Easter is not a widely celebrated holiday here in Singapore – Cadbury’s cream eggs and Lindt chocolate bunnies didn’t even make it onto shop shelves! However, after many solid weeks at work without a break (my weekend trips to Kuala Lumpur and Siem Reap in January a distant memory), I decided it was time to take a two week ‘Easter holiday’ and go on a new adventure. Better still was that Max could afford some time off from his PhD in Switzerland and flew out to South East Asia to meet me.
On the 27th of March, exactly 7 months since I said goodbye to Scotland and moved continent, Max also touched down in Singapore. One day of exploring the campus, the city and sampling the food was permitted and then we bid Singapore farewell for a short time and flew off. Before beginning my year abroad I had a vague list of travel destinations in South East Asia that I wanted to visit, but Vietnam was very low on my radar and not a place and given much thought to visiting. If it weren’t for the persuasive recommendations from fellow exchange students, each with their own enthralling Vietnamese tale, then it is likely that I would have overlooked this wonderfully diverse and uniquely beautiful country. Fortunately, though, I heeded their advice and Max, with guidebook ever in hand, was amenable.
Our adventure began in the capital of Ha Noi. Our flight arrived in the evening and we had organised a car to take us to our hostel – The Little Hanoi Hostel 1, which I highly recommend. Even sitting in the back seat of a comfortable, air-conditioned car, we were dazzled and overwhelmed by the traffic: motorbikes, motorbikes everywhere. Bicycles and scooters clogged the roads and even the occasional bus, which seemed far too large to fit through the tight streets of the city as we neared the centre. The smaller vehicles weaved between those with 4 wheels and the crossing pedestrians like a rushing torrent of water. The city was very much alive, with a vibrant atmosphere I find Singapore lacks, and we were buzzing with excitement. After settling into our room, we wandered around the old quarter, amazed by the number of people (locals and tourists alike) eating on little blue chairs on the kerbs. We found a restaurant that looked reasonable and enjoyed a vegetarian version of the local cuisine, phở – a broth containing noodles, vegetables and either chicken/beef or tofu. Although we ate it for dinner that night, the Vietnamese mostly eat phở for breakfast or early lunch, and Max happily became accustomed to this, ordering the dish many times during the trip, at any time of day.
After a comfortable night and nice (semi-western) breakfast at the hostel we spoke to Kim, a local at the reception, and asked her for recommendations. She pointed us in the direction of a Vietnamese coffee shop – “Try the egg coffee, trust me”. Intrigued, we decided to take up her suggestion and slowly made our way across town, picking our way between motorbikes strewn across pavements and road-sides and admiring the incredible narrow, tall buildings as we approached the lake at the city centre. “When you get there, the coffee shop won’t be obvious, but you’re at the right place. Just walk through the bag shop at street level and head straight to the back,” Kim had told us. “There are some stairs at the back and you can reach the coffee shop on the floor above.”
We were certainly very grateful for her instruction, as there is no way we would have found this gem otherwise. Max and I entered the small blue room and sat at the only remaining empty table in a room filled only with locals. The menu board on the wall listed several drinks in Vietnamese but fortunately the waitress understood enough English for us to order one egg coffee and one egg cocoa. Max, terrified that he might be presented with a raw egg floating in black coffee, was relieved when we were presented with a wee mug of sweet dense foam, his containing a hidden shot of espresso and mine heavily dusted with chocolate powder. It was delicious (and very cheap too)! The rest of the day we spent exploring the capital. Sadly the museum was closed (as were most things on a Monday) but we visited the ancient Temple of Literature – a temple and school built in 1070 to educate scholars at a time when teachers were held in much greater esteem than doctors (if only). We also enjoyed some local icecream in rice cones in what can only be described as an underground parking lot, and treated ourselves to some delicious Indian food in the evening.
