RTW Day 58 – Ho Chi Minh City
14th April 2018
Today is a long day for a number of reasons. First, we are up at 5 am so will experience more day than is ideal. Second, the old man has set his alarm in the wrong time zone so we’re up even earlier than planned. Third, we are travelling backwards through time zones so today will be 27 hours long. And finally, we are flying to Vietnam via Singapore so we have 2 flights to endure.
Returning the hire car is complicated. It got booked out under the wrong registration so they think it was returned elsewhere a week ago. Somehow this has cost us £60 and Thrifty have no IT support at weekends so the issue can not be rectified.
Check in is complicated. We don’t have visas for Vietnam because we don’t need them but the computer won’t check us in without a visa. Fortunately this can be rectified.
Once we have taken off, through enough turbulence that the child next to us throws up, food is served. I have ticked the nut allergy box on the booking form, so I get a ‘special’ meal. The good news is that it comes an hour before the ‘normal’ meals. The bad news is it’s not actually worth eating. For desert the old man gets a cornetto – I get 4 chunks of unripe pineapple. And I can’t for the life of me understand why he gets bread and cheese and I just get bread. I am not impressed.
We make it to Singapore and have 2 hours to wait. This gives me time to visit the orchid garden, the sunflower garden and the enchanted garden. It’s very pretty but certainly not the place to transit if you suffer from hay fever.
We reach Ho Chi Minh. Our hotel has sent a Land Cruiser to collect us. The traffic is mental; mostly motor bikes driven by suicidal maniacs. Our driver is taking no prisoners. The fact that we reach the hotel without killing anyone is genuinely a surprise.
Our hotel is a tall, narrow building. 11 storeys high, with 2 rooms on each floor. It’s quite luxurious and has two things we haven’t seen in 8 weeks; a bath and a set of scales. Luckily the scales don’t work (well – they say ‘lo’ when I step on them and I’m guessing that’s not a reflection of my weight!)
Today is one of great excitement. Having been travelling, and therefore been away from family for 6 weeks, today we get to meet up with daughter no 1 and her friend. We have arranged to meet in Bui Vien; a crazily busy pedestrian street lined with bars and restaurants. After plenty of chatting up, beer and spring rolls, we finally make it to bed 21 hours after we got up.
RTW Day 59 – Ho Chi Minh City
15th April 2018
Today; sightseeing seeing in Ho Chi Minh City. The little I know about Vietnam come from studying the War in politics classes at uni (and from watching Miss Saigon). So after breakfast, we start by walking to the War Remnants Museum.
It’s only a mile which doesn’t sound too onerous. But we have underestimated the insane heat and crazy motorbike drivers. It soon becomes clear that I don’t have the mental fortitude for crossing Vietnamese roads. Eventually I develop a routine – wait till the pedestrian light goes green, shut my eyes and cross. It doesn’t hugely affect my chances of dying and at least I can’t see what’s coming.
Going to the War Remnants Museum straight after breakfast was a mistake. It’s a truly harrowing experience and keeping my fried eggs down is quite an effort. Outside and downstairs are plenty of old military vehicles and equipment.
As you ascend, it’s mostly photographs. Horrific, harrowing photos of war, death, mutilation, destruction. After that, more photos. A section on the devastation caused by the tens of thousands of unexploded bombs the Americans left behind. The cluster devices, designed to explode and send out hundreds of pieces of shrapnel, are small and yellow and shiny and were often mistaken for toys by children.
Last, and possibly worst of all, a section on the effects of Agent Orange, a gene damaging herbicide, on those exposed to it and their unborn children. It is truly horrific.
We leave and walk past some of the old 19th Century French colonial buildings; Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office (here a war memorial is ironically flanked by a McDonalds) and the People’s Committee Building – the former Hotel de Ville.
Opposite is Union Square; a huge flag festooned plaza with a statue of Ho Chi Minh at the centre.
We continue to the HCMC Museum. This former palace covers the history of the city and is very interesting.
It’s also a popular place for wedding photos, so we have to keep ducking and diving to avoid unintentional photobombing.
We have lunch and replace the huge amount of fluids we have lost in a restaurant opposite the Independence Palace, Ngon 138. Rice and beer – all the food groups represented.
Suitably refuelled we enter the palace itself. It’s untouched since the 1970s and above ground, it’s like straying into the set of an Austin Powers movie. There’s a funky card room and a plush cinema.
There’s even a helipad on the roof. In a bunker underground are the presidential war rooms.
We head back to the hotel to cool down and rehydrate before joining child number one for a scrumptious Vietnamese dinner.
This is followed by cocktails on a 7th floor rooftop bar decorated with fairy lights and lanterns. A little sea of tranquillity to relax in, and observe the melee on the street below.
