The planning started a year ago today. I knew where I wanted to take us on our next adventure. Vietnam. North to South, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Hubby was intrigued, as was I. There are so many (incorrect) preconceptions about Vietnam. All we knew was that we had to go and experience it for ourselves.
The trip was going to cover 1400 miles over 22 days using a variety of transport modes; planes, trains, auto-mobiles, scooter, bicycle, boat and foot. Donkey being the only option not to be considered.
I booked our land arrangements with Rickshaw Travel (who are fabulous and helped us with our Thailand tour in 2010) and the flights separately with Aeroflot via STA Travel. Now, when you find the best flight options with an hours overlay in Moscow on both legs for less than half the price of the nearest flight operator I asked myself a number of questions:
- How safe are this outfit?
- What will the on-board service be like?
- Will they have done proper checks of the aircraft?
- How reliable are they?
I took to Twitter and Facebook and asked around. My friends were quick to reassure me with comments such as “they have the worst safety record of any airline”, “you don’t get fed”, “no on-board entertainment”, “stroppy, unfriendly cabin crew”, “always delayed”. Nice.
I did my own checks and, with the bum a tad twitchy, booked the flights. Hell, for the price I was paying, I would be have been happy to take my own parachute and Vodka on board.
Next up was currency. Did we use the Dong or US Dollars? I stumbled upon an article by Martin Lewis who detailed a new travel card, Revolut. An app that you top up from your bank account with the added benefit of ordering a Mastercard that you can use in any currency for usual card transactions, as well as ATM withdrawals, without any exchange rate charges. It is, simply revolutionary. Genius!
We flew out from Heathrow on 12th December 2015. A seamless first and second leg and the flight was comfortable. The only difference between other airlines we have flown to Asia with was the range of drinks on board; red wine, white wine or juice. If other airlines are charging the extra £500 for beer and spirit options, don’t. De-stock them. I don’t need a beer or G&T that badly. I know who I’ll be booking with next time, that’s for sure.
We arrived in Hanoi on 13th December. A quick reccy of the local area, a few beers, some local scram and back to the hotel.
I had planned for us to spend 2 days in Hanoi with a whole load of stuff to see and do. We ate street food (stuff we had never heard of), sat on little chairs, at even diddier tables, people watching and drinking beer Ha Noi at 5p a glass. We made friends, did touristy things and local things – off the beaten track, learned about their heritage, chatted in English to help our student guides improve their language skills, dived into awesome food; bowls of fruit and yoghurt, ice-cream, black rice coffee, chickens feet (don’t do it) and the best Pho I’ve ever had. Crazy, a million miles an hour; cross the road at your own peril. You literally just walk into the road and keep going. I absolutely bricked myself the first time, but you get used to it. There are rules for the road? Could have fooled us.
We fell in love with Hanoi. Steeped in history, friendliness, market stalls, art, music, epic street food and extraordinarily cheep beer, this was our kind of city.
Next Stop was Halong Bay. What can I say; it was unexpectedly cold and wet. Add to that, neither of us had a coat. Why would we? It was 30 degrees up the road in Hanoi. A quick check of the weather app told us it was warmer at home AT NIGHT than it was in Halong Bay whilst we were there. Typical! We boarded the Junket with 8 others and were extremely grateful for the premium bottle of Brandy that we had brought with us. Certainly warmed the cockles up. We laughed, we tried to catch squid, bought awful red wine and Pringles from a boat lady, climbed mountains and explored caves that wowed. In the sun, I would have really enjoyed it. In the cold, not so much. Our guide took pity on Mark and, being the only man on the boat of a similar size, donated his jacket for the duration. Lege!
Onwards from Halong Bay, it was back to Hanoi for a final night. We were recommended an actual restaurant to go to as opposed to the street food we had grown to trust and love. I would, however, very quickly regret that when, half way through eating a minced pork dish, I discovered it wasn’t cooked properly. The outcome was inevitable.
The jaunt to our next stop, Hue, was to be agonising and I lost a day being laid up.
The next day, I made a beeline to the nearest pharmacy, dosed up as much I dared and, with our guide, we began a 10 mile cycle through the rice fields, stopping to catch fish for lunch, experience cooking lunch in a home with locals (thanks to With Locals for an awesome app and brilliant experience) making Bahn Tet in another home, sampling ginger tea and potato snacks dipped in peanut and sugar at another home visit and a visit to the overwhelming site of the Imperial City and the Citadel.
Hue to Da Nang by day train – a fabulous experience. Comfy seats although the man spread and the locals using us as foot rests took a bit of getting used to.
Day 3 of food poisoning hell from a restaurant, not street food and I had my first meal of eggy rice when we arrived in Hoi An. We were here for 3 days and, whilst we did eat elsewhere, kept returning to Trip Nguyen Restaurant. It was THAT good. It was amazing. Such simple dishes yet packed with flavour.
There are tailors everywhere – they give you a Next catalogue, you choose the style and they whip up a quality three-piece suit or collection of dresses overnight.
