A Travellerspoint blog


'There are more than four million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh'

Motorbikes and the Mekong: Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta: 26-30 Dec '13

sunny 31 °C
View The Great South East Asia Adventure on GoonishPython's travel map.

Faced with choice of a cheapish flight or a 30 hour bus journey, and with the weather in Vietnam so far not inspiring for beaches, I cheekily flew from Da Nang, near Hoi An, to Ho Chi Minh. Saigon was, for me, a difficult city to travel in. As the biggest city in Vietnam, it has all the infrastructure, plenty of hostels and bars, and lots of interesting places to see. But my hostel was half-empty and it was seemingly impossible to find out or book onward transport through the Mekong Delta to Southern Cambodia. Sure, buses exist, but no one can tell you when or how they work, but they'll assure you the do know, before suddenly not being able to sort anything out. So a very frustrating time was involved.

Despite this, the former capital of South Vietnam is a fascinating city, and packed from end to end with a multitude of motorbikes. HCMC is the place to learn about the Vietnam War - with the interesting Reunification Palace - preserved as it was when the Northern tanks broke through the gates in 1975 when South Vietnam surrendered - and the War Remnants Museum, which poignantly displays the atrocities of the war, although not from an entirely unbiased perspective. I also took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong controlled a large area by hiding from the US in an extensive tunnel network with scarily ingenious traps and other guerilla operations to stop the US army in its tracks.

In contrast to this, I visited some of the symbols of old Saigon - the Notre Dame Cathedral, the impressive French Colonial Post Office, and two contrasting temples, the Mariamman Hindu temple, all riotous colour (including neon) and the Jade Emperor Pagoda - a Chinese style temple that was surprisingly darkly coloured, although with the explosion of statues like the Hindu Temple and a lot (an awful lot) of turtles.

But the best thing in Ho Chi Minh was the street food - who can argue with lunch for half a dollar? My favourites were Banh Mi - a baguette filled with a pate like substance plus various salads and meats, and possibly an egg - and a noodles salad where she just kept adding things to the bag. I also got fresh Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which is guaranteed to make me happy.

The nightlife in HCMC is as bustling as the day - with a big fair in the park full of food, live music and even badminton, and the big street bars in D Bui Vien, where you can drink to your hearts content for a couple of dollars.

Next stop was the Mekong Delta, which I ended up doing on a day trip returning to Saigon - not my original plan, but the only one that seemed to be giving me any sense. Although obviously geared to tourists (visits to a workshop making coconut candy, popped rice and rice wine (whisky) anyone?), it did give you an insight to the Delta - with visits to Cai Be floating market, Vinh Long land market, cycling through a village, and boat rides through tiny canals and the Mekong itself. It made me wish the original homestay plan had worked out...

Posted by GoonishPython 15:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cooking, Christmas and Cham temples

Hoi An and My Son: 23-26 Dec '13

overcast 28 °C
View The Great South East Asia Adventure on GoonishPython's travel map.

So Hoi An held a lot of hopes - after all Lonely Planet describes it as "Vietnam's most atmospheric and delightful town" - and everyone kept telling us how beautiful it is, especially with all the lights at night, which should be good at Christmas. I'd arranged to meet a friend there, a guy I travelled with in Cambodia and Laos, as neither of us wanted to spend Christmas alone. Yes, Hoi An is beautiful - as a Unesco World Heritage Site the old town has been preserved, but we saw what we wanted to in half a day! It didn't quite have the culture of somewhere to chill out in - it was a bit too high-end for backpackers. It was still a cool place to wander round but as its so small, you do find yourself quickly orientated. The traditional nineteenth century merchant house was very interesting, with its mixture of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese styles, as were the Chinese temples, but travelling with someone who's just been to China means he quickly got pretty templed out, and actually, after you've seen one Chinese temple, they all look pretty similar.

