Over the course of my trip I had heard nothing but good things about Vietnam; most people claim it as their favourite place between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and I could see why. Vietnam turned out to be busy but somehow retain a sense of calm under it all. It’s a place to admire the beautiful scenery, explore shops and markets and quirky sights to see and that’s just what I was going to do…
Day 123 – Crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam was fairly simple; mostly I just sat on a bus (something I am probably an expert in by now), avoiding the dodgey lunch stop food and handing over my passport when it was needed. I arrived tired and cranky, which was only made worse by Maps.me leading me in the complete wrong direction for the restaurant I was trying to go to (for once it wasn’t my fault that I was going in the wrong direction) and almost being killed overtime I crossed the road. Already I could see how different Vietnam would be from Cambodia, more built up somehow, the city felt cleaner and the people even friendlier if possible. Despite my exhaustion I could tell I was going to like Vietnam.
Day 124 – I got up late thanks to the joys of sleeping in a hostel and being kept awake all night and asked at my hostel what there was to do. I was soon signed up to a trip to the Chuchi tunnels. These are the tiny tunnels that the Vietnamese soldiers hid in and evaded the American soldiers while fighting them with guerrilla tactics. They have widened most of the entryways to the tunnels now so that tourists can fit in but there is one they have kept original size and it is scary how small it is. I could just about bend down and see down the tunnel but if I had ducked into it there is no way I would have got out again! Even the wider tunnels were claustrophobic and I could only keep going because I knew there were regular exits along the way. My legs were aching for days afterwards though from crawling awkwardly around underground and I couldn’t imagine living and fighting down there. What was also strange was the shooting range they have on site for tourists to buy bullets and try shooting different guns. It was haunting to be walking around what used to be a war zone and hearing the echo of gunshots.
I spent the evening with a guy called Misha I met at the tunnels. He introduced me to a great little Pho place down the road from my hostel and I tried my first pho. It was love at first slurp. What have I been missing all these years?! Later we checked out a brewery and my attempts to develop a taste for beer continued. I did actually enjoy some of the ones we tried and we even got a free taster of a beer cocktail they were trial running. Now as strange as it was, this was more my style. We had a few more cocktails afterwards and it was a nice change of pace to go to some nicer places rather than diving in the first bar that offers 2 for 1 cocktails.
Day 125 – If I had wanted to make it to the free walking tour of the city I had been planning on going to today I probably shouldn’t have had the last two cocktails the night before. Instead I headed off to the War Remnants Museum, which was interesting, show casing the effects of war and how proud they are of agent orange victims and what they have gone on to achieve. Even those so badly effected that they rely on loved ones to take care of them were described as having a sparkle in their eyes, or laughing at their father’s jokes or spending all their time with their brother who takes care of them. It was sad but sweet.
I had been starting to get the blues again recently at spending some time on my own. I was looking forward to hopping back on the Stray bus the next day and seeing everyone again. As luck would have it I got my wish sooner than I thought as I bumped into first Jess and Sophie from the bus, then Ellie and a new girl I had’t met yet called Taylor. We met later for more Pho and the combination of the good food and the good company lifted my spirits!
Day 126 – Back on the bus! We left Ho Chi Minh city behind and headed for Da Lat. I pictured a small town but Da Lat was pretty big and, strangely, had a European feel to it. Just before we arrived in Da Lat we stopped at these waterfalls. They were very pretty but not nearly as great as the roller coaster ride there. This wasn’t just any roller coaster ride though, it was one where you could control the speed yourself! Sitting in a single chair on the track, a lever lets you release the breaks and go whizzing round corners and down dips. Just don’t get stuck behind a slow poke!
In the evening our guide, Tuan, took us out for a street food tour. By the third stall I could tell how much of a foodie he was by the fact that everything we tried was his favourite. My favourite though was probably the Da Lat pizza; a rice paper pancake covered in egg, cheese, herbs and sausage, then grilled and folded. So good!
After filling up on street food we headed to 100 Rooftops Bar, a crazy labyrinth of staircases, tunnels and hallways. Each floor has a different theme apparently but in the dim half-light it’s tricky enough just to figure out where you are. While juggling our drinks we climbed tiny stairways and squeezed through gaps, finding our way to the second bar on the roof – from about three different directions!
Day 127 – Sometimes it’s great to fill your free days with great activities you’ll never get to do anywhere else and sometimes it’s nice to just explore a place and really get a feel for it. Taylor, Ellie and I set out to do just that. Our first stop was to the Crazy House, which turned out to be very similar to the 100 Roof Tops Bar except this time we could see where we were going. The Crazy House is a hotel and attraction with so many twisty staircases it feels like you’re in one of those optical illusion paintings.
