On the way to Nha Trang we got confirmation of Joe’s job back in Australia so Nha Trang would be our final destination together on our south east Asia trip, about 5 weeks earlier than anticipated. So we decided to mostly relax, have some nice food and swim at the beach rather than do some of the other touristy stuff available in Nha Trang. There’s the usual temples and historic type stuff in the region, the resort island and waterpark of Vinpearl accessed by cable car and there’s some water activities like paragliding, scuba diving, etc. Also there’s heaps of bars and restaurants. So plenty of things for tourists to do in Nha Trang but we didn’t do much of it.
The beach and waterfront is really nice in Nha Trang. Set in a beautiful bay with clean white sand, lined with well maintained gardens and lawn and some beachfront bars and resorts. The water isn’t the cleanest and there’s a bit of rubbish floating through. Didn’t stop us enjoying a swim.
We found a really nice Japanese restaurant with some delicious salmon sashimi, very cheap by Australian standards. We ended up going there twice and gorging ourselves on raw salmon. Usually sashimi is a delicacy eaten as a starter but we had it as entree, mains and dessert.
We went to a bar where a band was playing. We were talking to someone at the bar and he asked us if there’s an Australian song that we’d like the band to play. We weren’t really sure what songs were on the band’s repertoire, the fellow said the band can play any song in the world. Joe was thinking Jebediah, something from their first album. The guy at the bar ended up suggesting “land down under.” We said yeah no worries play that. Actually he didn’t just mean for the band to play the song, but for us to sing it! The band called us up to sing but we had to bail out because we didn’t know the words.
From Nha Trang Joe headed back to Ho Chi Minh on the train to catch his flight back to Perth. Sharni headed north towards Hue to continue the trip by herself. So that’s it for Joe’s fun in south east Asia. Time to get back to work and save some money to fund the rest of our trip around oz.
With word that Joe might have a job to go back in Australia, we jumped on a plane from Hanoi and headed straight to Ho Chi Minh, bypassing most of Vietnam. We didn’t know when the job would be confirmed so we thought we better hang around Ho Chi Minh because that’s where the flights back to oz were departing from.
Ho Chi Minh feels a bit cleaner and less congested than Hanoi and it has many nice buildings, streets and gardens. Quite a nice city really. I’d almost say a nice place to walk around apart from the crazy traffic and constant horn honking. We did a couple of day trips out of Ho Chi Minh – one to the Cu Chi tunnels which included a stop over at a temple which we’ve forgotten the name of, and another day trip to the Mekong Delta. The organized day trips try to fit too much in. They herd you through the attractions, rushing you in and out, and you spend most of the day on a bus stuck in traffic. It would have been good to go by ourselves on a scooter but the risk of being killed in Ho Chi Minh traffic was too high.
The Cu Chi tunnels were one of the Vietnamese strongholds during the war. In our tour we got to watch a propaganda video, see some Vietnamese style booby traps and check out the tunnels. The best part was, for an extra few dollars, getting to fire a few rounds from an AK47 rifle. Not having much experience with guns made it quite a novelty. Dam they’re loud!
The Mekong River delta has many floating markets where people trade from boat to boat. The product each boat is selling is displayed on the end of a bamboo pole at the front of the boat. We also went to a normal land based market where we saw puffed rice being made and got to drink snake whiskey.
Back in Ho Chi Minh we enjoyed walking around, shopping, eating out and having dinner with a group of friends. We were in Ho Chi Minh for Ho Chi Minh’s birthday celebrations which we spent with some travellers we met. Fireworks over the Mekong and a few cold brews in the hot tropical night made for a memorable evening.
We did a 2 night, 3 day tour of Ha Long Bay which is about 5 hours trip on the bus from Hanoi. It’s only about 150km but the Vietnamese traffic is terrible and progress is slow. This highway is notorious for being dangerous and we witnessed the aftermath of a road fatality on the way.
Ha Long Bay is world class in terms of natural beauty. Huge limestone karsts tower over the calm water and hide many stunning secluded beaches. One of the nicest spots we’ve seen. To make it even more beautiful you need to squint a little bit to make your eyes blurry so you don’t notice the rubbish floating in the water.
We stayed one night on a boat, called a Junk, which was really fun considering the natural beauty we were in and the novelty of staying on a boat. The rooms were good quality with queen bed and ensuite so it was just like being in a decent hotel. We visited a cave, went kayaking, stopped on a beach to climb up one of the limestone karsts and generally just enjoyed the scenery from the top deck of the boat. At night there was karaoke in the boat’s restaurant where nearly every song was an American power ballad. Squid fishing was also on the cards at night. Joe caught a tiny squid. There was no doubt the squid was way too small to consider keeping but the locals running the boat chucked it in the bucket with a few other tiny squid they had already caught.
Some people live out on the water on floating houses. They make their living selling stuff from their little boat shops or by fishing. As we travelled through the bay was saw many little floating villages.
The second night we stayed on a beautiful private beach on an island. Just us, the other people on the tour, a few bungalows, the beach and the awesome scenery. It was a perfect little paradise. We could have stayed there several nights but the tour only allowed for one. If we had our time again we’d organize our own way there and stay a while. Mind you we have heard that getting around Ha Long Bay independently can be difficult and prone to scams.
