A Travellerspoint blog

August 2009

Please Ha Noi - Can I have a motorbike??


View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

We caught our first sleeper bus to Ha Noi, and we were quite excited about it. I like the combination of covering necessary miles while in the land of nod and we were both hopeful that we would be blissfully unaware for the majority of it. There was a tourist bus we could have taken directly from Hoi An but being us we caught the local bus back to Da Nang and then waited for three hours in the stuffy bus station until it was time to leave.
Unfortunately we weren't quite as happy as when we'd got on the previous long haul bus. Everything was a little tired but then again it served the same purpose. There were three rows of beds, one by each window and then a central one and there was an upper and a lower bunk. We couldn't see any numbers so we estimated where we should be and took two beds up top. Your legs lie flat and then you can adjust the back so you're anywhere between sitting up and almost lying flat.

I was by the window and it was nice to gaze out from this reclined and lofty position. We both settled down with our ipods and attempted to relax. We came to a large-ish town and a few Westerners got on, they didn't seem that pleased with the accommodation as they were resigned to the back where there is no aisle just five beds side by side, all a bit cosy. A little later on it was time for dinner and we all filed out. Now understanding the process we sat down for our food and an English boy asked me if it was free and I said, as I believed it was, 'yes.' They were a little hesitant but the bus driver motioned for them to sit down, so they did. It all got a little heated after the meal when they were asked to pay, they seemed to be suggesting it might be something to do with their skin tone as no one else had paid, but then neither had we. The logical explanation was that they had got a slightly different ticket, one bought through an agent probably rather than directly from the bus company and meals were not included. In the end they reluctantly handed over the money and back in our bunks the trip continued.

I didn't sleep very well, no better than I had in the chair and I don't think Adam did either really. The movement of the bus and the small proportions didn't help. We were awake earlier and much to our surprise we arrived in Ha Noi before we expected, at around 6am. Having figured out all the Hotels were in Old Ha Noi from a quick flick through the guidebook we climbed in a taxi. As we drove through a waking Ha Noi it immediately felt quite different to Ho Chi Minh, not quite as modern or cosmopolitan. It felt a little more rigid and formal. Thankfully our surroundings didn't distract us too much because the taxi driver was trying to rip us off. One second the metre read 70,000 and the next it jumped to 100,000 when it should have been going up in 5,000 increments every km. When I told him his metre was wrong he looked at me blankly and so I repeated myself a little louder and did a bit of pointing, at this point we stopped at traffic lights. Clearly he didn't want anyone to hear me complaining because he rolled up the windows, but still he acted as if he didn't understand. When he pulled over at our destination we informed him we would only pay what we thought was the correct fair and in the end he didn't put up much of a fight, he knew he had done wrong.

Old Hanoi is situated just north of the Hoan Kiem lake and is a cluster of narrow streets, with a continuous row of buildings on either side. At this time of day it was quiet, as people were only beginning to stir and so we wandered about quite freely. The hotels were open though, so we began to check them out. Most of the time we didn't even make it up to the room because right away the price put us off. One place we did go and have a look and it was a very spacious room with high ceilings and a balcony, it was also down a little alley way which we hoped would mean it was quiet. Just in case we were missing a bargain we checked out a couple of other places before deciding it was the best value for money we were going to get.

Now we had the room sorted we both fell asleep for a little while before venturing out. We walked back down to the lake, trying to get our bearings a bit.
The little streets can become a bit of a maze and most of them look the same as they are a collection of hotels, travel agents, cafes and shops selling souvenirs. We walked to the south end of the lake and went into a book shop to buy a map of the North-West. Having had the best time on the motorbike in the South we wanted a repeat experience. We then went about trying to rent a bike but it was not the easy experience it had been in Ho Chi Minh.

Asking for an automatic automatically ruled out a number of rental places as they simply didn't have them. It was annoying because it wasn't really that we needed it to be an automatic we just wanted a bigger bike because it would be a long trip. The next hurdle was the fact that we could not hand over our passports as insurance. While in Hanoi we planned to get our Burmese Visas which would mean giving our passports in for a few days and as we had done in the South we wanted to use this time for exploring. The final nail in the coffin was the price, it was double what we had paid before and would almost certainly blow our budget.

A little disillusioned we returned to the room and put our thinking caps on. As well as seeing the North we also wanted to go East to Halong Bay and so maybe we could do this while our passports were not in our possession. We didn't want to make a snap decision so in the meantime we continued to discover what Ha Noi had to offer. One of the things we had been looking forward to was the Dong Xuan market and so that is where we went next. The Ben Tre market in Ho Chi Minh had been really good and we had read an article that put this market at number 4 in the world. So our hopes were high, and then they were then dashed. There were three floors but two of them were of no use to us, full of material and clothes. The bottom floor had a few stalls selling some interesting handicrafts but it wasn't the wide array we had been hoping for. Still we managed to find a couple of items that took our fancy and we spent a bit of money before heading back out on to the streets.

