A Travellerspoint blog

Observations on one or two of the joys of Vietnamese travel

Here are a few subtle differences we have noticed after a few weeks in Vietnam.

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A very cute boy on the ferry lucky enough to have a helmet. He kept it on for the duration of the 90 minute ferry crossing.

Vietnam is country number 10 on this trip and has definitely been one of the more interesting countries to travel in. Regardless of your chosen method, there will be some form of entertainment.

First things first, you must completely lower all expectations and focus in achieving your end goal, the destination, and being prepared to just go with the flow with everything in between.

Motorbikes, and Mopeds

These fill the gaps where public transport fails and taxis cost too much. Literally every spare inch will be taken up by a bike. All streets flow like a river of scooters, with cars almost appearing like infrequent boats on the water. I challenge you to go 30 seconds without seeing a moped.

Rules of the road are the largest vehicle wins, the rest weave amongst each other in an insane manner which somehow seems to work. The moped is a family vehicle: as soon as a child can hold itself up with minimal support it is old enough to ride pillion or between the legs of the driver. You will regularly see a family of 4 on a bike or 3 adults.

Helmets are a legal requirement and I would say 95% of adults do wear them. Their child passengers rarely do. I mentioned toddlers, but obviously a newborn can ride in the armns of a pillion or the sling of a driver and they don't seem to do helmets small enough.

Helmets look more for fashion with shops selling every pattern possible for not much more than £3.50. I think our push bike helmets in the UK are more substantial, but at least these come with a gap at the back for your ponytail.

Horn use is pretty constant, whenever you want someone just to know you are there. There is often no need for you to react in anyway to their toots, as I said, it is literally just to let you know there's a moped nearby, in case you had somehow managed to forget.

Taxi bikes come in the form of xe om and are available everywhere. Should you need one, just stand still near a group of bikes for a few seconds and someone will offer. Not sure how you actually identify them or if it is just anyone with a spare 5 minutes or a helmet.

Loads we would struggle to transport in the UK are no problem here. Everything will go on the back of a bike from pigs and chickens for market, half a tree from your back garden, 3 large gas canisters, furniture, stacks of chairs, large box TVs or even your fridge freezer. I look forward to seeing a baby in a child seat tied onto the back. And then there is another whole range of bikes which have various different types of stall on the back, often complete with barbecue.

Bearing in mind they drive on the right, if it's more convenient for you to ride on the left, then that is fine. If you plan to turn left, 50-100 metres before you need to, start cutting across the traffic and finish your trip on the wrong side. Similar applies to turning left onto a main road, just pull out immediately and cut across to the correct side whenever convenient.

Cars

You rarely see a car which isn't a taxi. Occasionally you'll see some nice looking chauffeur cars and the other day we even saw a Rolls Royce. Considering the complete lack of lane discipline on Vietnamese roads, the cars are seldom dented and I doubt they would bother getting minor cosmetic damage repaired.

Buses and minibuses

A local bus might mean a bus we are used to seeing around our towns, for which generally tourists will pay the same as everyone else. The other kind of local bus is a minibus, which when it runs out of seats, will put stools out along the edge, allowing for an extra 4 or 5 people to sit. You need to work out the price for this yourself and bargain hard.

These will toot and stop at pretty much anyone waiting at the side of the road calling out the destination. A lot of the people who do board the bus look like they had no intention of going to that place until it was suggested to them two seconds before.

You can get long distance seated coaches, which again, when all seats are taken, you can put stools out in the aisle. On one bus there was even a deck chair for our guide!

Sleeper buses

These do long distance journeys and are incredibly uncomfortable. You have a lot more space, but the bed seat is rock solid and too short. These seem popular with the locals, even if they suffer with motion sickness. The roads are so bumpy in Vietnam, you will not get a good night's sleep as you will be constantly bouncing up and down off of the seat.

Lorries

These tend to be a rarity as what can you not fit on the back of a moped? If necessary there's always the option of hitching a cart to the bike either by the passenger holding on to it or putting the cart bars over your head and around your waist. If you've got a bit more than that, you can use a tuk tuk truck and load that as high as you like/can.

Push bikes

Push bikes look like a good way of introducing Vietnamese children to the rules of the road. These are often motorised, or you can hold on to your friend's scooter through various different methods should you wish to go a little faster. Either hold hands or the moped rider if there is no passenger, can hook one foot in your bike by the wheel. Other than for children, who often ride electric bikes, they struggle to see the point in a bike when you could take a moped.

Pedestrians

For obvious reasons, these feature last as walking is the last resort and you are last in the traffic hierarchy. Be a pedestrian at your peril. Green man on one of the rare pedestrian crossings does not mean it's safe for you to go, but more likely that half the traffic has stopped, if you're lucky, but mopeds can go on red lights. If you want to cross any other stretch of road, you just step out and keep walking slowly, hoping you'll make it to the other side. Mopeds will generally swerve at the last second, cars are pretty good at slowing, buses will not stop.

If you are going somewhere on foot, anything over 500 metres will be described as very far. If you try to walk a kilometre, they will think you're crazy, even those who are not directly offering you an alternative and just merely wish to comment.

Furthermore, pavements are for parking scooters, therefore you must take your life into your own hands and join the traffic in the road should you be crazy enough to walk anywhere.

