There are a lot of banana and coconut trees surrounding the roads as you drive through the country. Also, everyone seems to be wearing the typical straw hat – I’m making it my mission to bring one home with me. Throughout my travels, I have collected something from every place that I’ve been to as a good reminder of all the different countries, although the hat will be a pain to carry around. I stayed in a home stay in Can Tho for the night. This involved staying in a family run little place off the beaten track. It was a great experience to see how the locals live. The food was lovely! Lots of very freshly cooked things including tofu in a tomato sauce, and some great spring rolls, as well as a typical Vietnamese pancake with an egg and spring onion batter. Basic bed and mozzie nets were in order, along with the odd friendly gecko, cockerel and cockroach. I slept quite well and avoided being completely eaten alive. In the early morning, it was off to a floating market on the edges of the Mekong river to see the local selling their goods to others. It happens every morning and people go and buy breakfast (usually some sort of noodle soup) or groceries. There were a lot of pineapples which were very juicy to eat. Local coffee is also meant to be a speciality – made with condensed milk and ice. I didn’t try this though – wasn’t going to test fate with having some ice frozen from dodgy water. The Mekong river runs from the South China Sea through the south of Vietnam, up through Cambodia and into Laos, so it is fairly long. Next, it was a 4 hour bus journey heading north towards Ho Chi Minh. Passed by a whole cow on a spit on the way while driving to the Chu Chi Tunnels. These were an amazing set of tunnels built underneath the ground during the Vietnam War. The country had been split after the French left the country after a long occupation – about 100 years up until the end of WWII. The north of Vietnam was led by the Ho Chi Minh and his communist government, with the backing of the Chinese government and the South was controlled by the Vietnamese resistance with help of the Americans. I met an old man who fought alongside the Americans during the war as part of South Vietnam as a communicator and he had lost a few fingers on one hand due to shrapnel whilst using a communication device. The tunnels were all dug by hand by the independent southern army, and were twice as narrow as they are now – the 100 metres that I went through was still pretty narrow. They were used to escape the booby traps laid down by the northern army. He explained how all the booby traps worked and there were a couple of originals in tact. I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War, or how long, costly and painful it was to the nation. This became clear when I visited the War Museum in the city. I had a go at shooting an actual AK47 at targets (I don’t think I’d be a very good solider as I missed all the targets) and it really hurt my collar bone when the shot was fired.The rain hammered down in the afternoon again, much to my dismay. This also helped a bus ride take an hour longer than it should have done. Arrived into Ho Chi Minh having endured rush hour in the rain with the millions of scooters after almost a busy 12 hour day. Even the Uber drivers are on the motorbikes – I was glad I didn’t pick up an Uber here! Apparently there was a religion called the Coconut religion – this was founded in 1945 and monks live off milk and flesh. This doesn’t exist anymore, as most of the followers did not live a healthy lifestyle this way. Catholic is 10% of population – this was evident in the French architecture of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh. Buddism is 2/3 population. A walk around the city was great – a good leg stretch after sitting around on buses for so long. Found a great (and non dodgy) street food market for lunch called BenThanh where I had a nice kofka wrap and got a free beer! Also did a cycle tour where I visited the war museum, had a look at the cathedral (although it was being renovated so you couldn’t go in) and the post office. The French architecture mixed with typical Vietnamese buildings was a real clash of worlds.A 10 hour overnight train to Nha Trang was next – the train was a lot nicer than the ones in China. There was a western toilet too! It had decided to rain torrentially too just at the point of travelling to the station which was a bit nasty so that put a slight downer on things. It is the rainy season, after all! It can go from being quite nice and sunny to torrential rain a bit quickly. Got into Nha Trang station early in the morning and went to have some breakfast at a nice cafe – had a coffee for the first time in ages. Then took a boat to Hon Mun island to see a fishing village. This is a nice area of coastline on the east of Vietnam. Luckily the sun was shining nicely – too much in fact as I got a little burnt while snorkelling.There were lots of fish and coral, as well as a lot of sea urchins. Some of the sea was very clear. I’m feeling fairly fatigued by this point but not sleeping as much as I should be doing. I was definitely looking forward to some sort of a lie in but wasn’t sure that I would get one for at least a couple of weeks. Another walk around the town was nice and it was odd seeing a Christian church (Nha Trang Cathedral) in the middle of the town.It was built in the early 20th century by the French in a gothic style. The beach looked good but it was so hot at 9am, I didn’t fancy my chances of sitting by the sea in the heat of the day.Picked up