“Do one thing every day that scares you” – Eleanor Roosevelt
This quote sums up our holiday in Vietnam! I did and experienced more that scared me there in 11 days (in a good way) than I have in my lifetime to date, so I think I have a few moments banked for future mundane days.
In all my research prior to our trip nothing actually prepared me for it, you can’t describe Vietnam in words or pictures. I believe it’s something you have to experience in your life. The cities, streets and scooters are noisy, chaotic and cluttered and the people are such a juxtaposition they are all tiny, soft-spoken and friendly.
Our 11-day adventure started in the north of Vietnam, Hanoi (the capital city) and we made our way down south to Saigon.
Traffic in Vietnam = a seething cauldron of organised chaos. Not in my wildest dreams did I know their traffic was so chaotic, no one breaks, they just hoot and keep weaving, occasionally someone will slow down, there is no correct side of the road to drive on, and pavements seem to have become extensions of the road.
As a pedestrian you are very low on the pecking order – walking around becomes a game of dodge as you weave between parked scooters, as pavements are also parking lots, pets tied to trees and all the street food vendors and locals sitting having lunch. Then one has to tackle crossing the roads, the very first road we had to cross took us about 30 minutes, as we waited for the road to completely clear, but by the end, we learnt that you just need to grow nerves of steel and walk, don’t bother looking left or right. And somehow this technique works!
All travel guides/blogs say just that: “No Look” technique – Just step into the middle of the road WITHOUT making it clear that you looked either way. Not looking puts the burden on the drivers and just walk at a steady pace and don’t stop suddenly. This is not a joke. This is how the locals cross the road without a care. The scooters will just flow around you like a river”
One night after dinner in Saigon we had to cross a 4 lane main road to get back to the hotel and considering it was about 10pm the traffic had not died down (it still seemed like rush hour). I turned to my dear husband and said, “leave me here, I cannot cross this road” and I truly felt like it would be a better option to sleep on the pavement than attempt to cross that road!
The weather was FREEZING, it was winter but the weather was supposed to average 20 degrees Celsius and the rainy season is normally March/April. (we were there in December). But this year it was cold and rained. I was not prepared, I had once again grossly under packed and only had two jerseys which I wore every day. Our tour guide kept saying, “it will be warmer tomorrow”, so I kept delaying the purchasing of a complete winter wardrobe. It only really warmed up on the second half of the trip, when we hit Hoi An and Saigon, so I wore the same outfit everyday!
We boarded a Junk Boat in Halong Bay for an overnight stay (I had expected a dodgy wooden boat with a long drop), I was very, very wrong it was more like a mini wooden cruise liner. We settled in and went to the upper deck to enjoy a buffet lunch whilst we cruised through the bay filled with giant limestone islands popping out of the ocean.
Midway through lunch, I realised we had set sail. I promptly stopped feasting, put my fork down, poked dear husband to look up and just appreciate the view as the hundreds of towering islands slowly passing us by. Photos truly don’t do this experience justice as those islands/rock formations are gigantic.
After our magical stay on the boat, we headed back to Hanoi for a cyclo tour around the old quarter of the city. This experience submerged us in the traffic of the city, I kept my eyes forward as every time I looked to the side there seemed to be a taxi heading straight into us or a swarm of scooters, hooting us out the way. But it was an awesome way to leisurely see the city and people just going about their day.
Then it was time to stock up on snacks and treats (a.k.a dinner) for our 15-hour overnight train ride to Huế.
The train ride was the only thing I was dreading, we had heard rumours that the cabins were less than sanitary, there were bed bugs and grimy toilets.It was not that bad, I think they set one’s expectations so low just in case and then when you board it is a pleasant surprise. Each cabin sleeps 4 persons, and we got to bunk with fellow South Africans that were on tour with us. We spent the night drinking gross Vietnamese wine, listening to an iPod, chatting and then finally decided to get some sleep.
It wasn’t the best night’s sleep I have ever had, the mattress was Vietnamese person size (minute) and the toilets were a little questionable but bearable.
Arriving in Huế we went straight to the Imperial City (the emperor’s palace). An impressive palace, at least once was, as sadly most of it was destroyed during the war (out of the 160 building only 10 remain) And the war wounds are still so evident today.
