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We left Central Vietnam after almost a week to head to the very south of the country for our last destination: Saigon. Once again we decided to travel by land and took an overnight train. The reunification express should bring us on leisurely 18hrs ride over approx. 900km to our destination (in the end it took us a few hrs more – but whats a 1-2 hrs delay on a 1.5day trip?). This time we were not as lucky as the last time we travellede by train. Our driver from Hoi An to Da Nang train station arrived late for pick-up, smelled like he drank way too much alcohol to drive and our heart rates rocketed a few times caused by his fancy overtaking maneuvers. After surviving the transfer we arrived at an overcrowded train station with barely a place to sit while waiting for the train. We could finally board our coach at around 23:00. The cabin we would spend the next day was by far below our expectation after our first pleasant experience from Hanoi to Hue. The first welcome greetings were the dirty feet from an old local man laying in the cabin and the presence of some rubbish and cigarette smell. There was no bedlinen provided and one of our matresses was beautifully stained and looked like our predecessor had had a pee or two on it. Fortunately we could hide in our clean thin silk sleeping bags so we tried to get some sleep while people hopped on and off the train throughout the night.
We got into Saigon at around 17:00 the next day. On our journey we already noticed that the environment has changed. Nature no longer presented itself in the lush greens known from the north. The clima has changed to tropcial with 30degrees+ and endless blue skies (dry season in the south from Dec to Apr). We shared a cab to the city center with a retired American whom we got to know on the train and who lives in Vietnam for 14 years due to his affinity to drugs (he explained to us, that it’s much easier to smoke pot (marijuana) in Vietnam than in the States – we always thought South East Asian countries are very strict when it comes to drug abuse…whatever).
We realized from the very minute we got into town: Saigon is different. Although it’s the same country, it has little to do with what we saw so far. Longterm international influence from French and American times is visible in every corner (bakeries, skyscrapers, huge LED advertisement screens, McDonalds, Starbucks…). The economy seemed to soar within the past years whilst the entire infrastructure (and unfortunaltely some people) did not keep up with the pace. Saigon is home to over 7 Mio. people (almost as many as Switzerland) cramped on an area more than 20 times smaller. There’s no mrt system or monorail available. We thought Hanoi’s bad, Saigon is worse. Traffic is horrible, air pollution massive and noise abundant. As we browsed around the city we noticed a huge disparity. From lonely old war veterans wounded and left with no legs sitting in city parks to high heeled teenies browsing on their latest iPhones. From grandparents feeding their grandchilder on the streets as child’s parents are busy trying to earn a few dollars to impatient businessmen honking in half a million dollar Bentley because they are stuck in traffic with all those motorcycles. This huge contradiction got us thinking. Are those veterans who once led this country to independence still able to take part in today’s rushing economy? Where is this gonna end up? Can this city ever “breathe-out”?
As the painful history of this country during numerous wars is incarnated in nearly every sight we visited in the past two weeks: The war remnants museum Saigon beats it all. This is truly a must visit if you would ever come by Saigon and it is indeed an eye-opener. But be prepared: it’s heavy. Very heavy. The musuem mainly displays photos and some relicts (weapons and tools of soldiers) from the American war between 1955 to 1975. As we browsed around the exhibition (in complete silence) we realized how deep the scares of this war must have been (and still are). The war photographers captured moments when entire civilian villages were ravished by Americans, children and pregnant women were massacred without a reason, old men were dragged to death by american vehicles and victims of napalm bombs or missborn babies with the worst degree of disability you can imagine caused by the use of Agent Orange to defoliate to forest where guerilla fighters hide themselves.
Another impressive site that we have visited was the Cu Chi tunnel system. With its 220km length in total, it is a complex tunnel system that was important in the war against Americans. The Viet Cong (so to say the communist soldiers) spent years to build the three layered tunnel system: first layer 3 meter below earth surface, second layer 5m, third layer 8-10m. They used bare hands to dig the whole system! Many technics were used to hide their existence from the Americans, such as cooking only in the morning and evening when it was usually foggy, so that their enemies could not distinguish between smoke and fog. We could go down to the tunnel system and after 20m (Roman did 40m) I have had enough. It was narrow and dark. It is hard to imagine that the Viet Cong had to live downthere for days. When the Americans were not firing them, the soldiers could come out for some fresh air in the evening. Its amazing to see how they dealt with scarce ressources and recycled things. The soldiers made their own slippers out of old tyres which could last 8-10 years. The slippers could be worn in two manners, one normal way and the other manner is to leave “backward prints” eventhough when he/she is walking forward to disguise from their enemies. They also dissambled unexploded American bombs and constructed landmines to use against their enemies.
