Nightbus and Nha Trang

4 days ago we boarded our first nightbus of the trip from Saigon to Nha Trang. Despite the double decker bunkbeds it was surprisingly comfortable. The difficulty falling asleep came more from our death-defying driver who seemed to think of the oncoming traffic lane as a much better choice than our own. Whenever we were stuck behind a lorry he would peek out from behind to make sure any big vehicles weren’t coming from the opposite direction (scooters had to swerve out of the way) and then gun our bus past the truck whilst flashing his bright lights. This did not mean we avoided close encounters with oncoming traffic…there were enough bright lights and honking to keep us awake well into the morning.

We spent the first few days on the beach in Nha Trang, compulsively applying suncream and taking turns to cool down in the sea which was anything but cool. As usual in the evenings we sought out good local food which almost always involved fish, water spinach and lots of garlic. One of the highlights was stumbling upon an outdoor restaurant where we enjoyed a mixed seafood salad, water spinach with garlic, of course, and squid steamed in coconut water right in front of us. The fact that we were the only foreigners suggested that this was a good local spot to eat.

As far as nightlife goes, we were staying in a place literally named Backpacker’s House, meaning our evenings were spent mostly with Europeans. We even met someone in Astrid’s year from LSE, it’s a small world.

Finally, tired of the beach (it’s a hard life) and eager to see the countryside we looked into seeing a waterfall 40 minutes’ drive away. The two alternatives were driving a motorbike there ourselves or hiring Vietnamese drivers to take us there. You’ll be glad to know we chose the latter option, and Hung and his buddy have been “Easyriders” for over 30 years. We were in good hands (and are writing this post so made it back safely!).

We started off the day by visiting Monkey Island. Clearly geared towards tourists, we were brought to see the monkeys and then saw a slightly horrifying display of what might be considered animal cruelty. The monkeys were led by a leash around the neck and dressed up in bright costumes. They then performed several tricks and rode around on bicycles; if they did not perform quickly enough they were prodded with sticks. We seemed to be the only people who didn’t find this incredibly amusing. A group of men from the Vietnamese navy in veritable “sailor boy” outfits were cracking up next to us.

This was followed by lunch which consisted of a spicy tuna, squid and veggie hotpot with rice. After filling our bellies we headed for the waterfall, which was located at the end of a country dirt road surrounded by a dramatic mountainscape and rice plantations. At the waterfall we sat in the freshwater lagoon and were led upstream by a group of Vietnamese girls. After drying off, we tasted ostrich for the first time, courtesy of some Vietnamese boys who had swum across the lagoon to meet us.

After a long day we headed home through several villages, occasionally stopping off to have a cup of iced tea or see some handicrafts. It was a memorable experience being able to go off the beaten track. Tomorrow we are taking our second nightbus to Hoi An, where we plan on mixing cultural sights with a fair amount of shopping.

Sending our GPS location home

Sending our GPS location home

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang beach

Drinks at our hostel

Drinks at our hostel

Our steamed squid dinner

Our steamed squid dinner

relaxing in the river

relaxing in the river

feeding the monkeys

feeding the monkeys

A quick stop off in a  fishing town on the way to Monkey Island

A quick stop off in a fishing town on the way to Monkey Island

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Two Days in Saigon

30 seconds into our taxi ride from Saigon airport to the city centre we experienced first hand what we’d been warned about. Our taxi driver inflated the toll charge tenfold and managed to swindle us out of three pounds (it’s the principle that counts!). Upon arrival after a circuitous route he tried to demand more than double what the metre said, but by now we had learnt to be more firm. Luckily our impression of Vietnam was immediately improved when, after getting out of the taxi, we were faced with a constant beeping stream of scooters coming from all directions. Traffic lights were insignificant. A young Vietnamese girl took pity on us and literally led us by hand across the street.

After dropping off our bags we set out to find some food and a beer (bia). Satiated by vietnamese water spinach with squid and shrimps and doused with a healthy amount of garlic, we sat down to people-watch with our 30p Hanoi beers. We were joined by Astrid’s airplane buddies, 3 guys who had recently come from India. They told us, almost proudly, that whilst they were there they had contemplated buying a boat to sail around Sri Lanka. Astrid and I quickly became skeptical when we learned that only one of them had any sailing experiences, and he considered a gun an essential item on a sailboat to stave off pirates (he was American).

Continuing with our affinity for walking long distances in the humidity and the heat, we set out the next day for the War Remnants Museum, which was depressing but informative. It had a good exhibition of war photography from photographers who had died during the war, but it also included preserved stillborn Agent Orange babies.

After a failed attempt to find some lunch, and eager to escape the heat, we went to the Reunification Palace nearby. Mostly a series of meeting rooms, unremarkable save for the fact that it is unchanged since the day the North Vietnamese troops stormed the gates in 1975.

Finally by about 5pm we sat down for a very late lunch at a vegetarian which was so frequented by locals that when we sat down we were met with an entire restaurant staring at us. On the bright side, the tofu and fresh springrolls were delicious. That evening we took it easy with dinner in our neighbourhood, and another beer and people-watching session.

Today we had to check out by noon and had seven hours to kill before our night bus to Nha Trang. We headed to the post office to send Astrid’s postcards and then sat down for a long leisurely lunch in a restaurant that is in a French-era shop house and employs former streetchildren. Our three-course meal of beef and broccoli, squid with chili and lemongrass, grilled aubergine with spring onions, finished by dragonfruit and watermelon in yogurt was delicious. We even sampled a glass of local Da Lat white wine. Not as good as the Italian stuff, but not bad.

