My ten day trip ended in Hoi An where I met with my daughter who had arrived there the previous day. Unfortunately, she was not happy with my choice of hotel and let me know it every s i n g l e day. We were there for FIVE days! This was a major reminder as to why I travel solo – I was beginning to doubt the upcoming four day trip we had booked would happen. So much so that by the second day I was in Hoi An I cancelled my driver and was looking into flights back to China or even home to Canada – always follow up on consequences once stated. My daughter was shocked enough to ask me to try to reverse that decision. I mulled over it, told her some concessions were necessary, then contacted my lovely guide. The trip was on, my daughter and I agreed to only spend some of the time together – Hoi An was looking friendlier.
I liked that although our hotel was not within the immediate vicinity of Old Town it was close enough to withstand the heat and humidity that I found it was only just bearable. Each day I left with my hat, umbrella and a full bottle or two of water as well as a granola bar. When my daughter asked if I needed anything from home I asked for more granola bars. She threw in a pair of sandals she had travelled in the previous year – to replace the pair stolen from me in Saigon – because she knew how much my knees would suffer if I only had flip flops. These ended up being my main footwear for the remainder of my travels except when my sturdier walking shoes were necessary. It is these actions that remind me my daughter is basically a good person. We just have to take each other in small doses.
We visited Old Town a few times. This is definitely what draws tourists. The area has a quaint, lazy bustle feel to it during the daytime with many opportunities to visit small, local museums, a couple of old courtyard homes and of course the 18th century, Japanese wooden bridge that sits at one end of the old town. This a favourite spot for photos – nearly impossible to get one without a complete stranger staring out from one section or an entrance. I do not think I growled at everyone to get out of my way for the shot above. Depending on the time and disposition of the ‘guards’ posted at each end there is a fee, or no fee. When we were caught in a downpour everyone nearby huddled at an entrance to avoid paying to go further along.
as we widened our walks behind the main walkways we stumbled across this wonderful house sitting rather forlorn, a beautiful remnant of French influence with enough of an Asian twist to have both of us exclaim in delight, “I want this!” We remained for a few minutes of adoration and dreams. It really was close enough to the heavily visited Old Town to seriously consider for anyone with the money and time to turn it into a boutique hotel.
Evening brought a different vibe. This is when the area becomes very crowded, vendors are out in full force, a wonderful market with all sorts of delicious food and fabulous goods open their stalls and everyone is in a great mood. We ate too much. We joined many others posing with stunning lanterns – my daughter was quite swift at ducking in, angling for a shot, then bowing out with one of her winning smiles. Red lanterns are strung above, beautifully crafted lanterns in all sorts of designs and patterns are lit up to entice buyers, lanterns to drop in the river as prayers to dearly departed, or the gods, are sold left, right and centre. I am quite sure this is not great for the environment. It did cross my mind there are most likely people who drag the soggy remnants out at the end of the nightly revelling. Happy, easy revelling. People may have been a little drunk but never belligerent. A place for families, single people, couples, old and young.
We mainly took it easy for the five days in Hoi An. I had a pedicure. My daughter had her hair coloured and cut. We even made it to the beach. I walked – 40 minutes of insanity in the heat. My daughter sent me a message to say she was taking a TA I and would meet me. I was nearly there by the time she showed up. We seemed to have hit a time when a storm was brewing. This meant absolutely no swimming. However, all the many, many ocean facing restaurants and bars had great seating for viewing the waves, sand and anyone silly enough to get too close to the water. (The two photos show just how close I came to being swept off my feet by an exuberant wave) Dare to sit down and a lifeguard was immediately there to chase you away. Our day wandered into lunch, some cocktails (I drank water), reading and relaxing. The storm did not arrive.
It was soon our last night, time to pack our bags before heading out on a four day Motorbike Tour into my guide’s home country. He had rather happily cancelled a trip from Hanoi, in the north, to Hoi An when I had first suggested a second tour. His home is about a 30 minute drive to the country – he had time to go home for a few days before our tour. I was looking forward to discovering more of this wonderful, diverse, beautiful, small country.
Amazing! After ten days we arrived at Hoi An where my intrepid driver/guide/new friend dropped my off at the hotel I had chosen and where I would meet my daughter who had flown in the previous day. That however is the next chapter. Day Ten was another day of adventure, history and laughs. To date I had not mentioned laughing, I should have as we certainly had some hilarious moments, ranging from misunderstanding words, the changing weather patterns and people I met on the way.
