The following is an email sent summarising our travels to a few friends
Hello one and all,
Hope this email finds you well, and that you have enjoyed your Easter, and ANZAC Day (for all you Aussie's), and St George's Day for all you poms.
It has been nearly five weeks since my last email (almost sounds like a confessional .)
In that time we spent two weeks in Phuket before heading for Vietnam, starting in Ho Chi Minh City with a side trip to the Mekong Delta, bus to Dalat and on to Nha Trang, then by train to Hue, bus to Hoi An and back, flight to Hanoi and then a side trip to Halong Bay before flying to Hong Kong where we staying for the next few days before going on to the Chinese mainland.
There was nothing backpacker related about our two weeks in Phuket. We booked ourselves in for 14 nights in a four star resort on Karon beach and did very little other than eat great Thai food, lie by the pool, walk on beach and relax. We took a day trip out to Phi-Phi island ( from the Beach fame) did a touch of snorkelling and we also partook in a Thai cookery class, and discovered how simple it actually is to make great Thai food from scratch in about 10 minutes. Then it was all too soon, time to get back on the tourist trail and to a much simpler way of life...
I have to admit that we both really loved Vietnam - with its incredibly friendly people, crazy traffic and motorbikes and some of the most beautiful natural scenery full of contrasts.
Ho Chi Minh City & Mekong Delta
Our first fun-filled day was spent learning how to cross the road (walking out very slowly into the oncoming traffic and praying they drive around you is the only technique which works - we met 2 tourists who had been hit by motorbikes so we are very happy to be in one piece) and generally walking around town soaking it up.
Then it was straight to the Mekong Delta, and it is really quite astonishing. The river gets up to 5 km wide, at points, but you never get a real feel for the true size because there are so many big islands, however when you drive over 10 or 15 rivers the size of the Hawkesbury River one after the other it starts to add up. We took a speedboat from Saigon to My Tho which was a great way to see the locals, up to their waist in mud digging for snails, or some of the innovative extensions to the back of their houses looking like they would collapse in the river at any moment. We cruised the floating markets, visited any number of little workshops , stayed overnight in Can Tho and finally arrived back in Saigon (as the centre of Ho Chi Minh citry is still called) exhausted.
Our next day we did a half day tour to Cu Chi tunnels built used during the Vietnam war by the VC to get around without drawing attention - the highlight of which was crawling through a pitch black tunnel for 35 metres - it was a little terrifying to be honest - given that it was 80cm tall and 60 cm wide and there was the occasional drop to look out for We then went on to spend the afternoon at the war Remnants museum which was quite disturbing - particularly the sections on naplam, Agent Orange and prison torture. The entire museum is quite one-sided against the Americans as you might expect but the photos and displays are incredibly graphic, including a jar containing a pickled human feotus with two heads. I can tell you it took some time to put a cheery face on after we left.
From Ho Chi Minh we took a bus to Dalat on the advice of someone we had met a few days earlier, it's in the central highlands, and was cool, and surrounded by beautiful green hills with several lakes and a thriving agricultural industry not based around rice (which is what you will see almost everywhere else you go). we only spent one full day there and then caught the bus to Nha Trang - a seaside resort town. Funnily enough whilst in Dalat a motorbike tour guide enlightened us that a couple of buses had a head-on collision on the road we had just driven the week before killing 15 people. We started to think that wasn't any methods in their madness afterall, and wholeheartedly approved of the amount with which they used their horns.
We had one fantastic day in Nha Trang - first we did some snorkelling and saw some very strange fish and pretty coral and in the afternoon we went to a day spa for a double mud bath, soak in mineral water, massage and steam bath. I think it is the first massage I had where someone has been wandering around on my back whilst holding a pole in the roof, or using their knees to massage my lower back.
From Nha Trang we ditched the bus and grabbed a train to Hue. Spent a whole day just watching the world go by, locals in conical hats and pyjamas, winnowing rice in the paddies, water buffalos, tombs in the fields, the works.
The citadel in Hue was quite nice to look around, but I have to admit we found Hue to be a bit of let down. The people were less friendly, and really just wanted your money, so we decided to head to Hoi An for a couple of days - best decision we ever made - even if we did have to get back on a bus. We also discovered the wonderful concept of Squid Jerky which adds a whole new smell to the myriad we had already come to know and love. If you want to reproduce this, just get hold of between 2 and 100 fresh squid, and then either hang them up outside or lie them flat on a table wait for them to dry into something rock hard and flat...mmm yummy
After Hoi An we did take a tour to the DMZ before heading off to Hanoi, we drove past the rockpile, visited Vinh Moh tunnels (much bigger and more enjoyable than Cu Chi), the Khe Sanh miltary base, Ben Hai river etc.. It was nice to drive around in the countryside, but otherwise quite missable as we spent 80% of our time on the bus, and when we stopped it was to point at things that weren't there anymore. Of most interest was a quick look at how some of the hill tribes still live, in very poor conditions and with each couple having at least 10 children to help them work the land, and still practicing slash and burn farming techniques, despite the government trying to dissuade them.
Charming little town, with its world heritage listing is an absolute pleasure to wander around, looking at handicrafts, markets, museums, old houses etc. oh and there are more tailors than you can poke a stick at. Our hotel had a swimming pool which was also a pleasant change. we had a lovely meal at one of the many good restaurants on the waterfront, and then head back to Hue, before flying to Hanoi.
The old quarter in Hanoi is quite an experience with everything from spot welding, lantern making, cooking, chopping pork into mince, peeling and chopping bamboo etc etc. happening right there on the pavement as you walk past - be careful not to step on anyone or anything We had some fun shopping and haggling for new shoes and backpack for me as our belongings are now starting to fall to pieces and an England jersey for James to celebrate St Georges day. We also wandered around the lake, avoiding offers for bikes tours, cyclo tours and everything else you could imagine.
After our 2 day trip to Halong Bay - see below - we spent another enjoyable day in Hanoi at the Temple of Literature, more shopping - for souvenirs this time, and then the Water Puppets in the evening - thanks for the recomendation Alex - they were unique!
Without doubt the most beautiful part of Vietnam - somewhat similar to Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, but far more stunning with thousands of limestone islands protruding from the water creating little bays, and waterways which were pristine except for the occasional floating village. We drove out there from Hanoi and spent two days and one night on a Junk cruising the islands, went for a swim, visited a cave (reminisent of Jenolan caves for example). The only downside was that we ended up on a boat without air conditioning ( despite promises otherwsie by the tour agent) and whilst the rooms had a fan, they weren't much use because there was no power on the boat after we went to bed. The tranquility was a huge change from the hustle and bustle we had been immersed in the for the past weeks.
Oh yes I didn't mention did I that our digital camera died in the Mekong Delta and we have been living off disposables (so we spent yesterday in Hong Kong buying a new one) and we temporarily lost our video camera, but we very lucky to find it again thanks to the staff in our hotel in Hanoi. I have think James was sad because he couldn't buy a new one of those too ))
So that was Vietnam - we could easily have done with another 2 or three weeks in this fantastic country and we didn't even get to touch on Cambodia and Lao which are close by.
Enjoy your day and our blog address is below if you have time to read more We are off to explore Hong Kong
Heather & James