There was a chance for a reprieve though because at the weekends there is a night market and a few of the main streets are cordoned off and stalls are set up. It was Sunday night so we just caught it and we were there just as things were getting started. Soon though the streets were full and it was incredibly humid which didn't make for the best conditions to scout out a hidden gem. Again the majority of the stalls sold clothes, perfume, and sunglasses, not the interesting lacquer wear that we were looking for. Adam managed to acquire some new underwear though, so it wasn't a complete loss.

The next morning we tried our luck at getting a motorbike again but were unsuccessful once more, in the end we changed tack and attempted to get a semi-automatic just for the day. Yet again once we mentioned no passport the shutters came down and there was a resounding 'No.' Even the hotel, with the insurance of a room full of our stuff would not break the rules. Without the use of our own bike to get around we had to get a taxi to the Burmese Embassy, and once again we felt the metre was a bit dodgy but there wasn't a lot we could do. The form we had to complete for our Visa was thorough, wanting to know our skin tone and eye colour amongst other things. Once completed we decided to walk back to Old Hanoi rather than pay any more extortionate cab fares.

We returned to the market once more with the vague hope that we'd missed something amazing, but funnily enough it was exactly the same. Still we managed to part with a bit more cash and it set the trend for the rest of the afternoon. Although the market was distinctly lacking in the kind of lacquer items we were looking for, there were plenty of shops selling it. I'm not sure how much distance we covered as we scoured the streets looking at all there was to offer, trying to find the best items and the best deals. By the end of it my knees were protesting and it was time to call it a day.

Later on, in search of food we ended up at the back of the market where there are some little outdoor restaurants set up. It was a bad choice. We were hounded a little as we looked at the menu and in the end felt almost obliged to sit down. When it came to the food we were torn between shrimps and goat, I was leaning towards shrimps but Adam wanted to try something new. I was not so convinced that goat was the best meat but in the end gave in, not wanting to be unadventurous. The woman who had basically dragged us to our seats then turned on a little gas cooker in the middle of the table and proceeded to fill it with a layer of oil. She then brought over a plate with slithers of thin white meat and some onions. The oil then started to spit and I got splattered quite liberally in the face and neck. Noticing this the woman decided to drag my stool back, the plastic legs buckled as they got caught on the uneven ground and I end up falling backwards. It was not going well. Upright once more I tried the meat which had turned almost translucent so that it looked and tasted like fat covered in oil. There was no accompaniment and she didn't cook all the onions. I was very ready to leave when she brought over some shrimps, clearly she had misunderstood and thought we wanted them as well. A bit of stunted argument ensued as neither party could fully understand one another but in the end we didn't eat the shrimps and only paid a small amount extra. I was definitely missing the good food and dining experiences we'd had in the South. That bad reputation was beginning to rear it's head.

The next day we finally came to a decision about how we were going to see the North and the East. The following day we would take a bus to Halong Bay and stay one night, then we would return to Ha Noi, pick up our passports and take the night train North to a place called Sapa where hopefully we would be able to rent a bike. With a plan having formed we walked to the train station to buy our tickets, a very painless experience in comparison to all the form filling that was required in India. To keep the cost down we opted for soft seats rather than getting a bed, we had seen a picture and they looked relatively comfortable.

With the main objective for the day complete we leisurely walked back from the station stopping in various shops along the way. We discovered an area we hadn't been to before and made a mental note of a couple of items which we would look at again when we returned to Ha Noi for one day before flying to Bangkok. The day passed by quickly and it was soon time for dinner again, I just hoped the experience would be a little more pleasurable.

We ended up going to another on street restaurant but this one was packed full of locals, always a good sign.
The tables were set out in rows and we found a spot right in corner. There wasn't too much to choose from so I opted for beef and Adam decided on fried frogs legs. It was much better than the night before, the atmosphere was really good as everyone dug in and there was excited conversation all around us. Weirdly enough all the locals seemed to be eating steak and chips, I think it must have been renowned for being good at this particular place. It wasn't exactly fine dining, one of the walls behind me was black with dirt and grime but it felt more like real life.

Having had a good feed we headed back the hotel and packed up our stuff in to one bag, we were going to be leaving one at the hotel which we would pick up the night before we left Vietnam for Thailand. That task completed we fell asleep, ready to move on again to see the islets of Halong Bay.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 05:22 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Tourist Toy Town

I prefer Lego...

View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

We were both pleasantly surprised when we climbed aboard the bus. It seemed really new and when we found our seats there was a neck pillow and a blanket waiting for us. It appeared this wasn't going to be as bad as we thought, the seats reclined quite a lot and so perhaps we wouldn't have a completely sleepless night. A conductor came round to check where we were going and then we were given little bottles of water and packets with wet wipes in them. It was definitely the best coach we had been on so far, and it got better.

