Mandy and the World

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

Hangin’ in Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong

Our next stop: Hoi An– a quaint little town in central Vietnam. It’s a town with gorgeous old world heritage protected buildings, its own incredible food culture and a tailor in every second shop. The locals are friendly and smiling, though you come to expect every greeting of ‘Hello!’ to be followed by ‘Buy something?’

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I was very excited to continue our foodventures and Tara was very excited to hit up the tailors for some made-to-measure winter coats. On our first day, we hadn’t walked far when Tara spotted a blazer and a coat design she liked and we went into the shop. In a matter of minutes, she had agreed to buy those two items, been measured and upsold to purchase a skirt and a dress as well! Continuing down the street past tailor upon tailor, we saw many other nice coats, and Tarz then decided she really wanted a grey coat as well, so picked another store and did some more damage, with all the clothes to be ready for pickup within 2 days!

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We had a lazy afternoon meandering around the Old Town, admiring the beautiful shop fronts, enjoying the colourful lanterns adorning the streets and walking across the famous Japanese covered bridge. We had our first taste of Hoi An at the Morning Glory restaurant run by a local third generation chef and sampled the amazing local ‘white rose’ dumplings (rice flour dumplings filled with shrimp), fried crab meat wontons and some rice paper rolls which were all incredible. I must have caught the shopping bug because after lunch I found some beautiful rice paper paintings that I couldn’t resist and also bought some earrings together with Tara (shaped like cutlery so aptly themed to suit the foodventures!)…

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As we meandered back to the hotel past the market, we had a sense of de je vu as the exact same conversation unfolded 3 times in a row with 3 different ladies…

It went along the lines of:

‘Hello! Where you from?’

‘Australia.’

‘You very beautiful. When you come to Hoi An?’

‘Today.’

‘How long you stay?’

‘3 days.’

‘You want shopping?’

‘No thank you.’

‘You come and see my shop, very cheap price.’

‘No thanks, don’t need anything.’

‘Looking is free!’

Continue walking, smiling and shaking your head while saying ‘no thank you’ until out of earshot… aaaaand repeat x 3. So we decided to avoid the general vicinity of the market after that… And tell everyone we were leaving Hoi An tomorrow. Harmless, just a little annoying!

Despite its old town feel, there is a surprising variety of nightlife in Hoi An. There are a lot of bars with the 2-for-1 deals like in Nha Trang, but outrageously, there are also bars with 100,000 dong all-you-can-drink deals! (That’s about AU$5!) Who knows what is in those drinks though, I heard mixed reviews with some people saying the rum and cokes were fine and others reporting they tasted like petrol… (Tarz and I never made it to one to say conclusively). Many of the bars didn’t seem to do so well, Backpacker Bar and the excitingly named Good and Cheap Bar were always empty (but check out their flyers below!), but Meet Market tended to have people in it, probably because it had the wittiest name.

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We randomly wandered into a benefit for street dogs later that night for VAWO- Vietnam Animal Welfare Organisation (www.vnanimalwelfare.org), run by a group of expats and locals. Especially for the animals, we drank mystery punch for ~AU$2 a cup and bought raffle tickets, but when we didn’t win anything we boycotted the place (jokes). We walked home spotting (read: nearly stepping on) a variety of Hoi An ‘wildlife’ including about 5 frogs, 1 giant rat and a cockroach!

Our second day in Hoi An was spent visiting the Cham ruins at My Son (pronounced ‘Me Soon’). Our guide Yong was a colourful character, expressing everything he said with an air of it being the most exciting sentence he’d ever spoken. He said in order for us to stay together we needed a group name. Today, we would be Team Tiger, and that made him our Tiger King. He told us in a most jovial way that the weather forecast out at My Son was predicted to be 39 degrees that day! It certainly felt like that was the case when we stepped off the bus… Unfortunately I’d put my hat in the laundry so felt I needed to buy a new one at this point. I settled for a Vietnamese straw variety.

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So there were a couple of groups of ruins that were more intact but most of them were, well… really ruined. The Viet Cong used this area as a military base during the war so sadly it got heavily bombed by the Americans. The site was very interesting however (especially for someone like me who has a weird facination with temples and ruins…) and the intact parts of buildings and sculptures were very beautiful. Most of the remaining sculptures of deities were missing heads though, as the French took them and now they are apparently in the Louvre!

