Category Archives: Vietnam

Travelogue SEA 4: Da Nang – Ho Chi Minh City

22-23 December 2011

Having walked the whole length of the promenade left of the hotel on Wednesday night, we walked the length right of the hotel when we got up on Thursday morning. Sadly, it was still drizzling on and off, but we still found a beautiful beachfront restaurant with carved wooden pagoda decks to enjoy breakfast overlooking China Beach.

The only thing notable about Da Nang airport is that it has the only Burger King in Viet Nam, which we didn’t even try since we’d already eaten! I would have had the bacon and onion burger, I think…

A lovely nap on the 1hr20 flight and we were met with a wall of heat on disembarking in Ho Chi Minh City. It was 31 degrees and (at least) 80% humidity. Stinking stinking hot!

HCMC has even worse traffic than we’ve seen so far! Every road and side-street is a bustle of scooters, with cars and buses dotted intermittently. There are far more cars here than in Hanoi (which incidentally is home to 5 million people and 3 million scooters!), but it’s a far more modern city with wider roads, distinct islands and more traffic lights so it’s better equipped to deal with the 4-wheelers. Riders and pedestrians alike wear cloth surgical masks, presumably to protect against the fumes, and these are readily available in all sorts of colours and patterns, seemingly adopted to be a standard apparel accessory. Some roads are simply impossible to cross in one lights change, with vehicles coming at you from all directions (and not always stopping at red lights) – and I’m sure that pedestrian injuries must be rife!

Despite the immensity of activity, HCMC isn’t a huge city centre and we spent the next few hours taking in all the local sights. Starting with KFC, where we mix-and-matched to make our own Fully Loaded Box combo. The staff were very confused that we wanted to swap coleslaw for mash and gravy when the combo already had chips and they checked several times and then exchanged words in Vietnamese that clearly had something to do with thinking us “crazy Westerners” (we’ve seen the look often).

They serve their eat-in meals on a moulded tray with sections for the various elements, dished straight onto the tray rather than in packaging. The mash is a little moulded mound with a gelatinous but tasty gravy, the chips are skinny like McD’s and the chicken pieces come standard with the spicy cornflaky batter. The burger meat is pink, which looked weird but tasted delicious, and the Zinger is spiced in the batter with ordinary mayo not perinaise style like at home. Was odd to get a real glass with metal knives and forks, but all in all, a great meal.

And just the fuel we needed for another mega sight-seeing walk, at pace (we’ve been averaging about 20,000 steps a day on the pedometer, except Bangkok which was about 30,000 and HCMC on 28,420). We whipped around the Pagoda and then headed for the War Remembrance Museum. I didn’t like it – lots of pictures of soldiers threatening and torturing; women, children and old people crying and begging for mercy; dismemberment and disfigurement from Agent Orange fall-out. Not nice. Clearly, skewed to represent the Americans as the bad guys, not a single picture of the Viet Cong throughout the museum. It’s heart-breaking to see the pictures of the towns post-war and how complete the devastation was from the ‘clear and burn’ policy, but a little brighter seeing the aerial photos of those towns today, restored and growing.

The outside display of a host of tanks and choppers is cool though. Christian seemed to recognise them by their alpha-numerics and was stoked to see the real-live battlecraft up close and in person.

We were very lucky to catch both the Presidential Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral as they were closing, to catch a quick look-see and some snaps and move on. We took the Kong Dohi strip, which was the main fancy drag in the 20s and 30s under French rule, which shows by the tree-lined avenues, draped flowers overhead and very symmetrical and structured jardins.

We had made plans to meet the NZ’ers at 6 at the Crazy Buffalo – a shrewd landmark for its enormous neon Buffalo signage at the entrance – so only had time for a quick whip through the famous Ben Thanh market… But managed an armload of shopping bags nonetheless! 🙂

Met up with our mates and began a supermarket pub crawl. No 711s here, but Circle K and Stop & Go seem to work just as well… And the air-conditioned pitstops were welcome relief from the asphyxiating heat outside!

Our market crawl was interrupted by an Italian Mexican Vietnamese restaurant whose host offered us a free beer to eat there. Who could resist?

It turned out to be a great choice and we shared a chilli con carne and ‘Special’ pizza (shrimp, chicken, bacon, onion, garlic, mushrooms) – both really good! – and ended up just dumping the con carne on the pizza, which was amazing!

