Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Good Morning Vietnam!

on May 2, 2013

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***Guest starring: Tara Southgate 🙂 ***

After spending a delightful 4 hours trying to sleep on the tiled floor of Kuala Lumpur’s Low Cost Carrier Terminal serenaded by Fox Sports commentary mixed with Malay pop music wafting through my earplugs, I rose at 5am to check in for my flight to Ho Chi Minh City, the capital of Vietnam situated to the south of the country. (I will henceforth refer to HCMC as Saigon, 1) because everyone here does and 2) because it’s shorter to type).

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After dropping off my bag I meandered through security in a zombie-like state and continued on down to the lounges. At this point, the random thought of ‘Gee, my backpack is light’ floated through my head, followed by an abrupt light-bulb moment where I realised ‘Holy sh*t, I left my laptop in the x-ray machine!’

In an impressive display of athleticism for 5.30am post 3 weeks of minimal exercise, I sprinted back up the stairs to security and did a little impatient waving sort of dance in front of the lady who was intently staring at the x-ray screen. I said frantically ‘I think I left my laptop here!’ while miming a little rectangle with my hands and she thankfully pulled it from her desk and handed it to me. I almost hugged it with happiness, but figured I’d made enough of a display for now. Unfortunately in the hurry to get back, I’d lost my neck pillow and despite retracing my steps could not find the fluoro pink bringer of comfort for my following 2 hour flight. I should not be responsible for anything important before 7am…

I arrived in Saigon to an almost empty immigration hall and automatically jumped straight in one of the passport lines. Stupidly I didn’t look around (I’m still going to blame lack of sleep) and until I got to the front of the line and the passport control guy pointed it out, I didn’t realise I had forgotten to get my landing visa. So I then had to go join the throng over at the visa counter with my pre-arrival visa approval letter (obtained online for $20 which I had just seconds ago realised had a typo in my passport number!). I had to fill out another form and didn’t have any passport photos (luckily they can take them for you… for an extra US$5). I was nervous about my typo, but luckily it was either not noticed or ignored, and I got my passport back to join what was now an enormous crowd at immigration. When I finally got through, I went to the baggage carousel, saw what I thought was my bag, but on closer inspection was an identical Kathmandu backpack belonging to someone else. There were only about 4 bags left on there and I was a bit worried a little switcheroo had taken place because all the bags would surely have been out in the time it took me in immigration… I was about to go to the lost baggage counter when I spied another blue pack on the floor across the baggage hall. I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered it was mine and headed out to get the bus.

I was charged 5,000 dong for my bus ticket and 5,000 dong for my bag (because it was big). This seemingly exorbitant double fare was equivalent to ~50c! Paying for things in thousands and millions has taken some getting used to, but its kinda cool to be a millionaire 🙂

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On the bus I spoke to a local girl called Anh who taught me a few local phrases, told me to make sure I bargain hard at the market because the prices are too high and to make sure I hold onto all of my possessions, especially in the park where she said ‘one minute, your camera in your hand, next minute, gone!’. I must admit, coming to Saigon, I had the impression that it would be a bustling beast of a city and that you would get constantly hassled, wouldn’t be able to walk around easily and it would feel a bit unsafe as everyone apparently wants to rip you off or rob you, but what I found was quite the opposite. Yes, people do try and get you to buy stuff and give you hundreds of different flyers for tour companies or bars, but I’ve definitely been hassled far worse in other places. And the city is actually reasonably easy to traverse on foot (the Vietnamese will often say things are very far, but a 10 minute Vietnamese walk is about a 5 minute Mandy walk!).

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One challenge (pretty standard in southeast asia) is crossing the roads- the traffic in Saigon is something else. In this city using the horn is as important a part of driving as the steering, so it is always ridiculously noisy. We were told since we arrived on the weekend the traffic was ‘quiet’ so we were a bit concerned about what it would be like on a weekday! When I arrived at the bus station I had to cross a massive intersection where several roads converge just in front of the market. No lanes, just all manner of vehicles weaving across the vast expanse of asphalt thumping their horns! I wasn’t exactly very nimble with my pack on so I bided my time and waited to use the tried and tested ‘cross-with-a-local’ approach- in this straightforward method of road crossing, the local fearlessly saunters out in front of the traffic and the traffic slows enough so you can just run along in their car/bus/moto/cyclo-free wake. Brilliant.

