Bikes, bikes and more bikes. Remembering the war and beautiful coastlines.
11.07.2011 - 20.07.2011 36 °C
And so onto Vietnam, Stuart will be your blogging guide for this part of the trip.
We had to get the bus back up to Phnom Penh and then another bus from there to Ho Chi Minh City. This all went relatively smoothly compared to our previous travel. The bus we booked, Mekong Express, took us all the way, stopping at the border for our paper work to be done and bags checked, all of which only took about an hour altogether; we arrived into Ho Chi Minh in the evening. Our hotel was very central in District 1 which is the main tourist area. We got something to eat and had a quiet night in.
Ho Chi Minh City was formerly known as Saigon (the locals still call the downtown area Saigon), but when the outer areas joined on, the city was renamed. There are about 9 million people living there who, amazingly, own about 5 million motor bikes. It is a sight to behold when you see the streets packed with bikes and the only way you can get from one side of the road to the other is by stepping out and walking slowly across hoping that the bikes will avoid you (thankfully for us they did). Check this out...
On our first day we decided to have a walk around the city and visit some of the sights. So, firstly we went to the Reunification Palace (formerly know as the Independence Palace). This was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was also the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates (2 of the tanks still stand just inside the main gate - or replicas – there's debate about this). You can walk around pretty much the whole of the palace looking into a number of large reception rooms that include banquet halls, conference rooms, a cinema and a casino. A good number of these rooms haven't been used since 1975 with no change to the décor so it's like walking through a museum. On the roof there was a helicopter next to the two spots where the bombs were dropped by a rebel South Vietnamese fighter pilot in his failed attempt to kill Diem, the first president of South Vietnam. The most interesting part was below ground level where you can see the war command rooms that included giant war maps and old communications equipment. It's a strange feeling walking through this area knowing how important this was to the modern history of Vietnam.
After this, we headed to the War Remnants Museum which covers some of the atrocities of the Vietnam War and contains artifacts, photographs and exhibits used during the conflict. It was opened in 1975 and was originally known as “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam)”. Since 1993 and the improvement of relations with America, it is now known as the War Remnants Museum. However, there is still a very anti-American feel about the place and the majority of the stories are from the perspective of the Vietnamese people.
The main courtyard has a number of planes, helicopters, missiles and other weapons of war. Until you're right up beside them, you don't really get the true feeling of how massive they are. We then went into an area that had a reproduction of the tiger cages used by the South Vietnamese government to house political prisoners on Con Son Island. The prisoners were put into these cages in direct sunlight with little food or water with a view to breaking them to obtain information.
The main building's exhibits illustrate the killing of civilians, spreading of chemicals (a program called Agent Orange that is still affecting people – American and Vietnamese - as it has caused birth deformities), torturing of prisoners and the effects of the war on North Vietnam. There are a lot of propaganda posters and some very graphic images. This can be hard going at times but still very interesting.
On the top floor there is the Requiem photography exhibition in memory of all the photographers who died in the Vietnam War. I have a massive amount of respect for these people who put themselves on the front line to document what was going on during the conflict. Some of the images are taken from the very last rolls of camera before they were killed. Very moving.
On leaving the museum, the heavens opened so we hopped in a taxi back to the hotel that had the fastest moving meter of all time; and for his second trick the taxi driver switched some notes on us - nice! It hardly stopped from then on so we only ventured out later to get some food at Kim's Cafe, which was OK, before heading back to our room.
The next day we were up early to go on a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. They are a large complex of tunnels that span 250 kilometers which were used by the Vietnamese guerrillas for their military campaigns during the Vietnam War. They used them for hiding during combat, communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. Kids were even schooled underground and there was a number of marriages as well as a few births take place there. It is a truly immense network. Some of our group took the opportunity to try and lower themselves into a mock-up trap door entrance which was very small (we decided against this). We were then shown a number of the booby traps that were used to capture enemy soldiers and the injuries that they caused (not for the faint hearted!).
They had American tanks that had been destroyed and a number of deactivated unexploded bombs on show.
There was a shooting range that had every weapon from a handgun right up to what they called the “Rambo Gun” which I think was a Browning Machine Gun. Being a bit anti-gun, we decided against trying this and had an ice-cream instead. Peace man.
