Flowing Vietnam part 2.

For part 1 see here.

Traffic at our Saigon hotel

Traffic in general
At first sight traffic in Vietnam seems crazily chaotic. Scooters, motorbikes, cars, bicycles, busses, pedestrians all mixed together on one road. Traffic lights.. Well, there is a shirt sold in Vietnam which says: Green light: go! Orange light: go! Red light: go! Which is kind of the truth. However, I came to appreciate the dangerously looking vehicle masses. First reason is that the max permitted speed on almost all roads is just 60 km/h. If it is a double track, two-way street without a median, one-way road with one lane for motorbike 50 km/h or even less. Things are going so slow that a crushing collision is almost ruled out. The second reason is that everyone takes each other into account. No arguments, no fights. If you see someone driving through a red light, riding the wrong side of the road, wanting to cross etc. No problem! Just avoid them. My God, in The Netherlands bloody fights would have broken out between drivers. When crossing a road by foot, don’t be afraid. Go slow, stick out your hand and keep on walking, don’t stop. Everyone will avoid you. Vietnamese traffic is fluid, it flows like water through a meandering river. It may not go fast, but you’ll get there.

The favourite way of transport in Vietnam is the scooter. Small, handy and for the locals there are almost no limitations for what you can carry on them. Loads of living ducks, big screen TV’s, building materials, no problem! For me a scooter in such a country means ultimate freedom. On our Bali trip some years ago I rode one for 3 weeks and enjoyed the hell out of it. However, in cities like Saigon and Hanoi it is just way too busy for a pretty inexperienced driver. Luckily, after some research, I downloaded the Grab app. Ideal! You can order a taxi car or even better, a taxi scooter. You enter in the app (which sees where you are located) where you want to go, you get a price which you can accept or not, pay online by creditcard and in no time a scooter shows up. No hassle, no scams. You get a helmet from the driver, climb on the back and off you go. To feel the cooling wind, being manoeuvred expertly through the busy traffic, have fun, cracking jokes with the drivers; an experience I recommend.

My hired scooter in Sapa

Hiring a scooter
In the less crowded places it is much more fun to hire your own scooter. More freedom to move around and see the actual local life. However, I don’t have a motorbike drivers license, but I did get my international normal driving license. Which allows me to ride on scooters up to 50cc. But in Vietnam they’re not difficult about riding more cc’s. In Hoi An I had the idea to rent one to ride to Mỹ Sơn with. At Hoi An Bike Rental the process was very easy. Contact went through WhatsApp, all I had to do was send a copy of my passport. They advised against 50cc, too light, so I got a 110cc one. 15 minutes later a guy arrived at the hotel with my fully filled-up scooter. He had some helmets which I could fit and explained how the vehicle worked. Cost per day: $7.95. The next morning just before the group left for Mỹ Sơn I spoke with our Vietnamese travel leader. Said that I rented a scooter and wanted to go to Mỹ Sơn on it, just following the bus. I have never seen an Asian person turning white before, but he did. “Nononono! Nononono! Vietnamese traffic, crazy! Dangerous!” In the end he and Ellen convinced me to go by bus with the rest of the group. But I had to sign a release form so that he would not be responsible for me with later scooter travels. And in hindsight I was glad I went with the group, because the only (heavy!) rain we had at our holiday was during that trip. The renting process in Sapa was a little bit different. Here I went to the rental place itself and had to leave my ID, which is normal practice. I got it back safe and sound and the owner even gave me a ride back to the hotel.


The Vietnamese national dish and springrolls
Vietnam definitely is a foodie’s wet dream. Just look at YouTube where many vloggers almost literally drool over the countries’ divine dishes. For me it wasn’t until I moved to Olst that I came into contact with Vietnamese cuisine. In nearby Deventer is an excellent restaurant which serves it. Immediately I absolutely LOVED it. The keyword is fresh. Fresh herbs, fresh meat, fresh fish, fresh vegetables. That combined with exotic spices and the omnipresent fish-sauce, mouth watering! And it is mostly not spicy, unlike for example Thai food. The national dish, phở, is a simple yet remarkable culinary soup creation. It consists of a flavourful broth, fresh rice noodles, a selection of herbs and typically includes chicken or (long cooked) beef. However, the true magic lies in its ability to transcend its individual components. It is fragrant, delicious and harmoniously balanced. But beware, throughout the country phở differs. Which is fun to explore. Often I took some fresh springrolls with my phở. Little tastebombs filled with herbs, meat or shrimp. Rolled up in ricepaper they can be eaten cold or fried and come with a dipping sauce. Which can consist of fish sauce, lime, garlic, sugar and chillies. Also here, many, many varieties.


