Our flight from Cape Town to Hanoi, via Doha and Bangkok, takes a total of about 30 hours. We all arrive with a heavy head due to lack of sleep and stuffy airplane cabin air. After handing in our health certificates to plainly uninterested officials – nope, no diarrhoea in the last two weeks, thank you very much – we and 100s of other international visitors start the visa application procedure in long queues, passport pictures and US$100 visa application fee handy. When a visa has been approved – read: looked at by an official, and physically transported from one desk to another – a passport picture and name appear on a widescreen TV, read out aloud by a computer voice. One by one. In a frustratingly random order. Almost hilarious, but after travelling for 30 hours, not quite. Most travellers just hover, staring at the screen, baffled, or chuckling, or complaining out loud. After a couple of impatient hours we get out of there, find our luggage and driver, and head for Hanoi.
It is 18:00 and night has fallen over Hanoi. Rain is pouring down, and will be for the next two days. We arrive in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, together with 100s of slow-moving and permanently hooting motorcycles swarming around us on potholed roads lined with a seemingly endless array of narrow, small shops and eateries, modern and bright high towers in the background.
After checking in at the quiet oasis that is our hotel in central Hanoi, we go out in search of dinner in the Old Quarter – with its streets full of perfectly fake branded shoes, clothes, bags, shirts, jackets, more mad traffic and incessant hooting and friendly crowds and odours of grilled meat, fresh greens and boiling broth prepared in mobile roadside restaurants. With dropped jaws and restless eyes, we move along muddy, broken pavements, blocked by long lines of parked motorcycles and various pavement-made food offerings – the salty and sweet smell of fish sauce everywhere.
People on motorcycles stop to order food from a lady on the pavement. A man walks in the middle of the road, and sings a melodramatic tune while pulling a humongous loudspeaker. A boy grills oysters on the pavement on an open fire. Handbags, shoes and shirts shout for my attention. People sell anything you can think of on the side of the road, while other people hang out in local, improvised corner cafés and sit on plastic kiddies chairs. It is a lot to take in. No one minds us, nobody hackles, nobody stares. Locals hardly seem to notice us, and the occasional fellow Western tourist looks away.
Hanoi is a friendly city, with down-to-earth people, and a more historical and cultural vibe than the whirlwind that is Saigon. The Old Quarter is an authentically Vietnamese experience in its own league, while upmarket hotels and shops can be found in other parts of Hanoi. We visit the Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh is burried, and the One Pillar Pagoda, the Red Bridge over the lake and the temple at the lake. Hanoi is also our introduction to genuine Vietnamese food – from a trendy fusion restaurant and a very popular pho restaurant to a little local garage with freshly made pho and grilled pork on a stick from a lady in the street.
For a couple of days, Charlotte makes a real effort to learn Vietnamese. Our hotel room is filled with computer voices prescribing the correct pronunciation for “Yes”, “No” and “Thank You”. With Julie, she makes a list of handy phrases, but none of them seem keen to try them out on real people. I test it on a waitress in Hanoi, and we all learn that the emphasis for “Kamoon” (Thank You) should be on “oon” while producing a sound that comes close to “whoop”. This, we learn later, is an essential aspect of the Vietnamese language – the many different intonations, indicated by little squirls above and below the vowels.
The road from Hanoi to Haiphong is boring – an industrial route from the capital to the coast. The rain hasn’t stopped since last night. Now monstrous trucks have been added to the mad traffic mix. When we arrive at Haiphong, we are given tickets for the ferry (“hydrofoil”) to Catba Island, and our driver leaves, without speaking one word since we left two hours ago in Hanoi.
A noisy Russian-made ferry takes us to Catba Island – an allegedly less crowded, less touristic alternative starting point to visit Halong Bay. Our guide tells us that Catba has about 20 cruise boats, while Halong City has about 600, frequented by large groups of Chinese (the border to China is only 180 km away). Still, Catba Island pretty much thrives on tourism, as is visible from the many restaurants and pubs along the waterfront. We fail to be impressed with the town’s bland tourist offerings.
Once we sail into the bay with our captain, chef and guide, we see villages built on the water, with small fish farms and dogs to scare the birds away. We kayak into dark caves to deserted lagoons. We eat freshly prepared seafood, and see expensive looking cruise ships with Christmas decorations and large dining rooms floating by. We’re all very impressed with the massive outcrops sticking out of the water – legend says that the lime rocks are remnants of a dragon’s defence against an intruder. Once we get in the kayaks, we get a real sense of the size of these magical rocks.
