We made our way to Saigon by plane on an early flight after an early departure from our hotel in Hoi An flying from Danang. The weather was definitely warmer and incredibly humid in the capital city. You could tell it was far more cosmopolitan than the previous places that we had visited really and certainly not as quaint I felt. The room was wonderfully (and thankfully) air conditioned and a welcome relief from the sweat central heat of outside – with only such a short visit there was no chance my body was going to acclimatise in time!! It was quite a stark contrast to the previous temperatures that we had been in.
After about 10 mins in our rooms we were back downstairs for a walking tour and lunch out. I didn’t really feel the vibe of the city – it was quite hard to work out my bearings in general but with little more than 48 hours we did a pretty grand job of shoving everything in, well the major sights. There seemed to be even more bloomin mopeds on the streets and passing through the city from the airport was eye opening watching all of the mopeds at all of the traffic lights stops. Obviously being a much larger city there were bound to be more but it just felt as there were even more as the streets were wider than they were in say, Hanoi.
We headed out to wander the streets to see the sights and first off was to grab some lunch. The weather really was stifling and I was struggling a little, downing water like there was no tomorrow. Unsure of what to have to eat as I was always wary of ordering something that had the jolly old bell pepper lurking in it. I decided to go with another Cao Lau which I had chosen back in Hoi An and which was utterly delicious – Japanese style noodles seasoned with herbs, salad greens and bean sprouts, served with a slice or two of roast pork. I knew what it was & I couldn’t really go wrong with that choice. HOW WRONG COULD I BE??!!
Unfortunately my dish was a little dissimilar to the version that I had in Hoi An and most importantly atop of the dish was delicately placed a prawn in its shell still. This was not mentioned on the menu at all and Hung was excellent at explaining to the restaurant why I. Could not have the dish and how they simply couldnt just take it off the top and I eat the remainder of it. After much. Agitated discussion the dish was taken away and was being remade without the prawn on the top. I was incredibly suspicious of the second version and I was adamant that there was still prawn in it. Hung reassured me that the restaurant had promised that there was none in the replacement. I kind of had to take his word for it and so had a few mouthfuls before declaring that I really wasn’t that hungry after all and that it was probably because of the heat.
We walked past the People’s Committee Building which we, as tourists, were unable to enter. Its style was French colonial of course looking similar to a sort of Hotel de Ville as you would see in France. At one end of it is a huge statue of Uncle Ho and the other a ole Thor’s of construction where the proposed central city station will be for the new Metro station that is slowly being built/created in the city.
Other sites that we passed on our walk were the Opera House, which is near to the construction of the new metro system. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral which was a rose brick colour and built between 1877 and 1883. Its based in an area of the city known as the city’s government quarter. Being so close after New Year and so close to Tet, we did find that most of the places that we were keen to see the inside of were not actually open, I think I would have liked the opportunity to explore the city a little more I have to say. The impressive towers of the cathedral, Hung told us were around 40m high and the top bits are iron spires. Its still an operating Catholic Church. The Central Post Office we did get an opportunity to look inside of and it was fascinating – a HUGE portrait of Uncle Ho (obviously) took the main position and line of sight as you entered the building.
I’m not sure that I could honestly say that it was the highlight of the day, more the most poignant part of the day was the visit to the War Remnants Museum which we had already been advised in our trip notes was to give us a very different version of the Vietnam (American) War than that depicted by the Americans. It was a gruelling visit. But a very. Necessary one to fully appreciate the more recent history of the country. It was already sweltering and I was feeling incredibly feint walking around all of the halls of the artefacts that were on display as well as the mass of photos of the atrocities in the other areas of the country during the 60s. The after effects of the chemical warfare and the clarification../realisation that actually millions died in this country for, as far as I could tell, very little reason what so ever. The descendants of those that were hit or came into contact with the napalm and other chemicals that the Americans exposed millions of Vietnamese to are still disfigured and disabled to some degree. Seeing some of the images of those that were effected first hand were disturbing to say the least but yet one wanted to soak it all in to truly understand the utter atrocities that took place in this beautiful country.
I couldn’t do all of the rooms, too emotional and was starting to feel not just too hot but really quite unwell. I came outside and perched with a bottle of water out of the sun and watched an American dressed in American clothes, many apologies to any American readers, sort of all saluting to and in praise of the army who spent a good 10-15 mins setting up a camera to take a photo of himself all thumbs up happy smiley posing next to the American built F-5E just that was used to bombs he Presidential Palace in 1975 and sits in the courtyard area of the museum. I felt sick. I mean I did anyway but I couldn’t honestly believe what I was seeing. It was certainly NOT the act of compassion or understanding of the atrocities and frankly murder or millions of innocent civilians in this country. I was INCREDIBLY close to going up to him and saying how inappropriate his actions were, but if Im honest I thought I might actually have thrown up all over him my stomachs was starting to churn something chronic.
