Standing at the intersection on a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon had me staring in disbelief at the chaos and pandemonium that was day to day life for the local citizens of this city. To my left was a guy squatting in that Asian like manner smoking a cigarette, next to him was a compressor with a power lead casually running across the footpath and into the door of a shop, presumably plugged into a power socket. Next to that was a tyre of a suitable size to fit anyone of the 9 million scooters that are registered in the city, along with a small assortment of tools scattered about the footpath, motorcycle tyre repair shop, Saigon style. To the sides of the footpath out the front of the hundreds of food outlets were small red plastic tables and chairs, the type you see in doctors surgeries for the kids to sit and colour in whilst waiting for their appointment, the smells wafting out as you made your way past. Horns beeped and people walked in amongst the chaos to cross the road, we took a breath and waded in knowing there was never going to be any respite from the chaos. We made it to the other side of the road unscathed and continued our walk down towards Banh Tan markets.
The decision to visit Vietnam was an impulsive one when friends of ours invited us to tag along on their already arranged journey, the way they like to holiday is vastly different to the way we like to travel but this was their adventure so we just rolled with the punches. It was going to be a whirlwind journey and whilst not exactly what we had in mind for our first visit to Asia it was to be a journey that provided some real insights into how people live in a country that is so radically different from ours.
So the trip came about when our friends booked their holiday via one of those companies offering mega cheap deals on all sorts of things, this one was booked through 'Deals' and entailed two nights at the 'The Luxe Hotel' in Ho Chi Minh City, internal return flights to Da Nang and six nights at the luxury Vin Pearl 4 star resort including breakfast and dinner all for $1495.00 per person (2014). We then found return flights from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh including three nights at the 5 Star Sofitel Saigon Plaza for $990.00 per person (2014). We also decided to book an extra three nights at the resort in Da Nang which we did directly with the resort, around $600 per couple from memory. So all up, our airfares, airport transfers and accommodation was $2785 Per Person for 14 nights.
We met at Sydney International airport for the nine-hour flight to Vietnam and of course being holiday time we arrived early so we had time for a couple of beers over lunch before boarding. The flight was uneventful although mind-numbingly boring, as are all long haul flights. I love the excitement of being at the airport, it signals the start of the adventure but I really dislike the flight itself and would much rather spend nine hours behind the wheel, enjoying the sites as you go, stopping when the whimsical appears, but it's what you have to do to travel overseas. We arrived at Ho Chi Minh airport and proceeded through customs and security and on to the baggage carousel to collect our bags. Everything ran smoothly and the biggest surprise was watching the locals collecting their boxes of fruit and veg they had brought back from Australia. With Australia's strict quarantine laws, it's a site we just don't see back home.
Part of the deal that we booked was a car and driver to take us from the airport to the hotel, we found our man dutifully holding up a sign with our name on it and followed him through the heaving masses of people all trying to escape the airport precinct, a short half-hour drive had us at the hotel. The chaos of the surrounding streets meant that the time passed quickly as we pointed out to each other all of the unusual around us. Checking into the hotel was a relatively easy affair and the porter knocked on our door shortly after with our bags and here is where we had our first attempt at using the local currency. I asked the lad how much of a tip would be reasonable as I had no idea what their money was worth, he politely declined to specify an amount so I handed him a 10,000 Dong note and asked how much was this, he said it was about five US dollars, so I handed him another, he smiled and left. I later found out this was probably a week's wages. Now we are not wealthy people at all but compared to the people of Vietnam we were rich and it was a nice feeling to hand over such small amount of money and make such a huge difference to the weekly income.
We had agreed to meet up at the rooftop bar and after getting settled we made our way up, grabbed a couple of drinks and some nibbles and admired the view from one of the tallest buildings in the city. An hour or so later we made our way out onto the streets to look for something to eat before ending up at the Hard Rock Cafe for more drinks and some live music. We were all pretty shagged after what was a fairly long day and the oppressive heat and humidity added to our fatigue, so we headed out and wandered the short distance up the road to our hotel for some much-needed sleep.
