While I spent several days in Hanoi I did very little that makes for interesting conversation. A large amount of time was spent visiting various markets in search of fabric. Tragically this was a wasted effort as I only found one fabric that I liked, a gorgeous red velvet, only to find out there wasn’t enough left in the bolt. There were admittedly a considerable number of fabrics I fell in love with, but I went into my shopping spree with strict rules in place that I would only buy fabric for patterns I owned or specific clothing items that don’t need proper patterns. Sadly I couldn’t think of any uses for the glorious two tone brocade silk or the lovely chiffon in its wide range of colours (actual fabric types may be misnamed).
A lovely thing about the indoors markets is they are a lot less touristy and are almost inflicted with the opposite issue to all other South East Asian markets in that one has to exert effort to get the attention of the stall holders in most cases. Elsewise they seem more interested in sleeping on their hoards of fabric like eclectic dragons or eating whatever meal that time of day indicates. This made all my fabric hunting a lot more pleasant as I was not being continuously ordered to look at someone’s stall or feeling pressured to buy something. The most unprompted conversation with shopkeepers I experienced was having the cotton pointed out to me. Always the cotton. Never any other type of fabric. Just cotton. Most odd.
In terms of tourist spots, I visited only four (five if you count the lake and seven if the fabric markets are included). Three were on purpose and the fourth was a happy accident we stumbled upon. I spent my first full day chatting with a girl from my hostel as we strolled around Hanoi. We did a very quick walk by of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was the wrong time to go inside (not that either of us were particularly inclined to do so) and walking across the completely exposed square with the sun pounding down on us was almost unbearable so we had a five second photo shoot in front of the Mausoleum before scurrying off to the fractionally more shady One Pillar Pagoda. This pagoda is exactly what it says on the tin; a pagoda balanced on one pillar in a pond. This would have been another five second photo stop but we were delayed by a group of children asking to practice their English on us.
As were walking back to the hostel, looking for a suitably hipster cafe to get our condensed milk with coffee fix, we stumbled across the railway road. Tall houses crowd along both sides of the tracks. Frowning down at them as if to say how dare you intrude on our street? As there wasn’t a train coming we walked a little way up the tracks and took the compulsory photos before returning to our hunt for a cafe. We found one not much later and passed the rest of the afternoon chatting about life of the road and various escapades.
The next day was spent fabric shopping and doing yet more aimless wandering around Hanoi since the city is so well suited to it. I also spent a reasonably large time fuelling my bánh mì obsession. These mini baguettes normally filled with salad and marinated pork may just about be the best sandwich category I have ever tasted. If I liked Subway (I don’t), I imagine their subs would now turn to ash in my mouth after the delight of Vietnamese bánh mì (they already do). I’ve met many a tourist who admits to having indulged in the bánh mì diet on at least one occasion: breakfast consists of whatever the hostel offers for free (normally very good in Vietnam); lunch is bánh mì; an early dinner of bánh mì; and a final snack of bánh mì to fill up the corners before bed or partying. Since the average price in around 20,000đ (60p) it is a very affordable diet. Sadly there have to be any studies into the positive effects of the diet however, as someone who has tried it I can attest to an improved mood with every bite and sense of community with other backpackers who have had their eyes opened to this unique Vietnamese backpacker’s diet.
My last day was spent with another cold (bánh mì do not appear to improve the immune system) but I did manage to visit the Women’s museum about the role and lives of women in Vietnam, with the same young lady from my hostel. The first floor discusses marriage ceremonies, child rearing and women’s involvement in religion. The next floor was more interesting to me and discussed different women and their involvement in the Vietnam war. Some of the stories about their actions were amazing. The final floor was all about the different fashions of the various regions and ethnic minorities of Vietnam. The audio guide was good however it the tracks were rather long and we skipped quite a few on the first floor out of boredom. We did listen to all of the second floor but very little seating while standing in front of small exhibits, we were ready to leave by the end of it and only did a cursory sweep of the final floor.
This concluded my time in Vietnam and what an experience it was! There are a good few meals I will be trying to cook when I get home and a lot of fond memories to look back on. I would love to return one day but with so many places to see who knows if I will ever set foot in this unique country again? All I can say is that while I have no doubt it will have changed in that fluid way of all developing countries, it still have lots of surprises and places to discover.
They said it couldn’t be done, and maybe it can’t for some, but that didn’t stop me seeing the sights of Ninh Binh province by bicycle. No need for the unanimously touted motorbike. Another broken rule was that I stayed in Ninh Binh City rather than closer to the sights in Tam Coc. This may have meant some longer stretches on my awkwardly shaped bicycle but the longest stretch was still under an hour and a half and honestly when over half of that is through mountainous karsts and alongside rice paddies it is really no hardship. Furthermore, the nature of the Karst landscape in Ninh Binh, commonly referred to as Ha Long Bay on land, means that all the roads are almost completely flat with only the occasional minor gradient.
Having arrived in Nihn Binh Road City at four in the morning, I wondered around with another guy off the bus until we found a open noodle shop where we drew out eating our bún cha for as long as possible before giving up and sitting in front of a cafe until it opened at six thirty and we could order a much needed coffee. Coffee finished, we parted ways, me to check in to my hostel which had finally opened.
Determined not to waste the day, I settled my stuff and rented a bicycle from the hostel. The bicycle in question was the most uncomfortable I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. Even after I pulled over at a bicycle rental and asked them to tilt the seat forward, the angles of the bike were all wrong and it felt as if I needed an extra six inches of arm and torso to reach the handlebars comfortably. This left me cycling along in a bizarre hunched over position and I must have looked quite odd with my scarf acting as makeshift sleeves to complete the look. All I can say is that at least by the end of the day my abs felt like they had had as good a workout as my legs.
