South Vietnam

The last week in Vietnam we stayed in the South around Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as most people still call it here. With about 7 million people it's about twice as big as Hanoi and it feels much more like a capital, there are modern high rises and wide boulevards. I cycled around the city for two days and the traffic is mad but is was fun. There is a small area with dozens of guest houses and restaurants and hundreds of Western tourists. Even though we stayed in the area we quickly learnt to avoid most eateries there. Thanks to local hostel owner Hanh, we found a small local Vietnamese place and she even choose some Vegetarian dishes for us the first night. Those were delicous and we went back to the place several times to have the same food: Garlic fried rice, Mango salad, diced tofu and a local vegetable called Mekong Flower. Those kind of places also have the beer girls, or in the case what we called the Tiger lady (because she served us Tiger beer). These girls come in short skirts and do nothing but serve beer.

One night we went to the 'Saigon Saigon' bar at the roof top of the Caravelle, one of the finest hotels in Saigon. We had really really nice ice-cream coctails up there and a great view over the city. I do this kind of thing with friends in London once in a while and it is really nice to spend an evening in a different (posh)atmosphere. Another night we met up with Gulschan, who I know through friends in Berlin and who nows lives in Saigon. We met at a trendy bar on the other side of town where they showed arty videos and served expensive drinks. Again it was a great change from the backpackers scene, we met several expads and there is a big difference, most of them avoided the backpackers ghetto alltogether, I guess I would too.

We did a two day trip down into the Mekong Delta, the area south of Saigon where the mighty Mekong stream splits up into 12 smaller rivers. There are various other rives and canals and in some cases ferries are the only way to cross those wide ones. We went on boat trips on the rivers and canals and visited floating markets where both sellers and buyes meet each others with their boats on the river. It makes it much easier to transport things.

