Vietnam - April 2010

We traveled with Tucan Travel on their Vietnam Adventure tour (BXVA2) from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.

Day 1  Our flights were on Korean Airlines from Vancouver to Ho Chi Minh City with a connection in Seoul. The plane was very spacious and the service was always gracious. All economy seats had excellent leg room and  the entertainment system has movies, shows, games and music to keep you occupied for hours. They even have a usb port at every seat so that you can charge electronic devices like ipods. Meal options always included a Korean and a Western option.
Upon arrival into Ho Chi Minh City customs was simple and we were soon heading out of the airport with our bags in tow. I had pre-arranged a transfer to our hotel and our driver was waiting just outside the airport with a clear sign showing our name. The transfer took about 45 minutes and we finally arrived at the hotel at about 1130pm. Our tour leader left us a note at the hotel reception welcoming us and advising of what the plans were for the next day.

Day 2

This morning we were having breakfast at the hotel (which was included) and while sitting there were trying to spot the other members of our group that we hadn't met yet. We finally picked them out and had a quick meet and greet before going back to our room to pack up and get ready to check out. A little bit later on we officially met up as a group and got into our van transfer out to the Mekong Delta. It took about 3 hours, partly on a new freeway which apparently makes this drive much faster and easier. We picked up our local guide, Nam, and then proceeded to our private boat that we would have for the next two days on the Mekong Delta. It was refreshing to be on the water as we were still trying to get acclimatized to the heat and humidity. Nam gave us a lot of great information about the local area and lifestyles. We got to see many different aspects of delta life over this day as we were taken through a local village to see a rice factory, some local knife producers, coffin carvers,  thatched roof panel weavers, and a tile factory. At the tile factory one of the travelers in our group, Bernardo from Brazil, got to try making a tile. Unfortunately he accidentally stuck his finger into the paint which ruined the design on the tile, but it made for a great picture and a heavy souvenir.

We then stopped by a local restaurant for a delicious lunch with a cold beer. Lunch wasn't included, but it was quite inexpensive. In the afternoon we visited a traditional village house where we were treated to tea and a musical show, then to a Bonsai Garden where we were able to try rice wine and snake wine. To make snake wine they take the rice wine and put it into a large glass jar, then add a headless snake (including blood) and some herbs. I tried the rice wine, which tasted like liquorice, but then chickened out and watched a few of the others try the snake wine. Then, we got to ride in small sampan boats back to where we had lunch and we were taken out back to see what our next experience would be. Well, not everyone liked the fact that it was a HUGE snake we would get to hold. That thing is seriously heavy! We then had an evening bike ride around the delta island, trying to avoid scooters and being careful not to fall off of the bridges. This was a great way to really see into local life. We then returned to our homestay where we had dinner and got to sleep on comfy cots under mosquito nets for the night.

Day 3
This morning we woke up to the sound of roosters crowing, a church bell ringing, and loud boat engines, which is nicely different than just an alarm clock. After a breakfast of fresh baked bread, a fried egg and coffee we were back in our boat and off to check out the floating market at Cai Be. It was neat to see all the boats selling different fruits and vegetables. Next, we stopped by a factory making different types of candy and snacks. They showed us how they make puffed rice and taro root which were then made into their version of a rice crispy square. We could also see the production of some taffy and rice crackers. This was the last stop for us in the Mekong and we were soon in a van transfering back to HCMC.

This picture L - R is: Our tour leader Tony, my husband Steve, me, Kara and Cushla from New Zealand, Mr Binh our homestay host and Bernardo from Brazil.

Once back in the city we had the afternoon free until the overnight train to Nha Trang. The rest of the group had actually originated in Thailand and come through Cambodia to HCMC before we joined the tour. They had already done the excursion out to the Cu Chi Tunnels and we hadn't. So, the two of us were sent in a private car to go see this included excursion. The Cu Chi Tunnels are located about 1.5 hours north of HCMC and were used extensively by the Viet Cong during the war. Today you can go down into a tunnel that has been made a bit larger so that tourists will actually fit, though it's still a very dark, claustrophobic experience! There are also many displays of how the tunnels work, how the Viet Cong lived above and below the ground, some of the various booby traps used during the war, and you can even shoot a variety of guns at the shooting range. We both shot an AK-47. I didn't do very well as I was mainly focused on just pulling the trigger instead of aiming, good thing the gun was strapped down.