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The Cham followed a form of Hinduism, and worshipped Shiva (which Yong said dramatically as ‘Shivaaaaaaaaahhhh!’ with big arm gestures every time).  There were also a lot of big linga (phallic symbols) lying around (‘Lingaaaaaaaahhh!’), including shells from the US bombings (which Yong called ‘American lingaaaaaaaahhh!’). The Cham had a unique style of construction which hasn’t quite been figured out yet- their bricks use no mortar between them and withstand weathering incredibly well. There are thoughts that the bricks were joined using tree resin, or that they were laid when not dry, then were carved and somehow fired when in the structure but no one is certain.

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Our next day’s adventure was a Vietnamese cooking class through The Market restaurant (owned by the same chef that runs Morning Glory). We started the day with a tour of the market and were shown the fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. We learned how to pick good produce, how to tell things apart (eg. Anise basil vs lemon basil), what ingredients are traditionally used for what and in which combinations. Lastly we went through the meat market and seafood market and tried to avoid getting fish gut juice in our thongs, before heading back to the restaurant for the class. We felt like Master Chef contestants with about 30 of us in our matching aprons in a big room, each with our own little bench, stove top, utensil drawer and pile of ingredients.

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The class was run by Lulu who had been a chef for 18 years (since she was 14!). It turned out to be part ‘How to cook delicious Vietnamese food’ and part ‘How to find and keep a husband’ (which are kind of the same thing in Vietnam!). We learned how to make a shrimp and cabbage broth that our future mother-in-laws would be proud of, a marinated chicken skewer with green mango salad and the local delicacy, Hoi An crispy pancake. The pancake is made of rice flour and coconut milk with some shrimp, pork and bamboo shoots, cooked in a LOT of oil to make it crispy and then eaten with greens and pickled vegetables in rice paper. Delish!

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Our last day in Hoi An we had planned to do a walking food tour that had been recommended by a friend. It’s run by an Aussie expat who takes you out to a village market and then you sample all kinds of street food from the local vendors. It sounded really good, but unfortunately our booking hadn’t gone through (which we discovered when our pick up never arrived), so we were up and checked out of our hotel by 7am for no reason and had 5 hours to kill before our million hour (okay, 19 hour) bus to Hanoi. We filled in our time attacking the breakfast buffet, hunting down a bakery to buy bus snacks, getting a massage and eating one last bowl of the local cao lau (smoked rice noodles with pork and croutons) for lunch. (Hmmmm… until I wrote that down I didn’t notice that 75% of that was food related!! Not that I’m surprised…). We were accosted on the street by the spa lady – she saw us looking as we walked by, rushed out and immediately knocked about 40% off the price for a one hour massage for both of us as we were her first customers of the day. How could we say no?! As she said, ‘Lucky for you, lucky for me!’ 🙂 and as a bonus, they had the cutest puppy ever!

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Our bus journey that afternoon started on a normal seated bus to Hue for 4 hours. The scenery on the way was gorgeous, with coastline on one side and rice paddies and mountains on the other. Hue looked like a beautiful town but unfortunately we couldn’t fit it in this time, we only got in the usual bit of loitering on the street outside the bus agent before we changed to a sleeper bus. There was further waiting around on the bus with the frazzled bus driver trying to figure out where to put everybody as the bus was overbooked. There were lots of locals, babies and small children talking, crying and whinging so it was quite rowdy to begin with! In the midst of this the bus driver tried to tell a dutch girl she had to sit on the floor for four hours because there was no room but she flat out refused seeing as she had paid for her tourist price ticket. Tensions were running high, but eventually it was sorted and we started on the last 12 hour leg to Hanoi.

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I had a terrible sleep on the bus – it felt more cramped than usual and the road was horribly bumpy. When we arrived in Hanoi, a dude offered a taxi. I asked ‘how much?’ before we left and he said he ‘meter’, so we jumped in. Turns out there are some crazy dodgy meters out there, as we got absolutely fleeced! The fare was 320,000 dong or about AU$16 (almost as much as our 19 hour bus ticket!) to drive for 5 minutes or so to our hostel. We were fuming but too tired to argue. We stayed at a nice place called ‘Golden Time’ where Anh at reception earned quote of the day by asking me where I was from, looking confused when I said ‘Australia’ and replying ‘But you look like Asia!’ Bahahahaaa!