Bánh mì, cao lầu and duck embryos
Then also there is the omnipresent bánh mì. A short baguette (vive La France!), split lengthwise and filled with all kinds of savoury ingredients. A tasty fusion of bread, meats and vegetables. Some cities have their own local dishes. For example Hoi An has cao lầu. It showcases a medley of essential ingredients, including rice noodles, meat, greens, bean sprouts, and herbs. Complemented by a modest serving of broth. The choice of meat revolves around pork, which can be either tender shreds or succulent slices. Or, alternatively, shrimp. At a streetfood tour in Saigon I absolutely wanted to try a balut. A unique delicacy that involves a fertilised bird egg, typically a duck, carefully incubated for approximately 14 to 21 days, varying by local traditions. Following incubation, the egg is gently steamed and served. The fascinating (and for some horrifying) aspect of this culinary experience lies in consuming the contents directly from the shell. The partially-developed embryo within the egg possesses bones that are tender enough to be chewed and swallowed whole. Adding to the distinct texture and flavour of this extraordinary dish. Despite some of the group gagging at the sight of me eating a balut, I actually enjoyed it. Tasted like chicken-liver with an eggy taste. But all of these dishes are not even the tip of the Vietnamese cuisine ice berg. Don’t be afraid and just explore all the streetfood sellers and restaurants. Follow the golden rule: if it is busy, eat! If no one’s there, avoid!

Egg coffee

Not only the food is world class in Vietnam, the drinks also. The first morning in Saigon I groggily stumbled towards the coffee can at the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Poured some into a mug, sat down and took a sip. Wowwww!!! What the… As if the coffee-Gods pissed all over my tongue. It was delicate yet strong, soft instead of harsh and bitter, a gentle exotic woman quietly waking you up instead of a blaring alarm-clock. I think I never drunk as much of the invigorating black liquid as on this holiday. Hell, I even took some ground coffee home! Ok, Vietnam is nr. 2 on the list of countries that produce the most coffee and they know damn well what to do with it. There are many varieties throughout the country, hot and cold. In Hanoi we had some divine egg-coffee. It is made by whisking an egg yolk together with sugar (or honey) and sweetened condensed milk for approximately 10 minutes, until it transforms into a light and creamy fluff resembling meringue. This delightful mixture is then carefully drizzled over a steaming cup of espresso. To maintain its warmth, the cup can be placed in a bowl of hot water. But my nr. 1 coffee I had in Hoi An. There I indulged in the exquisite taste of iced coconut coffee. Where rich Vietnamese coffee is gracefully poured over a refreshing icy coconut slush, infused with a delicate sweetness and an abundance of coconut flavour and fragrance. At that point I was seriously contemplating to stay in Vietnam and never go home again. But it’s not all coffee. I can’t tell you about alcohol because I don’t drink that any more. However, I can tell you about all the fresh fruit drinks. Yup, fresh, not from a carton or bottle. Fresh fruit made into icy spectacular drinks which make you groan in pleasure on hot days.