And it was a good workout indeed. I powered along the main road to Tam Coc, as I drew closer and reach the more minor roads, I began having to swerve around large patches of rice being dried on the road, timing it not to get run over by whatever vehicle was coming in the opposite direction. I breezed through Tam Coc pretty quickly as it is the most touristy spot in Ninh Binh and I had already decided to do the Trang An boat trip instead due to The Tam Coc boat trips having a reputation for scams. Instead I headed straight for Bich Dong Temple.
Bich Dong was hidden away in the fold of a karst. While not huge, there was a small flight of steps that lead up the side of the Karst and through a pitch dark cave with a small shrine tucked in the entrance. Continuing up there was a fantastic view of more karsts and rice paddies stretching into the distance. Descending once more into the central courtyard, I exited the temple and walked around to another path the climbed over a ridge in to an idyllic little valley that could have been part of the Shire if Lord of the Rings had rice paddies. For a small fee (I think 10,000đ) a gentleman was showing tourists around a cave but I opted out of that particular adventure, deciding one set of bats was enough for the day. Instead I admired the goats and returned to my bicycle.
From Bich Dong I cycled back through Tam Coc and on to the spectacular Hang Mua viewpoint. Just as wonderful was peddling along the tracks that crisscross through the rice paddies. I knew the general direction I had to head in and which road I would have to join but beyond that I just picked roads at random and meandered between the rice paddies, encountering ducks and water buffalo along the way. At one point I almost went for a swim when I hit a patch of soft mud and swerved dangerously close to the edge of the road. Sadly the rice wasn’t in its most verdant stage of growth, the paddies more brown than green, but the looming karsts made up for this small downside.
I paid the entrance fee to get to the Hang Mua viewpoint and began the massive climb. In hindsight tackling that many stairs under the heat of the midday sun probably wasn’t my brightest idea. Halfway up I began to feel the effects of sleep deprivation and a lack of electrolytes take over. When I reached a fork in the road, the two paths leading to different peaks, I took the path less travelled, Robert Frost ringing in my ears. The view was absolutely breathtaking and there was even a lone chair which I scooted as far back from the edge as possible and parked my arse on for the shamefully long period of time it took me to get my breath back.
Descending and then starting up the other side, I was delighted to encounter a small kiosk where I could get a can of coke to battle the electrolyte loss. I crammed myself into the scant inches of shade to enjoy my drink and admire the huge number of steps still ahead of me. By the time I set out again, I felt much more like my normal self and the blessedly cool breeze at the top restored me fully. Once again the view was astoundingly beautiful and I was hard pressed to decide which peak I preferred. In the end the second peak won out due to having shade, a breeze and a giant dragon statue of which I took a photo by scrambling up some boulders.
I eventually worked up the courage to leave the shade and descend the karst. Not yet ready to return to my hostel, I ponderously cycled through a variety of small back lanes, stopping for some pho bo noodles and scouted out the Trang An boat stop. I had vague thoughts of doing the boat trip that day if it wasn’t too busy but the tour group packs of boats were shipping out in droves so I made a note of the opening time and returned to the hostel, only getting mildly lost when I turned off a road early.
I rose early the next day, determined to beat the crowd to the boat tour. This also meant that I had to gently poke awake one of the hostel staff to let me out of the hostel and get the bicycle out of the garage. It is pretty common for the staff of hostels to sleep randomly scattered through the common areas, often with very little in terms of bedding. In this case the three men who ran the hostel all slept on the floor of the reception. Given that the official breakfast time was only twenty minutes away, I didn’t feel guilty for having to wake one of them up however, it was damned awkward to poke a complete stranger awake.
The boat tour was amazing. Being a solo traveller, I was put into a boat with a Vietnamese couple who spent most the trip talking loudly into their phones and at each other. By this point I had realised quiet is not a concept that exists in Vietnam, be it music blaring in restaurants or the musical tones of car horns, so I just tuned them out as we drifted through caves and weaved between karsts. I was amazed by the endurance of the lady rowing us along the two and a half hour route. The only break she had along the way was when we visited a small shrine halfway round. While the couple elected not to make the climb, I powered up and over the ridge to the small shrine, overtaking a tour group on the upward stretch. There wasn’t much to see but I did feel a certain victory when I passed the same tour group, still descending, on my way back.
Going through the caves on the boat was a tad nerve wracking as the bright lights made me completely night blind and trying to discern which shadows were stalactites waiting to hit me on the head was far from easy. Despite this, our guide steered us unerringly through the caves. As we reached the final stretch, I realised going early had definitely been the correct decision as a steady stream of boats passed us in the opposite direction. Furthermore, cotton wool cumulus clouds had full crowded out the blue sky and the day had begun to turn a little hazy.
Luckily the weather held off for the day. I hesitate to say I have been incredibly lucky with the weather for fear of jinxing the matter, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do not recall getting caught in the rain since Malaysia. There now I’ve said it, I have no doubt my days shall now be filled with rain. Alas I digress. Returning to topic, I cycled to Bai Đính temple. This took just over an hour thanks to some misinformation about the presence of roads on Maps.me but was well worth the trek.
Bai Đính was absolutely huge and I spent several hours exploring it. The compound contained a lot of largests and longests such at the longest arahat hall and the largest Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue. I paid to go up the tower (tallest) since the rest of the temple is free anyway. Taking the lift to the top, I was rewarded with yet more stunning views, a recurring theme on Ninh Binh it seems. Upon entering I was given cotton booties to slip over my shoes. These almost proved to be my downfall as they offered no traction and I ended up sliding halfway down a flight of stairs after losing my footing on the way down. Finally having seen all of Bai Đính (I think – the map was rather unclear) I returned to the hostel.