Enjoying being a bit more settled, we started a more conventional pub crawl. Lured and repelled by combinations of drinks specials, cooling fans and music, we eventually settled at Lily 2 (across the road from Lily, we’ve seen a few chains that use the same name and just add numbers), where they stream their music from You Tube and we managed to gain control to VJ music that suited us and sampling each other’s favourites and guilty pleasures over many Tigers.

Had to be up early for our Cu Chi Tunnels tour, so called it a night at a (relatively) respectable hour and wheedled our way through the streets and alleys like seasoned residents.

Surprisingly good breakfast (included) consisting of a light and fluffy omelette, a piece of bacon, an exploding sausage (like you get at cocktail parties), slices of tomato and cucumber, and 2 slices of toast with butter and jam. I got freshly squeezed OJ (from actual oranges) and Christian got a cup of coffee with a rich cocoa aroma.

The tour fetched us from the hotel (Saigon Mini Hotel 2, US$29 per room per night including breakfast) and we headed into the traffic to make our way to the countryside.

The 2 hour bus trip included a half hour stop at a workshop where Agent Orange victims work at making furniture, art and curios with mother of pearl inlays and egg shell mosaics. Really pain-staking work – especially for the bargain prices of the end product (even converting from ZAR!)

The tunnel tour was fascinating. Started off with a video and tutorial using a map and tunnel model, showing the multi-layered interlinking tunnel community that the VC had built over 20 years. A very impressive infrastructure with some simple but effective tricks to keep the inhabitants undetected, like a series of smoke chambers to filter out cooking smoke before releasing it above ground in barely perceptible whiffs.

We got to see the entry tunnels and try out the trapdoors, which the US soldiers might easily have missed seeing as they’re so small they don’t look like they’re big enough to fit a human. I managed to slide in (arms in the air above my head), but Christian’s shoulders are too broad for him to get in. We did both get to crawl through the demo section of tunnel though. It’s horrible. Dank and dark, with moisture on the walls and only high enough to walk through monkey-style. Every time you turn a corner it goes completely black. The crafty VC built them with constant changes in direction and up and downs so that they could easily move through the familiar territory, but Tunnel Rats would get disoriented and/or give away their position when they used their torches to light their way. It’s a hell of a thing that those people lived down there (on and off) for such an extended period. We were in one of the enlarged tunnels (built for Western tourists, Vietnamese tourists are allowed to go in the standard tunnels) and it was claustrophobic and difficult to breathe. Very glad we’ve done it, but happy to keep it a one hit wonder!

On return to town we picked up a baguette from a street vendor (pork, chicken, pate, fried egg and accoutrements) and concluded our shopping (Christmas, souvenir and otherwise) at the Ben Tranh Market. It’s very choatic with narrow aisles, way too many people and way too little ventilation, but the prices are the best we’ve seen in Viet Nam so far and the vendors easier to haggle with seeing as there are so many stalls in such a close proximity that sell exactly the same wares so you can play them off against one another.

Our suitcases are now almost full. Am once again very grateful that I was ruthless when I packed what felt like half a suitcase on the outset (and wishing I hadn’t brought half of that stuff!)

Met our NZ mates at the 0ld Faithful meeting spot, The Crazy Buffalo, and grabbed a quick beer while strat planning our last night in Viet Nam. Settled on hitting a curry house and then the usual haunts and a few new ones on the bar street near our hotel. The curry was amazing – we had Lamb Karahi (with pepper) and Chicken Maglai (with egg) with pilau rice and garlic naan stuffed with cottage cheese. It was an enormous dinner and took away all the enthusiasm to drink!

We wandered around and ended up back at Lily’s since it has the biggest fan on the street. And were quite happy there until they took our VJ rights away from us to resume awful dance music… so we resolved to be done with the place.

We did a last loop of the bar streets, stopping in for one or two here and there and then headed back to the hotel to prepare for our early departure, the bus fetching us at 6.30 for the 6 hour journey to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Looking really forward to seeing what the next country has in store for us. We have a private taxi for the duration, so am confident that the sight-seeing will be complete, epic and painless. And have been told that the shopping is every more of a bargain!


Travelogue SEA 3: Hanoi – Hue – Hoi An – Da Nang

19-21 December 2011

So, the story was half right. The bus is a single storey, but 3 rows of full length (for a local, snug for the fuller-figured Westerner) bunk beds running the length of the bus. Still not bad for US$30 a piece (compared to the train at $56 each).