We stopped at a service station and we loaded up on snacks as it was nearing dinner time and we weren't sure when it would stop again. I'd munched down a fair few pringles by the time we stopped at the next place where they were waiting for us. Everyone began to sit down at the tables and we were directed to do the same. Then they brought out the food; rice, vegetables, a couple of meat dishes, squid and soup. I was a bit too full to take advantage of what turned out to be a free meal, but Adam munched down his share. The value of the ticket now looked even better.

It wasn't a perfect nights sleep by any stretch of the imagination but it was good considering. Even Adam, who finds it near on impossible to sleep in a sitting position, managed to get a few hours of rest. We woke early the next morning and around 7am we pulled into another roadside restaurant for breakfast. The day before we had been given a free toothbrush and mini toothpaste so everyone tended to their oral hygiene before eating. Now we were no longer full of naughty snack food we were ready for our bowl of noodle soup and glass of ice coffee. Everyone seemed to leave a bit of theirs and we wondered if it was considered rude to finish your meal completely, as if it implied that you hadn't been given enough. To be on the safe side we both left a little at the bottom of the bowl.

Back on the bus it was only another couple of hours til we reached Da Nang and everyone disembarked. We still had a little way to go though because we were heading for the small town in the East of Vietnam called Hoi An. Before we got a bus there though we wanted to organise our bus to Ha Noi in a couple of days time. As usual there were a few people that were incredibly desperate to help us and these ones got a bit physical as they grabbed our arms and gave us a whack on the shoulder to get our attention. None of this did much to endear us to them though and I was reaching the end of my tether when Adam returned to say he'd found someone who spoke English. He'd managed to sneak off while I was being hassled and I followed him back to a women who said there was a sleeper bus which we could take and it turned out not to be too expensive. The only problem was we couldn't buy the tickets now, they could only be bought 24 hours (or less) before the bus departed. We would just have to hope there were some left on the day.

Now that we were a little clearer on that we went to look for the bus to Hoi An. Having been on the best coach, we now got on to the worst bus. It was a little like an American School Bus but one that was about 25 years old and had been severely mistreated. We got seats at the front and waited for it to move, which it after a while it did, just very slowly. Once we were out of Da Nang it picked up speed and I dozed off, only to be shaken awake by the grubby conductor boy who wanted his money. We discovered later that he'd charged us over a third more than he should. Soon enough though we were there and more people were waiting to rip us off.

Tourist buses take you down into the heart of old Hoi An but the local bus stop is a little distance away so we had to get two motorbikes to take us. It is often only when you make return trips, or have spent a little time in the place that you realise just how much you over paid. It is difficult to haggle when you have nothing to base your prices on and they hold all the cards because they're your only means to getting where you need to be. We drew the line though when they took us to specific hotels, obviously looking for their commission. Having asked to just go to the centre we paid them the agreed price and walked off to find some accommodation on our own.

There is a lot to choose from in Hoi An although plenty of it is full because it is literally teeming with tourists. We saw quite a few in Ho Chi Minh but it is different in a city because you're all spread out, here it was concentrated into a small town and to be honest it put us off straight away. This wasn't helped by the fact that Hoi An is an odd little place. It didn't feel like Vietnam at all but a cross between a small Mediterranean town and for those of you who know it, Dicken's Heath. For those of you that don't it is a town which was built from scratch and everything is new but they try to make it look as though it's been there for years, so all the buildings are built in different styles. It kind of feels like a toy town, a bit Stepford Wives. This was the feeling I got about Hoi An. The old town itself is really quite pretty, it has narrow tree lined streets, with small, stone buildings.
It is very quaint indeed, but the surrounding area has been, and is in the process of being extending with the single purpose of housing the increasing number of tourists.

We had found a room which was nice enough, a little on the small and expensive side but it had a balcony which was pleasant. We went out for a late lunch and then returned sleepy to the hotel after our night on the bus. In the end we decided to do our exploring in the morning, so we bunkered down for the night, had a few beers and went to sleep.

Renting bikes seemed to be the best way to see town so this is what we did. It is easy to get around as the traffic is light and most of the old town is restricted to feet and bikes.
We paid the inflated price and peddled our way down to what we presumed is a man made canal. On one side there is a row of buildings and it really did look like a purpose built holiday resort.
A very picturesque one, but the history of the place seemed to have been lost. There is however an ancient wooden, Japanese bridge, and so we went to have a look at that. It is very beautifully carved and when you walk across there is an inbuilt room with a shrine and heady smell of incense wafting out.
There is no denying that these little streets are picture perfect, especially with the sun beating down from a blue sky. If I was here on holiday I would probably be very pleased but it didn't really feel like travelling to us.

As we headed back to the room we planned to pack up and catch the bus to Ha Noi. Things changed a bit though when we ended up getting lost. It turned out that if we had kept going in one direction we would have found our way back, but everything looked so similar and there were no distinctive landmarks. After cycling up and down roads for a little while we stopped a white guy on a motorbike, he turned out to be a very friendly Australian and he pointed us in the right direction. By the time we made it back to where we rented the bikes I was really dehydrated, the combination of hot sun and a few beers the night before had left me feeling rough. We glugged down a can of Ice Tea and some water and then headed back to the room.