So, after a few very cheap beers (3000 dong a glass - about 9p), we headed to find another few bars - trying the recommended Why Not? bar - it was empty at that time - then on to Before 7 now - not the cheapest but with pool tables and a decent jukebox for a chilled end to the evening.

Christmas Eve started early with a cooking course - Hoi An is famous for its cuisine - and we ate from 7.45 am to 2pm - starting with breakfast (many many choices - we ate about 10 things), then a tour round the market with fruit to try, sampling more food at the restaurant (the silk worm salad made me gag - not from the worm but from the mouthful of peanuts), then cooking four different things to eat for an enormous lunch, We just couldn't fit it in. As Christmas Eve was important to my friend - he's Danish so celebrates a day early - he caught up with his family and then we headed in search of cake - after all, its not Christmas, or a bakery tour of South East Asia, without cake. We even found a Christmas tree to go with it. We managed a late, busy and drunken evening, thanks to cheap beer and our hoarded bottle of Lao-lao - bought in a fit of surprisingly sober confusion at the night market in Luang Prabang (the black rice wine had only made it as far as the night train from Laos - Thailand). We even floated lanterns down the river, resplendent in our Christmas hats.

Christmas Day dawned, and with it, a trip to My Son - a collection of ruined Cham temples in a beautiful setting. As we knew we'd be wanting some sleep that morning, we'd sensibly opted for motorbike taxis instead of an organised tour - and although more expensive overall - we got to see the temples rested and without many tourists - win win I'd say. I wasn't sure what to expect, but actually, it reminded me most of Bagan - lots of small brick stupas rather than big impressive temples. Pretty cool. We celebrated Christmas again that evening, but a little more chilled - and it wouldn't be Christmas without tipsy Jenga.

So overall, a pretty relaxed Christmas with very good company - quite appropriate for my first Christmas away from home.

Posted by GoonishPython 16:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

In search of a lost city

Hue: 21-23 Dec '13

rain 15 °C
View The Great South East Asia Adventure on GoonishPython's travel map.

On the banks of the Perfume River lies a small city that can claim to be the heart of Vietnam. Hue is the former capital of the Nguyen emperors and the Imperial City is a world heritage site. Unfortunately it was heavily bombed by the US, but it's gradually being reconstructed. For me, Hue was slightly ruined by one big thing - it rained pretty much continuously for two days. Now I know I'm British and get what rain is about, but this was pretty excessive even in our terms. So while the citadel was impressive, tramping through the mud when you're wet through to find the Forbidden Purple City suddenly becoms a bit of a chore, especially when its so ruined you walk right past it. The To Mieu temples in the Imperial Enclosure were pretty spectacular though, and gave you a real sense of what the rest of the area must have looked like. I'd have loved to explore more, but sadly torrential rain tends to put a downer on things.

The next day dawned just as wet as before, but we had booked a motorbike tour of the royal temples and pagodas scattered outside the city. We quickly plunged into rural Vietnam - speeding along small tracks above the rice paddies and down paths in villages. First stop was Thanh Toan Tile, a Japanese (I am assured Vietnamese) style bridge, and a fascinating local market. We also visited an agricultural museum - definitely not exciting, but the little old lady demonstrating rice preparation and fish catching (including using her shoe as a prop) made up for all of it. Heading up to a bunker overlooking the Perfume River, we failed to see views of anything, but the trip to the incense and conical hat making workshop (the crafts Hue is famous for) was mercifully short - our drivers got that while they were meant to take us there, as backpackers we weren't going to be splashing any cash.

In the forest we then pulled up to To Dinh Tu-Hieu, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery, which had some small tombs, a very Japanese looking garden, and some grey-swathed monks and novices who definitely needed a lesson in chanting together. It settled beautifully into the forest, seemingly beginning to peacefully blend and hide into the trees - but maybe not quite as well as H┼Źnen-in, the moss covered temple in Kyoto, which I also saw in pouring rain.