If you ever want to have your body kneaded by exotic ladies for little money, go to Vietnam. Big business there, plenty of choice. Everywhere you look in almost any town: Massage & Spa. Of course some of you pervs will think: happy ending! Well, that is certainly not happening in most massage salons. But they are out there, like the spa in our Saigon hotel. One of the guys of our Belgian gay couple wanted to let his muscles loosened up there. At one point during the massage the woman started feeling up his balls and tried to jerk him off. He fled the room with only a tiny towel before his private parts while leaving behind the masseuse, screaming for money. We wanted to wait until we got to Sapa for a massage. After doing some research we ended up there at Eden Massage & Spa. The salon itself was clean and tidy, we had to leave our slippers at the door immediately. A cup of herbal-tea was offered while we made a choice from the massage-menu. No hassle with vague prices and such. We opted for a herbal bath and then a 1-hour herbal massage. The wooden bath was (very) hot and the herbs used intoxicating. When we got out and dried ourselves 2 (tiny) masseuses stood ready for us at the massage table. “How the hell are they going to massage us?” I wondered. Well, they simply jump on the tables and then work your body. The masseuses were very professional. They knew how to find and manipulate the muscles, knots and joints into (sometimes agonising) detail. Other than that, mine also “read” my body well. Harder when it should be harder, softer when it should be softer. Here the herbs used were also almost transcending. Slowly I drifted away in an exotic daydream of pain and pleasure. 

The Vietnamese people
The Vietnamese are a very friendly and polite bunch with a good sense of humour. Just like their traffic they never really stop, they seem to just flow through life, keep going. They are as tough as leather. What I have seen them do in extreme heat, *pheww..* Now I totally get why the great and mighty USA couldn’t win the war and why it would be a bad idea for China to invade Vietnam. In that case the last thing many Chinese soldiers will see is a scrawny Vietnamese coming from the bushes, slashing their throats. The Vietnamese are very proud of their country. Sure, things can be better, but they are working on it. When we crossed a bridge in the bus our travel leader, chest puffed out, told us it was the first bridge engineered and build by Vietnamese. They are also very thankful. When you buy something locally (always buy local, don’t buy at chain stores!) you very often get rewarding big smiles and thank you’s. The same at restaurants and street food places. Although many times they hardly or even not speak English, getting across what you want is pretty easy. Ok, Google Translate helps. Sometimes they are a bit shy to approach a foreigner in a local restaurant. Several times when I came in a place crowded by only Vietnamese, I saw the staff nervously looking at each other who would help the strange bald white man. But when they do they are so kind. I had my first hot pot at a local restaurant in Hanoi. With a bit of help from Google Translate I was able to get across that it was my first time and I had no idea what to precisely do. So for the rest of the meal one of the waitresses prepared the food for me and gestured which sauces to use, which combinations to make etc. Of course I gave her a good tip.

Pipe smoking in Vietnam
Before the journey I contacted a Vietnamese pipe-smoker I have on my Instagram, Trần. When visiting a foreign land I always try to seek out local brothers of the briar. Smoke a pipe together, have a chat, have a drink. That way you experience a country in a whole different way. Trần lives in Hanoi and already gave me some tips and info. Sadly, when the time was there for us to meet he got covid.. He was ok but a meeting, no. Also, during my trip I got a comment on my blog from another Vietnamese pipe smoker, who was reading my blog posts and loved the articles. His name is Phuc and lives near Saigon. Unfortunately I already had been there so a meeting was impossible. But he kindly provided me with a lot of information. Being a pipe smoker in Vietnam you have the best of Europe and the USA at your disposal. Pipe brands like Savinelli, Chacom, Big Ben and Vauen. Tobacco brands like GL Pease, Cornell & Diehl, Samuel Gawith, Rattray’s, Captain Black, MacBaren, Peterson and W.O. Larsen. These are available at specialised shops like Khói Lửa, Khói store and High Collection. Pricewise, a tin like Samuel Gawith’s Full Virginia Flake will cost you 450,000 VND, which is around $19. Blends such as GL Pease Chelsea Morning will set you back at 350,000 VND, roughly $15. For Vietnamese standards very expensive.

