I wond’r if we can stay here forever? Doing very little on the gorgeous island of Phu Quoc

Despite nearing the end of our Asian odyssey, new exciting forms of transport were just around the corner! After a quick mini bus transfer to a bus depot on the outskirts of Can Tho, we soon found ourselves finally setting foot on board a sleeper bus. Rather than the usual two rows of seats either side of a central aisle, here there were three separate rows of bunk-beads lined up along two narrow aisles. Initially it felt quite odd basically lying down on the floor (as we were on the bottom), but soon we settled in and were both genuinely disappointed once we had to get off at the ferry terminal two hours later 🙁

As we’d already purchased our boat tickets to Phu Quoc while in Can Tho, we had an hour to loiter about the waiting room. Not wanting to risk the grubby looking street food, we instead played it safe in the form of Vietnamese pot noodles.

Once on board we were treated to some interesting TV entertainment: a Vietnamese stand up comedy routine featuring blokes with odd haircuts, followed by an extremely long tourism piece in the form of a cheesy music video. At least we then got to enjoy a proper film: Kong Island, making good sense of it despite the volume being turned down and it having Vietnamese subtitles.

Following a half hour taxi ride from the ferry terminal, we arrived at our Homestay in Ong Lang on the central west coast of the island. We were immediately greeted by the lovely owner, who welcomed us with AMAZING passion fruit drinks, made from the fruits from his own garden!

After hearing how touch and go the weather had been recently, we decided to rush down to the beach for a quick swim before catching the sunset. The water was beautifully warm and the sunset certainty didn’t disappoint:

Later that evening while having dinner in a nearby mosquito infested outdoor eatery, poor Joella became unwell. Having spotted her plate of untouched food, the owner very kindly made a pot of ginger tea for us to take home with us. Although the tea was kindly received, unfortunately it didn’t have the magical immediate curing effect we hoped or were promised.

With Joella ill, I was left to be an independent traveller for the next couple of days (in between fetching everything she needed of course). One evening I decided to go for a walk alone and ended up returning waste high in mud, having had to run away from a rather pissed off looking dog! Perhaps I’m not cut out to travel on my own…

Fortunately we both made it to the beach again on our last day, before enjoying food and drinks with the homestay owners family and friends. One of the local chaps who spoke good English helpfully educated us in local politics and how to swear in Vietnamese – very handy!

I can’t believe the next stop will be our last – Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City…

I wond’r if these cigarettes are free? Exploring Ben Tre and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta

The famous Mekong Delta, in the South West of Vietnam was to be our next target for exploration. However, to begin our venture, first we needed to catch a flight from Da Nang down to Saigon, and stay there for the night. Annoyingly the flight was rescheduled to 10.30pm, then delayed to 11.30pm, but eventually we made it to Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon). Having heard a lot about taxi scams that occur (e.g. meters being tampered with to run at double the correct amount) we were on our guard. So much so I ended up having a stand-off with our taxi driver, dropping us off at our accommodation; he wanted us to pay for his airport collection ticket on top of what the meter said. In the end I caved in after Joella had already walked off, after all it was only 80p… Later I found out this is standard practice – doh!

That night we were staying in a Hostel for the first time, and were pleasantly surprised by how large, up-market and clean our room at the Himalaya Phoenix was! Following a quick breakfast of bread, eggs and fruit, we soon found ourselves in a [scam-free, Vinasun] taxi en route to the bus station. On arrival we were greeted with a number of people shouting at us from various glass fronted cubicles, barraging us with sales chat in Vietnamese. Luckily we already knew exactly where we were headed, so purchased our tickets to Ben Tre with ease.

Following a straight forward 3 hour bus journey, then an unexpected free transfer, we soon arrived at our hotel for the next two nights: The Oasis. Although it could be argued the name is a little misleading (the rooms were fairly basic and in need of repair and modernisation), we were more than happy with the vibe from the other guests and staff.

The owners were a Kiwi bloke named Ken and his Vietnamese wife. Ken was a chatty guy with many a story to tell, so much so he’s actually written and published his life story: “Life is an Adventure, if you choose to make it so”. I was thoroughly intrigued, so couldn’t help purchasing a copy! I soon found myself nearly half-way through, fascinated learning about what it was like growing up in New Zealand during the 1950’s.