After some confusion over the haphazard numbering (Chris and I were next to each other and #39 and #15 respectively), we settled into our bunks for the first leg of the journey, taking us from Hanoi to Ninh Binh (from 18h45 to 20h30).

We passed the time chatting (amongst ourselves, with the Kiwis and with our new European travel companions), trying to fathom the unfathomable plot of the Vietnamese soapie being flighted on the small screens suspended from the roof throughout the bus and awkwardly trying to play Cribbage using a duvet in the aisles to prevent it turning to slippage.

Ninh Binh turned out to be a sleazy truck-stop where we could buy food and/or use the bathrooms. The staff were terse and only allowed us to choose from the 5 meal options with picture/number options like in McD’s, despite our protests that we were fine with the menu being in Vietnamese. The bathrooms were even worse. Nonetheless we ordered beef with noodles, which was served with chilli soy sauce and was very tasty.

Back on the bus and bunked up for the night. The bunks are arranged in rows sort of sled-style, with inclined shoulder section and enclosed section from the knee down which fits under the incline of the person in front of you. The beds worked for me, being just marginally too short so that if I lay on my side, I only had to bend my knees to fit comfortably. Christian wasn’t quite as lucky and had to sleep with left knee pointed to the bunk above and right leg in the aisle. The little Vietnamese girl on the other side of me was stretched full length AND had her togbag at her feet! They’re very compact people!

Mercifully, got in a 6 hour solid sleep and still managed to doze for another 2 until we pulled into Hue (pronounced ‘Hway‘) at 8h30. To our surprise, our bus company had altered the timetable such that we now had a 4+ hour stop before continuing on to Da Nang (and our friends on to Hoi An).

It turned out for the best as we grabbed a driver for 150,000 Vietnamese Dong (ZAR60) between 4 of us and took in the sights of this Ancient town, which was where the Nyugen Dynasty sat until 1947.

The main point of interest is the Citadel, which seems to have housed the whole city and within it the Forbidden Purple City where the Emperor and important people went about their thing. While you can still visit the Thai Hoa Palace (Palace of Supreme Harmony) and its pavilions, pagodas and garden gazebos, it’s very sad that the Forbidden Purple Palace was ravaged in the Second World War and then finally destroyed completely by a fire in 1947 such that it just stands as a mossy open patch today.

We exited the Citadel at the back in search of sustenance and were very lucky to stumble upon a local bakery that fed us delicious fresh baguettes (stuffed with sliced chicken, pate, mayo, cucumber, fresh herbs sprigs and a hot freshly fried egg) for a measly VND 10,000 apiece (ZAR 4).

Unfortunately, it started to drizzle so we decided to traverse the outside of the Citadel and head back to where our driver was only supposed to meet us half an hour later at the flagtower opposite the Citadel’s rain entrance. As luck would have it, the driver was not only early, but also headed in our direction and spotted us so we headed back to the Hotel where we’d be meeting the bus in an hour… And busied ourselves with trying out Hue’s local beers (Hude – excellent; Festival – OK).

The bus arrived in Vietnamese time (similar to Africa time, “5 minutes” is never ever that) and, as usual, the guide ushered us into the bus with an insistence that implied that HE had been waiting for US all along!

We had a slightly better layout on this journey seeing as it was unreserved seating and we were first on. We nabbed for ourselves the first 4 bottom bunks on the left, which were backed by the WC so made for a private enclave for us and the NZ’ers. Christian had snuck off to get cold beers (Huda) for the bus trip, but was met by the guide with rapid fire Vietnamese, shaking head and wagging finger. Clearly, not a fan of roadies. Heated negotiation ensued, resulting in the compromise of being allowed 3 on the bus, but having to put 3 in the togbag in the hold. Short-lived moral victory on the guide’s part when he then wanted to ticket check (again) and we fished the togbag from the hold under the guise of getting tickets. The Huda was successfully smuggled in and good time was had by all.

We again stopped at a dodgy truckstop for a meal break (crab soup and pork baguette) and ablution opportunity. The toilet on the bus was broken… Which had nearly led to fisticuffs between the guide and a particularly aggro Manc passenger whose wife wanted to pee about 5 minutes into the journey. The guide was braver than I’d have been and stood his ground with the biff with scars on his face and tattoos on his neck!