Once we rejoined the rest of the group we made our way to the train station to catch our overnight train. Once there Tony started to look through his backpack for the train tickets which would have us in the hard sleeper cabins. He kept looking, and looking and tearing apart his backpack. I've never seen a guy sweat as much as he was. The tickets were nowhere to be found. He attempted to talk to the customer service ladies but they basically told him to find the tickets or we weren't going anywhere. The train ended up leaving at it's scheduled time without our group. Tony purchased new tickets for the next train in a few hours which we were all fine with. Tony then realized that he had left a bag at the hotel so we all went to go retrieve it and kill some time before our new train. Sure enough, the train tickets were found in that bag that had been forgotten. A few drinks later we made our way back to the train station and boarded. However, much to our dismay instead of having a bed for the night, we were in the regular seats surrounded by locals as it was the only option at the last minute. We all knew that it was going to be a rough night but luckily Tony had a pretty easy going group so we didn't kill him. I don't think any of us got much sleep (except for Bernardo who managed to sleep all the time, anywhere and everywhere on the trip), but it actually ended up being a neat experience to see how the locals normally travel, and there was a cute mouse running around in our car.

Day 4
We arrived into Nha Trang at about 6am and were very lucky to be able to get into our hotel rooms right away. A quick shower, breakfast and then free time for the next few days. The two of us ended up heading off on our own for the morning. First we visited the Long Son Pagoda (White Buddha Pagoda) and then we went to the local mud baths which was relaxing.

In the afternoon we headed to the beach which is absolutely gorgeous. We were wandering along when we heard our names being called. The girls were lounging under a palapa that they rented. We ended up joining them and just sat reading, listening to music and people watching until dinner time. Then it was early to bed as we hadn't had much sleep the night before.

Day 5

This morning we were up early as the five of us were heading out on a boat excursion for the day. We had thought it was going to be more of a snorkelling trip until we arrived at the pier and it became obvious that it was more of a party/booze cruise. We spent the day puttering between four different stops. The first was an aquarium, second was the snorkelling stop, third was lunch/music/floating bar and lastly a "beach" stop. Overall it was a fun day and the cool air on the water was refreshing.

Day 6
We spent this day catching up on the computer, having lunch, relaxing again on the beach, dinner and then getting ready to take the overnight bus to Hoi An. I didn't know what to expect with the bus but it ended up not being too bad. Instead of having regular seats, the bus is set up with 32 almost fully reclining seats which are in two levels. I've never seen anything like it in my life. The "beds" are actually fairly comfortable as long as you're short enough to fit in your allocated space. Even with the bus swerving in and out of traffic, honking it's horn, flashing it's lights and oncoming traffic doing the same, I did manage to get some sleep.

Day 7

We arrived into Hoi An at about 6am, and then walked about 10-15 minutes down the street to our hotel. The friendly staff greeted us with tea and snacks. Then, we wandered out to explore Hoi An and find some breakfast. Hoi An is a quiet town with over 400 tailors, and excellent food and shopping options. We spent the rest of the morning attempting to find a geocache nearby, but the park was locked and the sun was blazing down making it far too warm. In the afternoon we wandered to a restaurant that was recommended to book a cooking class for the next day. Then, we wandered through the huge market and stopped at a small restaurant to have 4000D beer (about 25 cents) and ice cream. Back at the hotel we had a short nap before heading across the river to some food stalls for dinner. Had some delicious fried wontons and noodle dishes. We went back to the hotel and played my new favourite card game, Monopoly deal for awhile before heading to bed.

Day 8
This morning we woke up to find that the hotel and the whole neighbourhood was without power. The hotel staff were still able to put together a great breakfast before we headed off to our cooking class. We wandered over to the restaurant on the other side of town and met the chef. He whisked us off to the nearby market and showed us some of the many food and other items available. A few of the areas were a bit difficult to stomach, like the meat butchering, seafood and fresh poultry. After this we walked back to the restaurant and began our lesson. Most of the food was already prepped so all we had to do was assemble, mix and cook. In all we covered 4 different recipes including spring rolls which ended up being some of the tastiest we had on the whole trip. It was the most expensive optional excursion we did on the trip, but it was loads of fun and we got some great recipes out of it so it was worth every penny (or Dong in this case!).

