Vietnam part II

We’d heard many good things about Hoi An and, happily, it lived up to expectations. Beautiful architecture, in particular the lanes of the Old Town and its riverside setting; the vibrant paddy fields; and a gorgeous stretch of beach (An Bang). To boot, Hoi An boasts some of the best eateries and best food we’d had in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, therefore, our stay of initially a few nights was extended by a further week so we could enjoy exploring the many delights of this fine city.  We were also reunited with our Kiwi friends who had, coincidentally, rented a house on the edge of town and invited us to stay for a while. Happy days.

Of the many highlights from that week, though, Sam and my ‘afternoon date’ enjoying a wonderful walking street food tour was the best.  As our friends kindly minded the children, we gorged our way around the city, stuffing ourselves silly on some nine courses of local foods, including White rose, Waterfern cake, Cao Lau and supposedly the best banh mi in Vietnam. I should point out too that despite our adventurousness, we politely declined the fertilised egg containing a duck embryo (Balut) on grounds that it sounded disgusting.  As we walked around between courses, Sam was also afforded plenty of time to window-shop and indeed coveted many dresses and shoes en route. Not so silently, she vowed to return to Hoi An one day with an empty suitcase and her credit card. She did manage to have a couple of dresses made in the time we were there, citing an upcoming family wedding as reasonable justification!

We eventually dragged ourselves away from Hoi An and commenced the Northern leg of our Vietnam tour. Next stop, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – home to the oldest karst mountains in Asia and some of the largest and deepest cave systems in the World.

After a day of relaxing (well, I say relaxing, but I had us cycle 20 ish km round the old village of Phong Nha in 35+ degree heat), we headed off on motorbikes in pursuit of The Dark Cave and afterwards Paradise Cave. Whilst the latter provided the classic cathedral-like splendour of a giant cave (all 31 kilometres of it) set in stunning forrest clad karsts, it was the former cave that provided us with the fun and laughter. The Dark Cave and the complex surrounding it was packed with enough surprises to keep us amused for several hours, including zip wire rides into the river (George showed his Mother how to do it!), river kayaking and, the best of all, a cave room with a mud bath so thick, even I was able to float! Once everyone was semi-submerged, we held the childrens’ hands as the head torches were switched off and absolute darkness was enjoyed. The sensation was incredible and brought out the child in everyone!

The following evening, with mud still soaked into our swimmers, we boarded another sleeper bus, this one bound for Hanoi. The inglorious details of this trip have already been provided, so I shall spare them here. Suffice to say, however, we were very pleased and relieved to eventually arrive at our next hostel in the capital. Our arrival was made even more pleasurable by not one but two warm welcomes. The first by Alice, the very friendly manager of our new home, and the second by The Brooks family, who we’d met through an online forum and had arranged to put faces to names and have a fun evening together before they departed the following morning.

Having been on the road for many months now, the childrens’ current appetite and enthusiasm for all things cultural – museums, temples and the like – is not exactly at an all-time high. So, when I suggested we visit Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology, a large collection of tribal art and artefacts, my expectations were that we’d be in and out within an hour, with the children wholly unimpressed. Fortunately, I was wrong. In fact, we were so enthralled by the exhibits (George included), we managed to lose Tomas momentarily. Once his screams were answered by some helpful Indian tourists on the floor beneath us, we were reunited and learned that he was playing hide and seek – albeit on his own, poor boy!

With a week left in Vietnam, we decided to visit Cat Ba Island & Cat Ba National Park. It was from there we would also be able to explore the famous limestone islands of Halong Bay.


Like other places we’ve visited in Vietnam, Phong Nha, Mui Ne to name but two, Cat Ba is a boom town, which has unapologetically and unsympathetically developed in order to cater for the recent influx of tourists. That said, the surrounding countryside, including the national park, and the several hundred islands peppering the gulf remain the star attractions and rightly so. So whilst the food and the hotels weren’t the finest Vietnam had to offer, the scenery certainly was and we enjoyed several days venturing round the island and exploring the bays.  Unfortunately, our stay was accompanied by the arrival of Typoon Kujira, which aside from shutting the island down for day, reeked only minimal damage and relative normality was restored the following day. The highlight of our time on Cat Ba was the day long boat trip where we swam, kayaked and I hurled myself off a cliff into the bay.


Lastly, it was back to Hanoi for a few days before our departure for Thailand.  It has become customary for us, when we’re preparing to leave a country, to spend this time decluttering our backpacks, replenishing the missing stationery and Lego, completing some much overdue “home” admin and sending a postcard to my nieces in Sydney.  Hanoi was no exception.  Naturally, too, we do retrospective of our last few weeks and, in truth, whilst we enjoyed the last two months in Vietnam, we were definitely ready to leave. It was easy to get around logistically, but I would be lying if I said it was the friendliest place we’ve visited. The occasional touching by locals of young children’s private parts (in order to determine their sex, apparently) was a particularly unpleasant cultural trait of which any travelling parent should be wary. Nevertheless, resounding memories of Vietnam are George and I bouncing down the zip wire together before plunging into the river, a mud bath with the family and Tomas and George showing the Hipsters how to tear up a dance floor in a club in Hanoi!

Good evening, Vietnam. Thailand, we’re on our way back.

