Wow! the first taxi ride from the airport was staggering: the amount of motorbikes rushing everywhere coming from left and right, with children, babies…and…I could have sworn I saw a dog at the handlebars, ears flying in the wind. All that was missing were the Biggles goggles.
They have this horn-beeping code which rather than saying you naughty man don’t do that, it says I’m coming up behind you so just don’t move an inch. You’re supposed to drive on the right here but nobody actually does.
Another thing we noticed were the very fashionable flesh-colored flip-flop socks, which are like normal women’s sock tights, but with the peculiarity of the toe being separated in such a way so as to neatly fit the shoe.
We only stayed one night in this metropolis but it was a welcome stop off and gateway to the Mekong Delta which was our next destination.
We had what proved to be our best meal for the next week. It was in a little street restaurant which served a scrumptious octopus salad and chicken and pork skewers dipped in a spicy sauce. We took a plate of veg too which turned out to be delicious, and realized that Alana had hidden chop-stick mastering talents which appeared out of the blue. So all in all very successful; pity we didn’t have more time to explore. But big cities aren't really our thing and the great mouth of the Mekong river was calling…
During our first real bus ride the driver crashed into the truck in front and broke the windscreen! Everyone was fine but it was a warning to make sure seat belts are always fastened (if there are any!). The driver just hailed down another bus and we got on that!
We finally arrived in Can Tho in the heart of the Mekong Delta, where the main attraction was the large wholesalers river market. In order to make the most of the day we had a rdv with our guide Thoa, a 30 year old Vietnamese girl who spoke very good English, at 5:30 the next morning. We were ushered in pitch blackness to a door at the side of the hotel which to our amazement opened out to a little private jetty with our own little narrow river boat waiting for us, driver and all! It was a full moon and as we set off, there was a sleepy excitement within Alana and Ruben. Ruben whispered in my ear « ah mama : ça c’est la vraie aventure ». we started to meander through narrow side canals the full moon right ahead of us, palm trees and vines gently brushing the tops of our heads as we moved silently and steadily through this sleepy jungle. Until that is, Thoa started talking. She was so wide awake and when Vietnamese women speak, the pitch is often high and piercing. It certainly woke us up good an proper. Thoa was really quite interesting to talk to. She told us of her life with her husband, mother, sister and brother in law. Here families live under one roof. It made the kids think how lucky they were to have separate bedrooms back home.
When we got to the market there were large house-boats full to the brim with pineapples, sweet potatoes turnips, bananas, papayas… each boat had attached, right at the top of its mast, an example of what it was selling. Some of them sold so many different things that the whole mast was full up of fruit and vegetables.
All the boats had two eyes painted on at the front of the deck. Rumour has it that when the boat drivers got too drunk, the eyes could guide the boat on their own!
This wasn’t a market for tourists to buy local produce, but more for smaller boats to buy from the larger boats, to then sell on to restaurants, markets, or other middle men.
We did manage to buy and savour the most delicious treat of all in a little plastic bag: dried banana and sweet potato crisps covered in a sticky honey and ginger coating.
We drove past rice factories and river-side houses. Thoa explained that contrary to in Europe, where the rich like to have their own private river access, here this is where the poorest people live, as the land is state-owned and inhabitants are at the mercy of a government decision to resettle them at any time.
The Mekong is really polluted. People throw whole plastic bags full of rubbish, anything goes in there. Environmental issues are not yet a priority in Vietnam. But butterflies and wonderful tropical fruit and plants can be seen everywhere despite...
There were little colourful mini temples on the banks dotted around everywhere. Apparently they were for offering to the River God. We saw a rooster in a cage who was ready for fighting. Illegal but widely practiced according to Thoa. A rice noodle factory was one of the other highlights along the way, but perhaps the most surprising of all, was that the very discreet boat driver who hadn’t said a word throughout the journey, turned out to be probably the world’s best water-coconut leaf origami expert, starting off at first with little, delicately woven crowns for all of us. Each piece of art became more and more elaborate, from grasshoppers, to the grand finale: a bunch of roses! And he did all this while driving the boat…with his feet, he later admitted!
Next day, we had planned to go to another Delta village but the beaches and relaxing island of Phu Quoc beckoned and another early start was in order to get there in time to check in to a little beach-side bungalow!
