Vietnam and Cambodia May 2007

And now for something completely different. For this holiday we were off to Vietnam and Cambodia. Perhaps not too different for Sean as he had been to Vietnam in 2001, but more different than he expected.
After 3 flights and about 30 hours after leaving Heathrow we arrived at Hanoi. The first sign that things had changed was the friendly smiling faces that greeted us at immigration. The process was relatively quick as well. This is clearly a country that (now) recognises the financial benefits of tourism.Our next 3 nights were spent in Hanoi.

Our hotel had been changed from the original venue. We were put into the Hanoi Sheraton which was absolutely superb. The only very minor niggle was that it was a bit far to the city itself but set in a very peaceful location near to a large lake (West Lake). We spent the first afternoon exploring the hotel and its facilities and ate in one of the hotel restaurants that evening. This turned out to be so good that we ate there every night of our stay (usually ordering 3 or 4 main courses as well as a couple of starters to share).

The next morning we set off for the obligatory tour to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Neither of us went into the museum. Next we went to see the house where he had lived and wandered around the lake and past the presidential palace. Then we went into the main town. At about this time a rainy spell arrived so we sat it out in a restaurant over lunch, and overlooking yet another lake. After lunch (and the rain) we flagged down a couple of cyclos – bicycle rickshaws – and did a tour of the city which also allowed us to come to terms with the chaotic traffic. Here was further proof of the modernisation of Vietnam. A law has recently been passed that only allows two adults on a single moped. There is however no limit on the number of children that can be squeezed on. Helmets are now mandatory on motorways, but not elsewhere. Fortunately for the locals some enterprising people have set up mobile helmet hire centres, usefully located a few hundred yards before police roadblocks. So if you see one of these the trick is to stop and hire a helmet. A few hundred yards beyond the roadblock there is a large basket to return the helmets.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city, buying the first of many souvenirs and gifts and avoided getting too badly lost. We made our way back to the hotel in a cab. The next morning was an early start as we travelled to Halong Bay which is a world heritage site. It is a rather stunning collection of limestone islands and islets which extend right up into China. We had a boat trip on the bay in a Chinese junk and en-route saw loads of local fishermen and stopped off to visit a fairly touristy cave. Escaping from local vendors really is difficult in Vietnam. On the bay they were out in force selling fruit from their canoes.

Another early start the next day for the short flight to Hue.

Hue was a lovely peaceful city, one of the historic capitals of Vietnam.

We started off with a tour which included the usual collection of buddhist temples, lost and forbidden cities and a few war memorials. Then we sailed down the Perfume River in a boat and returned to our hotel. This was a lovely old (French) colonial building and the former home of the governor. A couple of hours at the pool in the afternoon so that Elaine could acquire her first sunburn. Later we flagged a couple of cyclos and pesuaded the drivers to take us to the local market. This was a real market where locals went to shop rather than the tourist version that we had been taken to in the morning.

We were back at the hotel in time for a bath and ate at the hotel restaurant. This was truly suberb – Just as well because it was Elaine’s birthday.

Yet another early start the next day as we set off for Hoi An by coach.

Getting to Hoi An took us the best part of the day. Along the way we drove through Danang, one of Vietnams busiest ports. This is a fairly modern city with wide streets and modern office buildings. This was a huge change for Sean who remembered this as a little market/trading port. Nobody is allowed to own land in Vietnam although they do own the houses. So when the government wants the land for something else they just move the occupants (they do pay compensation). There is a brand new road along the coast to Hoi An. Along it are a number of unsightly apartment blocks that currently house people that would otherwise be homeless. Since this is a prime area along the waterfront we suspect that these will be cleared away in due course. Along the way to Hoi An we stopped at the marble mountain to watch marble being carved and to experience more retail opportunities. This particular group of mountains, which are actually marble, are no longer quarried for conservation reasons but it has remained the marble centre of the country. We climbed up a bit of one of them for some breathtaking views of the coastline and a visit to yet another temple. Back into the coach for the final stretch.

Hoi An was a huge surprise for Sean. 6 years ago it had two hotels and the town had 3 streets with a few tailor shops. Today the coast is littered with hotels. The town still has only 3 streets but they are constantly full of tourists and there are hundreds of shops. At the edge of the hotels another 6 kilometres of beach have been cleared for more hotels. We spent several pleasant days here, spent some money at the tailors, Sean had a body surfing session and tried several local restaurants. We stuck to Vietnamese food but if you so desire you can find pizzerias, Indians, burger bars, in fact pretty much anything you can think of.

The hotel was lovely and in a stunning location. The food in the hotel was fairly average so after the first night we tended to eat out. We stayed here for 3 nights. Then we went back to Danang by coach to catch another short flight to Saigon.

Finally we had arrived in Vietnam’s biggest and busiest city. From the airport we dashed into a Pho 24 (Vietnam’s equivalent of KFC, only noodles and soup rather than chicken – pho is a noodle soup) for lunch. Then we went into the city centre and stopped off a few times on the way to the hotel. We also did a tour of the new war museum. Since neither of us are really into war, or the celebration or commemoration thereof, we spent most of the time outside. Then it was on to our hotel which was right in the heart of the city and on the bank of the Saigon river. Some of the photos were taken from the rooftop pool on the 32nd floor. As it was right in the city we went out for dinner from night one and found a number of first class establishments.

This is fast becoming a modern city. All of the old “long thin” houses that were shops by day and homes by night have given way to modern office blocks, shopping malls and hotels. The roads have also more than doubled in width and now many of them have an additional two lanes in the centre which are resrved for cars – and there are a lot of them about.

The next morning we skipped the planned tour to the Cu Chi tunnels and instead spent the day exploring the city – and probably far too much time in the local markets. Elaine managed to buy 6 pairs of shoes and collectively we bought some other stuff as well. For the record only the Vietnamese government and maps use the politically correct name of Ho Chi Minh City. Everyboy else calls it Saigon, including the people that live there. Some people in the North do use the politically correct name – probably more from habit than anything else.

The following day we did a tour to the Mekong Delta which was a great insight into the traditional lifestyle and also showed us just how dependent they are on water and agriculture. And in case you’re wondering: yes we did eat the fish and it was absolutely delicious. On the way there we drove past the site of the new city centre. This is still in the planning phase (although the ground has been levelled). The goverment has decided that it would be too hard to upgrade and update the existing infrastructure so they are going to build a new city centre – just a few miles outside of the existing city.

That evening we went into a restuarant at random (after another trip to the market) and were shocked to discover that it was Italian. No clues in the name. As we were starved we stayed anyway and had yet another great meal. This was our last night in Vietnam and we made the compulsory trip up to the pool deck for a couple of drinks and a last look around.

The following morning it was off to the very modern airport (with loads of very expensive duty free shops and huge plasma monitors everywhere) for the short flight to Cambodia.