So Ninh Binh and cycling eh? Is it possible? In my opinion yes, it is perfectly possible. Admittedly I didn’t see every site in Ninh Binh but that was more a matter of choice rather than time constraints. Both days I returned to the hostel relatively early. If I had had the inclination, on day one I could have easily fitted in the Tam Coc boat ride or cycled into the bird park instead of looking at the Trang An boat stop and on day two I could have stopped at the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital but wasn’t in the mood for what are apparently very ruiny ruins.
Rocking up to the Easy Tiger Hostel just in time for happy hour, I unloaded my kit, grabbed a free beer and booked onto a tour for the next day. Beer finished and having reached a good stopping point in my book, I turned in for the night, determined to catch up on some sleep as rising with the sun (however unwillingly) is only maintainable for so long.
Rising early (at least for a backpacker) just after 0600 I tucked into breakfast and continued reading my book until the start of the tour. None of the times for the tour agreed, ranging for 0815 to 0845 so it was a case of sit in a conspicuous spot in the lobby and hope someone tells you when to get onto a bus. Around 0830 the minibus turned up and we all piled in before whizzing off to the 8 Ladies Cave. Bombing through the towering karsts, I could see why motorbike is the recommended mode of travel around the national park. As it was, I spent a large amount of time with my face smushed against the window, craning my head back in a vain attempt to see the tops of the looming monoliths.
The 8 Ladies Cave and Martyrs’ Memorial lie on Road 20 or Victory Road and are two shrines combined with memorial spots that remember the people who travelled up and down the road during the Vietnam war as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With half our group draped in royal blue skirts and capes to ensure modesty, we walked up the final stretch of road to look at them. There wasn’t much to see but we did receive an interesting explanation about the use of the road in the war and how eight people had been trapped in the cave by US bombing and eventually died after rescue attempts failed.
The next stop was Paradise Cave, one of the biggest dry caves in the world. This cave is probably the location that put the rural Phong Nha on the tourist map. As such it was absolutely teeming with tourists, most notably busloads of Chinese tour groups that appeared only at caves with easy access and nowhere else in Phong Nha. To reach the cave, we had to hike up an horribly large number of steps, using several huge spiders as excuses to stop and take photos while catching our breath. Upon reaching the top we were blessed with a heavenly breeze swirling out of the cave mouth. According to our guide, this is the origin of the Paradise Cave name. Here our guide left us to explore the cave individually. Walking down so many steps after having to climb all the way up was extremely frustrating but the deeper into the cave we descended, the further my complaints drifted from my mind.
The cave was absolutely huge and crowded with hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. We walked along the plank walkway, stopping regularly to take photos and dodging tour groups as they clustered around their microphone wielding guides. The cave was very well lit which allowed for some excellent photos (at least in comparison to most of the cave photos I’ve taken in the past). Having taking so many photos as we walked in one direction, it was easy to relax and merely enjoy the fantastic cavescape on the way up out of the cave.
Having descended the stairs, passing a small snake that captured our attention for a good while, we moved on to the Dark Cave for lunch. In all honesty the lunch was something of a disappointment. It had clearly been prepared hours in advance, the sticky rice having become a rather solid block. Furthermore there was more bone, cartilage and fat than actual meat on offer. While not inedible in terms of taste, it was probably one of the worst meals I’ve had in a long time, especially compared to some of the superb local dishes I’ve sampled and I would have rather stopped at a smaller lunch spot with freshly prepared food, even if it would have meant a longer wait.
The Dark Cave, while something of a blatant tourist trap, was a huge amount of fun. We started by ziplining down to near the cave entrance before swimming the last stretch. There was some disagreement on whether the water could be classified as cold (it couldn’t) but otherwise we made it to the cave safely. From there we scrambled through the cave, head torches shining, until we made it to the mud bath. Slathered from tip to toe in mud the most reluctant of us had to be practically dragged from the cave, it was just too much fun. This did mean we got a little left behind and there was one fork where we ended up just guessing on the correct direction.
Making it out of the cave, still rather coated in mud to the amusement of some, we played around on some inflatable kayaks, which proved very hard to steer with only half oars, and rode ziplines into the water before making the most of our lifejackets and just floating around (I told you the water wasn’t cold). A couple of bottles of Vietnamese rum later and we were on our way back to the hostel in time for drinks, pizza and sunset at Momma D’s bar.
The next day saw me getting all the dits for Phong Nha at the Easy Tiger’s 0900 talk on the area. This popular hour long talk is packed with excellent advice and is open to everyone, not just hostel guests. Attending helped me plan out the perfect day trip and what has so far been the best day of my journey.
I paired up with a young lady who had been on the tour with me the day prior. We borrowed two bicycles from the hostel and set out towards Bong Lai Valley. At the recommendation of the hostel, we followed the river away from the centre instead of the main road. While this had the added advantage of cycling along a quieter back road rather than dodging cars, busses and lorries, the best part was the view over the tranquil river and the boats that slowly moved up and down it.
We saw the Pepperhouse Homestay several minutes before we reached it, its distinctive mustard yellow paintwork standing out against the backdrop of greenery. Home to a lively Australian and his Vietnamese wife, the homestay was a welcome respite from the heat and we both enjoyed a coke while sitting by the pool and chatting to the other guests. While I didn’t hear this story from the man himself and so can’t attest to its truth, David, the owner, goes by the name Multi among many of the locals due to filling in his residence permit application wrong, writing his visa type in the name slot. This led to a residence card for one Mr “Multi Entry Visa” and an amusing anecdote.
