Vietnam From Top to Bottom

October 8
One of the great things about being based in Langkawi is that the airport is just a 10-15 minute hop from the marina, and there are regular connections via Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur or “K-L”. From there we popped down to Singapore. The three-hour layover was enough time to collect bags, check in again and catch up for a relaxing lunch with a mate living in Singapore. From Singapore, we caught a Tiger Airways flight to Hanoi. The fare was advertised as $99 Singapore, but after fuel surcharges, taxes, license, dealer prep and all those other add-ons, it came to just a little over twice that. Still not too bad for a 3-1/2 hour flight.
Reflecting on the trip, I think the first thing one needs to do when heading to Vietnam (particularly for Americans), is to erase your mental hard drive of all those old 6 o’clock news images of that war on the other side of the world, as well as preconceptions/misconceptions of the Vietnamese people. Out of its population of 84 million (making it 13th in world rankings) 70 percent of were born after the “American War” ended. It is not something they have any memories of, and their sights are aimed directly into the future. Those who are old enough to remember have chosen or are trying to forget. That said, they are extremely proud that they won the war and are not afraid to give us a friendly reminder of this fact. The Vietnam of 2006 is a rapidly developing country, embracing “capitalistic communism” in a fashion similar to China. It is bursting at the seams with potential and has become a major tourist destination that offers something for nearly everyone – history, architecture, art, culture, beaches, cuisine, night life, trekking, extreme sports, ecotourism and warm hospitality. With its recent acceptance into the World Trade Organization, Vietnam is on a fast track to being one of the powerhouses of Asia. And for the tourist, prices are something we haven’t seen since Mexico in the 70s and 80s.

We were greeted at Noi Bai International Airport by a driver from the hotel, amidst a sea of touts trying to whisk us off to someplace willing to pay them a “commission.” The 45-minute ride reminded us of Chinese driving rules – that is, there are no rules. On the road we were overwhelmed by horns honking, near misses, constant chaos and surprisingly few traffic signals for a capital city. We checked into the Camellia II Hotel. We had previously booked a “superior” double room but when we arrived, only a twin “standard,” – actually quite substandard – was available. The not-so-friendly nor helpful staff did not seem to be at all concerned that we weren’t pleased about the situation. They wanted us to hand over our passports which I flatly refused to do. I think they sensed that we had just about a gut full of their “hospitality” and were preparing to walk out of their establishment, so they finally settled for photo copies. We decided that we would change hotels as soon as it we could. We chucked our bags in the crappy room they gave us and headed out to see some of Hanoi.

Hustle and bustle in the Old Quarter.

Walking out of the front door all our senses were immediately subjected to a full frontal assault and pushed into overload. We spent a couple of hours wandering around Hanoi’s quaint Old Quarter and had a light dinner at a French Bistro across the street from the hotel. I went to an ATM and got about US$100 worth of Vietnamese Dong, the local currency, and became an instant millionaire. The exchange rate is about 16,000 Dong to 1 US Dollar. All those zeroes would most certainly add to the confusion.

October 9

Surfing through our trusty “Lonely Planet” guide, we found a much nicer hotel, the Viet Anh, located just a couple blocks away, for ten bucks more (US$25 incl. breakfast), and shifted there after breakfast. We were given a large, clean, modern room with a balcony and rooftop views of the surrounding neighborhood from three sides. We then organized some tour and travel arrangements for Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island and Sapa.

The streets of Hanoi are very busy, mostly with small motorcycles and bicycles, and just a few cars, trucks and buses. With very few signals and a nearly constant flow of traffic, crossing the street (as we know it) was nearly impossible. The technique is to simply start walking, slowly and steadily, and the traffic will avoid you. You hope! Seeing two or three persons riding on a motorcycle is common. Four or five crammed onto the seat is not too rare. The sidewalks are chock-a-block with parked motorcycles, work in progress from the various crafts and trades people, and tables and chairs of the local street cafes. The local kitchens are small and lack ventilation, so many people take it to the streets and cook on the sidewalk over gas or coal-fueled stoves. Food was cooking everywhere!

The seating of choice is a tiny plastic stool about six inches high and with an area just big enough to accommodate a full set of Vietnamese buns or just a half set of mine. Some places have the types of small plastic chairs that have arms, ones we would consider “kid’s size.” We could sit in them, but they are low, small, and very snug. When I stood up, most of the time the chair would be affixed to my bum and attempt to follow me out the door.

The sidewalks of the old quarter are literally so jammed that in most places, it is simply easier to walk on the edge of the street. Life here is a hive of activity, chaotic to Western eyes, but over time, we could begin to see the harmony of it all.

We spent the remainder of the day taking a walking tour of the Old Quarter, browsing the shops and taking in the hustle and bustle of life in Hanoi. It seems that each street in the Old Quarter is named after the types of products sold by the businesses clustered on that street. I can’t remember all the real Vietnamese names and directions, so don’t quote me on this, but starting from the hotel, we walked down “Plastic Products Place,” where everything from plastic bags of every conceivable shape and size, to raincoats and plastic flooring, rope and cellophane tape were on offer. We turned left down “Sweet Tooth Street” where every imaginable chip, cracker, lolly and candy bar were displayed in boxes, baskets and bins flowing out onto the street. Another left and we were on Blacksmith Boulevard. If the sidewalk wasn’t chocker with stainless steel items from coat racks to bird cages, range hoods to shelving units, it was a flurry of activity like welding, grinding, tapping, cutting and polishing of goods in process. Turning right on Souvenir Avenue, there were endless shops, narrow and deep, displaying Vietnamese handicrafts, art, t-shirts and the like. Another right and we were on Herbal Medicine Lane, where the strong exotic aromas of Chinese herbal medicines overwhelm the senses, and the items on display are mostly unidentifiable if not unbelievable. It is here that we came across an interesting concoction called “Snake Wine.” Bottles range in size from about a half pint to perhaps 5 gallons. In each bottle of strong corn or rice spirits is a real cobra, pickled, coiled and propped up with his hood open and tongue extended, looking as if ready to strike. But wait! There’s more! Some had the added bonus of a scorpion with the tail clenched in the jaw of the snake. The locals tout it as having “mystical sexual simulative properties”. I think it would be an excellent cure for drinking! The same shop also sold dried lizards and dried mushrooms the size of a wide-brimmed sombrero hat. Some other “infusions” that we encountered were:

  • Ginseng wine with some ugly roots in the bottle.
  • Various fruit wines with rather old-looking fruits on the bottom.
  • Honey wine with real honeycomb in the bottle.
  • Lizard wine, with a few lizards swimming around.
  • Bird wine, with fully feathered birds flying in alcohol.
  • Beetle wine with the bottle half full of bugs.
  • And the worst of all, cat wine, with a kitten resting on the bottom in a fetal position.

I think I’ll stick to Absolut Vanilla.

Wine with a bite.

Hanging a left on “Beverage Boulevard” the storefronts are stacked to the ceiling with cases of the local brews, Bia Ha Noi, Halida and Tiger Beer. Dingy shops displayed dusty and apparently well-aged bottles of wine and spirits from throughout the world, including some made in Vietnam. The local brand of Scotch is called “Wall Street” and the brand of Gin is “Harpoon”. No thanks! Bearing left down “Motorcycle Seat Street” there were a row of shops offering a plethora of seats and replacement seat covers. Based on the number of motorcycles, or “motos” as they are called in Vietnam, this would have to be an excellent business. One can display their taste and individuality by having their moto seat upholstered in their favorite designer fabric. Clearly, some Vietnamese don’t want their buns resting on anything less than the material found on those ubiquitous handbags made by Louis Vuitton, Chanel or Gucci. Veering onto Sun Glass Street, one can find seriously convincing knockoffs of all the latest designer styles, most pair costing from just US $5-$10. We finished the tour on Headstone Alley, in the dead center of town, where marble and granite carvers were busy at work crafting intricate monuments for the dearly departed.

