Archive for ‘Vietnam’  

Cambodia, Vietnam : Mighty Mekong Delta

Thursday, 4th September 2008

The pickup was at 08:00 to start our Mekong Delta 3 day/2 night trip. The Mekong Delta is the area around the Mekong river that connects Vietnam with Cambodia and is famous for floating markets selling fruits and vegetables.

The first day of the tour was packed with lots of really interesting things and beautiful boat rides. It took 2 hours on the bus from Saigon to My Tho City where we got a motorized boat along the river to a little island where we stopped to taste some tropical fruit at a local orchard. From there we got into rowing boats and cruised through small canals, full of coconut trees, and stopped off to taste some honey tea and coconut treats at a honey farm in the forest. They served a light lunch there and afterwards we cruised further to a village where they make a living producing coconut candy in a small local factory. Later that afternoon we arrived in Chan Tho and our group checked into a little hotel. We had some free time for dinner, so we decided to do our own thing and walked into town where we found a nice little restaurant with a balcony overlooking the riverfront and busy street-front.

Very early the next morning our bus left at 07:00 after a quick, very basic breakfast at the hotel, to visit the famous Cai Rang and Phong Dien floating markets – the biggest in the Mekong Delta. We were taken to the markets by boat and it was fascinating to see how a whole family live on a small boat and make a living selling fruits or vegetables to other boats. It was a bit disappointing that it was more of wholesale operation and very different from the small, colourful boats you always see on pictures. Also, we were hoping to actually buy something, but that was not possible because we only stayed on the sidelines.

We spent about 1 hour slowly cruising through the 2 markets and then visited a small home factory where they make rice noodles in the back yard. After lunch we headed to Chau Doc and stopped at a crocodile farm where they actually only breed the crocodiles for their skin and meat. You can walk around, choose a crocodile and they will kill it for you – all included in the price (the price being a secret we were told).

In Chao Doc we had time to visit the Sam Mountain (just a small hill really) and enjoy the beautiful view from the top of the rice fields after having a walk through the Queen Lady Temple. Our hotel was situated a little outside town, so our bus dropped us at a local restaurant in town and most of the group stayed there to enjoy their famous fish hotpot dish (which Marizanne ordered and it was delicious!). We were about 20 people in the gourp and we met a really nice French Canadian couple, Phillipe and Karine, from Quebec. The bus then took us back to our hotel where we had no aircon with only a pathetic little fan mounted on the wall. Again, it was terribly hot, so the fan did very little to help and we were very happy to get out the next morning for breakfast.. slightly dehydrated.

After breakfast we took another boat trip to a floating village where they spesialise in fish farming. We then stopped to visit a Cham monority village where they weave traditional scarfs and sarongs. Unfortunately that brought our sightseeing to an end and we boarded the boat again for a 3 hour trip to the Cambodian border.

A girl from the travel company took all our passports and went ahead by motorbike to sort out our visas, so by the time we arrived at the border, we already had the visas and Vietnamese exit stamps in our passports. Passport control on the Cambodian side was very quick and we then took the boat again for the last 4 hours. The boat was very basic with nothing but a local women selling drinks and snacks and a small toilet, so we were very glad to finally get off it, but then we still had to take a 1.5 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh. The bus station was at the lake side, but all the hotels and guest houses seemed a little too dodgy for our liking, so we took a tuk-tuk (motorbike taxi) into town where we found a nice enough small and quiet hotel. A good end to an great, but exhausting few days in the delta.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Vietnam : Sleepless in Saigon

Tuesday, 2nd September 2008

The bus dropped us off in a very busy backpacker area with lots cheap hotels, bars and restaurants. Jan walked around, looked at a few different hotels and found one that suited our requirements, right in the middle of all the action.

Hoi Chi Minh City , also called Saigon, is the second largest city in Vietnam with almost 6 million inhabitants and 3 million scooters buzzing through the streets at all hours.

We only had 1 day in the city, so we spent the morning talking to different travel agencies about Mekong Delta tours. Originally we wanted to visit the Mekong Delta on our own, however after comparing the costs and effort of getting there ourselves with a package tour, we decided on a 3 day/2 night tour. Due to the lack of reliable public transport, it can be very difficult to get around the country independently, which is why this is now our second arranged tour in Vietnam.

After sorting our our travel plans, we visited the Ben Thanh Market where you can find anything and everything under one roof, so we stocked up on some souvenirs and gifts for the family. Due to the heat we ran out of steam before getting around to all the sights on our to-do list, but at least we had a good sampling of Saigon’s culinary scene during our short time there.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Vietnam : Nha Trang & Mui Ne

Sunday, 31st August 2008

Again we had a reservation and checked into the Blue Star Hotel. There was no swimming pool this time, but the beach was about 3 minutes walk away. We only had 1 day in Nha Trang, so we headed straight for the beach where we spent the rest of the morning lazing on the beach chairs taking the occasional dip and fending off countless vendors selling everything from sunglasses to full body massages. As we were leaving we bumped into 2 Australian girls we had met on our Halong Bay trip – Michelle and Lindsey.