Once we felt like we had climbed every staircase and seen every nook and cranny we went to find a nice place for lunch by the lake before getting out onto the lake itself. Taylor had been eyeing up the swan peddle boats since we arrived and we couldn’t resist giving them a go. Yes, we were those crazy tourists, three of us trying to peddle on the two sets of peddles, while we belted out disney tunes!
Day 128 – We left Da Lat today and travelled towards Bai Xep, a tiny beach place where we would have the day to relax. First though, was an evening of BBQ, which turned out to be an amazing home cooked feast! Afterwards I showed everyone how to roast marshmallows the right way, in other words, not setting them on fire.
Day 129 – Today was our free day to relax but the weather seemed to be conspiring against us. The temperature had cooled as we moved further North through Vietnam and the sky was threatening rain all day so no sunbathing on the beach for us. That didn’t stop me devouring my latest book though and in the evening we managed to finish our game of Cluedo before the heavens finally opened.
Day 130 – Today was an exciting day! I had left Rachel and Caitlin, the two crazy girls I had somehow adopted and become Mamma Jess to, back in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and tonight I would be reunited with them in Hoi An. First we had some travelling to do and a stop off My Lai. This was not the most cheerful of stopovers as My Lai was a village where a horrific massacre took place. During the war American soldiers attacked My Lai village but not because it was full of soldiers, because it was full of innocent people. Families were murdered, children slaughtered and houses burned to the ground. There was a museum we could walk round to see photographs taken of the massacre, the stories of the victims and the soldiers, of how many of them suffered depression or committed suicide after the war. There was a huge plaque with all the names of those who died but the most saddening aspect of the memorial were the pathways, preserved with concrete to show the frantic footsteps of those running for their lives amongst the heavy footfall of the soldiers boots chasing them down. It was chilling.
Arriving in Hoi An made the day much more cheerful though and after a walking tour to see the Old Town we went out to Tiger Tiger bar. I was busy sipping a cocktail when two screaming, excitable girls burst through the door. Caitlin and Rachel engulfed me in a massive hug! Danielle and Annika were with them too and it wasn’t long before we were all on the dance floor like we had never been apart.
Day 131 – I nursed my hangover by the hotel pool in the morning but Hoi An was such a beautiful city I couldn’t stay there for long. I went into town to meet the girls and enjoy a bit of retail therapy. With quaint little shops full of tailored dresses and suits, silk scarves, leather handbags and shoes there was plenty of shopping to have. We wandered down the quiet streets, enjoying the fact that no traffic was allowed in this part of the city, meaning a respite from the honking and constant fear of getting run over. Above us hung paper lanterns of all sorts of colours and sizes that soon would begin to glow as soon as the sun went down. At the river you could buy paper lanterns to send floating downstream along with your hopes and wishes. It was by far one of the prettiest places I had been to on my Stray tour.
In the afternoon I went to a cooking class where Mi, a tiny, fun but fierce woman who asked for nothing but precision from us as she taught us how to make flowers out of tomatoes, chicken in lettuce leaf cups and barbecue pork patties with a traditional Vietnamese sauce. For dessert we made creme brûlée and I even got to caramelise the sugar crust with a blow torch!
Day 132 – I was sad to leave Hoi An but unfortunately I didn’t have any more time left to hop off… plus I think Rachel and Caitlin might have killed me after having just met up with them again. So it was on to Hue we went. We decided to hire some bikes when we arrived and our guide described the citadel we could visit where the Emperor used to keep his concubines, but we had a better plan. A couple of the girls had heard of an abandoned waterpark just outside the city so after waiting an age for our bikes to arrive, we set off to check it out.
Riding through the streets of Vietnam is no easy task. If I thought crossing the street was bad it was nothing to trying to navigate the masses of motorbikes on the road itself! Forget all road rules and expect them to swerve at any moment, drive on the opposite side of the road or pull over right in front of you. However, we made it to Ho Thuy Tien alive and began to explore. I expected it to be scary but there were enough people around and sun shining enough to chase any fear away. It still felt a little eery though, with dark green pools at the bottom of dirty unused slides and an empty amphitheatre looking out on weeds and a broken mess. By far the coolest part was the huge dragon towering over the lake. You could climb the abandoned tower to stand in the dragons jaws, where visitors before had graffitied their names, and looked out across the park that might once have held swarms of people, laughing and running from attraction to attraction. It might sound weird but although everything was closed and the rides disused it was still one of my favourite days of the trip.
But there was more to come…