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The end of the line – Ho Chi Minh City


Rex Hotel Saigon

The final leg of the Reunification Railway and the terminus is Ho Chi Minh City. The journey started in spectacularly dodgy style. I get to Nha Trang railway station nice and early and I go over to the desk and the woman on the desk checks my ticket and says for me to wait in the seats until the train comes – usual story.

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I have a chat to the guy next to me who is Vietnamese lives in Philadelphia, I guess this is something that would happen a lot, I know where I live there is a large population of Vietnamese now in the second generation. Anyway a fair bit before the train is due the woman from the desk says I should go out on the platform – no one else does though, she gets me a chair to sit on and the realization dawns on me she doesn’t work for the railway.

Anyway she’s seen that I’ve got an extra ticket and she wants it. “no no no no no”. “it’s my friends”..: Where’s your friend” He’s coming”.

So then she says when she comes back she wants some money.. so anyway I gave her some fuck off money and she was gone. I get on the train and the conductor had sold the spare seat to a Vietnamese woman in 15 minutes flat – I should have sold it myself in the train station.

So at about 6 in the morning I’ve arrived at Ho Chi Minh City after not much sleep at all.

Now I have to disclose here I didn’t like Ho Chi Minh City very much at all.

Here are some of the reasons:

1. The noise of the traffic is incessant, people continually beeping their horn. Even if they were the only ones on the road.

2. Saigon is noticeably more expensive than anywhere else in Vietnam and its not better.

3. When you walk around, it is on the edge of being dangerous. Crossing the road you need nerves of steel and on the footpath you occasionally need to dodge a motorbike or two.

4. A 2 inch cockroach ran across our table at a Yakatori restaurant we went to in the Japanese area – District 1.

5. Not being able to walk 50 metres without some guy trying to sell you sunglasses.

6. You get to Vung Tau from Saigon to escape the heat and Vung Tau is a very ordinary place.

7. The heat made it difficult to walk around that much.

So other than all that Saigon was really good. One thing that we did right was stay in the Japanese area (District 1) this was full of good restaurants and nightlife.

The highlight for me was having having a drink at the Rex Hotel because even though the bar would be nothing like it was 40 years ago you could feel the history being there.

Another good find was Pho 64 which was reasonable Pho but you could get it for lunch and in most other places Pho is breakfast only dish.

So it was with much reluctance I got the taxi back out to the airport for my flight home and reflecting back I know I will be returning to Vietnam sometime soon.

Dodging a Typoon – Nha Trang


Vinpearl Nha Trang

The train trip south to Nha Trang was another overnight sleeper trip. This time it was our first encounter with Vietnam Rail First Class Sleeper Air-Con. It was pretty bad. Despite labor being so cheap in Vietnam they appear to not want to worry about leaving dirty sheets on beds and as one person leaves another arrives in the compartment to use the same facilities.We had 2 middle-aged women who were stowaways in the compartment – 2 of them sleeping in one bed. At first I thought she was the conductor because she wanted to see our tickets. See, steal who knows. After a little while one of the conductors worked out what was going on and once she had paid her bribe everything was OK for her trip down south.

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Arriving in a wet Nha Trang in the morning after it rained all night we made our way to our hotel where the sky decided to fall in on us again with a massive tropical storm. We didn’t know at this stage but we were getting rain from the first tropical storm of the season Tropical Storm Pakhar.

So what can be said of Nha Trang, this was supposed to be the couple days of our trip where we could go down the beach, I could eat seafood as I’d seen so many great things written online about Nha Trang seafood. Because of the typhoon we lazed around ate breakfast until about 11 at the sailing club, then relax some more, looking out on the grey sky and brown ocean and wonder – only if it would stop raining.

One thing I can say about Nha Trang – plenty of Russians. Apparently there is a charter airline flying in from Siberia direct to Nha Trang in Boeing 737’s – can’t say I really want to do that trip! The beaches looked OK considering there was so much brown water and floating debris being washed up on the shore.

One day we went across to the VinPearl resort on the island and spent the day playing arcade games. This was my last day in Nha Trang and the weather had just started to clear – it didn’t rain much but the water was still brown.

The food was a bit mixed, it was more expensive than anywhere in the north and I didn’t think it was really better. The Sailing Club on the foreshore was an exception though while their breakfasts were excellent, still more expensive than most, I was still paying a lot less than home.