We had hoped to do some snorkeling however we found out that we had to take another boat tour to the nearby islands and after our bus night we simply did not have the energy and opted for a afternoon nap instead.

Early the next morning we left again on a sleeper bus to Hoi Chi Minh City (Saigon). However during our lunch stop in Mui Ne we decided to get off the bus and stay the night. Mui Ne is a little town with nothing to do except lay on the beautiful, white sandy beach. For the more adventurous there are watersport options – windsurfing being the most popular. We found a very cheap hotel on the beach close to the bus station and spent our time there sunbathing, swimming and sipping cocktails at a very funky bar right on the beach.

Unfortunately we had to leave this oasis at 14:00 the next afternoon to make our way to Hoi Chi Minh City down south.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Vietnam : Hoi An

Friday, 29th August 2008

Arriving back at the bus office after our motorcycle escapades, we got on the bus and arrived in Hoi An at around 18:00. We headed straight for the An Phu Hotel in the old town, because for a change, we pre-booked 3 hotels in advance through the very helpful staff in Hanoi.

Dropping off our bags in the room, the swimming pool was next on the agenda for a quick cool down followed by a lovely dinner in the hotel restaurant.

The room rate included breakfast and what a fine breakfast it was! After stuffing ourselves, we got on the bus for a day tour to the area’s most stunning sight, the Cham ruins at My Son – 35km southwest of Hoi An. The 7th century ruins are situated in a beautiful, lush valley surrounded by the Hon Quap Mountain (Cat’s Tooth Mountain). There were a few different sites, but our guide spent most of the time concentrating on only the biggest one. In total we could only walk around for an hour and a half, which was a bit disappointing as we would have liked to spend more time exploring all the different areas. On the way back we had a light lunch on a boat and stopped at a village to look at a crafts shop.

The next day we had time to visit Hoi An as the bus was only leaving at 18:00. All the guidebooks bestow great prize upon Hoi An using terms like “living museum”, “enchantment” and “beauty”. Unfortunately this was again either a case of expectations set too high, or us simply having seen too many great and enchanting villages in China, but we found Hoi An to be simply a nice little fishing and market village – not worth more than 1 day’s visit. The streets are packed with tailor shops and if you are interested in having some outfits made within hours, this is the place to be! Marizanne couldn’t let this opportunity pass and had 2 garments tailor made within 3 hours.

The sleeper bus left Hoi An at 18:00 and even though this was our 26th overnight trip, we still struggled to get comfortable. The bunk beds on the bus are too short for regular sized people and the air con are either freezing or not working at all – not to mention the many toilet stops along the way waking everyone up. Needless to say, we did not really get a lot of sleep and arrived in Nha Trang in a rather fragile state.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Vietnam : Quick stop in Hue

Tuesday, 26th August 2008

The sleeper bus left Hanoi at 18:30 and we arrived in Hue at 08:30 where we had to change busses. Hue is a small seaside town and has been traditionally been one of Vietnam’s cultural, religious and educational centres.

The bus to Hoi An only left at 14:00, so we had the morning to kill in Hue. We left our luggage at the bus office and managed to arrange 2 motorbike guides to take us to some of the attractions in the area. We both got on a little scooter with a young girl and older man and our first stop was at a little temple just outside town. We spent about 20 minutes walking around before getting back on the bikes to visit the Tomb of Tu Doc – a majestic site set alongside a small lake. The next stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda – the octagonal pagoda is one of the most famous structures in Vietnam and about 4km southwest of the Citadel, which was our last stop. Inside the 6m-high, 2,5km long wall is a world of disintegrating treasures, heavily bombed by the Americans, much of it now used for agriculture.

Our 2 private drivers dropped us as the bus office just in time for the next bus to Hoi  An, where we arrived at 17:30. We had pre-booked the An Phu Hotel in the center and was very impressed with our large double room overlooking the swimming pool (!!). The hotel also had a travel desk where we booked a daytrip to some of the temple ruins in the area for tomorrow. Again, an organised tour is the only easy way to see the sights. This is very unusual for us after doing almost everything ourselves so far.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Vietnam : Halong Bay

Monday, 25th August 2008

Being another one of the countless UNESCO World Heritage sites that we’ve visited over the last few months, Halong Bay is a sublimely beautiful place with scenery not unlike that of Yangshou in China. There are thousands of karst hills forming individual islands off the coast in the bay which makes for an amazing skyline.

We bought a 3-day/2-night package trip to the bay – package tours seem to be the preferred method of getting around and seeing things in Vietnam – and our tour bus picked us up at 8:00 on Saturday morning. It was an easy 4 hour ride to the coast from Hanoi, with a very excitable guide talking most of the way and the usual stop at a local handicraft centre thrown in for free of course. Having arrived in Halong City, our group of 16 were loaded onto one of literally hundreds of Junks (authentic looking boats, with multiple decks) moored in the small harbour.

Our junk had sleeping cabins on the bottom deck, a lounge/dinner area (and two more  cabins, one of which was ours) on the middle deck and an open area on the top deck. We sailed for about an hour before reaching a small floating village, set in an enclosure of island hills. We got the chance to take a small boat ride through a few caves openings in some of the hills – at an extra cost of course – and we got the chance to look at some of the homes.

