Category Archives: Vietnam

War and Religion in Saigon

My last 3 days of Vietnam were spent in Saigon. I was there for two days with Elle, and then I had a day and a half to myself to meander the city. I visited the War Remnants Museum, explored Chinatown and had some very interesting egg filled bbq pork buns. I visited temples and then bargained with a motorbike rider to take me back to my hostel after a tiring morning of walking. I have to say that the traffic in Vietnam looks worse than in Indonesia, but it was a much more pleasant ride, apart from the fact I was wearing a dress (always more difficult to ride on the back of a motorbike in a dress than in shorts) and half sliding off the back due to holding onto the bike with one hand and holding my purse with the other. However I survived, and one thing I just had to do before leaving was have a relaxing gin and tonic on the roof of the Rex Hotel, where I wrote this reflection on anti-American sentiments in Ho Chi Minh. The Rex Hotel was the “Home of the Five O’Clock Follies”, as it was where the United States Military gave briefings to the Press at 5pm each day. It had a very nice high view of the city, with high prices to match! However it was my last night in Vietnam, so I decided to treat myself after a full month of the grungy backpacker lifestyle.

Whilst in Vietnam, I never had a chance to upload any photos, because the Vietnamese government blocks a lot of sites such as Facebook. This meant that WordPress was difficult to access in some places too, so photos never made it online. Until now.

I won’t repeat everything I said in my earlier post, but I do want to re-touch upon the Cu Chi Tunnels, as it really was quite an experience. I wrote earlier that the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum were similar to theme parks, minus the roller coasters. They seemed to celebrate the war, and rightly so (in their mind) because the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was built upon the fall of Saigon and the conquest of North Vietnam over the South. So in their view, they won. They forced the Americans out, beat South Vietnam and now operate under a one-party system where they are in full control of the country. I was sickened by the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, yet I barely felt anything at the Tunnels.

I even fired my first gun there. That’s right, after learning about the atrocities of war and seeing traps left for American and North Vietnamese Soldiers, I cheerily handed over $17.50 for 10 bullets to an AK47, and shot at targets (see photo below). And I felt nothing negative about it, because the whole day didn’t feel sad or depressing. It felt like an amusement park. It was very weird. And after I had fired all 10 bullets (and taken one of the shells as a souvenir), I simply handed the gun back over, took off my ear muffs and rejoined the group to continue on our tour. Again, weird.

This gun is not the gun that I shot, although my AK47 wasn’t particularly new (it probably did come from the war itself!). I just thought it was a pretty cool looking gun on display at the War Remnants Museum. When you walked in, there were all these different guns, tanks and airplanes on display. With American tourists wearing baseball caps, singlets and basketball shorts taking photos of them and their friends in front. Not at all the same vibe you get when you walk into the Killing Fields, listening to the audiotape about how they are still finding bodies in the fields beneath your feet…

Like I said in my earlier post, the tour guide at Cu Chi talked about how the Viet Cong used to climb in tiny holes to hide after they shot at US troops. So, at the start of the tour when he was discussing this tactic, we came across a person dressed in uniform, ready and waiting by the hidden trap door, to show us exactly how it was done:

After, we were asked whether anyone else wanted to have a go. Elle volunteered, and down she went. She was thin enough to fit in, though most tourists in our group were not…

And speaking of the size of tourists, one of the key attractions of the Cu Chi Tunnels is the ability to actually climb through the tunnels yourself!! Although you don’t climb in an authentic tunnel – they widen the tunnel, make it higher, and put electrical lighting in it. They clean it up a bit and get rid of all the booby traps. I can’t imagine the Vietnamese size tunnels, as the tourist tunnels were tiny and unbearable. You are torn between crawling and perching, and can’t wait to find the first exit possible. I couldn’t imagine living in there for days on end!

And of course, no war exhibition is complete without a tank. And an amusement park war exhibition especially is not complete until you have a huge group of school kids climbing on top of a tank (used in the war to kill people) and posing for a group photo.

I had my token tank shot, at the Presidential Palace, in a much more tasteful manner. If a tank photo can be tasteful. And I am happy to say that the super sexy camera-bag-matching knee brace is no more. My knee is 90% healed (yay!).

Now the other half of our full day trip was a visit to the Cao Dai Temple. Balance the good with the bad, salvation with death. Caodaism draws upon Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Cao Dai means “High Tower”, or the supreme God. Under Cao Dai all religions are one, and all Gods are one. We actually were there for a ceremony, where they chant and hum with an orchestra of sorts in the back. The temple itself is really quite spectacular, and very vibrant. I was happy we added that to our tour, rather than just visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels (like most people from our hostel did).


