Thursday, April 5, 2012

I Pho.. Do you Pho?

After a 12 hour bus ride from Siem Reap, and one nearly missed (I had 5 minutes) bus transfer.. I made it to Ho Chi Minh City!  Hello Vietnam!!!

Vietnam in a Coconut Shell

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
I spent one awesome day in Ho Chi Minh City!  It was a great city, but this girl had things to do!!  I visited the Reunification Palace, which I could have skipped.. it was nice.. something to fill the day!  Then, I wandered around the city for a few hours going down random streets that were filled with HUGE trees (not at all what I expected) and some beautiful parks.  Tried out the infamous Vietnam iced coffee with condensed milk and wrote in my travel diary (the first one I've ever WRITTEN.. which is why I'm going to keep Vietnam short and street...haaa... try!).  At one point I walked into a Subway (YES!  As in the American Subway.. my stomach had been a bit wonky the past few days, and Mama was CRAVING it!).. when I walked in I saw a bushy haired French guy whom I had met quickly in Siem Reap.  One of the many reasons I love traveling.. months later you can randomly meet someone you met in a different country!  So we wandered over to the War Museum (which used to be called the 'American War Crimes Museum'.. they've since changed it so as not to offend the Amuuuur-cans), however I was still offended! No, I take that back.  I wasn't offended, however it was ex-treme-ly one-sided.. and I suppose American museums about such things would be as well.  But it was one of the most depressing things I've seen, apparently people were seeing pictures of the Agent Orange victims and getting sick, it was floor after floor of horrible atrocious things.. and I was scared from then on out to tell anyone that I was American.  But when asked I always felt the urge to say "American, I've seen the War Museum.  I'm speechless.  I'm sorry.  Please don't hate me."  It was that... intense!  I didn't expect it to be so intense, but I guess what do you expect with war?! I just hope that things like that will STOP happening in this world!!

Mekong Delta
I was so unsure about going to the Mekong Delta.. I knew I didn't have enough time to do it properly and meander around the delta on my own... so I had to book a li'l tour of it.  Let's just say that the reviews of any form of tour online were not the most positive and uplifting of reviews.. but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do!  I booked through 'Saigon Backpackers Hostel', which I didn't stay at.. but I really liked the staff.  And it was only about $30 for 2 days + 1 night at a homestay and ll-inclusive.

Highlights of the trip:
-Emmett (an Irishman) and I rode bicycles around an island on the Mekong.
-Petting a water buffalo and letting it lick my feet.
-A 'homestay'... haha... if that is what you would like to call it.
-Drinking 'happy water' and learning how to properly 'cheers' the Vietnamese way.
-Taking a small 10 person boat to ferry across the river (with bicycles aboard) in order to reach the tiny market in our homestay's village.
-Learning how rice noodles are made.
-The floating market.. with their mesmerizing bamboo poles with fruits/veggies attached to them.

Night Trains
My primary mode of transportation in Vietnam was the night train.  One word - A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!  I've rarely been on trains in my life, and I've certainly never slept on a train.. so this was my first time to feel like I was in the movies! :)  I was only on 2 of them, but each for 12-14 hours long.  I always bought the cheapest bed (lowest class, THIRD bunk on the top) a.k.a. the bump your head 5 times trying to get out of it bunk.  I only used the bathroom on the train one time (out of the total 26 hours I've ridden on them).. I would rather try to pee in a bottle... quite gross!  I've never had such good night sleeps, however that could be because of the antihistamine/Hanoi beer combo.

The one time I tried to eat on the train, I ended up in the dining car alone with 9 train workers.  And let's just say they acted like they had never seen a foreign girl before.  They couldn't stop bluntly staring, giggling and being completely awkward.  One was totally drunk at 11:30AM and threw an empty beer can over his shoulder.  And one was trying to hook me up with his worker friend.. and none of them spoke English.  It was super funny though, and an experience I really wish I had on video!

Hoi An
What an enchanting town!  This little sweet spot is filled with great people, shopping galore, the color yellow, a lovely river, yummy food, bicycles, lanterns and more!  It is definitely not an easy town to meet people in, because it is so relaxed and absolutely dead after 7PM.. but it was so nice having quiet time and wandering around by myself!  However, by the end I was ready to make some friends and talk my little heart out!

This town is famous for all of the awesome seamstresses that live and work here.  Every door you passed was filled with fabric and mannequins, and someone saying 'Come see my clothes!'.  I wasn't planning on having anything made, but I caved.  It isn't too often you can have yourself measured and then some clothes made just for you 24 hours later!  For about $40 I had a dress shirt and dress made!  Although it's an interesting experience, I can't lie.. the town was slightly ruined by ALL the shops, there were HUNDREDS in such a small area!

I spent one day shopping, and the other day at the beach.  My ONLY day at the beach, had I known it was so close I would have planned on staying longer, but I had already booked my night train north!  I rented a bicycle and rode it to the beach, stayed long enough to literally bake (whoopsies, forgot to put sunscreen on my stomach.. the only part of me that burned.. and baby did it burn!).  I later biked all around the town, stopped to get a 0.25cent bia hoi (draft beer) at the riverfront then went to the second hand bookstore where I had Tea With Cu and Niu Le.

Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is known as the Halong Bay on rice fields.  I stayed here for two days and could have easily stayed longer!  Although it is quite a sleepy city, the areas surrounding the city are where the magic happens.