If there is a nice stretch of clear pavement, don't expect it to remain that way if there is any traffic; you will have a moped zip up the pavement in either or both directions in order to beat the traffic.

Aeroplanes

If like us you decide Vietnamese road travel is not for you, you'll be pleased to hear all major routes are served by two low cost airlines, where tickets for a 12 hour journey by road is just £25, even if you only book a couple of days in advance; however even this is not without its entertainment.

To check in for your flight, you will have to wait your turn, which means, as a foreigner you will need to wait for either the stream of Vietnamese who push past any queue, ID in hand ready to be next, to run out, or for one of them to decide you may go. Once you manage that, they will literally be pressed up against you in a semicircle around you, ID in hand ready to be next. They won't let you back out once you have checked in. They're worse than the French for queuing, but use similar techniques to the Germans, by starting a new queue at the front.

Next, you might like to take a seat to finish any drinks before security. I put my bag on my seat to get my drink out. While doing this, a family came over and sat down next to me. As I went to pick my bag up and turn round to sit down, the man begins tapping my seat to signal for his wife to sit. I almost sat on his hand and was ready for his wife to end up on my lap but fortunately she didn't and I was allowed my seat.

Next stop, security. They queue here, behind the red line in a fairly civilised manner. There will always be one though that doesn't get the red line, steps over it only to be sent back, therefore backing into the Vietnamese following behind, which was highly amusing to us!

Finally, the Vietnamese assign seats, which is pretty fortunate as even that is incredibly difficult for them to find and sit in the correct seat, it would be absolute mayhem if it were free choice.

Now you're ready to travel Vietnamese stylee.....should you dare!

Posted by Roaming Rolts 21:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged traffic chaos observations Comments (3)

Phu Quoc, Vietnam

A welcome break from travelling on a tropical paradise island

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Phu Quoc island is off the coast of Cambodia and although in the past it was governed by Cambodia, it is currently Vietnamese. Despite this, some Cambodians are unwilling to accept it is Vietnamese, preferring to refer to it as Ko Tral. Regardless of any technicalities as to which country we are in, it is a beautiful island with gorgeous deserted stretches of golden sand beaches on the west coast and empty stretches of white sand beaches to the east. Although 45km in length, it is only a matter of kilometres in width, meaning coast wise you can have the best of both worlds and easily get back across the island in time for the sunset on the west. Personally, I preferred the golden beaches to the west as this seemed to make the water look a prettier shade of emerald green. In the water was the occasional aqua green coloured tradional wooden boat, floating just off the coast. Regularly you would see the locals fishing, often in what look like oversized round bamboo baskets, about a metre in diameter. These were also good for sunset pictures, of which we have a few! Along the front of the beach were palm trees, with some of them leaning over at a 45 degree angle to look like those tropical island beach pictures you always see in a holiday brochure.

We checked into our hotel and headed straight down to the beach. We had a delicious lunch on the beach before heading up the beach a couple of hundred metres to find our own private section of beach. We were surprised at how empty the beach was, there really is no reason to share it with anyone.

We spent the afternoon doing nothing but lay on the beach and go for a swim to cool off. That evening, we watched the sun go down at a beach bar, set back a metre from the water's edge.

The only way to explore the island is by moped, and although we had hoped to rely on the motorbike taxis, these didn't really seem to exist. As the main highway was empty, and most of the island is served by dirt track, we decided we'd hire a scooter from the shop next door to our hotel. The 125cc Suzuki NightRider looked pretty good, but unfortunately none of the helmets was anywhere near big enough for Christopher's rediculously sized noggin. Fortunately the shop opposite had one, which looked like a plastic bowl. It was the same bike, this time the 'ultimatic' model. We were given a quick driving lesson: turn the handle to go and pull the brake to stop. We paid our £5 hire fee with a deposit of nil, just trust and goodwill that we would return. We filled it up for the costly sum of £2 for just over 4 litres and off we went. The speed limits is 40kph here, so you're never going to be going too much faster than you could on a push bike.

We headed into the town of Duong Dong befere we set off along the coast, visiting Star Beach, which has the white sand beaches. We took it in turns riding the bike, which was great fun, apart from turning round which was a little challenging. We attempted to visit Ice Cream beach, but this was in the former military area with the prison, and there were old looking signs saying no trespassing, but we didn't fancy risking it as the guidebook says foreigners are often banned from visiting.

After lunch, we got a little lost in Duong Dong en route to Ong Lang beach, finding ourselves biking through a chaotic local market, having to duck for low canopies, and riding along the pavements to avoid roadworks in true Vietnamese style. We finally found the right road down to the beach, which was once again void of people. In the water here, there were more small fish, and one cool creature that looked like an eight legged starfish.

We watched the sun go down and the little white crabs scurrying around the water's edge and down their holes.

We headed back to Duong Dong, stopping off at the night market, which mainly sold pearls, before returning the bike having done over 100km on our fuel.

For dinner that evening, we went to a fish restaurant where our table was facing the sea about a metre back from the edge with no one in front. I had mackerel in a green chili sauce and it was the best Vietnamese meal I have had to date. So impressed, we returned the following night, where this time as the water was slightly lower, our table was in the sea with the waves breaking gently over our feet. Chris was unsure the romance of this dinner by candlelight made up for the sinking front of the chair, but reluctantly enjoyed himself. The lady remembered us from the night before, commenting 'same same' when Chris ordered his pork cordon bleu type dish again.