As there were only two restaurants in the town, we ended up sharing a taxi and a table for dinner with fellow hotel guests, a German couple from Cologne. The food was distinctly average, having opted for rather uninspiring beef noodle stir-fry. We weren’t feeling adventurous enough to try any of the other delights on the menu such as crocodile, sparrow or snake…

Ben Tre – Coconut tour (and a lot of beers)

Seeing we hadn’t yet experienced a guided tour on our travels thus far, we were easily swayed to book ourselves in after being told how awesome it was by fellow guests, which was in part down to the impressive local knowledge of Hong the tour guide.

After making our way on board a make-shift passenger boat, consisting of plastic patio chairs lined up along a mid-sized wooden vessel, we set off for our first port of call: a coconut factory. Apparently Ben Tre is known for it’s coconuts, being one of the largest exporter / grower in Vietnam. It was amazing to see just how useful coconuts are and that not a single part is wasted – the cream is often used for make-up, the flesh is squeezed to make candy, the fibrous husk (coir) is made into mats and the shell can be turned into ornaments.

Our second stop was the coconut candy shop, where we were also able to see the process of turning coconut flesh into a variety of coconut flavoured chewy sweets. It was impressive to see just how much coconut juice could be squeezed out of the tiny pieces of flesh, all by hand! After trying a few I was temped into buying a chocolate-coconut flavoured combo; unfortunately we later discovered this flavour was mostly inedible… Before heading to the next part of the tour, we were taken on a tasty fruit safari 🙂 Finally, we were introduced to all the strange looking fruit we’d seen on our travels and got to try Jack Fruit, Rambutan and dragon fruit as well as the usual bananas and pineapples.

Next, we visited a workshop where they were weaving mats by hand. We were mesmerised by how fast the workers were weaving – just as well, considering that sadly many jobs like these are being taken over by machines. If that were to happen, many people like these would be without a job, and will often find it impossible to re-train, considering some are disabled after stepping on unexplored land mines left from the war.

For lunch we were treated to more local delicacies, all while being surrounded by dense jungle. The first course consisted of Elephant Fish, that was skilfully pulled apart by our tour guide Hong, allowing us to wrap it up inside delicately thin rice paper, along with spring onions and cucumber, which we dipped into a lovely peanut sauce. Next was a beautiful chicken Thai Green Curry, and finally we had some pineapple seasoned with pepper (honestly, it works) – yummerz!

The final part of our excursion saw us navigating down hidden canals that seemed to be under constant threat of being completely taken over by mangroves either side. We all got to wear Vietnamese rice / coolie hats, and I couldn’t help imagine the fear that American soldiers must have felt while paddling through these unknown waters to their potential death at the hands of Viet Cong.

That evening we enjoyed some takeaway pizzas, swinging on the numerous hammocks that surrounded the swimming pool, swapping stories and literally drinking the bar dry with a friendly Aussie couple and two talkative Irish girls.

Can Tho – Cai Rang floating market (and complimentary cigarettes)

The next day, following brekky, we were soon on our way via a local bus to the capital of the Mekong Delta: Can Tho. I expected a larger town than the sleepy Ben Tre we’d come from, but wasn’t expecting what we’d find: a large, bustling city, complete with a strip of brightly lit hotels and walkways lining the riverfront, which reminded me of Las Vegas.

After checking into our hotel, we spent the evening grabbing some food and strolling along the riverfront, while trying to avoid a particularly insistent lady who wanted us to hire her boat, despite our repeated no’s that became angrier by the second.

The next morning was reminiscent of the sunrise at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia; we were once again up before dawn, in order to catch a glimpse of the famous Cai Rang floating market at it’s busiest.

By 6am we’d already sourced a boat, driver and were headed up river in the early morning sun towards the market. Within half an hour we were in amongst all the hustle bustle, yet despite it being 6.30 in the morning, much of the market had already completed its trading for the day! Fortunately however, there was still a lot going on, and we were entertained by various fruits and vegetables being thrown between boats. Cleverly you can tell what a particular trader is selling based on what’s attached to the tops of their large poles. We were keen to get involved so grabbed ourselves a coffee from a passing coffee boat.