We departed the Pepperhouse for Moi Moi’s a small homestead come restaurant. At this point we hit a hill so were not surprised when everyone from the Pepperhouse whizzed passed us, perched precariously on the back of their guides’ motorbikes. Dismounting to push our bikes down the gravel hill, we emerged to see an open side dining area, complete with hammocks and a vast tapioca field stretching out behind it. Parking our bikes in the shade of some trees and next to a couple of cows, I could see chillies and a variety of herbs being grown along the field’s edge.
Originally we had planned to eat bamboo pork and spring rolls on the advice of the Easy Tiger staff but upon seeing some tapioca dumplings being carefully wrapped in banana leaves, we quickly switched to the sticky treats instead of spring rolls. This was not a decision we regretted and we tucked into the dumplings with great gusto. The bamboo pork came with rice and was such a big serving that we shared a single ome between us. Served with a plate of rice, the dish is made by stuffing a large piece of bamboo with pork and vegetables before cooking it over a fire. This results in delightfully juicy pork flavoured with caramelised onions, mushrooms and carrots. We washed all this down with sugary lemon juice. Extremely popular here in Vietnam, the drink is made differently at every restaurant and I have to say that Moi Moi’s version was particularly good.
Pleasantly stuffed we continued cycling along to the Wild Boar Eco Farm. Fortunately, before we left Moi Moi’s David had told us to look out for and cross a large metal bridge otherwise I suspect we would have ended up rather lost. With food comas threatening and the sun beating down this stretch of our route felt rather tiring but perseverance won out and we were rewarded with some spectacular views and getting to feed some wild boar and pigs. Conscious of time constraints, we had a sunset to catch, we only stayed at the Eco Farm long enough to appreciate the view and cool down a little.
The imaginatively named Pub With Cold Beer was our next stop. Until 2005 they didn’t have electricity and it was only much more recently that they got a fridge to chill the beer. The story goes that an Australian had rather cheekily stopped at the house and asked for some food. He was so blown away by the taste, he persuaded them to set up a restaurant and begun sending all his hostel guests their way. The only issue was that the beer was always warm. The initial attempt to bring huge bags of ice back to the pub from Phong Nha were unsuccessful given the minor issue that ice tends to melt. Finally someone asked why they didn’t just get a fridge and it was only at this point that it emerged they had no idea what a fridge was. Since then the beer has been consistently cold and sometimes frozen.
The beer was indeed excellently chilled when we went and the recently installed tarpaulin water slide was brilliant fun. My only regret was that I was still too full from Moi Moi’s to try what is widely claimed to be the best peanut sauce in Vietnam if not the world. We also gave the catch, kill and eat a chicken part of the Pub With Cold Beer experience a miss with too little time left in the day and the notorious Duck Stop to visit.
Forget some of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world, when it comes to Phong Nha the Duck Stop is now number one on Trip Advisor. What’s better than being the duck leader, feeding ducks and getting a duck foot massage, not to mention getting to chuck a duck for luck? We were kitted out in conical hats and plastic sandals before entering the duck pen. Almost immediately the ducks ran up out of the pond to greet us. Rattling the tin of food we took it in turns to let the extremely enthusiastic ducks gobble food from our hands before letting them chase us around. Never have I felt more powerful than when my duck minions spread before me awaiting their food. Next was the mildly terrifying but utterly hilarious foot massage. Sitting down we made little bowls of our feet which were filled with feed and promptly attacked. The sensation was extremely ticklish and weird, certainly not something I had ever experienced before.
The final part of out visit to the Duck Stop was the duck chuck. Done for luck, this is exactly what it sounds like, we each grasped a placid duck and threw them into the air above a large pond. By all accounts the further one’s duck goes the more luck will be forthcoming. Hopefully this is not the case as my duck plopped rather rapidly into the water. Hands and feet rinsed of mud and duck, we leapt back on our bicycles and began a mad dash for the Phong Nha Farmstay, determined to make it in time for the sunset.
Just as the sky began to turn pink, we pulled up to the Farmstay and enjoyed the two for one on gin and tonics while watching one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in a while. Rice paddies with water buffalo plodding through them stretched into the distance until the mountainous karsts suddenly leapt up on the horizon, reaching to hide the flaming disc of the sun from view. What was even better was that we could leave our bikes at the Farmstay and catch the after sunset shuttle back to the Easy Tiger instead of cycling back in the dark.
My final day in Phong Nha was spent relaxing and planning a little more of my route out. Looking back I think the best thing about Phong Nha was the determination of all the hostel and restaurent owners to support each other and the local businesses. From the locally made pizza Momma D ordered for us to all the recommendations and advice on where to stop in Bong Lai Valley, it was definitely the people as much as the scenery that made Phong Nha so special.
Upon deciding to head up to Hue after Hoi An, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to do the Hai Van Pass by motorbike as everyone whose done it reports absolutely stunning scenery. This was an on going debate throughout my stay in Hoi An and it was only on the last day I decided I wasn’t confident enough to ride a motorbike or scooter the necessary 160 odd kilometres. In the end I caught a local bus to Da Nang and then got the train the rest of the way. This meant I got to see a little of the beautiful scenery but missed out on the best bits. On the other hand, I arrived at my hostel in one piece and without an Asian tattoo of gravel rash.
Cycling around Hoi An had given me the bicycle bug so the day after my arrival I rented a bicycle and set off to explore the sites around Hue. Within the city there is less to see but surrounding it are tombs and temples. I started off by powering along to the UNESCO Imperial City. Building started in 1804 but less than a century and a half later in 1947, Viet Cong and French fighting destroyed many of the buildings and burned the Imperial Palace to the ground. Then the Citadel was badly damaged in 1968 during the Tet Offensive and the South Vietnamese and American efforts to reclaim Hue. By the end of all this only ten of some 160 major buildings or sites remained. Fortunately, these have been or are in the process of being restored and preserved.
