Fear and loathing in Vietnam, My love. Aka even with kids you can backpack.
21.12.2015 – 2.1.2016
Because it was my second time around studying in Australia I decided to meet my family halfway for Christmas and the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Moreover, Vietnam has always been one of my top destinations on my ‘must see’ list and so it was an easy choice to make : ) During my first year in Melbourne I caught up with my mom and stepdad in Thailand so we already had it practiced. This year though, we decided for a challenge of a mental and a physical character and we took my little twin siblings who are eight years old with us. Because of that my mom started to freak out a bit as she realized (probably a little too late) that she had no idea what they were going to eat there – at the end it wasn’t a problem. As for me it was as always hard to realize that the time of holidays is approaching. Firstly, because I was working behind a bar until the very last day and secondly, because it is a bit tricky for a European to be in a Christmas mood with 40 °C heat.
The day of departure finally came and me and my then still boyfriend headed to the international airport Melbourne-Tullamarine. You can catch an air conditioned Sky Bus with a wifi which goes there from the Southern Cross train station every couple minutes and a return ticket costs you around $36. Usually I would skip the whole journey bit, but trust me, this one was quite special! My boyfriend and I were already used to being pulled aside for an extra police control. Still, I have no idea why they would think that two young people like us would have any intention to set the plane on fire…something about prejudice? Anyway they did so once again but only after we had been standing in an endless queue for ages. They did their ritual of sticking a pole in our bags to check if there weren’t any explosives. After that they let us skip the last bit of the line and go right to the x rays. At that moment they took my carry-on suitcase and with no explanation put it aside. And now seriously, why the hell would they do that? I was just being triple checked! I started to be grumpy but to throw a tantrum at the airport? Highly not recommended so I just stood there and waited. Finally I got it back and we could continue to our gate.
I traditionally start my holidays on plane with a glass of wine…then another and a couple more. Understand: just enough to make me fall asleep on an eight hours long flight to Singapore from where we had another flight to Saigon. After approximately four hours when my boyfriend was happily asleep, even I, slightly tipsy, started closing my eyes. As I wanted to save battery in my phone I played in my headphones their audio system with some cheesy pop songs. At that moment a voice coming out from the intercom woke me up saying: “…ladies and gentlemen the captain is speaking….indication….return back….Darwin…emergency landing…”…..EMERGENCY LANDING!?!? That only happens in movies! Me personally, (even though quite an experienced flight traveller) I always hold on to the armrests, anxiously with my sweaty palms, during taking off, landings and turbulences. Even when everything is perfectly fine I’m constantly mentally preparing myself to die on every single flight I get onto….And there we go, it was happening. No idea how I managed to stay calm, but for whatever reason I explained to myself, that it must have been caused by some special weather condition and that all the flights were called off for sure.
Only after we had landed I realized that it was not an international airport, because their staff was anything but prepared to handle so many passengers at once. Moreover, pissed off passengers as no one was able to tell us what had happened and why or what was about to happen next. I was just glad to be alive :D. I also tried to help out one flight assistant who seemed so lost with her task of dividing us into hotels…to deal with the fact that we already missed our connection flight to Saigon I decided to postpone for later. The whole process was dragging on forever but eventually they opened the side way to let us on fresh air. In that moment I realized that the whole event was probably not caused by a bad weather condition as there were loads of cameramen, photographers and interviewers all horny to get some exciting story from the plane. To their disappointment there was not one to tell.
When we got our hotel, we took a taxi and started calling JetStar to fix up our flight we missed. Well, that by itself was quite a mission as the chick on a phone had no clue what were we talking about nor that one of their planes had to land in Darwin. Eventually we managed to get the tickets re-booked and went to eat in this shady diner in a middle of nowhere. After dinner we googled that our plane had a faulty instrument and that we were landing surrounded by firemen and ambulances and went to sleep.
