the city of near death experiences. There are a ridiculous number of motorbikes on the roads and paths so every venture out around the city requires full concentration. Any crossing of the street results in a close shave with a motorbike as the traffic weaves around pedestrians, cars and other motorbikes coming up one way streets. The incessant beeping of horns, total disregard for rules of the road and common attitude that everyone has right of way can be very annoying. Tourists with their heads stuck in a Lonely Planet guide book are prime targets.

:: Bia Hoi Junction ::

"Beer junction", a busy intersection with local bars on each corner is the perfect location to watch danger unfold from the safety of your plastic child size seat. These no frills drinking establishments on each corner serve Bia Tuoi (fresh beer) to the droves of tourists who appear each evening. The tiny chairs line the footpath spilling out into the road. As the evening progresses more and more of the busy intersection is swallowed by the busy bars until finally the police arrive and clear everyone back a couple of feet. No sooner is their back turned but the chairs are back out onto the street. Last ones to arrive each evening get the seats on the edge - a little too close to the action sometimes. An ideal spot if you're in the market to buy a knock off Lonely Planet!

After catching up with Marcus' folks and sister Maija we got our skates on and ticked most of the boxes in Hanoi, including a visit to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and the infamous Water Puppets. After a few days of wandering around the Old Quarter, good Bia Hoi and excellent phos (soup noodles) we're on the move to Halong Bay. Hopefully far far away from the beeping horns.

Every travel agent, hotel and restaurant offers a trip to Halong Bay. There are options to suit a rock bottom backpackers budget straight thought to flash packer luxury. Picking a tour is half the ordeal as it's almost impossible to wade through all the options and decide what's different about them all. We picked a middle of the range option, two nights, three days and crossed our fingers that the boat wouldn't be a rat ridden nightmare and that the rain and clouds would lift long enough for us to actually see something. Nightly reports at beer junction concerning tours and weather conditions didn't bode very well.
As it happens the tour itself turned into a success, the rain stopped and the mists cleared allowing us to see the karst seascape of the bay. The boat turned out to be sea worthy and comfortable (we constantly compared it to those around us). On our second day we hiked on Cat Ba island and kayaked around the bay into a huge grotto. Surprisingly throughout the whole trip we didn't see many other tour boats.
Halong Bay is a major tourist spot, hence the number of tours.

The true reality of just how big a tourist pull it is dawns when you get to Halong Bay port and see the all the junks jostling for a port side docking and frantically trying to disembark yesterday's passengers and get a fresh tour on. On the first day our boat was delayed so we were spared any stressful experience. Our final day was a different story altogether. Racing other boats back towards Halong port we arrived ahead of many but too late to secure a port side docking. There were at least six boats between us and the mainland. Instead of having a sensible solution to the allocation dockside time a survival of the fittest attitude prevails. Our boat (along with every other boat) started crashing into back of other boats looking for a gap in which to nose the bow of the stern in and gain some metres. It doesn't take long for a total deadlock to occur. Boats by the port are trapped and there's no room for any sensible manoeuvre. The air is full of fumes and eventually all passengers disembark treacherously clambering from boat to boat in order to make a path to the mainland. It's in these final moments of the tour that you're most likely to feel stressed and most likely to get an up close and personal feel ...and taste of Halong Bay.

:: The shore is that-a-way...::

Hot Hue

Heading south by night train we arrived Hue city. Most of Hue's monuments and important buildings are contained in the picturesque leafy tranquil Citadel on the north of the river. Maija, Marcus and I took a stroll around here on a very hot afternoon .... three cyclos followed us around for a full hour refusing to take no for an answer. These guys never give in! We rounded the day off with a look around the colourful local food market.
Hue is located 100 km south of the 17th parallel, this line of longitude was established as the dividing line between North and South Vietnam after the First Indochine War.

In the Vietnam War it was the official demarcation between North and South territory and a Demilitarized Zone which was heavily occupied by forces from both sides. On a trip to the DMZ we saw the left over camps, airbases and old US helicopters and fighting machines. As this zone was a free fire zone and suffered incessant bombings the local villagers of Vinh Moc were left with three options, one was to leave their homes and livelihoods, the second was to stay in their homes and more than likely be killed and the third was to start digging and relocate their village underground.

The system of tunnels became their living quarters for many years. Squeezing through the dark, damp passages these days (now reinforced) is harrowing enough without having to imagine hiding out down there in the darkness as bombs are rained down on the ground above.

"Sorry I'm late .... I had to see my tailor for a fitting....."

The town of Hoi An is without a doubt our highlight of Vietnam. Not only is it an exceptionally preserved South-East Asian trading port with beautiful old buildings full of character it's also a clothes shopaholic's dream and a eater's gourmet paradise. Dee's folks joined us in Hoi An and we all spent a week there taking the tailoring and restaurants by storm.
The words tailor and Hoi An are synonymous, part of the thrill of spending time in Hoi An is getting a couple of items run up by the army of tailors that work around the clock making gear for tourists. It's not unheard of for "a couple of items" to increase to a number large enough to necessitate the buying of a large hold all to get it all home. Despite the heat - which takes the fun out of getting in and out of cashmere suits and silk dresses it was all and all a successful experience. Organising a meeting time for dinner became more complicated day by day as people had to nip off to see their personal tailor for a final fitting or adjustment.

:: Daina & Maija cooking lunch ::

Fortunately Hoi An was spared during the Vietnam War and avoided large scale bombing so it remains a perfectly preserved town. In the small grid of streets that make up the old town all the houses are painted a dark yellow with the paint peeling off them in an almost designer fashion. Many of the old grand colonial looking houses have been converted into restaurants on the bank of the Thu Bon River river. At night time the town is lit by lanterns and motorbike traffic is restricted bringing tranquillity and an old world atmosphere to the town.
Days quickly passed in Hoi An. We found time to squeeze in a couple of cooking courses so we could recreate all the good eats we sampled here. We also spend a great day out exploring the surrounding countryside on motorbikes.

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