Bamboo bongs on the right

Thuốc lào
In Vietnam, smoking is incredibly widespread. With around 50% of men and 5% of women, totalling an estimated 18 million people, using tobacco. It is deeply intertwined with Vietnamese culture, where the old act of exchanging cigarettes still serves as a customary form of greeting. And it is dirt cheap, 1 pack of Marlboro is only $1.28. But Vietnam has its own famous, or better, infamous tobacco. Amidst the vibrant streets of Hanoi’s heart, where small street-side cafes line the pavement, one can easily glimpse clusters of middle-aged individuals, both men and women, drinking bitter green tea. Their animated conversations about life fill the air, interwoven with wisps of smoke that escape from a grand bamboo pipe. They are smoking Thuốc lào, which literally means “drug from Laos”. And drugs it is, because this is not our familiar Nicotiana Tabacum, but its ancient very potent brother: Nicotiana Rustica. Those leaves have a nicotine content as high as 9%, whereas Nicotiana Tabacum leaves contain about 1 to 3% of vitamin N. Well known brands are Hạt Đỗ and Hàng Gà. Thuốc lào offers two consumption methods: smoking or chewing. When opting for smoking, individuals commonly employ a bamboo pipe for their enjoyment.

Woman smoking a Dieu Cay. She said she was only 53, so this is what too much Thuốc lào does to you..

The different bamboo pipes
Mainly there are 3 different bamboo pipes for the use of Thuốc lào. The Dieu Cay is a popular choice for smoking. It features a small bowl-shaped hole where tobacco is placed. One end is sealed, holding a small amount of water, while the other end remains open for smoking. It offers convenience, flavour and to many an enticing sound. Its affordability has made it a favourite among common workers and farmers in their daily lives. The Dieu Bat consists of a ceramic bowl for water and a small straight stem, crafted from a 50 cm bamboo tube. Tobacco is placed in a hole above the bowl, lit, and the smoke is inhaled, savoured and released. Adorned with intricate patterns, the bowl of the Dieu Bat finds favour among the royal and Mandarin classes. Due to its size, it is primarily used at home. The Dieu Ong is a 30 cm long masterpiece, crafted from precious wood, animal bones or even ivory. Adorned with intricate carvings, it features a silver hoop, handles, and rim, adding to its opulence. This exquisite piece is popular in rich families.

Thuốc lào tobacco

Smoking and chewing Thuốc lào
To indulge in Thuốc lào in true Vietnamese style, all you need is a bamboo pipe, a ball of the tobacco and fire. Find a local drink stall on any street, order a cup of green tea, and prepare for the experience. Pack the tobacco ball into the pipe, ignite it, wait briefly, blow out the ash and take a deep inhale while sipping tea. As the smoke escapes your mouth, you’ll feel a blissful “phe” sensation (Vietnamese slang for getting high). Compare it to the “first cigarette in the morning”, but much stronger. Just be cautious not to get too carried away and ask someone nearby to sit behind you in case you keel over. You can laugh now, but these things happen with unsuspecting tourists, see this video. In addition to smoking, Thuốc lào can be chewed. Place a pinch of dry tobacco in your mouth, keeping it between your teeth and cheeks. Occasionally chew the tobacco to release its flavours, but avoid swallowing it! Although chewing Thuốc lào may not provide the same intense high as smoking, it offers a unique and worthwhile experience (or just the opposite), worth trying at least once.

Back home
Of course I had to bring some Thuốc lào home. Our Vietnamese travel leader (a smoker himself) knew where to get it and he would buy me some. So on a evening in our hotel room in Hanoi there was a soft knock on the door. I opened it and there stood Binh, with a plastic bag. “Ia hava the stuff, 25,000 VND pleasa.” It sounded like some shady drug (from Laos) transaction. I gave him 30,000 VND for his troubles. In the bag were 5 small carton packs of (I think) 25 gr each. I didn’t trouble myself with opening one and put them in my travel bag. Once settled back home on a evening that Ellen wasn’t there, I had a copious meal and poured in some soda, I tore open one of the cartons. Inside what was what I can best describe as a sample bag filled with very finely cut tobacco. When I opened the bag I was greeted by a strong, earthy, rustic odour. Certainly not your slightly perfumed black cavendish. I got my old relatively small Dunhill “Duke Street” pipe and filled it carefully with the Thuốc lào. After a quick prayer to the tobacco Gods I lit up. I expected it to awful, vile and nasty, but to my surprise I quite enjoyed the taste. Like a natural, heavy, bold Kentucky, burley with a little herby twist. Only burning-wise it was a total disaster. I would not keep burning. After a relight I could manage just about 2 or 3 puffs before it went out again. Later I tried different ways of packing the pipe, no result. The nicotine was just manageable. I didn’t smoke it over my lungs and I was prepared. But I can imagine very well that a non-smoking tourist who hasn’t eaten yet, can get knocked down by inhaling the Thuốc lào smoke. Anyway, all by all it was a good experience. Just like Vietnam itself. Cảm ơn!