After freshening up, we set out to whizz around for an epic day in Hanoi as we really only had a day and a half there. We tried to go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum to see him all embalmed, but it was already closed by 10.30am. Instead, we had a look around the somewhat abstract and slightly odd Ho Chi Minh Museum, where we observed many copies of old documents written in Vietnamese, some strange scuptures and displays of completely unrelated things (like volcanoes and fruit) and exciting relics like Uncle Ho’s exercise equipment.

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In the afternoon we went to see the water puppet theatre which was beautiful- it’s a Vietnamese art where musicians play and puppets dance traditional dances or depict folk stories on a pool of water. The puppeteers are all standing in the water behind a screen. We also went out to the Ethnology Museum, but were pretty rushed as it takes half an hour each way to get there (which for the record, in a non-rip-off cab is only about 100,000 dong each way!) The museum shows artefacts and facts about the different cultural groups in Vietnam which was really interesting. There is also an outdoor exhibit featuring displays of traditional homes but unfortunately we didn’t get time to see it. The evening of our big day was spent catching up with a couple of my friends who live in Hanoi for dinner which was lovely, but we were well and truly spent by the time we got back to the hotel!

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The next morning we set out on our trip to Halong Bay (on which Tara upgraded us to the fanciest boat and bungalow as my early birthday present, lucky me!). After 4 hours, one rest stop and another short stop by the road to pick up about 20 pineapples in 2 large bags, we jolted past a giant sign proclaiming ‘Welcome to Halong City!’ and I wondered if the city had even been built yet. The whole area seemed to be under construction, with roadside vistas of dirt piles, large cleared expanses, scattered concrete pipes and a conglomerate of lorries, steamrollers and earth movers greeting us. In the distance over the vibrant green rice paddies we could see the majestic rise of limestone karsts emerging from the sea. I guess Halong City hasn’t felt the need to pretty itself up with a natural wonder of the world sitting on its doorstep drawing tourists in their droves regardless…

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In Halong City we changed from bus to small boat, and took that to the junk- our home for the night.  Tara, myself and 3 German guys (Tom, Andreas and Reiner) were only 5 guests on the whole boat! We cruised out into the bay on the junk to our first stop ‘Surprising Cave’ (the French explorer who discovered it was apparently surprised at what he found). It was a pretty impressive cave, huge caverns inside, and our guide Hoi pointed out many rock images (the majority of which actually just looked like rocks, but we’d occasionally all say, ‘hmm, kinda, maybe if you stand at this angle…’).

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The afternoon was whiled away kayaking from the floating village and visiting a small beach densely packed with tourists. There was a lookout up about 400 stairs from the beach so I went up with Reiner and saw just how many boats were out on the bay. I assume some were full, but I wondered how many were nowhere near capacity like ours! I’m not sure if there is any regulation about the number of boats, but it appears they are only allowed in certain areas which I guess is a good thing.

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Back on the junk that night, we had a mini cooking class with Hoi and made some fried spring rolls which were amazing. Later the crew set up some fishing rods with lures and a big light under the small boat to attract squid. We tried our hand at squid fishing for a while, dangling the lures up and down under the light as we’d been instructed and didn’t see anything other than tiny fish. Meanwhile all the crew had gone back on the boat and we thought ‘maybe this is just a good diversion tactic?’ There was probably some program they wanted to watch on the TV inside and left us out on the deck, laughing at us naively dangling the rods about, saying ‘Haha look at the tourists, they think they are going to catch a squid!’

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After failing at Squid Fishing 101, we thought what better way for a bunch of Australians and Germans to pass the time than to play drinking games! The guys taught us a German game, kind of like Cheat but using dice and we introduced them to King’s Cup, which unfortunately I then proceeded to lose… Between games there was an alleged squid sighting, so Tom went down to the small boat, fiercely determined to catch one. After a while my patience was waning and I was ready for Round 2 of Kings but all of a sudden we saw ink squirting through the water and Tom hauled out a squid! At least 8cm long… but regardless, it was catch of the day! We celebrated with more drinking games then everyone ended up dancing gangnam style before hitting the hay.

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The next day we went to Cat Ba Island where we were taken to Cat Ba National Park for a spot of impromptu hiking which we had not been forewarned about nor packed appropriately for. We thought surely it can’t be that strenuous if they just get all the tourists to do it… Neither of us had walking shoes so were both in thongs and proceeded to the lookout trying not to slip or stub our toes (unsuccessfully!). It was actually a fairly steady uphill climb, and in the tropical humidity, sweat was pouring from everywhere in a matter of minutes! The trail was mostly steps, followed by a short bit of rock scrambling before reaching the antiquated lookout tower atop the mountain.

