Our colleague Suzie returned from our Vietnam at a Glance adventure holiday last month. In a word 'WOW' – she says of her tour. Read about her experiences travelling from Saigon to Hanoi including making her own spring rolls and drinking weasel coffee!
It's always strange, I find, arriving in a new city if you haven't travelled for a while. My first day was free to wander at leisure before meeting the rest of the group that evening. First stop Ben Thanh market. A typical Asian market selling everything you can imagine, stall after stall, food you can buy, eat, clothes etc packed tightly under one roof. Next I wandered to the War Museum where I saw the most horrendous pictures of war victims I have ever seen. Then onto the Reunification Palace (a retro-concrete monstrosity).
There were 14 of us ranging from 20yrs to 60yrs+ from New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland and England. Long, our tour leader, took us out to a restaurant which brought together various street vendors cooking pancakes, dumplings, spring rolls, soups, curries, etc... A good start food-wise to the holiday!
We headed out of the city by private coach to see the Cu Chi tunnels – used by the Viet Cong during the war. We walked through the tunnels in stifling humidity, bent over double, with little bats flying round our heads. On the way home we visited a firing range where you could buy a round of bullets to shoot from an AK47!
A 9hr 'chicken bus' journey took us to Dalat, an ex-French colonial town. Being in the Central Highlands it is blissfully cool. We visited the house of an elder who offered us fermented corn wine. Long told us about traditional Vietnamese marriages - the woman has to have a good dowry (at least 5 buffalo!) and the couple live in her parent's longhouse that gets longer and longer the more people move in!
Next we went on to the Crazy House, which was designed by Ho Chi Minh's daughter. She had studied architecture in Russia and had been building the house for 20 years. It was crazy!
In Dalat three of us went off in search of the famous weasel coffee. These furry little creatures eat the coffee beans and, well, you can imagine the rest as to how it gets into our cups! We were given directions by a local café owner to his auntie's shop. There she made us this strong black sticky stuff which took ages to filter. I learnt that she never drinks it and that we wouldn't be going to sleep tonight! We got the giggles, the shakes and a tingly heads. It was a totally unexpected evening!
Nha Trang, the next stop, is Vietnam's premier beach resort. The hotel was lovely, as was the beach! That night we went out to a locals' restaurant and cooked the food ourselves on little BBQ's - slices of beef, fresh fish, squid, and prawns. Next day we took a cruise where I enjoyed a pedicure and a manicure on deck for around $5. We swam, jumped off the top of the boat, ate, drank, sunbathed and snorkelled amidst lots of lovely coloured fish.
Our overnight train journey was supposed to last 12 hours but due to delays it actually lasted 18! The 6 berth cabins only had 4 of us in each of them, we were given clean sheets and a blanket - and there were proper toilets! We passed the long journey listening to music, celebrating my birthday (a bizarre but memorable one) and playing card games with another tour group (who interestingly were not having as much fun as us possibly due to the broad age range in our group).
After a somewhat bumpy night I woke up in the morning, drew the curtains back to a beautiful scene outside - green rice paddies, local houses and villages, buffalo working the fields and mountains in the background.
Our hotel in Hoi An was gorgeous with sauna, swimming pool and jacuzzi. Hoi An was buzzing with atmosphere as it was a full moon.. The town was covered in lanterns which you could buy down at the water's edge and then float down the estuary. Being a full moon that night the effect was particularly dramatic. Hoi An escaped the bombing suffered by Saigon. Walking down the back alleys you can find all these amazingly old traditional wooden buildings - great photo opportunities!
My fellow travellers had brought Vogue with them as they wanted the latest Gucci outfits made up (they had packed very little in order to fit all their new clothes in!). At a tailors, they each had an assistant assigned to them who took lots of measurements and sorted through stacks of fabric. Their clothes were made up overnight and ready to go the next day – prêt a porter at $20-60 apiece!
We were taken round the local markets by a chef who taught us which vegetables are good with which food. Back at the cookery class we made fish stuffed with ginger, coriander and chillies, squid stir-fry and deep-fried spring rolls. Though I say it myself, it was one of the best meals I'd eaten in Vietnam!
The bike ride here was one of my highlights. With spring rolls in hand we manoeuvred ourselves around the back streets of the town then out to the country where people were hoeing the land and thinning out the rice and removing snails by hand - backbreaking work.
We had an amazing journey to Hue in a bus kitted out with three rows of bunk beds which you could adjust to lie down! Once in Hue we cycled to the Purple Palace and the Forbidden City then onto Long's house, down back roads I could only ever imagine being able to find without a tour guide. Off the beaten track indeed. Long's family gave us seahorse brandy - which I won't ever be having again. Fishy alcohol - yuk! Another great and unexpected afternoon with lots of laughter.
Our train journey to Hanoi was huge fun - mixing between carriages and hanging out with the locals. Hanoi was the most interesting of all the places we had been to. The streets were amazing - barbers on the sides of roads with mirrors attached to railings, newlyweds posing for photos in parks, a lake full of giant turtles that are supposed to bring you luck - I saw one on my last day! We viewed Ho Chi Minh's body (looking very peaceful) and had lunch at the KOTO restaurant, our Responsible Travel Initiative, where I ate the most amazing food, all cooked and served by street children who had been taken in and given a second chance.
On our last evening we watched a traditional water puppet show then joined the locals and drank beer in the street from a roadside barrel. There we stood, drink in hand, moving out the way from oncoming motor cycles - what a fantastic final memory!
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