I found a strange little park that had scary rusting amusement rides, a huge lake with swan boats, and... a zoo.  But it was a zoo with only 4 types of animals... 2 different types of monkeys, a ram, and deer.. yes, as in the kind roaming all around Virginia!  I guess it makes since though, Africans probably thinks we're weird for having giraffes and elephants caged up in zoos.. seeing as they roam free where they live.  I just hope the animals are happy.. it was pretty sad to see.  I brought a British guy I met in the hostel to the park that night because I thought it was be a crazy time by the river with all of the little stand set up and all... but there was not a peep, and were practically the only ones there.. sad face!

I had a local guy take me around to the surrounding areas of Ninh Binh all day on the second day I was there.  We went to Kenh Ga, which is home to a few villages that are built on the riverfront.  It was great getting to see the local life whilst floating by on a boat.. and the even better thing was that the British guy and I were the only two foreigners we saw there!  Oh! And did I mention that the women row the boats with their feet in this area?! No lies!

We also went to Tam Coc which is the specific area that looks similar to Halong Bay.  I really enjoyed it, it was super beautiful and absolutely filled to the brim with tourists!  Luckily though, those tourists were only there for day trips because none of them were actually in the town of Ninh Binh itself!

Ninh Binh is famous for its goat meat.  Therefore, I ate some goat mammary (aka goat boob) for lunch!  It was chewily delicious!

The highlight of this area was definitely riding the motorbike around all day long.  I was able to see so much of the countryside, it was such a breath taking experience!

Oh bittersweet Hanoi.  I was sick most of the time I was in Hanoi, so needless to say I didn't really like it.  However, I don't think I would have particularly enjoyed it had I been in great health!  You can easily see this city in one day and move right along!  I ended up being there for a bit longer than that, but it was a good place for me to rest up (even though it's probably the reason why I was sick, I went from 80 degree weather to 55-60 degree weather in the snap of a finger!).

My favorite things about Hanoi were the huge trees (in some areas), the lake in the old area of town, and the international food.  By the time I made it up North I was absolutely OVER Vietnamese food.  It was the same monotonous thing over and over, pho pho pho pho, rice noodles, pho, spring roll, spring roll, spring roll, chewy meat, chewy meat, pho, mix some goat boob in there and you have a party!  I had  Indian and Thai while in Hanoi.. and oh, did it feel great!

I think most of Hanoi was overpriced as well, the people seriously had no problem charging you twice the amount things costed in the south.  LONG LIVE THE SOUTH!  I had no problem not buying any souvenirs from them as well ::sticking tongue out::... I just don't like giving my money to people who do that.. and I'm not going to bargain with them and give them any money for doing that either!  Jerks!

Halong Bay
Halong Bay is famous for its enormous limestone formations that jut out of the sea in a very majestic way.  It's also famous for junk boat tours!  Of course, I had to do one even though it was during the winter season... all would have been well, except...  I was as sick as a dog!  Which was exacerbated by the fact that it was about 55 degrees outside, zero heat on our junk boat, and I had a fever!  The trip was $50 with meals included, transportation and 2 days/1 night on the junk boat... and similar to the Mekong Delta tours.. Halong Bay tours did not exactly have the best of reputations.. which MAY be why I was an idiot and was too sick to care to listen to the travel agent when he started to tell me about the trip.. I stopped him, and said  'Sir, can we cut to the chase?  How much is it?'  '$50, and I won't charge you tax' 'Sold'... however, I'm convinced that even had I made a proper assessment of what he would have told me, the boat and trip would have been nothing similar to what was said (which is true in most cases you read about online).. therefore I'm not to angry at myself that my boat was crap and the crew even crappier!

However, I met a few great people, saw an awesome landscape and cave.. so all was well in the world!

Mai Chau
My little jewel! I will forever keep a little piece of you in my heart!  It was by far my favorite part of Vietnam.  The mere two days spent there didn't give it justice, but I soaked in every second of it!  It was a 5 hours drive from Hanoi, up and over huge mountains and then spiraling down into a magical rice filled valley. It is home to a few different hill tribes, the White Thai and Hmong were the main ones that I interacted with.  They are amazing weavers and dedicated rice and veggie farmers.  I have never seen such vibrant colors of green in my life!

The group I was with was amazing as well, 3 women from Singapore, Jorge from Chile, and Verena from Austria.  They were all so much fun!  Verena and I biked around Mai Chau for hours, and we also took a bicycle tour with the rest of the group.  The food was absolutely to die for, and the company was unbeatable!  It was also a miracle that Mai Chau was about 10 degrees warmer than Hanoi and no rain at all!!!  We also saw a dog and a monkey mating... I'm not lying... Verena and I about died.  This is also the first place I ever saw meat sold at the market!  And it definitely still looked like dog... :(
Also, my dream came true, and a lady let me hop in the rice field with her and scoop the moss off the top of the water and throw it out.  I had so much fun, I was so thankful that our translator asked her if I could do it.. and to my surprise, no one else wanted to give it a try!  The mud is super squishy and it's tricky not trampling the rice because it is so long and the water is so deep!  It's absolutely amazing that they do all of the work by hand, because the rows of rice are so perfectly straight.. absolutely amazing!


Two weeks in Vietnam was plenty.  I'm happy I conquered everything I wanted to, so now I don't feel like I need to re-visit to check things off my list... although Vietnam isn't a country I would highly recommend to anyone.. the scenery sure was spectacular and I am happy I've been there!

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