The last 2 weeks have been an adventure I will never forget. My wanderings have taken me from the top to the bottom of Vietnam. What has amazed me most is the vast difference between every port of call. From Hanoi in the north I travelled east to the beautiful Halong Bay. After the noise and apparent mayhem of Hanoi it was calm, serene and peaceful. I stayed on a cruise ship called the Paloma for 2 nights. The cheeky chaps on board this vessel made this a relaxing and fun couple of days, filled with food, kayaking, swimming and trekking. The cabin was much plusher than I expected, with its own en-suite shower and loo, and a large comfortable double bed. Through the window or from one of the decks, tall, elegant limestone islets towered above me, covered with dense vegetation making me feel I was in a lost world. A pterodactyl would not have looked out of place in such a setting, I didn’t spot any, however sea eagles and monkeys were a plenty.
Each evening the sunsets were spectacular and the company of other travellers was a relaxing way to spend a few hours, with a cocktail or two, chatting about their itineraries, their must see’s and life back home. There were other activities to partake in too, such as a cooking class, tai chi and squid fishing. Friends have been made on this fabulous cruise. After a relaxing couple of days puttering around this beautiful part of Vietnam, I headed back to Hanoi to catch a flight south to Da Nang. After 4 nights in Hong Kong, 2 in Hanoi and 2 in Halong Bay, a bit of beach action was exactly what I fancied. 3 nights in a brand new hotel at the northerly end of the huge beach at Da Nang, with breakfast included and very attentive staff came in under budget at around £15 per night for a double room.
Venturing out from the hotel I found myself immediately on the beach, under the watchful eye of a huge Lady Buddha. The hotel was directly next to the old fishing village and there were men chest deep in the water with nets, or floating in a coracle, gathering their catch. These small round vessels dotted the beach and appeared quite ancient in contrast to the development that was taking place all around. The entire strip of beach between Da Nang and Hoi An was undergoing a major overhaul, with new shiny resorts and complexes being built at a rate of knots. The further south down the beach I explored the busier it became, with groups of local lads playing football, families swimming and individuals undertaking exercise regimes or training runs. Despite the development it felt lacking in western tourists although I’m sure it wont be like that for long, not with such a beautiful beach and sea food to enjoy.
The main road that ran along the beach had posh new restaurants on one side, and row upon row of huge outdoor canteen-like food halls on the other. These all served fish, fish or fish. Each canteen had plastic buckets with the days catch in, from which you could go and choose your dinner. Sitting in tiny plastic chairs at metal tables the method of enjoying your meal appeared to be to munch your way through your food, throwing any bones, tissues, nut shells, or beer cans on the floor under your table, to be swept away when you left. If you’d prefer to eat your dinner without being ankle deep in debris or you’re squeamish about rats then these food halls are not the place for you; best to stick to the other side of the road, although be warned, you’ll pay significantly more for your dinner. Not surprisingly!
A good way to explore this part Vietnam is by moped. It feels much more manageable than the bike bedlam in Hanoi; in the most part the roads are bigger and less crowded. It also means you generate a bit of breeze whilst zipping along, although heading up to the mountains on the peninsular at the north end of Da Nang beach is much cooler than being at sea level. On this peninsular I visited the giant Lady Buddha and then carried on up into the wooded parkland beyond. Troops of monkeys were on the side of the road and huge butterflies and bees fluttered around. If you are confident on a moped then it is easy to travel the 30 kilometres to Hoi An, which is exactly what we did. It took about an hour but I was in 2 wheeled heaven. I felt akin to Toad of Toad Hall, poop pooping my horn with a big grin on my face. I soon worked out that the tooting of the horn isn’t a grumpy “Oi! Get out the way!”, more of a “Hey, I see you, I’m here, move over a bit please”. Driving on the pavement, going the wrong way down a one way street and ignoring a red light all seem acceptable here. Of course I sat and politely waited for my space like the boring, law abiding Brit I am.