Christian again stocked up with roadies, much to the guide’s chagrin.

In the last stretch of the journey we changed our minds about our destination and bypassed Da Nang and went through to Hoi An. We’d intended to be based in Da Nang and daytrip to Hue and/or Hoi An on one or both of our days, but seeing as we were later than intended, had seen and done Hue and were the only ones stopping in Da Nang, Hoi An seemed the better choice all round.

What a great decision. Hoi An is charming and quaint and, although it was more or less constantly drizzling, we had a great time.

We were met at the bus station by some hotel touts and bargained them down from $15 to $10 for a room. They taxied us to the hotel, which was a few blocks further out of town than we would have preferred, but the room was so spacious and clean that we couldn’t resist. The others opted to stay in the town so we parted ways, but made arrangements to meet up later for dinner etc.

It was great to have a shower and get into clean clothes – and be able to stretch out on a real (big) bed, The TV also had several English channels which was a new experience and we found out that Jon Bon Jovi has died, which we knew would be a gem of a conversation piece for later!

Met for dinner at 7 at a spot that Rob (one of the NZ’ers) had been to on his last trip to Hoi An and enjoyed immensely. The beers were trickling after a day of roadies, but the food was amazing. Christian had a humongous burger with cheese and bacon and i had a tower of a club sandwich welling with chicken, bacon, cheese and sauces. Not bad for a meal of ZAR100 all in.

Christian had decided to get the tailored silk shirts that Hoi An is famous for, so we headed to the esteemed Kimmy’s Tailor to pick fabrics and get him measured up (maybe not so smart after the enormous dinner, but still…) then headed out to check out the old town shops and find a watering hole.

We found a colourful spot called Before N Now and it wasn’t long before another table of travellers had pulled our table to theirs and we were swapping stories with Canadians, Norwegians and an Iranian American. We of course hadn’t intended the merge, but all career-travellers seem keen to repeat the ‘where are you from? where have you been? where are you going?’ routine, so we humoured. And the world seems to love South African travellers, with very few having visited our country so the stream of opinions and questions flow endlessly.

Was lovely to be able to walk back to the hotel – a good breath of fresh air and getting the blood flowing always makes sleep that much sweeter, longer and deeper. So deep, in fact, that we completely overslept and missed Christian’s 11h00 fitting, only rousing at 11h20! No harm done, we got there at 12h00 – and the shirts were fab, needing only minor tweaks.

Met up with the NZ’ers for lunch on the riverfront. Found an excellent little spot that served all the local specialities and were delighted with a selection consisting of steamed white rose dumplings (pork), deep fried wanton (pork) and cao lau (a thick white noodle with pork strips and crisp veg in a salt and pepper stock). All delicious!

The afternoon was spent wandering through the Ancient town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the markets, the temples, the alleyways. Really good afternoon, just a pity about the intermittent drizzle, although it was light enough that we were never really wet or cold.

Collected Christian’s shirts at 4pm (all really excellent), had a last ‘fresh beer’ (VND 3,000 each) with the NZ’ers and headed back to the hotel to get our private car ride back to Da Nang (US$ 12 for the car). Turned out to be a shorter ride than expected, about 20 minutes and we got deposited at our hotel, Sun Sea which is right on the famous China Beach (My Khe).

We took a mega walk along the beachfront promenade, which was a pleasure with its wide paved sidewalks and palm tree-lined seafront. Hadn’t intended for it to be such a long walk, but we were trying to get a better look at a statue that we couldn’t work out if it was around the corner or over the harbour, Eventually found out that we couldn’t get there on foot, but our walk was still rewarded with a very local pub at the end, where we thought we would have dinner… until we realised that we were way out of our depth in figuring out what the menu board was offering… and there was some very scary looking sea food still swimming around in tubs and fishtanks! We had our beers (served by Tiger promo girls in very fancy wool 2 piece branded Tiger suits) and some of the peanuts (in shells) and tiny speckled eggs (also served in shells, clearly from the birds in cages hanging overhead), paid our bill and headed back toward the hotel.

Found a nice restaurant for dinner and were very lucky to have an English speaking Maitre’ D who was very patient in explaining the options and some of the more complicated dishes and accompaniments. We settled on a shrimp with crispy noodles and a chicken hotpot that is served at the table with a little cooker and a pot of stock that has a halo around it laden with meat and veg which you add to the pot and cook as you go along. Both very yum. Total meal cost, including beers, VND300,000 (ZAR 120).