Hoi An, the Tailor Capital of Vietnam

Before Hoi An, El and I were averaging 2 nights per destination, fitting as much in as humanly possible. Hoi An was meant to be 3 days, a relatively long period of time when you consider we only spent 1 day in Hue. I had then decided on an overnight bus (11 hours) to Mui Ne/Nha Trang, for 3 days, and then overnight train to Ho Chi Minh City. However, because Hoi An was such a nice peaceful place and we could lounge by the pool and beach, and because I didn’t fancy another two nights on public transport, I decided to extend our stay and booked a Jetstar flight direct from Danang (45 minutes away) to HCMC. In retrospect, I wish we had ventured to Danang for a night or two rather than spent the whole time in Hoi An, as it does look like quite a cool place. Next trip!

Tourists come to Hoi An mainly for the clothes. Hoi An has tailor shop after tailor shop, all with manikins out front wearing various outfits, trying to entice you inside. Tailor shops are everywhere, even in the markets by the riverfront. It is a rather overwhelming experience really. Far too many competing stores. How do you even begin to choose!? I decided against the well known Lonely Planet recommended stores, and decided on a shop at 48 Tran Hung Dao street called “SU”. The owner was really nice and lovely. The clothes on display were well done, they had double hems, invisible zippers and were all shaped quite well.

The process of getting clothes made in Hoi An goes somewhat like this: Presented with numerous catalogs. Look through catalogs. Stick post-it notes on pages you like. Decide that is enough. Show them the catalogs. Look at fabric. Choose fabric. Motorbike to another store to look at fabric. Choose more fabric. Return to tailor shop. Be measured. Be measured again. And again. Be measured for every individual piece of clothing, rather than just measurements in general. Sit down and negotiate a price. Pay a deposit. Come in 24 hours later for a fitting. (I know, 24 hours, to make my 8 items). Make adjustments. Another fitting. Hope that it all works well. Pay. Be happy (or so we hope. See my tips on getting clothes tailored).

I decided upon a 3 piece suit, 2 work dresses, a skirt, and a more playful party dress. We had 3 fittings, because we had enough time, and because I make clothes myself so know what to look for in terms of hems, zippers, finishings and how the seams line up. Apart from one dress, where I hope the fabric will soften after washing in order for the neck to fall how I want it to, I am incredibly happy with my orders. I never wear pants – be jeans, trousers, leggings, whatever – and I loved my suit pants. I got two more pairs made, in navy and black! I loved the dresses, and the top actually turned out really well, despite being a last minute decision. The suit is beautiful, and some of my dresses look like they cost $200, when in fact I only paid $50.

Apart from having clothes made, we spent quite a lot of time at the beach and exploring the town. I find it sad when people go to Hoi An only for tailoring, spending just enough time there to order clothes and fit in a single fitting before moving on. The town is so beautiful and calm. It is quiet and is a great city to explore on foot or by bike. The old town area has beautiful lanterns at night along the river, a night market selling souvenirs, and so many restaurants and lounge bars. Our hotel had free bicycles so we biked to the beach in the morning, back for lunch, and all around. Luckily, bicycling was recommended by my doctor as therapy for patella-femoral syndrome, so I was able to bike and feel like it was helping my knee, instead of injuring it further.

Hoi An is very quiet compared to Hanoi and HCMC, and even compared to Hue. People are much more relaxed. However, it is still a big foreign city, which you tend to forget when you feel comfortable. Bags still get snatched, and you still don’t want to walk the streets by yourself late at night. I felt completely safe and secure in the city until one night when El disappeared and I was left in town at 2:30am by myself. At that point, biking back to the hotel, I realized how dark the streets were and how sketchy the situation was. Luckily I biked quickly and with purpose, and got back to the hotel safe and sound. But it did make me worry. You never want to be by yourself in a foreign city, especially as a Western tourist. Whether you have lots of money or not, you are viewed as being rich. Always have to be careful.

We had some fantastic food in Hoi An, partly due to our cooking class with Van, but also because of the abundance of local Vietnamese restaurants serving up Hoi An specialties. White rose, cau lau and mi quang are all local dishes. White rose is basically shrimp dumplings, but with more dumpling than shrimp. Cau lau is a noodle dish with pork, herbs and fried noodle chips on top, with a really delicious 5 spice sauce (which the pork is cooked in) on top. And mi quang, I sadly never had a chance to try, is a vegetarian noodle dish.

White Rose

Apart from the food, there are two gorgeous beaches, one to the north and one to the east. Out of the two beaches, An Bang was probably my favorite. It is the more local beach, north of Hoi An but closer to our hotel. It has only 5-6 restaurants on it and one morning we were the only tourists there. There is a bit of a scam to the lounge chairs on the beach though – they are free, as long as you buy a meal. If you don’t, they are 30,000. They don’t tell you this upfront though, they say ‘free free!’. So make sure it is actually free, and you don’t have to buy anything. Even if you spend all day drinking there, that doesn’t allow you to sit for free. So at An Bang, we refused to give in and set up our towels on the sand. On our second to last day though, we discovered La Plage, a French restaurant and bar, where we could lounge all day on their chairs, even if we only bought a 10,000 dong water (50 cents). I also discovered this little roadside stall selling fried goods, including donuts!!! It was this amazing greasy coconut filled donut, amongst other fried treats (whole fried crab as well!).