After two weeks in Vietnam, from north to south, we have seen many sides of this beautiful country: Its touching history, endless rice fields, hardworking people and delicous food. Two weeks have been nice to get a first glance at this country, but its barely enought to discover even the so called “top-spots”. Since we choose to travel from the very northern to the nearly southermost point we got a nice overview of the contrast in this country, but to avoid rushing thourgh and cutting out some of the spots we would recommend anyone visiting Vietnam to plan at least double of the time we allowed ourselfes. Vietnam is not for the faint-hearted nor would we recommend it first first-time-asia travellers: be prepared to be confronted with the cruelty of war, endless hard bargains, huge cultural differences and a sometimes chaotic system. The Vietnamese have proved that their independence is a hard-fought victory with blood, sweat, intelligence and determination and we re glad we got in touch with this culture. We (and one of us a bit impatiently) are now looking foreward to travel further to Malyasia for some festives, food and family gathering during upcoming Chinese New Year.
While planning for our trip to Vietnam many travellers we have spoken to, travel guide or travel articles we have read praised Hoi An for its local charm, unique cuisine and top tailors. Therefore we expected quite a bit of this stop. The surroundings of Hoi An seemed very rural and charming but as we got nearer to town we realized bit by bit that this might not be what we thought it would be. The streets gradually became busier with western tourists, english named shops, tour buses and à la carte restaurants serving pizza, pasta, sushi, mexican food etc.. After checking-in at our homestay (a top-notch!) we took a walk round the town of Hoi An for a couple of hours and our suspicion was confirmed. It had never been this hard to find those small authetic streetfood vendors (which by far dominated the food supply) equipped with simple “furniture”, some knee-high plastic stools and tables that allow you to enjoy their local tasting dishes. In fact locals themselves dont feed in town anymore. The main streets are full with face-lifted, well maintaned and brushed up stores try to sell their good to tourists. We had a feeling that Hoi An gave in its local soul to money and tourism and soon felt the urgent need of getting out of this touristy spot. We made reservation for a bicyle rent for the next day and wished to find something more suitable for us by then…
On Tuesday we had a lovely waking up accompained by sunshine, blue skies and temperatures around 25 degrees. After enjoying a hearty breakfast prepared by our homestay host (In fact she and her sister do everything themselves. From breakfast to checking-in and tour reservations to cleaning and maintaning the place) we got on the roads with our bicycles. Cycling around Hoi An was perfectly wonderful in the weather conditions. We crossed endless rice fields, fine sandy beaches and local bamboo fisihing villages. The day passed by fast. Besides some beautiful photos and the memories created we (especially Roman) also got a heavy sunburn on his neckline as a souvenir from today (yes yes, even a sunscreen spf 30 twice applied is not enough for senstive Swiss skin coming directly from winter to tropical sun).
For the following day we planned to visit the My Son ruins (imagine a little Angkor Wat, if you are familiar with Cambodians relicts). Guided tours available from Hoi An all depart around the same time in the morning and start at a rock bottom of 5$ per person. We doubted this would be the way we wanted to discover this peacful ruins about 50km towards the highlands of central Vietnam. As we learnt later, all tours would drop-off their customers at the site at the same time with all other tourists, thereafter bring them to overpriced souvenir shops and restaurants on the way back to raise commissions of operators and finance the tour. We decided to do our own self-drive tour there avoiding crowds so we rented a motorbike for a day.
After breakfast a guy came to our homestay and left us with the key of a so so new 125cc bike. Rate for a full day: staggering $6. No instruction, no questions, off we went. After a few minutes on the road we questioned ourselves: Did someone ask us about insurance details? Did anyone request a driving licence, a deposit or passport copy?…The first few minutes in Vietnamese traffic system are somehow confusing. There seems to be only one rule: the bigger your vehicle the more rights you have. A pedestrian bascially has to give way to anyone. A bicycle to motorbikes, cars trucks, a motorbike to cars and trucks etc. It needs some time to get used to that you are even honked by a bus driving on YOUR lane as he overtakes another truck, that is Vietnamese traffic.
After some time on the road we finally arrived at the My Son Sanctuary. The Chams constructed these temples between 4th and 14th century. Much of its has been destroyed by US during Vietnam War. What is left today is still impressive keeping in mind that some were built in 4th century! As it is now a UNESCO heritage site, some conservation and reconsutrcution work is taking place. However, the damage cannot be undone. It is a pity to see what wars have done in this beautiful country. We went on with our adventure on the powerful Yamaha (haha!) and went to the island next to Hoi An, Cam Kim Island. On the way we stopped somewhere on a town to have lunch. One of the best noodle soups we had so far, though we are still uncertain of its name, as noone in the store could understand english…We took a ferry back from Cam Kim Island to Hoi An. Bikes would be parked at either end of the ship and passengers in the middle. Thanks to Roman’s amazing sense of direction, we managed to drive around today without getting lost. thumbs up! All in all, it was a good day exploring around on 125cc Yamaha!