Hoi An Vietnam – French Colonial Paradise


Hoi An Cafe

The trip to Hoi An (or actually Danang because the train doesn’t go to Hoi An) is the highlight of the train trip – the Reunification Express. It passes through an area where the mountains meet the sea. White crescent shaped beaches dot the coastline and the train cruises above the beach.

Well that’s what its supposed to be like. However we had rain, a lot of rain and wind, so the brown murky sea crashed onto the brownish sand in huge breakers. In areas the sea smashed against the huge boulders throwing water into the air.

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As for the train I was in coach seats 1st class and the train was awful. The drink tray in front of my seat was busted so was in the down position most of the way. A local guy tried jamming a plastic cup in it to try and keep it up but that only lasted for half an hour or so.

The trip was only a couple hours so the pain was only temporary. I arrived in Da Nang train station and quickly found a taxi that I shared with a couple from Belgium I had met in the train station in Hue. The fare was 500,000 dong to my hotel in Hoi An however the taxi driver was pretty keen to take us to the Marble Mountain for some sightseeing where, I’m sure his metre was have stayed in the “on” position.

Hoi An though was a delight. French colonial building dominate the old town and there is a fantastic ambiance to the place. This is maybe due to the lack of motorbikes and cars cruising around beeping their horns. The quiet without that was great.

Also the food was fantastic. We found a couple favorites that were owned by the same person – The Cargo Cafe’ and Morning Glory Restaurant.

The meals we had at both these places were great – as good or better I can get at home at a fraction of the price.

I also did a cooking school at the Morning Glory restaurant. The first part involved taking a bike ride out to the herb gardens on the edge of the town. You ride past rice paddies and ducks enjoying their day to the small plots the locals work.

You then return to the restaurant and cook a Cabbage Soup with Prawn and Pork Dumpling, then a Rice Paper Rolls, Prawn and Pork Pancake with local herbs, Green Mango Salad and BBQ Chicken Skewers.

Also the area between Danang and Hoi An is being heavily developed with many resorts being built there along the beach. Also golf courses I noticed a Greg Norman course out of the window of the taxi. So this could be a great place to have a quiet vacation in Vietnam.

The privacy and quiet of a resort with beautiful pools and golf courses and on your doorstep a World Heritage Area with wonderful architecture and fantastic food. What more could you want?

The City that lost its Glory – Hue


Hue Palace Gates

After leaving Hanoi we had our first experience of the Reunification Express. We were in the Livitrans carriages – the most expensive and the first impression we got – cockroaches and plenty of them! Anyway other than the cockroaches it was an uneventful and uncomfortable trip.

Arriving in Hue was a nice culture shock because the incesant noise of Hanoi was over and Hue is a much smaller and laidback town.

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The majority of hotels, backpackers and bars were in a small 3 or 4 block area and prices are cheap for food especially.

During the day we visited the Citadel which contained the palaces and capital buildings of the Nguyen Dynasty rulers of Vietnam from 1805 to 1945. The citadel has what I would politely call a run down charm to the place. Saying that looked like work was starting to be done and it seems to have survived the last 50 years and everything that went on around it in OK shape.

It is Vietnam’s answer to the Forbidden city.

Also while we were in Hue we took a cruise on the Perfume River, It was a bit of a waste of time and money -although it wasn’t expensive 100,000 dong I think. Our time might have been better spent going to one of the pagodas.

One other thing that was noticeable was there were more cyclo drivers offering prostitutes and marijuana in Hue than other places I’ve been in so far. Haven’t been to Saigon or Vung Tau yet though!

Hue also has a number of pagodas you can visit plus tours to the tunnels in the demilitarised zone. Due to fact that we had been travelling so much the previous days we didn’t do any of this and treated Hue as a bit of a rest and relaxation time.

Trekking in Sapa


Sapa

Our trip to Sapa began at Hanoi and our train trip to Lao Cai near the Chinese border. We decided to take the Sapaly Express the highest price option.

The train to Lao Cai has a number of different names but are the same train. The train was borderline comfortable, the trains in Vietnam are certainly not up to the standard of Thai first class.

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So after a night on the train we arrived in Lao Cai early morning where we had a car waiting for us, The car cost $30 and was arranged by the hotel.

My first impression of Sapa was a mountain town surrounded by low cloud almost a combination between Asia and Switzerland.