The best meal we had was at Bale Well, a restaurant similar to the one in Hue, where you are served a huge variety of plates, and you make your own rice paper rolls. Bale Well was busy with locals and tourists alike, and we got the last table available. We were presented with rice paper, herbs, a kim chi type dish, dipping sauce, pork satay skewers and sausage skewers. And shortly after, we were presented with fried spring rolls and omelets. Which, brilliantly, you put in the spring roll!! Our waitress was incredibly friendly, and in showing us exactly how to do everything, she wrapped up a spring roll, dipped it in the sauce, and fed me!! Only in Vietnam.

Sadly I write this post already having left Vietnam. I was in Ho Chi Minh for 4 1/2 days, with the plan to meet Andy and venture into the Mekong Delta. However things don’t always go to plan, and this turn of events means I am in Changi Airport in Singapore, waiting for my 11pm flight to Frankfurt, and then to London. England will be incredibly different from my last 35 days. Instead of staying in hostels, I will be staying with family, and catching up with relatives I have not seen since I was younger. I am actually really looking forward to it, and so thankful that it was easy enough to change my round the world ticket and book new flights, to make sure I can still go visit everyone. I still have a few Vietnam posts to put up, so a few more Asia related posts will still come, however so will some photos of English countryside, and bustling London. Gotta mix it up a bit.

Reflections on anti-American sentiment in Ho Chi Minh

There is surprisingly quite a lot of negative American sentiment in Ho Chi Minh (“HCMC”). I have noticed this even without visiting the War Remnants Museum, a museum that (according to the Lonely Planet) highlights atrocities carried out by Americans against the Vietnamese, without any mention of atrocities carried out by North Vietnamese against the South Vietnamese or against the Americans. I guess I expected it a little bit. However I hadn’t experienced any anti-American sentiment in our last 13 days of Vietnam. So I found it a bit weird to then find it in our final destination. One reason I wanted to visit Vietnam was to learn more about the Vietnam War. To see the place it happened, to understand it better, and see a different perspective.

Not only do the attractions seem a bit anti American, they also seem to be pro-war, pro-revolution or pro-reunification, whichever term you prefer. In my view, it was still a war. Doesn’t matter who was involved or what the aims were. Sides fought against one another. People died. There was a victor. It was a war.

Because of the war, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a major tourist attraction in HCMC. The tunnels, about 50-70km outside of HCMC, allowed the Viet Cong to control a large area between the border of Cambodia and HCMC. It is a large area of underground tunnels, some 20 meters below ground. These were not mere tunnels for transport, rather there were multiple floors, and the rooms included schools, churches, hospitals, weapons storerooms and kitchens. They had multiple hidden entrances, and these hidden entrances allowed the Viet Cong to attack American troops by surprise, and quickly jump back in their hole again and disappear. They had wooden trapdoors that were camouflaged or booby-trapped, and hidden underwater entrances from the rivers. It was all rather clever, and despite the US establishing a base camp nearby, the tunnels eluded the US troops for months. People lived underground for months at a time, and only about 6,000 of the 16,000 soldiers who fought in the tunnels survived.

Unlike other war sites I have visited, such as the S-21 genocide museum and the killing fields in Phnom Penh, the museum seemed to almost celebrate the war. Applaud it. Be proud of it. It was like a theme park, minus the roller coasters. It didn’t make you feel disgusted with what happened, or ashamed that it could be allowed to happen. In Phnom Penh I could not fathom how people could do such atrocities to their own people. To murder children and babies by throwing them against a tree. To torture people to try to get confessions. And to work people to death in the fields. At the Cu Chi Tunnels, the only part that I personally found sickening was the traps set for American soldiers, more because I hate blood and pain, and the hook needles on the traps made me squirm.

The visit starts with a rather upbeat propaganda video. It is black and white, lots of old footage, but with lively music in the background. It shows smiling children and women, and pictures of beautiful Cu Chi, with a commentary: Cu Chi, such a peaceful beautiful destination that didn’t want war. Cu Chi, known for its plentiful fruit, beautiful forests, and innocent young children. Cu Chi, a popular weekend destination and picnic spot. Cu Chi, invaded by Americans, who forced war upon it. Americans, who “like a bunch of crazy devils, shot women and children, cows and ducks, the ground and trees”. I swear, that is a quote directly from the movie, or as close to the quote as I can remember. Cu Chi has been presented with numerous awards, and many villages have been declared “heroic villages”. The government has since given awards to children soldiers for killing Americans, with an “American Killer” award. Further, the tour guide talks about how the Viet Cong used to climb in tiny holes to hide in after shooting at US troops. “Anyone want to have a go? Come on it’s fun!” There was also an old US tank, that we were told to pose next to or even climb on top of for photos. And, even weirder, “Here are the guns we used against American soldiers. Anyone want to shoot one? Only $1 per bullet!”.