We met up early in the dining room for the included breakfast and chatted about what we wanted to do for the day. The consensus was that we would just amble around the city and see where ended up. Breakfast was a very western-style Bacon & Eggs which amazing, the only disappointment being the lack of Worcester sauce... heathens! They say that New York is the city that never sleeps but I have to say that Ho Chi Minh surely qualifies for the same accolade, we were out until after midnight on the day of our arrival and when we hit the pavement shortly after eight am the streets were still jam-packed. We wandered past a shopping mall and with our friends being keen shoppers we wandered in and killed a couple of hours checking out the goods on offer. This wasn't really what we were here for though and headed out and shortly after found ourselves outside a large ornate building, the wide-open doors beckoning us inside. It was kinda small indoor style market, lots of little stallholders selling their wares. We got collared by a girl in her early twenties asking if we were interested in a day tour to the Cuchi tunnels on the Me Kong Delta. Yes was the answer and so we arranged to be picked up from our hotel the next day and dutifully paid the girl for the tour. The handwritten receipt had me more than a little nervous about whether or not our driver would show up. I guess we'd find out tomorrow.
We ended up down at the Ben Thanh markets. They were absolutely heaving with people and we had been advised to keep our wallets in our front pockets and a hand on the zipper of our bags as it was a known pickpocketing hot spot. We had no such issues and enjoyed haggling with the stallholders, how do two-dollar T-Shirts sound? We were getting hungry but a walk past 'The Butcher Shop' curbed our appetite for a while and so we just wandered around taking in the sights and the smells. We ended up finding a western-style restaurant for a late lunch, we were still a bit sketchy on the street food that is the staple of the locals. We'd like to have been more adventurous with our selection but we're pretty boring with our food and I always go for the snitty special at the local boozer back home, so really digging into the local cuisine was never going to high on my agenda.
After a good nights sleep, we headed out into the steamy air and waited for our driver to arrive, which he dutifully did at the agreed time of 8:00 am. Was there ever any doubt? He had someone in the passenger seat who introduced himself as our guide. Quiet amazing that we could easily afford a personalised guided tour to the Cuchi Tunnels. I can't remember the exact amount but it wasn't a lot and it was just the four of us, for a full day tour for four people in Australia you'd need to take out a second mortgage. The drive down through the Mekong Delta was fairly mundane for the most part only interrupted briefly by the site of the roadside vendors selling live snakes and rats for human consumption, an impromptu butcher shop if you will. It was an illegal stall and the vendors were nervous about us taking their pictures but I guide convinced them we weren't government spies or foreign journalists. They caught their produce each day and here in the poorer farming communities where fresh meat was expensive and hard to get they made do with what they could, in this case, rats and snakes.
We arrived at the Cuchi Tunnels and our guide led us on a walking tour through the jungle pointing out different landmarks. There were a series of hiding holes which they allowed you to climb into, my claustrophobia got the better of me but no such drama for Rainey as she climbed on in and they placed the lid on top. These were used by the Viet Cong to hide from enemy patrols in the region during the Vietnam war. A little further along stood a rusting hulk of an American tank, ambushed by the Viet Cong it's occupants presumably killed, it became a safe shelter for village locals when things got nasty. It was a strange feeling being told about the events of the war where we were the enemy.
We were then led to an opening of one of the tunnels and were invited to head on in, our guide would meet us at the first exit, although we could choose to continue to the next meeting point. The extremely cramped conditions had all agreeing that the first exit was the best option. I'm almost six feet tall and I had to stoop over quite dramatically to get through, I was starting sweat and my heart rate was increasing, imaging being stuck in here for days and weeks on end during the war. No thanks. We moved on to the underground hospital, kitchen and command room. The tunnel system was elaborate, to say the least.
