Sunday 6th May - Sunday 27th May 2012
06.05.2012 - 27.05.2012 28 °C
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
My flight from KL was very smooth and as we flew over Ho Chi Minh I could see that this was a mixture of very developed city and rural tradition... lots of paddy fields and small villages surround the city!
When I arrived at the airport the visa process was simple, although I did have to run out to get money (8 million Vietnamese Dong- I am officially a billionaire) and retrieve my bag for the passport photos before they could issue it! I was glad though that the visa took up an entire page in my passport, and customs was a breeze! I even learnt my first Vietnamese phrase- 'Cam On' (pronounced 'Gahm Un') meaning Thank you! x
As soon as my bag had been scanned by security, I hear a deafening loud roar of thunder, which literally sounded like a gun shot through the sky and the heavens opened... I have NEVER seen rain like it! Welcome to Vietnam Skye! :-(
This is apparently common in the city, and has led to a revolutionary fashion item amongst Vietnamese and Tourists alike... The Rain Poncho! Super sexy and uber stylish, this hooded, long sleeved, plastic, calf-length robe is a MUST, and something I purchased the very next day in a Matrix-inspired black colour (coz I'm cool)!
Refusing to walk anywhere pre-poncho, I paid the USD10 for a cab to take me to my hostel, which is lovely and clean and located next to a very cool and traditional open food market: A small square where Vietnamese women gather early in the morning to set up their stalls with fruits, vegetables, meats, pickles/spices and LOTS of fish... needless to say it was a bit smelly, and I was a little distressed to see that the fish were so fresh that they were still flapping around in the trays, slowly suffocating! :-S but the locals ride their mopeds right up to the counters and everyone is shouting in Vietnamese, with the women wearing those triangular hats! Loved it!
That evening I settled into my hostel, watched 'Crazy Stupid Love' with some of the other guests and flicked through the hostels copy of 'Lonely Planet' to figure out what to do and where over the next 2.5 weeks!
The following morning I woke up early to explore the city... walking around at first was very daunting as the traffic here is CRAZY! the roads are sooo wide and there are literally thousands of cars, bikes and motorbikes coming at you from every direction... your only choice is to tread carefully and consistently look both ways!
I soon got my bearings with the help of a small map and managed to find Ben Thanh Market, which is a HUGE indoor market selling everything from dried fish to baby clothes! I wondered around, taking in the VERY funky smells of the Vietnamese food and the vast array of produce on sale, all the while being stroked by tiny women saying "Miss, Miss, You look in my shop"... an experience, especially when the rain started drumming on the roof, but I wasn't looking to buy anything yet and so just observed the hustle and bustle!
I then stopped off at a coffee shop on my way to see the Reunification Palace, and passed some awesome graffiti, some local women making brooms to sweep the road and some very squashed cockroaches;
The palace itself wasn't that impressive, and the guard gave me a map of what is inside (which I didn't fancy paying for) so I just look some snaps and continued on to the museum...
Vietnam War Remnant Museum
At a cost of only 60p to enter, this was well worth the trip and took up a large portion of my day... I hadn't really learned about the Vietnamese war before and so I went into the museum with a fresh head, ready to learn, but was also aware that this only represented one, very biased side, of the story...
The courtyard of the museum is full of replica tanks and US army planes, with facts about what ammunition they carry, how often they were used and roughly how many Vietnamese they are thought to have killed...
Next was a re-made jail where there were photos, extracts and facts about the torture methods used by the authorities to gain information from the POWs... I literally started to feel sick and had to leave this part for a few hours before returning to finish looking! Particularly gruesome were the photos of prisoners whose arms and legs had been deformed by consistent breaking from beatings and even having rusty nails hammered into them! As well as those left blinded or without eyes from high frequency light and heat ray exposure! There were also 'Tiger Cages', which were made from barbed wire that several prisoners were crammed into and left naked in the elements- blistering heat and rain/mud with no food or water and only enough room to crouch!