Next morning it was back on the boat to the mainland, then on the bus back to Hanoi.
Onto the overnight sleeper train we go on our way to Sapa in northern Vietnam. We made friends with the couple in our booth on the train and they shared a drink and some food with us. We booked a trekking tour from Hanoi which included the return train trip to Sapa, two days of trekking and an overnight stay in a hill tribe village. This meant we didn’t really see much of Sapa which is unforunate because it seemed like a very pleasant city set in the beautiful Vietnam highlands with cooler temperatures compared to the low lands further south. The trekking was through some of the most stunning scenery we’ve scene in Asia with rugged mountains dotted with villages, deep valleys, rivers and vast areas of terraced slopes for growing rice. One disappointment were the hill tribe children trying to sell stuff. Usually in our trekking adventures in other countries in Asia the children would want to practice their english with you and be all smiles and would continue playing with their friends whilst you walk through. On this trek through Vietnamese highlands all the children repeated “you buy from me” in a depressing flat voice as they tried to sell small handicrafts. Try to engage in friendly conversation and you are seen as a potential sale with many children surrounding you repeating the same mantra.
Excluding the train, our tour cost about AUD$35 each and there were around 8 people in our group, so total revenue was about $280. We learnt that the guides earn about $10 for their two 14 hour days they work guiding the treks. That’s $5 a day or 36 cents an hour. Much of the remaining $270 we assume goes to the pimp who organizes the tours. Our guide showed us her house. She lives in a rickety old wooden shack with dirt floors and no furniture. Makes you feel a bit guilty like you are exploiting these poor people for a bit of fun whilst the rich get richer.
After the trekking we had an hour or two to walk around Sapa and have a quick drink with some people we met on the trek before heading back down the mountain and jumping on the overnight train back to Hanoi. We arrived in Hanoi very early in the morning so we walked from the train station to town to kill some time. We tried to get breakfast on the side of the road but Sharni was very grumpy and wouldn’t tolerate getting ripped off. So instead we went straight to our hostel ready to check in as soon as the doors opened. We stayed the night in Hanoi and then went on another tour, this time a couple of days tour through Halong Bay.
Our time in Laos ended with the new year in Luang Prabang and then a cheap flight to Hanoi in Vietnam. At the Luang Prabang airport it was noticed at the check in counter that Joe’s Vietnamese visa had the wrong date of birth on it. After signing a disclaimer we were allowed to board the aircraft, pretty nervous about what would happen upon arriving in Vietnam. We have heard Vietnamese customs can be corrupt so we were worried we would have to pay a lot of money to cover the mistake or be forced to leave. Waiting at immigration at Hanoi airport was quite nerve racking but we ended up getting through without issue. Not sure if they didn’t notice the error or if they didn’t care – we didn’t ask.
From the airport we caught a taxi to Hanoi city centre. We were fully clued up on how dodgy the Vietnamese taxi drivers were so we put the address in our phone and tracked our progress on GPS. Well it seems the GPS didn’t matter to the driver – he still drove us around in circles in the city and pretended to not understand when we explained the route with the phone. He’d just keep going the wrong way and turned when he felt like it. We had read that you need to watch out for taxi drivers doing laps around Hoan Kiem Lake and that is exactly what he tried to do. Eventually we were close enough to where we wanted to go so we asked to stop and we walked the rest of the way. It only cost us an extra few dollars, split between two other travellers who we shared the taxi with, so not too bad. It was quite funny that even armed with a GPS and all the research we had done we still couldn’t avoid a taxi scam.
Hanoi is freakin busy! Traffic is horrendous and everyone loves using their horn. Walking around is a pain in the ass because the traffic is bad, the roads are narrow and the sidewalks are an obstacle course of parked scooters, broken drains and bags of rubbish. Often there is no room on the sidewalks so you just need to take to the street and mix it with the traffic.
We did the usual roaming around the city, checked out some big new western style shopping complexes, went to the woman’s museum, the prison museum and St Joseph’s Cathedral. At the women’s museum we learnt about women’s role in the war and religion. Some Vietnamese people worship a female god called Mother Goddess. We saw a video about the life of the street vendors who work 14 hours a day for a 13 days straight to earn about $20. On the 14th day they visit their family in rural areas. Then it’s back to the city to repeat the fortnightly cycle. The prison museum was mainly propaganda about how good the Vietnamese government is, how well the prisoners were treated and how evil the invaders were.
We experienced the typical Vietnamese exchange with street vendors, where they would ask for a highly inflated price, refuse to barter, and ask you to go away if you didn’t want to pay the highly inflated price. It meant we did a lot of walking to get food or water. Water we would only buy at mini marts. Food we would walk around trying to find a reasonably priced restaurant or street food that wasn’t too much of a rip off.
The accommodation we stayed at in Hanoi was called “Hanoi Non Profit Hostel.” I think they mean it’s cheap. We did a couple of tours out of Hanoi to Sapa and Halong Bay, returning to Hanoi each time.