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Vietnam Part I

The geography of Vietnam lends itself to one of two routes for exploring. You either go from North to South or from South to North. The flights worked out cheaper to Ho Chi Minh City so that’s where our Vietnamese adventure began.

The heat and noise hit us as we left the arrivals hall. It felt strangely familiar, despite never having been there before. We couldn’t get a price we were happy with for a taxi into town so climbed aboard a local bus and whilst the children were free we had to buy a ticket for our large backpack. We trundled through the swarms of motorbikes and were set down somewhere near our hotel. The welcome in HCMC couldn’t have been more different than in Tokyo. “The room you have booked is too small for you and your children.” Oh, here we go again we thought. “I’ll put you in a bigger room for the same price. Your kids are so cute!” I knew then that I’d like Vietnam.

We spent a happy few days in HCMC. My faithful flip flops from Western Nepal gave up on me so we wandered round the market looking for replacements. Everything is fake branded so I am now the proud owner of a pair of Aberconnbies [sic]. There are some cool playgrounds which the boys enjoyed no end. Not least because a random encounter with a lovely family from New Zealand provided them with a playmate for a large portion of our time in Vietnam.

We weren’t sure about visiting the War Remnants Museum with children but it worked out really well. They enjoyed seeing the planes and tanks outside and there is a playroom on the top floor. Nick and I meanwhile took it in turns to play with the children whilst the other visited the museum. I walked through the exhibition with tears streaming down my face. I learnt more about the American/Vietnam war and the far reaching implications of Agent Orange. There are some truly horrific photos of the brutality of war, in particular of children, which made me despair for humanity and stayed with me for a long time.

After zipping round the Far East we were in need of a rest. The plan had been to settle for a month in the beach town of Mui Ne to recuperate. We had a not-so-little house that I’d found on Air BnB and we were happy to fall into the routine of domesticity after so many hotels. We were excited to cook our own food and do our own laundry. We loved having mango trees in the garden and having time to think about where we’re going (literally and figuratively).’

 

Mui Ne is a big draw for Russian tourists so between self catering and all the Cyrillic signs we didn’t really feel as though we were in Vietnam. We enjoyed the company of our Kiwi friends who joined us for a few days and all had fun in the nearby sand dunes. The beach was a let down however, as the water was dirty and I was savaged by sand flies. We took to using the pool at Joe’s (a local cafe/resort) where the boys perfected their swimming. After a couple of weeks, feeling rested, we cut our losses and were back on the road.

We headed up to the Central highlands and the hill town of Dalat. Enjoying the cooler climes whilst we saw the sites including Hang Nga Crazy House, Elephant falls and the beautiful Xuan Huong lake. Dalat is well know for growing vegetables and the surrounding countryside is covered in poly tunnels.

We had planned an overnight trek with camping at nearby Mount Langbian. The start of the trek was rather disappointing with lots of rubbish and noise from jeeps. However after a steep climb we were soon away from the busy tourist area and horses painted to look like zebras. The next part of the walk was really enjoyable as we ambled through lush pine forest, even Tom managed the whole thing without complaint. As we got to the top the clouds had rolled in and we seemed to be right inside the peals of thunder. The heavens opened and we got soaked to the skin on our way down the mountain. Slip sliding on mud and trying to avoid the torrents that cascaded down the path next to us. At one point I had a couple of kilos of extra weight in clay stuck to my feet. We decided we didn’t have anything to prove by staying in the tent and beat a retreat to the warm shower in our hotel.

From there we hit big brash seaside town of Nha Trang. The beach was lovely, if crowded and the boys loved jumping off the diving board at the Central Park pool. We attempted the ‘Total Wipeout’ style bouncy stuff in the sea, but didn’t really get the hang of it. It was a good place to break up the journey northwards but boy were we happy to reach Hoi An.

 To be continued…

Wheels on fire

Trip Advisor is full of people moaning about the sleeper buses in Vietnam. But when you’ve been thrown about on a broken seat in the Himalayas or taken the nightbus to Pokhara they are the height of luxury.

Our bus was late last night. Two others came and we watched people board with envy as the boys got more and more tired. When it finally arrived we piled on and bagged our place at the back where there are five seat/beds in a row. They were asleep before we had pulled out of Son Trach village and Nick and I settled down for the ride.

Sometime around 1am we were jolted awake by the bus pulling over. There was lots of Vietnamese shouting and frantic activity. Suddenly we could see a fire next to the bus with acrid smoke billowing out. I thought at first the bus had hit something. Some of our fellow passengers piled off the bus and the news filtered back that a motorbike that had been stored in the hold had caught fire.

The boys were still asleep so I stayed with them whilst Nick went to see what was happening. He reported that our backpacks were covered in soot but unscathed. Others hadn’t been as lucky with all their belongings up in smoke.

Another bus from the same company had stopped in front of ours and everyone was told to get off our bus. The staff weren’t communicating but we grabbed our chance and got on the other bus. 2 minutes later it set off. Leaving everyone else at the side of the road. It felt like getting on a lifeboat. We were relieved not to be stranded with two exhausted children. I’d love to know what happened to everyone else.

Our saviour bus had some engine trouble and limped through the night to Hanoi without AC but we were just happy to be alive. The full horror of what may have happened to us without the quick actions of the bus staff do not bare thinking about.