We made it back to our rooms to freshen up etc before all heading out to supper – mainly tot he delicious sounding restaurant around the corner that Hung had suggested and booked for us all. Whilst ‘freshening up’ the idea of ANYTHING passing my lips at this stage bar itsy bitsy teeny weeny sips of water made me nauseous and I had spent quite a while not more than a step away from the bathroom. There was absoloulty NO WAY that there was no prawn in the second version of the lunchtime dish. This was typical of a shell fish reaction – GET OUT OF MY BODY by ANY means possible and via any entrance or exit point. Im present sure that I do not need to go into much detail. I binned the idea of going out for the meal and went through a FREEZING cold stage where i was literally shivering in my room, had ALL the clothes I had with me on pretty much in the bed, air-con off & I COULD NOT get warm. It was 33 degrees outside and yet I felt like I was in the arctic. I decided to have a bath, that might relax me if not warm me up. I sat in it as it filled up so that my body could get used to the heat, my body was BRIGHT pink front he heat of the water yet STILL I was shivering. Safe to say that I was NOT in a good way. I was really quite concerned and had decided that if it didn’t subside by the morning I really would have o go to hospital to get checked out as this was not actually funny. What with he head cold as well for the majority of the holiday I just felt like a massive bundle of feebleness.
I put out an emergency call for Imodium for the following morning as I was really looking forward to the day ahead but it was ALL on little boats out on the Mekong River and I honestly had no idea what to do if it continued into tomorrow as I couldn’t possibly make the trip out.
At some point I must have got to sleep, how Ive not idea and why, in hindsight, I didn’t just go and stand in the corridor outside my room which had no air on in it I have no idea! That surely would have warmed me up?!
A route via a stop in Kuala Lumper in Malaysia was how I finally made my way to my latest overseas adventure. Identified one of the group in the seat behind me on the second leg and we were met at the airport having made our way through both immigration and collected our luggage successfully without too much hassle. I’m sure when I checked I needed to get a visa to enter Vietnam & so had the extra sheet of paper which clearly wasn’t at all necessary after all but had sent my new travel buddy into a small panic as he had no paperwork re a visa. Ah well, better to be safe than sorry I say!
Arrived at the Anise Hotel about 2.30pm desperate to sleep but also, not wanting to knowing how badly I’d then sleep in the evening. I showered & managed about a 20 min power nap before venturing out to try familiarising myself with the locality of the hotel & what amenities we had close by. Having failed to have changed any money into dollars prior to my trip I was on the hunt for an ATM. I found two and was rather panicked that neither would accept my card. I was moneyless in a foreign country & felt very very vulnerable. I realised that despite all my prior research to the trip we in the guide book we were actually MUCH closer than I had initially anticipated to the Old Quarter. I was grateful to Mike (off of the Cambodia trip last year) for the introduction of maps.me which I recommend strongly as you can drop pins on where you are at a particular point in time and name them what you want etc. (helpful hint – download the map that you need on wifi and then you can use it off line as it works on GPS.)
Our initial meeting of the tour to tell us a little about Vietnam & to meet the others that would become companions for the rest of the trip, was held on the top floor of the hotel where the restaurant was – the 11th floor and only one away from my room. I’d say the views out were stunning but, as it was dark I’d have to wait until morning to find out. Already one of the ladies was clearly sticking out as one that would irritate not only me but the majority of the group in the fullness of time. Not listening to what our guide (Hung) was saying EVER & then asking him to repeat it as she didn’t hear. The temptation to point out to her & her friend the obvious was clearly going to come out of my mouth at some point this holiday without my being able to do ANYTHING about it.
Supper was a set menu in a delicious restaurant very close to the hotel called 5 Spice. Negotiating the puddles, pedestrians & potholes in themselves was quite some feat but add in the scooters factor and oh dear god – NIGHTMARE! I was catered for so that despite the set menu I was able to eat as the meals were tweaked accordingly, I was very impressed, and there was beer. Much needed beer.
Our first walking tour was in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which was good as it was nailing it down with rain as we first walked out. Negotiating the traffic for every direction and of every form is something of an art form. In the UK we have pedestrian crossings painted on the ground and only on a few occasions do cars ignore them. Here THAT is the norm but it’s scooters, 15 years ago it would have been bicycles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more cars on the roads here in 20 or so years. Hung told us that the average car price for nothing fancy was $25,000. In my book that’s A LOT when the average wage is around $150-200 a month. But there would be no room for them all anyway were they to start becoming more affordable. With the rain beating down they were all wearing ponchos that have a see through rectangle at the front that covers the handlebars and lights and so on. Clever. Here was one lady using the same that I spotted on a bicycle.