For our third and final day on Phu Quoc, we took a boat out to some of the islands off of the south coast to go snorkelling. First stop on the bus to the port, was a pearl farm where we were given a demonstration of an oyster being cut open to reveal a pearl. We were then given time to browse the shop, which takes the record for number of Vietnamese staff not needed and doing nothing. There were at least 20 odd girls hiding behind the counter socialising on the floor. Chris and I took a wonder down the shop, which felt more like a museum, followed by one of the girls suggesting we bought something.

Once on the boat, we stopped off at a fish farm, where we could buy crabs for lunch. There's always the opportunity to buy in Vietnam!

On the way to the first snorkel site, we stopped for some deep sea fishing, where Chris managed to catch a 6 inch long fish. About 5 minutes later I felt something tugging on my line. I wound it in to find a tiny 2 inch fish on the end which the crew laughed at then threw back. Fishing is too boring for me.

We went snorkeling in two different areas, one was probably better for coral, the other for the fish. We found a strange fish which looked like a 30cm long oval rock, with like a fringe running around its edge. Its face was like a squid with long tentacles coming out the front of its pointy face. There were plenty of yellow and black striped fish, as well as some beautiful electric blue ones. Chris found one black and white 'dalmation' fish.

On the way back, we stopped off at Star Beach, where we fell asleep, only just waking up in time for the bus back.

After our romantic candlelit dinner in the sea, we walked back to our hotel to find a group of Filipinos dancing on the beach, doing routines to some live music coming from one of the restaurants. I decided to join in with them which they seemed to love, and after a song or two, a couple of them went off to get Chris to come and join us. And so there we were, dancing on the moonlit beach with a group of Filipinos. After a few more songs, the band took a break, which was there chance to introduce themselves, all 30 of them desperate to shake our hands and tell us their names.

The following morning we left for the mainland taking the boat to Ha Tien. This boat at half 10 in the morning was playing really loud music which you would have heard in Europe in the summer of about the year 2000. Waiting at the port the other end was obviously a motorbike to take us and our bags into town, where we had a 2 hour wait before crossing the border into Cambodia.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 06:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

The Mighty Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Because 2 days on the Mekong in Laos wasn't enough!

sunny 35 °C

We headed out for today's excursion just before 7am having successfully managed to dodge the breakfast at our hotel. We were half expecting reception to check we had eaten due to us attempting to refuse the voucher the night before. We had to leave before breakfast started and although they said we could go early, it was so poor the day before, we fancied the extra 15 minutes in bed, knowing full well we'd still need to stop off at a bakery. On exiting the hotel we did still have them almost beg for our key with us thinking, 'no thank you but we'll keep our key card which you insist on handing out so willy nilly to whoever strolls in off of the street/alley.'

We arrived at the agency's office at 7.20am ready for our half 7 departure but come 8 o'clock when we were still stood waiting on the street, we questioned where the bus was to be told it was stuck in traffic. There's a lot of traffic in Vietnam, mainly mopeds, but never jams. Being a Saturday, there was significantly less traffic on the road making this excuse seem even more implausible. Ten minutes later, we were walked round the corner to find we were on a different tour, and although this one didn't include the brick making factory, it did have a stop at a honey bee farm for an explanation and a cup of disgusting weak green tea, honey and lime.

The bus journey took 3 hours before arriving at the location of Cai Be floating market. I say location, as the tour we booked arrived at 10.30am, an hour earlier, and so all this guide could do was point out it had finished 30 minutes prior to our arrival, leaving just a couple of stray boats with tapioca on sticks to show that's what was being sold from that boat.

We carried on along the river to a 'factory' clearly set up for tourists, as there was only space for one run of each product. Here you could see them making rice popcorn, which to be fair was quite interesting, which is more than can be said for the food mixers in the corner stirring the mixture for coconut candy and the woman cooking rice paper on the other side. All these things, along with medicinal cure all honey were available for sale (obviously) alongside a live python used to advertise snake wine.
So far we were feeling annoyed that instead of spending the time venturing deeper into the Mekong to discover the true beauty of the Delta, we were merely skirting around the edge to ensure we made these desperate stops, which are always the same on whichever Vietnamese tour you take.

Fortunately the afternoon picked up and was more of what we had expected and hoped for. We continued along the river which was a little more animated before getting off and picking up the most decrepit bikes you have ever seen and cycling 5 minutes through the river reeds to our restaurant. For once Chris' bike didnt have a puncture but mine had a wonky front wheel and no brakes. One of the best saddles to date mind.

Normally when you stop at one of these inclusive lunch stops, the food is often incredibly poor as you know full well they'll have been paid a pittance to feed you. This one on the other hand brought out a delicious, all be it incredibly small, portion of chicken in a lemongrass sauce with rice. After lunch, we walked through the village to one of the small rivers running through between the houses where we took a sampan boat ride while wearing traditional conical hats back to the main river where our boat was waiting. It was so peaceful down on the river and Chris looked hilarious in his hat with a nice flowery ribbon securing it to his head under his chin.

The main boat took us to Vinh Long, where unfortunately for once we were herded out of the market when it would have been nice to take a look as this was clearly not a tourist market, the canopies were too low for westerns to fit! If only one of them would pay our tour company to stop, then we would be there by the bus loads. Then again, it would soon change to be like all the others.

