Vietnam: Potent Coffee And Tropical Rains
POSTED BY Thamar IN Adventures, Vietnam @ January 5, 2015 - 2:10 pm

By Richard Clark

June 10th: "Good morning Vietnam!"

We were on a Singapore Airlines flight and everything was swell – great food, movies and service. It was a few hours stop in Singapore before our connecting flight to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. By this stage we were both shattered because the flight left Delhi at midnight and arrived in Singapore six hours later, and we hadn't slept much. We felt like we were in a dream state as we waited for the next flight.

We arrived in Vietnam hoping to get a visa on arrival but soon found out this was not the case. Everyone had an "approval letter" from random travel companies, which you can get for $10 online, and which we had read wasn't necessary. Apparently you pay them to "vouch" for you and that in turn they help you get a visa. Then a lady from Singapore Airlines said we should catch the next flight back to Singapore, unless we found a travel agent and paid them $140 each for their "services"! Clearly this was a money making scheme, and all of a sudden a travel agent appeared. With a bitter taste in our mouths we paid the money for a 15-day visa. Welcome to Vietnam.

Outside on the pavement I assembled the bikes. It was about midday so we had plenty of time to cycle into town and find somewhere to stay. The one thing we noticed straight away was the number of scooters on the road – way more than we had seen on our travels so far. Again we had to dance delicately with the traffic. As we approached Pham Ngu Lao Street, we could see a concentration of hotels, lodges and restaurants. We enquired at one place then a little old lady came up to us and said she had a few rooms for us to look at. We followed her and all of a sudden we dived into the back alleys and were weaving through tight turns, dodging puddles, scooters and washing.

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We chose one room which was $7 for the night. It was small but clean and the lady who lived there was very sweet, even though she couldn't speak a word of English. After a shower we crashed for three hours and were woken up by a dramatic downpour. Ah we were in South East Asia! The sound of rain was quite soothing as we drifted in and out of consciousness.

The next morning I had to send in a search party to find Thamar, because she was buried so far into the pillow. Mind you, I was just as tired. It was 10am by the time we woke up! We went along to the immigration office in the morning in an attempt to extend our visas but it was no surprise when they told us we could only do it through a tour company at an inflated price.

We sampled some new street food, which was awesome! There seem to be an abundant supply and selection of street food stalls. Thamar went to get her hair cut and coloured (back to blonde from brown) and I went along to one of the travel agencies to book bus and ferry tickets to Phu Quoc Island, which is just off the southern coast. The other agenda was to apply for an extension to our visas. A few downpours and a cup of tea later and Tham's hair was done and the admin sorted.

There was park just down the road from us so we laced up our shoes and went for a run. It was great to see how many people there were out and about, playing badminton, dancing and playing their version of hacky sack. It was so humid that we were dripping with sweat after our run, but it was a manageable heat compared to India!

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That evening we met up with a Kate, a friend Thamar used to work with and spent some of the evening getting the lowdown on life in Saigon. On our walk back we found some older looking buildings and noticed how much cleaner the streets were. As the rain started again, we happened upon a night market, something that Tham really enjoyed the last time she was in Asia. There were loads of clothing stands and the usual nick-nacks then there were the eateries. As we sat down under a makeshift shelter the rain started to bucket down so hard that we had to raise our voices to hear each other.

The next day we made our way back to this market, however this time it was indoors. It seems to be small at night but is only on the streets. On the inside it was a tightly packed maze of clothing, shoes and other shops. You can really get carried away buying things because things are cheap and its normal to bargain with the shop owners. We sat down to enjoy an ice coffee and started to chat to another couple who had just arrived in Saigon. He was from London and she was from New York. We've actually been craving conversation with other Westerners so it was a satisfying time.

Our night bus to Rach Gia was booked for 10pm that evening and from there it would be a ferry trip to Phu Quoc island the next morning. So we spend the morning packing and dropped our bicycles off at an underground parkade. We were also able to store some of our luggage with the travel company who we booked the bus and ferry through, which was mighty convenient.

After that admin we made our way to the War Remnant Memorial (Vietnam War), quite an emotional display. In the gardens were old tanks, helicopters and planes. Inside were mainly pictures and newspaper articles from reports who were there at the time of the war. Quite a few reporters actually died while documenting the war. The there was a whole section on "Agent Orange" a chemical they sprayed extensively. It caused a lot of deaths and birth defects which can still been seen today since it is a gene defect which gets passed down to the children of affected parents. Then there was the usual display of all the weapons and ammunition used.