Ever-present was the lovely aroma of freshly baked baguettes, sold on street corners, in shops, and on the street by conical hat-wearing women carrying them in two baskets suspended from the ends of a long bamboo pole balanced on their shoulders. Ya gotta love the French! Hanoi also has lots of cafes, and superb coffee, brewed in small metal drip devices, served up strong and sweet.

According to the locals, the very best Vietnamese coffee is one called ca phe chon. The coffee beans are fed to a particular species of weasel, that “process” the beans, apparently adding a unique flavor along the way. The beans are recovered from their droppings, cleaned, and packaged. I ponder how that process was discovered; I doubt it was intentional.

Even though the local currency is the Dong, for some strange reason the US Dollar is the currency of choice, particularly in tourist areas. People here are generally polite. Many will look you in the eye, smile and say hello. People hawking “cyclo” or tri-shaw rides or merchandise in Hanoi did not bother us too much. After a “no thank you” or two, they move on. We enjoyed an excellent “hot pot” full of vegetables, chicken, beef, fish, prawns and squid for dinner at Stop Café. We finished the evening at a place called 69 with a nite cap. 69 is located in an old Chinese-style shop house that has been converted to a trendy bar/café and is a block or so down Pho Ma May from our hotel.

October 10

After a nice breakfast in the hotel, we grabbed a taxi to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. The infamous Hoa Lo prison was known by the American POW’s as the “Hanoi Hilton.” A few acquaintances of mine who were incarcerated there didn’t have anything good to say about the accommodations, food, or hospitality. Even though it has been spruced up, it still looks as if it was a living hell. There are some photos of Senator John McCain, along with the flight suit he was supposedly wearing when he was shot down and began his long stint there. There are also some dreadful relics of the French Colonial era such as original guillotines, leg irons and the like.

We walked back to the Old Quarter and stopped into the Highlands Café, to enjoy an excellent Vietnamese coffee on the balcony overlooking a busy intersection. We sat in amazement, watching the traffic flow below where five streets intersect and there is no traffic signal. This was by far the best show in town. Pedestrians, motorcycles, buses and cars, all crossing paths in random fashion, seldom stopping, reminded me of a machine gun on a WW I airplane, timing the shots so they don’t hit the propeller.

We took a long walk back to the hotel, exploring some of the side streets and a large local market. The wet market had many beautiful and exotic fruits and vegetables, and a wide array of interesting seafood, including live crabs, fish, prawns, sea snakes and frogs. The Vietnamese have a widely varied diet, and we’ve often seen thit cay or dog meat on the menu.

Later in the afternoon, we caught an early performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. The puppets perform in a pool of water and are controlled by puppeteers standing behind them shrouded by a screen. The mechanisms are hidden by the murky green water. The hour-long show, which was accompanied by live traditional music, was delightful. The puppets – ranging from people to birds, fish, ducks, water buffalo and even a tiger that scurried up a palm tree – were very colorful and well animated. After the show we enjoyed a nice dinner at the Hanoi Garden Restaurant, and a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, the streets alive and bustling with activity.

October 11

We were up early and caught a bus to Halong Bay where we were to board the Santa Maria for a two-day cruise around the bay. There was a bit of a bait-and-switch to another boat, whose comparable quality was questionable. In any event, it was not the boat that was recommended to us by friends, nor the one we specifically booked for. We enjoyed a nice lunch on board and a leisurely cruise on the nearly flat calm waters of Ha Long Bay. Our room was small but comfortable and reasonably tidy. Halong Bay is dotted with interesting limestone islands, jutting out of the shallow sea. It’s not unlike Phang Nga Bay in Thailand or parts of Langkawi, except that the islands are much closer together and more numerous. We visited two caverns – the first was pretty average, but the second was quite large and had some beautiful and interesting formations. In the late afternoon we anchored in a calm, protected area, had a swim and relaxed into happy hour and dinner. What was quite notable about the area is the amount of tourism and its obvious impact on the people and environment, as well as the unrelenting haze, courtesy of fires burning in Indonesia, which seems to be covering all of what we now call “Southeast Hazia”.

Ha Long Bay.

October 12

We were up early and enjoyed a nice breakfast on board, then went on a three-hour kayak tour around some of the small islands and through some of the sea-level caves in the bay. It took Merima and me awhile to get our strokes coordinated and find a comfortable position for paddling, but by the end of the excursion we were in sync, albeit suffering from sore arm muscles. The sea kayak was a great way to do some close up exploring of the islands and caves.

For lunch we were taken to a very small and uninhabited beach, where the crew set up a long table in the shade of some trees, and served a beautiful sit-down lunch.

After lunch, we were dropped off at a remote island and began a three-hour trek through the dense jungle. We stopped along the way at a small camp where an elderly couple had been living for the past 20 years, apparently as custodians for the area. They lived in a blue-tarp-covered awning and survived on their garden and from the fruits of the various trees in the area. They also caught fish from a small saltwater lake in the middle of the island. They had a litter of eight very cute puppies, and after a bit of questioning to our guide Duy, I worked out that they did a bit of “ranching” as a sideline to get cash for rice and other staples. For them to get to a market, it was an hour of difficult hiking and then a ferry ride to the nearest populated island, called Cat BA It was quite a physical day and we were absolutely shagged at the end of it.

We took a short boat ride to Cat BA Island and checked into the Cat BA Plaza Hotel for the night. It was a clean and comfortable two-star accommodation, but the Plaza it was not. After a short rest and a much needed shower, we took a mini bus ride into town for a local meal and a walk along the waterfront.

October 13

After breakfast we boarded a small boat that took us to the Santa Maria Cruiser, the boat that we were meant to spend two days and a night on. We were disappointed to discover that it was, in fact, significantly nicer than the boat to which we had been switched. We enjoyed a pleasant cruise back to Ha Long Harbour and caught a bus to a nearby resort for lunch at a restaurant overlooking Ha Long Bay. On a clear day the view would have been spectacular, but due to the haze, we could only just make out the faint outline of the dramatic rocky islands in the bay. After lunch, it was back on the bus and a three-and-a-half hour return trip to Hanoi and the Viet Anh Hotel. The double room that we had booked and paid for in advance once again seems to have disappeared. After explaining to the front desk staff in no uncertain terms that we wanted a refund and would take our business elsewhere, it seems a double room magically became available. I suppose some other new arrival got the short end of that deal.

In retrospect, the trip to Ha Long Bay was very nice, but having cruised Phang Nga Bay in Thailand and Langkawi in Malaysia on Moonshadow, the only things we would have missed is the spectacular cave, the leisurely cruise on the local style wooden boat, and lots of tourists. We wished we would have opted for two nights on the boat and given a miss to Cat BA Island. We didn’t have enough time there to see any of its sights, and wish we could have avoided the pack-and-move.

Back in Hanoi we booked into a lovely restaurant we had seen on one of our walks, called Bobby Chinn’s. The owner is an American-born half-Vietnamese/half-Egyptian who punched out of a successful Wall Street career to start a restaurant in Vietnam. He’s gotten it right, as the food was incredible, the service impeccable, the décor very hip and the selection of wine extensive. After dinner we shifted to the groovy lounge, where we sipped after-dinner drinks, and puffed on a cappuccino-flavored sheesha or hooka pipe. One can dine here on meals blending the best of east and west while listening to ambient music from the Grateful Dead. This was quite possibly the best meal we’ve had in SE Asia.

October 14

We had a free day, so did a bit more wandering and shopping in Hanoi, and generally absorbing the local ambiance. At “beer-thirty” we dropped into a brew pub called Legends Pub. We sipped on an excellent microbrew while we watched the traffic show below.  With five streets intersecting and no traffic signals, it is quite interesting to watch.  Check out the video clips below.

