Seven Days in Saigon, Vietnam

Veterans of Saigon Vietnam

I fell in love with the Nam the first time I was there.

For our second visit to Saigon, Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City) we’d been given the use of our friend Mr Lee’s apartment and driver. As it turned out, our driver didn’t speak English but came with an interpreter, the delightful sales manager from our generous friend’s business.

We were travelling with the other captain’s brother, a veteran of the war (sort of, I’ll explain later).

The splendid roof top garden at our borrowed apartment, Saigon Vietnam
The splendid roof top garden at our borrowed apartment

The apartment

Waiting for our driver, Saigon Vietnam
Waiting for our driver

The apartment was a mansion. Twenty rooms, four storeys, a lift. Designed to be a hotel originally. Complete with a live in houseman to open the Fort Knox gates.

We only spent a few hours in our splendid apartment before we were whisked off on an adventure. Our driver and intrepid interpreter took us to a meeting at Long An  University, where we met up with Mr Lee’s brother and friends for a road trip.

Road trip Day 1

Heading for Ban Tre we had a few stops. For food and drink of course.

First, a feast of lẩu nấm (I think), the Viet version of steamboat, by the side of the road. It’s no secret local food ordered by locals is better.

Is too much coconut water bad for you in Saigon Vietnam
Is too much coconut water bad for you?

Next a leisurely stop over at one of our road trip team’s family coconut farm. As I was offered and guzzled freshly opened coconut after freshly opened coconut to drink, I wondered if too much can be bad for you?

On Day 2 we set off for a day of exploring. Well we were actually just visiting one of our road trip team’s parents.

Three fat pigs, two lively goats

We trundled down the skinniest road with lush jungle on either side. Occasionally having to pull over so motorbikes could get past. One guy had three fat pigs in a basket, another had two lively looking black and white goats on board. The biggest load I saw was a motorbike towing a trailer carrying enough reinforced steel to build a small house.

One guy had three fat pigs in a basket, another had two lively looking black and white goats on… Click To Tweet

End of the road

Ferry barge, Saigon Vietnam
Ferry barge

The road ended at a Mekong river tributary.  A small barge ferry, big enough for motorbikes, people and small livestock, arrived shortly after we’d parked at the impasse.

We walked through tiny local markets, and tall shady trees on streets only wide enough for motos and pedestrians. To our friend’s parents place deep in the jungle.

Jungle hideout deep in the burbs

Cooking lesson Saigon Vietnam
Cooking lesson

Over the long lazy afternoon we had a karaoke session (I watched), drank more fresh coconut water (I had stopped worrying about the dangers of overdosing), cooked (mum let me cook two banh xeo pancakes), and ate the most delicious spread of local dishes. Over fascinating conversations.

Stories of the war

The locals call it the American War. The other captain’s brother was in despatch in the Australian army as a teenager, flying over Vietnam but never landing. (So not technically a vet.)

The more I learn about the Vietnam War (the one going on when I was growing up in Australia), the more I feel it was such a tragic waste of lives and everything else that got blown up. Yet I have never felt Vietnamese people I’ve encountered to be resentful.

The Vietnam War was such a tragic waste of lives and everything else that got blown up Click To Tweet

One of my road trip friends told us how he fled his village with seven on the moto, including his mum and dad, sister and kids. Ten years later when interviewing locals with an American journalist, the journo remarked he was surprised the people who’d been locked up in prison in appalling conditions were so happy. The reason: they were simply happy to be free.

Saigon Vietnam take 3?

Backstreets pho, Saigon Vietnam
Backstreets pho. Yum

At the end of Day 2 we were deposited safely back at our borrowed apartment in Saigon Vietnam.  We spent a week wandering around dodging the legendary motorbike traffic and taste testing the backstreets Pho.

I wonder if I’ll get a third chance to visit HCMC? I’d love to sail there one day…

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Good Morning Vietnam

35 Hours on a Train

Taken for a Ride by a Taxi Driver in Hanoi

A Lament for Vietnam

Taken for a Ride by a Taxi Driver in Hanoi

Our holiday in Vietnam instantly picked up speed

We were ecstatic but mildly disoriented when we got off the train in Hanoi at the end of our epic 35 hour journey.  Our holiday in Vietnam instantly picked up speed.