We were then taken to some mock-up tunnels. These were made slightly larger than what they were originally as Westerners have slightly bigger frames than the Vietnamese(!). Kelly had a look then decided against it when a woman came out saying there was no way she was going to do it, she figured if someone stopped in front of her she might freak. I headed in and let me tell you, it wasn't the most comfortable thing I've ever done. The tunnel was only high enough to allow you to crouch and the temperature was about 10 degrees higher inside. I managed to go about 20 metres before deciding to take the next exit out of there.
We went on to see places where the American B52 planes had dropped bombs on.
Finally, we were shown a scale model of how the tunnel system worked and a film that was shot in the late 60s about the Cu Chi tunnel system, although it was a tad biased and may offend some Americans, e.g. they do references the 'American devils descending from the sky..'.
On arriving back into the city our guide recommended a restaurant called Pho 24 where we could try the popular Vietnamese dish, Pho; this is a noodle soup based dish that you can have with chicken, beef or seafood (or a mix of all of them which I went for). It's delicious and we've been eating it ever since.
We did a bit of shopping later on, Kelly picked up some knock-off perfume in the local market and I got a very cheap pair of Asics (they have a factory in Vietnam so the cost is about 1/3 of back home). We ate at a Restaurant called Margaritas and the food was awesome. So much so, we went back the next night.
The next day we went on a day trip to the Mekong River Delta. The River is the 10th longest in the world stretching from Tibet all the way down to the South China Sea. When we arrived, we boarded a traditional wooden boat and headed across to one of the islands. To be honest, this whole day was very touristy. We were given samples of honey, coconut sweets, pancakes and other foodstuffs with the option to buy the product. We were seated and given free fruit while a truly awful band played traditional music then asked us for a donation at the end (we actually put in some money hoping that they wouldn't play any more!). We were taken on a canoe along the river and were asked to make a donation at the end (do you see how this is going!). We had a spot of lunch at a restaurant which was OK. The best part of the day happened by accident. After lunch, we were offered the chance to ride bicycles a short distance around the area we were at. We were told that all we had to do was turn left, left and left again and we'd be back. We headed off, turned left and started cycling down the road. It was all very nice as we passed through a number of small villages with locals waving and smiling at us. However, 10 minutes later we still hadn't found the next left turn. There were a couple of girls up ahead of us so we thought we must be on the right track. As another 10 minutes passed still no left turn. This is when we decided that maybe we'd missed the turn and we should head back. We arrived back at the meeting place 10 minutes late and had to cycle past the rest of our party on our way in who weren't looking too happy. As it turns out, we should only have taken a short route around the restaurant and not onto the main road. Oops!! It was very pleasant though and got us away from the tourist traps.
Later on we met up for some food and drinks with Kelly's work friend, Gareth, and his girlfriend, Angela, who were on holiday in Vietnam. It was really good to catch up and find out how things were back home. We didn't have too late a night though as we had to get up early the next day to go to Mui Ne which is further up the east coast.
Now, when we booked our bus to Mui Ne the journey time was noted to be 3 hours. I can only imagine this is if you took all the other traffic off of the roads and had a clear route through; I should mention buses here do approx 35-40km an hour on a good day. We didn't get out of the city for at least 2 hours and it took another 3 hours to get to our destination.
Mui Ne is a lovely place right on the sea so there's a lot of kite-surfing, jet-skiing etc. However, we were there to recharge the batteries so didn't have any plans to do anything too energetic. We stayed at the Vietnam-Austria house which is owned by an Aussie guy called John. It was very nice, more like a hotel complex with spacious rooms and sunbeds facing right out onto the sea. On our first night, we went to a restaurant called 'Good Morning Vietnam' an Italian chain would you believe. The food was pretty good but it was a good walk away from where we were staying. For the rest of our time there, we didn't venture much further than a few doors down for food but it was cheap and very nice.
We did go on a trip to the sand dunes on the 2nd day. The first stop was at a place called the Fairy Stream which wasn't really much to write home about. We walked along the stream a bit and up a small dune where the view was OK. One thing to mention though was our first experience of the (in)famous fish sauce of Mui Ne. It's less to do with the taste and more to do with the very strong smell that will turn your stomach (fortunately, the accommodation was upwind so it was OK back at the hotel) think dry dog biscuits x 1,000,000.. We then stopped up near the main town where there are lots of traditional fishing boats and a great view of the coastline. On we went to the white dunes which is about 20km out of town. It was actually very impressive. You had the feeling of stepping out into the Sahara desert but if you turned round there was sprawling countryside. I had a wee jump off a dune and we headed back down to the jeep.