Poor Toan, he had no way of knowing that my responses of okay, or mhm usually meant I had not heard everything he was telling me as we were flying past a place of some significance. As I said already, I left most of the stops up to him, this also meant he had to decide which gems to let shine. My goal had finally become, ‘sit back and enjoy’, learning more, and retaining everything, about places was a bonus.
The most significant stop of our day was at the monument where the Ho Chi Minh Road takes a sharp turn to the left – and Laos – before heading northwest. The monument itself is hidden behind some trees, looking rather forlorn considering the importance of the spot. However, comrades who survived the severe, daily bombings in the area between 1969-1975, visit annually if not more often, to remember their friends, family and fellow soldiers who were killed or have since died. This is a crossroads with all sorts of messages.
I was invited to dismount from the bike and walk across the bridge that separates Ho Chi Minh Road from the highway facing Hoi An. It was a poignant moment, not taken lightly. I rarely ‘feel’ the energy emanating from a spot or region, I usually scoff at such silliness – until I too sense more than just my presence. Whatever it was, I did feel awed that each step I was making took me towards, and away from, the past. Perhaps it was the emptiness of the bridge, I saw only 2-3 motorbikes crossing it when I was walking, it was easy to go to the opposite side without worrying about being run down. I chose to turn back just before hitting the end of the bridge – it was not the distance – something just made me want to leave that side of history alone.
I walked back to the present where I was met by trucks, cars and motorbikes vying for space. Once I safely made it back to the shade of the trees and the monument I discovered several men chatting with Toan who were far too interested in seeing if I would fall off the bike! To commemorate arriving I also had a picture taken; I could barely stop from falling over laughing as these men were smiling and laughing at me. So, a rarity, a photo of me.
We still had miles to go, with a final meal and coffee together before saying adieu and see you in five days. Oh yes, we were still booked for that four day tour.
So many photos, so many stories. I hope to share more with short captions.
Well, we were nearing the end and I was beginning to wonder what else I could possibly be shown to make me amazed, sad, surprised, or maybe angry. Then there were the visual and auditory senses, and even some emotional ones. I will start with the last one – it is physically tough riding on the back of a motorbike for even an hour let alone several hours. Despite Toan’s insistence I say if I wanted to stop at any time to take photos, visit a place or just stretch my legs, I tended to let him determine the pace. We stopped every two hours if there was not a place to visit for more than five minutes – I did choose to just sit and enjoy some scenery rather than climbing off the bike, then lining up my phone or camera in an often son attempt to capture a scene. I am not a photographer and I do not edit anything. (Fine, I do not know how to)
Visual and auditory senses were assaulted the whole nine days – there was just so much to take in that it became impossible to capture only one moment a day. Having the history of a culture explained in snapshots is difficult, understanding it would take a lifetime. Day 9 was Thanksgiving in Canada, which made me sort of wish I had someone to celebrate with. Cross cultural small-scale celebrations are not always easy to translate (me explaining, others attemptingbto process into Vietnamese) – how to describe the smells attached to the holiday: wafts of roasting turkey, sage, onion, parsley and butter for stuffing, potatoes mashed to perfection mixed with butter, cream(or milk, or yogurt or sour cream – even cream cheese) and garlic, to someone who has never had turkey? Rather disheartening to be given a bowl of rice and what someone tried to pass as chicken – which was overdone and dry. (Most of my meals have been fair to wonderful)
This was the day we crossed, in my head anyway, from South to North although we had been in Central Vietnam for quite some time and there is no longer a division between North and South. However, to me this was the beginning of Ho Chi Min Road, with its two glimpses of the Ho Chi Minh Trail far below. The trail was never really a trail, it was built between 1959- 1975 to make it possible for weaponry, people and supplies to pass undetected – which meant most of the trail was actually in neighbouring Laos, no more than 14 km away in some areas. The views were, once again, absolutely stunning and breathtaking as was the switchback road! Meeting cattle and goats foraging along the side of the highway- at times lumbering into the the two lanes – was a time to close my eyes, except I would have fallen off the bike.
Of course there was visit to another temple, one I nearly opted to miss considering how weary my backside was getting. The difference here was how isolated it appeared to be and it was, according to my guide, a Muslim structure belonging to the Cham minority, who primarily follow Islam, and to a lesser degree Hinduism. This particular temple is not well kept, being allowed to rejoin the jungle from what I could see, its two stone guards so worn down they were difficult to recognize as a rhinoceros (hunted to distinction) and what might have been an elephant. Reminded me more of what would be in front of a Hindu temple. Perhaps the information given was incorrect.