After lunch, we go out on the kayaks on our own, and get out at a beach with a small yellow temple. We spot a little black monkey with a yellow face in the trees, and our guide later tells me that only 90 of these Catba Langur monkeys are still alive – we were very lucky to see one. Later that day, following our guide with headlights strapped to our heads, we paddle in a dark cave that says “Stay Out. Danger”, which after 5 minutes of paddling takes us to a lagoon. We also come across a squid fisher, who paddles with his feet and sings along to Asian sounding music blaring out of a small speaker, and we see a jelly fish right next to our kayaks. Fresh seafood dinner with boiled oysters, fish and prawns is delicious. We go to bed on the boat, ankered in a quiet bay, at 7:30.
We fly from the brightly new Haiphong airport to Danang, and are collected by the hotel’s luxurious shuttle. Hội An is hot and humid and very crowded. A well preserved and very lively old town, Hội An is very popular among local and international tourists. Visiting the town a day before New Year’s Eve probably does not help …
Narrow streets are populated with strolling crowds and swerving motorcycles and shops and restaurants and pubs and coffee roasters and more shops. We eat some of the best food we will have during our entire trip at Mango Mango and Mango Rooms, and eat at the Red Bridge Cooking School twice.
We visit the Japanese Bridge and a couple of preserved old houses and temples, and stroll through Hoi An’s many narrow streets. We cycle all the way to the beach through beautiful and very wet agricultural lands. Because we’re tourists, we stop to look at a cow. We stop to look at ducks. We come across a snake in a ditch. We visit the vegetable village, and are amazed by the amount of water this area of Vietnam has available, while our home country South Africa currently struggles with a drought.
Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC) is the beating economic and financial heart of Vietnam and a blast for the senses. We take a taxi from the airport to our AirBnB flat on the eighth floor at Ben Thanh Tower (now The One Saigon, famous for the Air 360 rooftop bar). My favourite way to immerse myself in a city, is to grab my camera and walk and watch and greet people and worm myself through traffic and peep into buildings and doorways and alleyways.
Ho Chi Minh City, like every big city in the world, is a melting pot of cultures, flavours, colours, textures, sounds and smells. A boiling concoction of parallel dimensions, all moving alongside and criss-cross one another. New millionairs in posh SUVs race passed grandmothers that live from the homemade food they will sell that day. I’m told that “walking” is a sign of poverty for a Vietnamese. I see babies fast asleep on motorcycles. Whole families, whole households, whole shops being transported. Motorised traffic flashes, zooms and gurgles passed in every direction. Ahead of me, behind me – left right and centre. In streets, on pavements, in the middle of a market. People, too, are everywhere, sitting, walking, waiting, talking.
Neon adverts are shouting for attention. Shops are blasting upbeat music through bombastic loudspeakers. Grilled meat and boiling broth odours mix with exhaust fumes and rotting garbage before they batter my nostrils. People in Ho Chi Minh City seem friendly, occupied with business of their own, be it unaware of my presence. I never feel unsafe. Ocassionally I get invited to try a massage, but nobody harrasses me. Some people look inquisitively at me, some smile a little uncertain. I wish I could spend more time in this city …
I love exploring Ho Chi Minh City. After three days’ walking and a total of 60 kilometers on flipflops I still had no idea how to find my way around HCMC. The place is quite a labyrinth. Trendy shops with international fashion and electronic brands hug shoulders with improvised eateries and massage salons, that in turn hug shoulders with shiny skyscrapers, glitzy office buildings and green city parks. Third world and first world, old world and future world side by side.
Being told by a travel agent in HCMC that the tour to My Tho – the closest Mekong River Delta tour from HCMC – is rather crowded, bland and superficial, we set off on a more expensive and private trip to Ben Tre, two hours’ driving from HCMC with a driver and a private guide. By boat, and later on foot, we visit a traditional brick-baking facility, coconut candy and mat makers, and have barracuda for lunch.
Phu Quoc is only half an hour flight from HCMC, and a very popular holiday island for Vietnamese and international tourists. We decided to end off our trip at a resort, to recover from our adventures and prepare for work and school that will be awaiting us back home. Just 2 weeks earlier, a typhoon had skirted the island, coming from the Philippines where it had caused lethal havoc. We had the most beautiful weather, be it hot and humid like everywhere else in Vietnam. We took taxis between the airport and the resort, and between the resort and VinPearl Park – an entertainment park and a little present for our daughters to put up with their parents’ travel explorations for 2 weeks. Along the way, we see a lot of tourists on motorcycles, something we had not really come across in the cities, presumably because traffic on Phu Quoc is a lot calmer. The little harbour town of Phu Quoc is pleasant, not much different from other towns we have visited, be it a lot more touristic. The resort was a great idea, and included two pools, a pool bar, a beach with loungers and beach bar, kayaks and an average restaurant with live music – I suppose it could have been a resort anywhere in the world.