We continued our tour onto where they had a display of booby traps that were like something out of a horror movie, imagine deep pits and sharpened bamboo spikes hidden under a loose covering of leaves that would collapse under your weight. It was like a medieval torture chamber. They also had a display of foot ware favoured by the Viet Cong, predominately thongs made out of old car tyres. They used the tread carcase to make the soles of the thongs but they cut them out in such a way that they effectively were on backwards. This was done so that when the enemy soldiers, that's our guys, would see their footprints in the dirt they would think that they were heading in the opposite direction. Clever bastards.
Moving onto the rifle range where they had an array of Russian and captured American hardware, and all available to have a play with. You purchased a few rounds of the weapon of your choice and then headed over to the range to fire them off. I bought 10 rounds for the Jeep Mounted Machine gun, there was large clay pot about 25 metres in front of me, it's still there if you know what I mean. I would've lasted long in the theatre of war. Rainey had a go of an M1 Carbine, one round and then she handed the gun to me. She doesn't like guns, I guess 25 years in emergency wards will do that to a person. She still had a crack though, missed the clay pot to by the way. We stopped at the cafe for a bite to eat and a cold drink before making our way back to our van to head on down to the Me Kong River for part two of our tour.
Part two consisted of a boat ride across the Me Kong to a small island that is home to a small village of Vietnamese people. There they would show us through their huts and our guide talked about their lives, we ate fresh honey straight from the hive and fruit the likes of which had never seen before. We rode in the back of a rickety old wooden cart pulled by a donkey before making our way to a bunch of traditional wooden boats for a journey down through a creek back to where we would get back on board the larger boat for the return journey. All of this occurred under the big fat heavy monsoonal raindrops, we were give yellow plastic disposable ponchos that did little to keep us dry but it's the thought counts.
We boarded our van ready for the two-hour drive back to Ho Chi Minh City and I was looking forward to something to eat and a couple of cold bevvies. Little did I know that sometime between leaving Sydney and now I had contracted some sort of Influenza virus and by the time we reached the outskirts of the city I was freezing cold with a soaring temperature, man it hit hard and fast. I got back to the hotel and went to bed hoping to sacrifice a night out to recover quickly. We had to move hotels the next day and we were on holidays so I didn't have time to be sick.
The process of moving hotels the next day was a pain in the arse but I managed to make my way to our taxi and up into our room where I dutifully went to bed, only to wake up early the next morning. I felt a little better and we managed to get out for a visit to the zoo. There were mixed emotions about this one for me, the zoo itself is very old school and the enclosures are reminiscent of Sydney's Taronga Zoo when I was a kid before they started to make the animals enclosures a little more like their natural habitat. Think of elephants in small enclosures with no trees or grass and concrete slabs under shade shelters and monkeys in steel cages, it was pretty distressing. The other thing that just totally blew my mind was the fact that you were not only allowed to feed the animals, it was almost encouraged. People would turn up with bags of fruit and vegetables and hand it out to the animals, I managed to acquire a few bananas from one of the locals which I dutifully handed over to one of the elephants, it seemed to be the highlight of his day, it was definitely the highlight of mine.
We left the zoo after a couple of hours and spent the afternoon wandering around the city taking in the sites and sampling the local bars. We headed to Ben Thanh markets again that night were we found an outdoor cafe that would provide us with a taste of the local seafood, we ate crabs, prawns and fish for a good few hours all for just a few bucks per head. We also invited a couple of local kids to join us for something to eat. They belonged to one of the local stallholders and are known for harassing tourists until they put their hand in their pocket and buy some of the worthless trinkets that they carried. Our waiter scowled at them but at the end of they were just trying to help mum and dad make a buck. They sat and ate and ate and ate. We walked them back to their stall before making our way back to the Hard Rock Cafe for a good dose of live music, tomorrow would be our last day in the city and we were all looking forward to moving on to Da Nang. Our friends had made some friends with some of the locals on their last trip so it was going to be great to meet them and get a real taste of how they lived.