In the morning we were picked up by a bus, that took us to our new flight. It was actually the very same plane on which engineers were working over night. Well, it didn’t make me cool at all. The airport staff was useless once again and only when my carry-on bag was taken aside (again!) I realized I had a water gun in there packed in a christmas paper for my little brother! What a genius idea I had : D Our flight was supposed to be leaving at 10 am but at the end was delayed another four hours! Again without us knowing a thing. Everyone was so annoyed so it resolved in a massive group drinking at the gate. Finally we were let on the plane just on time for us to catch the connection flight to Saigon we had such struggle getting on. When everyone sat on their places ready to leave, this annoyingly sweet voice started talking again, saying that when they started the engines the ‘faulty instrument’ broke down….AGAIN! I was really close to start yelling at someone or at least at something. Finally we took off anyway. The pilots probably decided to give it a go just to have this flight behind them : )
Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon
Now about Vietnam … We had visas bought and approved in advance. We bought them in Australia because it is much more strict over there restrictions wise and we didn’t want to go through any unnecessary complications at the airport…eh. Anyway, you don’t necessarily need to have them beforehand as you can buy visas at the Saigon airport after landing just before the passport control. You will only need to fill in a form, have a passport photo and pay a small administration fee. As soon as we got out from the airport we were covered in incredibly humid air, smelling countless pleasant and unpleasant sweetish odours and started absorbing the atmosphere. Rush, noise, beeping of cars and millions of motorcycles. Locals started pushing us to get their taxi over someone else’s. I could finally breath in and start enjoying my beloved Asia! We took one taxi – I definitely recommend getting the ones you can buy in the arrival hall. These are official ones and unlike the outside ones they are not just trying to rip you off. Many Vietnamese cannot speak English and we cannot pronounce their names properly so rather have your address written on a piece of paper just to make sure you get where you need to. We had Hotel Ruby on 185 Le Thanh Ton, District 1 that was very well situated near all you may want to see. Still in the euphoria of finally getting to the spot, we went to check out a night food market that took place right next to our hotel. We got to taste the first round of authentically prepared rice paper rolls on dishes washed in who knows what kind of water accompanied by tempura fried beans. Pure love.
In the morning we went with my family to find some place to have a breakfast at. It must have been somewhere where even my little siblings would eat something and so we were only broken heartedly passing by all the beautiful stands with street food and Pho Bo soup. At the end we ate in Lamenda Cafe which was way too sterile to our liking, but yet still they managed to deliver authentic Vietnamese breakfast dishes as well as bread rolls with ham. After that we went through the Ben Thanh Market which was located right next to our hotel. They had all sorts of fakes but also spice, tea, their typically sweet grained coffee, fish, crabs, snakes and maybe even dogs, but we didn’t wanna know. We walked through the city, passing by big and noisy boulevards and then turning into tiny little narrow alleys. We were wondering about their power lines, that are chaotically crumpled into massive knots and also about their architectonic curiosities. Most of the buildings in the city are very narrow and tall. That is because there are stores on the ground floor and a bigger entrance means on one hand bigger income but on the other hand it means bigger rent. That’s why buildings were built narrow and they go deep into courtyards.
Before you go to Vietnam, get yourself prepared for the fact, that locals don’t give a goddamn about traffic lights. Even if there is a green light for pedestrians, the traffic won’t stop and so you just have to trust their ability and go….they won’t run you over unless you stop unexpectedly in the middle. The high frequency of traffic causes strong smog, which makes it hard to breath. Therefore, locals wear those well known mouth covers that became sort of a fashion thing and are sold in multiple designs.
During one day we went through most of the city. When we took a little stopover in one air conditioned cafeteria to feed mainly the kids, one local guy who probably had never seen a single white kid with light hair before, went right to them. For Asians to see a white cute kid is like some sort of talisman so they want to touch them. This guy started rubbing and kissing on forehead especially my little sister Ema, who stood there a little surprised from what all can happen in a foreign country. I have to admit, that it was quite a big socio-cultural shock to my little siblings. Everything was new and different: smells, lifestyle, food and mainly people… I personally got beyond the borders of Europe only when I went to Australia at the age of 21. The fact they have an opportunity to conquer the world being still so young is just epic! The most shocked though, they were from seeing the Vietnamese War survivors who are everywhere. The social department unfortunately cannot take care of them properly so they often end up on a street bagging for some money with missing limbs.