All this makes for a curious experience walking around the Citadel as some parts remain grassy ruins and others are perfectly solid (if a little weathered) buildings. While some of the weathering had clearly appeared naturally over time, there were a couple of places where it appeared intentional such as where doors had multiple layers of paint in different colours showing.
I eventually found myself at the exit and decided to move on to my next loaction: the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was magnificent but also interesting was some of its history as this was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who famously self immolated in 1963 to protest the prosecution of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic government. The car he used to drive down to Saigon is on display at the pagoda and provided yet another insight into the build up to the Vietnam war.
Out of all the tombs, I decided to visit only one as the 100,000đ entrance fees to each would have quickly added up and the distant locations meant I wasn’t confident of fitting everywhere into one day. Hence, I went to the one that seemed to have the best reviews, the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. While I cannot compare it to the other tombs I felt it deserved the reviews and enjoyed looking around the complex.
I spent the evening recovering from all my cycling over a cold beer with an Australian from my hostel and woke up bright and early the next day to finish packing.
Packing complete, I set left my backpack at the hostel and set out riding pillion on the back of a lass’s scooter to the abandoned water park. The Australian from the night before was with us and my excellent navigation skills saw us arriving in no time. We ended up paying the bribe fee to the entrepreneurial local security guard to enter the park as the large group of girls we were standing with all caved and our sheep-like natures won out.
The water park didn’t have tons to see but the huge dragon in the centre of the lake was really cool to climb up and look out from. A few small additions to the graffiti later and we came across some flumes and slides that had seen better days. Finishing our loop around the lake, we headed back into Hue for a rushed lunch before I caught my bus up to Phong Nha.
When I finally arrived in Hoi An, I was not in the most upbeat of moods so the crowding of tourists and price hikes to match in the old city grated somewhat against my nerves. I bought my ticket to the old city for 120,000đ and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around. The ticket allows one to enter any five of the twenty two sites or points of interest around the city but tourists are technically expected to carry the ticket with them at all times in the old city. This wasn’t something I saw enforced but apparently it does occasionally happen.
Having bought the ticket I realised I didn’t know which of the sights to use mine for so just soaked up the atmospheric streets and visited the central market. Entering the building that sold fabric and housed the cheapest of Hoi An’s famous tailoring services, I found myself walking through it with increasing speed because so much as glancing at a stall meant persistent calls to buy something, and in one case almost being herded into one. The outdoor section of the market, selling mostly produce and fish, was more enjoyable as being able to see the sky made the whole experience less claustrophobic.
After an early jaunt through the night market and dinner I watched the sunset from one on the bridges over the Thu Bon river. This proved to be a refreshing end to a stressful day of flat tires crowded tourist spots. As the light dimmed, new lights appeared on the river as the boats rigged silk lanterns and people released floating lanterns for good luck.
The next day I planned my stops in the city before setting out. My first stop was the Museum of Trading Ceramics. While the information provided was limited, the museum was situated in a beautiful old merchant house and it was amazing to read about just how long Hoi An had been a trading port before its decline. After looking around the second floor, I walked to Phuc Kien Assembly Hall where merchants used to meet it also seemed to be part shrine and I loved the huge spirals of incense that hung burning from the ceiling.
My final stop of the day was the Minh Huong Pagoda which was very quiet. I had hoped to also visit the Tan Ky house but by the time I got there after devouring some fresh spring rolls (a new favourite of mine) in the central market, they had closed for lunch. Being too impatient to wait, I wandered the shops of the city, debating whether to replace my rucksack (currently rather holey) with a nice leather one. I was strongly dissuaded when the shop keeper dropped from 2,730,000đ to 1,100,000đ in the space of a minute. While this could probably could have been a good deal, only £33 for a leather bag, having had my arm grabbed when I went to leave after turning down the bag because it didn’t have a zip closure had rather soured my mood and I returned to the hostel.
For dinner I had a life changing experience of bành mí from Bành Mí Phuong, a small stall made world renowned by Anthony Bourdain, who proclaimed it the best bành mí he had ever eaten.
The next day I left all valuables at the hostel and set out for the beach on a bicylce from the hostel. After the first busy stretch, the cycle was quite a bit of fun and the rice paddies were a pleasant change of scenery. The beach was crowded, even when I cycled further down it to avoid paying bicycle parking costs (an excellent piece of advice from my hostel). After a swim where my inner selkie rejoiced at being in the sea again, I lounged on a sun chair in the shade (still managing to get burnt despite reapply my sun cream) and read my book.
In hindsight I should have known my cycle to the beach was too easy as I cycled all the way back to the hostel with a headwind buffering me about. To round off my stay I visited the Tan Ky house that aftenoon. I got a nice little talk about the combination of Japanese and Chinese architecture used. My favourite bit was a series of stickers marking the heights of various floods over the years. The highest was in 1964 and almost brushed the ceiling. This reminded me of a story I heard about a pub that used to remain open during floods so locals could kayak over for a pint.
If there is one rule to travelling that must always be obeyed it is never ever whatever you do, think a journey is going well until you have arrived at your destination on time and in one piece. If you do decide to break this sacred rule, know that when you wake up at 0520 in the morning expecting your bus to have just arrived in Hoi An, you will in fact be forty five minutes outside of Hoi An with a flat tire. Naturally there will be no spare tire, the majority of the hold will be filled with packages mysteriously wrapped in black plastic – probably drugs you will joke. After a smoke and just as you exit the bus that is starting to turn into a sweatbox without the air conditioner running, one of the drivers will jump on the back of a motorbike and depart for destinations unknown.
