We are now in the vibrant Vietnam having crossed the border from Cambodia on May 15th. To get into Vietnam we booked a 2 day 1 night tour through the Mekong Delta to Saigon (officially now known as Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. Our trip started with a short minibus ride from the Cambodian town of Kampot to the border post. It was a bit of a sketchy border post as it seemed only foreign tourists were required to stop, locals casually ducked under the barrier without acknowledging the border guards who barely noticed them.
Security was a tighter on the Vietnam side and we had to wait ages whilst our passports were checked. We also had our temperatures measured to check, I guess as it wasn’t clear, that we weren’t harbouring some sort of disease/virus. Measurements were taken with a handheld scanner placed on our necks which gave an instant reading, and the guy looked surprised when he saw Lisa’s temperature but waved her through anyway!
Once through the border it was a short drive to the Vietnamese town of Ha Tien and from there we changed to another cramped mini bus (the Vietnamese cam as many in as they can regardless of passenger comfort) and arrived in Can Tho in the early evening. We had booked to stay at a nearby homestay in one of the villages along the Mekong Delta, but we were a bit late and no one was waiting for us at the bus station. After a bit of phoning around and some help from the friendly staff at the bus station we finally got hold of the family we were staying with and they kindly came and picked us up on their scooters – the best ride of the day!
The homestay turned out to be a simple guesthouse ran by a family and used daily tour companies, and with 15 or so other tourists also staying there it wasn’t quite what we had hoped for. Sadly, interaction with the family was limited, but they did serve us up a lovely meal of DIY spring rolls and steamed fish from the river.
Most of our tourist companions were really nice, including a nice couple from Cumbria, but unbelievably one Aussie guy (an alcoholic in his 40’s) was so stupidly drunk that he managed to offend the family and most of the tourists. The evening coming to an abrupt end when he became needlessly aggressive towards us, all in all it was an interesting day but not the start to Vietnam we were hoping for!
Thankfully the next day was better, despite the Aussie guy opening his first beer at 7am, and our Vietnam trip has been fantastic since. We were up really early for a little tour of the village where, after crossing the river standing up on a tiny rowing boat, we visited a small market.
Later in a bigger motorised boat we cruised through the floating markets at Cai Rang – a mass of boats trading their wares in the middle of the mighty Mekong River. Each boat seemed to specialise in a particular item, such as this boat crammed full of pineapples.
Soon energetic traders in small boats pulled up alongside us and were offering us coffee, fruit, bread, as well as the usual array of souvenirs.
The Mekong Delta is known as the rice bowl that feeds the nation and with masses of rice fields it’s easy to see why. We visited a rice processing factory along the river where we watched rice being sifted, bagged, and made into rice noodles. Later we got a chance to cross one of the many ‘Monkey Bridges’ that provide important crossing points over the river, a lot more stable than it looks!
For lunch we stopped at a restaurant where we were told the speciality was Rat, although it seemed no one fancied it! Maybe the 60’000 price tag put people off, although with the Pound to Dong exchange rate being roughly 1 to 32’000 it seems unlikely.
To be honest, whilst the markets were interesting, we found the Mekong Delta to be a bit of a tacky tourist experience (I had a similar experience here 6 years ago) so we were happy that we only quickly passed through it on our way to Saigon, which was a 3 hour bus ride north.
We really liked Saigon, it is a buzzing place with streets thronged with scooters, hectic markets, and millions of entrepreneurs. Whilst Vietnam may officially be a communist country Saigon is probably one of the most capitalist cities in the world! Anything and everything can be bought here, all for “Cheap Price!”. The city has a lot of charm with French colonial architecture, ancient alleys, and of course an evocative history. We stayed in the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao, a pulsating place that didn’t seem to sleep.
Saigon is a big city but most of its main sights are clustered within walking distance of the city centre, although crossing the road was not the easiest thing to do! Pedestrian crossings are ignored, and after building up a bit of courage you simply step out into the road and slowly walk across hoping you won’t become a bug on a windscreen!
We wandered through the central market, which is a fun place to barter with the traders – although their arm grabbing “look in my shop” sales technique is a little aggressive! We also admired the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built in 1883 by the French.
The Reunification Palace is just round the corner from the cathedral, which was built in 1966 to serve as the South Vietnam Presidential Palace. Here the Vietnam War was brought to a close on 30th April 1975 when the first communist tanks crashed through its gates. The building remains as it was on that day and the tanks are on display in the grand gardens.
Later we visited the War Remnants Museum, which showcases the brutal impact the war had on Vietnam. On display are relics from the war and many photos of its victims including many children affected by the use of the Agent Orange defoliant, which is still affecting people nearly 40 years since the war ended. Whilst there was a propagandist tone to the exhibits it was an eye opening and interesting experience, albeit a sombre one.
Saigon really comes alive at night as locals and tourists alike throng the cities neon lit bars. The cheapest beer we found was on Bui Vien Street where the savvy traders were selling Siagon Beer (a nice one worth trying) from a cool box to the thirsty backpackers for about 30p a bottle. We all sat on tiny plastic seats outside the front of the shop, the place was packed and it was a nice social atmosphere. We found many of the guys we had met on the Mekong Delta trip here and had a nice evening with them. On the same street there’s a restaurant called ‘Lam’, which means ‘many’ in Vietnamese and as the name suggests you get big portions of really nice food, try the jungle curry! It’s popular so when it gets full they seat people in their overflow restaurant over the street and carry the food over to you!