Flowing Vietnam part 1.

WTF??? Is he back?
“What? A new post of the Dutch Pipe Smoker? I thought that bastard quit, leaving us stranded in a sea of pipes and tobacco!” No, I have not returned to monthly satisfy your aching souls and nicotine lusty bodies with tales of smoking the noble weed again. Sorry. I just felt like telling something about my latest holiday, to Vietnam. Writing stuff down helps me put things in perspective. So I won’t suddenly become some fancy travel blog. You can rest assured.

Our route through Vietnam

Why Vietnam?
After the covid years my charming girlfriend Ellen wanted to go on a holiday to somewhere far away. To be honest, I was a bit hesitant. After all the not too pleasant years, about which you can read here, I didn’t know how I would react to a long journey to an unknown country. But I like to grasp the nettle. Be fluid with things. I have a fondness for Asia and for me there were 2 options: Japan or Vietnam. As an experiment I decided to try group travel. Then you don’t have to think, you just have to show up and everything’s arranged and done for you. I didn’t feel like doing the work to arrange everything myself. Since 3 weeks to Vietnam was almost half as cheap as 3 weeks Japan, we choose the former.

View from our Saigon hotel room

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
After a gruelling long flight with a delay in Istanbul we arrived at the airport of Saigon. Yes, I use the old city name, I like the old world ring of it. In the plane we already met some of our fellow travellers. A good mix of Dutch folks and Belgians. When we got through customs, bought a Vietnamese SIM-card and pulled millions of the local currency (Dong) out of an ATM (first time being a millionaire, whohoo!) we met our local travel leader/guide Binh. A young, small, friendly Vietnamese guy. We walked outside the airport and *boom!* the incredible heat hit us. In The Netherlands it was about 11°C when we left. In Saigon it was about 32°C, in the evening.. Let’s say the sweat was not dripping of me, it was gushing from me. Quickly we were driven to our hotel, the Riverside Hotel Saigon, which had a central location. Our view from the room was very good. We looked out on the Saigon river and busy street.

At the Hotel Continental

The Quiet American
Before the journey and old friend of mine talked about the author Graham Greene and his famous book The Quiet American. I am very much ashamed, but I had never heard of this writer before.. Apparently Graham Greene spent a few years living in Saigon. In many ways The Quiet American is his homage to this vibrant city. He mentions locations in his book like Le Rue Catinat (now Duong Dong Khoi), The Majestic Hotel and Hotel Continental. My friend wanted me to visit the latter, so being the good chap that I am I went there. The Continental almost looks out of place in a rapidly modernising city. It has a nice colonial old world feel to it. There was no terrace to speak of outside, but inside there was a magnificent inner courtyard. I was early to beat the heat, breakfast was still being served for the guests. I wasn’t one of them, so I asked a waiter for a coffee, fresh orange juice and if I could smoke my pipe there. Yes, yes, no.. D*mn.. I put my open pipe bag on the table and just imagined the elements being together.

At the front of the boat

Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of channels. During the Vietnam War the Delta region saw savage fighting between the Viet Cong guerrillas and the USA. And that was precisely the image I had in my head from watching all kinds of Vietnam war movies. When we got to the river we embarked on a wooden boat. Soon all we could hear was the “papapapapapa” of the engine and I got visions of American soldiers sitting in a such a vessel, looking out for enemies.