So our last day was a very cruisy one, we just ambled along from place to place eating, drinking and shopping our way around the city. I had a little old man kneel beside me and start cleaning my shoes with a plastic bottle full of soapy water and a toothbrush, I told him to go away but as I sidestepped he crawled around after me, determined as ever to finish the job he started. I eventually relented and let him finish the job, he undid my shoelaces and removed one shoe at a time and put new inner soles in each and carefully placed them back on and re-tied the laces. Upon completion of the task he stood up and held out his hand, I been bloody railroaded! I asked how much and I can't remember his response but it was equal to about fifteen Australian dollars, I eventually handed over about five bucks. There were all sorts of this type of stuff going on, I believe there is no social security system, although don't take that as fact, so people have scratch out a living any way they can. Like the woman selling geckos and scorpions and little mesh bags. We asked what they were used for and she advised us that people make a drink out of them, good for the pecker apparently.
We eventually found ourselves at the war museum and what a confrontational experience it was. Much like at the Cuchi tunnels, we were viewing it all from the perspective of the enemy, unlike when you visit a memorial in Australia or almost any other western country. The thing that unsettled me though was the graphic images, they didn't hold back. Dead bodies, deformed babies, the lot. The huge and lingering effects of agent orange got a lot of real estate within the museum and with good reason. The effects are still being felt today with babies that were born with no eyes, or disfigured limbs were now trying live as adults, and all of it the work of the 'evil Americans and their allies'. We spent our last night back at our favourite haunt, the Hard Rock Cafe. The house band was excellent and a great way to finish our all too brief stay in this amazing city.
The next day was all about getting to Da Nang and we rose early for breakfast before loading our bags into our transport for the drive to the airport. Nothing really to report here, airports are airports and I would have much rather catch a train or drive but with time being in short supply the one and a half hour flight one out over an 18 hour drive to cover the nine hundred odd kilometre journey. With our nine-night stay at Da Nang, there was quite a bit of relaxing by the pool so rather than a day by day account of our time there this will be a summary of places of interest and things we did.
So I was still suffering the effects of the influenza virus that had first reared its head a few days ago and after arriving at Vin Pearl resort, we ditched our bags and headed straight for the pool. I instantly felt better and we spent a good few hours, moving from pool to pool. It was dinner and an easy night, the benefit of nine nights in one place s that we didn't feel rushed to go and see anything. The food was great and with a good selection of traditional and western foods we were sure that we wouldn't go hungry during our time here. The Vin Pearl Resort has a total of five pools overlooking the beach as well as tennis courts, spas, gymnasium and range of bars and restaurants, jet skis for hire on the beach was a bonus and the lack of rules concerning their use was a welcome relief to the rigidity they face in Australia.
The real treasure of the Da Nang region is the Unesco World Heritage-listed city of Hoi An. A well preserved former trading port Hoi An to me represented the real Vietnam, amazing architecture, amazing food and amazing people. We spent most of our nine days in the Da Nang region at Hoi An, sometimes during the day, we would go in the afternoon into the night time and sometimes we would just stay all day.
Hoi An is about half an hour away and occasionally we would all just jump in a taxi for the journey if the wait was too long for the bus or we just didn't want to jostle amongst the crowds waiting to catch one back to the resort. The taxi ride becomes an event in itself, drivers hand resting on the horn the whole way, warning anyone within earshot that we were on our way.
One thing that I loved about Vietnam was the vast array of photographic matter, it's a photographer's dream location really, particularly if you're into street style and urban landscape stuff, just point the camera and click, you'll end up with something colourful and interesting. Again Hoi An for me was at the top of the list, the mix of different architectural styles, the street vendors or the nightly ritual of sending floating candles down the river. I really can't say enough about the place and is a must-visit if you're in the region. We sat and watched the monsoonal rains come down each afternoon whilst eating and drinking in some local bar. We wandered the streets and witnessed the locals catching fish in the stormwater drains and of course, we shopped. Hoi An is known for its tailor-made clothing and silk industry and whilst I didn't have a suit made while we were there I came home with a suitcase full of cheap T-Shirts and jackets. Hoi An is a place that we would visit again if in Vietnam.