I wasn't feeling like catching a bus for another 15 hours or so and luckily we could afford to stay another day. We stayed out of the sun for the rest of the day, just venturing out for lunch and then dinner. Hoi An had had a bit of a negative effect on us, we both found the atmosphere of the place a little depressing and when we went to sleep we were both looking forward to reaching the capitol and finding the real Vietnam once more.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 05:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ho Chi Minh - Part 2

Wet n Wild

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Arrangements had already been made for us to stay above the gallery again and they had looked after one of the backpacks for us while we were away. We joyfully reunited with yoghurt space, had a kebab from one of the street vendors and then headed to bed.

We decided to stay in Ho Chi Minh the next day to tie up some loose ends and plan our next move. Now that we'd experienced the freedom of the bike, we soon forgot about our sore bums and went back to rent one for the day. We steered clear of our old friend and went for a semi-automatic instead, it was smaller and maybe a little more agile for getting around the busy city. Our first priority was how we were going to head North and we decided that we might like to take a train, so we needed to find the train station. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful as we'd forgotten the map and the hand-drawn one in Adam's guidebook wasn't detailed enough, so after a bit of guess work we had to abort the mission. We did manage to navigate ourselves to the post office though, where I proceeded to burn my leg on the exhaust as I got off the bike. Adam then went in to see if his package had arrived while I doused my wound with cold water. He returned triumphant with parcel in hand, so that was one thing that could be ticked off the list and we were both pleased that his camera would be working again as it's far superior to mine.

We then popped round the corner to grab some lunch at a small restaurant we had been to before. You have to take your shoes off when you go in and then climb some very narrow, steep stairs to the upper level. Then you seat yourself at the low tables on round, flat cushions, it is very bright and airy up there and has a modern, Asian vibe.
Then we both consumed steak sandwiches and chips, not very Asian but very tasty! I ordered a glass of ice and continued to tend to the circular red patch on my inner calf, although I feared the damage had already been done.

After lunch we decided to make our way back to our room to get the map as we weren't having much luck without it. Needless to say we got ourselves a little bit lost on the way back but in the end saw some landmarks we recognised. When we were just one street away when the first drops of rain began to fall and they soon multiplied. We took refuge under the awning of a fruit stall and waited it out as we had also forgotten our rain gear. I was a little sick of mine any way as it had begun to rip and it had also gotten quite muddy. When the rain began to ease we decided to make a dash for it and didn't end up getting too wet.

We picked up the map, I grabbed my normal rain mack, Adam his poncho and we headed out the door once more. With the detailed street map to refer to, finding the train station was very straight forward and we were there in no time. When we found the right person to talk to we quickly established that train travel was an expensive business, well in the context of our budget. It would be a 20 hour trip to Da Nang and with two sleeper tickets, it was going to work out as double our daily allowance, we decided that we couldn't justify spending the money. So our only other option was taking the bus. There are plenty of tourist buses available which are called Cafe Tours (why?) and the tickets can be bought at one of the numerous travel agents in the tourist area. Going on them doesn't really appeal to either of us though because we'd rather do what the locals do as much as possible. So in the pursuit of authenticity we had to find our way to Ho Chi Minh bus station.

I located it on the map no problem and we set off once more. We took a wrong turn at a roundabout and headed over a bridge, and I said to Adam, 'those clouds look a bit ominous.' Sometimes it's not very fun being right! The clouds were dark, huge and heavy in the steely grey sky. Suddenly the atmosphere which was already thick with moisture broke and as if some had turned a tap on full the rain began to fall. We quickly pulled off the road and once again took refuge on the pavement by a shop front. There were some people gathered round, I think they were selling lottery tickets and they asked us where we were heading. We told them the bus station and they motioned back in the direction we had come from, and we nodded in agreement as we'd by now figured out where we had gone wrong. However there was no way we were leaving at the moment, so we all stood and watched the rain fall and the now poncho clad people that had decided to continue their journeys. I was surprised how many there were.

There was no let up, the supply of water appeared to be endless and the mighty force at which it fell remained the same. The narrow slip road we were on began to flood as the drains could not cope. This flushed out the cockroaches and we saw one rat in the grass getting an unwanted bath, and I now have a very good image to go along with the saying 'I look like a drowned rat.' I had visions of us being marooned here, which was really no where, we were out of the city beside some main road and so we made the decision to try and make our way back. It was stupid though because visibility was zero, the rain lashed into our faces and the roads were turning into rivers. We were forced to pull over once more and we ended up at a little garage. By now we were drenched, my skirt was clinging to my bare legs and I had to ring it out before I sat down on the little plastic chair I was offered.