some more sun block and Aloe Vera gel for sunburn/bite relief. I actually got myself a one hour (for only 150 Vietnamese dong) blind sunburn massage at Mokba which was done with fresh Aloe Vera. It was such an experience – a bit unnerving in parts but my back definitely felt better after it, even if I did smell of stale milk for a while. Some random parts of my body were rubbed where I wasn’t sunburnt, even though I had only specified that I needed my back and shoulders doing. It definitely helped to ease the sunburn….for a bit anyway. Enough to lift and carry my big bag onto the night train that evening at least. Another 10 hours of a sleeper train was met with an hour or so delay either side. The next stop was Hoi An and the weather was sunny upon arrival, if not a little too much on the warm side. We Brits are never happy! I now realise that we actually do talk a lot about the weather – I guess because it’s so varied in the UK and we’re not used to dealing with extreme conditions. Hoi An is a very pretty place with no cars in the historical centre which was nice. Had a decent breakfast nearby and then explored the town a bit. I went to the old house of Tan Ky which is 200 years old and has housed seven generations of the same family – the latest generation still occupy the second floor. It has Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences. There were markers on one of the walls to signify the flood levels over the last 50 years. There is also a little wooden bridge built in the Japanese style which was quite pretty. I really liked this town. I felt I was almost in a part of Spain.A short ride on a boat up the river a bit when the sun was setting was nice – all the lanterns that hang around the streets all light up. Candles in paper boxes get placed on the river by people for wishes.I learnt about how rice noodles were made from a small school which endeavours to improve the lives of young Vietnamese from difficult backgrounds who want to forge a career in the hospitality industry. There are many different types of noodle and it was good to see how each are made.Another wander around the town with the odd temple visit and a bit of time for shopping. I gave in, and bought a hat. I also felt a bit spoilt as I also had a room to myself for a couple of nights – what a luxury!The variations in water levels due to flooding. The next day was a 4 hr bus ride to Hue – the old capital. I’m making my way up the east coast to Hanoi. A ride on a scooter as part of a trip was fun – I got to see a lot of places including some old American and French bunkers as well as an old burial tomb for one of the kings, although his remains are thought to be somewhere else, as the French did not see them when they raided the tomb.Also saw an old colosseum where tigers and elephants used to fight – the tigers would be maimed to ensure the elephant’s victory, as the elephant is a symbol of royalty and power.Popped to a local village to see how incense sticks were made. The view of the river was amazing and going off road in the rice fields gave an amazing sense of freedom. The torrential typhoon appeared the following day. But that wasn’t going to stop an explorer from exploring! Off to the citadel with a friend in the rain which didn’t cease. The raincoat failed me after a while and I couldn’t feel my feet, but it was good to get out and about. It was so nice to get into dry clothes and have a hearty stew lunch.The typhoon could have provided an issue with getting a train to Halong later that day, but climbed aboard without any issues. Apart from breaking a bottle of red wine on the platform specifically purchased for the night train 😔. The rainy season is incredibly random. Sometimes it can rain for a few moments and be ok again, but then it can rain all day and be very sunny the day after. After a 12 hour night train to Hanoi, where I actually slept quite well after watching something on Netflix, it was another 4 hr transfer to Halong Bay. I was fairly exhausted overall by this point. I could feel it. I think I recognised I was in definite need of some actual downtime where I wasn’t constantly on the move. Explored the seas of Halong Bay on a nice boat with some good food and amazing scenery. It is recognised by UNESCO for the geological landscape, as well as the pearls that are farmed here.Went into Dong Thien Cung cave with lovely stalactites and stalagmites.Then out in the evening for some local food – of course, there was too much of it and lots of people wanting to take their photo with you. Back to Hanoi again on a bus via a pearl farm where pearls are made from oysters that already contain good quality pearls. I still find myself looking out of the window a lot on the long journeys at the wonderful landscape which varies so much when moving from the south to the north. Had a couple of days in Hanoi and there was a lot to see. It is a bustling city where there are lots and lots of scooters and motorbikes that almost always try to run you over. Staying in the Old Quarter made it seem busier and more vibrant as the streets are narrow. I walked around Hogan Kiev Lake and visited the small temple on it. It’s a very tranquil place. On the way there, I had one of my sandals taken off my foot by a street vendor and mended with superglue and resoled a bit without me even asking. Of course, he expected payment, but looked a little annoyed when I didn’t have the amount he was expecting and of course, I was trying to ask him not to do anything, but he wouldn’t listen. Well, at least my shoes are better to walk in!
