This ain’t no wedding!

Spot the odd one out

Spot the odd one out

My first morning after arriving in Vietnam was to be spent at the wedding of a friend of Thao, my kind guide. Only I discovered the night before that it wasn’t a wedding at all but an engagement ceremony / party. It seems here that more emphasis is put on the engagement than on the wedding which follows. In a way, this does make sense. After all, the engagement is where the initial promises are made – getting married is only a confirmation of those promises.

Either way, it was wonderful to have the invitation and I dressed as well as I could for the occasion. Which was not very well, I admit. My only long trousers (which needed to go in the laundry but seeing as I ripped the crotch out of my only other pair the night before, this hadn’t been possible) and my ProDive Bali polo shirt, as it’s the only thing I have with a collar on. Not exactly classy, but thankfully nobody seemed to mind.

We come bearing gifts...

We come bearing gifts...

Thao looked far better in a traditional white ao dai. I don’t think I quite have the figure for one, but it would still have looked better on me than the clothes I picked.

It took us an hour to get there with me driving and Thao guiding. Or trying to. We managed to get completely befuddled by a one-way system, something that Thao says has never happened to her before. Fortunately, one of her friends met us at a petrol station and was very easy to follow in the crowded traffic, being that she was wearing a striking pink outfit.

I was made to feel very welcome by everyone when we got there, and was the only obvious westerner. I did talk to one chap from the US and a young boy from Canada both of whom were obviously of Vietnamese heritage. I was pleasantly surprised by how many people spoke English of varying levels and was more than happy to sit and chat with as many as possible.

Thao in ao dai

Thao in ao dai

Soon enough, though, the “bride” arrived and the ceremony began. It was very simple and I couldn’t follow a lot but what I did see and picked up from Thao follows.

A selection of large round boxes are handed to the bride’s side of the family by the groom’s – men pass them to women, one of whom was Thao. These are filled with small gifts such as fruits and placed in a table.

In front of this table, the fathers of the bride and groom introduce their families to each other – it all seemed very informal and there was a lot of laughing. Half of the contents of the boxes are taken by the bride’s family and half left alone.

And the ring goes on

And the ring goes on

The bride and groom then take centre stage and the engagement ring is slipped onto the bride’s finger – formalising the engagement. Much applause and smiles all around! The bride then takes some tea and offers it cup by cup to all the members of the families.

After this, they all disappeared upstairs. Virtually all Vietnamese households have a shrine to their ancestors and this house was no different. I didn’t see this part, but a ceremony took place whereby the engagement is “shown” to these ancestors so that they can approve of their descendents’ actions.

Then we ate.


And I thank the families for their generosity! The food was excellent and the conversation both enlightening and enjoyable. I only had about a pint of beer, but Thao decided I was “drunk” so she drove me back to the hotel.

Before this, though, one more part if the ceremony had to be observed. The half-empty boxes brought in at the start were officially handed back by the bride’s side to the groom’s. The bride and groom also very kindly let me have a snap with them.

Again, thank you so much, people. Hopefully everything here is correct – by all means if I’ve cocked up any details, do let me know and I’ll update it.

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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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Floating markets, rice and Saigon

An early rise to hop on a boat which took us to one of the nearby floating market in Cai Rang. Roughly 700 boats trade here between 4am and 7pm every day. After buzzing around and watching small kids shampoo their hair into mohawks and dive into the water we went back onto the canals and stopped off at a noodle “factory”.

This was effectively a large bamboo building where a watery rice mixture is poured onto material suspended over boiling water (the water is heated by burning rice husks and the resulting burned material used as fertiliser – no waste!). The thin film is covered for a few seconds and then rolled onto a spiky stick thing and then placed onto a bamboo rack. Once the rack is full, it’s put outside in the sun to dry. Once it’s the right consistency, the sheets are fed through a simple rotating guillotine to make the noodles. It’s all very repetitive work, but the simple tools used are very impressive to see in action.

Our next stop was a fruit orchard where we saw quite a few of the local crops growing – tiny juice-packed oranges, very strong chili peppers, lychee… And then sampled far too many of them. Next up was a rice processing plant where rice husks are stripped of all the outside bits and turned into the white rice that’s sold in bags. Lots of loud machinery and magic going on inside boxes.

Our boat then ferried us back to the hotel where we had a decent lunch. This time a bus picked us up direct from the front of the hotel and we headed for one of the cross-river ferries. These things run almost non-stop and fill up to the brim with each run. Locals all stayed in their vehicles while we were asked to get out and stand to the side. Apparently this is because the locals know how to get out of a vehicle should the ferry capsize… Looking around they had all the windows open just in case.

Obviously, we got across with no major incident and our bus picked us up again. Our next stop was around 2 hours down the road where we visited a “bonsai garden” – more of a series of restaurants in a nice setting. The Dutch couple took motorcycles to My Tho for their extra night and we picked up a few more people who were on a different trip.

Ninety minutes later we were in Saigon, parked right opposite the little silk shop I’d stayed in on my last visit. As Leah wanted aircon, we walked round the corner to mini-hotel alley. The first place we looked (the Happy Hotel) was lovely, but a little more than we wanted to pay. Generously, the staff said we could leave our bags there while we scouted for somewhere cheaper. We ended up in the Phi Long just around the corner in a pretty decent room with free wi-fi.

After showers and a relax, we popped out for dinner. Waking round the area, we made the most of a rain-free evening to stroll through the park and up and down most of the streets in the area before stopping at Lotteria for a burger. A series of Chaplin films were showing on the TV in the restaurant so we stayed longer than we needed to before having one drink in the Guns ‘n’ Roses bar and trailing back to bed.

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