Our next stop was a massive cave in one of the hills ,where we had to get off the junk and climb a short way up one of the island hills to the cave entrance. Having seen our fair share of caves recently we didn’t have major expectations, but it was pleasant never the less and quite impressive. A little further along the junk stopped for the evening and we could swim and of course jump off the top of the boat. Unfortunately the weather seemed to be closing in all day and we moored in an enclosed area.

Our group consisted of 2 French couples and a Spanish student group – all very nice and laid-back people. All our meals were included and the food was very nice indeed for the price we paid  for the bottom-of-the-price-range trip. We played a lazy few drinking games with the rest of the guys on board before turning in for the night. A rather big storm forced everyone to scurry around and close all windows properly as the junk got whipped with heavy winds and rain – didn’t last too long luckily.

It was up at 7am the next morning for breakfast (don’t ask us why) and off to the main island (Cat Ba) where we left the junk and got a mini bus to the Cat Ba National Park where we did a short hike up a hill for nice views of the lush surrounding areas. It was absolutely pouring down with rain again when we started walking, so despite the flimsy plastic raincoats we bought from a local, we got completely drenched. It was extremely muddy and very slippery all the way with massive amounts of mosquitoes attacking our bare legs (Jan later counted 32 bites on one of his legs).

Halfway down the return path Marizanne slipped and landed with her back and upper arms on the roots of a tree. She took a really hard fall and has been left with huge black & blue marks. Luckily it doesn’t look like she’s done any internal/serious damage to her back or anything else. All got back on the bus to go to the main town on the island and check into the pre-booked hotel. After a quick lunch and the chance to hose off the mud, we were picked up around 14:00 for sea kayacking to an island with a monkey colony. We had a great time swimming and lazing around on a nice beach before paddling back the 40minutes to the main island.

After dinner we had an early night after the day’s activities, while the rest of the youngsters in our group went out on the town. We boarded the same junk again on Monday morning and cruised for about two hours before arriving back at the harbour at Halong city. There we enjoyed our last lunch with our group before getting on the bus for the 3 hour ride back to Hanoi. The bus dropped us of at the hotel around 16:30 where we picked up the rest of our luggage and waited for our overnight bus to Hoi An.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Vietnam : Hot Hot Hanoi

Friday, 22nd August 2008

We spent our last day in China in Kunming  and caught the 20:00 overnight bus to Hekou on the Vietnamese border on Tuesday evening.

The sleeper bus was from the stone ages with no aircon, super small and narrow bunk beds and full of smokers.  We tried to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, but little did we know that the journey of hell was awaiting of us..

We got to Hekou  at around 08:00 and went through both the Chinese and Vietnamese passport controls very quickly. From the border we went straight to the train station where we managed to get tickets for the 09:15 day train to Hanoi and at that stage we were under the impression that we will arrive in Hanoi at 21:30. This is where the best part of the journey starts..

The train office only sells tickets for hard seats, so one of the officials at the station offered to organise soft sleepers for us at a “small” supplement. He then called one of his “colleagues” to take us to the train and show us our new places. This was of course exactly what the guide books warn about – many government officials being corrupt. Needless to say we stuck with our hard seats, which turned out to be a wooden bench bearly wide enough for 2 people.

The mere 300km, that was supposed to take 12 hours, ended up taking 14 hours and we only arrived in Hanoi at 23:30. This translates to an average speed of 20 km per hour, but it was actually much slower as we stopped very often for long periods of time. We also later found out that they had a typhoon about 2 weeks ago and that a large part of the area on route was flooded and the train tracks damaged.

At that stage we were starving (we didn’t have any time to buy food at the border as we had to board the train straight away) and coudn’t feel our bums anymore. We took a taxi to the Vietanh Hotel, mentioned in the Lonely Planet, and ended up in the best room in the hotel – an enormous family room with a lounge  area. They were fully booked and we could only get a standard double room the next day, however due to Marizanne’s finely honed haggling skills, we managed to get it at the same rate as the double room. After the horrendous day we had, this was like heaven!

The hotel is right in the center of the Old Quarter, so we spent the last 2 days exploring the maze of crooked streets, bustling with locals selling all kinds of specialities on street corners, deciding in which cafe to have a “Bia Hoi” (local draught beer) while dodging literally hundreds of scooters (most of them carrying a whole familiy of 4!) motoring around. Hanoi is a busy city with a very intimate core and being so close to the action really makes one experience the local lifestyle first hand. The entire Old Quarter is centered around tourists with hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and souvenir shops taking up about 90% of the area. Cyclo (bicycle taxi big enough for 2 people) drivers are constantly hassling foreigners and everyone is trying to make a living by offering some kind of merchandise or service to passers by. Bargaining is mandatory as the general feeling is that you are getting a raw deal unless you do. One can really tell that we are getting closer to the tropics with temperatures and humidity being right up there.

The staff at the hotel was excellent and helped us to book a 3 day trip to Halong Bay and Catba Island, leaving tomorrow. We are very much looking forward to just relaxing on a “junk” (a kind of sail boat they use for these trips), taking in the beautiful scenery as well as doing some trekking on the island.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.