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The hostel’s directions didn’t sound like I had to go far… “The bus station is opposite Ben Thanh Market, walk along the park until you see the circus, cross the street to the market then enter the alley 373”. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for with the ‘circus’ part, but when I had been walking about 10 minutes I thought I should cross the road again to check that I hadn’t missed it. This road wasn’t quite so overwhelming, so this time I just walked out in front of the traffic with my hand out by my side signalling ‘stop’. This is the ‘Just-keep-walking’ method, with enough confidence the traffic will go around you, but if you stop and hesitate and the divers aren’t expecting it, mayhem could ensue! Anyway, once I’d crossed, the locals were friendly and helpful and told me to keep on going the way I was, and eventually I saw the market. I didn’t see anything that resembled a circus but hey, the directions did the trick anyway!

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I checked in to Long Hostel, which is a little family run establishment who are absolutely wonderful people! So eager to help, drawing on your map things to see, where to catch buses, and when I asked for 3 things I really wanted to find pronto (ca phe– Vietnamese style coffee, banh mi– Vietnamese baguettes, and pho– beef noodle soup) they gave me great recommendations and drew them on my map too. While waiting for Tara I had a Trung Nguyen coffee and a baguette. The traditional coffee is drip style, served black with sweetened condensed milk. When Tara arrived we went for more coffee (it is AMAZING- I’m addicted to the stuff). Saigon, and Vietnam in general, is a wonderful place for food pho-natics (sorry, couldn’t help it… can’t promise there won’t be more!)

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We wandered around the city, taking a stroll through the hectic Ben Thanh Market (selling everything you could ever want or need including herbs, coffee, fruit and veg, local cuisine, snake wine, handicrafts, flowers, hardware, clothing, bags, perfume, jewellery and more!) and looking at the beautiful old French Colonial buildings like the City Hall, Opera house and Notre Dame Cathedral.

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We ended up eating a mystery meal on some miniature chairs and tables on the street outside Ben Thanh. We’d walked by and seen a potatoey looking omelette thing being cooked and it smelled delicious so we just sort of pointed and ordered two. I still don’t know what it was (tasted like it could’ve been made of rice flour maybe…), but it was delicious!

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Later that night, Tara and I decided to go for a pedicure so stopped at one of the many ‘spas’ dishing out their flyers on Pham Ngu Lao Street. We probably should’ve had a look first, but ended up in a random upstairs room with no aircon where one girl sat and painted Tara’s toenails then my toenails one at a time. This pedicure included a massage too (about thirty seconds of pummelling in the back and shoulder region). Then the girl asked us for a tip! It was pretty cheap though at ~AU$5 (including tip), certainly a funny experience, and at least our toenails looked pretty!

Our next day was spent on a day tour to the Mekong Delta, to the south of Saigon (which cost 200,000 dong or ~AU$10 for the WHOLE DAY including transport, guide, lunch and snacks! Crazy!). Our pick up was only 15 minutes late, followed by a short walking tour of several nearby hostels to pick up more people, then we got on the bus. The distance to travel was only about 120km, but was estimated to take at least 2 hours! Ahhh road tripping in Vietnam… Our first stop was a town called Ben Tre, where we got a boat to Unicorn Island. We tried some honey tea (honey with lime in hot water) and various candies which were delish, and then they tried to sell us royal jelly (which apparently “abolished wrinkles”, “slowed down getting old”, “decreases high blood pressure, diabetes, hepatitis of A, B, C, D types” and “restored all around sexual desire of both genders” amongst many other things! (I didn’t buy any FYI… if getting ID’d is anything to go by, I’m already behind schedule in the ageing department)

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We then had a row boat ride… along with every other tourist on the island. It was stupidly hectic at the little jetty, but was quite nice once down river a bit.

