Archive for Vietnam

25 Feb 2015

Sagacious Sapa Saunterer (and other small stories)

4 Comments Ha Long Bay, Hanoi, Kanchanaburi, Sapa, Thailand, Vietnam

Greetings from Thailand. A lovely ladyboy sold me a ticket on the bus to Kanchanaburi. It was only when she barked “110 Baht” that I realised. The taxi from the airport to the bus station took longer than the actual flight from Hanoi to Bangkok.

So here I am on the bus … all the curtains are closed to keep out the mid-afternoon sun and heat, so there is nothing to look at. I thought I may as well pop up a blog post about the last week or so in Vietnam.


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Typical Hanoi Streetscape

Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre

Hard at work - Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Smiling not allowed

In the grounds of the Presidential Palace

Kiddie chairs everywhere


On Hanoi. Hanoi is lovely with its beautiful lakes, pretty gardens and wonderful French architecture. It is not as manic as Ho Chi Minh, but crossing the road is still an exercise requiring concentration and nerves of steel. It was Tet (the Vietnamese Chinese New Year) and lots of things were closed, however being a big city, meant plenty of things were still open. I like Vietnamese food. It is clean and tasty and not overly complicated. I have even acquired a taste for Vietnamese coffee made with sweetened condensed milk. It grows on you. And street restaurants are the best, sitting on tiny plastic kiddies stools and sipping back hot bowls of Pho. Yum! The simple things in life.

Ha Long bay is the most incredible seascape. I know EVERYONE goes there and at night when you are sitting up on deck with the hundreds of stunning Ha Long islands jutting up from nowhere, climbing skywards, and all around you are boatloads of people doing the exact same thing, it shouldn’t feel as otherworldly as it does; but it does. A surreal sensation swept over me. I felt almost spiritual. Paul felt like a beer.

Ha Long Bay


Ha Long Islands

Cat Ba craziness

Cat Ba bungalows are nothing special — it’s the location that is magic. They are basic huts on platforms, wedged on a sand beach before the mountain shoots up vertical and inaccessible. It is New Year’s Eve (my second for the year) and at midnight they plan to let off three tiny fireworks. We are sitting around a campfire on the beach after an afternoon of kayaking around the island. Midnight seems hours away and it is. When it arrives we are fast asleep and the three small fireworks are over almost as soon as they began. We barely stir.

Of the whole Ha Long/Cat Ba experience, cruising back to the mainland during a thick fog was possibly the best moment. Visibility was almost zero. The sea was like a sheet of glass and if not for gentle throb of the diesel engines, there was almost total silence — one minute an island appears, the next it is gone, disappearing in the thick fog.

Sapa — I had never heard of Sapa until I started doing research for this trip. And what a surprise! An overnight clack-clack sleeper train. Aren’t they the best? And then a 35km bus journey up a treacherous looking mountain in a mini-bus. We arrived at the Summit hotel and they fed us breakfast, allowed us to unpack our bags and pack just our barest essentials. We are off trekking.

Our guide, Sam, from the local Mong tribe assured us it was an easy trek, but I suspected she was lying. I have an innate ability to spot these things. About an hour into the trek when we are slipping on muddy footholds, crossing the narrow steep mud walls of rice paddies, and stopping for pigs, cows, oxen, wild dogs and ducks, it dawned on me, I was right. Every time we ask Sam how long it will take she adds another half hour to the time. She had a nice smile. I really wanted to believe her.

Five hours later when we arrived at the Homestay, which is more of a refuge than a Homestay: we share a room, fifteen of us lying side by side, each bed a hard mattress on the floor inches from the next. Most of us are dirty and tired, too lazy to shower in the so-so shower. But it was worth it. The Sapa landscape: the rice paddies, the mountains; the tribal villages; and even the village folk who have tagged along, smiled at us along the way and helped us when the trek got tough, then implored us to buy their handmade wares; they were all wonderful.

The next day we do it all again.

As I sit on the bus, Paul tells me it hurts to even think about his legs. Oh the moaning, will it ever stop?



At the end of a long day nothing beats a piggy-back ride



15 Nov 2014

Saigon Special

2 Comments Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Amidst an ever-changing skyline, history leaves its imprint on the streets of Ho Chi Minh. Firstly, there is some beautiful French colonial architecture and then a rather more distressing architecture of a different kind, people with deformities, missing limbs etcetera.

It was with that mindset that we entered the War Remnants Museum and it did not disappoint. I walked out of there with knots in my stomach, sickened at the thought of what man can inflict on another in the name of an ideal. Pedro shook his head and said, “I need a beer,” and grabbed one from a guy with a cool-box on the side of the road.

Ho Chi Minh streets are abuzz with taxis, motorbikes, bicycles and other contraptions ferrying a never ending procession of people from here to there. We look for a gap in traffic. Ha ha ha there is none and step across the road. Miraculously we arrive at the other side. And we wait for Pedro (eyes rolling)!!!

We shop at Saigon Square bargaining with the best of them on ‘genuine‘ fake copies of original designer goods. We fall for the trap, hoarding things we neither need nor want.

The colourful street-front shop houses are deceptive. Outside they wear the weathering of the tropics, while inside they are designer chic coffee shops and bars with fit-outs that would not look out of place in London or Manhattan. We lull away hours inside in the cool refrigerated air sipping cups of coffee or Saigon Special beers until we have forgotten what it is like outside.

The Vietnamese smile a lot and they are very friendly, yes even friendlier than a Galway bar full of mad Irishmen at happy hour.

We crave the tastes of the street and we venture to the outskirts of District 1 where the locals eat. We sit on low plastic child-sized stools out on the footpath. Clams, clams and more clams. In a mad dash for the loo I realise that knotted feeling I have been experiencing is not knots but food poisoning. Urghhhh! We fall like dominos. First me, then Paul … and later that day Andrew, until Pedro is the last man standing.


The art of crossing the road 'Pedro-style'


Good coffee