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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