No bus journey is complete in Vietnam with out some commotion, whether it's the one who is travel sick creating a chain reaction (although this was a tourist bus which had only picked up 5 Vietnamese en route,) or the police. I have no idea why we were pulled over for this time, but a lot of paperwork was shown with the police clearly pointing out some clause of interest while reading it. 15 minutes later and an unknown sum of money paid we were off again.

Tomorrow we're off to the beaches of Phu Quoc Island where we plan to do nothing.... We shall see!

Posted by Roaming Rolts 01:26 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Ho Chi Minh and Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam

Saigon could quite easily be anywhere in the world!

In Saigon, you could be anywhere in the world. Taking the bus from the airport to the centre, were it not for all the mopeds, you could forget you were in Vietnam. The streets of District 1 are lined with boutique hotels and designer shops, with a couple of fancy shopping centres a few blocks apart. If you look carefully, behind this front of upmarket malls and fancy hotels you will find numerous alleys between the blocks which house the hustle and bustle of normal life, the Vietnam you probably picture, similar to that of the old quarter in Hanoi. Were it not for our guesthouse being located down one of these traditional alleys, I am unsure that you would bother heading off of the main road even if you were to notice it.

The alley is like another world. Barely wide enough to fit a moped (but you will), it is home to various street restaurants and vendors, including a butcher who had set up shop right in front of our guesthouse.

On our first day, we took advantage of the western style high street and restocked. I wonder how many lonely socks and sets of underwear there are kicking about on backpacker routes? Chris was down to just 3 pairs of pants from his original set of 6. I'd also lost 3 pairs, 2 since arriving in Asia. In Peru, Chris had gone up a size to large. By Vietnam, he was needing a double XL, and even these are far too small! (Or as he reckons, his Spongebob 'Caiyin Kelin' boxers shrank in the wash...)

The following day we visited the war remnants museum, a shocking example of how inhumane mankind can be to each other, even within the same race, exhibiting evidence of atrocities of Vietnamese against fellow Vietnamese as well as documenting the US's attempts to obliterate Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, despite most Americans opposing the war, they were definitely keeping quiet for once in this museum, if there even were any there. The torture method used by the Vietnamese were gruesome enough but the US's attempts to wipeout Vietnam, its people and resources through poisoning everything in sight with Agent Orange makes you really see what a strong and resilient bunch the Vietnamese really are, and better understand locals' declarations of being prepared to war against China tomorrow, should the need arise.

On Thursday, we headed north to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of underground passages which extended some 250km over 4 different levels. The original tunnels were too narrow for US soldiers to enter, which allowed the Viet Cong to live safely and move around freely when not fighting. The Vietnameses' ingenuity did not stop at digging this complex network; they used the shells from bombs dropped by the US to create weapons and booby traps for re-use against the Americans and South Vietnamese Army.

Chris and I both went down one of the original holes for our Cu Chi photo before descending into a section which has been widened to allow larger western tourists to get a glimpse of tunnel life. Even now, the tunnels seem very narrow and are incredibly low.

Prior to visiting the tunnels, we visited the Cao Dai Great Temple in time for the midday service. Cao Dai is a new religion founded in the 1920s and is based on a mix of Buddhism, Catholicism and Confucian. The ceremony involves a lot of relatively lively singing by a traditional Vietnamese band up on the balcony. The temple is a mix of a colourful Pagoda in Hindu colours in the style of a cathedral. The majority of worshippers are dressed in white robes and towards the front there is a group of about 30 wearing either red, blue or yellow robes to show that they are higher up and represent the three different religions which make up Cao Dai.

Friday was spent visiting the botanical gardens, which turned out to be a zoo with in a leafy setting, with about 10m² in the corner given over to some orchids and a few other colourful plants to make up the botanical gardens. The zoo had quite a collection of animals, including a very cute looking yellow gibbon, who was climbing around his cage before darting to the ground and climbing back up to throw something at me from the ground! He didn't manage to hit me but probably had a better aim than I would given that it went in the general direction and it wasn't too far off!

We visited an 'unmissable' pagoda, which was so nondescript that we walked straight past, thinking it was just a standard local temple.

In the evening we went to AO show which was an acrobatics show within the opera house. I had expected an elegant leotard style show, but it was more of a very impressive street dance incorporating different aspects of Vietnamese culture. One of our favourite and most accurate representations was the dance depicting a bus journey, showing the people aboard being thrown and bumped around before it coming to a halt and one guy needing to make a sharp exit in order to be sick in the corner. Clearly this is a common occurrence in Vietnam and we haven't just been unfortunate in our travel companions. We were very glad we shelled out the $30 for this show as it made a pleasant change from our evening routine of dinner followed by a beer and would definitely recommend it if you find yourself in Saigon.

Tomorrow we are heading out on a Mekong Delta tour. We hope it will be ok as the trip to the Mangrove we wanted to do is not running tomorrow and this company doesn't mention a stop at the brick factory, as most others do. Which tourists want to go to a brick factory?! Normally you're taken to all the workshops so that you feel obliged to buy whatever tat it is they're making. Do people really buy bricks?