Beginning to see how it feels like they almost celebrate the war…? Even at the reunification palace, the tour guide and photo captions said how the North “liberated” the South or “reunified” the two halves of the country. North Vietnam was a bringer of peace. Never a bringer of destruction. The Palace itself was beautiful and the free tour provided quite a lot of history on Vietnam and its politics. In 1868, a house was on the site, for the French Governor-General of Cochinchina. Once the French left, it became the home of the South Vietnamese President. However, he was unpopular, and his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an attempt to kill him. A new palace had to be built, which was completed in 1966, however the President was killed by his own troops 3 years prior.The new building became “Independence Palace” and was home to the next President, before he had to give up power at the end of the Vietnam War.

The “end of the war” happened at the Palace on April 30 1975 when two big tanks drove through the gates, demanding that the President surrender. He did. Vietnam was one again. A communist state. I actually enjoyed the palace visit, as the history was nice and the rooms and furnishings beautiful. We even got to go to the bomb shelter and president’s war room beneath the palace! Likewise, I enjoyed the Cu Chi Tunnels. It weirdly made me want to be more vocal about being an American. I often travel Asia on my British passport, but now I want to travel on my American one, or at least say I am from the States, rather than NZ. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because I fired my first gun today. An AK47. Walking around the tunnel grounds you could hear the shots in the background. I knew I wanted a go. They have a huge shooting range with big posters of animals to aim at. There are 6 guns to choose from, 2 of which are machine guns. Bullets are either 20,000 dong each ($1) or 35,000 dong each ($1.75) depending on the gun you choose. You have to buy a minimum of 10 bullets, so overall it cost me $17.50.

It wasn’t El’s piece of cake, therefore I have no photos of me with my gun or with the earmuffs on, as she didn’t want any part in it. But personally, it was actually quite fun. Not in an “I am turning into a gun person” type fun, but just a cool, new, different experience. It de-stressed me. Took a load off my shoulders. I felt better afterwards. Running is my stress relief, but as I can’t run currently, this did the trick for me. I was shown exactly how to hold it. I was really worried about firing it the first time – whether if I held my head by the gun, it would kick back and hit my cheek, so I kind of held myself far away from it until I got a feel from it. After it didn’t really kick back much, I got more into it and actually tried to aim (tried being the operative word) at the targets. Before I knew it, I was out of bullets, and headed back to meet the rest of the group.

Following this, we got the chance to climb down into tunnels. These tunnels are not legitimate ones, they are tourist made. Which means they are 80cm wide and 120cm high. So still quite small, but larger than what they used. After two flights of stairs, we were truly underground, in a small smooth rounded passageway. Some crawled, I shuffled, and we ventured forward. The one piece of advice I can give is that if you are in a large group, leave a bit of a gap between you and the person in front. Because people stop or slow down, and then you are stuck in a very hot and very dark claustrophobic tunnel. So just leave a bit of room so if the person in front of you stops, you don’t stop suddenly too.

It was a very interesting experience. Very odd, due to the almost celebratory atmosphere, but interesting nonetheless. Tomorrow, I will be visiting the War Remnants Museum, so will see how slanted against America the museum is. The interesting thing is that a lot of photos and parts of the exhibition at the museum were actually donated by the US government. So they seem willing to open up about exactly what happened. The Vietnamese government doesn’t seem willing. I read in Hanoi how US prisoners of war were made to sign forms saying they were treated well whilst being held during the war, when in fact they were tortured and depraved. Vietnam to this day still denies that the US troops held prisoner were treated poorly in any way. Politics…

Cooking up a tropical storm in Hoi An

The trend of my blog thus far is to do a post per city. However I did a cooking class in Hoi An today and just had to share! There are so many cooking classes to choose from in Hoi An, with every restaurant and hotel seeming to offer one. However I decided to go with Van from Green Bamboo Cooking School, because she is highly rated on trip advisor and you cook in her own home with a small group (maximum 8 people). She has only been in business for about 1 1/2 years, but has had really positive reviews and because it is her business, she is very passionate about it. She also had a huge menu that you got to choose a dish from – which was great if there was one thing in particular you really wanted to learn to cook. I thought this was the most genuine of the classes and would be the most hands on. And boy it was.

We chose one dish each, I opted for fish in clay pot and el shrimp with lemon grass and chilli – both things we can make at home. However upon being picked up by the lovely Van, we were told that no one else was joining us – El and I were the only attendees. Private cooking class! And even better, we got to choose two more dishes. The final four ended up being:

  • Fish in clay pot (with garlic, chilli, ginger, tamarind and lemon grass);
  • Shrimps with chilli and lemon grass;
  • Cau lau, a Hoi An speciality, which involves noodles, herbs, bean sprouts, pork, fried noodle chips and an amazing marinade sauce that the pork is cooked in; and
  • A mixed salad of green mango, green papaya, banana blossom and lotus stem, with this beautiful yet simple dressing (lime, fish sauce, chili and garlic!)