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Next was a place where they made coconut candy, which Tara and I have since become addicted to, and then lunch where we tried the local ‘elephant ear fish’ from the river. They asked if we wanted it steamed or fried, Tara and I looked at each other, then in true dietitian fashion, both said ‘Fried!’ The fish is broken up and eaten with greens and noodles in rice paper- it was delicious! After lunch, I had a gecko fall on my head and onto my plate, which is the second time this has happened to me in about a month! I think the geckos have a vendetta against me. Tara thinks they have a youtube type of thing going where they film each other dropping off rooves onto humans and laugh about it later…

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The rest of the afternoon was spent observing the resident water buffalo (who we dubbed ‘Buffy’), riding bikes around the village, watching a local kid shampoo up his hair then jump off a bridge into the river, visiting a fruit farm where we ate local fruits accompanied by local musicians before boating back to the mainland town of My Tho onto another long, horn-ridden bus ride back to Saigon (of all the vehicles here, buses are the king of horn thumping- its ‘etiquette’ for them to honk to let bike/moto riders know they are coming through, but I think some of them just really enjoy it…)

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That night, we decided to try out ‘blind massage’- they have a massage place at the blind association where it’s only 60,000 dong for one hour- about AU$3! We got led to the ‘lady massage’ room where instead of oil we were coated with baby powder. Vietnamese massage seems to consist of a lot of pinching, poking, slapping and the old karate chop (my girl was going nuts with it- I got karate chopped on my back, arms, legs, feet and head!). A couple of times, my girl got a phone call and was just sort of patting my back with one hand, but thankfully there were only two calls, and then there was more massage happening.

After she had finished my arms and legs, my massage girl just abruptly left the room. I waited there on the bed for a couple of minutes quietly, then said, ‘Hey Tarz, is your massage finished?’

Tara: ‘Umm, well my lady’s not in the room anymore…’

Mandy: ‘Hmmm, neither is mine…’

*Quiet pause for a minute*

Tara: ‘Yep, I think it’s finished…’

So up we get and start getting our stuff out of the cupboards, and when the girls hear this they come rushing back in saying ‘No, no, no, not finish yet! Head massass!’ and steer us back to the beds! Have no idea why they needed an interlude between the rest of the massage and the head part. Anyway, after that the massage was actually finished. Not the most pho-nomenal massage I’ve ever had, but not terrible. I guess you get what you pay for, but again a fun experience!

We woke early the next day to visit the famous Cu Chi tunnels about 70km from Saigon. This is a system of over 200km of underground tunnels created and used by the Viet Cong during the American war. Our guide introduced himself as ‘John Wayne’, claiming it sounds like his Vietnamese name, but is easier for westerners to say! Our first stop was to watch an old black and white ‘documentary’ narrated in the stilted emotionless manner of train announcements. It discussed how happy the Cu Chi people were, working together to “defeat the enemy”, volunteering for “anti-American resistances” to help save their country and introduced local heroes who were awarded medals for “killing Americans”! It was interesting to see an account of the life of the local people during the war and how innovative they were with their guerrilla warfare, but it was presented in quite biased way in amusing language, making it seem like a day at the fair instead of a war!

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After the video we saw a few examples of the sinister looking jungle traps used by the Viet Cong (most involving a number of vicious spikes which would impale various body parts of unsuspecting enemy soldiers), had lunch accompanied by the sound of rifle fire beside the shooting range, got to climb on the shell of a tank and crawl through the tunnels. There is a 60m section open to tourists that is about 3m deep (that’s ‘level 1’- there are other parts of the network that are 8 and 12 metres deep!). Inside it is very cosy- only about 1.2m tall and less than a metre wide (Vietnamese size!), very stuffy and musty crouching inside the clay walls. The tunnels were mostly used for a means of escape and shelter; they weren’t a permanent place of living, though they did have some meeting rooms and medical rooms. It’s incredible that people dug out such a vast and elaborate network using primitive tools and that they still exist 50 years later.