Posted by Roaming Rolts 01:25 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Buon Ma Thuot and Lake Lak

The mystical lake in the central highlands of Vietnam

sunny 30 °C

After a 5½ hour bus ride, we arrived at Buon Ma Thuot, where we were literally the only westerners. For most of the journey, I'd been stared at by various different men and the pointing only worsened as we went into town. Clearly Vietnamese were never taught it's rude to stare.

We needed to catch a local bus to Lak Lake, which we knew went from near the ethnographic museum, and so we decided to break up our journey by spending a couple of hours at this museum which explains how the ethnic minority cultures work and their beliefs.

For lunch we went to Thanh Van restaurant which was popular with the locals, always a good sign. They do make your own spring rolls providing the rice paper, salad, meat, fish sauce and peanut sauce. They were delicious and only £2.50 for both of us and 2 drinks. There was a lot of food!

We took the local bus to Lake Lak, where one Vietnamese lady kept talking to us and we think her friend was trying to tell her we wouldn't understand. We were quite comfortable with me sitting down on a single seat and Chris standing, but for some reason this was not allowed and Chris had to sit down, meaning the two of us were squashed and hanging off of the seat which was most uncomfortable for the hour and 20 minute journey.

We checked into our hotel Bao Dai, which used to be the former holiday villa for the emperor in the 1950s. Despite booking a standard room from the 3 options available, we ended up with the King's room, which had a living room area and another coffee table and chairs. Two of the walls were windows overlooking the lake. We were very pleased with this upgrade, especially when we ended up paying even less for it than our original booking!?

That evening we watched the sun go down and at half five the next day we rose to watch the sunrise. It was so peacefully and idyllic at the top of the hill. The following morning, small groups of tourists began arriving to see the building and have coffee. One group of 4 men decided they'd try our shut door, which was opposite the entrance to an exhibition! Clearly we need to keep our door locked when in the room during the day in Vietnam. Luckily I had literally just finished getting dressed and was opening the curtains. We headed down for our complimentary breakfast to be told it was a kilometre away at another resort. They missed that out of the advert! We were given a lift on a moped to the resort where we enjoyed breakfast on the lake.

We walked down to the lake, browsed the local market and carried on through some rice fields to Jun Village. On the way, a group of about six 10 year old boys took a particular interest in us and started following us. After shouting and calling, they found a poor lizard, which must have been about 15cm long and threw it the 10 metres between us. One time it hit Chris' ankle scratching it. After a few throws, the lizard looked less alive.

We walked around the back of the village by the lake, through some pigs before heading up into the village, where there were plenty of piglets and chickens roaming free. There was one mother hen in a mud nest with her 5 chicks. The houses were traditional wooden long houses, with ladies washing clothes at the village tap and children playing games in the dirt.

The lake is very peaceful and clearly does not receive too many tourists. There were elephants available for rides, but the seats were straight on their backs like metal cages with no padding and the poor ellies were chained up in the sun.

We returned to the other resort for lunch where we watched some men illegally electric shock fishing in the shallow waters in front of the restaurant. Finally we caught the public bus back to Buon Ma Thuot, where we stayed the night before flying to Saigon.

Our hotel wasn't quite in the centre as it showed on the map but a couple of kilometres out. It was part of some coffee tour so had a few very nice traditional Vietnamese cafés just next door in a very tranquil setting. We ended up having coffee and dinner here and the following morning, when we went to the hotel restaurant area for breakfast, it turned out that was next door too.

We caught our flight at lunchtime and were the only westerners in the whole airport. Arriving in Saigon, we were offered a $7 taxi for $16 dollars, but the man walked off straight away when I suggested $5. We found one who would do it on the metre, and began following him to his car, before noticing the 152 bus which went to district one and so hopped on, paying 30p each, and disappearing probably leaving our taxi driver confused. The bus dropped us off a couple of hundred metres from our hotel. Perfect.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 22:01 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Kon Tum, Vietnam

Kon Tum, Central highlands and its surrounding minority villages.

Kon Tum is a small town in the mountains which does not see many tourists due to it being a few hours off of the main coastal route and not the easiest to get to. Travelling here was by far our most convoluted route to date. Kon Tum is used as a base for visiting the surrounding minority villages. Another reason there are few tourists is Sa Pa in the north appears to offer a similar experience and there are plenty of tours available to take you there. We decided to visit these villages for a taste of real Vietnam as Sa Pa has no doubt become more commercial in order to cater for all the tourists and nothing lacks authenticity like bus loads of tourists arriving in their hoards.

We were the only westerners on our bus and perhaps cheated by staying at the hotel which was number one on trip advisor as clearly everyone else had had the same idea. On the streets though, we saw no other tourists and we were definitely the tourist attraction. Children would stop play fighting to watch us walk past in the street, teenagers would call each other out to look at us, with the girls being reduced to giggles when we responded to their hello. We made the mistake of walking past a primary school at breaktime. Literally all of them had to come over and say hello and run along the fence with us. Thank goodness it wasn't the end of the day, otherwise we'd have been like the Pied Piper. We had one small 3 year old girl do a little dance for us outside the church and loved it when we clapped her afterwards.

Kon Tum itself has a lot of christian churches, which made a nice change from Buddhist temples. We are currently on a self-imposed temple ban, meaning after Hoi An, we will only be visiting truly different or special temples until Angkor Wat so as to be able to appreciate it. We visited the wooden church which had a western ranch feel to it, but was clearly a church. Afterwards we visited a seminatary, which looked like a lovely Tudor style house.