As we sat there with the garage owner and another man who appeared to be waiting it out, we listened as thunder boomed out all around us and then the sky briefly lightened. After a little while things seemed to ease slightly and we thought it was a good time to move on again, as long as we took things slowly. The bike stuttered when Adam tried to start it but with a little bit of perseverance and help from the on hand mechanic we got it started again. Now that we had come this fair we headed for the bus station, it was closer than going back to the room at any rate. As we turned on to the right road we realised the full extent of situation, it was completely flooded. There was about a foot and a half of water to drive through and it was still falling from above. It was slow going as everyone did there best to keep moving, I suppose this has happened before and no one seemed too perturbed.

Thankfully it wasn't too far to the bus station and although we were dripping wet we had made it. Prices for bus tickets weren't cheap either, but it was less than the train and took the same amount of time so that was something to be pleased about. There was the option to get a sleeper bus but sticking to our tight budget meant going with the less comfortable option and we opted for a chair. Even if the thought of 20 hours in a seat wasn't very appealing. The ticket bought we were told to return at 1:30pm the next day and that the bus would leave at 2pm. Now all we had to do was get back to the safety of our room.

It was still raining when we made it outside and we gingerly made our way back to the spot where we'd left the bike. I looked at the map which was now soaked like us and tried to memorise the route back so I wouldn't have get it out again. Once I was pretty sure I knew which way we had to go Adam tried to start the bike. Nothing. Again and again we tried but still nothing. There were a few guys around us, some of who worked for the bus companies, but one boy in particular who just seemed to be keeping dry offered his services. He tried pumping the kick start, giving it some gas, tweaking nobs and wires but nothing seemed to work. A few of the workers tried as well but in the end they all looked at us apologetic and defeated. We were stuck.

I called up the bike rental place and the lady who spoke a bit of English understood when I explained it wouldn't start. I had to pass her over to a Vietnamese man to tell her where we were as my pronunciation wasn't up to scratch. When he returned the phone to me she didn't offer to come and save us like I was beginning to hope she would. Instead she asked us to get it fixed as we were too far away. Not what I wanted to hear but there wasn't a lot we could do so Adam began to push the bike.

There was no avoiding it now we had to wade out into the flooded roads. I was in flip flops and tried very hard not to think about what was in the water I was walking in. Adam on the other hand was in shoes and despite his best efforts not to get them wet, for fear they would never dry, he took the plunge and off we went. It wasn't too far to the nearest place but there was a bit of queue forming as people rolled in their flooded, lifeless bikes. We got seen to quite quickly by a man who turned up just after we arrived, clearly called in to help with the demand, our knight in plastic poncho! He wasn't quite has chivalrous though, as he gruffly directed Adam to steady the bike while he lifted the front to get any water out of the exhaust. This unfortunately didn't do the trick. He ended up removing a part from his own bike and trying it on ours, it spluttered to life and we were saved! He sent some other boy off to buy the part, fitted it and gave us the old one. When he spoke to me in very speedy, aggressive Vietnamese, I suppose telling me the price, I looked at him blankly and he seemed to think I was incredibly stupid. In the end though the money changed hands and we were once more free to sail the seven seas!

It took a while to get back, but slowly the roads began to improve and in the more modern end of town there was no flooding at all. I was immensely grateful for how well Adam handled it all in what were really difficult conditions at times. He followed suit as people drove up on to pavements to try and escape the worst of it and negotiated a lot of the roads which have been turned into narrow gulleys as maintenance work is carried out in the centre of them. Needless to say I was very pleased when we reached our destination and I slid off the bike. The women did look at us quite sympathetically as we tried to explain all that we had seen and experienced. I think we wanted to convey just how bad it was, especially considering it only looked like a bit of rain in this part of town. She knocked some money off for the part we'd bought when we showed her the old one, which was nice of her considering it wasn't really her fault.

The gallery people looked a little surprised when we returned and we tried to tell the tale again, they just laughed a bit. We were now in the dry though and happy to be so. Later that evening when the rain had stopped, we went out for dinner and managed to laugh about it. As Adam said, 'it was an experience!'

Then it was early to bed as tomorrow we had the 20 hour bus trip experience to look forward to...

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 04:07 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Motorcycle Diaries - Mekong Delta

Big Canals, Big Smiles, and Big Raindrops

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Our adventure South started with some ducking and weaving as we made our way out of Ho Chi Minh. The shear volume of traffic is the first obstacle and with most people on motorbikes it constantly seems to be moving as people try to find ways through. Staying still is not something they like to do and this often means red lights are not adhered to and people will go the wrong way down the street if necessary. This happens frequently because there are a lots of one way systems, so I was very impressed with how Adam handled it and we were soon free of the city. Only to be confronted with some severely rain damaged roads which when combined with heavy traffic made for a muddy, stop-start beginning to the trip. Adam seemed to enjoy himself though as he picked out his path and avoided the larger puddles. I definitely found gliding past the larger, stationery traffic a satisfying experience, something I've never had the pleasure of doing before.