We rendezvoused at the travel company that night in order to catch a taxi to the bus station. We were told that we were booked on a sleeper bus (seats to lie down on) but when we got there it was a standard bus. It was going to be a long night. We arrived in Rach Gia at 5am where we had to wait for a shuttle to take us to the dock where the ferry was. We were shattered once more and sat staring at each other while waiting for our coffees to arrive.

The ferry left at 8am, fortunately it was air conditioned and the seats were comfortable, we both managed to have a bit of a sleep. It was a 2 hour boat trip before we arrived at Phu Quoc where there were plenty of taxis and busses waiting to take us to our various accommodations. Most of which were on the other side of the island so you really had to make use of them.

We had earmarked a place to stay and the taxi driver dropped us off at the front door. At $10 a night it’s basic but spacious and clean and about 50m from the beach. We had arrived in Paradise! It didn't take us long before we had put our stuff down and were on the beach. A bit of a swim, something to drink and clear skies to accompany us. The day seemed to float by and we sat in awe of a spectacular sunset that evening.

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June 11th

After a long sleep we emerged slowly to greet the day. It was breakfast on the beach (at a restaurant) with some strong coffee then a slow stroll back. I was side tracked by looking for shells on the beach and it was about an hour before we got back to our room which would normally be a 10min walk. We hired bikes and made our way into the town which is very quaint but is still bussling with action, especially around the harbor with people selling fresh goods.

That evening we went to their night market which mainly consisted of eating spots selling wide selections of fish and shell fish. It was all laid out in basins of ice for all to see. We selected a whole Red Snapper which they wrapped in foil and put on the braai. It went well a Saigon beer.

The night market is small but there seem to be plenty of locals around and it was great to just walk up and down taking in the smells and looking at the other stalls. Feeling well chilled we took a gentle ride home. It was the end of a great relaxing day and evening.

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June 12th

Tham’s birthday! We had planned the day before to go on a snorkeling trip to the southern part of the island. But this morning at about 5am we were woken up by a big down pour and by the time we got out of bed it didn't look like it was going to clear any time soon, so we cancelled the trip. We had another slow start and spent time eating breakfast at the same beach restaurant we were the previous day. The sound of crashing waves on the beach is quite relaxing and after a while we relocated about 20m away and lay down to get a full body massage, another one of Tham's favorite things to do.

The following day we rented a scooter and road down to Sao beach which is on the southern part of the island. Wow this beach is seriously idyllic! White sandy beach, shallow gentle waves lapping, clear blue skies. It wasn't hard to relax here.

 

June 14th

Today we booked our return tickets to Saigon which cost us $30 each, we would leave the following morning. We rented bicycles today and made our way back towards the town and up to the Northern part of the island. As we approached the harbor bridge in town it was closed to traffic and open for boats. We waited about 10min and in that time there was a down pour which cleared just as the bridge was open for us to cross. The road was quiet and the vegetation thick as we road towards Mango beach resort. The beach was great and we spend a few hours relaxing in the sun and taking the occasional dip in the ocean.

After a late run on the beach, just as the sun had dipped from the horizon, we made our way to spend a lingering dinner on our last night on the island of paradise.

 

June 15th

It was an early pick up from the bungalow (7am) on our way back to the ferry and onto the bus ride back to Saigon. The bus ride took 7 hours but we had a pit stop along the way and this time we had a sleeper bus, which made things more comfortable. At the bus stop it was into a shuttle towards the bus office. From there we caught a city bus and, with the help from a French lady, worked out where we needed to get off. We found accommodation across the walkway from where we stayed last time and soon made our way back to the streets to find some grub, this time it was a tasty shawarma.

 

June 17th

We popped in at Kim's for a stiff coffee, fruit salad and banana pancake before heading off to the Remembrance Palace which is about a 10min from where we are and just around the corner from the War museum. It was a 2 hour wonder around the palace and we landed up joining a tour group to get a better idea of what went down there.

That afternoon we went for a short run, followed by a great Skype call with family. We were meeting up with Tham's friend again to watch the SA vs ENG rugby game. The game only started at 10pm which is quite late for me but the Boks played well so I made it through to the final whistle.

We planned to leave the following day but decided to delay it by another day so we could plan better for the days and weeks to come. It's been another chilled day, eating street food and watching the rain from a cozy restaurant. I've enjoyed Saigon with all its shops, busy streets and afternoon down pours.