In the evening we pretty much just closed our suitcases, that weren’t worth unpacking, and headed to the airport from where we had a flight to Phu Quoc Island. I don’t necessarily like flying (obviously) so you can imagine how I freaked out when I saw the Vietnam Airlines ‘paper plane’ waiting for us. It was that small that instead of turbines it only had two propellers! Massive noise, sweaty palms through the whole hour long flight, sleeping steward who was sitting in the aisle leaning on the pilot cabin’s door and landing in a complete darkness… Horror! The Island was electrified only in 2009 and they probably haven’t learned yet that it is important to use the lights! Ah well, we made it while the kids were the whole time happily mingling and playing on their tablet. After landing we took a cab with a taxi driver who just didn’t want to understand that there were six of us and that we wouldn’t fit in a normal five seat car….Ah well, we did. On the way to our Bungalows Huong Giang we watched slums and little stands along the road selling all sorts of random objects: bulbs, shower heads, wooden poles etc. From the taxi we tottered to our little houses and went to beds.
When I got off the bungalow in the morning I had a chance to have a look around for the first time in daylight. Chickens were running around our little house and a few wild puppies were waiting for someone to drop a bit of food. Next to us, there was a bigger house that belonged to a local family. In front of it, there was a little cute girl with a ponytail playing with a half blown up ball and her mom was sitting on a porch doing laundry on a scrubbing board…Beautiful! We had a delicious Pho Bo for breakfast, as soups are mainly a morning dish in Vietnam, and headed for the beach that was only few minutes away. I don´t particularly enjoy lying on the beach too much and not even this one was abandoned type of paradise. Tourists are everywhere these days. Although, when you buy a freshly peeled pineapple and a mangosteen from a local vendor who carries all different fruit in baskets, it can be quite nice there. : )
Because it was the Christmas Eve (we Czechs celebrate Christmas on the 24th December in the evening) we went for a dinner to the ‘city’ or rather the main road. We decided to follow our receptionist’s advice and went to this one restaurant called Carole. I don’t think I have ever experienced more bizarre Christmas. Vietnamese do not celebrate Christmas so they tried to pull of some sort of event for tourists that reflected their vision of this particular holiday. The waitresses were dressed rather sluty in a Santa Claus mini dresses that would be more suitable for some Christmas porn : D Nevertheless, the place was packed (which is always a good sign) so we sat down to the last free table. On one side there was a very busy main road, on the other was some sort of a podium on which was just starting Vietnamese Christmas Program. The show kicked off with a chubby belly dancer from Russia that didn’t hold back whatsoever and I reckon she caused many hateful looks from the women’s part of audience. After her, there was a duo of singers from Philippines. She could sing and he looked like a friend of Lorenzo Lamas. : ) I ordered a seafood casserole with the freshest produce that I cooked in the stew myself. Overall it was a great and very memorable Christmas evening. : ) Back at the bungalows we quickly set up a ‘christmas tree’ in a form of a flower pot that we found on the way and handed each other presents. Then just finished the evening swinging in hammocks listening to Tokay Gecko, my favourites.
All up we spent four days on the island. We visited for example Duong Dong – the only bigger town on the island, where we walked to this weird church on a cliff that was partly a lighthouse meant to protect sailors. We also went to a local night food market that was absolutely spectacular. You could find all different water creatures there, caramelized nuts and local peppercorns that we couldn’t resist and bought couple jars. Another day we went to the Ngoc Hien pearl farm where pearl oysters are being kept in nets deep in the ocean. These artificially made pearls can be purchased here in a million and one different forms and you will learn about the whole process from a middle aged Australian who is probably hiding here from a tax office : )
The last day we let our receptionist convince us to go on a one day snorkeling trip. We never liked organized tours simply because the guides drag you from one place to another without giving you any spare time to enjoy whatever you find the most appealing. This time we decided to give it a go. We got onto this not really safe looking boat-wrack on which we headed long hours in the ocean. We were passing by floating houses made from metal sheets and once again we realized how pathetic our problems back home were. I also realized later on, that when you live in such ‘houses’ with no toilet or electricity and every day you are most likely slaving tourists in five star resorts, you don’t really care about ecology. That’s why all the litter and garbage ends up in rivers or in the ocean.