RTW Day 60 – Cu Chi Tunnels
16th April 2018
The old man has booked a ‘luxury’ tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, part of a huge complex built by the Viet Cong. He can’t say what the difference is with the regular tour (booked by daughter no 1) but it costs 4 times the price. I look forward to comparing notes later.
The drive to the tunnels takes 3 hours mostly through the sprawling suburbs of HCMC. After 2 hours we stop at a government workshop where we are shown victims of Agent Orange making things to sell to tourists.
We continue to the tunnel location and spend 2 hours in the sweltering jungle while our guide tells all about the tunnels; how they were built, how the Viet Cong lived and fought, how cunning and clever they were. It’s very interesting and rather ironic seeing as his father fought on the other side.
There is an option to go underground in a tunnel specially adapted for tourists (because most westerners are too fat for the original tunnels). After the opportunity to shoot an AK47 for £2 per bullet, we depart in our thankfully air conditioned bus despite having to watch a cringe worthy propaganda video on the return journey.
Our half day tour has taken almost 8 hours and we arrive back tired and hungry. By the time we have lunch and pack for an early departure, it is time for dinner. Our last meal in HCMC before we leave for Hanoi in the morning.
RTW Day 61 – Hanoi
17th April 2018
An early start today and a drive through the rush hour traffic, watching the Vietnamese going about their business. The roads (and pavements) are full of people carrying an array of goods on motorbikes. The parks are full of people working out; tai chi, martial arts, aerobics and walking backwards are all popular pursuits.
When we finally board our flight, an hour behind schedule, I get into a debate with a Vietnamese man who seems to think my seat is not my seat if he’s already sitting in it. I hold firm – I’m not giving up a window seat without a fight. Eventually an air hostess intervenes as I am blocking the aisle.
We arrive in Hanoi and check into our hotel; the Serene Boutique, which is both of these things – much appreciated in the midst of such a bustling city.
We go for lunch by Hoan Kiem Lake in a restaurant with a great view and rubbish food before visiting Hoa Lo Prison.
Originally built by the French, predominantly for political prisoners, Hoa Lo was later used by the Vietnamese to detain American PoWs (who sarcastically dubbed it the Hanoi Hilton). It shows the barbaric conditions the brave Vietnamese prisoners endured, with plenty of sad, emaciated life size models.
There’s also a section on the US prisoners who, it is alleged, lived an idyllic lifestyle eating, laughing and playing basketball. Eventually the propaganda gets tiring and we rush through the heroes of the revolution shrine, fight our way across several roads of rush hour traffic and return to our hotel.
In the evening daughter no 1 arrives and we have dinner at Don Duck; a restaurant which specialises, not surprisingly, in duck. We have duck spring rolls and the house special marinated duck, washed down with Hanoi beer. All excellent and the beer makes the walk home seem less daunting.
RTW Day 62 – Halong Bay
18th April 2018
We have booked an overnight Halong Bay trip, so it’s another early start, beginning with an excellent buffet breakfast. I eat until I can no longer move – it’s a good job I’m going to be sitting down all morning!
Next the drive to the harbour. I thought this would be a chance to get a glimpse of rural Vietnam after 4 days in the bustling, polluted cities. In fact we see very little countryside. Just more towns and sprawling industrial areas where huge Chinese, Korean and Japanese factories add to the pollution. After 2 hours, we are deposited in an enormous warehouse full of goods, all allegedly made by Agent Orange victims, and encouraged to donate to disabled people. I’m not convinced – I have in mind the picture in Hoa Lo Prison where John McCain is being served a banquet including an entire pineapple. If I want to help disabled Vietnamese people, I won’t do it by putting money in a box in a government facility labelled ‘for disabled people’.
After 4 hours we reach Halong Bay, which is a relief as we have done much of the journey on the wrong side of the road. There have been several near misses, including an incident with two buses and a truck driving three abreast on a single lane highway, which was close enough for me to adopt the ‘brace position’.
We are taken out to our boat; The Rosa Boutique, which is moored in the bay, check in and set sail while lunch is served. It consists of dishes of crab, fish and squid and is delicious.
Halong Bay is beautiful. It is an underwater mountain range which results in 3000 limestone islets protruding from the sea. There are hundreds of boats full of tourists, all departing at the same time so we leave the harbour in a huge flotilla.
After lunch, free time to lounge on the sun deck relaxing, sunbathing and taking pictures. Then a tour of a pearl farm and the chance to kayak in a bay.
We kayak round the edge of an islet, and can see monkeys on the rocks. There’s also a lot of garbage, so I pass on the next activity, which is swimming.