Next stop were some of the Imperial tombs - Tu Duc tomb is probably the most famous with lovely temples and buildings set around a purpose built lake, complete with its own island that used to house the emperor's zoo and private relaxation space, as Tu Duc was also where the emperor escaped court life. But better than Tu Duc, and much further from Hue, is the tomb of Minh Mang, which despite the rain reaching a drenching peak, was still stunning, with temple buildings surrounded by forest and lakes. We continued to Thien Mu Pagoda, which has an octagonal tower and some intriguing statues, and also the car in which a monk was driven to Saigon before self-immolating in protest at the treatment of Buddhists by the Diem regime in 1963. This was the first of a number of self-immolations by Buddhist clergy, which brought their problems to the international stage.

Finally, after six hours, we settled down, thoroughly wet through, to some traditional Hue cuisine. Emperor Tu Duc was apparently so fussy he had 50 meals prepared by 50 chefs, and Hue's variety of food is the result. We had banh khoai - Royal pancakes - essentially a sort of deep-fried rice pancake filled with meat and shrimp (mine minus shrimp) and vegetables, whcih you stuff with herb salad, cucumber and green banana before dipping in a special sauce. Very tasty, but my stomach unfortunately didn't agree.

Posted by GoonishPython 11:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Good morning Vietnam!

Hanoi & Halong Bay: 17-20 Dec '13

sunny 23 °C
View The Great South East Asia Adventure on GoonishPython's travel map.

Journeying to BKK to catch a flight to Hanoi, I encountered a fellow traveller from our tour through Cambodia and Laos. In our time in the airport, numerous grops of school children approached us to ask questions for a school project - but they were irrestibly drawn to Claudia, probably because of her blonde hair.

Despite a good flight, first impressions of Vietnam were interesting - first a Thai businessman asking far too many questions, and then an almost two hour wait for our bags. Having met a British girl at the airport, we arranged to meet for streetfood and the night market in the old quarter. A good choice as we saw Bach Ma temple, one of the oldest in Hanoi - an ornate very Chinese style temple - as well, before settling down in a street cafe for very good noodles and beer.

The next two days were spent cruising Halong Bay - a simple stunning collection of three thousand limestone karst islands dotted with caves. The setting is almost indescribable, but with so many tourists the cave trips are busy and crowded, although the tour guides bizarre description of rock formations as various animals etc. was amusing (the ostrich described as a big chicken with a long neck almost won the day, and nearly proved the existence of prehistoric salt-water chickens).

Returning to Hanoi, I checked into my new hostel (the first had been very boring), and immediately discovered it was the hostel's anniversary, so a big party was in order. With my face painted within roughly 30 minutes of arriving, a fun but expensive night ensued.

The following day gave me a real taste of Hanoi. First, I met a friend of my friend's mother who lives in Hanoi. We had breakfast - an excellent bowl of pho in a tiny local place - followed by caphe trung da - a coffee made with beaten egg white that tasted like tiramisu in a cup - andwith views overlooking the lake. Delicious. Next, a walking tour through the old quarter including Hoan Kiem lake and Ngoc Son temple - on an island in the lake and housing an embalmed giant turtle. Bizarre doesn't quite cover it. Then the tourist moments - the Temple of Literature and the Fine Arts Museum - both well worth a visit. The Temple of Literature is a Confucian temple from the eleventh century, and late a university. Scholars obtaining a doctorate would be awarded with a stone turtle supporting a slab - as a fellow traveller remarked: if only education was valued as much today - although a bunch of Vietnamese students were having their graduation photos taken there at the time. The Fine Arts Museum gave a good introduction to Vietnamese art throughout the centuries and well labelled so you understood the differences. Some of the modern art was brilliant, and the bizarre monk statues almost hilarious.

Despite being ill (again), Hanoi had a lasting impression - beautiful and ugly by turns, full of motorbikes in tiny winding streets and stunning temples, but with both amazing and weird food, and friendly people contrasting with pushy people or those out to make a quick buck, but generally, pretty cool.

Posted by GoonishPython 22:13 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 4 of 4) Page [1]