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That night we caught our first sleeper bus to Nha Trang. When we boarded, the bright red and blue neon lights all along the windows and Vietnamese pop music pumping full bawl made us think we’d got on a party bus instead of a sleeper- I was even lucky enough to have a glaring TV right in front of my face showing the music videos in all their 1980s choreographic glory!

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My ear plugs made no audible difference, but eventually they turned it all off and let us sleep. The buses fit quite a few people- they have 3 rows of bunk beds and about 6 or so back. It was comfy enough once it was quiet! Tarz and I were on top bunks, and despite the seat belt and side rails, we often felt like we were going to roll out when the bus careened around corners during the night! We were woken from our broken sleep to the soothing sounds of more blaring Vietnamese pop, and as soon as the bus stopped, this was replaced by the bus driver yelling ‘Get off the bus! Get off the bus! Hurry up!’

After some breakfast and down time at our hostel, we set out to get some lunch as our room was still not ready. The girls at Mojzo Inn were so cute and helpful, and were a wealth of in-pho-mation on great places to eat which is what we like! Also they had bathroom decor appropriate for two dietitians…

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That day we had nem nuong for lunch- a type of fresh spring roll particular to Nha Trang. You wrap grilled pork, ‘pork husk’ (kind of like crackling) pickled veg and greens in rice paper, then dip it in chili sauce and eat it with your hands. I’m enjoying the novelty of preparing the food at the table as you eat!

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Nha Trang is located on the east coast of Vietnam. It is renowned for its beach and is a bit of a backpacker hub. Bizarrely, it is also a Russian hub, so much so that most shops and restaurants have signs and menus in Russian, some include prices in rubles as well as dong and US$! Many locals speak a bit of Russian too! Anyway, there is not a lot in town besides restaurants, spas and numerous bars with free shots, half price drinks and 2-for-1 deals. We checked out the beach on our first night, but it is not actually that fantastic for swimming despite looking nice from afar- it was quite packed (mostly with locals and Russians), and the water was a bit dirty. It’s meant to be nicer on the nearby islands.

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The next day we had booked a snorkelling trip.  We woke to find an English guy passed out on the tiled floor just outside our room- with his feet touching what appeared to be his door! I poked him as I was half wondering if he was still alive, and thankfully he stirred. I asked if he was ok, and if that was his room, and he looked groggily at me for a second before responding… ‘I’m soooooo tired’ then closing his eyes again in the exact same position. After breakfast he was still there, and we went downstairs to find another woman passed out in the common area. We were also told by reception that the other two people who were meant to be going snorkelling from our hostel were no longer coming as they were in the hospital because of “something they drink” (said with a shrug!). What a crazy Tuesday night must have gone down in Nha Trang!

We got a slow boat with our guide Muoi (which means ‘10’ in Vietnamese- he said his parents just named all their kids the number which they arrived as it was easier!) and headed out to our first snorkel site. It was quite clear and a nice reef so we had a good swim there.

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Tara said she was going back to the boat and asked which one was ours so I pointed it out then stayed a little longer. Eventually I started heading back to what I thought was our boat, but I didn’t recognise anyone at the back- there were a few divers and tanks and only one girl from our group was going diving so I thought I must have the wrong group of boats and kept swimming towards the next lot (there were several boats from the same tour company as ours). The next group of boats were all empty dive boats so I kept going to the last group, thinking with uncertainty, I don’t remember coming this far before, but maybe I swam further than I thought? When I finally got to the last group of boats after what seemed like forever, it was quite clear that none of them was mine either!