The folliwing day we took a motorbike tour around the villages. We hadn't initially planned to take a guided tour, but given our lack of luck hiring push bikes, we opted for someone to take us, particularly as the price including the guide was very reasonable, even if the guide was French speaking! The second lady to drive me was a Vietnamese girl who when she arrived put her face mask on, pulled her jacket right up to her eyes with the hood up and put on some gloves. Our guide explained that she covered up to avoid the sun as she wanted to be as white as possible. Part way round she compared her arm to my tanned arm (for me) and was very pleased that she was almost as white as me. No one is ever happy!

We set off on our bikes to a village 22km away, which was home to the Jarai community. On the way to the village, we stopped in a forest where we were shown how they collect rubber from the trees. They cut the bark, pump oxygen in and then rubber will drip out constantly for about 12 hours. Once in the centre of the village, there is a communal house, which would be the equivalent to a well used village hall. This house is one room, about 5 metres off of the ground on stilts made of corrugated red metal with a 15 metre high pointy roof to look like a boat sail.

We headed down past some coffee plantations to the rice fields to see a few people hard at work. The landscape was spectacular with the paddy fields laid out neatly with little hedges dividing each section with mountains and forests as the back drop. Next to the fields is a river which had been piped with bamboo to create a flow, in which a lady was washing clothes.

We headed back up past some more coffee fields, through the village, which consisted of more modern concrete houses as well as tradional wooden houses on stilts, each with their own plot of land. Most of the front gardens were completely covered in coffee beans roasting. Every square inch was filled with some sections continuing a foot into the road.

To the west of the village is the cemetery where our guide explained to us the Jarai beliefs and traditions, laughing at appropriate moments. The Jarai believe that your life continues after death in exactly the same way. As a coffin, they hollow out a tree trunk and cut in one side. The body is then wrapped in a traditional blanket and buried in the family tomb, which is basically a 4ft high corrugated metal pointy roof on concrete posts, surrounded by a fence. The coffin is buried with a ceramic vase above the head sticking out of the ground. The family of the deceased will use this vase to feed their relative. If you wish to see someone who is in the other world, you can take food and drink to the dead people's communal house and call out their name and they will come to eat and drink.

If you are married and your husband or wife dies before you, you must take food everyday for a week, twice a day and then you must continue to take food monthly until you die, when you'll be slotted into your spouse's tree trunk so that you can continue your marriage in the afterlife. Sometimes after 5-7 years, they will hold a party to allow the spirit to leave, and then they will no longer need to bring food.

If your partner dies and you are still young, after 3 years you can ask your in-laws' permission to be allowed to remarry. If they agree, you must then ask the village elders to 'legally by village law' grant you permission and if successful you will have what sounds like a divorce party. Your now ex is also free to remarry on the other side and will move coffins accordingly. The tomb will then be abandoned as no one is in it.

If your deceased relative appears in your dreams, I assume distressed, you must sacrifice a buffalo for them as this is a sign that they are trapped by something bad they did in the real world. If it happens a second time, you sacrifice a goat, the third time, a pig. If it happens again, then the person is clearly incurable and needs to be physically set free and so you dig them up and take the trunk down to the river and launch their body into the water. We saw one of these coffin trunks abandoned by the river from where this had obviously happened.

We wandered around the village, which is based on a grid system. The guide pointed out that the villages we would be visiting after lunch would be a lot more lively, with children all over the p!ace as Jarai people tended to be more conservative and private.

On the way back to town for lunch we visited a beautiful lake which was hidden away amongst the trees. Again, the views were amazing and we were the only people for miles around.

After a bum numbing 45 minute ride back into town, we had lunch with some truly questionable cuts of meat, one round piece which didn't leave the side of our plate for any investigation looked like the much loved in this region bull's testicle.

The next village on our tour was a Banhar village, which you could immediately tell was completely different. We stopped in the centre next to their communal house which is a thatched version of the metal one we had seen in the Jarai village. Underneath it were about 10-15 women from the village who spend their days gossiping here. All the houses are tight next to each other with a dirt track between them. Again there was a mix of concrete with front terraces and thatched traditional houses with a platform area out the front for socialising. This village and the next we were to visit do not believe in the use of contraception which was evident by the sheer number of children in the street.

We stopped outside the house of one multi generational family home and were told the sad story of how one of the older ladies had lost her husband 22 years ago, leaving her with a 4 year old child. A French couple came and asked to adopt her and from the way the story was told, it was implied they'd agreed to stay in touch. She had heard nothing of her daughter in 22 years and has begun to look for her online, but is still waiting expectantly for a French girl to turn up and be her long lost daughter. The woman looked so sad as she held another baby. The not knowing and always hoping just made you feel so sad for her.

Our final village was similar to the Banhar village but poorer. The children seemed even friendlier with the children running out to have a look and say hello. One toddler was adorable and I think he might have just had a bath when we'd arrived. He was stood with his shirt undone and was smiling as he opened and closed it as if he were flashing us. The mum was laughing at her son who was oblivious to the amusement he was causing. He was so smiley and kept waving and followed us around the corner to the river where he looked on enviously at a group of children jumping off of boats and playing in the water. I'd have adopted him!