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That evening we enjoyed a great Eurasian-style meal at the Piano Bar and Lounge Restaurant while listening to a young Vietnamese girl masterfully playing the piano. After dinner we hopped a cab back to the hotel, grabbed our bags, and headed to the train station. We caught the 10 pm train, an overnight soft sleeper to Lao Cai, which is located in the northwestern mountains of Vietnam, just a few clicks from the Chinese border. The train was pretty average, but we booked a whole cabin so at least we had some privacy and room to stretch out. We managed to get a pretty good night’s sleep during the long, slow train ride.

October 15

Arriving on schedule at Lao CAI at 0730 we caught a bus to Sapa. The driver had obviously heard about Michael Schumacher’s impending retirement and was trying to demonstrate to us that he had the right stuff to fill the opening. His tailgating and passing on blind corners had us a bit nervous so we were very relieved when the grade increased and he was kept to a comfortably slow pace. Miraculously, we arrived safely in the village of Sapa. We dropped most of our gear at the View Hotel and had breakfast. I wasn’t too keen to leave our bags in an unlocked room with hundreds of backpackers coming in and out, so I got their cheapest room for US$10 and locked our gear away. In the lobby, we met Tau, who would be our guide for the next two days as we trekked through the rice paddies, mountain villages and bamboo forests of the region. He was quite a character and spoke pretty good English (certainly much better than our Vietnamese) although many letters like G, D, Y, J and a few others seemed to all come out sounding like Z. My name came out as “Zorz”; after the trek we were going to get a lift to the village in a zeep. He was quite proud of his country and particularly how the Vietnamese, with much less in the way of resources, managed to win the “American War”.

We started our trek from Sapa, once a border outpost, and now mainly a tourist town. With a European flavor to its architecture, one might think one was in a resort town in the French or Swiss Alps. During the days, the views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are spectacular. In the evenings, a mist descends upon the village, giving it a ghostly feel.

Leaving the main road we began a lengthy descent into the valley, following narrow roads, paths, and at some points, the narrow borders that hold the water in rice paddies. Sometimes the whole area looked like a giant three-dimensional topographical map, with the rice paddy borders perfectly defining the contour lines of the steep valley slopes. The timing was in the middle of the harvest season, so some fields were green, some flooded, some dried and yellowing and some trimmed of their rice. As we wound our way around each corner, another unique and gorgeous panorama would spread out in front of us.

Trekking in Sapa.

Along the way, we stopped and were invited into a local farm house inhabited by people from one of the “Hill Tribes” of the area. This one was described to us as quite typical, having three rooms, a large one in the middle, and two smaller ones off of each side. The construction is roughhewn wood with a roof of corrugated tiles. The floors were hard-packed but damp earth. Each of the end rooms have an open fire in the middle for cooking and heat, and the beds are situated in corners of these rooms, some out in the open, some behind curtains. Two or three generations may live in the home, and most had six to nine people in residence. Furniture is quite spartan and usually consists of roughly crafted wooden stools that stand perhaps 6 inches above the ground. Many of the homes had electricity, but only used one or two clear-glass antique-looking light bulbs suspended from the ceiling by wire, offering only dim light. By the looks of it, nobody here seemed to be aware or concerned about electrical wiring codes.

Additional light comes in between the wall boards during daylight hours, but with unpainted, rough hewn boards for walls, the amount of light indoors is minimal. Above the cooking areas are lofts where the rice, corn and other dry goods are stored after the harvest. Each family seems to have enough land to grow rice and corn to last them for a year. Much of the cooking is done in a large wok over open fire. Fuel consists of dried sticks and bamboo, although some of the nicer homes may also have a gas- fueled portable cooktop as well. The ceilings of the kitchens are shiny and black from the cooking oil smoke, and the rooms have a smoky odor that seems to stick to one’s skin and clothing. In the main room is an altar, usually decorated with red strips of paper containing Chinese writing. The house we visited also had a small stone mill for grinding rice and corn into flour, and a large barrel of indigo dye for coloring the hemp cloth that is hand woven by the local women. Most homes have “running water” which is channeled to the house via aqueducts and/or bamboo pipes from one of the many streams cascading down the hillside. The same water that may have been used for washing and carrying away waste from the dunnies uphill, is used for cooking, cleaning and drinking at a village lower down the hill. We opted for bottled drinking water, which seemed to be available in small stands set up along the track, usually about a half-hour’s walk apart.

The only negative aspect of the trekking was the annoyingly persistent hill tribe women and girls who continually followed us and badgered us to buy their handicrafts. While many of the items were interesting and quite nice, living on a boat limits our ability to collect knick-knacks. The words “No thank you” either fell upon deaf ears or perhaps translated in Vietnamese into “Yes, I’m very interested; please show me more because I want to buy everything you have.”

The first day we covered about 15 kilometers, or just less than ten miles, and thoroughly enjoyed the gorgeous and exotic scenery. We stopped for the evening to stay with a family of the Zay tribe. They are quite wealthy by local standards and have much nicer homes than most of the other villages we encountered along the way. That said, they still have dirt floors, but the home we stayed in had a proper bathroom attached to the outside of the house with a flush toilet and a cold shower, and a concrete porch out front. You would literally wipe your feet on the way out. Our hosts were a delightful family consisting of Lee, a widowed mother, her two sons in their late teens and a daughter-in-law. We arrived in the late afternoon and chilled out while they went about their business. We took a stroll through the village to the “bathing river” and then returned to the house and had a much-needed shower in what appeared to be cleaner water.

Across the street was the “local” which was also a home stay. The young man who ran it had escaped the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and was enjoying the peace and quiet of the mountains. Well, almost, as he had quite a loud stereo which he played for much of the day. Unfortunately he only appeared to have two CDs in his collection. We dropped in to sample his home-brewed rice wine and have a chat. Tau joined us for happy hour. We inquired about the rates for his establishment and were told that it was “same same” as all the other home stays in the village – US$1.25 per person/night including dinner and breakfast. No, I didn’t misplace the decimal and yes, it was worth every penny of it.

After happy hour, we wandered back to our home and sat around the fire in the kitchen while dinner was prepared. There was certainly no shortage of food. Ours consisted of spring rolls, stir-fried beef with veggies, fried tofu, stir-fried chicken with veggies, french fries with fresh garlic and, of course, rice. Dinner was accompanied by Lee’s homemade rice wine, which I must say was excellent, and very strong. As much as we would have enjoyed savoring and sipping it, it seems the local custom was to skull each little glass that was offered. We enjoyed the company of our hosts, our conversation being translated by Tau and lubricated by numerous shots of this ricey rocket fuel. As hard as we tried, we could not finish all the excellent food. Weary from the day’s walk and the rice wine, we retired early. Our accommodation was a cushion on the floor of one of the lofts – basic, but dry, warm, and comfortable.

October 17

We were up with the roosters, which actually sleep in quite late by Vietnamese farm standards. By the time we sipped our first morning coffee, most of the household had already been at work in the fields for a few hours. Over coffee, we sat out on the front porch and watched the sun evaporate the mountain mist left from a heavy rain during the night. Soon after we emerged from the house, local girls and women were hounding us again. How do you say in Vietnamese “Not until I’ve had my first coffee?”

Rice farming in Sapa.

The locals eat steamed rice for breakfast, but for us tourists they prepared the most excellent crepes, which they call pancakes. We enjoyed them sprinkled with a bit of sugar and lime juice. After breakfast we donned our knapsacks and were on our way again.