Below 3 minutes movie
Boat trip to Phu Quoc was great! Realized Alana was a Jacky Chan fan! They do tend to put the air con on really high so you always look like you're going to the North Pole whenever you get on a bus, train or boat. Clothes make useful pillows too.
Got off boat and immediately accosted by about 20 people asking "where you go, where you go...", but people are pretty honest in the south we found, all just wanting to take the most tourists possible.
Stayed in a room with a bridge leading to the beach where there was the hotel restaurant with breakfast, feet in the sand every morning! Our own little terrace with hamac, between us and the beach a few tropical trees.
Pure heaven this island! Palm trees lit up at night, very lively everywhere, friendly people, loads of cool bars and restaurants dotted about. We had a good long rest here from travelling. Stayed 5 nights.
Alana did her lessons on the beach some mornings, though concentration levels were not very high! Kids spent most of their time playing with the puppies in the sand. Hired out scooters for the day (a first for Hester) Jeje took both kids on his!! We rode 60kms overall. Went to gorgeous beach with white sand and clear shallow water, called Sao Bai.
First bout of washing here by hotel, only about one euro per kilo. It's great not having to do any washing, cleaning or cooking!
Weather here was a bit sunnier though it rained a bit every day. We got caught in a big thunder storm one night but as it's warm it doesn't really matter.
One day we walked down the beach in search for a new place to eat and came to a 4**** hotel where we negotiated using their empty swimming pool if we ate there. They had a little jaccuzzi and a life guard who hands you out clean towels when you come out!!
We saw the worlds largest spider hanging from a palm tree.
Below enjoy 3 minutes of Phu Quoc
Organised next mammouth trip up to hoi an. A mere 36 hours travelling. Bus to boat, boat to bus (8 hours) then train from hcmc to hoi an (20 hours)! We were absolutely exhausted! We did't have a sleep cabin on the train and all slept terribly. We were right by the door separating the wagons and food trolleys kept going back and forth. We wouldn't have minded if the food was nice: hester went on a mission to get everyone breakfast. Thing was, the food was hidden inside little polystyrene boxes and it wasn't until we were all sitting down starving hungry that we discovered...the mushy pig fat rice chowder soup thing looking up at us saying "there's nothing else for you to eat here, you don't eat me, you don't eat anything." Well...we did our best to swallow some of it but it was pretty inedible.
Next food mission was therefore up to jeje, when we stopped at one of the stations which had little shops selling bananas and noodles and things. Problem here is that you never know how long the train is going to stop, so picture hester hurrying jeje and jeje negotiating the price of chicken fried rice in record time and getting back to train before it left. Meal only slightly better, rice so dry it tasted like it had been out in the sun for about a week. Everyone told us that Vietnamese cooking was one of the best in the world, but up till now we haven't really seen any of that unfortunately. Everything is covered in oil and fried. Perhaps in the north we'll taste some of the herby fresh cooking that we were expecting.
We FINALLY reached central Vietnam and a city called Danang, which was a real shopping city. We stayed in the cheapest hotel (14€ per night!), just one night before heading to Hoi An, the long awaited unesco heritage site.
Ahh, Hoi An, perhaps the rip off capital of Vietnam! As it's a unesco site it boasts well preserved, ancient Japanese and Chinese and Cham dynasties and relics. Stunning buildings and boutiques with dark wooden door frames. Different coloured lanterns everywhere, it looked like the whole city was lit up with candles. River running through with brightly coloured bars and restaurants either side. We took a swish hotel a bit further away and travelled through the streets by bike (free rental) with the kids on the back.
Had an adventure to the nearby An Bang beach, where we sampled one of the strangest restaurants of all: the waiter who waived us down on the beach in fact lived about 1km away, meaning every time anyone ordered a beer it took him about 20 minutes to go and get it!! We soon realized that he took his scooter to go and get the drinks and food. He took so long taking orders etc that most people just gave up after a while and went. He still tried to charge us for using his deck chairs while he was to-ig and fro-ing and got quite angry when we told him we were a bit fed up!
That wasn't the only rip off: people try to charge you for anything here, you have to bargain hard.
Nearby ancient My Son temples were worth a visit: penis and vulva celebrations were the in thing in the 11th a here, and still are apparently. When the upright rounded stone symbol is placed on top of the rounded flat table it means procreation and the Gods are happy. Lots of bombs from the Vietnamese-American war dropped here and destroyed a lot of the structures.