On the way back to town, we stopped for a drink of sugar cane, which was quite nice but did get a bit sickly.

Finally we headed down to the river to see an example long house and Vietnam's first suspension bridge, built in the 80s.

This has become one of our favourite days in Asia and felt as though we got a genuine insight into Vietnamese life, rather than one created for tourists. As we went back through the Banhar village, we saw a small bus full of tourists milling around the long house and the locals did not seem interested in them at all. I doubt they did the tour round either and were probably just stopping for their long house photo. We were also very glad we had a guide as we would have never found the first village and didn't even know about the example long house, concealed lake or rubber trees.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 03:25 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Hoi An and My Son

The best $75 dollar spend of my life!

rain 28 °C

We were dropped off at the bus station, where the taxi drivers did not want to take you to your hotel for some unknown reason. They kept suggesting we take an xe om (motorbike 'taxi') who were prepared to do the 1.5km journey for £2 each. How good of them! Baffled as to why the taxis would not take us, we set off on foot before managing to find a taxi who would do it on the meter for a £1.

We walked into town and took a boat ride along the river in a traditional boat. Considering the number of tourists in Hoi An, there was nobody else on the river, so it was lovely and peaceful. Afterwards, we wandered around the old quarter which is pedestrianised (other than a lot of push bikes), admiring the yellow traditional buildings, which had a rustic feel to them with peeling paint. In Hoi An, Vietnamese law states that all properties must hang lanterns out the front, which make the streets very pretty and even more colourful by night. I am quite a fan of this law.

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Hoi An Lantern shop

Hoi An is reknown for its tailoring and also its cusine, often being referred to as the food capital of Vietnam. We looked around a few shops before finding a shoe shop who would custom make knee high boots for $65. My beloved 3 year old boots have been reheeled and resoled that many times that they are now beyond repair. An hour or so later I'd chosen my heel from a basket of hundreds, the leather colour from a massive bundle of swatches and designed them using various parts off different boots in a catalogue. They measured me up, before suggesting I needed to pay an extra $20 as my legs were so long. We got them down to 75 as although normally they make them 36-38cm and I needed 45cm, I doubt the extra leather cost them much more than a dollar. Still, $75 is incredibly good value for knee high boots!

We spent the evening taking night shots of all the lights and the young children selling paper lanterns with candles in to float along the river. Unfortunately these collected along the edge, rather than floating romantically in the middle.

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My Son

We took a boat back to Hoi An and I went to try on my boots. Unfortunately they hadn't started them as the colours I had chosen were out of stock. I was taken to the leather shop where instead of the relatively conservative maroon and deep red pink I had originally chosen, I opted for a purpley pink with dark purple. The boots were to be made in 5 hours.

When we went back, they were there and they were gorgeous! But far too narrow for my chunky duck feet. They were so painful to put on. As it was 7pm, they could not be altered until the morning. I was apprehensive as they had drawn around my foot and measured it, so I couldn't understasnd why there was such a narrow sole on them in the first place. To my surprise, the following morning by 10am they were almost right. I'd have bought them in a shop like that, but seeing as these were made to measure, I had one final alteration and now they have become the best $75 I have ever spent.

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My made-to-measure, custom designed boots!

Today we visited the tourists sites of Hoi An which naturally included a few temples, along with an interesting communal house and former family chapel. There is a beautiful Japanese bridge, with a covered pale pink bridge with a temple on it.

In Vietnam, they seem to be into their community projects, with various cafés up and down the country set up to rehabilitate and educate street children. There is one in Hoi An called Streets, and once again the service was impeccable and the food was full of flavour.

There is also a tea room called Reaching Out, which was founded to allow the enjoyment of tea in silence, and is run by deaf and speech impaired staff. This café is located down one of the quieter streets and all you can hear is the birds singing (and the occasional loud tourist walking past). There is a really nice atmosphere and the whole place is decorated with traditional Vietnamese wood carvings and tea sets. To communicate with the staff, they have a tick sheet to go alongside their menu and cute little wooden blocks with key words written on them in English. They also had a selection of wooden blocks and would use them to serve you your drinks. They serve a variety of local teas coffees and cookies. You could get a cookie tasting selection, which had 10 different varieties of biscuit, with only a couple resembling what we would recognise to be a biscuit. Two of them looked like beige and green tagliatelle pasta. The hot drinks were served in traditional coffee and teaware. If you're in Hoi An, this place is a must as it is our favourite coffee shop by far on the whole of our trip.

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Cookie tasting in the middle of our coffee and tea

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Reaching Out Tearoom

For dinner, we people watched outside morning glory café where the food was once again delicious. We saw a couple be offered a cyclo for 150,000 for just 15 minutes and accept with no negotiation. This is equivalent to about $7.50! We paid $5 for an hour in Hanoi, as recommended in the guidebook, where everything has doubled in price. The cyclo man then called to his friend working in our cafe with a massive grin on his face, gesturing to his pocket, clearly saying to the guy you won't believe how much they paid.