After having a glimpse of vietnamese life in the north, our second stop was planned to be Vietnams’ old imperial city Hue in the center of the country. Since Vietnam is a long S-shaped country along the coastline of the South China Sea, distances between north and south might be much bigger then one would expect at first and spread to over 2’200km in total. Common means of transport for this route include bus, train or plane. Since an 18hrs bus ride seemed to be rather tiring to us (though by far the cheapest option with tickets starts at arnd 20$) and flights (with a journey time of 1hr very fast) lack the possibility to gain some more insights of the country, we decided to take an overnight train. The journey took us about 15hours with the local night train line SE9 to cover the distance of abt 700km (average pace..eeem 45km/h?) and cost arnd 60$ per person. Prices heavily depend on the ticket class choosen (pre-booking is highly recommended since tickets sell out fast). Whereas locals tend to travel in cheap wooden hard seat classes where smoking, drinking and many other habits have to be expected, our class was the most expensive with a 4-berth soft sleeper shared cabin which offered great comfort to travel overnight.
As we disembarked our train in Hue we had to wait in a corridor about 2m wide between our train and another one which was just about to depart. And so we got “in touch” which one of the last secrets of the national vietnamese railway system: how they handle the discharge. Well then, hello to Hue. For the next two nights we were staying at a charming small guesthouse, priced at 20$ for a double a night incl. breakfast (if only our entire trip would be as cheap as here…)
Hue is a peaceful small town with an estimated population of about 300,000 (Hanoi has over 6mio.) and was the countrys’ capital from 1802 to 1945. As we arrived the sky was still completely overcast with a light drizzle and more or less convenient temperatures arnd 20degrees. The first afternoon we spent browsing around the town and its largest market called Dong Ba trying some local food. Hue has many interresting and unique dishes to offer including Bun Bo Hue (Hue-style noodle soup with way more taste than Pho Bo from the north), banh beo (steamed rice pancakes), banh khoai (fried rice pancakes) or nem lui (lemongrass pork skewers) which are all very delicious and fresh.
On our second day we spent almost the full day exploring the old imperial city built between 1802 and 1832 by thousands of workers for the emperor, his family and servants. The city initially consisted of more than 160 buildings double fortified by two walls and moats as long as 10km around the city. Though today only a dozen of these buildings are left due to heavy destruction during numerous wars, its still breathtaking to wander around in the ruins and see all its relicts. Most of the buildings, walls and stone bricks are earmarked by uncontrolled growth of small plants adding a mysterious and unique touch to the remnants of Hue’s past glory.
Though we wished to have more time for Hue, we sticked to our plan and went southwards to Hoi An. We booked a private tour from Hue to Hoi An for 69$ based on some reviews online. The tour took abt 6hours and we made a few stops on the way: a fishing village on a lagoon where people live and make their livings on boats, Lang Co Beach (not so exciting as now is not the right season for a swim), Hai Van Pass (Sea and cloud pass, had a coffee break and had a look at bunkers used by americans) and the Marble Mountain with caves. It was an informative tour as the driver could speak some english so we could get some of our doubts answered such as how much it cost to build a house here etc. Just in case you are interested, in Hue you can build a house for $10k. If you have to buy land too, then make sure you have $20k ready. Though it may not sound a lot, but a family living on a boat would earn a mere usd1 per day. A local chef sells his noodle soup for as little as 50cents. 10k is certainly not little for an average vietnamese household.
We finally made it to Hoi An after a few stops and some hours, greeted by pots and pots of yellow Chrysanthemum blossoming for Tet, vietnamese new year. We will have a homestay called Flower Garden for the next three days; again, at a rate of less than 30$ per room incl breakfast.
Hanoi offers endless possibilities and contrast: from fabulous street food to luxury restaurants, Bentley to bicycles transporting an entire houshold and Sofitel to 5$ backpackers.