Holiday in Vietnam: View from the balcony at the Posh Hotel
View from the balcony at the Posh Hotel

Taxi driver on yaba

A taxi driver asked which hotel we wanted, took our bags and rushed off.

Convinced he was speeding off his face on yaba (amphetamines), we raced to catch up with him, tried to take our luggage back and asked what the fare would be.

He was only stationery because of the tug of war going on with the baggage.

We finally managed to haggle him down to just under half the exorbitant fee he quoted and raced after him to his taxi which took off at breakneck speed before we had even closed the doors.

We were unceremoniously dropped off in Hang Giay street, the address I had for the Posh Hotel. Unfortunately it was the wrong Hang Giay St. I had written the address down without thinking about including the diacritics (accents).

Lost in Hanoi

The night market in the old quarter was going nuts. We traipsed through the crowded foot traffic and and asked for directions and traipsed and asked and ran over people’s feet with our luggage. Until we finally found our hotel about an hour later.  Yay!

What no balcony? A recurring theme on our holiday in Vietnam

We’d paid extra for a room with a balcony. Yes it was a comfortable stylish room. But no an opening window isn’t a balcony.

This was a recurring theme throughout our holiday in Vietnam. The “balcony” at one place in Saigon was actually a fire escape. Fortunately we were moved to a room with a balcony with great views the next day. Posh.

Hanoi is very different to Ho Chi Minh City Saigon. The food is just as fabulous, maybe better. People wear funky, trendy clothes suitable for a snowstorm. It is colder by far, with a palpable police presence and aggressive scammers everywhere.

Hanoi Highlights

Wandering the streets of the Old Quarter. When the streets were closed off to foot traffic in the evenings the Mini Me rickshaws come out with little kids taking their parents, little siblings and friends for a ride. Hilarious.

Than Long Water Puppet Theatre accompanied by a traditional orchestra. I was totally enchanted by the sound of the dan bau or monochord. Ethereal.

The Temple of Literature. This “historical and cultural vestige” dedicated to sages and Confucian scholars was built in 1070. Utterly sublime.

Holiday in Vietnam: Contemplating Confucius
Contemplating Confucius

Halong Bay

We interspersed our stay with a few days in Halong Bay, as you do.

We hadn’t hired a scooter in HCMC or Hanoi because we were too busy getting lost slowly on foot. However we decided we could manage the navigation here.

It was great fun exploring this stunning area but freezing cold.

Meanwhile back in Hanoi

We returned to Hanoi for a few days before we were due to head back to our yacht in Senibong Cove Marina in Johor Bahru.

We’d booked a room with a balcony at the Mai Hotel this time. Of course we weren’t in the least surprised to discover no balcony.

But when we mentioned this and they upgraded us to the palatial Silver Room suite we could hardly believe our eyes. It included a fabulous sauna, a bath the size of a small swimming pool and the most amazing fake retro kitsch decor. It was too cold to enjoy a balcony anyway.

Holiday in Vietnam: Stylish golden tiled bath. Shame the hot water system couldn't supply a hot bath.
Stylish golden tiled bath. Shame the hot water system couldn’t supply a hot bath.

Holiday in Vietnam: King size bed fit for a queen.
King size bed fit for a queen.

Holiday in Vietnam: Who needs a balcony with furnishings like this?
Who needs a balcony with furnishings like this?

Have you been to Hanoi or Halong Bay? Been scammed in Vietnam? I would love your comments.

 

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35 Hours on a Train

 

Our Vietnam holiday just gets better

I think my husband (the other captain) has developed a new allergy: trains.
His aversion for buses is already legendary. I honestly don’t know how I talked him in to taking the 1726 km train trip from HCMC to Hanoi but despite trembling with terrible terrible train angst leading up to it we boarded on New Years Day for the next leg of our Vietnam holiday.

Our four berth soft sleeper was also occupied by three locals. (Yes I know that adds up to five inmates but I mentioned in my last post they do tourism differently in Vietnam).

