Despite the post-Christmas slog, we made it to the final week of teaching! And to make things doubly exciting, Dad arrived in Hanoi for his two week trip.
We met on Sunday morning and took a walk around the city after a catch up over lime juice. We intended to go visit one of Hanoi’s main sights but I forgot about the shut-for-lunch thingy, despite having lived here for five months. When things did reopen at 2:00 we took a trip to Thang Long Citadel. It’s an ancient royal enclosure used throughout many dynasties, when Hanoi was known as Thang Long. It’s a UNESCO heritage sight, but I hadn’t actually heard of it until very recently. Glad we went though, as it’s pretty spectacular and it was an unusually sunny day for the time of year.
I was still working during the first week of Dad’s stay, so he went off to Halong, Ninh Binh and Cuc Phuong whilst I tied up loose ends in Hanoi. However, he managed made a trip over to my house on the Monday evening. It took a good 45 minutes to find each other because Dad got dropped off on the market street, but when we did we recoup we went for some noodles before heading on to the Lotte building. When I previously went with the rest of my family we had sat on the top deck, but the weather had resumed its wintry drizzle, so we were asked to sit inside Pharaoh Bar instead.
The bar was still nice and they were serving various ginseng cocktails. I might have had work the next day, but we necked a few and discussed almost everything from politics to ginseng. The drinks, view and company were great, but I think the most interesting part of the evening was the toilets. They were immaculate for a start and toilet paper was available, a novelty in Vietnam. The traditional ‘bum gun’, as it’s known was replaced with a keypad that had ‘front hygiene’, ‘back hygiene ‘ and ‘air’ functions! Don’t laugh, you know you would have tried it too. Got to say having a blow dryer on your nether regions was certainly a first.
The week went by and the nonsense of packing could no longer be ignored. Getting sorted was eventful and our original plan to be out of our accommodation by 8:30 on Saturday morning failed. It was almost 10:00 by the time we got out the door and we then had to struggle down to the BME office to hand back in school resources and collect our final pay. It took forever, but thankfully they didn’t notice my missing flash cards and CD (I lost a folder booo) and there was no pay deducted (they’re buggers for finding any flaws). I can’t believe things actually went so smoothly!
All packed up
We head over to town for a final coffee and snack in our favourite cafe, Joma, before I had to trudge all of my luggage over to Dad’s hotel. Dad and I weren’t due to leave Hanoi until 6:00 pm so we made the most of the day by having lunch and taking a trip over to Hoan Kiem Lake and the Temple of Literature. We managed to squeeze in a last iced coconut coffee in Cong Caphe, (decorated with Viet Cong and other war time paraphernalia) our fave, before we headed over to the airport. At last, after over a year of waiting, the travelling could begin…
The first stop was the city of Danang in Central Vietnam. It was late so we managed to find somewhere to grab dinner before bed. I could only order some rice and ‘vegetables’ i.e. morning glory (water spinach) but it was actually cooked in a decent sauce which made it much more palatable than the usual steamed sludge we are served. I won’t miss that stuff.
The following day was slovenly. Dad hadn’t been feeling 100% so we slept in pretty late before taking a walk down to the beach. There isn’t really anything to do in Danang so we were both happy to chill out on the beach all day. I needed some time to unwind and wanted to finish my book. When we booked our travels we’d left beaches off the itinerary as there are too many other things to do, and going to Southern Thailand is a trip in itself. However, after a day on My Khe Beach I’m starting to wish we had!
We went for dinner and a walk along the river as the waterfront was stunning at night. There are several bridges that stretch across the Han River which is somewhat reminiscent of the Thames. Our favourite one was the dragon bridge which changed colour. Its the sort of construction that could have looked tacky, had the design been different, but was impressive.
Following our much needed break day we headed 100km up North to the ancient city of Hue. As the former capital city during the Nguyen dynasty (in case you cared), Hue is home to another UNESCO World Heritage sight, the Imperial Citadel Complex. We hopped onto a sleeper bus in Danang, although it was 9 am, and were able to enjoy the journey horizontally. The bus wasn’t full so the two of us got a row of five beds to ourselves! Bingo. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Dad slept for most of the trip whilst I read my book and took in the view, which was, in parts, amazing.
Arriving in Hue was a bit of a surprise. It certainly resembles other Northern cities in Vietnam and is more similar to Hanoi than Danang. But it lacks all the kooky things you’d find in the capital. You get the sense that the city was pretty much abandoned once the capital was relocated back to Hanoi. Not that the vile weather helped mind.