Trying to play the đàn bầu

Where The Doors got some inspiration from
Along the way we made some stops. Mostly tourist traps, except for one. We docked at an island where we were given some fresh fruit and a performance of local music was staged. Being a guitar player I wanted to try one of the instruments, a so called đàn bầu. It only has one string, a tremolo like on a guitar and you make the notes by creating artificial harmonics with the palm of your hand. Pretty clumsy. They had some tiny tea cups so I grabbed one and used it as a slide, to the amusement of the đàn bầu player. Perhaps she will use it in later performances as a party trick. After that I joined the group of Vietnamese musicians. I already saw they had a Fender Stratocaster guitar and amp (which they didn’t use at our performance). Beer was consumed in large quantities and immediately I got one pressed into my hand. I don’t drink alcohol any more but felt obliged to at least take a sip. One guy grabbed the Stratocaster and I asked if they knew blues or rock and roll. Nope, only Vietnamese music. Which they then played. I almost fell off my chair because it sounded exactly like the guitar in The End from The Doors. Eastern vibes with with a kind of whoozy mellowing effect underneath it. Back in the boat I enjoyed the view while listening to the famous song. 

The springrolls I helped to make

One of the things I most enjoy when on holiday are the locals. Immersing yourself in another culture. We ended the Mekong Delta trip at a local home-stay. In this case a large farmhouse with some side buildings. We were greeted by children who, of course, got all the attention they wanted from those white big folks. Dinner was being prepared by the whole family and we could help with that. Since I was the only one who could handle long chopsticks my task was to put freshly made spring-rolls in hot oil. The food that came out of that kitchen was delicious! Well made and pleasing for the eye. At night I imagined us sleeping with 8 persons on thin mats in a crappy building. Much to my surprise we were being led to a string of craft-fully build small wooden houses. Each with several rooms in it. Ellen and I had our own room and it was pretty d*mn luxurious, with a bathroom that was better than the one in our Saigon hotel. We slept like babies and awoke fresh the next morning, ready for the journey back to the big city.

Durga, the slayer of the buffalo-demon, above the entrance

Nha Trang
After another night in Saigon we took a plane to the coastal city of Nha Trang. This holiday we flew twice with Vietnam Airlines and from me they get two thumbs up. Modern, clean planes with lots of leg space. For me Nha Trang did not have a great vibe. I’m not really a coastal guy, lots of Russians and Chinese (who still have the tendency to rasp en spit on the ground, yuck!), just not my place. The hotel room we had was very luxurious with a HUGE bed. Sadly we were located on the wrong side, the other side had a stunning sea view. Oh well… Luckily the city boasted Po Nagar, the Cham towers, as an attraction. A beautiful ancient temple with a lovely rocky garden around it where you can quietly sit and enjoy the surroundings. 

The restaurant car

The sleeper train
The journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An was by sleeper train. Since our group was so large we almost had a wagon for ourselves. It was divided in 4 person cabins with a sink and toilet at the end. We ended up sharing the compartment with the Belgian gay couple of the group. Which was hilarious because one of them suffered from germophobia (fear of germs, uncleanliness etc.). I immediately smelled my pillow and bed cover and it was clear they weren’t clean to say the least. I could smell the acrid odour of sweat. And told my germophobic gay roommate so. We all had to laugh at his response of pulling a disgusted face while muttering yuckyuckyuck. Everything that was cleanable he wiped off with disinfection liquid (“You know how many times I am going to touch this tonight??”), much to our amusement. The train also had a restaurant car but we were told by our travel leader to NOT eat there. Unless you wanted a case of severe diarrhoea. But we could drink there! When passing through the train we realised our smelly cabins were actually quite luxurious. I saw compartments half the size of us with 6 Vietnamese crammed in it.. The restaurant car really had an old communist vibe. Wooden uncomfortable benches and run by a feisty old Vietnamese lady, who sometimes kicked the drunken men there. No smoking signs were all around but luckily completely ignored.