It will only be as this point, when you observe the lean of the bus, that you will realise there is a flat tire and that it will be a while yet before you make it to Hoi An. Not to worry you will think, as the grandmother-mother-child combo that were next to you all the way from Saigon flag down a local bus and speed away, with only forty five minutes to Hoi An and allowing half an hour to fix the tire, you will be on your way again in a couple of hours (in reality you are only jinxing the situation further).
A couple of hours is still a long time though, so you will open up the hold to see if your bag is easily collectable, if it is you plan to follow the locals who are performing a gradual exodus with each local bus that passes. As you are closing the last door (you can’t even see your bag), the remaining driver will lean out the door and shout at you in Vietnamese. You presume he is telling you to stop but the language sounds so angry it is just as likely he is trying to discuss the weather (unlikely since he is such a miserable looking fellow).
Plans of escape thwarted, you will order an ice coffee at the nearby cafe, even though it isn’t yet six and the owner is still opening up. This is where you will remain for the foreseeable future, eventually joined by others as the heat of the bus becomes intolerable. Two hours will pass and the driver won’t have even returned (so much for that plan). At some point you will start playing a convoluted version of rummy where, since none of you know the actual rules, you just make them up as you go along.
At 0830 the driver will arrive bringing two tires and an air tank to power the jack and screwdriver as well as blow up the tires. Cheers all round. At 0850 the flat, rear tire and the front tire will have been removed and everyone who was fixing the bus will have disappeared. Fortunately a minibus driver who speaks English will arrive around this time and he will explain to you that the tires they bought back (probably from Da Nang you will now realise) are the wrong size so the driver has had to go twenty five kilometres down the road in the opposite direction to buy some new ones (why couldn’t he do that to start with if it is so much closer).
Some more cards and short walk up the road to see if there is anywhere selling something that can be approximated as breakfast (there isn’t unless you count crisps) later and the driver will return with two shiny new tires. It will be 0940 when you eventually leave and 1030 when you arrive in Hoi An.
There was no need to phone the hostel the day before and ask if you could check in early after all.
The night before I left Phnom Penh, I came down with a rather horrible cold which I am still feeling the effects of now. This made travelling to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as locals still call it, a rather miserable affair but aside from a slight delay at the border it was mercifully an uneventful journey.
My first stop the next day was the Ben Thanh market which was still setting up. However, this did not stop the calls of “miss, miss you want to buy T-shirt” following me around. It was fun to look at the souvenirs and some of the lacquerware was quite lovely. Grateful for my blocked nose as I passed through the butcher section of the market, I continued my walk up to the Siagon Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. These were both excellent examples of the French colonialist architechture that Vietnam is so famous for but there is little to see inside the post office and the cathedral is closed to visitors during its renovation so they were both quick stops.
The War Remnants Museum was where I next ventured and is, by all accounts, a must visit in Saigon. Unlike many museums that cover a specific war, the War Remnant Museum focused more on the aftermath of the “American war” rather than the timeline and individual events that occurred during the war. To walk through it in the intended order, one starts on the second floor and moves down towards the ground floor. The top floor was mostly about different photographers on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives or went missing. Information about American war crimes and massacres appear on this floor and the ond below with some very chilling quotes.
The first floor had a large exhibt about the defoliator agent orange and the long lasting negative impacts it has on the environment and more tragically, on the people who were exposed to it and their children. Seeing the wide range of mental and physical disabilities the dioxin containing chemical causes was disturbing given how liberally the Americans sprayed it on areas of Vietnam. From talking to other people, I think it is widely agreed that this was the hardest floor of the museum to visit. The final ground floor talked of the bombs dropped and the efforts to clear them as well as showing posters and articles from different countries in support of Vietnam.
My last stop of the day was the Independence Palace which was fun to look around even if the explanatory plaques disappeared after the first couple of floors. I think I manage to see all the bits that were open to the public however with so many staircases leading to different sections it is hard to be sure.
The next day I had booked onto a tour to go and see the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were inhabited by southern Vietnamese rebels during the war years and stretched for over 250 kilometres on three different levels. Our toilet break on the way to the tunnels was at a lacquerware workshop for disabled artisans. While a lot of the artwork was beautiful, what was more impressive were the prices; one set of panels I saw cost over £2000. When we got to the tunnels, our guide reminding us not to lose our wives (a favourite joke of his), we disembarked and began the walk around the museum grounds.
Our guide was a veteran who had fought with the Americans but seemed to enjoy telling us of all the ways he had tricked them into doing stupid things and reminding us how fat we all are in comparison to the Vietnamese. This was particularly apparent when he told us of a woman who had go stuck in one of the bolt holes used in surprise attacks. While he revelled in stories I did find myself wishing for a more factual approach in some areas, such as the traps. Of these he was rather dismissive, saying how they could only wound a soldier and not kill them, instead of discussing their strategic uses of forcing troops to bunch up as they tried to rescue a comrade and how the points were barbed and covered in excrement to slow removal and encourage infections.
I elected not to have a go at the shooting range halfway around the grounds, instead trying to rehydrate and replace some of my electrolytes. Going through the tunnel was the last stop at the museum and being short proved to be an advantage as we passed through a stretch of it that had been widened for us western tourists to pass through. The air of the tunnel was so hot and humid, that exiting could almost make one feel like they were entering a temperate climate. The bus back stopped at a “very cheap, very good” restaurant for a late lunch with everyone too hungry to disagree. While the food tasted good, even with my blocked nose, I had paid less the day before for lunch at a mid level cafe.