It had rained during the night, so the trails were muddy and slippery. A walking stick or ski pole would have come in very handy, particularly when we were walking on the narrow edges of the paddies designed with much smaller feet in mind. Two hill tribe women attached themselves to us and were walking literally inches from our heels, or weaving in and out between us. A number of times I stopped to let them pass. They are surely more sure footed and adept at walking these trails even in their flimsy plastic sandals. But when I stopped, they stopped. When we started again, there they were, almost tripping us. After an hour or so of this continued annoyance, I finally had a gutful of it and stopped. I told them that their “assistance” was not wanted or needed and asked them to PLEASE leave us alone. They stared at me as if I had just arrived from Mars, completely ignoring my polite request. I insisted to Tau that we were not moving from the spot unless they left and were prepared to stay until they went home for the evening. I asked him to explain our displeasure to them. After quite a few minutes of conversation between them, the two ladies reluctantly left and we were once again able to enjoy our trekking.

Most of the morning was uphill walking until we arrived at a river cascading down hundreds of feet of steep smooth rock. After a short rest/photo break there, we made our way to yet another tribal village. This one was by far the most primitive of the villages we had encountered. We were invited into one of the homes and our guide explained to us about the house and how the people live. If it wasn’t for a couple of dingy light bulbs hanging from the ceiling by cob webs and wires, we could just as easily been transported back a thousand years in time. We couldn’t imagine that modern day life anywhere in the world could be much more primitive than this.

Backtracking a bit, we made our way down to the canyon floor and crossed the river on a suspension foot bridge. On the other side was a home where Tau prepared us an excellent lunch of noodle and cabbage soup, topped with a fried egg, which we enjoyed at a small table by the river’s edge in the shade of a huge ficus tree. After lunch we walked for about twenty minutes up to the main road and were picked up by a mini bus (the zeep was busy) which drove us back to Sapa. The second day’s walk was shorter, only about 10 kilometers or six miles, but much more challenging due to the grade and the slipperiness of the trails. It was worth every step, as the scenery was spectacular.

Back in Sapa, we collected our luggage and checked into the Royal View Hotel, a three-star accommodation with panoramic views over the valley. Our room was quite nice, with all the mod-cons, and in stark contrast to the home stay the night before. For ten times that price we got our own fireplace, a terrace with a view and three included meals a day. We cleaned the mud off our hiking shoes, then had a rest, a hot shower, and a good meal in the hotel dining room. After dinner we strolled around the town of Sapa, now draped in fog. The town was quiet and we were happy to call it an early night.

October 18

We spent the morning lazing around the hotel and getting ourselves organized. After breakfast, we wandered around Sapa for a few hours and then returned to the hotel for lunch. We caught up on email, downloaded photos, reminisced on how much ground we’ve covered in just one week, and starting planning the next part of our journey. After an early dinner we caught the bus back to Lao CAI where we boarded the night train back to Hanoi.

October 19, 2006

The train ride wasn’t very pleasant and we didn’t get much sleep. It felt more like sailing to weather in 25 knots of wind and 3 meter seas, rather than riding on a set of tracks. To make matters worse, the group in the next cabin was up most of the night drinking and talking. I don’t know why they spent all that money on a sleeper berth! In Hanoi we caught a cab back to the Viet Anh Hotel, where we had a shower and breakfast. It was a very pleasant morning in Hanoi, so we strolled around the Old Quarter for a few hours, then collected our bags and headed off on the next leg of our journey to the south of Vietnam.

Enjoying a quiet moment in Hanoi.











October 18

Wishing to steer clear of a 20-something hour ride on a Vietnamese bus (dangerous, slow and uncomfortable) or train (slow and uncomfortable), we hopped on a Vietnamese Airlines flight to Hue, which is just south of the former Demilitarized Zone near the geographic middle of the country formerly known as South Vietnam. We found Vietnamese Airlines to be very modern and efficient and the one-hour flight was very pleasant. Upon arrival in Hue, we were off the plane, claimed our bags and were sitting in a taxi in less than five minutes.

Citadel Gate – Hue.

We were greeted by a representative from the Phu An Hotel at the airport, who rode with us into town. He was a most pleasant and enthusiastic young man and filled us in on all the things to see and do in Hue, which was once the capital of Vietnam. Arriving at the hotel, one would have thought we were the first, last and only guests they ever had. They literally fell over us with kindness offering coffees, help and advice and of course, TOUR PACKAGES!

By the time we unpacked and had a shower, it was nearly happy hour, so we wandered off to have a look around town and find a place to chill out over a quiet drink. The local cyclo and boat operators must have attended the same school of tourist annoyance as the crafts ladies in Sapa. The more we said “no thanks,” the more they followed and hounded us. We still had not cracked the local code words that can make them magically go away. The only thing that seemed to work was to do a “Pinball Wizard” on them and pretend we were deaf, dumb and blind.

At a little corner pub in town, I tried a couple of the local brews, Larue and Huda, both of which were excellent. Dinner at the Tropical Garden Restaurant was a bit bland and overrated in our opinion, but the atmosphere in the outdoor dining area was quite pleasant, in spite of a mouse scampering about looking to make a meal out of a few fallen food scraps. Fortunately, none of the tourists saw it but us. After a year in Asia, not much fazes us anymore. Rats, mice, cockroaches, geckos and other critters that are mostly under abeyance in the first world, all become accepted as part of the local fabric.

October 19

After a light breakfast at the hotel, we set out on foot to check out the Citadel, which is the name given to the old walled city of Hue, situated on the other side of the Perfume River. We were not sure where the river gets its name, as the aromas wafting from its muddy brown waters were anything but. As we hit the street we were immediately accosted by annoyingly persistent cyclo drivers, most of which speak and understand a fair amount of English, with the possible exceptions of the words “no thanks, we prefer to walk.” Vietnamese touts seem to incur cases of acute temporary deafness at the sound of any rejective words.

Inside the walls of the Citadel, we then paid a rather steep fee of 55,000 Dong (US$ 3.50) per person to get into the Imperial Enclosure, the part of the city which the Emperor used for his official functions. Many of the original buildings in the Citadel were damaged or destroyed in the American War. The Viet Cong used it as a stronghold, so of course the US responded by bombing it mercilessly. What little remains is being, or has been restored to its original glory. In the center of the Imperial Enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City, which was the emperor’s “inner sanctum.” This area is more or less a miniature of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, and in the day was off limits to everyone but the emperor and empress, his concubines, and their trusted servants, who were all eunuchs. We found it enjoyable as it was very quiet, peaceful and there were very few tourists or touts around – unlike the Forbidden City in Beijing. We walked around the area for a few hours exploring the beautiful and ornate buildings and ruins, and visiting the museums and art galleries on the site, getting a flavor of imperial life and comparing and contrasting it to what we experienced in China.

By early afternoon we had seen our fill and walked another mile or so to a little spot called the Y Thao Garden, a private home/restaurant near the far corner of the Citadel. Seated in the garden next to a very authentic temple-like building, we enjoyed a tasty and beautifully presented eight-course meal, which was a sampling of the culinary specialties of Hue. The restaurant was very quiet as they do most of their business at dinner. This set menu was quite good value at US$8 per person.

That evening we enjoyed an excellent local style dinner at a French restaurant called La Carambole. The place was full to the brim with tourists and in contrast to our very serene lunch, the dinner atmosphere was quite lively.

October 20

We were up at 0-dark-hundred and on a bus at 0630 headed north on Highway 1 to the DMZ, the narrow strip of land along the 17th parallel that used to separate North and South Vietnam. After a breakfast stop for a bowl of pho, we turned left on Highway 9 and headed west towards Laos. We passed a number of areas that were significant battlefields during the “American War.” There was no evidence of the war to be seen, and if you hadn’t been told these were battlefields, you wouldn’t have known. The next stop was on a large flat hilltop just outside a small farming village. This was the site of the infamous Kae Sahn Combat Base, where one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war was waged. When the battle was over, the US realized that it was simply a diversion for the Tet Offensive, and promptly destroyed anything they couldn’t pack up and take with them, and abandoned the base. Another example of military intelligence. Today, it is a peaceful coffee plantation, with a small war museum, a couple of old US helicopters and a few other rusty relics of the war.