We’re now back at the hotel and intending to hit the beach first thing in the morning to get a swim in China Beach’s famous and infamous waters, then we’re off to Ho Chi Minh City.

Travelogue SEA 2: Hanoi – Halong Bay – Hanoi

18-19 December 2011

We were greeted bang on time at the hotel by our guide, Thine, although the bus ended up only arriving some 20 minutes later. It was a chilly wait and we were worried that the damp cold was a sign of impending rain.

The bus was a group of Japanese tourists (with their own guide) and us, so we had Thine to ourselves and he interspersed stories and tour guide info along the 4 hour journey (broken only by the usual obligatory stop at a souvenir store, where I bought rubies and Christian bought silk ties). The journey should never take as long – being only 160km, but the speed limits are 40 through the towns and 80 in between, with very few stretches where the foot can go flat.

Eventually reaching Ha Long Bay, we were merged with another tour of English speakers and ushered to our boat. We had booked a specific cruise on based on its 2 day itinerary but were allocated to another boat, which we’d also seen on Agoda and which had the same itinerary but at considerably higher price. Bonus.  From comparing notes with the other travellers it seems that we’d stumbled on a gem with our booking site, paying similar value rates for our hotels to the backpacker types who booked as they went, but with the benefit of having a pre-planned itinerary to springboard from in these new and foreign places. We’d saved big $$$ by booking our cruise online!

Our cabin was lovely and spacious with a double and a single bed with fresh white linen and soft duvets, an en suite bathroom and neat decor with wooden panelling and silk curtains. Our tour guide (Dung, which he was quick to tell us is pronounced ‘Dzung’ not ‘dung’) kept reinforcing that this was a luxury cruise, although more in the context of not smuggling booze on board or buying from the endless stream of row boat hawkers that floated past yelling “you want buy somting?”, with ‘somting’ usually meaning an impressive selection of beers, wine, hard tack, cigarettes, chocolates, biscuits and Pringles (which seemed to also be the standard unit of currency in lieu of cash change).

First up was lunch, brought to the table in communal serving plates. Seafood soup, mussels, rice, tofu, beef and an apple-like fruit stirfry, Chinese veg and french fries. We were at a table with a Vietnamese couple and their 2 young kids who spoke with a Aussie accent and were only interested in the ‘chippies’, so making a meal of the central self-service platters was easy enough!

Then it was taking to the waters to see what Ha Long is famous for. There are 1969 limestone mounds that form the ‘Descending Dragon’ and have earned the area a place in the new 7 natural wonders of the world. A wonder within a wonder is Sun Sot (Surprise Cave) which consists of 3 enormous chambers that you can walk through and (supposedly) see all sorts of animals and shapes that time has eroded into the rock face, most notable of which is the finger/penis that points at a perfectly round hole in the ceiling of the second chamber.

It becomes a bit same same (only different) after a while and we were keen when we moved on from there to go to one of the floating villages to grab a kayak. The floating villages are pretty amazing. Individual houses or restaurants on pontoon floats with inflated barrels and polystyrene blocks keeping them out of the water. People going on with their daily lives, cooking, hanging out washing, peddling wares. Houses with tv aerials and satellite dishes and, it would, appear, better cell phone reception than I have at home!

We grabbed a kayak and paddled around the bay, getting a closer look at some of the rock faces, a little private beach and a lot of other tourists. The bay is very busy with lots of boats, junks and other (inexperienced) kayakers going in every direction and staking claim to right of way on a shared path. Lots of fun though and I’m glad I didn’t bail out on the activity (in both meanings of the word as I had almost passed on the kayaking because of the weather and for fear of getting wet and cold). I must just be a bit dramatic about cold though as the boys had a big laugh jumping off the top of the junk into the sea (maybe 8m).

We’d gotten friendly with a pair of NZ’ers and an Aussie through the caves and hooked up on the upper deck for some pre-dinner beers (after a lovely hot shower – in a bathroom far bigger and nicer than the ones in either Bangkok or Hanoi!) with them and a Canadian couple.