Hoi an is a place where food is good! Yeah, at last! We went to eat in a cooking school, people making traditional food infront of you.
There was a cool night market where we bought our first souvenirs. Hester at last bought her gong.
Arrived in the Imperial City, Hue, where we stayed just 2 nights. It rained non-stop so not much fun visiting temples in that weather, but what we did visit was grandiose! Took a tour in a taxi to see 4 mausoleums of past Emperors, some of whom had 104 wives and that's not counting the mistresses! They built their own graves before dying basically! All the family was buried there. Then we visited the pagoda next to the river and the Citadel, where the Emperors lived. It was 2 Kms by 2 kms, so took quite some time to explore.
Another really impressive attraction was the market. Never seen so many tiny passages filled from top to bottom with everything you can imagine: sweets, clothes, shoes, veg and fruit, toys, rows and rows of everything. It was a feat in itself just to move what with all the products and the vendors and the buyers. Not just that, but the market went on for miles, it was huge!!
But 2 days was enough here. We were sick of the rain, so we decided the next stop would be another island near Halong Bay called Cat Ba, where sun was on the cards...
After a snooze on the overnight bus to Hanoi, we arrived at 5am and stayed just overnight before getting the taxi, bus, boat and bus to Cat Ba island, where we stayed in a little straw bungalow high up over looking the bay. It was here we were to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year and we felt it as soon as we got there: everyone goes home to their villages to celebrate with their families, most restaurants and hotels close down and it felt like we had the island pretty much to ourselves!
We were invited to dinner with the hotel owners at midnight. We had to put A and R to bed, but their son Nam (4) was dressed up for the occasion in a little suit and tie. After they put out their religious offerings and prayed we had some wine and beer and ate peanuts and really spicy, chewy, red buffalo skin, along with spring rolls and other treats. We found out afterwards that the first guests you invite to eat with you in the new year, bring you luck for the coming year, so we felt very honored to have been chosen and realized then that we should have taken A and R with us...
The next night we met a French family travelling with 2 kids (Juliette:6 and Elliott 10) and made friends. We saw them again in a restaurant off the beaten track the next day (our next hotel to be called Woodstock) and decided to go for a family scooter ride all together to the National Park. Our 4 scooters set off with much whooping and glee and we climbed up a very steep hill to the top to be greeted with the most amazing panoramic tree top view of the karst mountains all around us. When we returned to our scooters, we had a scary stressful moment when Hester couldn't find her keys. The sun was setting, the roads are bad, the streets not lit and headlamps on these scooters are useless. Bad moment, bad moment, Hester swearing in front of the kids! We did manage to find them after all and guess where they were? In Jeje's bag!!!! We said our goodbyes and made a next rdv in Cambodia as we will be there at the same time.
Next day was time for the boat trip out to the karst islands (thousands of them dotted around), where we met a Yorkshire lass from Hebden Bridge believe it or not!!
We cruised around the islands on a very large, lopsided boat, in blaring, beautiful sunshine. Stopped at a place called Monkey Island where the walk up to the top of the hill was hairy to say the least. Lucky we had good walking shoes on. Some people were in flip flops! Just as we embarked on the beach, we heard a scream and when we looked round, Ruben was being ran after by one of the monkeys the island gets its name from. Turned out he had been scratched quite badly but not bitten. He's fine though...
The boat actually left without us and we ended up being rescued by another little boat which took us to the bigger boat where everyone was laughing at us.
On to the next adventure, which was kayaking. Strangely everything went smoothly!
Had a gorgeous lunch with fish and salad and more spring rolls and other delicacies and then onwards for some snorkeling on a paradise island with white sand in the middle of nowhere (check out the photos). Didn't see many fish but.
Alana made friends with a South African girl called Bodene who had taken her make up and glitter with her on the boat, as you do, and her and Alana played at being mermaids. She was sad to say goodbye when it was all over.
Little excursion by motorbike to the centre of the island to a popular climbing area where we stopped to eat at somebody's house/come restaurant, encountering traditional farming methods with Buffalo;
The next day we went to our next hotel : WOODSTOCK, which lived up to its name. Hippies everywhere, camping and camp fires on the beach, parties until the early hours, puppy dogs and cats everywhere. Dinner was served for everyone round one big table and we all ate together. Jasper, the Norwegian, who had been working there for a few months, set off various games including the ingenious game of picking up 3 peanuts at a time with chopsticks. A lot of fun was had by all. Parents could leave kids sleeping while they parties downstairs!
