I want to start out by saying thank you to the many friends who have offered us suggestions and tips on places to see and things to do during this part of the trip. And also, to follow that up with an apology that we were not able to do all of them. There is so much to do here that we would need far more than our three months in Southeast Asia to see it all, but we did try to hit all of the highlights.
Speaking of highlights, our time in Hoi An was definitely one of them. Despite being an anagram for Hanoi, it could hardly be more different. Hoi An is a small town catering to tourists from all over, with an old city centre lining the Song Thu Bon river and a very laid-back vibe. It is bright and cheery and delicate, in contrast to the chaos of Hanoi. Yes, it is largely a tourist trap, but a very historic, scenic and inexpensive one. Here, the idea is that you buy a multi-visit pass to see your pick of the downtown relics. We visited some pagodas, assembly houses, an ancient house of a wealthy family and saw a traditional song and dance performance. We also hired locals to take us out of the city on motorbikes and show us the countryside. They mostly took us to other tourist spots, but it was far better than doing so on a crowded bus full of white people. We tried our hand at pottery in the nearby pottery village and we rode wicker basket boats through a maze of water coconut islands. We ended with lunch at a “highly recommended” spot, that belonged to the brother of one of our drivers. But lunch was great – this is where we first tried cau lau, and we had some nice conversation with them in broken English.
My favourite thing about Hoi An, however, is that every evening, when it gets dark, all of the thousands of paper lanterns and animal lanterns lining the river light up and it feels truly magical. You are supposed to let out a paper lantern with a small candle in the river, and make a wish upon it. We did this, of course, but, sadly, our ‘wish’ tipped over after just a few seconds on the water. I guess it will be a while before we travel again… We had a wonderful massage and riverside dinner on our last night and were lucky enough to see our German friends again for one last cau lau lunch the next day before heading on.
We boarded our second overnight bus in Vietnam, with a 24 hour trip ahead to Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone here still affectionately calls Saigon). The trip was long, but they were bed-style seats and, thankfully, no one had food poisoning this time.
From the get-go Saigon was not our favourite city. We arrived at our hotel in the evening and were just off the main strip, which was jam packed with bars, pizza places, burger joints, nighclubs with bored-looking escorts outside meant to lure men inside. There was even a burger king (way to go, communism). The prices were double what they were in the rest of the country, and that is only if we were lucky enough to find any Vietnamese food. It was clearly meant for young travelers that wanted to party with all the comforts of home. We, however, were looking for more culture. We spent the next day visiting the monuments and presidential palace (which we could only see from the outside as it was closed), as well as the war museum. Laden with VC propaganda, it was still very impressive and sad, at times even very unsettling, and I would certainly recommend it as a stop, especially to those, like myself, who are used to seeing the war as a heroic liberation effort by the Americans and would like to experience the other side. We walked around the city and down the central promenade a bit before returning for a low-key night by our hotel.
The next two days, we visited the Mekong Delta. We had planned to do this on our own, but the prospect of an organized tour appealed to our lazier side so we booked through an agency instead. I would recommend doing it on your own as we felt a bit hoarded along the attractions with throngs of other tourists and it seemed a tad voyeuristic. There were certainly worthwhile attractions – boating through the canals, visiting the floating markets, seeing a rice noodle factory, but it all seemed a bit rushed. It became worthwhile, however, for us as we opted to do a homestay for our overnight, rather than a hotel, which everyone save two others chose. For this, we met our host on the roadside, and he boated us along a canal to his rural house, where his wife had prepared a beautiful dinner of fresh fish and do-it-yourself rice paper rolls. Our host, Tchan, spent the evening with us, sharing rice liquor and playing cards. When there are cards involved, we discovered, language is not so important. We slept in a bamboo hut that night and felt very grateful that we did not chose the hotel.
We also stopped at a really impressive temple complex with massive Buddha statues, en route.
We arrived back in Saigon the second evening and booked our bus out Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the next morning. Sad to leave, but exciting to ramble on. ❤
(And, just because, here is some more food)