After lunch, we crossed the Ben Hai River, which once marked the border between North and South Vietnam, and then headed toward the coast to a small seaside village called Vin Moc. Situated under Vin Moc is a network of tunnels, dug by the Viet Cong, that extend for miles. The Viet Cong hid and lived in these tunnels for years, undetected by the Americans, coming out only under cover of darkness to wage their stealth guerilla warfare. Only about four or five feet high and a couple feet wide, they are no place for the claustrophobic. Merima took a quick peek and then made a U-turn. I managed to walk a kilometer or so in the dimly lit and clammy passageways, feeling claustrophobic and struggling not to hyperventilate. Thank God I brought my headlight! It was a very interesting experience, and just another sample of the fortitude and determination of the Vietnamese people who literally built miles of these tunnels and survived in them for years.

We suffered through a long, slow bus ride back to Hue on the hard Vietnamese-sized bus seats and bumpy roads. Vietnam’s speed limits vary for different types of vehicles. Cars can do a max speed of about 70 k’s or less than 45 mph on the open road. Mini buses must go slower. Large buses and motorbikes even slower still. It’s probably a good thing considering the amount of traffic there is on what are mostly two-lane roads, but it makes travel excruciatingly slow, even for those of us who are used to rolling along at 8 knots. Nonetheless, drivers seem to be in a never ending, devil-may-care mission, passing even slower vehicles on blind corners with horn honking. The road toll is quite high, and we were not surprised to hear 13,000 people perish every year on Vietnam’s roads, mostly on motorbikes. The mandatory helmet law is largely ignored. Trains are much safer, and probably a bit more comfortable, but because there is only one set of tracks running the length of the country, the resulting logistical nightmare makes train travel even slower than taking the bus. For these reasons, we’d decided to avoid both bus and train and take advantage of relatively cheap taxis or rental cars (driver included), and inexpensive air travel. While some tourists do hire and drive their own cars or motorbikes, I would generally recommend against it, particularly in the big cities, as the driving styles are as different between east and west as the cultures.

October 21

We enjoyed a relaxing morning in Hue, and in the afternoon hired a car and driver to take us to Hoi An. The ride was in a very clean and comfortable car with an excellent driver. The two-and-a-half-hour trip took us through some beautiful farm country along Highway 1, under a mountain range, through the longest tunnel either of us had ever seen, through the city of Da Nang, past the Marble Mountains and then out to the lovely old town of Hoi An.

Fast food in Hoi An.

Hoi An is a historical trading town, reminiscent and from the era of Penang and Malacca in Malaysia, only it is situated up a river a mile or so from the South China Sea. It is protected as a World Heritage site, so the old buildings either have been or are going through careful restoration to their original charm and glory.

Because the streets in the old section of town are so narrow, they are off limits to cars. Upon arrival we had to leave the car and make our way the last few blocks to the hotel on foot. We checked into the Vinh Hung 1 Hotel, a beautiful old Chinese shop house that has been tastefully converted to mid-range accommodation. The lobby was beautifully decorated in the Chinese style and could have passed for a museum. A small, but clean and pleasant room with breakfast cost US$15. The staff was very friendly and helpful, and organized a car to take us to My Son to see the temples, and onward flights from DA Nang to Nha Trang, which at US$40 per person would save us at least 12 hours of bum time on a bus or train.

We enjoyed a beautiful, sunny afternoon wandering the narrow streets and alleyways of Hoi An, and checking out the unique shops, art galleries, spas and cafes which make this charming little town a popular tourist destination.

Lanterns – Hoi An.

That evening we had a great meal of local Hoianese specialties at the Cargo Club Restaurant on the upstairs terrace overlooking the Thu Bon River, and afterwards enjoyed two-for-the-price-of-one happy hour drinks at a cool little bar called the La Long Lounge. Happy hour there runs from 4pm till midnight, making a popular hangout for ex-pats. We met a few and had some interesting conversation till the wee hours.

October 22

After breakfast we spent most of the day on a self-guided walking tour of the city. It was very pleasant studying the Hoianese architecture, which is sort of a blend of French, Chinese and Portuguese styles. There were plenty of shops selling an array of brightly colored, locally made Chinese-style lamps as well as custom-made shoes and clothes, art and artifacts, and of course all sorts of souvenirs. The city’s main market was very crowded, lively, noisy, colorful and sometimes a bit too fragrant of an assault on our senses. Just making one’s way through can be a challenge as moving hand carts and motorbikes crowd the walkways while vendors vie for the attention of passersby. After a happy hour drink at La Long, we had an excellent seafood meal on the riverfront at a restaurant run by a Swedish ex-pat.

Riverfront – Hoi An.

October 23

We were up early and in a car at 0600 on our way to My Song, a beautiful ancient religious site, with temples and monuments, mostly in ruin, dating back from the fourth to thirteenth centuries.

Our goal was to beat the hoards of tourists flooding in on buses later in the morning. We arrived an hour later, and had time to walk through the entire site as the mist was lifting from an early morning rain. Once again, the Viet Cong used the buildings as a stronghold and tragically, the US responded with heavy bombing. Amongst the remaining temples, there are still numerous bomb craters partially filled with water. What has been restored is quite interesting, and I’m pleased to say there is much more restoration in progress. One of the most notable features of these temples is that they are constructed mostly of bricks of varying sizes and shapes, yet perfectly fitted together without the use of any mortar.

We were away before the convoy of tourist buses arrived to disgorge their crowds of people on this extraordinary place. We had My Son almost entirely to ourselves for a couple hours and there were no pesky vendors on our heels. Our driver returned us to the hotel in time for breakfast at 0930 and we had the remainder of the day to wander around in Hoi An.

Hoi An seems to have an almost endless array of shops that sell made-to-order clothing. If you have a photo or sample of what you want, they can make it – hats, shoes, suits, shirts, and dresses – anything wearable. If not, you can pour through their fashion magazines or pattern catalogs till you find just what you’re after. They make it fast, the quality is surprisingly good, and the prices are incredibly inexpensive. Merima had a pair of sandals that she paid NZ$100 in Auckland copied very convincingly for US$12. She also had a pair of nice linen shorts done for $6. I was so impressed with the quality of hers that I went to the shop and had a pair of excellent linen slacks made for myself for $8, finished the same day. All over town we encountered tourists walking around town with what appeared to be entire wardrobes draped over their arms in plastic garment bags. Given that Vietnam has become one of the garment capitals of the world, it appears that we just cut out a few middle people.

Hotel lobby in Hoi An.

October 24

We probably stayed a day too long in Hoi An. The charm of this town was beginning to wear a bit thin as the annoyance of the pesky hawkers began to overshadow it. We spent the last day chilling out, catching up on email and planning our next moves. The cuisine on offer in Hoi An is varied, and we enjoyed that variety. Everything from Hoianese pho which, according to custom, must be made from water from one particular well, to fine French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese is on offer. The last night, we dined in Japanese teppan style at a large and lovely restaurant overlooking the river.