The Old City is simply breathtaking. All round good times.
We visited My Son, went on a river cruise with a driver who either didn’t bother driving or spent his time on FB, spent time in a local village, did so much shopping that we had to buy more luggage, visited a local market. I’m used to buying my poultry already dead – not here. Tie them together and take the live ducks back home in the foot-well of your scooter!
Having a well deserved beer after a full on day, I was accosted by a lady who wanted to thread my face telling me ” I can remove your beard”. Who knew I had a beard? Having never had facial waxing (apart from my eye-brows), I was a little intrigued having seen it in shopping centres in the UK. Start small, I thought, and she was adamant that I currently resembled Tom Selleck so off I followed for a top lip threading. DON’T DO IT! It was the singular most excruciating experience of my life. And I have 6 tattoos.
Shit map reading and so much rain. My white linen trousers didn’t survive.
Beers and giggles aplenty.
Some R&R was needed. Next top, Whale Island, via Nha Trang. And SUN. We didn’t move for 3 days, except to snorkel. NB: There are no Whales at Whale Island.
Next stop, MORE SUN and the simply exceptional Mia Resort, Nha Trang. Christmas Day arrived and, wanting to keep with tradition of doing something a little different, we went fly-boarding (discovered through the With Locals app). SO much fun. It’s hard work to grasp the concept but, once you get the hang of it, it’s brilliant! We popped into a local brewhouse on the way back and saw the first full moon on Christmas Day since 1977. A sight like this will not be seen again in my lifetime. If I recall, 2034 is the next one.
We sadly left Nha Trang and headed on to the next stage of our adventure….more R&R in Mui Ne. Unbeknown to us, at the time, the Kite-Surfing capital of Vietnam. A very Russian influenced town and, for the first time, totally commercialised. If you don’t kite-surf and want more than to lay on the beach, you may be disappointed.
Facetiming the family became a daily occurrence, post Christmas Day, after our Sister and Nephew bought Mum and Dad an ipad. This generated hours of hilarity whilst they figured out how to use it whilst online. It was not uncommon for me to facetime and get no answer, ring the house only to find out that they had put the ipad back in the box because they weren’t using it. Brilliant! I then, of course, had to facetime our Sister to fill her in. We cried with laughter. I’m pleased to say that, aged 76, they are now more adept at facetiming than I am.
Onwards from Mui Ne, and we journeyed South, by day train from Pham Thiet, to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now known. We were pros at this now, although luggage was becoming a challenge with all of the stuff we had bought. In fact, we’d already worked out that two rooms of our house would have to be re-decorated in order to accommodate the many paintings we were bringing home.
The Mekong Delta was our penultimate stop. 2 days on the River. It is out of this world. The sheer size of it blew me away. We learned so much. Most surprisingly, the use of the swastika on religious buildings. Neither of us had any knowledge of it’s use prior to WWII. Until the 20th century, the swastika was the symbol of good fortune, prosperity, and longevity in many Far Eastern countries, hence it’s use on many temples.
We made rice paper, drank snake wine, met a couple of pre-barrelled chaps (live snakes) and enjoyed life on the river.
New Years Eve was beckoning. What to do? Spend it up the Bitexo Tower or gate crash the party and dance through with the locals…
We opted for the best of both worlds. Cocktails up the tower followed by an amazing meal at Hoa Tuc (recommended by the fabulous Laura who we travelled Thailand with. Thank you!) and beers in a carrier bag at a free party / firework show in the middle of the City.
Our final few days in Saigon. We woke up and saw in the UK New Year then headed out early doors for a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels (upon reflection, planning this trip for New Years Day was not my best move). You need to see it but I found it eerie.
A time to reflect, in amazement, at just how epic this trip has been. Vietnam is a rapidly evolving Country. If I may make one recommendation? Go now. It matters not your age, budget, food likes / dislikes, preconceptions, political views. Just go now. You won’t regret it.
As with all of our trips, something had to go wrong. We were delayed leaving Saigon and, inevitably, missed the connection in Moscow. Arriving at 8:45pm, the Aeroflot team were less than helpful, and we ended up sleeping on the floor in the VIP lounge until the next flight out at 7am the next morning. Would this change my mind about flying with them again? Absolutely not.
Vietnam is a country that is working so hard to better itself and, yes politics will always be a factor, but there is a fabulous organisation that helps you to help Vietnam’s entrepreneurs; Farmers, tailors, shopkeepers. I discovered Lend With Care back in 2014 when my friend signed up to raise money for them by cycling Vietnam to Cambodia. I signed up, lended and to see how this is benefiting the people of Vietnam is awesome.
If you would like any info about our trip, details of hotels etc, please do get in touch. You’ll find me on Twitter @pubdonna or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be more than happy to supply the details.
Finally, a big thank you to hubby for your patience when I’m planning our trips and to Hazel and Brittany at Rickshaw Travel for helping me make this happen.