We then headed to what we thought was the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, but in fact turned out to be the Ho Chi Minh Museum. A collection of pictures and documents glorifying Uncle Ho, that was less interesting than the fact we were the real attraction. At first, a swarm of about 50 primary school children surrounded us shouting “hello! how are you? what is your name?”. Once we moved upstairs this turned into groups of teenage girls approaching us and asking for photos with the two sweaty white girls. We genuinely pitied them for having to touch us. We were gross.

Now we are waiting to embark on a ten-hour night bus to Nha Trang, which will greet us with a 6km beach. We are looking forward to escaping the city heat for a few days.

Our long lazy lunch on our last day

Our long lazy lunch on our last day

At the Reunification Palace

At the Reunification Palace

Scooters passing by

Scooters passing by

Indulging in cheap beer

Indulging in cheap beer

People-watching in our neighbourhood

People-watching in our neighbourhood

Vietnam's own Notre Dame Cathedral

Vietnam’s own Notre Dame Cathedral

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Bangkok adventures

Astrid and I arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday afternoon and made it to our hotel without any mishaps. That evening we decided to explore our area a bit, discovering that we were staying in the bustling Chinatown of Bangkok! We had set out to find a restaurant and were armed with the maps in our guides which rather disconcertingly had very few overlaps. This was the beginning of a common theme of our stay in Bangkok, namely that the maps are not to scale and the roads deemed important enough to be named on a map differ according to the guide. After a rather fruitless (and admittedly, brief) search we decided to throw caution to the wind and grab a bite to eat from one of the street stalls around our hotel. Passing unidentifiable deep fried something (probably fish), steaming pots of noodles fried or dipped in hot broths, various curries with bags of rice, grilled squid and prawns and pork on a skewer, we finally settled on what shall hereupon be referred to as “orange sponge balls” wrapped in banana leaves. To play it safe we also got some fried noodles with vegetables and sat down to eat it in the square. All the food was delicious and on the plus side didn’t upset our stomachs!

Thursday we decided to embark on our tourist activities in a somewhat misguided attempt to walk through Chinatown in the sweltering heat. 6km later, we arrived sweaty, flustered and hot at Wat Pho, which houses Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha. This is no understatement and the 36m long statue was mindbogglingly huge. Having explored the temple complex with its other smaller Buddhas we decided we had earned ourselves lunch and set off towards the backpacker district of Bangkok, Banglamphu. The lack of air-conditioning was compensated for by the steamed red snapper with garlic, chili and lime, which we laboriously polished off. After cooling down somewhat we headed back to our hotel and indulged in a 1 hour Thai massage for the extortionate sum of 6 pounds. The takeaway from this according to our Thai masseuses is that I have a lovely nose and white skin and Astrid has non-sweaty palms…I wonder who they preferred.

Friday was undoubtedly the foodie day. After a very tranquil visit to the Wat Mahathat, another temple, we headed to Khao San Road for lunch in a lovely early twentieth century town house hidden behind the main road. After a spicy seafood salad and unidentified spongy red curry fish balls, Astrid and I decided we had not had enough food and met up with my friend Chris to continue eating for several more hours. The first stop was an ice cream place which provided a welcome respite from the heat, followed by an “afternoon snack” in what was clearly a locals’ restaurant. This light snack included spring rolls, beef satay, chicken biryani and filtered tap water! (That day we broke every single avoiding travellers’ stomach recommendation in the book). After a long bus ride we arrived at a night market built on old railroad tracks which is colloquially known as the railroad market. Think of it as the Thai equivalent of Spitalfields market in London, at a fraction of the price. Of course our first stops were not at the clothes stalls but the food ones and we greedily tucked into a steaming plate of spicy noodle soup with prawns. Our appetites having been piqued by the extravagant cake stands, we promptly headed back to a stall which sold small chocolate donuts on a spit, waffles topped with banana slices and chocolate sauce, and a chocolate cake filled with whipped cream. The night ended with a drink and people watching, followed by our first tuk tuk ride.

Saturday included yet another long sweaty walk from the boat pier to Wat Arun, Bangkok’s landmark temple. As if the walk wasn’t enough, we had to climb the almost vertical stairs to the top of the temple in 39 degree heat, but were rewarded with a beautiful view of the city. The main event of the day was our foray into Bangkok’s Silom Soi 4, its equivalent of Soho. Chris took us to One Night Only, distinctive for its Abercrombie & Fitch standard topless male waiters. Astrid and I, thinking that we were safe enough to leer at them like lecherous women because they wouldn’t be interested in us anyways, were shocked to find out that only one of them, in fact, was gay. Starved of women in a gay club, they soon decided we were their main attraction: never have we had to rebuff the advances of such conventionally attractive men. There’s something to be said for having no competition. Tomorrow we fly into Ho Chi Minh City for a more laidback Vietnamese adventure.

Drinks on Silom Soi 4

Drinks on Silom Soi 4

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About to fill our stomachs with gastronomic delights

About to fill our stomachs with gastronomic delights

By the river

By the river

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In One Night Only

In One Night Only

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

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Pre-Departure

Pre-Departure

Julia and I are leaving today for Bangkok to begin 13 weeks of traveling across Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia!

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