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The tower’s stairs were only really wide enough for 1 person, so passing others coming down was challenging with backpacks taking up more room and being conscious of not leaning too far over the rusted and very questionably supportive railing to avoid plummeting to the rocks below… I crept up each flight of stairs gripping the rails on both sides, concentrating on trying not to trip or to let my thongs fall off and hoping that the metal was stronger than it looked!

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As we neared the top, I tried to suppress visions of the whole tower just toppling off the mountain loaded with tourists. When we reached the ‘platform’ at the peak I just burst out laughing- there was no floor, just a few wooden palings crisscrossed over the metal frame, not attached to anything (no, of course not, that would be far too effortful…) There was also a gaping hole in the middle where you could look straight down to the little rocky plateau we had just ascended from. Classic. Tara sensibly said ‘No way!’, while I side-shuffled my way out on a paling that was directly over the metal frame, not letting go of the side rail. You know that feeling when you’re really high up that if you let go, at that very moment a freak gust of wind will come and knock you off balance and you’ll tumble off your ‘safe’ little wooden paling and fall to your doom? Yeah, that’s what I felt like…! So I didn’t dwell up there for too long, and after Tara snapped some pics for evidence I quickly side-shuffled back to the stairs and inched down towards the glorious ground.

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In the afternoon, we stopped at Monkey Island. There were no monkeys (to Tara’s immense relief) but there was a heap of rubbish. It was pretty sad to see a nice little island looking like such a dump… We moved on to our home for the night, Nam Cat Island, where we stayed in bungalows on a gorgeous (and clean) little beach surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and clear blue water. The rooms were new and smelled of pine and looked directly onto the beach.

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The bathroom was sparking clean and at first appeared wonderful. However showering turned out to be quite the ordeal! The shower head sprayed out a mist so fine you could barely feel it touching your skin, and the temperature swung from cold to scalding hot every couple of minutes. This resulted in several showering interludes where in order to keep my epidermis, I had to point the boiling mist at the wall testing every now and then with a finger whether it was safe to again direct at my head. I ended up converting it to come out of the tap below and sat on the floor under the more significant but still weak flow of water trying to get the last of the shampoo out of my hair, again with temperature control interludes. After at least 15 minutes of cursing and sighing in exasperation, I decided to forgo conditioning and left the bathroom with a defeated ‘Good luck…’ to Tara. She went in armed with a water bottle which she filled several times to pour on her head for the purpose of hair washing, luckily realizing the occasions where steam was streaming out the top of the bottle and remembering to add some extra cold water!

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The final day of our Halong trip was spent on a variety of transportation to get back to Hanoi. A simple combination of small boat from Nam Cat to the south harbour at Cat Ba, small bus to big bus across the island to the north harbour, small boat to the junk, cruise to Halong, then back to the small boat again to the mainland and onto a final minibus back to Hanoi. Phew!

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On our last half day in Hanoi, we went earlier to see Uncle Ho and this time got into the mausoleum (along with about a gazillion other people, some tourists but most Vietnamese). It was a slow but steady moving procession in and out of the mausoleum and then through the presidential palace grounds and back out. Ho Chi Minh embalmed was a little different to what I expected. I guess I was picturing the shrivelled up old mummies I’d seen in Peru or the ‘bog-bodies’ in Ireland, but he was in pristine condition and looked more like a Madame Tussaud’s wax model sleeping in his glass cabinet. Pretty incredible. Apparently he goes to Russia for maintenance every 2 years or so, looks like they’re doing a pretty good job. They are the expert communist embalmers I suppose!

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Our last stop was the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university, a beautiful set of buildings and grounds built in traditional Chinese style. They used to teach Confucian principles. Apparently back in the day, the students would sit their school exam then a national exam and if they passed those, they got to be examined by the King himself who asked them a question and then decided if they passed or failed.  Talk about put on the spot! Thanking our lucky stars that our exams didn’t involve one-on-one questioning with the monarch, we went off to the airport where Tara lamented returning home without the 2 souvenirs she wanted most- a Vietnamese baby and a water buffalo. It was sad to part ways after an un-pho-gettable trip (had to get one more in before leaving Vietnam!) but we had an amazing time and leave with not just some great memories, but also newfound cooking/husband-pulling skills… 🙂

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Good Morning Vietnam!

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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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