As Kim’s advice about the egg coffee had been spot-on, we decided to follow her advice regarding Ha Long Bay and booked our trip through the hostel. We opted for a 2 day/1 night cruise and it was certainly one of the highlights of our Vietnam tour. At 8 am we departed from the hostel by bus, heading east to the coast. By 11.30 we had reached the town and were given a guided tour around a pearl ‘workshop’, as the harvesting of pearls from oysters is a large business in the north of the country. Though I’ve never been particularly fond of pearls, it was actually quite interesting as we were shown which type of oysters naturally produce which colours and shapes of pearls. What I was unaware of was that only 1 in 1000 or so oysters naturally produce the precious jewel and so the Japanese developed a means of forcing the oyster to grow one by inserting a small bead and some external tissue from the creature inside its shell. It was crazy (and disturbing) to see the shore strewn with oyster farms, all of which had been individual tampered with and grown to produce pearls to sell to tourists like us. And, of course, the tour ended with “Please take a look in our shop and see if you would like to make a purchase”.
Finally, just after noon we walked aboard our ‘cruise ship’, The Fantasea Deluxe. Whilst the vessel certainly was pretty, ‘ship’ would not really be the correct word: it contained only 6 bedrooms, each with en-suite; a dining area; and an open upper deck, perfect for admiring the panoramic views. Really, the whole thing was perfect. Max and I had one of the two cabins on the middle deck behind the bar and dining area and felt like we’d won the lottery or something. We enjoyed lunch on the boat as we cruised among the serenity of the hundreds of seemingly floating islands of the bay, heading further east away from the coast. Following a good feed, we were dropped off at one of the many islands to explore the vast caves that had been discovered there in the early days of French colonisation. I didn’t even mind the number of tourists because the views from the island were so spectacular. Then, on a different island, we were taken to a beach where we could enjoy a swim in the surprisingly cold waters and hike to the view point at the top. Although I doubt I would enjoy a proper cruise for a long period of time, it was great to not worry about transportation as we hopped from island to island, and to have the luxury of a warm shower and a cup of tea. In the late afternoon we were ferried over to a quieter area of the large bay in which some duo kayaks were tethered to a floating shack. These open metal-seated shells were not quite the outfitted white-water kayaks that Max and I are accustomed too, but we had a great time paddling past the tall cliffs and under rocky arches formed by the tides. It was a brilliant and rather exhausting day and I was grateful to have free time after dinner to chill on the deck on the boat, relaxing and gazing at the stars that had been hidden from me for so long by the light pollution of Singapore. We even enjoyed a cheeky cocktail and some card games with the others on-board.
After an early breakfast, out vessel left the tranquil waters where we spent the night heading south to the port on Cat Ba island, the largest of the almost 2000 islands in Halong bay. We thoroughly enjoyed sitting at the front of the boat, drinking our tea as we slipped silently between the floating mountains. After we docked, it was a short bus journey into the national reserve and then we hiked into the rain forest up to the top of the largest hill, giving us a panoramic view of the whole island. Following our trek, we were taken to Cat Ba town, where we checked into our hotel and concluded our official Halong Bay tour with lunch at another of the many hotels in the town. However, we heard that some people we taking a boat to a Monkey island and decided that we were willing to pay a little extra to take the ferry there too. I’m glad that we did, because although the island itself was not spectacular and the monkeys more of a nuisance than an attraction, the ferry journey there was very interesting, passing through inhabited areas of the bay with many floating houses rafted together. Dogs could be seen running along the wooden planks and wee fishing boats tethered outside every residence.
That night we feasted on some great local food and enjoyed a relaxed evening. In the morning I managed to persuade Max that we should rent some motorbikes and take a drive around the island since it is one of the least densely populated areas of Vietnam and boast some great road-side views. As I mentioned early, motorbikes are by far the most common form of transport in the country and it is not uncommon to see a pregnant woman driving with 2 kids squeezed behind her and another toddler standing between her knees, and that sort of thing. Therefore, Max and I figured the bikes would be pretty simple to drive. This turned out to be true, and the greatest difficulty we had was finding a man with helmets big enough for both of us! It was exhilarating and the feeling of freedom phenomenal as we sped around by the blue coast and vibrant green jungle. Even driving through the town, I enjoyed weaving between the other traffic and dodging the fruit sellers and tradeswomen.