Once I got into the museum itself, the photos and descriptions didn't get much better... The top floor was a photo gallery titled 'Requiem':
This was my favourite gallery as I felt it was the least bias but really opened my eyes to the pressure of the conflict and the losses/tragedies for both sides! A lot of the emphasis was on the fact that the American soldiers killed a lot of civilian farmers etc whom they suspected as Viet Cong, but having learned more about the tunnels and traps/ general methods used by VC, I can sympathize as to how angry, frustrated and paranoid American men must have been fighting here!
I took a picture of some of my favourite photos from this gallery:
Here, the same young medic cries out for assistance when his pilot is killed, attempts to unsuccessfully revive a man on the ground and is later photographed crying on base;
This shows American soldiers using the wrapped bodies of their peers as a guard from incoming bullets;
Perhaps the most devastating issue with this war, is the use of chemical weapons by the American forces. Particularly, I learned about a compound called 'Agent Orange' which was sprayed over the farming land and has lead to generations of birth defects for the children of both Vietnamese and American soldiers who were exposed! The following is info on the chemical and a before and after shot of an area where Agent Orange was used:
The chemical caused severe deformation of fetuses, often being stillborn, or physically and mentally handicapped if the babies lived... some of these pictures are really horrible, but only scratch the surface of what I read and saw!
Being there really gave me a context for the Viet Cong war tunnels that I was to visit the next day...
That night I met some more people from my hostel and went out for dinner and a LOT of vodka... firstly Matt decided vodka slurpees was a good idea, so we all got a different flavour slurpee (like a slush puppy) and filled them with cheap vodka, before making a big table at a local bar, where vodka shots were 70p each and a can of sprite was 30p! Fast-forward 20+ shots and a VERY drunk Skye is attempting to type messages to Patrick and falling into bed with an alarm set for 6:50am! OOPIES!
With a RAGING hang over, I made it up for 7am, drank as much water as I could stomach and got on the bus next to a nice American guy called Jon, who put up with me being VERY quiet for the 2 hour drive to Tay Ninh, our first stop on the day tour, and whom I ended up traveling with for a while!
The tour guide for our trip was a HILARIOUS Vietnamese pensioner who introduced himself as 'Slim Jim' and LOVED cockney rhyming slang! He found any excuse to work it into a sentence and then preceded to explain why it made sense, e.g (in very broken english) "I hav a dog an bone in my sky rocket" (laughs hysterically) "you see... I have phone in my pocket" (pulls out phone and holds it up) "Dog an bone, becoz 'bone' rhyme wi 'phone', so I hav 'dog an bone', 'phone'" (looks very pleased with himself and points to phone a lot), "An 'sky rocket' is 'pocket' becoz 'pocket' rhyme wi 'rocket', so I have a 'dog an bone in my sky rocket', I hav phone in my pocket" (more laughing and pointing)... Yes Slim Jim, we know what cockney rhyming slang is! This continued for the WHOLE day, was very funny but glad that I only had to put up with it for a few hours! :-P
Cao Dai Holy See- Tay Ninh
Our first stop was a visit to the prayer service of the Vietnamese minority religion known as 'Cao Dai' (a mixture of Buddhism and Catholicism), where men and women dressed in white robes (apart from the higher orders who dressed in Blue, Red and Yellow) came together to pray/bow along to a choir for 40 mins up to 4 times a day!
The temple was very colourful and reminded me of the hindu temples I'd seen in Little India, Singapore... there were lots of carvings of dragons etc as well as the 'All Seeing Eye' (Cao Dai Symbol), painted bright colours;
The service itself was fairly boring... the men and women filed in from different entrances and sat in 'levels' to represent the seven steps towards Nirvana. There were some men and women who were in charge of organising the seating arrangement, which reminded me of teachers in assembly at school, who waft you along while you shift about uncomfortably on the floor! Once in position, the choir began to sing and every few minutes a gong would sound three times, and everyone would bow their heads to the floor and back up for each gong. I was kinda hoping that at any minute they would start breakdancing or something, but no... just bowing in silence, sitting cross legged, and then more bowing...