When we got to the coral islands that were in the middle of nowhere we each got a snorkel, goggles and fins and jumped into the water. Kids, who weren’t the greatest swimmers yet, got themselves adult vests (they didn’t have kids sizes) and were happily floating in the deep water staring at fish underneath them. True, I had to drag them back here and then when some current started carrying them away, but I must admit that they were extremely brave. There was one more stop at some other coral islands and in a meantime we got served a delicious lunch made by those two Vietnamese guys at the back of our boat. Then it was only another few hours back to the shore, pack and sleep.
Journey … again
Because it was so far so good listening to our receptionist’s recommendations, once again we chose the mean of transport to our next destination Can Thó regarding her advice. And this time it did not pay off! In the morning one guy with a car picked us up (sitting on the back seat in five people we sort of got used to by now) and dropped us at a ferry port. We already had tickets sorted so we only had to fight our way through heaps of people that seemed to be rather moving houses than travelling. There were bags of beans and rice, people with cages with chickens and other animals in them, motorcycles, bicycles… The ferry itself was great, airconditioned and very quick. We got of at Ha Tien harbour where there was already a different dude waiting for us that grabbed us and put us in a small van. He drove us to a petrol station where (to our biggest fears) was waiting an already completely full bus that was quite small. Inside, there were only two spots left on which they put me and my stepdad. We already had someone else’s bags underneath us so they threw our bags in the aisle. My mom and my boyfriend got to sit on some sort of pull out seats without back rests … and my siblings? Well in Vietnam little kids are not considered to be as equal passengers as the adult ones, so they sat my brother Oskar on a floor under my mom and my little sister Ema on an armrest of the bus driver!
Obediently we sat down and in quite a fun mood from the whole situation, in which we were completely helpless, we began the trip that was supposed to last only three more hours. After approximately five minutes though, the bus stopped by the road where some person gave cash to the evil woman sitting on a throne next to the bus driver and then hopped in the bus. We stopped like this another bunch of times and there were more and more people getting in. Sometimes only bags with produce to be delivered to Can Tho, other time a student with a bicycle… Every time we laughed, not believing that another passenger would ever squeeze in. He did. Every time! We were driving through a beautiful scenery of Mekong delta countryside. We drove on a narrow dusty road surrounded by poor dirty houses: behind them river with colorful little boats, country women washing dishes and laundry in the river and everywhere around them tropical forests… After three hours, when we were only halfway through, we had a quick stopover for the bathroom. I swapped my place with Ema and sat on the armrest right in front! Only then I realized that every single yank meant that there was a motorbike like 10 cm before us and the driver instead of breaking just beeped and was hoping that the motorcyclist would let us pass by him. Long story short: the trip took six hours and the bus was overloaded with people and things just so this evil woman could make some extra cash for herself. If you are heading to Vietnam this is completely normal, as we learned later on. We took this kind of bus that is a line public bus – the cheapest but it takes the longest and is very uncomfortable. Beside this option you can always get a coach for long distances. It never stops and you can be sure to have your own seat. We got the coach bus on our later trip from Can Thó back to Saigon. The price difference is minimal (for us tourists) and the estimated time of the journey is actually real.
The Mekong Delta is a huge area in southern parts of Vietnam where the river is present everywhere. It goes through other countries in southeast Asia and I’m pretty sure it must be absolutely amazing to go for a cruise through those countries as well as Vietnam! Around the river you can see all different kinds of houses: from the poorest that are built from what the owners found to bigger cities such as Cân Thó. Our hotel was on Hai Bà Trung street. Right in the centre next to the river and we could see from our windows a massive statue of Ho Chi Minh. The city has a weird atmosphere: we could see this old colonial fame, French charm, many little balconies and white painted window shutters. Close from our hotel there was a Buddhist Ong Temple with hundreds of bells made of smelly sticks. These burn until they supposedly fulfill the wishes written in the middle of them. We walked through wide and busy boulevards, then turned behind a corner to narrow little streets that reminded us of a Spanish village. We headed to a lake that was pointed out on our map by our receptionist but as it shown up it was just a half dried muddy something, where men were catching rats and fish with bare hands. We also had a quick peak in Nam Nhã Pagoda and Bình Thủy Temple in the centre of the city. In the evening we had a dinner in a well known Mekong diner that was right next door to our hotel. Very suspicious place with a strictly looking Vietnamese man behind the register on which was sitting a massive jar with snake wine! You couldn’t find any place more authentic and it was delicious!