The boat staff were quite intuitive and we found on arrival in the restaurant cabin that they’d moved us from the family table to sit with our new mates. Dinner was a buffet with shrimp chips, fresh springrolls (more like a wrap than the usual deep fried ones), rice (obviously), prawns, calamari with lemongrass, sesame seed pork, chicken stir fry and cabbage. Sweet cake for dessert. (Real cake, not Malory).

Back up to the deck and an endless stream of Tigers began. The Canadians brought out their MP3 player and speakers and we proceeded to ADD-DJ and cross-criticise each others’ music like old friends! … Except Roger from Manchester, who was the only one who was quiet and who took some heckling for not being able to contribute a story to the endless eclectic mix of anecdotes and repartee (peppered with a healthy dose of sauce and profanity). Although he did tell us that he’d managed to find a KFC in Hanoi when we’d marvelled over how franchise and fast food free the city was.

We’d brought some beers with us from the market at the harbour, so we implemented our own private Buy One Get One Free promotion. Aaron, one of the NZ’ers, managed to get a floater (hehe) to pull up to their cabin window so that he could buy a bottle of vodka and 2 litre Coke, which he cleverly served for himself in a beer can so as to go undetected. Beers weren’t that expensive at $2 a can, but the subterfuge is all part of the fun – and having our own supply also meant we could bypass the main cabin and bar where we would be subjected to Dzung’s drunken solo karaoke medley (of what sounded like Vietnamese love songs), belted out in a key I’m certain would be alien to what the songwriter intended!

He had the last laugh of course when we finally decided to hit the main cabin and have a stab at karaoke… Only to find that everyone had gone to bed and there were 2 crew members sleeping on the floors. To rub matters in further, there was a Party Boat within yelling distance of us that was still in full swing. We tried to convince the barman to drive us there (an obviously flawed plan in retrospect) but he wasn’t having any of it. Deflated, we called it a night.

Slept like the dead… Only to be woken at 7.30 by incessant knocking on the door and “breakfast! BREAKFAST!”. Clearly not an optional activity… And a lot of excitement over simple fried eggs and lots of bread, jam and cheese.

Well fed, it was back to bed. The greatest nap ever!

Felt a lot better waking up slowly and naturally an hour later and showered, packed and evac’ed to sit on the upper deck and enjoy the view on the long slow journey back to port (with just our NZ mates as the rest had alighted earlier to go on to another day of cruising to other islands and sights in the Bay). No beers. Although Tigers continue to be very forgiving and there wasn’t a green gill among us.

Lunch on the shore was good: rice, calamari with onions, fried lemon chicken, stuffed crab, fish in a thick sticky (yummy) sauce! French fries and a watery soup (that remained untouched).

A bit of a wait and we are now on the bus headed back to Hanoi. The bright side about land travel is that there’s a lot of time – like a a lot a lot – to look around and take in the detail of daily life. Besides the obvious things like farmers in the fields – still donning traditional conical hats and still using water buffalo ploughs – we’ve spotted that  Vietnamese billboards and ads are strange. Most of the billboards are a long sentence of text in a single colour block letters on a plain background, some are just a logo with or without slogan, but very very few have pictures on them illustrating the product and/or lifestyle message. Store signage is cluttered with what seems like a detailed description of store offerings alongside the name and crude photo depictions. Streetpoles are dotted with vertical propaganda posters that look a bit like McDonald’s ads being yellow on red with a beaming happy face. The language is made up of mostly 2-4 letter words, some 5, very few 6 and no words of 7 letters or more.

It’s also odd that there are the renowned tube houses out here as well. They make sense (sort of) in town where it’s not uncommon to see stores 2m wide (but 30 or 40m deep) since they (used to?) pay taxes based on store frontage, so the stores (and the flats above them) are long and narrow to keep costs down. It also makes a bit more visual sense in town where the tube houses are squashed one against each other. Here in the countryside or when passing through a small town it’s very odd to see what looks like a sliver of a house in the middle of nowhere!

It’s all very interesting and fascinating and Vietnam (which, incidentally should be 2 words ‘Viet Nam’ because it means ‘South People’, as designated by China that lies north of Viet Nam and who believe they are the epicentre) has been a delight so far. Really highly recommend a visit – and we’ve only seen a splash of it!

The plan from here is for an overnight bus to pick us up from Mike’s Hotel to get us to Da Nang for tomorrow. The bus allegedly is double storey with the upstairs dedicated to proper horizontal lie-down beds… But I’ll believe that when I see it.