We were stopped at a train track, entering civilization again. I tried to grab a photo of the gatekeeper – no automation here. While he waited for the train to pass he kept busy painting the arm that held all vehicles back until it was time to manually raise it again. We would soon arrive at the last overnight stay before leaving Ho Chi Minh Road and heading to Hoi An where I intended to rest my weary bones and oversaturated brain. Yes, I had finally told Toan I would be do a four day trip with him but this time with my daughter and another driver.
I was pretty well packed and ready to go, all I had to do was put on my runners, drink my tea and finish chatting to my daughter who had decided she will meet me in Hoi An as there was not enough time for her to fly to Saigon and catch up with me. I received a message saying my ride had arrived – 45 minutes early. I decided right then we would get along. I hate being late for anything.
I need to stop here to say most of the day remains a bit hazy. I must have been more overwhelmed by the experience than I realized as I simply cannot recall one clear memory. It was more of a sensory overload. I needed to become acquainted with the bike and driver, and he with me. Trust is a major factor when sitting astride a motorbike. First I had to hop aboard – easier than it sounds. Then getting out of Saigon seemed to take forever and the traffic remained crazy although not quite as insane as in the centre.Fortunately it was a nice day – heck, it was HOT! I applied sunscreen 3-4 times and still had a sunburn on my back where it is never easy to reach.The weaving in and out of traffic, light touch of the horn as we passed by others; the city giving way to lush green, with too much garbage on the roads to mar picture perfect moments. The smell of oil, fish, garbage all mingling into a barely bearable bouquet that we finally left behind before our first stop for coffee.
It took quite some to get out of the city, Saigon and the surrounding countryside is huge! I thought we would never leave the traffic behind. Finally crossed what I thought was a toll booth but was the entry to catch a small ferry boat across to an island -.this seems to cut down on time and is far more pleasant to sit for about ten minutes without all the exhaust. To help with the fumes, dirt and wind Toan bought a cowl like cover up for my face. We drove off the ferry towards a monastery of sorts. I would find myself getting rather confused as to just what I was visiting at times. The way I understood it this was a retreat of sorts for monks but with a distinct Chinese influence.
Of course I do not read Vietnamese so the first notices telling visitors to remove their shoes went unheeded – oops. Thank goodness there was not anyone around. I remembered before entering the largest hall, it helped that I saw shoes but no people right away. I put away my worries about the, being stolen. I was quite sure nobody would want my runners – not a common type of footwear.
We did a lot of driving and had to stop in one place when the motorbike started to make strange noises. Eventually it was suggested I be dropped off at a cafe while my driver went in search of a mechanic after the one he wanted was closed – it was Sunday. I suggested Highland – I had seen it a couple of blocks back – because I was quite sure they would have AC and a western toilet. Ah, the conveniences we prefer. I was also able to charge my phone and iPad. As I said, trust was important. After all, I had paid him and he had all my stuff except my purse and daypack. About 40 minutes he came back, had to jury rig what he needed because the piece could not be found anywhere.
Of course we wasted a lot of time so made it to our hotel just before dark. I was exhausted, and Toan was most likely worried I would be unhappy with the turn of events. However, we had stopped for coffee a couple of times and lunch as well as short stops for him to point out places and explain them to me. Money has yet to be discussed other than the cost of the tour it self which includes my guide, the bike, fuel etc., accommodation and entry fees to sites. For the day we took turns until dinner. When we discussed thwt took up his offer to being me chicken and rice to the room which he insisted on paying for. I was ready to fall asleep.
I was dealing with four currencies in one day – very confusing. The VND is in ridiculously high notes – 500.000VND = 30CAD. At least my just shy of 500CNY can be put away for 20 days. I will have to be vigilant about spending, too easy to get confused and end up paying too much for something. The fact USD/CAD/EUROS & even CNY could be used at the airport – besides exchanging – surprised me. I squirrelled my money to brave the streets of Saigon to find dinner. I hoped to do some tours while in Saigon as there was no way I had enough time to work out how to get anywhere on my own.
When I first went to China in 1996 I could not believe how many bicycles there were, to be replaced by motor scooters then cars over two decades – all making for some crazy driving. Move forward 21 years to Vietnam and it is motor scooters – except the streets are insane! The noise is deafening, people jostle for a foot or wheel hold, horns toot, people shout out to passing riders to stop for a bite, parents are fetching children from school, the after school vendors are on their scooters (ready to push off if any authority shows up – happens in China too). Everyone has a place to with pedestrians at the bottom of priorities. Perhaps simply because they must not be going far if walking?