October 25

After breakfast we hired a car for the short ride from Hoi An back to DA Nang. We had intended to spend a couple of days On China Beach, which was a popular R&R spot for the American soldiers during the war and made world famous by a TV series of the same name. We checked into the My Khe Beach Hotel, across the street from the beach with an ocean view and balcony. The site was lovely, but the area resembled a Gulf Coast town that had just been evacuated in advance of a hurricane. We hopped a cab into downtown DA Nang and had a stroll around the city and through one of the two local markets. After a good walk, we kicked up our heels at a little café overlooking the Han River and enjoyed a strong Vietnamese coffee before we headed back to the hotel. We showed the cab driver the hotel’s card and he acknowledged that he knew where it was, but proceed to start to take us on a very long “scenic route.” Merima told him twice that our hotel was located across the bridge, pointing in the direction. He nodded yes, giving us a big smile and kept on going the wrong way. I finally insisted that he stop the car and we would get out unless he started heading to our hotel instead of away from it. He apologized and took us there, but got a bit surly because he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t pay the full meter price of 49500 Dong when trip into town cost just 28500 Dong. I gave him $2 US, or 32,000 Dong and walked away. Arrrgh!

We had sundowners on our balcony overlooking the ocean and then walked about a half mile up the beach to the Phuoc My Seafood Restaurant. They specialize in seafood and put on an excellent meal. They had dozens of tanks with a plethora of live fish on offer. This place could have easily charged admission and passed itself off as a small aquarium. If they were long on seafood, they were short on side dishes. We couldn’t find a plate of veggies or rice anywhere on the menu, but the grilled prawns were large, meaty and very tasty, and the beers icy cold.

October 26

In the very early hours of the morning, a huge squall blew in, waking us up with thunder and lightning, gale force winds and torrential downpours which continued till well after sunrise. As I laid snug in my bed, I thought about the people out on the South China Sea, racing from Hong Kong to Nha Trang. I’m sure it would be a gear buster. After breakfast we reassessed our situation. There was no Internet nearby, the hotel restaurant was closed for renovation, the weather sucked and there was nothing to do here. We shifted to a tidy and cute little hotel in downtown DA Nang called the Dai A. At least we could get do a bit of correspondence, take a walk and have the freedom to stroll to nearby restaurants and cafes.

We enjoyed a nice light lunch down the street at a local Pho restaurant for less than $4 for two including a Saigon beer. After a long walk around town we had dinner at a local restaurant called Viet. This was a very large and nicely appointed place that, for some reason, didn’t show up in the tourist guides. The menu had as many items as a small dictionary, including thit cay (dog meat), whole frog (deep fried, roasted, steamed or in a garlic pepper sauté) and an assortment of exotic and unidentifiable items. We played it safe and ordered a roasted chicken. It was very tasty, but one must understand when you order a whole chicken in Viet Nam, you get pretty much the whole chicken, minus the feathers. This would include the feet, neck and other bits and pieces that you won’t usually find in a box of KFC.

After dinner we stopped into an expat bar for a drink. It was rather smoky and dingy, so we wandered on down the road to what was called a “piano bar.” This place was very classy but there was no piano that we could see. We were ushered upstairs to a large ballroom with a dance floor and a live band playing mostly what sounded to us like Vietnamese music. The well dressed patrons were taking turns singing songs on stage while others took the floor and quite impressively danced the cha-cha and tango. It was sort of like a cross between American Idol and Dancing With the Stars. All the participants were surprisingly talented. Although we couldn’t fully appreciate the lyrics, the whole scene was quite entertaining and interesting for a drink or two. We returned to the hotel and were mistakenly handed the key to the room next to us. After hiking up four floors and 12 flights of stairs, we realized the error, but decided to try the key in our room, and to our relief, it worked! We decided to sort it out in the morning.

October 27

We woke up again to more rain showers. The front desk staff came around wondering how we had gotten into our room with the wrong key. Perhaps one key fits all? The Dai A is the first hotel that we’d stayed in in Vietnam that didn’t come with breakfast, but at $15 US, it was still a good value as our room was very cute, immaculately clean, spacious, had satellite TV, fridge and WiFi Internet. That said, what westerners shouldn’t take for granted in Viet Nam is that a hotel will have an elevator, windows in the rooms, or hot water, as many don’t. What was interesting is that virtually every place we stayed in had slippers in the room as well as a comb, toothbrushes and toothpaste for each guest.

After a breakfast of bagels at a western style bakery/café nearby, we packed our bags and caught a taxi for the short ride to the DA Nang airport. We boarded a Vietnam Airlines commuter plane for the one-hour flight to Nha Trang, a lovely beach town further south down the coast.

Nha Trang’s own airport, located on the edge of town, had recently been closed, so nowadays, the old American airstrip at Cam Ranh Bay, 35 kilometers further south, is now the local airport. I remembered Cam Ranh Bay from Bob Hope and company who made many holiday trips there to entertain the troops back in the war years. We were met by a hotel car and headed for Nha Trang, about a half an hour’s drive up the coast to the north. The area around Cam Ranh looks to be slated for massive development in Vietnam’s quest to capitalize on foreign tourism.

Nha Trang seafood.

We decided to splash out in Nha Trang. We booked a sea view suite in the Hai Yen Hotel that cost US $33 a night. After we checked in, we headed out for a walk to check out the beach and the town. The beach at Nga Trang is a long but narrow strip of sand. There is a rather attractive strip of park/garden between the beach and the wide boulevard paralleling the beach. Hotels, mostly older in style, line the other side of the street. It’s probably not a Conde Nast destination, but then again neither are the prices – yet.

Walking down the street, we were constantly harassed by cyclo and moto drivers offering rides, as well as “easy riders” who are a sort of elite group of motorcycle travel guides. By this point we were getting pretty good at pretending we were either deaf or didn’t understand English.

We had an excellent Mexican meal and a couple margaritas at a little restaurant called El Coyote on the main street one block back from the beach strip. After dinner we had a stroll down to the Sailing Club of Vietnam, a large complex containing a dive shop, a beachwear shop, a restaurant and a large and very posh beachfront bar. It was rather quiet when we arrived but by ten or so, it was absolutely pumping. We conveniently arrived in Nha Trang for the first arrivals of the Hong Kong to Nha Trang yacht race, and caught up with a few Kiwi sailing friends. The conditions were fresh trade winds and the fastest boats covered the 665 nautical mile downwind course in about 48 hours. We finally got away from the bar at about 0200 hours.

October 28

We somehow missed the hotel breakfast which finished at 0900. Between rain showers we had a good walk around Nha Trang. After lunch we walked down the beach to look for a French patisserie we’d read about, where we might get a pastry and a coffee. It seems the shop, called Louisianne, had gone through a metamorphosis and had emerged as a very fashionable brew house/beach club, replete with pool, restaurant, bar, billiard area, and private beach area. We shared an excellent mug (or two) of pilsner with the brewmaster Sean, an Aussie who was there helping the local owners get the place dialed in. The Louisianne Brew House is a lovely spot and the beer is world class.

We had an excellent Indian food for dinner at the Sailing Club, where later in the evening they hosted a lively Halloween Party. Once again the bar was pumping.

October 29

We stretched our legs a bit with a nice walk on the beach in the morning after breakfast and then fell into Louisianne where we hung out by the pool and relaxed. After lunch and a couple of their excellent beers, the rains returned so we made our way back to the hotel. We went back to the Sailing Club early for happy hour and to catch the prize giving for the yacht race.

After a couple of sundowners and just before we were ready to order dinner, our waitress came by our table with the check and said “you pay now.” I told her that we weren’t ready to leave just yet and, in fact that we wanted to keep the table for dinner. She told us that her shift was ending and that we must pay now. I told her that if we paid now, we would have dinner somewhere else. She said that was OK. Clearly she was more concerned about her tip than the welfare of the customer or the establishment. This didn’t quite pass through my bullshit filter, so I told her that I wished to speak with the manager. She told us there was no manager on duty and insisted that we pay now. Hmmm? Huge bar/restaurant catering to western tourists, busy night, 200 persons coming for a prize giving party and no manager on duty?? This triggered my bullshit alarm, so I dug my heels in further and told her “no manager, no pay.” Happily, we never saw her again. We enjoyed an excellent dinner on the terrace overlooking the beach, and yes, I did actually find the manager and had a word with her later in the evening. The only tip I have for that waitress is to find another career.

