Two months are about the limit in Thailand before you have to start extending visas and that sort of thing so when our time was up we decided Vietnam would be a good place to head for. We both know Vietnam pretty well but there were a few areas that neither of us had visited so the trip we designed was a mishmash of destinations we liked and wanted to re-visit and others that we had not seen on previous visits.
Our flight from Bangkok took us to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), commonly known as Saigon. A place we had both been to before on several occasions, we still felt we didn’t know it that well and so decided to spend a few days exploring the city and sampling the nightlife. The backpackers’ area is in District 1 – a well-located area and like any good backpacker centre, it caters to all your needs; namely cheap accommodation, good food and cold, inexpensive beer. As Kirsty has already posted a blog about beverages in Vietnam I will not dwell on the matter but I must point out at this early stage in my blog that not only is the beer in Vietnam very cold and inexpensive, it is in fact stupidly inexpensive and in some areas, including District 1, it is very easy to get ‘merry’ on $1 and at the ‘staggering home, where the hell am I?’ stage for less than $5. So whatever niggles come your way in Vietnam, most of them can easily be forgotten after a couple of cold ones at sundown.
The French colonial-style Hôtel de Ville de Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City: Quan Am Pagoda in Cholon (China Town) (left) and downtown Saigon (right)
We stayed in HCMC for three days and had great weather throughout. We took in all the usual sites such as Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum and we also had enough time to visit the city’s Chinatown. Known locally as Cholon, this was an interesting excursion that took us to a very different part of the city and was well worth the effort of working out the city’s bus system (which actually ended up not being complicated at all).
After a fun New Year’s Eve in District 1 with an American friend from China whom we met in Mongolia (see comments above on the price of beer to work out how that went), we left HCMC and flew up the coast to the seaside resort of Quy Nhon.
Municipal Beach in Quy Nhon, Vietnam
More popular with Vietnamese than overseas tourists, there wasn’t a great deal to do in Quy Nhon but nonetheless we still had the great weather and it was a good place to visit for a few days. We spent our time cycling around the town and drinking strong Vietnamese iced coffee, better known as Cafe Sua, which Kirsty has talked about in her blog. Continuing up the coast, this time by bus, we stopped off for the night at Quang Ngai. In itself, a small dusty town with nothing to offer but nearby is a place called Son My, which for those who are either old enough to remember or have an interest in the Vietnam War will know it as the site of the 1968 My Lai Massacre. It was a sombre place to visit even if somewhat kitsch in places (the Vietnamese are good at kitsch) and by the time we arrived the weather had become overcast and miserable which was somewhat appropriate given where we were.
My Lai Massacre Memorial near Quang Ngai
After a sleepless night in a small hotel opposite the bus station, we headed further north to the delightful colonial port town of Hoi An. Both of us had visited Hoi An on more than one occasion and we were looking forward to a lazy few days wandering through the back streets of the town and cycling out to the beach and further afield, but unfortunately the overcast and miserable weather that we had at Son My decided to follow us up the coast and remained with us for the rest of the week. Hoi An in the cold and the rain is certainly not as enjoyable as Hoi An in the heat and sunshine but we still managed to enjoy ourselves, eating well and of course drinking plenty of coffee in the morning and beer in the evening. Plus, we did wander through the streets when there was a break in the weather, which happened occasionally.
Hoi An at dusk
Hoi An’s central market
Hoi An at night
Hoi An was as far north as we were heading on this trip and we returned to HCMC via the Central Highlands, an area of Vietnam that neither of us had visited before. Our first stop was a town called Kon Tum. The journey inland was uneventful and after walking across a newly-laid road that had not yet set (have you ever tried getting tar off the bottom of your shoes??), we found a decent enough hotel and went out to explore. The first thing we noticed was the lack of hassle and the second was that we were paying the same price as the locals. Both features were a by-product of a lack of tourists and a welcome respite after touristy Hoi An. Furthermore, the weather improved almost the minute we arrived and as we were now in coffee-growing territory the coffee we were drinking was the best we had drunk so far so all in all things were going well.
Countryside on the outskirts of Kon Tum
The following day we hired a guide and a couple of motorbikes and headed out to see the surrounding countryside. The area around Kon Tum is hill tribe country and although you don’t really see many tribal people around (they are all out working, I guess?), you do see plenty of nice scenery, lots of coffee and rubber plantations and most interestedly their graveyards. The main tribe in the area are the Bahnar and they are animists so the graves were very similar to those that we saw in Sulawesi (Indonesia) even to the extent that a white buffalo is worth a small fortune and the dead are buried with everything they might need in the next world, including microwaves and bicycles (you never know?).
The countryside surrounding Kon Tum: Coffee Plantation at Yaly Lake
The countryside surrounding Kon Tum: Jarai Cemetery in Plei Weh Village (left), Kon Ro Bang Village (centre) and Plei To Nghia Village (right)
So we enjoyed our stay in Kom Tum and after an overnight in Buon Ma Thuot (pronounced ‘boon me tote’), a town synonymous with Vietnam War and the Ho Chi Minh Trail and now famous for its coffee plantations, we spent our last few days in the Central Highlands in the hill station of Dalat. This was a good place to while away a couple of days and we took in the sights, rested up a bit and strolled around the lake which dominates the town.
Dalat Flower Gardens
A further six hours on a bus brought us back to where we started in HCMC and after catching up with some friends we knew from our time at Bales, a bit of pampering (I had my first manicure and pedicure!) and of course several dollars’ worth of cold beer, we left Vietnam for Singapore and a few days with my oldest friend, Howard and his family, prior to the ‘calm’ and ‘serenity’ that is India (not!).
Motorbike taxi in Buon Ma Thuot (left) and Cholon (China Town) in Ho Chi Minh City