Hoi An

Arriving in Hoi An
During the wobbly night in the sleeper train I woke up because I really had to take a leak. The toilet… I encountered some shitty (pun intended) latrines in my past travels, but this one ranked up high. For some reason it couldn’t flush, so urine was sloshing around in the bowl. But when you have to go, you have to go. And I really had to go, which resulted in the urine level getting higher and higher. In itself not so bad, but the shaky train made the vile liquid in the toilet almost spill over my feet. I think some quick little prayers saved me. I felt really bad for the one after me.. Early in the morning the train arrived in Hoi An. We could not go to the hotel there yet, so we visited the old town centre (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Very beautiful with old (colonial) houses but also very touristic. We went to the Cantonese Assembly Hall, saw the famous Japanese Bridge and took a look inside Tan Ky Old House. Despite the visitor crowds some non-touristic market streets were easy to find where the locals were buying and selling all kinds of food and wares. In the evening when the temperature goes down Hoi An is particularly mesmerising. Colourful lanterns light up in the streets and on the boats and you can stroll through the small yet vibrant streets. Also have some dinner along the river, have a drink in one of the many local cafes and enjoy the easy-going vibe.

Mỹ Sơn
Nono, not My Son; Mỹ Sơn. It is one of the most important Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia. You know, Borobudur in Indonesia, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Mỹ Sơn in Vietnam. That kind of significance. Early in the morning we went there to beat the crowds and heat. Well, we did not conquer the heat, it almost defeated us! Full on tropical warmth. We had to be careful where we walked, paths only. This because sadly many historical buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam War, when the United States aircraft bombed the region and left many undetonated explosives in the ground. Apart from that it was a marvellous experience. There was a route to follow and we had a local guide who told us all about the ancient buildings and ruins. At the last location on the way we could see the massive tourist crowds coming in like tidal waves crashing into the old temples. After a quite enjoyable dance and music tourist show (because of the presence of a lot of cooling fans and pretty Vietnamese girls) we went to the exit. We had to leave in small electric busses but the waiting line seemed to go on forever. I am ashamed to tell this but we Dutch are not good in waiting in lines. One man of our group sneakily guided us to the front and when the next bus came he and we (also the Belgians!) ran for it. Leaving behind pissed off other tourists. Sorry! 

Beautiful lady at the Thien Mu Pagoda

Hot Hue
Next stop was the old imperial city of Hue. I was really looking forward to visiting all the old royal stuff, but the heat totally beat me down. There was a heatwave with perceived temperatures soaring up to a hellish 43°C! We sailed a bit on the Perfume River, visited the official symbol of the city, the Thien Mu Pagoda and went to some tombs of past emperors. At the last location I was getting whoozy from the heat. Couldn’t stand on my legs properly any more. Near the entrance of the tomb complex was a small cafe. I can’t remember exactly how I got there, but when the woman running it saw me she immediately sat me down on a chair, put a cooling fan in my face and placed a bottle of cold water before me. Kám-un (thank you)! The next morning Ellen went away at 8 am to visit the Imperial City. A bit further in the street of our hotel was a small shop, ran by an elderly lady, where I decided to buy some water. You can’t drink the tap-water in Vietnam so you always had to buy bottles. Almost beside her was a coffee shop and I fancied a cup of invigorating dark liquid. I sat there, in the shade, a fan blowing nearby, doing nothing and the sweat just gushed out of me. Soon I got a text message from Ellen that she was coming back to the hotel. Even for my fit, tough girlfriend the heat was too much. Oh, apparently women from Hue are very wanted by Vietnamese men. Our travel leader told us why in his thick Vietnamese accent: “When youa hava been out with friends, hada too much too drinka and coma homa, woman from South, beat you! Woman from North, beat you! But woman from Hue, she comfort you, put you in bed. Next morning, shea will ask whya you drink you so much? Not good for you!”

Border with China

A quick visit to Hanoi and on the way to Sapa
After another comfortable flight with Vietnam Airlines we arrived in the cooler (but still hot) Hanoi. The capital and second-largest city of Vietnam. Where I didn’t particularly liked Saigon, Hanoi immediately for me had good vibes. Hard to put a finger on it. Perhaps the well-preserved French colonial architecture, good food/drinks and relaxed people? Sadly already the next morning we had to go to the mountainous area of Sapa. Well, “sadly”, after all the busy cities I was ready for some beautiful, peaceful nature. The road took us near the border of China and since it was only a small detour, we went there. The Vietnamese are a bit afraid of their huge neighbour and I can see why. Upon seeing the actual border with the bridge, gate and construction works I got visions from Mordor; images of industrial environmental degradation.