October 30

After breakfast we took a private car on the four-hour ride from Nga Trang to Dalat. The road was generally pretty rough and narrow, with dizzying hairpin turns as it ascended steeply from the lowlands into the mountains. The temperature cooled off as we gained altitude and the landscape changed dramatically from palm trees to rolling farmland to pine trees. The area around Dalat was in full bloom with wild sunflowers, wild poinsettias and a palette of other colorful flowers. Dalat is a lovely city in the south-central highlands set on the hillsides surrounding a small lake. Vietnam’s last emperor chose Dalat as the site for his “summer home.” The surrounding area is rich farming land where a variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers and coffee are grown. We checked into the Dreams hotel, which was highly recommended by friends. Madam Dung (pronounced Yeung), the proprietor, was most helpful, and our room was immaculately clean, with a large private veranda and a lush garden of potted plants. It was an excellent value at US $15 per night including the best breakfasts we had in Vietnam.


The lake in Dalat

We checked in early in the afternoon and immediately went up the road for lunch at the Art Café. The food was excellent and the nicely decorated café had paintings done by the owner adorning the walls. Walking around afterwards, the first thing we noticed (and loved) about Dalat was that the terrain was way too hilly for cyclos. Yes! Local vendors were polite and didn’t hound us. We had a walk through the local market and particularly enjoyed the fresh flower and fruit stalls, bursting with color. The fresh produce was some of the finest we had seen in all of Asia. We had an excellent “hot pot” dinner, which is sort of a local variation of fondue, up the road at a little place called the Wild Sunflower Café.

October 31

After our excellent breakfast at the hotel, we struck out on foot to explore Dalat. We made our way across town to a hotel known locally as the “Crazy House.” I think bizarre would have been a more appropriate adjective. This place makes the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo look rather ordinary. The structure is mainly freeform concrete and all the rooms resemble caves. Each room has a particular theme and they are, of course, all different. All of the beds and other furnishings are custom built into the rooms. One room had a large kangaroo sculpture with red lights in its eyes, another a bear, still another a crocodile. Every wall is free form and none of the beds are even remotely symmetrical or rectangular. Climbing through the four story structural maze, we felt like children in a giant psychedelic amusement center.

We continued on wandering around the city and fell into a little restaurant called V’s for lunch. There was plenty of western food on the menu including tacos, hamburgers, lemon meringue and chocolate cream pies. While the décor was cute and service good, we felt that food was average and not worth a redux.

Wandering through the city that afternoon we noticed that the vendors were noticeably less aggressive than anywhere else in Vietnam – a pleasure and relief. Also, there was much less traffic, fewer horns blasting and on the odd occasion drivers would actually slow down or even stop to allow us to cross the street. Shocking!

We went to a cool little pub called Larry’s Bar in the basement of a big posh hotel for happy hour. It was a great place with some interesting old-world ambiance, but unfortunately devoid of customers. For dinner we wandered next door to the Café de la Poste, a French style restaurant occupying an old post office with great atmosphere and excellent food.

November 1

We were up early and hired a private car with a driver and English speaking guide for the day for US $40. This was the same as two “Easy Riders” (motorcycle guides) would have cost, but we felt much safer on these narrow roads with a bit of steel between us and the oncoming traffic. The first stop was Bao Dai’s Summer Palace. Bao Dai was the last of Vietnam’s emperors and his home stands much as it did when it was completed in the early 1940’s. The architectural style and furnishings are art deco, and it looks as if it was quite the elegant second home in its day, fit for a Hollywood movie star.

After that we wandered through the countryside, visiting some greenhouses where they were growing various flowers and a coffee plantation. Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, and after tasting it, it’s no surprise as the flavor is excellent and the cost is very reasonable. The Vietnamese make coffee for their own consumption in quite a unique style, roasting the beans in butter and sugar. They drink it strong, so we usually had to cut it with equal parts of hot water. It also has a hint of chocolate, so if one adds sweetened condensed milk, which is quite typical, the flavor is reminiscent of very strong café mocha. Colombia’s Juan Valdez had things a lot easier than these growers. The Vietnamese coffee bushes are apparently habitat to a deadly poisonous species of snake. The pickers work in tandem so if one gets bitten the other can get him to emergency treatment.

We then visited a “minority” village where the local industry is hand weaving intricate fabrics from cotton and silk. The women labor for an entire day to produce just one linear meter of fabric, but I must say, it is quite beautiful. Silk tablecloths and napkins are not exactly practical on board a boat, so we were just lookers.

Back in the car and we were off to the local reservoir. The lake is off limits to any water sport activities, as it is the drinking water source for the area, but there is a rather kitschy garden garden/park area where one can have a walk, chill out or have a picnic. Since Dalat is the Vietnamese honeymoon capital, this park is popular for outdoor weddings and wedding photos.

Then it was back to town for a quick lunch of pho at a local restaurant. After that, we headed back into the mountains in the other direction to view one of the many beautiful waterfalls in the area. Our guide, Hoang, who had previously worked for an adventure travel outfit, wanted to give us the real treatment, so after viewing the waterfall from the tourist vista, he led us down a secluded, seldom used side trail to view yet another even larger waterfall. We didn’t expect that our tour would include a bit of canyoning and rock climbing, but we enjoyed the additional exercise and excitement. On our way back to the car, we ran into a group of Vietnamese college students who were visiting Dalat. They were extremely friendly and wanted to speak English with us. We were happy to accommodate them and found them to be lots of fun, not to mention their English skills were quite good.

Students on holiday

The last stop of the day was at a Buddhist monastery on a hilltop outside of town. The gardens were spectacular and there were some bonsai plants that were reported to be around 300 years old, if you believe the placards. In 300 years, even a bonsai plant grows to be pretty large. Is that an oxymoron? Apparently, westerners come to this particular monastery to learn the art of meditation. Our guide told us that a two-month program including full room and board will costs about US$100 and they accept both men and women. Yes, everyone’s head gets shaved and they all wear the same ubiquitous saffron robes. How do you tell the difference??

For dinner we hopped across the street to a nice little place called the HNL Café. We had an incredible meal there, certainly the best in Dalat, and quite possibly one of the top two or three in Vietnam. It’s a small family-run restaurant so the service was very warm and personal. They even had a private, soundproof karaoke room upstairs for those wannabe singers who are a bit shy about crooning in public. Apparently they had quite a do that night as they literally carried one customer out and propped him up on the back of a motorbike.

November 2

For our last full day in Dalat, the weather was beautiful so we decided to take a long walk around the lake. The lake itself it about 7 kilometers around, with a wide footpath on its park-like perimeter. Along the south side are some very impressive old villas, leftovers of Vietnam’s glory days. Clearly, this was the playground of Vietnam’s rich and famous in its day. It was an easy walk once we reached lake level, on mostly flat ground. We made it around in time for lunch at a lovely little lakefront restaurant called Bluewater. The menu was so extensive that we reckoned they couldn’t have done anything particularly well, but we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food. I had rabbit which was to die for. A bit more walking after lunch and we fell into a neighborhood café for a coffee. There were lots of travelers there so we enjoyed some good conversations before heading back to the hotel.

That evening, not wanting to push our luck, we returned to HNL and had an equally delicious dinner there that evening. The frog legs were to die for!

November 3

US $38 per person bought us a one-hour direct flight from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on Vietnamese Airlines, saving us a 7-hour bus ride. After a leisurely morning stroll and lunch in Dalat, we headed for the airport. The flight though a minefield of towering cumulonimbus clouds (thunderheads) was a bit bumpy, and the landing was slightly more than a controlled crash, but we and the airplane survived. We were picked up by the hotel’s car and found ourselves in the middle of the biggest city in Vietnam in the middle of its hellatious rush hour. The traffic here made Hanoi seem pretty calm, and New York seem like a small town.