I somehow managed to walk to the wet market several blocks down – I had no idea where I was heading – and even tried out some street food. The French influence means some pretty tasty, crusty bread is found at many stalls. One place drew my attention when a crust had just been opened and was being filled with something interesting. The fellow holding it was also quite entertaining while he tried to entice me to try some. It worked. For 20,000VND I had dinner – bread filled with nicely done tofu, a long slice of cucumber marinating in something (most likely to keep it fresh), some pickled goodies, slightly cooked sprouts and a dash of hot sauce. No pictures, no pandas allowed out to share, too dangerous with all those scooters. Probably some fumes mixed in the meal. Picked up some milk to make coffee, then called it a night other than arranging for a full day City tour the next day.
War Museum, how the hell does humanity still get so entangled to maim, torture, wrest away freedom, deny basic rights, fault religious and political beliefs, enough to kill each other? As my fellow morning seat mate said, I was crying on the inside. We did not have enough time for thoroughly learning about the atrocities of yet another crime against humanity.
While there My youngest daughter tried to call me. Her closest sister let me know then connected us with FB – seems she wishes she had met me in Saigon after all. I said to just come. Logistically it will most likely mean she will be a day behind me on the motorcycle tour. We are waiting on flights and an available driver and bike. (Update – it took a couple of days for her to organize everything so she would meet me in Hoi An after my tour)
Chinatown – sort of the same as any wet market, and wholesale goods in China. No idea why we were brought there other than perhaps to keep us amused for an hour. I think most of the participants were just confused and not too happy at the prospect of hanging around a maze of shops selling everything from spices, chili sauces, dried everything to whatever one might need in the home or office- plus items never even considered, let alone knowing what they were for, this form someone who has shopped in Chinese markets.
Pit stop for civet coffee. Of course this was the inevitable sales pitch to buy, buy, buy. At least the coffee served was free.
A short stop, about 20 minutes at the Chinese Temple to the goddess of the sea. Built in the 17th c. The idols were beautifully draped in finery. I was beginning to feel rushed. Lunch stop, I finally had Pho! Naturally this was an extra charge. It worked out because everyone could order what they wanted or go to one of many other small restaurants. They all seem to work together when it comes to large tour groups.
Another Pit stop, this time at one of several (I discovered this the next day)Handicapped Handicrafts tour/sales pitch. The sign says 100% of the proceeds goes to the care of the individuals doing the lacquer work but how do we know? The Reunification Museum – where the tanks crashed through the gates in 1975 which basically ended the war – has about 100 rooms but we only had an hour to rush through maybe half of them. I know it sounds crazy for someone interested in history but I chose to give it a miss and headed to Highland Coffee outside the gates where I had an iced coffee and stayed cool. The gardens did look lovely, but I could see hem from outside the wrought iron fence. When I asked a fellow passenger what she thought she said it was only alright and they were rushed. Happy with my decision. Perhaps I will return to Vietnam.
Notes Dame Cathedral, built in the 1880s, was on the list of places included in the tour – too bad they did not bother to mention, until we were there – that it has been closed past three years for major renovations. All we could do was peer through the fence and take photos from a distance. I would have loved to see inside. However, with the Central Saigon Post Office right across the street I might have managed some interesting pictures. The post office was built in 1886, busy times back then, with a definite French architectural influence from the time. This is a favourite stop for tourists to buy a postcard, buy a stamp and have it postmarked from Ho Chih Minh – I wonder if they mail the postcard to their address.
That ended my first full day. I foolishly booked a 5:30am early morning tour plus the Cu Chi Tunnels for the next day. It was time for bed.
Time for my early morning tour. I opened the door to don my sturdy, comfortable, Clarke’s sandals that used to be my mother’s….to discover they were not there. I looked inside, I checked my room, I checked all the rooms, although I knew full well I had left them on the door sill. Someone had stolen my shoes. So much for trying to live like the locals. I thought I was doing what everyone does by removing my shoes before entering a home. Seems they also bring in their footwear before retiring, I was furious and angry. I hoped the shoes would bring him nothing but misery – perhaps trip and break a leg; a possibility considering they were a size 8 whereas most women in Vietnam wear a couple of sizes smaller. Perhaps it was a man. So, that place will not be recommended.The poor guide who met me was unsure what to do with a sobbing woman the age of his grandmother when I informed him I did not know if I was up to a tour. All I wanted to do was pack and go home.
I persevered, we headed out to see the sun rising, feel a cooling breeze and watch the city wake up. Although my guide, whose name has now escaped me, suggested I turn around to watch the sunrise I chose to watch the reflection on the river and buildings in the centre of the city . Much prettier than the garbage and rat I saw scurrying nearby.