Our day began with a trip to the central market, to buy all our ingredients. We wore the Vietnamese hats and followed Van as she navigated the small paths. We tasted all these fruits that we hadn’t tried, the most surprising was this fruit that looked like small potatoes but was actually really sweet inside. She showed us all the herbs and told us their names, and all the weird local fruits. We learnt about different types of chilli and garlic and bought fresh tamarind, which looks just like ginger!

Fresh vegetables for sale!

Women selling herbs at the market in Hoi An

We also tasted and bought banana blossom, one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. Before bananas grow, they cut down the big bunch (where the bananas would blossom), take out the leaves between the blossoms and then slice them super thin. For my salad, we also bought green mango and green papaya. Last foreign salad ingredient was lotus stem, which is a clear short stick, but if you look down the stem of it, it is hollowed out like a flower. Amazing. The market itself was so bustling, and everything was so fresh. The Vietnamese go shopping everyday for ingredients, and the meat is there only in the morning. Killed fresh that day. We bought all our meat there as well as our fruit and vegetables. Van knew where to go for the meat, and how to tell whether it was fresh or had been sitting there a while. She was really great, and answered all our questions. We even tried ‘che’, this sweet soup served on ice. The woman had about 6 different pots of different things, including sweet corn, lentils and beans, and poured a spoonful of each on ice. I was very skeptical, but it was actually delicious and I basically finished my glass!! Will be going back for some more tomorrow!

Banana blossom – for the green papaya salad

Lotus stem – for the green papaya salad

This is where we got our fish for the fish claypot

Duck eggs

A natural soap – you cook a handful in water, then drain it, and then have to wash your hair in the bucket of it, then wash it out – it takes a long time, but is a natural shampoo that many of the older generation in Vietnam still use

My first ‘che’ – a sweet mixed soup on ice, at the Central Market in Hoi An

After our market visit, we drove to Van’s house and got to work. The great thing about her class was that we actually did all the work – we prepared everything and cooked it all. Luckily, we didn’t have to clean up, but we did all the chopping and cutting, and I even cut all the fish out of the bones – got quite good at it by the end. Had nice little shaped pieces of fish, without any bones in it whatsoever!! We split the dishes so El and I had two each, and carried each out from beginning until end. She was there the whole time telling us what to do and helping us along the way. We got to cook with huge chopsticks, and I even got to use two pairs to toss the salad. One of my other favorite things was this little grater device, which you use to get the long thin strands of carrot, cucumber, papaya, mango, whatever! I always wondered how they got the strands like that, and now I know. And Van gave us one each to take home – brilliant!

Grated green mango and the magic grater!!

Hard at work in the kitchen of Green Bamboo Cooking School

Dipping sauce and salad dressing

Cooking my beautiful fish claypot

Sauteing the prawns in garlic, chilli and lemon grass

Soon it was all done, and we had four HUGE plates of food to share between the three of us. We really shouldn’t have eaten breakfast…

My beautiful creation

The mixed salad – green mango, green papaya, lotus stem, banana blossom, red cabbage, carrot, prawns, fried shallots, peanuts and the delicious spicy dressing

Prawns in chilli and lemon grass

Mmm fish claypot

Cau Lau

After all the amazing food, Van packed some up for us to take back to the hotel for dinner – although it is currently 7:45pm as I write this and I am still not hungry! It was a great meal, the food was absolutely sublime and full of fresh flavors. And I can’t believe we cooked it! I love to cook and I consider myself quite good, but this tasted and looked like restaurant quality. It made me want to stay in Vietnam even more, to never leave, and to just eat Vietnamese food every day. Van herself was wonderful company, and she had a beautiful home. It was a really special experience to cook in someone’s house and really get to know them, rather than simply learn to cook a few dishes in a sterile environment It really was such an amazing experience, and I am so glad I found her class online. We learnt so much, and even got a cookbook to take home so we can replicate some of the dishes. Some of them I won’t be able to make again – like the salad, due to lack of ingredients in New Zealand – but the pork in the cau lau, the prawns and the fish claypot I am sure I can make at home. Or at least try to – we can’t get fresh lemon grass in New Zealand, so lemon grass in a jar will have to do.

Passionfruit and a jelly made out of ginseng leaves – they are cooked and the water is drained, and when it cools it becomes gelatinous and is served with sugar on top!!