Travelogue SEA 1: Joburg – Bangkok – Hanoi

14-17 December 2011

After a mad panic and photo finish to get everything done before leaving, dashed to the airport, went through the obligatories and breathed a sigh of relief to be up, up and away.

An uneventful flight to Ethiopia, marred only by the lack of “…”  in the usual “… or fish” dinner option. So, fish it was. Sadly. Then nap. Gladly.

Addis Ababa airport is largely unremarkable, being a single circuit of duty free shopping (the same old booze and perfumes as everywhere), a few souvenir stores and coffee shops and bars. Really modest and warehousey and still allows smoking everywhere, which is a rarity these days to say the least. Squatted in the biggest of the bars and  tried the local beer, St George’s. Ok, but pricy at $4 each.

An overnight flight later and we were (very pleased to be) in Bangkok. A wall of heat as we left the airport in the early afternoon Thai time and were greeted by the 31 degree summertime. Changed some currency, hailed a taxi and we were delivered to our hotel (for 800 baht, including a detour past the Vietnamese Embassy to drop off our passports for visas). Well, near our hotel. Turns out our hotel is one of a chain and we were deposited at the wrong one, but it was Day 1 excitement, so it was still all good schlepping cases around the crescent to the correct hotel.

As always, our room was the furthest possible from reception, but this time wasn’t so bad seeing as our luggage was a record-breaking 12kg (me) and 15kg (Chris)… not like having to lug our anvil cases up the countless flights of stairs in Zagreb last year!!

Our room was only marginally bigger than the double bed it housed, so we had to strat plan our wardrobe changes to shift one case at a time (onto the bed), grab clothes, rezip and replace and swap turns. All part of the charm though, eh? (clinging to same sentiment for the shower in loo cubicle combo as well!)

Headed out on the town and took a walk around to get our bearings. We did a short loop around the neighbourhood and nestled in at a charming rooftop bar and restaurant to watch the sunset over the river and the boats and people getting on with whatever they were getting on with (with a lovely KFC coincidentally directly over the river from us, completing the perfect picture).

En route back to our hood, we found to our delight that we were one road away from the infamous Khao San Road – the best of both being so close to the action, but far enough away to be able to escape the madding crowds, neon lights and infinite noise when we wanted to. Torn between wanting to sample local beer and check out the bustling roads, kiosks and shops we split the difference and grabbed some roadies from 711. One soon turned into a pub crawl as we discovered there was a 711 every few hundred metres and they all had the same basics (Tiger, Chang, Leo) but there was some variety in the rest of the stock they carried. So we walked, shopped, marvelled, 711’ed, drank, giggled and ogled for hours.

Much later we stopped for dinner – lured in by the promise of a Buy 3 Get One Free Tiger offer. Excellent Pad Thai in belly, Night 1 was done.

Up bright(er than deserved) and early, we were ready to see the sights of Bangkok. Traditional breakfast was a bit disappointing being a starchy rice and water number with ground pork and some green stuff. Not really my scene, but hearty and filling and good fuel for the day ahead.

We started off with an on-foot trip to the Palace and our first temple, which happened to house the world’s biggest reclining Buddha (which has fancy feet with Chinese pearl inlay), the 4 Rama pagodas and a whole lot of contorted looking gargoyle type statues and pretty topiaries with little waterfalls, funny little folk and Buddhas.

Next was a boat trip, which started off with us taking the wrong pier and ending up with an accidental ferry river-crossing before we got on the correct express boat and made our way up-river to the Dusit area with lots of important buildings, the zoo and the president’s residence.

Having a new found confidence in our bearings, we footed it back to Khao San to find a Burger King for lunch. What an excellent idea! I had the Angus burger with smoky sauce, bacon and onions and Christian had the double cheese and bacon Whopper. Large is standard and quite a meal and all burgers come with an upsize option which is the same burger format with each patty twice the size. Hectic.

Fed and happy, we grabbed a tuktuk from outside the BK and negotiated a tour route for the bargain price of 40 baht. We moseyed deftly to the Golden Mount to see Wat Sakhet, the highest Buddha, with the temple on the hill offering amazing panoramic views of Bangkok. Then off to the Black Buddha for luck, which proved handy with the next stop being the Thai gemstone factory!  🙂 The tuktuk drivers get incentives for bringing tourists to the shop and we were more than happy to take the little detour so that our driver could get his tank of petrol – and the beautiful orange and naartjie citrines that I bought were an absolute bargain!