Through a long and winding road we reached the mountainous town of Sapa. Which lies at the heart of a deep valley. Embraced by breathtaking rice terraces that continue to be cultivated to this day, just as they have been for centuries. The scenic backdrop of this place is truly awesome. Intriguing ribbons of road guide your gaze towards the valley below, where rivers flow vigorously amidst the rice fields. While lush green mountains extend into the distance, seemingly endless. Towering above the town, the ragged ridge line is adorned by the majestic Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in the region. You can imagine my hopes were high for a hotel with a stunning mountain view. Well, through the endless fogs we could see only glimpses of the ancient giants. The construction works opposite our accommodation were very clear though.

Born to be wild
I was tired of constantly travelling with the group. It was like being in a cocoon with fellow Dutch folks led by the travel leader. “Now we go there, now we stop there, now we do this, now we do that..” Arghh!!! I wanted to break free, do some things on my own. So I rented a scooter in Sapa at a place I found on Google. Nice folks, they knew I needed a bit more cc to drag my fat body up the mountains. I had no idea where to go but I did know I wanted to see some stunning nature, local Vietnamese and no tourists. I picked a small village on Google Maps about 25 km from Sapa and began my little adventure. It felt so good to be free! At the top of a mountain I stopped for some coffee, while enjoying the view. Then went all the way down to the rice fields. But oofff… Bad roads! Constantly I was avoiding potholes or looking for the best route over mangled asphalt. My shoulders and ass were killing me. Despite that it was totally worth it! The views! Unbelievably stunning! I halted many times to just enjoy the beautiful scenery. This is holiday for me, exploring local nature and life. When I rode through small villages the children waved, laughed at me or just stood looking dumbfounded at that big white Westerner. At a rice field I was stopped by a local lady who tried to sell me home-made stuff. She was trying so hard that I ended up buying a nicely embroidered bag (of course after a bit of haggling). She was so happy I got a small cloth wallet for free.

Halong Bay
Then it was time for what I hoped was going to be the highlight of the holiday: the unmatched beauty of Halong Bay. It showcases a breathtaking array of limestone rocks and isles, with thousands of unique shapes and sizes. We rode there from Sapa to go on a boat on which we were also going to spend the night. I was imagining it a bit more romantic then in real life, because dozens of other boats also left the harbour to go to the ancient rocks at the same time. Instead of fabulous views we mostly saw, smelled (diesel) and heard (loud music) vessels around us. Which for me pretty much killed the vibe. However, I felt positive about our ship, it looked good, friendly crew and our cabins had a decent bed, shower and toilet. The rest of the group went to visit a nearby rock and cave, I opted to stay on our boat, enjoying a pipe and a book. A good choice since the group, when they got back, complained those places were overrun by other tourists. Dinner, made by the crew, was tasty and the evening became even better when I found an acoustic guitar on the ship. While I mangled the strings the instrument’s owner, one of the crew members, came forward. We chatted friendly, I showed him some chords, then gave him back his guitar. He was only playing for 1 month (“Learning.. Youtube!”) but man, the guy was good! He played me some Vietnamese songs and sang at the same time. What I did not manage he managed, soon some of the group’s ladies were swooning away.

Back to Hanoi and home
The next morning, going to the harbour again, the same routine happened as on the way to Halong Bay. All ships went back at the same time. Uhrrr… Hanoi felt welcoming once more when we got there. Next morning Ellen and I went to the Temple of Literature. An almost 1000 year graciously old building, dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars. For some reason there were loads and loads of children present, whole school-classes, neatly dressed with their teachers and parents. Perhaps it was the last day of the school-year? Graduations? Anyway, we had so much fun there with the kids! Me, being the clumsy, big white tourist gave lots of high-fives, fist-bumps, waved and walked deliberately into objects. Much to the amusement of the children. Their smiles, hello’s, curiosity; absolutely priceless. It was an excellent ending to our holiday, because that same evening we flew back home. Although we almost missed our plane at Hanoi airport. A system malfunction combined with 5 (!) passport checks is not very handy.. 

Please find part 2 here, which is about crazy Vietnamese traffic, duck embryos, happy endings and drugs from Laos.

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