Our first culture shock was the traffic in Hanoi. Honk, honk, honk as soon as you step out of your hotel. Nope, it is not one car, or two, or three, but hundreds of motorcycles simultaneously. Guess that is the vietnamese language, or perhaps, their way of communicating on the road: watch out! get out of my way! want a ride? etc…First thing we had to learn here was not to order food, but rather how to survive not being hit by cyclos, motorcycles and cars when crossing the road. No one would stop to let you cross and traffic is abundant, so how? Survivor skill no 1: walk together with locals. Wait until a local appears and crosses the road, you walk right next to them. Don’t see locals around? Skill no.2: take a deep breath (ok not too deep, air’s not so clean – apparently Hanoi has one of the worst congestions of asian cities, even worse than Bangkok) and walk slowly. Surprising but somehow you will make it without beeing hit. 5 days here and we have not seen any accident, so there must be some order in this chaos, ya? We survived first day in old quarter on foot, venturing some narrow/crowded streets, local markets trying out some local food, crossing countless streets.
If you google “vietnamese food”, you will get lots of suggestions as to what you should try here. Delicious and cheap, “dangerous” they can also be (You can refer to Roman for further details about his experience on the second day). Well we do almost always eat in the local, cheap roadfoodstall but since we have kind of developed a sense of where to eat during our numerous trips in Asia we were both pretty surprised about him beeing down for a full day due to some bad food. Afterall, Vietnam might be a bit different to others countries. Therefore we had to cancel our booked private tour to Ha Long Bay (It is a pity!) but it would not be an enjoyable one anyway. So after resting for almost one day in the hotel we were active exploring the city again. Visited the Hoa Lo Prison (educational but a very sad place!), the french quarter, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Temple of Literature. Walking around the Mausoleum, the respect and love for their leader Ho Chi Minh, and their pride and belief in the success of communism is pretty evident.
To sum up, Hanoi is a very contrasting and lifely, yet dirty and loud city to start our trip with. During our entire stay we havent seen the sun for a single minute due to the heavy smog and temeprature laid around 15 degrees. Though there are some good museums and sights, the vibrance of the citys’ streetlife remains the main attraction to us. Be it a motorcyclist transporting his son and wife together with his two dogs, a local woman carrying a deepfryer on top of half a kitchen on her shoulder, another sudden power breakdown and candlelight 6 story walk to our hotel room or a bunch of people playing cards next to one of vietnams’ main train lines: Hanois hustle and wonderful spontaneous temper always kept us entertained.
That’s it for Hanoi and Northern Vietnam, 5 days has been enough. We are off for our first train ride to the countrys’ old imperial city in Central Vietnam: Hue.
…is there not something missing…?
…Of course: the most pleasant memory of the whole trip here in Vietnam is the visit to Hoan Kiem Lake on the evening of 05.02.2015…because that is where HE proposed and where I said yes <3
Final packing was done within a few hours just the day before departure. Most of the time consuming travel preparation tasks such as getting vaccinations, raising credit cards limits, buying staple medicine and other travel neccessities were completed well in advance. Contrary to our initial idea that it must be difficult to pack for 6months, we realized in the course of packing that actually packing for half a year trip isn’t more challenging than packing for any other vacation. So in the end even YinRu managed to keep her luggage weight below 15kg after being told “for every additional t-shirt you pack you can buy one less on the trip”. A big backpack plus a small day-pack for each one of us and off we went…
For our round-the-world-ticket we had to decide between OneWorld or Star Alliance. Though the latter alliance with airline members such as Swiss, Singapore or Thai International Airways would have offered us better comfort on outbound flights from Switzerland, we decided to stick to OneWorld (mainly due to its strong presence in the pacific sector with Qantas, Fiji and Amercian Airlines). Therefore our trip started with a more tiring route to Hanoi via Doha and Bangkok with Qatar Airways. Though this route was not the most direct one, we got the chance to experience one of the yet rare opportunities to fly with a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Roman was fascinated by the window-darkening feature, but that is probably the only special thing on this plane we could experience from a pure passengers’ perspective (of course he wouldn’t agree)…
After two stop-overs we were welcomed by mysterious Hanoi with a completely foggy, grey atmosphere, poor visibility and a temperature around 15 degrees (which is actually quite ok bearing in mind that we left home with around 10cm of snow the day before). After getting a first impression of vietnamese efficiency (spent around 45mins at customs and had a lost pick-up driver who waited for us at the wrong arrival hall) we finally got into Hanoi. The 45mins drive from the airport to the city was stunning on its own. Endless, nearly deserted eight-lane highways with occasional cyclists, farmers tilling their fields manually in the misty weather made us wonder wheter we arrived in North Korea (though we have never been there) or Vietnam.
Entering the city the traffic has gotten busier, the streets narrower and everything lively and crowded. The rest of the first evening passed by fast. A very warm, maybe a bit too hospitable, welcome at the hotel, a good dinner at a street food stall with a local beer followed by a second dinner (ok, we are too eager about food here – let’s call it supper to sound less repetitive) and a good hot shower completed our first day of the trip. Excited to discover this pearl of Indochina in the next two weeks+!