We have now mastered the art of driving motorbikes while carrying children and 20kg rucksacks over gravel hills... (see photo)
Next move: Mountainous Sapa in the North West...another night bus awaits us!
Sapa in itself is just streets full of restaurants, cafes and hotels. It's in a beautiful mountain setting though and luckily we were based 10 kms outside in the valley, in a small hill tribe village where we were warmly greeted at 5am! Surrounded by rice fields (more of a muddy brown colour than bright green as postered around Hanoi), the Hmong tribes are everywhere, mostly women dressed in traditional costume selling their purses, bags, scarves and skirts. It's a bit surprising at first when they start following you everywhere you go, but you kind of get used to it.
They get tired after a while, when they realise you aren't going to buy anything, especially when you set off for a 4 hour hike up the mountain...you tend to get rid of them one by one that way!
But they're friendly and nice to talk to. The best thing to do is to choose who you are going to buy from, so you can start a conversation and put the commercial to one side. Apparently the men look after the kids here while the women sell their wares.
It's really foggy up at the top, tropical trees and waterfalls and the terrain is a red, sticky clay, which gets really slippy when wet. The hills were steep and we were surprised to find rickety houses on the steep hillside, children, grandmas, hens, pigs, all living there. made us wonder how hard it must be to go anywhere when it rains. how come they live here? crazy.
We witnessed a funeral,everyone was dressed in white with white bandanas. They slaughtered a few pigs too and the kids saw them taking off the hairs with knives. A bit further along the road Ruben ran excitedly towards us shouting out that he had seen someone cutting a chicken's head off! Wonderful and raw and just natural. Made me think of "more goat", when I was 3!!
Good fun walking through the padi fields, balancing on the edge of each one, filled to the brim with water: my god it rains here!
Alas we only had time for one night (overnight bus there and back to Hanoi, meaning 3 days in total), before spending our last night in Hanoi to say goodbye Vietnam!
Ok, so if you get the overnight bus, it does mean you save the cost of a night in a hotel. But it also means that sometimes you arrive at your destination at 3am.
A Hard Days Night
Picture 2 over-tired children, added to pouring down rain, heavy rucksacks for everyone and a 3am wake up in the middle of Hanoi and nowhere to go...So...what to do?
We stumbled on a dive, still open and the last drunken soldiers were left propping up the bar. Amazingly enough, the 2 guys who worked there were French: and one of them was from Sete!!! It was in fact a beautiful, graceful and elegant Vietnamese lady who was boss and we asked if she knew any place we could stay until the morning. She served us a coffee and said we could sleep upstairs in her "spare bedroom". It turned out to be the dogs' room and the stink was almost unbearable, but we were so tired that we were glad of the room. The room consisted of a square table with a couple of wafer thin foam slices, to be divided to fit all 4 of us. The kids slept on the floor, along with excrement and rubbish bins and we all got a few hours kip.
Thing was, in the morning, the metal shutters outside the bar had of course been locked. We crept down the stairs to the bar area, taking care not to wake up the dogs, but there was no key in sight. It was by that time about 8am, which is no respectful time for all-night bar tenders to be awaking. But there was no option, we had to wake them up to get them to open the door for us. Which they did, and we promptly headed to our first dormitory sleep in a guesthouse in the old the old town.
The next day, despite our difficult journey, we knew it was our last day in Vietnam, so we had a fun-packed day. We went to the post-office to send all our souvenirs (gong and lantern included) and unused clothes back to France. It apparently will take 3 months to get there! Before taking the plane to Vientiane it was vital. The 10kg less weight makes such a difference!
Then we stumbled on a musician playing "Kalinka Maya" with a Vietnamese instrument and nearby some makeshift go-carts for kids in one of the squares next to the lake, which Ruben greatly enjoyed. We saw a water puppet play too.
That night we ate a "hot pot" in one of the bustling street food stalls. Ruben and Alana had their first taste of Coke. They felt so grown up, it was so funny seeing their faces (see video)! And of course, before leaving, we had to visit our friends who had offered us shelter the night before. We bought them all a Mojito and we all went to bed late! A great night was had by all and we were sad to say goodbye to our first episode. Hanoi is definitely our favourite Vietnamese city!
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