We had gotten a taxi to our hotel and were served complementary drinks and snacks only to find that the hotel was fully booked. However, the friendly staff had found us a room in their sister hotel and a taxi was on its way to collect us. Dad joked that the two motorbikes pulling up were our taxis, and sure enough they were. I have seen all manner of things balanced on bikes during my time in Vietnam but I was still amazed when they tried to fit Dad’s big suitcase onto the front of the bike (they failed and had to bring it separately). We reached the new hotel and were served the same complimentary drinks and snacks all over again. Winning.
It took us a couple of hours to get ourselves sorted, but we eventually made it over the bridge of the Perfume River (no, it didn’t smell like perfume) and to the citadel. It’s difficult to describe the citadel but I think the colours stick in my mind the most, as you can see from the pics (yes, I had to enhance them a little but the lack of natural light meant the photos just weren’t doing it justice.) What amazed us both the most was that building only began in 1804. It looked so antiquated but is only 30 years older than Buckingham Palace. It was definitely worth the slog there.
Hoi An was the next place on the itinerary. We’d looked into getting a bus but they were too long for our short trip and Dad still wasn’t feeling 100%, so we decided to splash out and pay a driver. It’s still pretty cheap by western standards anyhow and meant we could stop off at a few places along the way.
Our driver, Hieu, collected us after breakfast and took us to the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh first. I case you’re wondering, he was the 12th Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, ruling from 1916 to 1925. There are a few tombs to see in Hue, and they hadn’t been a priority, but I’m glad we made thedetour. The architecture was an interesting mix of colonial and traditional styles and the detail and colours were exquisite. It filled in a few more gaps of our Vietnamese history in any case.
The next stop was at the Hai Van Pass. It’s name refers to the mist that rises off the nearby sea and we witnessed clouds coming over the mountains. Hieu asked if I’d heard of Hai Van before, and laughed when I told him that I’d seen it on ‘Top Gear’. We continued through the Hai Van tunnel that led towards Danang. I’m glad we didn’t play the old hold your breath game or I would have been dead within a few minutes – it’s over 6 km long! The longest in South East Asia.
A couple more kilometres down the road and we made one more stop at the Linh Ung Pagoda in the Marble Mountains, another religious complex with a good view of the sea.
As we approached Danang, Hieu told us that he’d been a student at the university back when ‘there was just one bridge.’ Dad and I inquired as to what he had studied and he told us that he’d studied Construction, only he couldn’t get a job with the government, which is why he was currently a driver. He went on to say that because his parents supported the American Army during the war they, he and any children he might have were banned from working for the government. I vaguely remembered reading something about this but was, of course, still shocked. He went on to tell us about how he hated the communists and the resentment still present among southerners who feel that most in government was only out for their own benefit. His father lives in Australia and he has seen him for ten minutes in his life. Shocking. It explained why he why he was surprised when I said I’d enjoyed living in Hanoi. It was interesting to hear someone speak so freely in Vietnam as discussing anything political seemed off limits with those I worked with in Hanoi (although there’s some discussion on the ‘Hanoi Massive’ Facebook group). I think we were both unsure what to say after this conversation so we were quite quiet until we reached Hoi An.
By this point we were all starving so Hieu showed us the best banh my place in town, Madam Khanh’s, and also a coffee stall. They didn’t look like anything special but often some of the best eats are out on the street. It uplifted the mood and topic of conversation and we felt a bit more satisfied before getting dropped off at our hotel, the Ruby Villa. It was a great find on Trip Adviser; an old house that had been renovated into a beautiful hotel. Perfect.
I’d planned to meet up with my travel buddies that evening as they were also in Hoi An. Walking through the streets into the town centre was surreal; it looked just how I’d imagined Asia to be as a child. All of the houses featured dark wood designs and lanterns hung from every shop and cable. Buildings were no higher than two storeys so the sky was clear to observe. Even more incredible was the ancient Japanese Bridge which was lit up in all it’s glory. Sure, it’s touristy, but I’d go as far to say that it’s one of the prettiest places I’ve seen. I found the others and we took in the scene with drinks on a bar balcony.
There are plenty of shops, trips and classes in Hoi An, but we were happy to spend our day walking along the streets and people watching. We hired push bikes to get around and visited some of the key buildings, and of course, stopped for drinks every hour to cool off. As the day started to dim we took a short boat trip with a funny little lady. I’m not sure what she was chewing but it made her teeth and gums bright red. She pointed out all of the Vietnamese animals and their names and laughed whenever we repeated anything. I’m always amazed by how these women are able to perch as they do. I think we should squat more at home to keep up the flexibility in our legs.