Left Cambodia early to make the border near Chau Doc. The security is fairly tight – each side double checking that you’ve left and entered either country. To get into Vietnam, you have to bribe the officials with a dollar to get an entry stamp otherwise they’ll chuck your passport at you without allowing you to go into the country. Even though I thought I needed a visa (and got one), I didn’t actually need one as a UK citizen for the amount of time I was in the country for – foreign money is what is wanted instead. A long bus journey to Can Tho lay ahead, and already I was noticing the differences to Cambodia – apart from the rain. There are a lot more rice fields – Vietnam is one of the major exports. The colour of the fields is similar to the ones in Cambodia where the green looks like it has come out of the Microsoft Paint colour palette – it’s such a light green. The roads are a bit nicer – less bumpy. Everyone seems to ride a motorbike or scooter here – it’s almost one per person of the total population (93 million). They are everywhere – especially busy during rush hour.
The next day was a long walking day for me, which I was glad about. I felt that I had spent quite a lot of time sitting down on a coach or a train. I walked to Ho Huu Tiep lake which is north west of the city. There is a wreckage of a B52 plane which was shot down in 1972 just before the end of the war.I then walked to the Temple of Literature which was built in 1070 and is where the first university (Imperial Academy) was built. There are 82 stelae (or stone tablets) in one courtyard (there used to be more) which mark the achievement of scholars and to encourage students to work. These are each attached to a stone turtle, which signifies longevity – a popular concept in Asia.The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was next – you might think that this was a hotel, but it is the nickname for the Hoa Lo Prison. Built by the French in the late 19th century, this was designed to house Vietnamese resistors (mainly political prisoners). It was expanded to hold more prisoners in 1913, and they were subjected to cruel torture, as well as life in extremely subhuman conditions – hardly any food, lots of disease etc. I was told once that the Vietnamese hate the French, and it was only here that I understood why. The prison was later used to house American POWs during the Vietnam War after the French had left the country. They were the ones that gave it its infamous sarcastic nickname. John McCain, the Presidential candidate, was a US Navy pilot who was kept here.Then off walking again to the national history museum which housed a good collection of items and some interesting artefacts about the Vietnam War which I hadn’t seen.
The final day in Vietnam was an early start and off to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where his body is preserved. He died in 1969 during the Vietnam War. It was an odd experience to see a body embalmed in that way – it doesn’t seem real that he died almost 50 years ago. Also saw his house and office and there were a huge amount of Vietnamese visitors coming to pay their respects to a man who gave them independence. I’ve really enjoyed learning about Vietnam – a country that I didn’t know too much about as I had never studied the Vietnam War at school. There is such an extensive backstory to the war that goes back to the fact that the country had been ruled by others for years. The people continuously fought for their freedom and this was a hard and long struggle. Eventually, the French left Vietnam in 1954, but the Vietnam War started and went on for 20 years. It makes you realise how much of history is intertwined. I might have to invest in a few books when I get home, although I’m sure there will be bias one way or another.
I’ve enjoyed the variety of food, although I am really getting sick of rice. I’m missing potatoes and nice bread quite a lot. Maybe the next step of travelling will involve me going carb free….? I would definitely like to return to this lovely country and see a bit more of it – a day or two in some of the places isn’t enough. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the history too.
Next stop: Laos!