After eating we even found room for the jelly green thing – the ginseng leaf. It was very weird, but I decided it wasn’t too bad. It needed sugar though, and as I ate my way through it, I ran out of sugar. I was determined though to eat it all – so the last few bites were not overly enjoyable as the sugar had disappeared! It was just like jelly but oddly the taste made you want to chew it. It tasted just like tea – not green tea, not ginseng tea, just normal (Dilmah, in my case) tea. Just cold and in jelly form. I am glad I tried it, but I won’t be rushing out to eat it again!

Ready to eat!

The art of travel in Vietnam – in and out of Hue in 30 hours

We met two girls from LA on our cruise in Halong Bay who joked about the variety of transport you take in Vietnam to get to your destination. We have now added overnight train and sleeper bus to our list. We arrived in Hoi An two days ago, which for the 4 hour journey took 4 need of transport: a van from our hotel to the ‘bus station’, by foot for 2 blocks from the ‘bus station’ to the bus, a bus with bunk seats that reclined in a bed like fashion but your feet in a cubby, where we had to remove our shoes before boarding, and a shuttle from our hotel’s sister to our hotel. It is all an experience.

To reach Hue (where we were before Hoi An), we took a 13 hour train. Trains here are nothing like trains I have experienced before. I took several trains in France in January, and I long for those. The comfort, cleanliness and peacefulness of TGV trains. Pure heaven in comparison to our recent 13 hours on the SE1 overnight train. 13 hours is plenty of time to sleep, right? The train departed at 7pm and arrived at 8am, so we thought we would be able to have a huge rest! We also figured out what our train ticket meant and what beds were ours. However we realized that you can’t safely assume anything here. Before we even left the station, we made an enemy in our cabin. Or rather, I made an enemy. When we got to our room, a woman was lying in one of our beds, motioning for us to take her upper berth bed. I specifically asked for two lower beds, so we could be close to our bags to protect them (as I’ve heard stories), and because of my knee. I am so glad we did. After arguing and pointing at my knee and our ticket, and then just putting my bag on that bed, she gave in. And clumsily climbed up to her bed, through no use of a ladder, rather one foot step on the wall. Not the easiest way to get up or down from a bunk. And she made it look so difficult (due to her weight, wanting to make a big deal out of it or it actually being difficult) to climb up.

However we were not murdered in our sleep and our bags were not stolen. We were kindly awoken at 5am when they got up, opened the curtains, the door, and pushed my legs over to sit on my bed. But we survived, limbs and possessions all accounted for, just rather tired. The train was so noisy, and it started and stopped and jerked like the Cambodian buses did. The beds are small and the cabins incredibly cold. Some men had a bottle of vodka in their cabin which I think is key – drink and pass out so the noise and movement of the train doesn’t bother you and constantly wake you.

We quickly recovered upon arriving at our hotel at 8:30am, because we were given a full breakfast! And coffee! Did I mention coffee!! I am slightly addicted to Vietnamese coffee…it is coffee with condensed milk, and I like it with ice. So good. I even bought sachets to make it in our hotel rooms that have electric kettles. We then checked in, showered, and set off to enjoy our mere 30 hours in Hue.

We explored the Citadel, the Hue forbidden city. It was impressive, but so much has been destroyed by natural disasters and the Vietnam War that it was rather disappointing. Many things were inaccessible, being renovated, or incomplete. Lots of the paint was fading and chipped, but the history was interesting. It was also incredibly quiet and peaceful, so was a change from all other tourist attractions we have visited so far. The best part, as many can probably guess, was lunch. The receptionist recommended a local restaurant, Hong Mai (110 Dinh Tien Hoang) near the citadel for authentic Hue food. Upon arriving, we sat down (again, in child size seats and tables) and asked for a menu. She pointed at photos on the wall and said there was no menu. We nodded and went ahead with it. Soon a variety of plates appeared on the table. A bowl of chili peppers and raw garlic, a plate of lettuce and herbs, and another with grated cabbage, carrot and cucumber. This bowl of brown grey slop came out, and a plate with sausages on skewers. After a moment, we asked what to do as we had no idea!! The woman quickly showed us, that you take the spring roll type papers, put the various fillings in, the sausage, roll it as pull the stick out, then put some slop in your bowl and dip. Simple! And so delicious!! For dinner that night we sampled some Hue specialities at “Confetti”. Our waiter had a cute light pink bow tie on asks the table cloths and napkins were all pink! My kind of place. We had this amazing rice shrimp and pork in banana leaf, and prawns in a clay pot.