Once we had observed this practice from the balcony (which made us all feel very invasive as we were silently ushered upstairs and 'out the way'), we were taken for lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant... where I continued my struggle to find something edible! I thought you couldn't go very wrong with 'vegetable fried rice', but then it came out with a MASSIVE egg plonked on top! BOO!... I have learnt though that if you cover it in soy sauce, pretty much anything is bearable! :-P
Ben Dinh Tunnels - Cu Chi
Back on the bus, we travelled for another hour to visit the Viet Cong tunnels which were instrumental in communist victory during the war. Although I had heard about the tunnels before, I hadn't realised just how TINY and complicated they were... most consisted of three levels, with specially designed 'ventilation systems', wells for water and even official offices containing VC plans etc!
The tunnels were heavily bombed during the war, but provided excellent protection from raids/bombs (which is one of the reasons they're so narrow- to protect against shock waves- as Slim Jim put it 'The Smaller, The Safer') but as the network was so intricate and vast, they provided both an easy escape for VC members under attack, and a route to 'sneak up' on American soldiers. Combine this with the nasty boobie traps also set by the VC and it is easy to see why they were so successful!
The tunnels we visited were in an area of Cu Chi called Ben Dinh, which is in the jungle as so added to the atmosphere of the tunnels themselves. Firstly, Vietnamese men showed us the original tunnels, with a bit of history and we could take photos of this example, but were told they were too small for Western tourists, and so the actual tunnels we crawled through were 'King Size', and double the size in height and width;
Original tunnel entrance for snipers;
We were then showed examples of the boobie traps that were constructed throughout the jungle to capture American soldiers... a lot of them involved sharpened sticks or large nails;
Finally, we were shown the king sized tunnels to crawl through, which, even though bigger, were still VERY uncomfortable to move in- you had to crouch into a duck-like position, and use your hands to stabilize yourself! These tunnels had also been fitted with electric lighting to shepherd you along and prevent claustrophobia, but were still VERY hot and hard to breathe in! But I made it 100 metres!
(the last photo was an attempt to demonstrate how scrunched up I was getting through them, but I dont think it reflects the size very well)
Lastly, we were given Vietnamese tea in shot glasses and Tapioca (which is basically a potato-like root, which we dipped in crushes peanut/sugar power) as an example of what the VC lived on before heading back to Ho Chi Minh for dinner!
This time I tried 'Pho', which is a traditional Vietnamese soup, that often consists of a stock-base, meat and noodles, and it mostly eaten for breakfast. As I do not like noodles, I tried the 'Chilli Beef' without noodles, and instead was given some bread to dip inside. The soup itself was delicious, very watery but flavoured with lots of spices, but the beef was a bit raw and looked like carcass so I gave it away! The soup is served with a plate of leaves (we are not sure what plant) which taste a bit liquorish-y!
After an early night, I was up at 6am again to catch the bus to the beach town of Mui Ne with Jon, this was our first experience of Vietnamese 'Sleeper' buses, which have rows of horizontal beds, instead of seats! This experience was MUCH more comfortable than the 20 hour seated journey in Brazil, but the beds are still made for Vietnamese-sized people, so you still had to scrunch your legs up a little! I did manage to get some extra sleep! (^_^)
We arrived at around 1pm and checked into our hotel, before heading to the beach! As I have just come from islands such as Sipadan and Siamil, I was not overly impressed with the quality of the beach itself, but we had a nice walk along the sea edge and watched lots of Russian tourists attempting to kite surf! There were also some fisherman in strange bowl-shaped plastic boats, which I thought were cool as well;
After our walk, we went back for a shower before renting a motorbike to visit the famous 'Red Sand Dunes', we were unsure about their exact location, but the bike ride was fun (Jon drove of course- as I would no doubt have killed myself) but we arrived just as the sun was setting and got some lovely photos! We then went for a drink on the way home and found that Vietnamese Rum was only 10,000 Dong for a HUGE shot (approx 30p)! BARGAIN! Dinner was shrimp curry- not technically Vietnamese, but DELICIOUS all the same!