After 2 or 3 hours we had to return the bikes, check out of our hotel and head to the port where we were to catch a boat to Haiphong. This turned out to be a bizarre experience: the boat was a speed-ferry, the inside was set up in a similar fashion to an aeroplane with a central isle and rows of reclining seats, and there was no accessible open deck. And boy, did it go fast, jumping and bouncing across the bay! In just 45 minutes we had reached Haiphong, a smaller Vietnamese town with essentially no tourist industry other than an airport (which is still mostly used by locals). Admittedly, our main purpose there was to take a flight the following morning to Da Nang, further south, but we made the most of the day and wandered around the locals markets. A particularly interesting experience was a visit to the ladies toilets in a shopping centre which had, what I can only describe as, open ‘female urinals’. (And no, I do not have a photo!)
Our flight to Da Nang was quick and easy and from the airport we took a taxi to the train station, bought a ticket, went out for some food, and came back to board our 6pm train heading north to Hue. The train had many different compartments, each a different price depending on whether you wanted a 4-bed sleeper-room, a 6-bed, soft seats, hard seats, etc. Max and I opted for soft seats, as they were only marginally more deer than the hard seats and would be worth it for the 3 hours journey.
Hue was an amazing city! We spent two days there exploring the Imperial City and the famous 7-tiered pagoda, taking ‘interesting’ boat rides and generally soaking up the atmosphere as we walked by the river and through the city. The staff at the hotel were very helpful, and aside from providing us with advice, they presented us with complimentary fruit and juice whenever we came in from a couple of hours walking in the incredibly hot and sweaty weather! We had some great tofu curries by the water front and Max enjoyed a massive coconut (although he was very shocked that it was large and green, much to my amusement).
Originally we had planned to rent motorbikes and make the journey ourselves by the coast from Hue down south to Hoi An, as a number of my friends had completed the journey and highly recommended it. However, the night before we were due to depart, Max had a change of heart – something frustratingly sensible about how renting bikes greater than 50 cc (these were 250 cc) is illegal for tourists and therefore our insurance wouldn’t be valid in the case of an accident – and, bitterly disappointed, I was forced to let go of my biker-chick dream. Instead we reached a compromise and hired a car and driver and take us on the journey south but requested to be taken along the coastal highway and to stop at the interesting spots along the way. We left in the early morning and relished sitting in an air-conditioned vehicle whilst not having to worry about weaving our way out of the city centre. Although the adrenaline was missing, the journey was thoroughly enjoyable. We stopped at the elephant springs, Buddhist temples, marble mountains and over the high pass, snapping away with our cameras in true tourist fashion. Our driver was accustomed to taking tourist on this route and new the best places to go to. Around lunch time, after an hour of splashing around in the cool waters of the elephant springs, he drove us to a floating sea-food restaurant on the lagoon. However, with Max a much stricter vegetarian than myself, we explained that we couldn’t eat there and he assured us that wasn’t a problem and he new somewhere else we could go in the next small town. We pulled into a quiet street and stopped outside an unassuming residence with no signs or menu outside. Encouraged to walk in, we took a seat at an empty table (one of many as the restaurant was almost deserted) and looked around expectantly for some sort of menu. It didn’t take us long to realise, though, that we were not going to be presented with such an artefact and had no idea what food to expect. The single waitress approached us and spoke very rapidly in Vietnamese, laughing here and there at our blinking faces. We tried and failed to express the “no meat, no seafood” slogan we had been used to repeating but the words had no effect on her and she simply smiled and waited for us to say something more intelligible. Fortunately, we were saved by a Vietnamese man at a neighbouring table who could speak English and he translated our request, at which point the woman wandered off to the kitchen. We thanked our saviour who then also departed, leaving us alone in the restaurant, still with no idea what to expect. It was a hilarious and utterly bizarre experience. The woman returned with some sort of salad, cold noodles and soy-sauce, continuing to natter away to us as if enough talking would eventually force us to speak Vietnamese. Laughter was plenty, a positive sign of merriment in all languages, and we enjoyed the unusual food. At one point, the woman decided that the bowl she had given Max was too small for him and she appeared from the kitchen with a bigger bowl of noodles. She took the existing bowl from under Max’s nose, food still gripped between his chopsticks, and emptied his smaller bowl on-top of the bigger one, topped it up with more soy-sauce, and handed it back to him. She must have known that food was the way to that boy’s heart and I laughed as the two grinned at each other. After we’d finished, she wrote the price on a napkin and we managed to butcher an awkward ‘Thank you’ in Vietnamese before climbing back into our car where the driver was waiting.