Our final stop was at a red dune nearer the town for sunset and a slide down the dunes if you wanted. It was not much to write home about as there were over a thousand people there, the slides were rubbish and the sun went behind a cloud before it set.
That night we headed along to a place called Joe's Bar. Joe is friends with the hotel owner John and we had briefly met him the night before so decided to try his place out. It was actually one of the highlights of our Vietnam trip so far. The drink was plentiful and cheap. The band were something else. Two guys from the Philippines singing pop ballads, everything from U2 to Richard Marx across to the Beatles and back to Whitney Houston! They had right old banter with the crowd too. At one point, one of the punters got up and did a Kings of Leon song on the keyboard which was excellent. We met an Irish couple later on and finished the night off with a few more drinks and a boogie along at the local nightclub. We got a lift on some scooters back to the hotel in the wee hours. Cue the hangover for the next day. We did very little other than laze about waiting for our bus to leave at 2pm.
Nha Trang is a coastal city in South Central Vietnam. We arrived at about 7pm and hopped in a taxi along to our hotel. We stayed centrally again at Suisse Hotel which was very nice with helpful (but excitable) staff. We ate at the burger joint across the road with the burgers fresh made and rather tasty.
We hit the beach the next day. It was very hot and I think we only managed about an hour before we had to head for the shelter of the town. We met up with Gareth and Angela again and had a bit of a night out sampling the Shisha pipe for the first time (a tobacco-less pipe substituted with a fruit flavour, in our case). To be honest it looks more exciting than it is really.
The next day we headed out to meet our childhood selves and ventured to Vinpearlland. This is a big resort on Hon Tre Island just off the mainland. For the princely sum of about £12 you get a trip on the longest over-sea cable car (3.3 kilometres), with amazing views over the bay, to Vinpearl Amusement Park.
There are some fun-fair rides (not really that great), indoor video games (much better with stuff from our childhood right up to the present day), a nice aquarium and the most fun part, the water slide park. Kelly managed most of the water slides, only declining to do the Kamikaze, Tsunami and the Superbowl (though I called it the toilet bowl as you got thrown around all the way down then landed in this big bowl before being “flushed” out the bottom).
We had a really good few days in Nha Trang just relaxing and enjoying ourselves which was just what we needed before heading off to the clothes-making capital of Vietnam, Hoi An which will be in the next thrilling installment of our blog......
Here's Kelly's usual summary for fellow travellers;
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
Seventy Hotel - 8/10 - the room was a bit small but pretty good otherwise and nice staff.
Vietsea Travel - 8/10 - we booked our Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels trip with these guys, they're very chep an efficient. We also booked an open bus ticket with them which you will hear more about in the next blog installment.
Kim's Cafe - 7/10 - standard Vietnamese grub
Margheritas - 9/10 - perfect the first night but not as good the second.
Eden - 8/10 - nice (but pricey for vietnam) cocktails
Pho 24 - 9/10 - local noodle chain you can't go wrong with
Austria-Vietnam House - 9/10 - a lovely place, run by the cheery Aussie John.
Joe's Cafe - 10/10 - open 24hrs serving huge frozen margheritas with excellent entertainment - get thee there.
Good Morning Vietnam - 7/10 - fairly standard Italian fair at this popular Vietnamese chain.
Lam Tong - 8/10 - this was a crazy place, really bad on western food, really excellent on Vietnamese food - and service is slow but worth it.
Jibes - 9/10 - very tasty and served a very good attempt at a hangover-busting fry up.
Suisse Hotel - 9/10 - very big room which was very clean, not much on site but no problem.
Fast Food Nation - 8/10 - good burgers.
Why Not? - 7/10 - apparently the only bar in town after a certain hour - free mojito when you order a cocktail - can't knock it.
Louisiane Brewhouse - 8/10 - we ate on the beach here a bit more upmarket, the hot pot is good - if very hot.
Lanterns - 9/10 - very tasty.