The power was still out at the hotel when we returned so we decided to head to the oceanfront to cool off. It was about a 15 minute taxi ride away and once we got there we were met with a nice cool breeze and more gorgeous beaches. The water was too rough to swim in but it was still wonderful to see each time I looked up from reading my book. In the evening we had another delicious dinner and a few rounds of playing cards before heading to sleep.

Day 9
This morning we left the hotel about 10am and got into our private van that Tony had hired to take us to Hue. It cost us each a little bit extra (about $2usd) but it meant that we could stop whenever, wherever. The first stop we made was at the Marble Mountains which are basically a few rock peaks with some caves and temples. Steve and I were trying to find another geocache here so we had to climb a few of these peaks before finding the right area. Tony helped us look but after about 30 minutes in the blazing hot sun we called it quits as we just weren't finding it.  While searching a lady asked what we were doing and where we were from. She ended up being from Victoria and was travelling on her own, what a small world!

After having a refreshing iced coffee to cool off from the hike, our van was back on the road heading towards the Hai Van Pass. This mountain pass is one of the highest in Vietnam, it takes you up to 435 metres above sea level. Hai Van means "sea cloud" which definitely made sense once we got up into the clouds.

We finally arrived into Hue late in the afternoon. After dropping our bags in our hotel room we wandered down towards the river, then around the neighbourhood and stopped at a bar for a few drinks before dinner. Tony took us to an amazing Indian restaurant just down the street from where we were staying, and then we played some more cards before calling it a night.

Day 10
This morning us and the kiwi girls took motorscooter taxis over to the Imperial Citadel. It's so much fun to be zipping along in the chaotic traffic, happy to just be along for the ride! The Imperial Citadel is a Unesco World Heritage site. It was built during the Nguyen Dynasty and was heavily damaged during the Vietnam war. Today is has been partially restored and it is a large site that you could easily spend hours wandering throughout.

Afterwards we stopped at a nearby shopping centre to get snacks and drinks for the overnight train this evening to Hanoi. We boarded the train at 2pm and quickly settled into our comfortable 4 bed softsleeper cabins. Soon after departing Hue our train started to pass through the DMZ. This area was heavily bombed during the war and an interesting effect from the bombs was white sand that rose up to the top layer of soil. It almost looked like snow, a very strange sight. We spent the rest of the evening snacking, drinking and playing cards as the train slowly took 16 hours to go less than 700km to Hanoi. There were many stops along the way, but at least the beds were decently comfortable.

Day 11
We arrived into Hanoi at about 6am and took taxis to the hotel. Only one room was ready this early in the day so we all piled in with our bags and were able to freshen up. Somehow we all ended up watching a horrible shark movie that we couldn't turn off. It's called Malibu Shark Attack if you ever want to waste some time and kill a few brain cells at the same time. After the movie finally ended we went off to check out the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This is one of the most oppressive sights I've ever been to. First you have to get through an initial checkpoint where they make sure you're dressed appropriately. Then you have to check bags and purses before waiting in line to go through airport style xray/security. After this there's another place where you have to drop off cameras and phones. Then you must walk two by two, silently and at a steady pace up to and into the building all the while being scrutinized by the security guards. Once in the building it's much cooler and you walk through the dimly lit room where Ho Chi Minh's enbalmed body lies. He's been so well preserved you could swear that at any second he'll just sit up and look at you. Two minutes later you are back outside and it's all over with. It's free so it's worth checking out, but it's a bit of a surreal experience. Afterwards we checked out the nearby Ho Chi Minh Museum. In the afternoon we wandered around the lake and enjoyed the wonderful weather. That night we went to go see the water puppet show which was only a short walk from our hotel. The show was entertaining and funny at times and I loved listening to the live music.