The following day we went on a whole day cycling trip along Mekong river with a local student as our guide. Its beauty was that there were only the six of us and him – no big groups, no annoying dragging and only this local young guy who was showing us less known places. Not everyone in Vietnam can afford to study a university and in a combination with his understandable English we assumed that he would be from a better and economically stable family. We drove on tiny little narrow paths along the river on bicycles from prehistoric era. It was great! This guy, he always stopped here and there to show us curiosities we drove by. Whether it was some tropical fruits or floating leaves that locals build little fences to catch them into and leave them by their house like some sort of a lettuce garden. He also explained that Vietnamese should be buried on a land next to their house and that the whole top floor of each building is dedicated to the ancestors. We finished our trip in a pancake place that was very popular within the locals. It was a huge tent with outside seats next to a dusty road. We each got a pancake made from rice dust – quickly fried on a pan with meat filling. We rather triple asked that he meant ‘duck’ meat and not ‘dog’ meat as we were in an area with signs saying ‘Chó’ (=dog) everywhere. The guy was just giggling at our scared faces and we rather stopped asking. It was delicious! We got a massive plate with all sorts of leaves and herbs to go with it and a dipping sauce. Whether it was a dog or a duck, it was great! : )
The next morning we went to check out Cai Rang floating market. Again it was just us and one local man with his tiny barge. This was an epic experience! We got there quite early in the morning and we saw many boats of different sizes selling fruit, meat, drinks, coffee, vegetables…We were floating in between these boats on our almost-canoe and were really happy not to be on one of those touristy overloaded boats with headsets. From there we continued onto a rice farm where rice paper and rice noodles were made. We had a great chicken rice noodle soup here and headed onto a fruit farm. We walked through trees with avocados, bananas or star fruit… At the end we had cold tea and guys even tried local speciality – fried rat! In a meantime our guide made us hats from banana leaves and for kids absolutely stunning grasshoppers.
Then, on our way back we got a big plastic bag stuck in our engine! Imagine a hand blender that you submerge and tadá: that was our engine, and there was a massive bag all around it. Our chap pulled out a little pocket knife and started cutting the bag while swearing something in Vietnamese and without noticing there was a much bigger boat heading our direction. I was mentally preparing myself to jump in the water and drag the kids to the shore when finally he managed to free the engine and avoid the other boat.
In the afternoon we grabbed all remaining powers and accompanied by our receptionist’s uncle we drove to a town called Sa Dèc. In Vietnam, as in many other poor asian countries, it is normal that locals (especially the ones with a car) will take any opportunity to make extra money. So don’t feel bad that you are ‘using’ someone because they will be happy to drive you.
In Sa Dèc we firstly made my mom happy by visiting a house of Marguerite Duras’s lover. She was born and lived some of her life in Vietnam before moving to France and this particular house belonged to the main character of her later book ‘The Lover’. He had Chinese background so it was very interesting to see his house in absolutely different art style compare to all the other buildings. Beautiful ornaments and little statues made from pearls and ivory. Engraved stories on wooden doors and two bedrooms where you can even stay overnight! After that we went to satisfy my step dad’s wishes and went to see a Cao Dai Temple. Caodaism is a bizarre religion that was founded by a French-south Vietnamese officer in the 20th century. It celebrates figures such as Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Confucius, Mohammed but also Victor Hugo or Lenin! The whole complex was as confusing as the whole idea of the religion whose participants would most likely kill each other if they met all at once. After that we went quickly back to Cân Thó where we forced ourselves to last until midnight so we could have a celebratory champagne glass to welcome the New Year and went right into beds.
In the Mekong Delta there is definitely much more to see, but as we had the kids with us we didn’t want to over combine it and wanted to take it a little easier than we usually would have done. You can consider visiting harbour city Rach Giá or Vinh Long that sits on the river crossroads. There is a bridge newly built so you can get easily across the river here and continue to wherever you like. We also didn’t have a chance to see the countryside properly that is definitely worth it! Go see some rice fields or do a proper cruise on the river. But always remember that travelling must be a joy so do not take on your shoulder more than you can chew. I know for sure that it wasn’t my last time in Vietnam and I cannot wait to come back to explore the northern parts and Hanoi!