There is only one main road which heads South and getting round is very simple really even though there is a distinct lack of sign posts. Our first stop was Ben Tre, as we'd read this was a good basis for exploring the surrounding area. It was about a 100km to get there and was pretty easy going, not exactly beautiful though. The roads are generally quite busy and often the land is simply flat and nondescript. However this was not the point, the point was we were free to go where we wanted when we wanted. Now I realise that you may think this is what we have been doing for four and a half months, and we have to a certain degree, but we are always tied to where the buses or trains go. Now we could really explore, if a road looked interesting or we saw something in the distance we had the means to investigate.

In order to get to Ben Tre we had to go over a very large bridge and we got our first proper view of the Mekong Delta.
This part of Vietnam is characterised by it's rich, agricultural land, all of which is carved up by a web of rivers and getting from one place to another either requires a bridge or a short ferry hop.
When we reach Ben Tre we were disappointed, it was as far as we could see a bit of a nothing town. We stopped for a Spot of lunch at a little pavement eatery, we got a few odd looks as we sat down on the plastic furniture which would have fitted very nicely in my Wendy House, but people were soon smiling and trying their best to understand us. We gobbled down a couple of baguettes, which may sound odd considering we're in Asia but they are readily available, they are a left over from the French colonisation. As soon as we were re-fuelled we retraced our steps a little bit and then turned South West to reach the town of Can Tho. Getting here required a trip on the ferry, so we bought our first drive-thru ticket and then entered a gated area which filled up with other motorbikes as we waited for the ferry to dock. Once it had the barrier was lifted and it was like horses being released from their stalls, and we were off , all jostling for position, everyone wanting to be the first off at the other side.

In the end it was a leisurely ride over. A man came over to have a chat with us, he seemed impressed that we had ridden all the way from Ho Chi Minh. As we would soon come to realise the number of Westerners in this part of Vietnam appears to be very few. Those that do come tend to go on an organised day tour. Once in Can Tho we soon found a hotel and were pleased to be off the bikes to give our bums a rest. It was quite a large place and had a fairly lively atmosphere which we weren't really expecting. Most of it was coming from the local large appliance store which was blaring out dance music well in to the night. We found a place to eat and the staff were falling over themselves to accommodate us, which may have been because we were the only ones in there but nonetheless they were incredibly friendly. Again to us it would seem the bad reputation was unfounded.

The next morning we woke up to heavy rain, not a lot was visible from our hotel room as the torrential downpour distorted the view.
In the end it seemed the worst was over and we decided to move on again. However we did not get very fair when the heavens opened once more and we were forced to pull over to don our ponchos. Adam was in yellow and I was sporting a red poca-dot number, thankfully we really did not stand out. We drove on for as far as we could but at points it was really silly and despite our best efforts to stay dry, by the time we reached Long Xuyen our bottom halves were soaked. It wasn't our choice destination but it was going to have to do because venturing any further seemed a little foolhardy.

We were starving so tried to find some food but were initially unsuccessful. They have a lot of Cafes in Vietnam but they do not serve food, just drinks. We pulled in to one and both ordered a coffee, and we were given ice coffee which is standard here. It is basically an espresso shot in a tall glass with lots of ice and a long spoon. You then ram the spoon up and down to break up the ice to add water to the coffee and mix in the healthy serving of sugar at the bottom. We were both surprised how much we liked it and we have enjoyed many since. After consuming the coffee you are given a pot of green tea that you pour directly into the same glass, which usually contains the dregs of the coffee. A little odd but you get used to it and it's really refreshing.

Now we were both re-hydrated we set about finding a hotel room, which we did with ease as there are a lot to choose from in Long Xuyen. The people running the hotel did not understand a word of English but with some gesticulating on both parts we managed to get a really nice room. They all seemed incredibly amused by our presence but were once again so full of smiles and you soon get used to hearing people giggling as you pass by.

Although Long Xuyen is the capital of the largest island in the Mekong Delta it doesn't boast any great attractions and some may even call it quite dull however we enjoyed ourselves there. We ended up having to stay two night because of the weather but during that time we met some really friendly people. This mostly occurred when we were eating, and one thing I can say for the South, it has the best food in Vietnam. As no one speaks English we learnt how to say thank you and people really appreciate it when you make an attempt to communicate with them. Although we couldn't sit and have conversations with people there was always a warm atmosphere, lots of smiles and it definitely made the experience for us. We went back to the same girl several times to buy fruit as we tried some things we had never happened before and Adam got his Dragon Fruit fix. She really seemed to appreciate the repeat business.

The morning that we left one of the young girls at the hotel beckoned us to follow her up to the top floor and from the back window we looked down on to a crocodile farm. It was feeding time and they were all worked up in to a bit of a frenzy. It was so sweet of her to make sure we saw this and we all laughed and she watched as we snapped a few photos.