Again, we had to be up early for our next bus (not really enjoying these early mornings), but as it was another 5 hour trip we wanted to make sure we didn't waste too much of the day! The scenery on the bus ride took us through the mountains so was very pleasent really;
On this bus we met Rachel and Bianca, a Manc and a Dutch girl who were also traveling North, and ended up spending the day with them!
We arrived in Da Lat around 1pm again and were conveniently dropped RIGHT outside our hotel, 'Pink Villa', where we had HUGE double beds and the owner, Mr Rot, was VERY friendly- he even took us out for a traditional (and INCREDIBLE) Vietnamese meal on our last night!
For the first day we decided to have a wonder and explore the area, and found a huge bakery where we bought cakes and Rachel tried these weird white dumplings which contain God-knows-what parts of pork with egg, all in a bread-like casing... YUCK!
We then went to the local market, where they were selling a LOT of Durian Fruit and it STANK! The more I am around that smell, the more it makes me want to vomit! There were some pretty flowers on sale though and a funny old woman who was selling fruit whilst smoking on what looked like a MASSIVE joint! (opium wouldn't surprise me here!) :-S. Also, a man with a cart selling bags of live fish- like goldfish at a fair, but with LOADS of them and hardly any water! Sad! As well as the usual jars of pickled everything and tacky souveniers!
From the market we walked passed the mini Eiffel Tower (Da Lat is supposed to be the mini-Paris of Vietnam), and along the lake, with these swan shaped paddle boats to the 'Flower Garden', where, just as we arrived, the heavens opened and it POURED with rain! Luckily we were able to find shelter in a cafe for an hour whilst we waited for it to calm down, and drank ginger tea (^_^) x
The flower garden itself wasn't very impressive- kinda reminded me of Milbrook Park (which you don't have to pay for!)- but there was a Vietnamese family there who LOVED our white skin and Bianca's Arian looks and so wanted to take loads of photos with us! Cue some very strange but funny moments, and some colourful ponchos for Jon and Rachel! :-D
The rain hadn't quite let up and we were starting to get cold! (actually a nice feeling after being in this heat for so long) so we hopped into a taxi back to our hotel so we could shower and warm up for dinner... I even got to wear my leggings and the poncho I bought in Uruguay as the temperature was so much cooler in the mountains!
We went to a local restaurant which was recommended to us by our hotel and I ate 'Food Over Rice' (actual wording from menu), which was chicken breast, green beans and onion with a gravy-type sauce... a little bland but reminded me of Chicken Tama Rice which I often order at Wagamammas!
After dinner we attempted to find a bar (apparently not easy in Da Lat)... there were two places which looked promising, that had rows of tables and chairs full of Vietnamese people on either side, they were really dark with loud techno music and green lasers flashing across the room... so we walked up (rather confidently given the number of locals!) and sat down... but as soon as we asked for beer, the waitress looked very confused and said "We no have", the locals then all began to stare and when the waitress took us over to her 'fridge' and pointed inside, offering Red Bull as the strongest thing she had, it dawned on us that all the locals were drinking tea or coffee, and that apparently, it is normal to do this with strobe lighting, lasers and pumping tunes in Vietnam! VERY embarrassingly, we walked out!
Managed to get a drink at a restaurant where we were joined by these two very strange French men who had also been on the bus from Mui Ne... they kept talking about sex and making rude innuendos, and later became REALLY inappropriately flirty to the point of annoying! Apart from them it was a good night though, but early to bed as we had to be up early for our bike tour...
Mr Rot's Village Tour
Due to his moonlighting as a Vietnamese folk singer in a local bar, Mr Rot (the hotel owner) was VERY hung over and had hurt his voice on the morning of our tour, so instead his sister was our guide. Her name was 'Son' (pronounced 'sun') and she was a very giggly 26 year old, who also liked to sing (badly!) the same one line of a Vietnamese love song over and over! To start the tour she made us all join hands and sing a kinda of welcome song while she swung our hands around and then we had to do a hands-in-the-middle-YAY! thing at the end... she was sweet and spoke VERY good English, but was a little immature at times!