We reached Hoi An around 5 or 6 pm and could immediately tell that we had entered tourist town – I think the ratio of white tourists to Vietnamese must have been at least 1:1. Before dropping us off at our hotel, our driver took us on a detour to stop at his sister’s (or was is sister-in-law’s…?) tailoring shop to pick up something. Of course, we were ushered inside, presented with free bottles of water and shown the sort of shirts, dresses, suits, skirts etc., that we could have made for us there. The tailoring scene in Hoi An is world famous and there must be almost 200 independent stores in the town, all offering similar business deals. Every shop owner wants you to come inside, sample their fabric, have a free fitting, browse through styles and ultimately choose to have a whole new wardrobe made by them. And there are people the do exactly that, for the price is phenomenal for tailored clothing. Max and I looked up our driver’s sister’s store on tripadvisor (the travel-guide for the Wifi age) and were pleasantly surprised to find it had good reviews and was highly rated amongst its competitors. We decided that this shop would be as good as any to get clothes made and promised to return in the morning. We thanked our driver and finished the day on a high, checking into our hotel which was probably the most luxurious (yet not the most expensive) of our trip.
In the morning we returned to our selected tailor and described our desired clothing. They were very persuasive business women – we came in that morning aiming to buy a suit and a dress but left 2 hours later, having been measured and ordering a suit, 2 shirts, a bow tie, and 2 dresses! I had simply searched on google images, found 2 dresses that I liked and asked them if they could make them for me. If I had known then the stress that this would later cause, then I would have only ordered one. After our measurement-taking session, we explored the rest of the town and enjoyed some delicious food on the quaint sunny streets. We were able to borrow bicycles for free from our hotel which proved to be a fun way to get around. The following day we cycled to the beach in the morning and lounged on sun-beds under a parasol, swimming in the warm sea and generally soaking up the sun. In the late afternoon we returned to the tailor for what was our third fitting (the second of that day). Max’s suit looked great and he was very happy with his shirts, but one of my dresses still just didn’t fit properly, and as we had a flight that evening, I was a little concerned with the time remaining to fix it. The shop owner assured us that it would be ready when we returned at 5 pm and so we spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the various tourist sites of Hoi An. However, when we returned at 5, the dress was in a worse shape than ever and was far too short at the back. In a bit of a panic the shop owner said that she would fix it in the next 20 minutes and drop it off at our hotel by 5.30 pm, in time for us leaving to go to the airport. We returned to the airport and collected our bags, waiting for the delivery. We had hired a car to take us to the airport and the driver was already waiting for us to go. Just when we thought that we’d have to leave without the suit and dresses, the woman finally turned up on her motorbike. She knocked 20% off the price of the dress for the trouble and we made it to the airport in time – phew!
It felt very strange to arrive back at our little hostel in Ha Noi, 9 days after we had left it. We went out for a drink to enjoy the vibrant street atmosphere one last time and ended up having a great night chatting to other travellers from Europe, Canada, USA and Australia. When it was time to retire for the night, we concluded that we had a pretty amazing time in Vietnam and that we’d certainly have to come back. We arrived back in Singapore on a Thursday afternoon and decided to simply relax after so much travelling. On the Saturday night we enjoyed the Chocolate and Cheese buffet at the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel which was incredible (although the only complimentary drinks were caffeinated and hence Saturday became Sunday with little sleep between). It was then time to wave Max farewell once again and return to routine, research and lab reports.
Our Vietnam trip was spectacular, one I’d recommend to anyone, and I’ve heard great things about the regions of Sapa in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south if more time is available to you. This country is definitely one to put on your “Must See” list.