My last proper day was extremely relaxed and I spent a large portion of it at the hostel before venturing out to the Loft Cafe for an early lunch. The decor of the cafe was a well balanced blend of industrial chique and quaint rustic, I was particularly taken with the repurposing of bird cages for lamp shades. While my food was about average the lime juice was excellent and I had to restrain myself from buying a second glass.
From there I went to see the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which was almost deserted and in a lovely old building. It was enjoyable to potter through the exhibits and learn a little more about the history of the city and surrounding area. I was rather amused by the regular occurrence of the phrase “the American Diem puppet regime”. While I fully understand and respect the sentiment and history behind the phrase, I have never quite got used to the blatant propaganda some cultures employ, being far more used to the subtler hand of my preferred media outlets.
Aside from the hostel’s free evening food tour, which I attended every night of my stay, and a somewhat roundabout route back to the hostel, the museum concluded my forays into Saigon and the next day I set out to catch the bus up to Hoi An.
Originally I had intended to stay only one full day in Phnom Penh as it has such a bad reputation for thieves and aside from the Killing Fields and S-21 museum there isn’t a whole lot that can been seen. However, I had visited the genocide sights the day before with a couple of young women who were staying an additional day to do a tour called Meet the Province. Reading the leaflet, it sounded like a lot of fun and when they invited me along I eagerly accepted and extended my stay for another night.
Jiurua picked us up the next morning, and the three of us piled into her brother’s tuk tuk with her. We drove through Phnom Penh, passed the Palace which was covered in scaffolding and very gold, so just as well I had not bothered to visit. On the way we tried some fruit that looked very similar to lychees and is apparently nicknamed mens balls in Cambodian. Our first stop was a beautifully illustrated temple where Jiurua told us the story of the Buddha and about the temple and some of the festivals and events the happen around the year. She also showed us a tree, the flower of which is drank as a tea infusion by women in their fifth month of pregnancy to ensure a smooth birth.
From there we took a small ferry across the river, trying grilled banana wrapped in sticky rice and palm leaves while sitting in the small top area. On the other side of the river (or possible in the middle of it) we went to look around a small island where local women were making silk scarves and skirts. As always when it comes to anything related to sewing and fabric making I was very excited by this, especially when we got to try spinning the first thread from the silk cocoons. I the end I caved and bought a beautiful purple scarf, barely resisting getting a magnificent red one as well.
After seeing how the patterns were weaved into the skirts on the loom, something I hadn’t been able to figure at the Thai Silk Village, we headed to Jiurua’s plot of land where her sister made us a delicious lunch from a collection of home grown and local products. I am not sure which was my favourite but it was either the sliced lotus roots or the fish. Jiurua’s brother had caught the fish the night before so it was very fresh and marinated in a scrumptious sauce. I will confess that I still find fish with heads and tails attached a little disconcerting but I am definitely getting more used to them.
A short trip saw Jiurua collecting lotus flowers and fruits (also delicious and tasting like broad beans) from a large pond before we returned to her place and were shown how to fold out the lotus buds into flowers, a very therapeutic process. As we were waiting for a storm to pass (it did not rain on us but the wind meant the ferry would not be running), we all became fascinated with pulling the silky threads from the ends of the lotus stalks. Jiurua also gave us a very handsome gift of some lemongrass cuttings to try and grow when we return to our respective homes. Hopefully mine will survive long enough.
The procurement of some fresh ginger at a small local market marked the end of the tour and we were dropped off at the hostel with full stomachs and happy faces.
I have no words that express the level of sorrow and horror I experienced walking through the S-21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. This post will be brief, not because I consider this a topic to be avoided but because I could never properly convey the suffering of the victims during the Cambodian Genocide. Walking through first S-21 Museum and then the Killing Fields is soul crushing.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or more commonly S-21) was once a school. It had an outdoor exercise frame, large airy classrooms and open balconies connected the classrooms. This was a place of learning, joy and laughter, but then on 17 April 1975, Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh. Within days the city was deserted, all its citizens forced out into the countryside at gunpoint as Pol Pot began creating his communist utopia where the peasant farmers were his “heros”.
Then this school became a prison. The exercise frame was use to torture prisoners into confession; the classrooms became tiny cells, torture rooms or were left as mass cells where prisoners lay together with their feet shackled to an iron bar; the balconies were covered with barbed wire after a prisoner tried to leap from them. Now it is a museum and people come to learn once more, but joy has long since fled the grounds and now only grief remains.
The Khmer Rouge systematically and purposefully destroyed the country’s economy and any connection to western capitalism. Currency was outlawed, machines were left to rust and Cambodians were put to work in farming collectives with demands for impossible yields of rice hanging over their heads. Many of them were city dwellers with no experience of how to grow crops. People quickly began to starve, grow ill and die. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge killed “intellectuals”. People who could speak another language or who had a degree or who wore glasses. Doctors, lawyers, teachers. And then their families. What was most chilling was the way prisoners were not allowed to die until a confession had been tortured from them. Only then would they be executed.
The Killing Fields were where the executions were carried out before bodies were shoved into pits. Bullets were too expensive so whatever tools on hand were used. The most common method was a strike to the back of the head followed by a slit throat. Loudspeakers played communist songs to cover the screams and a diesel generator provided the only light as prisoners were killed at night. The hardest part of the entire day was standing in front of the tree where soldiers had taken babies and toddlers by their feet and smashed their heads against a tree before they were thrown into a mass grave with their mothers.
Both museums were really well done but it is worth noting the audioguides are an absolute must to truly learn about the genocide. I can still feel the skulls of victims staring at me from the stupa of the Killing Fields and it will be a long time before the knowledge of the Cambodian Genocide and the 1-3 million deaths it claimed cease to haunt me.