I wasn't comfortable riding a bike, so I went on the back of Son's moped while Jon and the German couple followed behind us. The drive was AMAZING through the Vietnamese Mountains... soo green and beautiful, it was one of the best parts of the day!
Our first stop was a cricket farm, where we were able to try the crickets fried with lemon grass, they looked pretty weird but tasted great, just very crunchy in texture and their legs tended to get stuck in your teeth! :-P
Next we continued the drive until we reached a local village and went to the market... this was very authentic, with live ducks and chickens in cages, massive tables of animal body parts (they literally eat EVERYTHING- even the eyes!), as well as fresh fruit and veg. I was a little disturbed to see a chopping board with a big, bloody fish that had been cut in half, but was still attempting to breathe and thus VERY much alive! Son told us about some customs/traditions, including the burning of paper clothing/accessories at funerals for use in the afterlife, and a local delicacy which involves hard boiling fertilized duck/chicken eggs and then eating the half developed bird fetus whole! YUCK!
Back on the bikes, we drove to a silk farm to see how they make silk scarves/clothing... here we ate a silk worm once it had been boiled to get the silk strands from it's cacoon, and that was DISGUSTING! It was a big maggot-like creature that popped warm watery juice into your mouth when you bit into it, and had the vague flavour of potato! I was expecting a prawn-like texture so was horrified!
Next we went to a waterfall, which was pretty, but the water was brown :-( (as it always seems to be here), we walked through a cave to get underneath it and take photos, then drove further into the hills to have lunch and try some local fruit! Son also told us to be cautious of the body language and hand gestures we use as they translate to different things in Vietnamese and often offend people!
After lunch we went to visit the hill tribe people, who are very poor and it was interesting to see how they lived, but also felt a bit awkward! LOTS of beautiful children running around and baby piglets as well! Son explained how the marriage systems work in this country and then we left to begin our LONG drive back to Da Lat... stopping on the way to peek at some Magic Mushrooms being farmed and for ice cream!
On the way back to town we stopped for ice cream and went to see a 'mushroom factory'... turned out they were the 'magic' kind!
Once we got back to town, we went to look at the 'Crazy House' which is a kitsch hotel with weird architecture and odd rooms.
That evening, to apologize for not being able to take us on the tour Mr Rot took us all for a meal (as I mentioned above) and to watch him sing... GREAT day had by all! x
ANOTHER early bus to Nha Trang, where Jon and I stayed at the Backpackers hostel! This was a very tourist-y place, again full of Russians! So think Magaluf with lots of beach-time and drunken Brits abroad and you'll have a decent picture in mind! As far as cultural things to do, there were none, so it was nice to let our hair down and have a bit of a 'holiday' for a few days!
At the hostel, Jon and I met Alex, a lovely guy from San Fransisco who was travelling south and meeting his friends within the next few days. We all went for a walk on the beach, where there were LOTS of locals in their pants splashing around in the sea and covering themselves in sand once the sun had gone down! Then we went to a bar and met up with the girls, who caught a later bus! Bianca and Rachel had met Charlotte (Scottish) and Kim (London) on their bus as well as hilariously funny sisters Kirsty and Leanne (Bristol) so we all went for cocktails (Buy 2 get 1 free- NOT 2 for 1, and not actually the 3rd free, but for $1- very confusing drink deals!) and this was where I was able to Skype home!
After a few 'rockets' we wandered into 'Why Not?' bar which became our hot spot for the rest of our time in Nha Trang! Cheap buckets and good music... so a LOT of dancing (but very very sweaty... as you can see from our hair!)
In an effort to help the sweaty hair situation, Alex became my hairdresser and tried to help me fashion a new 'travelling look':
The night ended with a YUMMY sausage baguette from a street vender... initially we were concerned but NOM NOM!