I also visited the Vietcong tunnels where whole villages went underground to hide from the American troops. You can go into some of the tunnels and experience the life down there and I was glad I only had to stay in there for 15 minutes. View photo slideshow for Saigon. or the ones of the Mekong Delta.
White sand dunes in Mui Ne The day before we took the bus from Dalat back to the coast and to a small seaside resort town called Mui Ne. After walking along for nearly an hour we settled for a small hotel a little bit outside the town center. We have a bungalow right next to the beach, about 10 meters from the water. We can hear the waves hitting the shore at night. The weather fantastic. After breakfast on the beach we rent a small motorbikes for 6 US$ for the day. I haven't been on one for over 15 years and even then it was just for a few hours. So I have to get used to it again. After some rounds on my own I pick up Olivia from the hotel and we head north along the coast. Our first stop is at the red sand dunes. The sand is really dark red and the dunes are pretty tall but there are dozens of tourists on them. We first avoided the hawkers and drive to the end of the dunes and then climb up. But some kids spotted us and run after us. They offer some sort of small matt to use as a slide to slide down the dunes on it. We both do it but it isn't too exciting and not as good as on snow. We move on to the next bay with a stretch of empty beach we had seen on the way from Dalat the day before. Here the waves are much better than in the bay where all the hotels and resorts are. We have a great time in the waves. On another ten kilometers to a small village where we have lunch in the garden of someones house. The lady pointed us in the direction of a gravel road. We take it and after another few miles we reach the white sand dunes. There is no single soul anywhere in sight. The white dunes are much bigger than the red ones and we just walk around in them for a good while. At some point we can see nothing but white sand, it feels like in the Sahara desert. Back to the beach with the great waves for another swim. Finally back into town where we explore the whole place which is pretty stretched out along the coast, so it help having a motorbike. Back at the hotel I meet a girl from Hamburg and we are having dinner with her. She is travelling northbound and has been to Cambodia so we exchange tips on where to go for food and sights with each other. view more photos
The previous day we did a 12 hour bus ride from Hoi An to Nha Trang. After a decent breakfast at the Cheers Cafe we rent bicycles. We first go to the south end of the town to check out the ferries to the outlying islands. We find many tourist boats but we want to take our bikes. A guy explains that foreigners are not allowed on the regular ferries because they are two old and unsafe. We cycle all the along the beach, the town is stretching for over 7 kilometer of shoreline. On the southern end we visit a Cham temple complex, most of it is undestroyed, much better than in My Son. We continue along the beach to the end of the next bay and then return to visit a pagoda and a sleeping and a seated Buddha. The second one is pretty big on the top of a hill. We can see the whole town and also some coconut tree forest to the south. For the next hour we cycle through that forest which hosts many traditional houses where all inhabitants are greeting us. The don't seem to get many tourists here, but for me this was the highlight of the day. Next we have lunch on the street and even manage to get something vegetarian. Back to the hotel and then to the beach for a swim. The waves are not quite as high as in Hoi An but the break much closer to the beach and are really vicious. In the evening we are meeting up with Sam, an Aussie girl we met on the bus and which I had already met in China some time ago for an evening. We go to a local vegetarian restaurant which prepares the tofu in very meaty styles, it's hard to tell the difference and it's very tasty. Afterwards we go to the Casablanca bar for drinks. Rather than the usual beers we choose local coctails because they are cheap (75p) and when we arrive it's still happy hour, so we get two for the price of one.
In the morning I take a tour to My Son, a site of ancient Cham temples about fifty kilometers away. Olivia has been there on her visit to Hoi An, so I am on my own. The entrance of the park if 3KM away from the actual site. There is a single minibus and two jeeps to carry tourists to the site but there are over 100 people at the gate and most of us decide to walk rather than wait for the bus. Most of the temples are in ruins, about half of them because they are just old, but the other half was destroyed by the Americans in the war because the Vietcong was hiding around them. This is an Unesco World heritage site and I guess it should be, being very old but it's not really worth the visit. There is just not enough to see. I'm back at the hotel by 1:30 and after lunch we are back on bicycles and on the way to the beach. The beaches east of Hoi An go all the way up to Danang which is 40 KM away, so we cycle along the road leading north for a bit before hitting the water. Again the waves are great. By the time we get out, the sun is setting down and some guys are sending us into the wrong direction. When we get back to the hotel around six it's pitch dark. We go back to Ly's and I am ordering a speciality of the house, some grilled pork that you have to put into spring rolls that you fill and roll yourself. This is by far the best dish I had in all of Vietnam. Olivia is enjoying a vegetarian Cao Lou as well. We rush to a small restaurant near our hotel to get a last order of Deep Fried Ice Cream. This has been our favourite dessert for some days and we haven't found it anywhere else. Back at the hotel we settle down at the pool for several beers and a nice talk. I really enjoyed this evening, but it seems we are too loud or to drunk and we get kicked out of the pool area and continue drinking in our room.
Yesterday, our first day in Hoi An was gray and rainy and we spend most of it in the hotel watching Studio Ghibli DVDs (Japanese Animation) that I had bought in China. But today looks finally much nice and by midday we have completely blue skies. As Olivia had been to Hoi An before I do the Lonely Planet walking tour on my own. Hoi An is most famous for its old town with many temples and houses but even more for the vast number of tailors that are waiting to make any cloth for you. Suits, shirts and dresses are most popular but you can ask for everything, even shoes. The have western Fashion catalogs and you can choose the fabrics right there. Then after measuring you they get to work and the next day you can pick up the finished item. Most people who have been to Hoi An sent home huge boxes of clothing. After some consideration I decided not to get another tailored for me. Do I ever need a second suit? Should I use my current measures or the ones I had back in London? Where would I send it to? Anyway, it's a really lovely town with some rivers and lots of hotels and restaurants. Around noon I pick up Olivia from the hotel and we rent bicycles to go to the beach which is about 5 KM away to the east. After leaving the bikes in a monitored parking lot we walk along the shores of the South Chinese Sea for a while until we get to a deserted part. Here we go swimming for nearly an hour. It's hot and the waves are fantastic. The beach is not as good as the one in Cuba and the water is not quite as clean but the waves are way better. We're having a lot of fun. So far the food we had in Hoi An wasn't that great so tonight we are going to a place recommended in the book. It's Miss Ly Cafeteria 22, all the dishes we order are the best in town we had so far. I had Cao Lau, one of the local specialities and it's much better than the other time I had it. Back to the hotel for a swim in the pool.