We arrived at Madame Cuc (pronounced Cook) Hotel in District 1 where we were immediately seated in the lobby, offered hot drinks, and deluged with tour brochures. Their sales techniques were about as subtle as a 500-pound bomb. With rooms costing just $10-$15, these midrange hotels must derive a lot of revenue from commissions for selling tours, flights and onward hotel bookings. Fine, but all we wanted was to get to our room and have a shower and a bit of solitude. We quickly gulped down the coffees, told them we’d have a think and finally got to the peace and not-so-quiet of our room. It was clean, simple, roomy, but noisy as it was right above the lobby. After a much needed shower, we wandered down the street for a happy hour drink and a very average dinner at one of the local cafes recommended in the Lonely Planet.

November 4

After a simple breakfast of coffee and baguettes we struck out on foot to have a look at Saigon. It had been given mostly negative press by those we’d spoken to – crowded, smoggy and noisy. All this was somewhat true, but with wide streets and sidewalks, we found it relatively easy for the pedestrian to navigate – until you reach a corner. Crossing the street on foot in Saigon is Asia’s version of the running of the bulls – it’s guaranteed to get your adrenaline flowing and you never quite know if you’ll survive.

Central market – Saigon.

A few blocks from our hotel was the Ben Thanh Market, the central “local” market for the city. Housed in a nicely maintained art deco style building, this was by far the cleanest and nicest market we had encountered in all of Asia. Every stall was tidy and products were nicely presented, and nearly everything to sustain modern life was on offer. After a cursory pass through, we vowed to come back and do some real shopping.

We wandered through some back streets towards the Dong Khoi district. One small lane was lined with antique shops. Much of what was on offer appeared to be the very latest in antiques, if you get the drift, but there were also some very interesting old items like lamps, appliances, books and watches – lots of watches. Some were certainly antique but many were quite obviously clever reproductions.

We stopped for a coffee break at a cool little café on the ground floor of the Saigon Center and then headed down La Loi Street where we found a massive, modern and very stylish department store. We had a good look around inside this slice of the first world and then headed to the rooftop of the Hotel Rex for lunch. During the Vietnam War, the Hotel Rex was a favored hangout for journalists, foreign correspondents and servicemen.

After lunch we visited the Reunification Palace, a fine example of 1960’s architecture, replete with many of its original furnishings including the last president’s Mercedes, personal Huey helicopter and other memorabilia from the so-called “puppet regime”. From there we made a dash to the nearby War Crimes Museum where we managed to see most of the exhibits before they shut down and kicked us out. The War Crimes Museum, even if a bit one-sided, is grim reminder of the horrible realities of the “American War” including the My Lai Massacre, the long term effects of Dioxin (Agent Orange) and the continuing carnage as a result of land mines and undetonated ordinance. I hope some of our world leaders pay this place a visit during the APEC conference!

We enjoyed an excellent Vietnamese dinner at Indochine, a colonial villa converted to a restaurant, and then enjoyed a leisurely stroll down Dong Khoi Street afterwards.

November 5

We were up early and boarded a bus for a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi was a quiet farming village infamous for its subterranean network of tunnels, some that actually reached inside the perimeter of a nearby American Military base. The Cu Chi tunnels were a command post, communication link, munitions and supplies factory, a hiding place and a bomb shelter. They allowed the Viet Cong to make stealth attacks on the American forces and then literally vanish into the ground. Touring Cu Chi we learned a bit about how the Viet Cong used their very limited resources, and extreme cunning to outwit their enemy. The Cu Chi tunnels are even smaller than those at Vin Moc, and to get through I had to fully crouch and balance on my hands. Dimly lit, constricted and stuffy, this place will bring out the claustrophobia hiding in almost anyone.

Cu Chi tunnels.

The tour burnt up the better part of the day. In retrospect, we wish we’d opted for a taxi or private car to Cu Chi and saved a few hours of time that the tour bus wasted on long potty breaks, shopping stops, etc.

We had happy hour drinks at a groovy place called Q-bar located under an old theatre in the Dong Khoi district and moved on to an excellent dinner at Camargue, another lovely converted villa.

November 6

Our last day in Saigon, we slept in a bit, then headed out to do some shopping. We had a good, thorough look through the Ben Thanh Market, where you can buy everything from soup to nuts, designer clothes, pirated CDs and DVDs, Lolex watches, Vietnamese handicrafts, beautiful silk fabrics, snake wine and flavorful Vietnamese coffee. I picked up a kilogram of robusta and arabica beans, roasted in butter and sugar, to take home. We spent the afternoon browsing the chi-chi shops on Dong Khoi Road and returned to the hotel neighborhood to have a nice Indian dinner in one of the little alleys of District 1.

November 7

Our Vietnamese visas were expiring in two days, so it was time to make our way to Cambodia. We had hoped and planned to travel to Phnom Penh by boat up the Mekong River. After exploring all the reasonable options, we settled (and I do mean settled) for a three day combination bus/boat tour offered by a local outfit called Delta Tours. Actually it was more like a bus/boat/boat/boat/bus/bus/boat/boat/bus tour.

Life on the Mekong Delta.

We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to get face-to-face with life on the Mekong River Delta. The river is the life blood for these people, providing their drinking water, irrigation for their crops, a transportation artery, fishing grounds, and unfortunately a washbasin, refuse dump and toilet. How someone can guzzle down a glass of muddy water the color of a cappuccino containing who-knows-what sort of chemicals and microorganisms is beyond me. We had the opportunity to wander and cycle a bit through some of the countryside and take in the local culture. The best part of our tour was being taken by a local lady in a small boat though a floating fishing village. She rowed this primitive looking canoe from the back while facing forward. Along the way, another boat came by, and a local boy hopped on our boat and gave both Merima and I excellent neck and shoulder massages. We were amazed at the powerful hands of this boy who couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old.

The Mekong River is virtually lined with stilted shacks, and the waters are buzzing with boat traffic. The craft come in all shapes, sizes, colors and styles from small single-person paddle canoes, to huge barges carrying sand, rice and other bulk cargo, so chock full that it appears that just one more kilo would surely send them to the bottom.

Sand barge – Mekong Delta.

As for the tour itself, were underwhelmed by the organization, or lack of, and the poor quality, i.e. discomfort, of the transportation vehicles/vessels. I think that the Vietnamese treat their water buffalo better! Nothing ran on time. One bus broke down. An overnight hotel we were shown photos of and supposed to stay in was full, so we were herded off (on foot) to another of much lesser quality. Another bloody bait and switch!!!
I hope this name shows up in a web search – DELTA TOURS. Avoid them at all costs!

Tour guides – we had four in three days – consistently gave us misinformation about travel times and kept us waiting for hours from the appointed departure time. And for the grand finale, we arrived at the Vietnam/Cambodia border, our boat was boarded by at least a half dozen boys – probably pirates in training – who attempted to grab our bags. It wasn’t clear if they were going to rifle through them for valuables or just carry them ashore for us. The captain tried to shoo them away, physically striking a few of them, without much success. The tour guide completely ignored the situation. All the passengers were confused if not frightened and concerned for their possessions. I had just about enough of wrangling for my bag so I piped up and asked the tour guide if these boys worked for him. Ignoring my question, I asked again, much more forcefully and with an obvious tone of irritation, and he said “no.” I assured him that none of us were going to get off the boat till these boys did, without our luggage of course, and that for him to condone this activity was complete bullshit. He reluctantly told them to leave. It wasn’t exactly the best last impression of Vietnam for us, but it I’m sure it will fade long before all the great memories.

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