The accompaniments

The kebabs on sugarcane

Loading it all up

All rolled up

Prawns with chili and lemongrass in a claypot at Confetti mmmm

Banh nam – the pork and shrimp and po noodle wrapped in banana leaf. It doesn’t look fantastic in the photo, but it tasted AH-mazing

Day 2 of Hue involved a motorbike ride to tombs and a pagoda. Riding motorbikes in Hue was such a different experience than our motorbike ride to Prambanan in Yogyakarta. For one, the roads were less hectic. Everyone still honks, but unlike Hanoi where you never had more than 3 seconds without a honk, I counted to over 30 in Hue! The ride was beautiful, with rice paddies and forests. So many trees, it was so surreal. We even drove on small dirt roads through rice paddies up and down hills through tiny areas people lives in. A real adventure. Our drivers, Tien and Kianc (can’t remember exact spelling!!) were friendly and talkative, making it more like a tour rather than paying for mere transport. Tien had just started up the motorbike tour company (go here for info!)  and was really keen to make sure we enjoyed ourselves. We even exchanged email addresses! Kianc, Tien’s cousin, had a bit of a crush on El so will see if he tries to find her on fb as well.

The first tomb, of Khai Dinh was very large and overwhelming. It felt cold and moms monument like, almost ordering people to remember and mourn him. It took 11 years to complete, and he was apparently unpopular up until his death due to his heavy taxation on peasants to finance the construction of his tomb. I find it such a waste that so much wealth was spent on a tomb for a dead emperor. Think of the people at the time and how that money could benefit everything, rather than go towards a gold 1:1 statue of him.

Part of Khai Dinh’s tomb

Khai Dinh’s stone minions

The second tomb, of Tu Duc was much nicer. It was set in amongst nature, with several parts to it, and a beautiful pond full of water lillies. Tu Duc built it whilst still alive, and his family lived there – his 104 wives, yet no children. There was a housing area for his “minor wives” alongside a housing area for his concubines. And a temple dedicated to his mother. He was buried next to his first wife and adopted son, and his eulogy/biography stone was written by himself, in a self-critical way. It is the largest biography inscription in SE Asia apparently. I really enjoyed this tomb because it felt more like a park, in amongst the trees, with a nice path to walk, and a pavilion overlooking the pond where he used to go and write poetry. Less selfish than the first tomb. The funny thing though is he was selfish – the tombs have stone statues of 1 elephant, 1 horse and men to serve him in the afterlife. However Tu Duc was short, so he made all the statues short too! El and I were basically a head taller than them!

Tu Duc’s tomb – the water lily pond

At Tu Duc’s Tomb

Tu Duc – much less menacing and dark than the first tomb

Our last visit was to the Thien Mu Pagoda, meaning heavenly lady. The literal translation according to Tien is near to the sky, with Thien meaning sky. Due to no entrance fee, Tien was able to take us around and tell us all about the pagoda. It was a beautiful and spiritual place, right next to a local graveyard. Tien also took lots of photos of us – after noticing my nice shiny camera, he stopped at an incense store on the way back to town from Tu Duc’s tomb, saying it was a great photo op. He then had us pose by the incense, and got us Vietnamese hats to pose in as well.

Tien and me on the motorbike

Multi colored incense – they all smell the same, sandlewood or cinnamon, but just different colors!

Us in Vietnamese hats by the incense

At the Pagoda

Me with the laughing buddha – he is meant to give me good luck apparently!!

It was an absolutely hilarious yet wonderful experience. I actually received an email from him today wishing us well on our journeys. Just another reason why I love it here – the generosity and genuineness of the people. They have such kind hearts and really open up to you. Apart from the woman on our train of course! They want to show you Vietnam and all say 2 weeks is too short. We need two weeks in each town apparently!! Lucky for Hoi An, our original 3 day trip may become 5. We have only been here a day but love it already. Hue and Hoi An are both just so magical and quiet, especially in comparison to Hanoi, and the other big places we have been like Jakarta, Singapore and KL. I think I am already planning my next visit to Vietnam…just quietly!

Our food adventures with locals in Hanoi

Our first encounter with a Vietnamese in Hanoi didn’t make me feel positive about the country.We got a taxi from the airport to our hostel, Hanoi Hostel, and were driven to another hotel. The door opened and a man appeared with a printed off piece of paper, yelling at me ‘Welcome to Hanoi Hostel, please come in!’. I knew something was up from the moment this man started shouting, holding a piece of paper with “HANOI HOSTEL” on it. That and the fact that the name of the hotel wasn’t Hanoi Hostel. El was ready to accept this and get out of the car. However I wasn’t buying it. “This isn’t it”, I said. He replied with “It is, it is, it is upstairs. We have two locations, my boss send me to get you!” I asked what street we were on. “Hang Ma Hang Ma!”. This is despite the shop signs all saying another street. I demanded they take us to Hanoi Hostel. “This is it!” I got out, walked to the travel agent next door, and when I asked “This isn’t Hang Ma street is it?” The reply was merely “No”. When I walked back out, the man knew it was over. I called his bluff. Back in the taxi we went, to drive around the corner to our actual hostel. We paid, got out, got our bags, and left the trunk open. The scumbag can deal with that.