We had to get back to the Vietnamese Embassy to collect our passports, so the tuktuk driver dropped us at the skytrain, which would save us at least an hour travel time because Bangkok traffic is so crazy. Even with our rudimentary map, it was really easy navigate to the Embassy and move to another skytrain line to get back towards our neck of the woods. We opted to grab the train to the River and Express Boat back to our hotel so that we could see the last side of Bangkok that we hadn’t seen (but that had nothing worth exploring up close).

After a hard day’s sight-seeing we did what was necessary… hit the first 711we saw! Beers in hand, we trawled the market streets, eating from stalls as and when things looked enticing. Very yum! After a few ABFs along the way – with progress retarded by the entertainment, the locals, the people-watching, Engrish menus and fun store-window marketing videos that included a tailor who proudly pronounced “happy to make custom dress for fat lady” – we finally got back to our hotel… much later than we should have.

The alarm went off what felt like moments after we had gone to sleep and we were up and out, ready for our 4am transfer to the airport. The driver was late and those 15 minutes dragged on for what seemed liked aeons, saved only by the snacks we’d procured en route home the night before (from 711 of course), including Lays duck flavour and 2 others with 2 flavours combined in one bag (calamari & chilli and pepper steak crinkle cut with BBQ plain cut). Life saver. Probably a bit naff to complain seeing as the streets were as busy as any other time of the day so clearly Bangkok never sleeps. The driver made up for the delay and drove at breakneck speed to the airport, swerving and near-missing a few times. We ended up actually being early for the flight! … and sleeping through it…

… to wake up in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The tourist desk (and there were several) was very helpful, providing a map and key advice and info and arranging a taxi driver to deliver us to our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi (for US$20). I have never – and I mean nevereverever – seen traffic like this! Cars, scooters and bicycles moving in all directions. Over-taking, swerving, jumping red lights and doing exactly as they please, all the while hooting at regular intervals. We theorise that they hoot as soon as there is someone in front of them, not really to tell them to move or anything, just to alert that they are approaching. You can imagine the cacophony. And the chaos.

Our hotel (Mikes Hotel, 1 Hang Phen) is superbly placed and we dumped our stuff and rushed off to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which we stumbled upon while flipping through a travel guide during the check-in process – and also discovered was only open until 11h30 on a Saturday. And it was 10h30 already! Grabbed a cab and managed to catch it in the nick of time, arriving at 11h15 and needing to be in and out by 11h30. It’s a very sombre and formal site and they are very strict – no bags or camera equipment allowed in and you can only walk in certain places (not the grass or, oddly, the pavement) and uniformed guards glare instructions and nod disapproval to usher you to where you need to be to get trooped through to where the body of Ho Chi Minh rests. A weirdly (literally) awesome experience to be in such close proximity to such an epic character in some really dramatic history. He died an old man, but his embalmed body looks so peaceful that he appears to be sleeping.

Grabbed some lunch at a cafe in a hotel lobby and sampled Hanoi springrolls (pork, mushrooms, onion, carrots, vermicelli noodles) and then spent the afternoon whipping around the town (well, as much as one can whip around a town that has stores spilling onto the pavements from one side and motorbikes from the other, so that you are left dodging cars, bikes and people in conical hats with wares dangling from rods on their shoulders) checking out the famous buildings, museums, Lake Hoan Kiem and a series of pagodas.

Blissful afternoon nap and then maneuvered our way to the cuisine district to wonder and marvel at the street vendors, operating at knee level with pots and woks and all sorts of raw and cooked meat, veg and noodles being spun and dished. Pavement eating, drinking and socialising is the norm, and a modest affair with the standard being the types of little stools and tables you’d find in a nursery school. We spent ages figuring out what meant what seeing as everything is posted only in Vietnamese and settled on a chicken, mushroom and onion dish (Ga Xao Nam Huong) and a beef and mushroom with fried noodles (Bo Xao Pho) with 2 large Tigers (beers, not animals).

Have had a fab time doing our 1 day in Hanoi, which is really all you need to see the sights (unless you’re the type to painstake over a museum, which we are not).

Tomorrow we are off to Ha Long Bay for an overnight cruise to see its rock formations, caves and floating villages (UNESCO winner as one of the new 7 wonders of the world).