It was another intermittently wet day as we worked our way further South and we were often pulling over to yank on our ponchos. We'd invested in better quality ones although they did still rip really easily. At one point the rain fell like a sheet and we were forced to pull into a little cafe, where once again there was a smiley women to serve us coffee and her little short legged dog darting around to keep us entertained. We were aiming to get to a place called Hon Chong which is situated on the coast, there were meant to be some idyllic beaches and islets like the ones found at Halong Bay. It wasn't exactly beach weather but we persevered and as the day drew to a close we saw the sea for the first time. Thankfully we found a nice little place with a deserted but good hotel. We had noodle soup served to us with friendly smiles and a bit of broken conversation before calling it a night.

The next morning we continued on to the beach and found ourselves at Vietnam's equivalent to to the English seaside. There were lots of little stalls selling a whole variety of items, a lot of it was the tat (as you would expect) but we did find some nice little vases which really cost nothing. It was not raining which helped and there were some very pretty islets a little way of shore; mounds of rocks rising out of the water.
We did try to get on a boat but it seemed to have been hired by other people and we couldn't communicate well enough to establish whether we could go too. We visited a little Buddhist temple,
consumed some deep-fried crabs and prawns which we ate whole (shell and all), and then looked at some strange looking lizards both alive and dead, then decided it was time to be on the move once more.

The hotel owner oiled up our squeaking brakes, the noise being generated from a distinct lack of brake pads and we waved good bye to Hon Chong. We tried to get away from the main road and go along the smaller coast road which we did do for a while. It was nice to get away from the traffic and see a little more rural Vietnam. We must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we ended up basically doing a loop and we hadn't actually covered much ground. Knowing we had some distance to go we pushed on, however we didn't get very far before we forced to a halt. We had a punctured tire. It could have been a whole lot worse though, with the number of motorbikes on the road, a repair shop is never too far away. Adam only had to push the bike about 100 metres as I trudged behind with the backpack. The man was already tending to one bike so while we waited our turn his wife made us a coffee and we continued our primitive communications of nodding and smiling.

There is quite a community feeling despite most of the villages being strewn out along the roadside. I'm not sure whether it was word of mouth or if this little repair/convenience shop is always this busy but there were a steady stream of people who came through. A lot of them lingered a little while as they gazed at us, our broken bike and then chatted amongst themselves, all the while laughing at the apparently amusing situation. It was never done in a horrible way though, nor did they make us feel uncomfortable, I felt they were pleased that we were there. The man removed a huge nail from the inner tubing which it transpired had already been repaired once, and with the large gash in it was now beyond saving. With a bit of cajoling he got the old one off and a new one on and soon enough we were ready to set off once more. We waved goodbye to our little audience headed North to Chau Doc.

We spent most of the day off the main road and the sun made a few appearances which really helped the scenery. The river systems are extensive and we were continuously crossing over little bridges which navigate you over the water which stretches off, poker straight into the distance.
Low lying boats chug along and the pace of life is set to slow and relaxing. Little villages cling to the banks, the houses built on stilts above the water on one side and then back on to large fields of crops on the other.

By the time we reached Chau Doc the day was almost over. It is the closest I have ever come to Cambodia and is often where people cross over the border, so for the first time in the last few days we saw a few Westerners. We didn't really have time to do much exploring but it was a colourful little town with a square in the centre which is where we stayed for the night.

The next day we were set the fairly daunting tasks of making it all the way back to Ho Chi Minh, about 300km. We set off early and made good progress as the roads are all in pretty good condition, the only problems were our bums which by now had had enough. Getting back in to the city we faced similar problems with the damaged roads and it was painful at times. Not helped by our bike which was really on its last legs, the brakes were now completely shot, and it was continually back firing and often cutting out entirely. We saw some interesting things though, such as a man with a few baskets full of ducks.
I don't like to think about where they were heading or the fact that they looked a teeny bit squashed, it was just something I have never seen before.

Soon enough we were back in Ho Chi Minh and found our way back to the bike rental. I was quite pleased to be reliant once more on my own two legs, even if they didn't really feel like they belonged to me any more. That said we had really enjoyed the last few days, and although we hadn't seen the most amazing scenery, which wasn't helped by the weather, we had experienced a very warm welcome. As things stood that bad reputation was well and truly out the window.
More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 04:04 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Good Yoghurt Vietnam!

oh and a nice city too...

View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

Our flight to Kuala Lumpur was “re-timed,” which we are pretty sure is just a more pleasant way of saying delayed. It was only by an our or so though which was good. However once we got to Kuala Lumpur our flight to Ho Chi Minh was also delayed. Again it was not by very long just an hour and a half or so but it was still annoying and meant we would arrive quite late.

We caught a taxi from the airport to the main travellers area, and had our first introduction to the dollar/dong dichotomy. More often than not you are quoted prices in US Dollars and then you can either pay with them or you then have to convert it to Vietnamese Dong. They work on the basis that 18,000 Dong is 1 USD. Good job that we already carry around a calculator to work out our daily spendings because it really has come in handy.