There are not many things to do in Sapa town itself you can graze between French style cafes and restaurants and you can relax at a few Massage joints.

Most of your time however will be spent trying to dissuade the local hawkers trying to sell their wares. Sapa also has a large number of shops selling North Face and Columbia hiking gear. (you can also buy this in Hanoi at pretty much the same price).

The big earner (other than the hotels) are village tours. The tours are run by local guides we had a local Black Hmong villager called Soo whose English was very good. She took us from Sapa up hill down dale through the Sapa countryside. The walk was 13km but felt like more for my bloated, unfit body.

The tours themselves were very enjoyable and if you are lucky and go on a clear and sunny day it would be heaven for people who enjoy photography.

However the downside is the hawkers. You appear to get 2 Black Hmong villagers who walk along with you and over the day you strike a rapport with them but as soon as you get to the village its all bets off and you get a severe hard sell. After buying a couple things from the 2 women who walked with us we were surrounded by about another 20 of them wanting you to buy their stuff.

So in the ended up spending $20 on a couple things I’ll never use plus the $28 for the guide.

Is it worth it, considering it cost $90 round trip on the train plus higher hotel rates – I’m not sure to be totally honest but I think if the weather was better I might not be writing this.

Hanoi – Bustling, Loud and Loving it


Hanoi

After the first evening in Hanoi we were able to start exploring the area. We were staying in the Old Quarter which was a labyrinth of lanes with all types of vehicles using them from coaches to cyclos to pushbikes. The people seemed to have a system based on anarchy when they were driving but there would have to be some level of respect between the drivers. Although traffic was frenetic we only saw 3 minor accidents in the 2 days there so far.
We stayed in a hotel in the Old Quarter called the Hanoi Diamond Holiday Hotel on Nguyen Sieu Street. Although our booking was wrong for the first night the hotel staff were sincerely apologetic and couldn’t help us enough to make our stay comfortable. The hotel is 2 star but have PC’s in the rooms which is a nice addition.

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One thing I would also recommend is to take a Green Tourism electric car around the Old Quarter when you first arrive. This will help you get your bearings and will give you a nice preview into the street life and street food in the area. The cost was 250,000 dong per hour or 150,000 for half an hour. The bus could hold 8 or 9 people for that price.
There is great street food around where we were staying. Pho is eaten mainly as a breakfast dish so you may not be able to get it everywhere in the day. Walking on the streets one dish to look for is Bun Cha Mun which is Vermicelli noodles, lettuce, mint, basil that is dipped in a sauce/soup that comes with Spring rolls.

Another pleasurable way to spend the day is relaxing in the local cafe’s on the side of the street drinking cafe sua da.(Ice coffee with carnation milk). They usually make it with a mocha coffee so it is strong and very sweet.

After a couple days in Hanoi we travelled to Sapa and visited the hill tribe people, the Black Hmong and the Red Zhou but that will be covered in the next article.

After returning to Hanoi I found I was enjoying the city more and more you can spend the day drinking coffee at the roadside shops or as we did one afternoon, join in the drinking on the corner at the Beer Hoi bars with all the Vietnamese workers. The beer is 1 day old and is quite light to drink. The beer came with some beer snacks, peanuts and what we came to find out was shredded frog with a leaf as a wrap and chilli sauce.

The architecture of the city is interesting, in the last 20 years there has been a lot of building in the Old Quarter and a lot of the old facades of the historical buildings have been covered by new building. I think there maybe a chance the Vietnamese government can repair some of the damage that has been done to the historic fabric of the area and return some of the history to the district.

I came across 2 scams to watch out for, the first one the lady who was selling fruit asks me to hold her bamboo pole for carrying the fruit. Then she wants to take a photo of you on her mobile. Next she starts putting fruit in a plastic bag. Here’s the punchline 250,000 dong or about $12 for a small bag of fruit.

The next one is you get approached by a young Vietnamese woman who says “I am a student and I am raising money for Vietnamese Red Cross then she gives you a piece of paper printed in English, no letterhead, no identification and asks for cash.. Scam!

I have to make a special mention to the hotel that we stayed at the Hanoi Diamond Holiday Hotel. Our stay at the hotel was made fantastic by the great front of house staff Cherry, Hung, Jenny and Tracey. It was great to meet you and you made our stay an excellent experience.

Anyone looking for a hotel in Hanoi I would thoroughly recommend staying there.