Saigon has a massive population of over 20 million, very little space and few tall buildings to put them in. They do however have the Saigon River and many people live on the water selling a variety of goods. Most of these people come from further north, only going home during major holidays. Their children stay with grandparents to attend school. The one boat we were hoping to visit was not yet pulled into shore so we chatted about the lives of the people and some of the goods they sell. This one appeared to sell plants and, like nearly every other boat, coconuts. Each boat has living quarters and a small kitchen at the bow and lots of space for goods. They all had large, stylized eyes painted on the prow looking down to frighten away any evil spirits lurking in the water. Unlike many fishermen off the westcoast of BC when I was young up boat dwellers know how to swim – we discussed this and came to the conclusion that it is easier to climb out of a river than an ocean if you fall in. I should note that nowadays fishermen in Canada tend to know how to swim and have all sorts of flotation equipment.
My guide was sweet, he asked if I felt any better and could he give me a hug. He was an awkward 22 year old so I thought it was alright. I did indeed feel better. Our next stop was the wholesale flower market. Flowers, flowers and more flowers. Made the me think of the musical My Fair Lady where everyone is preparing to sell and buy flowers for the day. The market never closes, 24 hour flower power. Deliveries of flowers from the delta arrive in the early morning – usually by 4:00am – and flower shops from all over the city pick up their choices starting around 6:00am. Not only were there flowers to sell in large quantities though; some stalls had astonishingly large arrangements prepared, others were preparing fancy arrangements and everywhere was busy. I learned that a display including purple and white flowers are for funerals whereas ones with red flowers are for good luck. We stopped at a stall where roses and orchids are sold where my guide presented me with a red rose. I knew it was a gimmick but his sincerity washed that thought away.
The next stop was to a park for breakfast where people gather to hang their bird cages, sip coffee and eat breakfast while visiting. Hundreds of bamboo cages were hanging above the low tables where the birds could have fresh air and provide some rather pleasant birdsong. I would have though so many varieties of birds would create a cacophony of noise. It was actually rather pleasant. Of course we had coffee. I am becoming good at saying absolutely no sugar although I do get some stares of horror. Thick, heavily sweetened, condensed milk added to a Espresso shot is practically a national drink in Vietnam. In addition, a glass of iced green tea is often provided to help cut the bitterness. Coffee and Pho, not a bad was to end my early morning tour. We went past the two hours so had to hustle to my next tour – the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chih Minh.
The war in Vietnam was a tragedy, as is, in my opinion, any war. The politicians do not suffer the indignities or war. So, again, how often do we need reminding? The tunnels are about a 1 1/2 – 2 hour drive from the city centre. We made one stop at yet another Handicapped Handicrafts site – a chance to stretch my legs while avoiding the sales pitch.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were built and used by the Viet Cong from the 1940s, hidden in the jungle, as a way to escape the French during the Indochine war and eventually from American soldiers into the 1970s. The Viet Cong lived in the tunnels when absolutely necessary but otherwise had camps above ground also. Rather gruesome traps were built to prevent discovery, hidden air holes were drilled and hidden for staying underground for several days. Quick escapes into and out of the tunnels were built and camouflaged. I did try one of the tunnels, these are nasty places even now with low lights to guide visitors. I am only 5’2″ but had to stoop to pass through. It is impossible to carry a bag on your back and in some spots it is necessary to nearly crawl forward close to the ground – I did not make that attempt. Not a place to visit if claustrophobic.
When I finally made it back to my room there was still no sign of my sandals. They were truly gone. I went in search of dinner, got turned around at one point – not a good idea in a city maze – finally made it to my corner, bought my dinner then was stuck where I was when a major rainstorm hit. An hour passed, I ate my dinner, sat on a chair provided by a shopkeeper and watched as water poured from the sky, down the road and into ditches. We were nearly inundated. I finally made a dash for my corner again to be stopped by water that would most likely go half way to my knees. So I did the only sensible thing – I bought a pair of pink thongs (flip-flops).
Exciting last night in Saigon. I would be heading out in the morning on a ten day motorbike tour – I hoped for sun.
Vietnam visa 25USD; SIM 15CAD;Taxi 165,000VND;Room 1.9 mill (106CAD) includes brkfst; Lunch 51,000; Entrance fees 15,000; Tour 9USD; TAXI 62,000; Iced coffee 49,000; Dinner, water, milk 42,500; Morning tour 25USD; Tunnels 125,000? + 110,000+ lunch 70,000 Pho & bottle water; Dinner: bought two eggs 6000VND; one orange 12,000!; donair because caught in a rainstorm 17,000; thongs 39,000
Or, to make things easier, I spent about 75.00CAD per day.