We anchor for the night in a bay surrounded by other boats and eat dinner. Despite the number of boats (200-300 per night) it’s quite calm and peaceful. We eat dinner, barbecue chicken and fish, then the karaoke starts and I beat a hasty retreat to my cabin.
RTW Day 63 – Halong Bay
9th April 2018
Day 2 of our Halong Bay cruise. The day starts (for some) with a Tai Chi class at 6.30 am. The old man goes, but an extra half hour in bed sounds like a much better idea to me.
After breakfast we visit the ‘Cave of Surprises’ (Hang Sung Sot). It is an amazing series of caves with stalactites and stalagmites it varying shapes. Many of the formations are named after objects they resemble. There are Buddhas, animals and a huge penis illuminated in red.
Visiting is quite an ordeal; it’s a 50 minute walk following a prescribed route of stairs and paths with hundreds and hundreds of tourists in a never ending chain. I’m not comfortable being underground, particularly with swarms of people between me and the exit, but I make it round.
Once outside, before I have had a chance to compose myself, a fisherwoman puts a basket of freshly caught squid by my feet and one spits ink in my face, which causes me to squeal like a girl.
Back on board, we have a Vietnamese cookery class; how to make spring rolls. A cunning way to keep us amused and make us prepare our own lunch so the crew can get ready for today’s guests. Once we have finished, our efforts are fried and added to a huge banquet lunch.
After we have passed the rock that appears on the Vietnamese 200,000 Dong Note, it’s time disembark. It’s been an awesome 24 hours cruising through the beautiful bay with its calm green water and weird and wonderful rock formations. Definitely the highlight of our Vietnam trip.
We board our bus and manage the 4 hour journey back to Hanoi without any inconvenience to the driver’s social life; he is on the phone for the entire journey. We have dinner (much better made spring rolls) and return to our hotel to rest.
RTW Day 64 – Hanoi
Hanoi 20th April 2018
We have an evening flight back to HCMC so can squeeze in a whistle stop tour of Hanoi. We take a taxi to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The driver takes a circuitous route; a large loop round the city followed by a full circuit of the mausoleum. Even with this detour, the fare comes to less than £2.
The mausoleum is closed on Fridays, but you can still visit the complex. I hoped this would make it less crowded but it’s heaving, particularly with school groups, who all smile and wave as they pass.
The complex includes the presidential palace, the house on stilts, where Ho Chi Minh preferred to live, his collection of official vehicles, a museum and One Pillar Pagoda (a pagoda built on a single pillar on a lake).
The gardens where Ho Chi Minh used to relax and meditate are now lined with stalls where you can buy tourist tat and Coca Cola. I’m sure if he knew this, he’d be turning in his grave. Except he doesn’t have a grave, he’s been embalmed and put in a Perspex box for thousands of tourists to gawk at every day except Friday.
Although the Mausoleum is open the Ho Chi Mihn Museum is open. Here you can learn all about Uncle Ho’s life.
Our next stop is the Museum of Military History. This, too is closed but you are allowed to visit the grounds. These contain a huge number of old American aircraft and tanks captured during the war. There’s also a great collection of communist sculptures. The centre piece is a steampunk style collection of engines and aircraft bits with a downed French plane at its core.
From here you can climb the Hanoi Flag Tower, symbol of the city. It’s three levels high and offers a great view from the top.
We stop at a coffee shop, where the old man orders drinks and is given a gadget which will buzz when his coffee is ready. He is not convinced by this witchcraft and eyes it carefully. He is worried he won’t notice it buzz and he will never know when his coffee is ready.
Our last stop is the Temple of Literature; an 11th century Confucian temple.
After the serenity of the temple, comes the chaos of the return to the hotel. We decide to take a taxi; it’s only a mile but all the road crossing is too much. The meter on the taxi spins round incredibly fast. We realise we are being robbed, discuss getting out, then decide that we will ask the hotel to intervene when we reach it. However, the driver stops at a one way street near the hotel and says we must get out here and walk the rest of the way. The journey, which cost us d50,000 on the way out, costs d287,000 on the way back. A huge argument ensues, I’m all for calling the police but in the end the old man settles on a payment of d100,000 and we depart unscathed. We have been scammed, but at least we have had the full Hanoi experience.
We return to the airport, where our flight is an hour late and reach HCMC by 9 pm. Foolishly, we think this means that ‘rush hour’ will be over and the 6 mile drive to our hotel won’t take long. But it’s Friday night and everyone is on their way out. I find it surprising that a communist country has virtually no public transport – everyone goes everywhere by motorbike. Tonight, many of the ladies are glammed up and riding side saddle. 45 minutes later we have made it. We don’t have any dong left so settle for drinking the mini bar dry and going to bed.