The historic Old Quarter was a maze of packed streets that were an explosion on the senses with the noise of the scooters to the smog from their engines. The sidewalks are crammed with parked scooters and the small shops were stuffed full of a plethora of goods which often spilled out and onto the side walk, then you have the shopkeepers making their simple meals on the pavements too – some selling food and some just creating for themselves. You have the street sellers passing with fruits freshly picked and presented in bamboo baskets and sellers on scooters with a record player shouting out what they were selling as they slowly made their ways down the streets. Food hygiene leaves A LOT to be desired and although Hung kept telling us the food would be ok but the issue with the hygiene would be more to do with how they washed the plates and so on rather than perhaps the food itself. We had heard their staple breakfast was a duck embryo boiled and still in the shell of the egg. None of us were keen to try, a step to far in my book. None the less Hung got one for himself and we all stood round in the rain as he showed us how it was prepared and how it was eaten from a street seller. My stomach churned and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!
We continued through the streets taking in the sights and sounds, dodging the scooters from all angles. We passed what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city originally dating from the 11th century but the current building dates from the 18th century. Bach Ma was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To honour a white horse that led him to this very site where he chose to construct his city walls that now has evolved into this fascinating city.
Despite there, of course, being a number of other areas to the city I enjoyed spending the short amount of time that we had in this city just familiarising myself with the organised chaos of the Old Quarter. It felt all a bit too much on first view but once you got used to the different pace & way of life, I really rather liked it.
North Face jackets were on every street corner, blatant knock offs – some looked good & some looked & felt frankly shocking. None the less I wasn’t about to buy one for the sake of it. I don’t need one back at home & I had a perfectly decent pac-a-mac with me (nothing remotely like Mr Flatman’s almost famous black bin bag coat I hasten to add).
Popping out of the Old Quarter by the Hoan Kiem Lake we met our bus which would be swooping us up and ferrying us away from the hustle and bustle of the street and the peace of a bus – all kitted our with WiFi – too as we headed off through the busy traffic to the complex where we would see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites on the complex. It was all rather surreal as you were literally allowed nothing as you walked around – everything had to be handed in and you were walked like working ants from the ticket office to the Mausoleum itself and encouraged just to keep walking around the frail body of Uncle Ho. I’m JUST not sure if it was/is him lying there or not?! He’s of course been embalmed (in Russia apparently where he returns for a month every year for ‘maintenance’) and lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by guards who are members of the National Army who were all wearing the ceremonial dress of white (this included white wellie boots which made me think of fish mongers or butchers) and we all thought that honestly they looked a little ridiculous – not that I was about to tell them that! It looked like they were cheap as sh*te sets from a fancy dress store rather than OFFICIAL uniform. I was pulled along at one point – still not quite sure why. A member of the group was asked to take her glasses off – they were those dark ones that turn into dark glasses and they had ‘gone dark’ and another was pointed at as we shuffled past as he had his hands in his pockets. The whole area was an open expanse and traffic free and you could tell that there has been a soviet influence in the design as there is plenty of opportunity for parades in front of the Mausoleum. What makes me so angry about it all with the pomp & ceremony is that it’s clearly been stated on a number of occasions that actually Uncle Ho was not in favour at all – his dying wish was that his ashes be scattered in a number of locations the length of the country. We also saw the stilt house where he actually lived in the gardens, he chose this over the Presidential Palace whenever he was in the city. It’s been preserved just as he left it and sits on a pond FULL of koi carp. The actual Presidential Palace is still used today and so visitors are unable to go inside of it but it’s a bright sort of orangey yellow colour and immediately reminded me of the building up on the hill as you drive out of the centre of Bristol on the M32. Apparently all of the presidential palaces are this colour throughout the country.
I alighted the plane to a wash of claret coloured 70’s/early 80’s fabric on the seats of the plane. I had sent the entire time before boarding the plane trying to spot the Explore! tags on people’s hand luggage – it was like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’ though! I found a couple briefly but then never saw them again. After I had my hand luggage and myself on the correct seat on the plane I was accosted by two ladies ‘oooooh Explore!’ yes ladies, you can indeed read! (The tag was sticking out of the overhead locker) smiles were had and I confirmed that I was indeed heading to Petra and carried on reading my Rugby World – I am not too fond of talking to people on planes at the best of times, the last thing that I needed was two overkeen chatters sitting next to me!
I slowly took in my surroundings . . .noting that the electronic equipment was something ou of the 60’s with a dial for the different radio stations etc and the fact that the whole bit was stuck on to the chair with glue! No way in hell was I being electrocuted by that – there was only 1 screen at the front as well to watch the movie on- it was so old-fashioned it is a surprise that it is still going. The films that were on I had never even heard of so I was not really that bothered about the dodgy electricity on the chair. Something told me that this was the sort of thing that I should be expecting out there.
