Vietnam and East Timor take shape

I have to throw a couple of “thanks” out here. First of all to Thao in Ho Chi Minh City who’s helping me plan what promises to be an awesome week or so motorcycling around the south of Vietnam. I’ve been wanting to ride round the whole country since well before that Top Gear episode, but time is short. However, covering around a quarter of the place and seeing many towns and roads I’ve not encountered before promises to be amazing!

I think the plan right now is to circle round from HCM to Da Lat, then Nah Trang, Mui Ne Beach and back to the city again. If there’s time I’d love to get as far up as the DMZ near Da Nang, but that might be pushing it.

Next up, TravelFish on Twitter put me in touch with Matt who’s been able to provide me with some very useful information regarding flights to and from East Timor. I was about to give up on this adventure (mainly due to time constraints), but now it looks like it could be both affordable and enjoyable. I may try and make part of the journey there by land, but fly back out to Denpasar. He’s done this journey before and knowing this gives me a quite a bit of comfort.

I’ll likely be flying with Mupati. Unfortunately, their web page is still at the “under construction” phase so I wasn’t able to check times and prices on there. The only other alternatives were from Singapore (far too expensive) and Darwin (stupid long route round and as a result, very expensive as well). Flying from Bali is still not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper.

Any other time I’d have just turned up and winged up, but two to three years ago I wasn’t on any real schedule. I also had a hell of a lot more money!

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Plans for the next few days

Today we popped out to My Son and this afternoon we’ll do the Lonely Planet walk around town. More snaps, this time in daylight.

Tomorrow’s plan is to hire two mopeds and head up to China Beach and the Marble Mountains. Time and weather allowing, also possibly Da Nang.

Day after, early train to Hue where we’ll spend one night before getting the bus (or train) back down to Da Nang and hopping on a flight to Hanoi. This bit’s variable – may spend a night in Da Nang, may not.

We do have flights from Hanoi to Bangkok booked for the 1st of August, though. All these details (and changes) will be plotted on the calendar linked to the side of the main page.

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Saigon to Hoi An

A fair bit of travel today, and some reminders that prices do change compared to guide books. We checked out of the hotel around 10:00 aiming to be at the airport for 10:30. The cheapest way in Saigon is to use the local bus. Last time I was here, it was 1000d for a ticket though you routinely got charged for your luggage (one extra ticket) as well.

With the help of our incredibly helpful hotel owner, we easily located the bus stop (the bus is on a different route now – still the number 152 though) and hopped aboard. The tickets are now 3000d each and – again – you need to buy two if you have luggage. So a threefold increase in ticket price in around 2 years. Quite a hike and I’d suspect that one of those hikes is likely recent as Vietnam had a 33% jump in fuel costs this week. Regardless, the bus trip was fairly quick and we got to the airport dot on 10:30.

Check-in was a breeze. One queue feeding down to several check-in desks, all of which were manned. No stupid questions (“Did you pack this all yourself? Has it been anywhere it could have been tampered with since you packed it? Have you got any liquids in your hand luggage? Are you going to blow up the plane? What’s the square root of 1?”), no scrutinizing of luggage weight to the nearest gram. Just checking of our booking, stickers on the baggage and direction to the gate. Security was just as simple. The only thing they questioned me on was the predator light stowed in my carry-on. They let me keep it but I had to put it through the x-ray. No need to remove my belt, cap, shoes, teeth or anything else. Superb.

Within 10 minutes of getting through, we were queuing to board and ended up on a gorgeous big plane borrowed (I guess) from China Air, going by the logo emblazoned down the side. Comfy seats and lovely headrests, cold towels, free drinks, in-flight personal TVs (though not active for our 1-hour jaunt)… a much better plane than the one we ended up with for our long-haul flight from the UK on Royal Thai. Much, much better.

We delved through the Lonely Planet as I tried to decide what route we should take through the cities of the east coast when we arrived and very quickly we were descending into Da Nang. Again, offloading and luggage collection was a breeze.

I’d intended to get a xe om (motorcycle taxi) to the bus station and head down to Hoi An, but the only transport available was taxi. So we got one for $4 (quite expensive, I think) to take us to the bus station. He actually dropped us on the bus *route*, but ensured we were there to catch the next bus which is fair enough. I have a feeling if he’d taken us to the station we’d just have missed one and have had an hour to wait.

Now, Lonely Planet quotes the public bus fare from Da Nang to Hoi An as being 8000d and recommends you get on at the station as travellers who jump on en route are “routinely overcharged”. I can confirm this. Even allowing for inflation and the aforementions jump in fuel prices, I think a quote of “40,000d. Each” is taking the piss. I got him down to 30,000d for the pair of us before I got bored. I’d reckon, given the current prices elsewhere compared to the newest Lonely Planet (currently 9th edition), that the cost should be around 10,000d to 12,000d per person for this journey.

The guy taking the fares turned out to be OK, though – just another guy out to try and make some more money. We had a quick chat and he pointed out some of the scenery on the way down. When we got to Hoi An, he sorted us out a couple of xe om to get us to the town. We’d ended up at the north bus station which is a couple of km’s out of the town rather than the local one. More frequent buses leave from this one, but it’s pot luck when you’re heading towards Hoi An which one you’ll jump on. I guess a local would know.

The moto’s tried to get 30,000d a had off us, eventually “agreeing” on 25,000d though I’d insisted on 20,000d. Given the length of the ride, 20,000d seemed a good price. 25,000d wouldn’t have been a rip-off, in fairness.

Based on Lonely Planet, we chose the Thien Nga due to the phrase “old favourite” in the review which implied it had been around for a long time and also made its way through several editions without being dumped. The only downside was the price – higher than LP listed and they only had top-end rooms left at $30 a night. However, it also had free wi-fi, PCs, a small pool with loungers, a great view from the balconies, breakfast included, cable telly and a fridge with local-priced beverages inside. And they knocked us down to $25. Sold.

So after a quick unpack, shower and plunge in the comparitively icy and refreshing pool we walked into town to pick somewhere for dinner. And gaped in wonderment. Hoi An is truly a beautiful city – or large town. Stunning.

Old, wooden buildings line the streets. History seeps from every tile and shuttered window. Meeting rooms, pagodas, bridges. Gorgeous. And we were seeing it at night. I heartily look forward to taking a stroll around in the daylight. The town cente is also closed most (or some) evenings to anything other than pedestrians and users of “primitive vehicle” (sic). This makes walking around so much more pleasant and peaceful. Piped music even comes from speakers around town – nice, relaxing piano. Ideal regardless of where you decide to eat.

After plodding for almost an hour checking out the prices and menus (all very similar) we settled on the U2 (or U-Hai) restaurant on D Nguyen Thai Hoc. It’s not in Lonely Planet, but it looked nice, had a decent menu and prices were around 10-20,000d cheaper than Hai Scout Cafe which is recommended by them. We started with a couple of nice mocktails. Mine was unusual – 7-Up, orange, lime, tea and grenadine – and absolutely divine. Leah – for once – forewent seafood in favour of spag bol and I had some superb battered chicken slices with a lemon and salt dipping sauce. De-flipping-licious.

A couple of large jugs of locally brewed beer washed them down nicely. Total bill was 141,000d – around £4, give or take. Back at the hotel we booked a tour for two to the ruins at My Son (pronounced “Me Sun”) tomorrow at the newly-inflated price of $4 per person. Not bad for a 5-hour trip.

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