Good evening, Vietnam! Again…

Visit number five to Vietnam and number three to Ho Chi Minh City. This time was to be my first with a “local” guide in the form of Thao who I’ve been chatting to online for almost two years now, I think. She originally spotted my blog post about climbing Fansipan, which she was planning on doing, and we’ve been in touch ever since.

The flight was on time and otherwise uneventful. What was different was Tan Son Nhat airport. There has been a lot of work done on it since the last time I used it (only a year ago) to the point that I thought I was in a new airport. Some things don’t change, though, and you still have the thieving taxi drivers trying to charge you double what they should for the short ride into the city centre.

Cheapest option is still the public bus at 3000d per ticket, but Thao had given me prices to ask for if I could find a xe om. Unfortunately you simply won’t get a motorcycle around the international terminal. I found a taxi firm that charged me a dollar (well, 20000d which is more than a dollar but they wouldn’t take the $1 bill I had as it was too dirty) to call Thao who very kindly said she’d come and pick me up.

I walked to the domestic terminal to wait for her. While I was there, about three men asked me if I wanted a motorcycle. They did this very subtly, like the morons on the street in Mumbai trying to sell you drugs. The reason for this is that they have no license to pick people up from the airport and are just parked in the public car park. However, I reckon they’ll be a cheap way to get into the town if you don’t want to handle the buses. Thao quoted me around 20000d as a fair fare for one of these chaps. Note that she’s Vietnamese so doubtless gets it cheaper than a foreigner!

However, Thao wasn’t too long and it was lovely to finally meet her. It took me half an hour to find out what she looked like as she wore a typical Vietnamese face-covering while she motorbiked. We got to the hotel quickly enough and she helped me check in as we were in a very non-foreigner part of town.

After a shower (oh, I so needed that) and a change of clothes (I ripped the groin out of the pair I was wearing getting onto her bike – whoops) Thao took me to a restaurant a couple of doors along for a very nice dinner. The chap serving us spoke a very small amount of English and took delight in striking up a conversation with me to practise. Always glad to help!

By now we were both running on empty so I retired to my room with plans for Thao to collect me in the morning to head up to a wedding party where she was one of the bridesmaids. Exciting!

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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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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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Saigon in the rain

I sat up really late the night before trying to get the wifi card working on my laptop (under Ubuntu – Windows works fine) but we still got up in the morning. We had breakfast in the 333 cafe over the street – a delicious array of fresh fruit and yoghurt.

While we were there, one of the old cyclo drivers came in and asked if we’d fancy a trip round the city for around 3 hours. He quoted us $7 for the trip which is moderately high, but it’s not busy for him right now and it’s not a lot of cash to us. So we found ourselves a short while later reclining on plasticcy cushions being pedalled through the insane traffic of Ho Chi Minh City. Something I’ve not done before, anyway.

The speeds weren’t great, but it’s a novelty and it makes a change to be on the front of a small vehicle. Our “host” was one of the soldiers on the losing side of the war who had been imprisoned and then effectively banished afterwards. Along with thousands of other skilled people, they were abandoned and shunned from the city and for many years refused even the likes of an electricity supply in their homes. With Vietnam becoming slightly more westernised (though still Communist), they found these rules relaxed although they can still not get work on a professional basis. As such, a lot have become cyclo drivers – and these are soon to be extinct as the local government removes them in favour of a more developed local transport network.

He and his compatriot (only one person per cyclo) first of all took us to the War Remnants Museum which I’d visited on my last trip. Leah, like myself, was hugely impressed with the children’s art which makes up the final exhibit. The rest of the museum is still pretty impressive, though. Even though it’s small, I do heartily recommend it to anyone who’s in Saigon. It’s only a buck and they do seem to be doing a good job of keeping the exhibits in good nick.

Next stop was a laquerware shop. I guarantee our drivers were on commission, but this stuff’s pretty cool anyway. I did see some being made (and in more detail) on my Cu Chi trip last time, but this time round I have someone who can carry things home for me… so I picked up an eggshell piece. Pretty cheap and a nice momento – and a similar design to one I wanted before.

We got snarled in a very impressive traffic jam and my driver had a right go at one of the rubbish collectors who’d dumped her bin-on-wheels in a really daft place. He and a moped driver shifted it then took turns kicking it rather hard! We made it through in one piece and were passing the Reunification Palace when the heavens opened. Lids popped up on our cyclos, but this was no ordinary rain and we ended up sheltering at a ferry dock for almost an hour a the rain positively hammered down.

The river seemed to rise as we watched it and the winds blew the water in swirls. Impressive if damp. It seems the river’s not safe for swimming in, either – during the floods, a couple of crocodile farms lost around 1500 livestock which floated from the outskirts and into this major artery. 400 were caught and returned or slaughtered. Which leaves over 1000 unaccounted for. Eek.

Eventually the rain ceased and our fella gave us a quick lesson on bonsai. There were a lot of trees and a little temple setting at the ferry terminal we were sat at and we were staggered to learn the ages of some of the trees on display – in excess of 300 years! On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at another shop – again I’m sure commission would have been involved – this one stocking old coins, and “souvenirs” left by the US Army when it left. Lighters, bullet casings, dog tags and the like battled for space on the shelves with bits of ivory and old lamps. Needless to say we didn’t buy anything from this one and shortly afterwards we were back at the Phi Long getting showered and changed for dinner.

Tonight we just walked over the road to “2 Go” and staggered up 8 flights of stairs to the rooftop BBQ. This isn’t cheap, but it’s a great experience. The menu consists of a lot of meats (I chose deer) with a variety of sauces and marinades. In the middle of each table is a small barbequeue plate and a gas cylinder sits at your feet. The staff light this and you put your own meat and veg onto the plate to cook to taste. Other pallettes are catered for – Leah had pre-cooked shrimp, for example – but the novelty does cost. It was the dearest meal we’d had since splashing out in Siem Reap, but the experience and quality of the food made it worthwhile. And it still came to around ten quid with drinks. Oh, and there’s a decent platter of fresh fruit for dessert that seems to be included with all meals – it didn’t appear on the bill.

We wandered around a bit and settled in the Long Phi bar (not to be confused with our hotel!) for a quick drink. Then back to the hotel where I’m typing this up and am about to call my mother on Skype. Tomorrow – Da Nang!

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