That evening, we returned to our hotel to await our bus to Kon Tum. We had booked a sleeper bus, and weren't sure this would be doing the rounds for the pick ups, as the full sized coach did the other day. Shortly after 6pm, two motorbikes arrived to take us to the bus station and we had our first ride as pillions. It was actually alright, but I was glad when we got there. We knew that Kon Tum is rarely visited by tourists and had been surprised that there was a direct sleeper bus to Kon Tum. Turns out there isn't. We were taken 10 minutes up the road and dropped off at a roadside shop which might have been a bus stop or was a café. We were then told that we needed to go to this man's house as the bus didn't stop there and his wife was on her way to collect us. I was far from happy about this and a bit anxious, but we were currently in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere so didn't have too much choice. We started 100m or so up the road on bikes before the man started saying their was a problem with the woman's bike which I was riding on. It was suggested the man took Chris before returning for me a few minutes later, but I was really not happy about that and refused to be separated. It turned out we were heading back into town and had less than a mile to go and so we walked. We were taken to sit out the front of his shop and waited about an hour for the bus, chatting to the guy about life in Vietnam which was interesting.

We had read that westerners for some reason are sent to the back of the bus so were not surprised to find these were our seats. They seemed comfortable enough and Chris' was good because you have to but your feet under the seat in front, and the gap was not even big enough for my feet but Chris was in the middle and so his feet could stick up nicely. We were the only foreigners on the bus and there were at least 2 pukers. Perhaps you can't get a bus in South East Asia without someone being sick? My seat had a nice half inch perfectly round hole in the window which we had to stuff with a biscuit packet as it let in the rain quite badly. Ah the joys of travelling!

We arrived in Pleiku at 6.30am where the bus terminated for everyone else but we were told ton stay on. After about 10 minutes, the bus took us to a random side street where there was a minibus about to leave for Kon Tum. We found our seats, moved because there was a pile of sick on the floor in the corner (obviously) and were very surprised to arrive in Kon Tum an hour later. We were amazed that all the connections had worked and that we had managed to pay for it all upfront without paying too much commission to have this journey organised for us. It was a little too easy in the end!

Posted by Roaming Rolts 23:12 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples lanterns rain unesco cyclo my_son boots tailors Comments (1)

Stopover In Danang, En Route To Hué

Travelling from Danang to Hué on the Reunification Express along the Hai Van Pass

rain

There's not too much to do in Danang, so the majority of travellers only pass through here in order to get the bus south to Hoi An, which has no airport and is not on the train line. We were just stopping for the night as the flight was the same price as the 16 hour train from Hanoi. With hindsight, we could have easily got to Hué on the train that evening, but actually Danang looks pretty good by night.

There is a new bridge across the river called the dragon bridge, which by day is a golden dragon winding its way across the bridge and by night is completely lit up, with about 5 different colour sequences, which change by travelling from the dragon's head, slowly along the length of its body. In the opposite direction, there is a brightly lit up hotel with a rainbow pattern down the side. Just next to this there is another bridge which is constantly changing colour and even has a rainbow phase.

The following day we took the lunchtime train 3 hours north to Hué. This train was just over halfway through its 40 hour journey travelling from Saigon to Hanoi. There were only sleeper berths, so Chris and I had a cabin to ourselves with 4 fairly comfortable beds. It was a lot nicer than the Thai sleeper train and tickets are generally cheaper too. This was probably our most comfortable journey to date, all for £4.

About half an hour after leaving Danang, you arrive at a section of the track known as the Hai Van Pass, which is a viewpoint across the bays between the mountains. For about 15 minutes, you were travelling along the most picturesque stretch of railway I have seen in my life. Even the locals were out of their cabins to look out the windows on the other side of the carriage. It was definitely worth a night in Danang to see this stretch by day as the bus back down to Hoi An took the tunnel instead.

Once again on arriving to Hué we were offered the 150,000 tourist taxi but finally got one to do it on the metre. Even at his attempt to take us round the block (I soon set him straight, it was clearly an accident.....) The metre stopped at 42k.

Hué is a historical town, with its walled Imperial City. We spent the morning here wandering around looking at the various temples and decorative gates into the different sections of the walled city. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is still undergoing a lot of its restorations, so a lot of it still looked quite neglected.

Afterwards, we tried to get lunch in a really quirky coffee shop called 'his and her'. It was set up to look like a 1950s living room. We asked if they did food and they brought over a menu only in Vietnamese. We questioned the two sections, coffees and yoghurts, and the guy asked if we understood Chinese as they had the menu in Chinese. We wondered how often western people actually respond that they do because clearly it's unlikely we would. We ordered a coffee with milk and a cappucino. Both were disgusting, Chris' was made with condensed milk and mine was cold. Attempt number two at lunch (which made Chris' trip) was KFC to avoid the pouring rain.

KFC's slogan is 'finger lickin' good', which is slapped all over their burger boxes and is written on their plates. Being a linguist, I like when slogans don't work in other countries and this is one of the best I have seen to date. In Vietnam it is inredibly rude and dirty to lick your fingers while or after eating and is compared to 'eating like a cat or dog' therefore it is just not done.

In the afternoon, we visited Minh Mang and Tu Duc's mausoleums in the pouring rain. Both mausoleums were next to beautiful lake settings and included various different temples en route to whoever was buried there. At the second one, we were soaked through our raincoats the rain was that bad.

We dried off in our hotel before going for a very nice meal at a restaurant called 'Zucca', where you get a free beer, bruschetta and fruit. The main courses were also delicious, sizeable and cheap.

The following day we took the bus south to Hoi An.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 07:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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