Then we moved on to Emperor Tự Đức tomb, he is the only Vietnamese emperor to live to see the completion of his tomb and it’s an amazing tomb (12 hectares), it’s almost as big as the palace. Walking around I was in awe of how someone could build such a large and lavish tomb area – It’s your tomb, you already have your palace to hang out in why does one need a sub-palace for their burial? It included a moat, an area overlooking a river, so he could write poetry and a theatre.
After the grand tour of the tomb area, you eventually get to the grave, and I was expecting that to be just as grand, with chandeliers and gold walls but it’s just a stone tomb open to the air.
Then it was back on the bus for a scenic drive over the mountain range to Hoi An – our favourite city.
Arriving in the picturesque city of Hoi An, where we stayed for three days and the weather finally warmed up. We were introduced to the city on a walking tour of the old quarter which is basically just 2 streets of shops and restaurants, but the roads are clean, pedestrian-friendly and basically scooter free which makes a nice change as you don’t fear for your life here.
This is also the city most famed for the reasonably priced tailoring. When in Vietnam, have a suit tailored which is exactly what we did. On our first night, we went into Yaly tailors (they employ over 300 tailors!) and you pick a style, fabric, they measure you up and we were told to come back the following day for a fitting.
The next day the suit was complete – less than 24 hours, everything looked perfect to us but the consultant and tailor walk around us like chipmunks chirping instructions to one another and tweaking and measuring till it is unbelievably perfect.
Advice: have something made, it truly is the most amazing experience walking around selecting your own fabric and custom designing anything you want and the quality is unbelievable. You can also get custom made leather shoes, boots and handbags made in a day.
The next day was the BEST day of the tour. We cycled through the city, suburbs and into the country on tiny sand roads past, Water Buffalo and rice paddies to Tra Que a commercial vegetable farm. Once at the farm we donned our conical hats and worked the fields then we cooked our own lunch under the guidance of the hilarious resident chef.
Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City
After our relaxing stopover in Hoi An, it was onward to Saigon.
Saigon, the biggest and busiest city in Vietnam with traffic that is worse the Hanoi, if you can believe it. The weather is also year round significantly warmer and more humid. But the surprising thing about Saigon is the evidence of underlying french influence which is most notable in the cuisine and number of patisseries.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels are an underground cobweb of 200km of tunnels and living quarters used for several military campaigns during the Vietnam war.
Visiting this area was an incredibly humbling experience, as you realise that the community and soldiers basically relocated deep underground into these tiny tunnels with very little ventilation and light in order to survive. Although the Vietnamese were technologically disadvantaged during the war, they were still considered the victors, largely due to their use of these tunnels.
They also made their own traps in the jungle, gathered old artillery from the fields to make their own bombs and weapons. The Vietnamese didn’t have as much funding or free access to as much weaponry as the US.
Even though the war is a massive part of their history and ended not that long ago (April 1975) you get the feeling the citizens have all chosen to move on, forgive and rise above, to rebuild their country – which I think is a truly humbling mindset, one a lot of counties could learn from.
- I was super paranoid of contracting anything so we were inoculated for Typhoid and Hepatitis A & B – but really you wouldn’t need them if you are diligent about drinking bottled water and where you eat, the cities are quite clean.
- Hire a bicycle – it is the best way to feel and see the city
- If in Hoi An – have something made, anything (clothes, leather boots, handbag)
- Try the local cuisine – don’t be like Charlotte from Sex in the City in Mexico and live on pudding cups. Each region has slightly varying ways of seasoning and preparing the local dishes.
- Ensure to pack mosquito repellent if visiting the south of Vietnam (Mekong Delta, Cu Chi tunnels, Saigon). Malaria isn’t really an issue in Vietnam the government is quite diligent about keeping that at bay. It’s just to prevent been eaten alive by mozzies.
- We went over December which is their winter not sure I would go in summer it is really humid and walking around would be highly unpleasant and also try to avoid going during flood season, as the country is basically a giant river they are prone to flooding.
- NO matter the season you go in pack a jersey as the weather changes dramatically, from region to region.
We chose to go on tour with On The Go Tours, as first timers to South East Asia, being amateurs travellers, having everything run seamlessly, staying in decent hotels, and having a knowledgeable guide that was more like travelling with a friend than a tour operator made it worth every penny.
I take my hat off to those with the courage to hire a scooter and travel countries with just a map and backpack – that is not my cup of tea.
Have you ever been to Vietnam, what was your highlight?
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