Thankfully I ended up having a free seat next to me (no huge smelly person like I seem to have on nearly every other flight that I am on) – I took my trainers off in a bid to try and feel a bit more comfortable. After about 5 or so mins I noticed a rather unpleasant stench – I havent used the word smell as it was way too bad for that. I actually checked the usual places for my own body odour but it was SO bad I repeated checking as I became really paranoid – definitely wa not coming from me! After several sniffs in a variety of directions I discovered that it was coming from somewhere further down the plane – clearly not a race for cleaning thoroughly!!
I got my bag down from the overhead locker and the lady sort of in the seat next to me – Jan I think her name was – Oh God I’ve forgotten already , that’s going to be really embarrassing. SHe turned out to be another single female on the trip, but I wont be sharing with her as she has paid a single supplement and only paid £600 before that – need to delicately bring that up with the rest of the group at some point to see if everyone else paid that or the same as me (£695 without single supplement) or less. I kept seeing some random flashing lights – I couldn’t quite decide if it is because of some of the windows have their shutters open and so it could have been from the lights outside – yeah didn’t trust that heap of junk at all – I do feel that I am being rather sceptical but there we go! I wont even go into the whole meal saga – oh bugger I meant to tak a photo of it. Basically suffice to say it was frankly revolting and does not even deserve being written about any more. All that I will say is – PEPPERS!! We went through some pretty bad turbulence – some of the worst that I have ever been through – there was a bloke over the speakers saying something &^%%&*())( seatbelts *&^%$£”!” it was incredibly like the Spanish Football Manager on the Fast Show – you could only hear one or two words that were definitely in English! I just turned my iPod up louder and tried to think why I was on this godforsaken plane and think about exactly what I was actually going to be seeing. Oh GOD the flashing – its beginning to give me a headache now! To top it all off it started to feel like a sauna in here now and some little twerp on here clearly has germs and they have gone straight up my bloody nose which now wont stop running or sneezing. This is a bloody brilliant way to start the trip. At least no screaming children . . . oh no I’m sorry I can hear one over the iPod – HELP!!! It wont go up any more.
I walked off the plane with Jan and looked out for the Explore! sign which we found in the end. We waited for the plane to clear and worked out who was with us for the next few days. There was a young couple but I couldn’t work out to begin with if they were married or brother and sister. There seemed to be another couple as well and then two ladies from the plane who turned out to be sisters and a lady who had a bum bag on and a pen on a string around her neck and a couple of others. There were 11 of us in total and we handed our passports over to the guy who met us who informed us that he would get them all stamped and we waited a little while at the passport control before we all went down to the baggage reclaim sectino. We were being eyed up and down by the Arabs that we passed. I know that Explore! sort everything out and that he works for them but I was pretty nervous about handing over my passport to him and not being with him when he got it stamped – I mean he could have run off with them all. I need to stop being so paraniod.
The bags took ages to come through – I swear that they were bringing them all frmo the plane manually one at a time! I made a trip to the loo and it was not as bad as I thought that it was going to be! I was desperate for a fag – although there were others smoking in the terminal , not from our group, I didnt really want to start off on a bad foot in this country. Once we had all the bags they had to be screened AGAIN before we could leave the airport.
There were families waiting to greet loved ones off the plane clearly the whole family had come to the airport with flowers and presents galore and much kissing and hugging was going on all around us. It reminded my of the beginning and end of Love Actually. They were totally unaware of thier surroundings though as we nearly knocked over a couple of Great Great Grannies on the way through with our pully bags trying to get out. We were directed to a mini bus when by which stage we were outside ,eant that I could finally light up. We said goodbye to the gentleman who had guided us through the airport which was rathr confusing as we all thought that he was our guide! Hazim turned out ot be our guide and he greeted us very chirpily (at about 1am) and was more than thrilled to notice that one of the group smoked. Great – really don’t want to be labelled with that too much.
I managed about 2 puffs of my fag before jumping onto the bus (being driven by a driver whose name I never got) and we headed off to Petra and our hotel. Hazim told us a few bits and pieces about what the airport was called and named after – Queen Alia who, if I remember correctly was one of Kind Husseins wives who was killed in a helicopter crash near to the airport. We headed out on the Desert Highway towards Petra. Hazim lent me a little pillow to lean on so that I could get some sleep on the 2 or so hours drive. I did try looking out of the window once we were well onto the Desert Highway, there were no lights at all on the road to show markings at night and the sky was simply magical dripping with stars. Something told me that the night sky in the desert would be even more amazing than that.
We arrived in the hotel and unloaded the bus. It must have been about 3am and our room numbers were sorted out and I ended up in sharing a room with a lady called Janet, or is it Judith?! We organised a wake up call for 8am all heading out at 9am to see the sights. When we got to our room I sorted out a couple of bits to be ready for the mornings activities. We decided to set the alarm for 7.30am so that we could have some snooze time before getting up for real.