Whilst in Saigon we also took a half day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels, which are about an hour’s bus ride from the city. During the war the communist guerrilla forces known as the Viet Cong (VC) dug this expansive network of tunnels as a hidden base from which to launch attacks against the American troops. At their peak the tunnels stretched about 200km all the way to the Cambodian border and were an important supply and communication route right under the noses of the Americans. The tunnels served as bomb shelters, hospitals, food and ammo stores, and were dug under the American bases so that attacks, such as the famous Tet Offensive, could be launched within their perimeter. The VC used ingenious methods to conceal the tunnel entrances, which were barely big enough for a person to crawl into – as we found out!
The Americans heavy bombed this area with B-52 strikes (more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than on Nazi Germany) but the tunnels were dug deep enough for the VC to stay safe, and they often lived underground for months on end. We crawled through only a short section of the dark and unbearably hot tunnel, 5 minutes were more than enough, so I can only imagine how hard life must have been down here with a full on war raging outside.
The Vietnamese are incredibly hard working and patriotic people, enduring working conditions without complaint that would be unimaginable in the west, and I can imagine there would be very determined force to fight against. Around the tunnels the VC created traps to injure and maim enemy troops with some very creative methods – this didn’t look very inviting.
After two days in Saigon we took an overnight sleeper bus about 500km north to the city of Nha Trang. The sleeper bus was an interesting experience with ‘beds’ instead of seats, although they were sized to Asian proportions meaning a cramped night for us Westerners!
Despite the bumpy roads and lots of random stops we actually slept most of the journey and felt surprisingly refreshed when we arrive in Nha Trang at 6:30am. The city is set on a long beach, which we wandered along until we found a reasonably priced guest house with a sea view – no surprise that it was called the Sea View Hotel!
Nha Trang reminded me of Mallorca with lots of bars and restaurants catering to the tourists with a focus on relaxing on the beach, which we found to be quite enjoyable. It’s a popular place with Russian tourists and many hotels and restaurants had signs and menus in Russian, I guess that’s where a lot of the investment in the shiny hotels comes from. After getting bored on the beach we found a bit of culture at the picturesque Buddhist Long Son Pagoda a few kilometres from the city centre.
Stupidly we visited in the heat of the midday sun and after climbing the 152 steps up to the Big Buddha statue we were drenched in sweat. However, the reclining Buddha statue was pretty impressive and worth the effort!
The nightlife in Nha Trang was good and we tried to stay up to watch the Champions League final, which started at 2:30am Vietnam time, but Lisa was asleep well before kick-off and I barely made it to half-time!
Two days were enough for us in Nha Trang and we took another overnight sleeper bus 550km north to the historic town of Hoi An. This bus was more uncomfortable than the previous one as five us were crammed in at the back of the bus above the hot engine but nevertheless we somehow slept reasonably well and for the price, about £5, you can’t knock it!
Hoi An is a lovely place, you can really feel a sense of history here and it’s a nice place to just hang out and soak up the atmosphere. Back in the 17th century Hoi An was a large trading port on the Thu Bon River that flows through it, and influences from Chinese, Japenese, and European cultures are easy to see in its architecture and easy going people.
The town is peaceful and quiet, and we enjoyed lazily cycling around the narrow lanes and stopping at the nice cafes and shops. The food here is the best we have had in Vietnam so far including squid stuffed with pork and vegetables, Vietnamese crispy pancakes, and our favourite ‘Cao Lau’ which the locals eat for breakfast, lunch , and dinner – doughy noodles in a savoury broth with bean sprouts and greens topped off with roast pork slices and a few bits of crackling. There are a lot of great restaurants but a place called ‘Cafe 43’, conveniently next door to our guesthouse (which was also really nice), had consistently good dishes for bargain prices.
There are some museums in Hoi An but we didn’t visit any of them, the Museum of Trading Ceramics isn’t really our thing, but we did check out the towns icon – a covered Japanese bridge built in 1593.
There are also a couple of beaches within cycling distance of the town and we opted for a day at the An Bang beach about 4km north of the town. It was a nice cycle ride (borrowed for free from the guesthouse) down a country lane to the beach which we pretty much had to ourselves.
Well until the locals turn up around 4pm when the sun is less intense – they all want pale skin and cover themselves up during the day. We also took an early morning tour out to the UNESCO World Heritage listed ruins at My Son, a hour’s drive from Hoi An, which are part of the remains of the ancient Cham Empire. These Hindu temples were built over a thousand years ago are set under in the shadow of the Cat Tooth Mountain. Sadly the ruins were ruined even more during the war (there are lots of bomb craters around the site) but were nevertheless interesting to see.
Hoi An is also famous for its tailors and one can have a good quality custom made garment (suit, jacket, dress, etc) made up within 24 hours for a bargain price. There are masses of tailor shops all keen to take your measurements, and of course we got sucked in when we realise how cheap it was. Despite the sweltering heat, which I think made us crazy, we both had a smart winter jacket tailored for us.
As well as tailored garments there are colourful paper lanterns, which prettily light up the town at night and are sold for bargain prices.
The towns bustling market is a great place to watch the locals (mainly women) buying and selling food, clothes, and trinkets – it’s a good place to buy some cheap souvenirs.
With all the shopping we needed to send a parcel home so we asked at our hotel where the post office was only to be told the post office could come to us! The hotel called the post office and five minutes later two friendly girls arrived complete with boxes, scales, and tape and soon packaged up our 6kg of stuff and took it away on their scooter, now that’s service – only in Vietnam!
We liked Hoi An and have stayed here for four days, but times going fast and tomorrow we need to move on further north as we head to the city of Hue. We are really enjoying Vietnam and with a lot of exciting places to come further north we are really looking forward to exploring this amazing country further.
There are loads of photos from our first week in Vietnam here.