Saigon was our final destination before Dad returned home. After our day in Hoi An we returned to the hotel and the owner called for a car. He was a nice man and let us shower in his mother in law’s room before we left, and served us ginger tea whilst he told us about how he’d bought this traditional house from an old man and created he hotel without touching the original design. You always learn new things when you talk to the locals.
Our flight had been delayed and we didn’t land until 12:30 am, so we went straight to the hotel. It was decent but I had to chuckle when we pulled up as the front entrance was made up of two pillars encrusted with sparkling plastic gems. There was plenty of noise coming from the bell hops in the foyer who were roaring with laughter (staff tend to sleep in hotel lobbies rather than going home) and I don’t think they realised that that I was fully aware of the ’18+’ in the title of their YouTube video which was glaring from a flat screen. Oh, young boys.
On the Thursday, Dad wanted to visit the War Museum and I was happy to go and look at the bits I didn’t see last time. No sooner had we entered the grounds were we greeted by a man with three missing limbs selling books. (Now that I’ve visited Saigon twice I realise that there are no shortage of maimed war victims.) I don’t usually say no to books but I really didn’t have any more space in my ram-packed rucksack and Dad’s suitcase was filling up with all the crap I was sending back home with him. But, as you can imagine, it’s difficult to say no to such people, so Dad bought two books. They are photocopies, like lots of English books sold in Vietnam, but I think they’ll make interesting reads nevertheless.
In the afternoon we took a trip to the Reunification Palace, the site on which the war ended with the Fall of Saigon in 1975. From a distance it looks pretty average but the decor is quite interesting once you’re inside. The weird shapes across the windows are designed to look like bamboos, and there’s a breeze blowing in constantly as none of the rooms are sealed from the outside, which I liked.
The heat had defeated us after our walk around so we took a nap before heading out again in the evening. We took a trip to the Hard Rock which proved to be a brilliant idea as there was a live band on, and a decent one at that. I keep moaning about music being crap over here but I was impressed by the group. It was exactly what you’d expect to hear on a rock mixtape: Van Halen, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Lynard Skynard, and so on. But I’ve been so deprived of music and the bands energy was uplifting, so I didn’t care. We had the bass player singing on our table and passing Dad the mic. I’ve gotta say, he did better than the Hungarian bloke who barely hit a single note.
On our final day we went to Cu Chi so Dad could see the tunnels. It wasn’t a bad trip, although our tour guide, ‘Mike’ could talk for Vietnam. He gave us all the war history for the first part of the journey (which I slept through) and told us that he would let us relax after our stop. Did he heck?! Somebody started him off about football and we got two minutes to ‘relax’ before pulling up at the entrance.
After the tour we were due to go back to Saigon via the Mekong River but Mike had over booked the boat. Originally he said that he would cut the last two people to sign up from the list, but changed his mind and got us to draw out of a hat. I told Dad to pick for us, but he insisted ‘Sophie, you go, ladies first.’ And bugger me, I pulled the short straw. He did buy us a can of beer each but my main fear was that he would talk for the entire journey home too. Thankfully I think he got the message!
We rounded off the trip by going up the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in Saigon, for a view of the city (similar to the Lotte Building, but why not.) I really enjoyed it and we decided to stop and have a drink, and then thought, what the heck, let’s have dinner. *Cue standard Vietnamese disaster*
We had only been sat for five minutes and had decided what we wanted when a waiter laid two dishes in front of us. We thought it was a mistake and told him that we hadn’t yet ordered. This happened two more times and we could see the waiters nervously talking to each other. In the end the manager came out and told us the waiter thought we had ordered a rather pricey seven course meal for two, to which we told her that we had barely even seen the menu. Unsurprisingly for me, but not so much for Dad, she asked us to have it anyway as the order had gone through the till and the waiter would lose the equivalent from her salary (about £40 which is quite a lot over there). I was annoyed as I don’t see how this happened, and I don’t eat meat, but I didn’t want the waiter to have to lose out.
In the end, Dad agreed to have it and they put both portions onto each plate. Needless to say he was stuffed after the fourth course and it was time for us to go so he could get to the airport. Another two dishes arrived but we couldn’t eat anymore. Incredulously, the manager asked ‘why you don’t eat these? You still have one more course!’ I hate to waste but felt like saying love I know we are all fat but we can’t eat that much! To round off this ridiculous event, I got to witness her face when she returned our receipt and found Dad resting his foot on the chair to tie his shoe lace. The Vietnamese are super funny about dirt on shoes. Not the ending I’d envisioned.
Our farewell was emotional, but I could look forward to seeing my friends the following day. Certainly a week to remember.