Apart from that experience, Hanoi is weirdly magical. We have met such friendly locals and city has such charm about it. The little coffee/tea shop across the road from our hostel does a fantastic strawberry iced tea, and you sit on the roadside in chairs that look like old wicker chairs but are in fact plastic, and watch the traffic go by, like in Paris. The buildings still retain a French feel to them, baguette are for sale on the side of the road, alongside exotic fruits and fish in plastic containers. At night the city comes even more to life with people selling dried squid, crab, spring rolls and these donut balls out of a basket, offering them to people walking, in bars and even restaurants! The traffic is crazy, but people mainly go about their business. They don’t berate you and try to sell you things, and we haven’t experienced anyone trying to rip us off yet, save for the taxi experience on day one.

For many who know me, and know how my world revolves around good food, it comes as no surprise then that I especially love the small roadside restaurants that exist on every street corner, where a variety of dishes are served to customers having beer from a keg and sitting on small child size plastic stools. We visited such a restaurant on our first day in Hanoi, wanting some authentic Vietnamese food. Upon sitting down however, we saw the large and comprehensive menu, all in Vietnamese and none of which we understood (see photo below!). Our receipt says “Bia Hoi 97 Phung Hung”, not sure whether that is the restaurant name, the street, or both! We sat down in the small tiny children’s chairs and a tiny table, and we then realized the ENTIRE menu was in Vietnamese. And that El and I knew nothing about Vietnamese food. Uhhhh….soup? Noodles? The waitress replied with “Bia?” meaning “Beer?”. We nodded, and then reevaluated.

The very confusing Vietnamese menu

After my Lonely Planet Vietnamese iPod app didn’t help, I got up and wandered to the other table full of Vietnamese, to look at what they were eating. We soon began talking, and a very nice man asked what we wanted. We decided on fried noodles, which he ordered for us. Alongside two more beers, on him. Lo and behold, fried noodles with vegetables appeared! And they were DELICIOUS. When we finished, he came back over, and ordered us fried rice, his favorite. This very interesting fried rice came over, with more beers. The rice had a sweet yet meat tasting diced up thing in it that we thought was candied capsicum but then tasted like pork….it was delicious either way. The rice was hard and sweet, nothing like any fried rice I’d ever tasted. He then brought over some fried tofu, with mint leaves and a soy and chili dipping sauce. A Hanoi specialty. I could live off of that.

He then came over for a chat, and more beers. Turns out he works in the movie industry, in distribution (his words) and upon googling him, he is directing a new film very soon! After about 3 hours here, we decided it was time to retire, and head back to our hostel, after saying goodbye and welcome. He paid for all our drinks and the tofu, and even gave us his change as a souvenir of Vietnam, telling us how colorful it was and what beautiful pictures were on it. He also wrote down the three meals we had, so we have at least three things we can order here when we are faced with another completely foreign menu.

  • Mỳ saò – fried noodles
  • Cơm zang – fried rice
  • Dâu phu zań – fried tofu with the dipping sauce

    The fried rice with mystery candied meat in it

This friendliness continued throughout our stay. When we returned from Halong Bay, we went to the more touristy area of Hanoi for dinner. After sharing some beers with an English guy (33 cents each) , it started raining so we began to work our way back to the hostel bar by bar. In our next bar, a Vietnamese girl enjoying a cocktail asked how old I was. Apparently I look 19, not 23. After a bit of chatting, we exchanged numbers and she agreed to take us for lunch so we could try “nem”, the most amazing thing that we HAD to try.

And believe it or not, she rang me and we met up! We went to “House of Nam” and El and I nervously awaited to see what her and Tom had ordered for us. Turns out, nem is like fried spring rolls, but better. You get a dipping sauce, cold noodles that are the same material as po but different, coriander and bean sprouts, and you mix it all. And it was amazing. Luna told us what to do, put it in our plates and awaited our reactions. Delicious!! We also got fresh spring rolls, and nem filled with this sweet rice. And we added three more things to our list of Vietnamese foods:

  • Nem
  • Nem xôi
  • Phơ cuõń

    What was left of the rice filled ‘nam’ by the time I decided to take photos!

We then went and had lemon tea and sunflower seeds on the side of the road, cracking the seed pods with our teeth, sucking the seed out and putting the discarded portion on the side-walk. Something we never would have experience otherwise. It was absolutely fantastic and made me love the city even more. The fact that we were in Hanoi for a mere two days, and met three amazing people who were so warm and welcoming, who wanted to communicate and share Vietnam with us, and want us to return to visit them, it just shows how amazing the city is.

It is a big city, but it has so much heart to it. The people working at the hostel were friendly and chatty and went out of their way to make us feel at home. The reactions of shop keepers and waitresses when you said “thank you” in Vietnamese was happiness, gratitude and surprise at the fact that we wanted to learn their language and make the effort. And I really want to. There is so much to see here and so much more to learn. These are going to be a busy 2 weeks…

Donuts that Tom bought for us to try – the sweet glazed ones have some filling that I couldn’t quite figure out!