During our time at Vin Pearl we had befriended some of the staff and as such were lucky enough to be given the locals insights to where to visit during our stay and first on the list of 'must-sees' was Cham Island. We arranged the boat tour through Vin Pearl and included in the tickets price was a walking tour of the village on the island, lunch and a snorkelling tour of some of the reefs around the island. It was an interesting wander through the village and there, of course, are remnants of the war scattered about the place, the most obvious the rusty remnants of a barge left right on the beach where the boat stopped for us to disembark. It was touted as a full day cruise but we were back at Vin Pearl by about 2:00 pm, which was more than enough time to be fair. We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming at the resort.
We organised with one of the staff members to act as our tour guide on one of his days off whilst we were there and he took us up to the top of Monkey Mountain overlooking Da Nang. Our friend had organised a driver and vehicle and he brought one of his friends along for the day. We visited old American military installation from Radar bases to heliports, there were lookouts on both sides of the mountain and we got to see monkeys in the wild for the first time, only a couple though as though little buggers are stealthy. We ended up heading to the edge of the bay at the foot of the mountain where we found a small restaurant and bar where the daily ritual of eating and drinking began. We swam in the ocean and they even had a couple of jet skis that we hired. Again no paperwork to sign just hand over some cash and go for a spin. For those unfamiliar with jet skis, they have a kill switch on the left handlebar that is connected to a lanyard worn on the wrist of the rider, the idea being that should you come off the ski the engine will cut out and stop allowing you to get back to the ski. The kill switch on our hire skis was tied on with fishing line, no lanyard was on offer. It gives you an idea of the lack of rules and regulations.
We also spent quite a bit of time wandering around the city of Da Nang and found it to be kind of like a lighter version of Ho Chi Minh. Street vendors, screaming car horns and more chaos. I love cities as much as I love rural villages and country towns and Da Nang was no different.
We visited 'Tams Pub & Surf shop'. It was nothing more than a single room at the front of the house that had been converted into this interesting mixed business, western food like hamburgers and spaghetti were on offer as cold beer and the opportunity to rent a surfboard should you feel so inclined. There was no surf to speak of at Da Nang so I'm not sure how profitable this side of the business was. One of the most interesting experiences for me was meeting Tam, the owner. Tam was a young girl in her pre-teens during the war and she told us stories of her time during the war and how with her grasp on English she acted as a un-official interpreter for American soldiers, the walls of her 'pub' are adorned with photographs of people she has met through her long and interesting life.
Another area that I found fascinating was Marble Mountain, which was within walking distance of our resort. This ramshackle assortment of houses was the centre of a large marble carving industry largely carried in peoples front yards and on footpaths. Some of the carvings were huge and I wondered how many people had been injured loading them onto trucks when they sold. Marble mountain is also home to a temple set on the high peak in the middle of the area which made for a nice afternoon stroll, nay, climb before heading home for a swim before dinner. We also spent a day just wandering along the beach and checking out all of the resorts along the strip, we would pull for a drink, maybe a bite to eat and of course a swim to cool down from the strenuous endeavours of our day. The opulence of these resorts is an incredible contrast to the chaos and poverty of the surrounding area. There is also the dragon bridge in Da Nang that each evening at around nine o'clock puts on a fire breathing display that is quite impressive, our local contact did warn us to keep an eye on our wallets as we walked through the large crowds though.
I personally loved Vietnam, the people were warm and welcoming, the food was er, interesting and of course, it was ridiculously cheap. It comes highly recommended if you want to experience some authentic East Asian culture.