From Da Nang we travelled on to Hoi An, after sussing it out the previous day on the bikes. What an absolute gem of a place ! An ancient port with water and boats everywhere you look. The town is very pretty with lots of little places to eat and drink, but there are predominantly tailor shops, for which Hoi An is most famous. The old town prohibits mopeds and cars, so it is easy to mooch around and explore. Around every corner is another stunning sight to greet you; a Japanese bridge, brightly coloured fishing boats, lanterns, food stalls and much more. We met up with friends made on the Paloma cruise here and exchanged stories about our time in Da Nang and theirs in Hue. We hired bikes here as well as the rest of the area around the town is spread out. Visiting the beach or the local villages is easier and just as cheap to go on 2 wheels rather than pay for a taxi. We hired the bikes from a bar owner who also happened to have a brand new Toyota, that he was very proud of, in which he offered to take us to the airport the following day. This friendly and generous nature has been typical of the people we have encountered during our stay in Vietnam. That said, the street vendors in Hoi An are more insistent than elsewhere and I was approached by one lady offering to thread my moustache. I searched my brain for the correct response but couldn’t find one. My frown of consternation was quickly erased when another street vendor approached my man offering him a t-shirt in extra big size to cover his pregnant Buddha belly. I get it ladies ! We’re giant hairy westerners, thanks.
The bikes took us safely to the beach where we found, hidden down a little lane, a beautifully shabby beach bar with sun beds. Here we spent a restful day sunning our giant hairy bodies and having a swim in bath temperature water. It was clean and quiet and very relaxing. A day here with a couple of cokes, a water and 2 coconuts set us back around £4. That evening we went for a meal and wandered back to our homestay through the fruit and veg market, which had finished several hours earlier. It was rather smelly and there were a lot of rats making the most of the left over detritus of the days trading. The homestay at Windbell Villas was exceptionally good value. A huge room, very comfortable bed, a private balcony and breakfast was included, as well as having a pool with sunbeds and a tiny restaurant.
After a relaxing few days in Hoi An I was sad to go but excited to be heading on to Ho Chi Minh City. The city immediately struck me as vast and sprawling and much more westernised than Hanoi. We made our way to the indoor market at Ben Thanh and were pounced upon by stall owners trying to sell their wares. The clothes end of the market has narrow walkways between shops so you have to squeeze past the sellers and other shoppers trying on t-shirts and shoes to make progress. I followed my nose and as I’d hoped the other end of the covered market housed hundreds of little food stalls. Again we were heckled by tiny old ladies all trying to get us to sit at theirs; for tiny people they are surprisingly difficult to get away from. We perched at one and ordered shrimps and rice and beef pho. Delicious but I wasn’t completely convinced it was beef.
After lunch and a walk around the Revolutionary Museum and People Committee Hall we escaped a downpour of biblical proportions in a café that just happened to sell hot tea with milk and chocolate éclairs. It was a tough hour but we managed and after the rain had passed we walked off the pastries around the city, before taking up our favourite pastime of sitting in a bar on a junction watching the madness of the traffic. The roads here are much bigger than in Hanoi, there are crossings and traffic lights which make it easier to get around for pedestrians and there is an American presence in the form of Starbucks, Burger King and KFC. There are also pharmacies where you can buy Valium and Viagra over the counter, not that we did; we purchased Pepto Bismol to help with the after effects of the maybe beef Pho.
Tomorrow see’s us boarding a plane to Thailand; first stop Bangkok, then north to Chang Mai and then into Laos and Cambodia. If the next 2 weeks are as awe inspiring as the last 2 then we’re in for a treat. I did not know what to expect from Vietnam but it has certainly surpassed anything I could have imagined. A beautiful country filled with beautiful food and even more beautiful people. As I go to bed tonight ahead of the next leg of my wanderings I will hopefully dream of all the wonderful things I have seen and done here, so I bid you goodnight Vietnam, thanks for everything.