On the surface Bangkok does not offer much. There is a multitude of Wats and a fair number of museums but otherwise the standing agreement among backpackers is two or three days in Bangkok and then move on, maybe stretch it to five days. To an extent I agree, within the easily accessible parts of the city, there is little to do after the Wats have become a golden blur, each photo potentially belonging to a dozen different locations. However, Bangkok makes an excellent base of operations for visiting a number of other locations. In my case, I visited the Bridge on the River Kwai and Ayutthaya, which I talk about in two separate posts.
Upon dumping all my belongings at the hostel, I quickly left to fit in the famous solid gold Buddha at Wat Traimit. I bought my ticket and waited patiently to take my photos after climbing to the top. This took a while because the moment certain other tourists saw the spot directly in front of the Buddha was free, they were charging in and having a full blown photo shoot. The irony that they complained the moment I put a toe in their photos after they had just set up shop in mine was not lost on me. I was strongly reminded of the Chinese tour group I had encountered when taking photos of street art in George Town. Unfortunately, this is a part of being a tourist and when I find myself feeling frustrated, I take a breath, remind myself I am British and therefore that I know how to queue.
Something I was not aware of, and which wasn’t at all clear at the ticket booth, was that a different ticket to the small museum about the Golden Buddha on the floor below was needed. Hence, I decided to give the museum a miss since I knew the basic story of how the Buddha had been “discovered” when it was dropped while being moved and the plaster covering the gold cracked and fell away. Still tired from my train journey up to Bangkok, I called it a day and returned to the hostel for an early night via Chinatown and picking up some pad thai from a street vendor on the way.
The morning of day two in Bangkok found me visiting the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho and the Grand Palace Complex with a guy from my hostel. Wat Pho was one of my two favourite wats. Whether because the design eased up on the gold paint or because it was the first wat I saw that day is hard to say for sure. Replacing all the gold were thousands of pieces of pottery, carefully arranged in intricate patterns. I was reminded of the Little Chapel back home, even if the pottery tiles here were each made specifically for the wat rather than random pottery shards slapped on at (mostly) random. The reclining Buddha was outstandingly huge. I particularly liked its lacquer and mother of pearl feet. Another winning feature of Wat Pho was that there was a reasonably large amount of it to see, unlike some wats where one feels that they enter, take a couple of photos, and then leave.
Despite plenty of offers, we declined a tuk tuk for the five minute walk to the entrance of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Getting in presented more of a challenge than we expected. First the guy I was travelling had shorts which were too short. Fair enough, they only just brushed his knees. So back across the road we went to pick up a pair of the colourful trousers, ubiquitous to backpacking tourists in South East Asia. I was wearing a top which covered my shoulders and had a T-shirt collar. However, it only had very short sleeves so I had covered my arms the rest of the way with a shawl. This had never presented an issue before and neither has it since. Apparently this time it wasn’t acceptable though, even as I watched half a dozen other female tourists walk pass with their shoulders barely hidden beneath flimsy scarves. Five minutes later and some quick improvisation on my part to adapt my shawl into a pair of sleeves, we re-entered the complex, me blending into a group of Chinese tourists who never seem to get stopped. With my height, an umbrella to block the sun, and big sunglasses this was not too difficult and we quickly made it to the ticket office, both sweltering from the crush of bodies and the sun.
Wat Phra Kaew was undeniably impressive with most surfaces glittering gold and it was cool to see the Emerald Buddha but the heat was almost unbearable and we found ourselves taking “shelter” in the shade as often as possible. Personally, the sheer volume of people was beginning to border on overwhelming as at five foot one (two on a good day) it was impossible to see further than the back or head in front of me and I was at risk of getting carried along by the tide. Making it through to the palace was less crowded but beyond looking at the exterior, we couldn’t see anywhere to enter so went to eat some ice cream before parting ways.
I caught the orange flag boat over the river to look around Wat Arun and Santa Cruz Church. Wat Arun had also avoided the gold craze and I enjoyed craning my head back to try and see the top as it reached towrds the sky. Even including the nearby ordination hall, there was not much to see but I think it is still worth a visit as it is very different to a lot of the other wats I visited. Santa Cruz Church was closed, I presume as it was a Sunday, but the outside of the building was nice and I had a lovely little amble from Wat Arun to the church and then on to the boat station.
From there I made way to the Golden Mount, pausing at a few wats I passed on the way. This was my second favourite wat. Not for its towering gold stupa but for the wonderful views of Bangkok that it offered in all directions. After descending the awkwardly shallow stairs, I realised I couldn’t stand the thought of another wat so walked past Democracy Monument and explored Khao San Road, collecting some mango sticky rice for a very belated lunch. Dinner was with another guest from the hostel and then bed.
I spent the next day and a half visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass, detailed here. Upon my return I had hoped to visit the Medical Museum however it was closed on Tuesdays and I ended up not going at all. Instead, I spent the afternoon getting a Thai massage (very relaxing) and a henna tattoo (a bit of fun).
Wednesday’s visit to Ayutthaya is also described in a separate post, here, but suffice to say it was a good visit even if it left me so exhausted by the time I got back to Bangkok that I slept half the next day away. To account for this, I only visited one place, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Entrance to here was included in my ticket to the Grand Palace from a few days before so it made sense to visit. The museum isn’t huge, with one section detailing the long and peaceful relationship between Thailand and the US, showcasing some of the gifts exchanged between the two countries over the years. The second section appealed to my inner seamstress and was a variety of restored pieces from Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe, the majority from her visits to the US and Europe in the 1960s.
My final day in Bangkok was spent taking a breather and resting up for my 0100 night bus to Siem Reap where I then transferred down to Phnom Pehn.