Our annual building project with the team fro “Project Vietnam” was due to start on 10 March so we flew out of Perth on the 3rd, for an overnight stop in Kuala Lumpur then on to Ho Chi Minh City. THis would give us a week in Vietnam before the work started.
We made an early start, getting up to the alarm at 3:15 and meeting a booked taxi out the front at 4:00. The taxi was late, leaving us to wonder why we have to pay a booking fee even when the service is not supplied. We were around 15 minutes later to the airport than planned and were greeted by a huge line at the baggage check-in. However, there was only a very short queue at the regular check-in counter so those people who had not done their own web check had an advantage. The line grew steadily behind us and the processing was so slow that by the time our bags were in, we had no time for breakfast and had to go straight through to immigration. Here the line was equally long. Once processed and scanned for dangerous goods, we made it to the departure area with just enough time for a cup of tea and maybe a bite to eat. The same long line awaited, moving incredibly slowly due to the fact that the counter was maned by only two workers and the coffee machine seemed incapable of creating more than 1 drink per minute. Some poor souls had to queue for 15 minutes just to buy a bottle of water. It is a real pleasure to be going overseas and escape from the dreadful standards of service that we are subjected to in Perth. We pay more than anyone else in the World for food and drink yet the staff at food outlets seem to be incapable of providing any form of service. It’s embarrassing.
Once in Kuala Lumpur, we had the afternoon and evening to spare so we caught a shuttle bus into the city and relaxed at our favourite haunt, Restoran Venny. The beer and food has not changed.
Ho Chi Minh City
We gave ourselves 2 nights in HCMC, staying at the iPeace Hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao area. This is the backpackers street and small hotels, bars and restaurants abound. The iPeace is well situated in Hem 28, an alley commonly called “mini-hotel alley”.
They certainly are “mini” with most being only a single room wide and 5 to 7 storeys high. The iPeace is comfortable and cheap. Right next door is the Vietnamese Aroma Cafe, which serves such great food at ridiculously cheap prices. We tend to eat there a lot.
Besides getting in the required relaxation, we took some long walks, braving the appalling traffic conditions and just using the “slow and steady” technique when crossing the congested streets. We toured the “Reunification Palace”, a modern day palace set in wonderful gardens right in the heart of Saigon. The original palace was built by the French in 1863 but it was bombed during an attempted coup in 1962 and rebuilt in a more modern style. It was the site of the formal end to the Vietnam War when two North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the front gate. The building is quite wonderful, both for the grand architecture and the amazing furniture in the many conference rooms and reception areas. The building still gets used today for formal matters of state.
From there, we made our way through to the Dong Khoi area, which is the rich and ritzy part of Saigon. In only a couple of blocks, the traffic eases, people largely obey traffic lights and the shops get bigger and a lot more expensive. We stopped at a rather flash cafe for an iced coffee. In Vietnam, this is not made with milk as in Australia but with a hit of sweet condensed milk, a small cup of very strong Vietnamese coffee over a tall glass of crushed ice and cold water. It is very refreshing. Resuming our walk, we came across a street vendor on a corner cooking over a tiny charcoal burner. He would place round rice-paper sheets on an open grill, coat them with a very finely diced vegetable mix infused with spices. As it began to cook, he cracked a quail’s egg into the middle and folded it over into a taco-like thing. We paid our 5000VD each (25c) and wandered away munching on a piece of gastronomic heaven.
Further down Dong Khoi St, we paused for a while to get our bearings. Christine became engaged with a street vendor selling both pirated books and the fact that he was crippled from polio, had 19 children to feed and had not had a job in 20 years. I consulted the Google Maps on the iPhone and sat down on a low wall to study it. I was soon interrupted by a well dressed man in a black suit who had come out of the Versace store nearby to tell me not to sit on the low wall and to move on. My appearance had obviously upset the ambiance of the district. I felt like part of a scene out of Pretty Woman and had visions of walking into the Versace store, flashing huge wads of dollars and giving them the finger. Instead, we moved on as instructed.
We made it back to out hotel area with only the one beer stop and a parcel of dodgy DVDs from a market. We had rest of the afternoon to snooze, read and watch Adam Sandler do the usual silly things on Star Movies. For dinner, we went next door to the Aroma and ordered a Soup Hot Pot, with squid, prawns, fish, beef and veges. This is a local version of a “Steam Boat” where you cook your own ingredients in a delicious broth. It was a wonderful meal and heaps of fun to boot.