That group of boats did however have a small motor boat and I hoped they might be able to drive me back instead of the slow process of me kicking all the way there holding my camera and mask, as I was now late! Bobbing in the water beside the motor boat, I tried to explain with a mix of simple English and sign language that ‘I can’t find my boat, I think it is over there, can you take me there?’ the guy on the boat threw me a bit of rope to hang onto while he continued to eat his rice and I kind of just treaded water for a bit, before trying to ask again. At that, another dude helped me onto the boat and I sat there as the boat man still munched away, still not sure what was going on. I thought maybe they were just giving me a rest so I could swim back, in which case I’d be better off leaving now rather than later, so tried to ask ‘do I need to swim back?’ An old woman on the neighbouring big boat then said ‘Lady, you tired. You swim, you choke, you die.’ Then pointing at the boatman ‘He eat first then take you’ and pointed at the other boats. Well ok. Looks like I had me a lift… So eventually I got back to my boat on a private motor boat. Tara came to greet me and take embarrassing photos and Muoi said to me ‘Next time you not swim so far! You end up in Philippines!’ What a nuff nuff.

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I’d like to say the rest of the day was uneventful, but after lunch on the boat at our third snorkel site, I managed to bust my ‘unbreakable’ waterproof camera. The lens had shattered which must have happened as I jumped off the boat- there was a much bigger swell at this site. With not noticing that and trying to turn it on underwater I must have fried the insides which had got water in. Sigh. Cameras and the Hill girls have very fleeting relationships that’s pho sure… this one lasted me about 15 months which is probably almost a record so I guess it was due for its untimely demise.

That evening we decided to hit the Nha Trang nightlife and managed to boogie until 2am on 100,000 dong each (about AU$5) with all the free shots and half price buckets going! We met a guy from Sydney who excitedly told us he’d bought (and drank) a 700mL bottle of rum for $1.50 that evening! Insane. No wonder the town was always in disarray in the mornings! Luckily I got a roadside hot dog on the way home for just $1 to help ease the hangover.

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The next day was spent lazing around at the 100 Egg Mud Bath anyway. This place was hilarious, it had egg shaped things and egg themed things everywhere! And every item on the restaurant menu contained egg in some way! Too bad if you were allergic… After having to ‘shower’ in a spiky maximum pressure spray of water from two walls, we had a mud bath (shaped like an egg).

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After hanging out in the mud for a while, we then got pointed to an area of (egg shaped) rocks where we were told to sunbathe. In the 5 minutes I spent there before giving up on the heat and the rocks poking into awkward spots on my back, I managed to get a weird marble pattern tan between the patches of mud on my stomach and legs! Thankfully it disappeared later in the day. After de-mudding, we went for a little wander around the complex seeing more things egg and ended our day in the mineral Jacuzzi and pools with mosaiced happy eggs everywhere. Tough day at the office…

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We had another sleeper bus to Hoi An that night. It was due to pick us up between 6.30 and 7.15pm. Once on the bus we were told to sit anywhere as we had to get on another bus and proceeded to drive in circles around town picking up more passengers. By about 8pm we got dropped at Hanh Café, where the buses leave from, and were told in the typically urgent Vietnamese style ‘Get off the bus! Get off the bus!’. We got our luggage and sat on the street for about another hour before our bus came and our 7.30pm service finally took off around 9pm! This bus looked about 15 years older than the last sleeper we had. Tara and I both had no seatbelts- they looked like they’d just been cut off, like ‘meh, who needs ‘em?’ and we were on top bunks again! Tara’s bunk was even missing one of the side rails. She was a little worried she’d fall out given our last ride, so McGuiver-ed herself a seat belt by tying herself to the one existing side rail with her scarf! Even though it looked a little tattier, the bus was actually pretty comfortable. Thankfully it also had no disco lights or blaring Vietnamese pop, so falling asleep was much easier achieved and we were quite refreshed upon arrival at our next destination, ready for the next adventures in Hoi An!

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2 responses to “Good Morning Vietnam!

  1. Debra Bloder says:

    Hi Mandy, I am only half way through reading this at the moment, but I have to say- when I started reading I, my first thought was” OMG Mandy has turned into Ebony” It is great to follow your journey ( and know you are safe) keep the stories coming, love from the Bloders

    • Sandra Eccles says:

      Great reading Mandy, chuckled my way through it. Keep having fun, eat heaps and stay safe. xx

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