First impressions of Ho Chi Minh were good, it felt quite modern and it definitely buzzed with people. Most of them were riding around of scooters/motorbikes, I have never seen so many in all my life. Every one is very safety conscious though, well when it comes to helmets, which are worn by all and appear to act as another fashion accessory. The driving is a little sketchy in places, but we have come to expect that so it was nothing new. Both of us were feeling a bit sleepy so we ended up crashing at the first place we came to. On the face of it, it seemed clean, fairly new just a little compact. After a while though we noticed a smell coming from the bathroom and resigned ourselves to finding some where better the next morning.

The area we were staying is definitely tourist-ville, there are dozens of hotels, bars, cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and so on. We found a room above a gallery (this seems to be good business here, people reproduce famous paintings to sell to tourists) and were really happy. It was perhaps a little tired but it was quite large and the people were friendly. So far their bad reputation was looking a little shakey. As it was Sunday we couldn't do some of the things we needed to, so we just had a easy introduction to Vietnam. After a little bit of a walk around we stopped for lunch and had our first (of many) bowl of noodle soup. This is one of the staples when it comes to food here and is eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The soup is really more like a broth and always has a very clean and fresh taste. It was a good culinary day all round, we had a very nice dinner and I continued to hone my chop stick skills and then came our best find of all. For desert we ventured in to the bright, colourful land of Yoghurt Space.
Neither of us had ever really gone in for frozen yoghurt before but we are now complete converts, well to Yoghurt Space at least which unfortunately appears to be HCM City based. I won't go in to too much detail but you get to use Mr Whippy style machines and fill up your own tub with lots of different flavours like coconut, passion fruit, coffee, chocolate and then there's a whole host of toppings to choose from. I am sad to say that I think it has ruined ice cream for me, it just isn't as good. We went back every day we were there.

The next day spent in Vietnam's second city was a fairly frustrating one. It reconfirmed to us that you should never just take people's word for it. We got our visa for Vietnam in Manila and we were quite pressed for time so we decided to get a two week visa which could be issued on the spot, we knew it would not be long enough but we were told we could extend it once we were there. So off we trotted bright and early Monday morning to jump through the administrative hoops so we could get on with our travels. However when we finally found the right building we were told that two week visas could not be extended and we would have to get a travel agent to apply for a new one. It baffled us both that a government official would be directing us to some high street travel agent, who are usually trying to con you out of all your money, to sort this out when we ourselves were willing and able, but there you go. We did a bit of research and it seemed this was the case, however we were now confused about what to do for the best as it was going to take five working days and we were entertaining the idea of coming back to Vietnam at a later point to see the north.

While we pondered we headed over to the famous Ho Chi Minh Post Office which is situated next to the cathedral. They are both set in a very spacious square and the grand buildings feel more European than Asian.
We were hoping to pick up a package from Adam's mum containing all the necessities to revive his camera but unfortunately it hadn't arrived yet. So that was another spanner in the works. We spent the rest of the day um-ing and ah-ing and in the end decided that we would hand the passports in, rent a motorbike to see the South and then return to Ho Chi Minh to pick them and Adam's package up before venturing North. It was a day of organisation as we sat in a coffee shop and using the free wifi worked out all the dates and booked the rest of the flights for Asia. So now we just have our fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong. That night we decided to be a bit lavish with our dinner choices and dined on Shrimps, Snails and Wild Boar amongst other things.

On our last day in Ho Chi Minh we actually got a bit of site seeing in, after organising the motorbike for the next day that is. It cost us $5 or 90,000 Dong per day for a fully automatic bike which in hindsight was a really good deal. They were a little concerned that we couldn't give them our passports for insurance but we managed to get round it. After that we headed over to the Vietnam War Museum which was a sobering experience. Outside there are a number of planes and helicopters that people posed with and then inside it was quite stark.
There are no big visual displays or anything that was instantaneously eye-catching but as soon as you wondered over to one wall and began to read you were completely drawn in to the tragedy of it. The victims of Agent Orange, the gas which was used by the Americans was what really got me. It is not only the people who lived through the war that suffered but their children and their children's children. Many have been born with terrible deformities and live completely restricted lives, although in a number of pictures they are shining out with brilliant smiles. I think you would have to be pretty heartless for it not to strike a chord and I wondered how American's feel when they visit.

After leaving the museum we delved in to some of Ho Chi Minh's markets and spent a bit of money on various bits and bobs. We then continued sauntering around for a little while and ended up getting completely drenched in an immense downpour. We decided it was time to invest in some ponchos which are a necessity in the rainy season. It continues to surprise me how the motorists of Vietnam change in to this rain gear so quickly. They appear to have Superman's outfitting changing speed, as it seems the rain has only just begun and the streets are full of people encased in brightly coloured, plastic tents which billow in the wind. When it didn't look like the rain was going to give up even a little we hailed a cab to take us back to the tourist area. After we'd dried off, we headed out for some dinner and then got an early night. We had an adventure to begin in the morning.

More Soon

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 03:53 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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