It is very hard to come back to Vietnam and not stay for a while in our beloved Hoi An. This trip, we gave ourselves 4 nights, flying from HCMC via Danang. The Greenfield Hotel sent a car to pick us up (no charge) and drive the 40km South to Hoi An. As always, we were greeted warmly by the regular staff, who always remember us from past trips. In particular, our friend Phan Thi Phuong was most welcoming, giving Christine a big hug. She was newly pregnant when we last saw her, and now she has only just come back to work. Her new daughter is 4 months old.
We found that we had only booked a standard room, which was comfortable but we wanted a bit more space for a 4 night stay so we re-organised rooms a bit and settled in. Hoi An and the Greenfield seemed busier than last year, probably because the weather was so pleasant, with high 20s most days.
The weather was warm enough for swimming and we spent a lovely morning at Cua Dai beach. Rather than slum it with the masses and put up with the beach hawkers, we paid our 100,000VD ($5) and rented a beach couch at the Hoi An Resort private beach. It was worth the money.
We spent another day at Cham Island for snorkelling and swimming.We took a fast speed boat over the 18km crossing in relatively calm conditions and looking forward to some great snorkelling over what was described as pristine coral. Unfortunately, a lot of the time was spent wandering around the island village, which is rather primitive and lacking in attractions, or simply waiting on piers for a boat.
Eventually, we did arrive at the snorkelling area, only to find the masks and snorkels were very old and very grubby. The coral was largely dead and the fish life restricted to a few parrot fish and small damsel fish. Even the prospect of a beachside seafood lunch didn’t brighten the day too much. It was rather ordinary fare and Christine got a touch of “belly” that evening after trying the seafood hotpot (I thought it looked funny).
Another strange tour we took was a “Romantic Sunset Dinner Cruise”. It was International Women’s Day so I guess that scored me points. Despite the romantic title of the cruise, we thought it might be a good chance to meet a few others, relax over dinner and get some wonderful photos of the sunsets that Hoi An is famous for. Fortunately, the food was excellent because the thick haze covered the sun, the cruise took us on a stretch of river we have been on before and even more bizarre, we were the only ones on a boat that catered for 20. There seemed to be about 6 crew so we felt somewhat strange sitting eating our meal all alone. The girl in charge seemed to think we needed company so she spent a lot of time talking to us. We could only understand 50% of what she said but we did have some fun with some English/Vietnamese lessons. There’s romantic and “romantic”.
The highlight of Hoi An was our discovery of the Thuan Y Restaurant set on the wharf between the Japanese Bridge and the markets. This wonderful establishment is owned and run by an extended family of cousins, aunts and grandmothers. Everyone was very friendly and we loved the chats when some of the family members would sit down with us. Christine took great delight in a little boy (around 8 months old)
nick-named “King”. They serve the 4 Hoi An Specialties; Cao Lau with thick rice noodles in a heavy broth and topped with deep fried rice paper squares;Fried Wontons made and served flat and topped with a spicy vegetable mix; Banh Xeo pancakes made with corn meal filled with bean sprouts and wrapped in rice paper and “White Rose”, a gelatinous rice mix set in a tiny bowl and topped with charred onion and peanut. All are wonderful and go down very well with a glass of local fresh beer (4000VD or 20c). We spent a lot of time there just chatting and watching. Sometimes, a couple of tourists would stop to read the menu at the front, so I would jump into maitre’d mode and lead them through the best dishes. I think I had 100% succes rate at getting new customers in.
The best part of Hoi An remains the simple street wander, whether by foot or bicycle. Electric bikes are popular here and although the motorbike is common, the sight of a couple of Vietnamese girls wearing traditional dress and gliding silently through ancient streets is worth coming back for. In most Asian tourist areas, nightfall brings chaos and noise. In Hoi An, the pace of life slows after dark and a walk back to the hotel after a wonderful meal is peaceful and relaxing. We love it.
From Hoi An, it is on to Hanoi to meet the rest of the 33 strong team from Project Vietnam and to travel South to Phu Ly for this year’s project.