Day 12
This morning we were on our way by 830am to meet our local guide and private van which would take us to Halong Bay. The drive is about 3 hours one way with a short bathroom/shopping stop. Once at the pier we boarded our private junk boat which was huge considering there were only 6 of us. It consisted of three levels, accommodation on the bottom, a lounge/eating area in the middle and an open top deck for sunning or just relaxing.
Our boat began to leisurely cruise into the bay towards the limestone islets and we had a wonderful lunch. Our destination was the Sung Sot Caves which are huge and quite a spectacular sight. The view from the top over the bay was amazing too.
After climbing through the caves we were able to rent kayaks and explore on our own if we wished. We did and were able to try to get a nearby geocache, unfortunately without luck. Once back on our junk we were able to watch a spectacular sunset before cruising around the corner to our anchorage. Bernardo decided that he wanted to try jumping from the top of our boat into the water, and after some hesitation and "encouragement" from tourists on other boats he finally did it. Then Steve decided that he would too, so the rest of us just watched them jump in a few times before having dinner. Afterwards we played some more cards and then Tony remembered that he had downloaded a show onto his laptop and not yet seen it. So, we watched a Top Gear episode about the 3 guys on a journey through Vietnam, it was very fitting and even the crew onboard the boat were interested and watched a bit.

Day 13
We were woken up at 230am to the sounds of a howling wind, the boat creaking, rain pounding on the deck and thunder. Then the boat bumped something quite hard which we’re pretty sure was another boat. The engines were turned on while the crew worked to adjust our location in the bay. We eventually managed to fall back asleep. In the morning everyone in our group excitedly talked about the big storm we had experienced. Our local guide informed us that it was merely a rain shower compared to what they get during the rainy season, I wouldn’t want to experience that!
After breakfast we stopped at a nearby islet where it was possible to climb many stairs to a viewpoint. It was a warm climb but very worthwhile once you saw the 360 degree view. Once we returned to the boat it began to cruise back to the pier, then we were once again headed back into Hanoi.

The rest of the day was free time so we took this opportunity to finish up our souvenir shopping.
On our last full night in Vietnam we enjoyed sitting in a café overlooking the lake and the main roundabout, just watching the chaos below.

Day 14
Last day in Vietnam, and I woke up feeling really sad about leaving. It ended up being a really lazy day. We had breakfast and then had to check out of our room. Luckily the girls were staying another night and generously shared their room with us and our bags for the day. We watched some tv, did last minute shopping, got one last geocache on the other side of the lake, and then met up with Tony and the girls for our final dinner. Afterwards it was back to the hotel to grab our bags, and say our final goodbyes. I was so choked up I couldn't even talk and as soon as we were in a taxi heading towards the airport I cried. It had been such a perfect trip with an excellent small group of people whom I hope to keep in touch with for a long time.
Only a few minutes later though I had to snap out of it because our taxi turned down a small dark road and stopped. The driver said he would just be a minute, and then he came back and asked us to get out and switch into a different taxi. I was so caught off guard by this that I went into paranoia mode and didn't really calm down until I started seeing airport signs indicating that we were indeed still being taken to the airport. Apparently this is how the taxi drivers always do it, but it would've been nice to know ahead of time.
Anyways, we made it to the airport with plenty of time before our 1130pm flight to Seoul.

Day 15
About 4 hours after leaving Hanoi our flight landed in Seoul at 6am. It was going to be a long stop for the day before our flight to Vancouver leaves at 630pm. Upon arrival we learned that the temperature outside was only about 5 degrees. BRRRR. We headed out of the airport to retrieve two nearby geocaches before trying to head into downtown Seoul. Very quickly we decided that it might be too difficult/risky to attempt this on our own. Walking back into the airport to grab some breakfast we passed a booth selling day tours into Seoul. Perfect! So, an hour and $120USD later we were on a bus with 12 other travellers also on long stopovers and an english speaking tour guide heading in to see the highlights. In 5 hours we were taken to see an Imperial Palace, National Folk Museum, Insadong shopping street, and had a lunch at a Korean Bbq restaurant.

We made it back to the airport with still about 4 hours to spare before our flight back to Vancouver. Incheon airport is a great place to be stuck. There's tons of shopping, restaurants, free computers and wifi, cultural exhibits and comfortable seats.
Once back in Vancouver we just had to wait for the next PCL bus to take us on the ferry and we were eventually home by about 5pm. Totally exhausted from almost 2 full days of no sleep, but glad to be home.

What an absolutely fabulous trip!
I love Vietnam and would go back in a heartbeat, but maybe I'll check out some other countries in Asia first?

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