Boredom sets in

We made friends with the kid who shared a berth with his granny. His eyes lit up whenever one of our electronic devices appeared.

We helped relieve his boredom by letting him wedge himself between us to watch a movie and later to play Angry Birds on a laptop. His victory dance when he scored was sensational.

Vietnam holiday part 2: our cabin mate was even more bored than the other captain
Our cabin mate was even more bored than the other captain

Vietnam holiday part 2: ...until we let him play Angry Birds
…Until we let him play Angry Birds

This leg of our Vietnam holiday really was slow travel in slow motion. Through the dirty train windows, to a clacketty clack soundtrack during the 35 hour journey we saw endless jungle; paddy fields; sheep; goats; water buffaloes; many many cemeteries; rivers; a glimpse of the sea.

Vietnam holiday through the train window: paddy fields
Through the train window: paddy fields
Vietnam holiday through the train window: train lines and timber
Through the train window: train lines and timber
Vietnam Holiday train scenery: buffaloes
Through the train window: buffaloes
Vietnam Holiday train scenery: banana trees
Through the train window: banana trees
Vietnam Holiday train scenery: sheep
Through the train window: sheep
Vietnam holiday train scenery: a glimpse of the sea
Through the train window: a glimpse of the sea

A meal of Bia 33 and boiled eggs

Our ten carriage train carried a live rooster. In cattle class there were babies sleeping comfortably on the floor and a local family having a meal of Bia 33 and boiled eggs.

During the night they did a sneaky trick and moved the canteen carriage from the front to rear. My first thought as I woke up was that we were going backwards, slow travel in reverse.

Finally we arrived in Hanoi. And were quickly scammed by a taxi driver on yaba. I’ll tell you about the Hanoi part of our Vietnam holiday in my next blog.

Good Morning Vietnam

Three weeks. Three cities. Thirty five hours on a train. Man I love the Nam. Here’s how our holidays in Vietnam started…

The best holidays in Vietnam begin in Saigon

From the moment we landed at the Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) it felt totally chaotic. Despite having everything in order for our visa on arrival it still took nearly two hours to get through customs and immigration. The currency has a million zeroes to contend with. They drive on the wrong side of the road. Crossing the road is an adventure.

Holidays in Vietnam: The motorbike traffic is legendary in Ho Chi Min City AKA Saigon
The motorbike traffic is legendary

There’s no point in waiting for a break in the traffic. Just walk slowly, hold your nerve and the motorbikes and scooters weave around you. Not so scary after the first time. Except when the motorbike driver is sending a text message and not looking at pedestrians on the road.

We stayed in Ho Chi Min City’s District 5 for the first five days. Very local. Not a western franchise in sight.

Holidays in Vietnam: Beer is less than a buck in Ho Chi Min City AKA Saigon.
Street level drinking. Beer is less than a buck. What’s not to love?

The slap

I thought we were blending in until one morning I was just walking along the street and felt a slap on my bum. Looked round to see where it came from. Got a snarling grumpy glare from a local woman.

I still have no idea what it was about… They don’t do tourism in Vietnam in the same way as the other countries I’ve visited.

Traditional roast turkey Christmas holidays in Vietnam style

The other captain had his heart set on roast turkey etc on Christmas day so we signed up for the hotel’s buffet lunch. Free flow champagne (I really don’t think it came from that district in France) and beer plus an endless array of delicious food for about $25 a head. Including – well sort of  – traditional roast turkey.

I asked for a slice off the traditionally roasted turkey’s leg.  The server proceeded to chop at it with a cleaver, right through the bone. All to the soundtrack of Silent Night and Edelweiss on strict rotation. Christmas the Viet way.

The heart of Ho Chi Minh City

We moved in to the heart of Ho Chi Minh City for a few days after that. We checked out:

… and generally wandered around soaking up the atmosphere.  Then we booked our tickets for the train to Hanoi.

Holidays in Vietnam: Good morning Saigon
View from my balcony. Good morning Saigon.

Holidays in Vietnam are awesome.

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