Once back on dry land we made our way over to a cafe on the river side, for which we had been given breakfast tokens by our hotel. It turned out to be a rather fancy establishment complete with a plastic looking head waiter with a creepy smile and an ultra tight fitting suit. Confusingly we were even given complimentary cigarettes to go with our beef noodle soup and smoothies! Not wanting to miss out on free stuff (my Scottishness shining through again) I opened the packet intent on having a puff, but I just couldn’t do it.

Before heading for food, we fancied a couple of beers and soon found ourselves talking to a charismatic chap originally from Can Tho. He kept us entertained a lot longer than we planned to hang around for, challenging us with brain teasers involving matches and arithmetic – who knew 1 + 1 doesn’t always equal 2? We then couldn’t resist [another] KFC for dinner…

In the morning we’ll be departing the busy Mekong Delta for Phu Quoc, which was to be our desert island getaway

I wond’r how many shoes we’ll end up buying? Fighting temptations in Hoi An’s beautiful old town, Vietnam

There’s no denying it – we were properly excited for our next journey:

Although it would ultimately prove just as disjointed and long as our previous travels, at least it would introduce a mode of transport not yet experienced while away thus far: the choo choo train! Unlike Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam has in part a working railway, which mostly follows it’s Eastern coast line. Frustratingly it doesn’t go all the way from Hue where we were, to Hoi An where we were going; but at least it went as far as Da Nang, leaving the final 30km to be completed by local bus – more on that in a bit…

Train coming into Hue station
Inside Vietnamese train carriage
We opted for the more luxurious soft seat option, which meant just that – soft seats, as opposed to the cheaper ‘hard seats’ made from wooden benches. The comfy seating, air-con and extra large windows allowed us to truly enjoy the passing scenery; consisting of dramatic coastline, beautiful untouched beaches and dense tropical jungles. Despite the painfully slow speeds and constant stopping to let other trains pass, the train definitely trumped making another straightforward bus journey.

Looking out through train window at Vietnamese scenery
Vietnamese train window scenery
On arrival in Da Nang, after departing the coolness of the train carriage, we were met with a relentless wall of heat. Despite not really knowing where we were headed, we ducked past the waiting taxi drivers and began walking in the baking heat towards a hostel, to ask where to catch the local bus to Hoi An. Along the way we noticed a KFC pop up on my Google Maps (I’d cleverly downloaded an offline map of Da Nang), and couldn’t resist. After some familiar zinger burgers and fries while using the free wifi, we’d soon worked out where the bus stop was ourselves.

As the number 103 approached, the doors sprung open and a confident, yet friendly lady ushered us to throw her our bags. We quickly followed our rucksacks up the steps, and were efficiently directed to our seats. Despite fellow passengers being sick and a lack of air-con, it was to be another entertaining journey; watching the changing scenery go by while being mightily impressed with the lady’s multitasking skills: collecting money, directing people where to sit and taking care of everyone’s luggage, all while not falling over as the bus lurched from stop to stop.

Giving directions to Vietnamese motorbike taxis
After arriving at Hoi An bus station, followed by a 15 minute rip off motorbike ride (they overcharged us and lengthened the 500 metre journey by pretending not to know where our hotel was) we’d finally arrived at Green Grass Homestay (anyone used to watch Heartbeat?). It was a clean and pleasant establishment with a helpful receptionist, fluent in English. Although at first it seemed a little far from the old town, we soon learned it didn’t take long by bicycle.

Day 1 – Exploring the old town (and making purchases we hadn’t planned)

We started the day off exceedingly well with superb Vietnamese iced coffees and the local delicacy of Banh Mi. The fillings can change, but ours was the more common and consisted of a lovely crunchy baguette filled with grilled pork, liver pate, coriander, shredded carrots and chilli sauce. Awesomeness! Shall add this to my Vietnamese cafe menu of Banh Bao and Vietnamese coffees…

Banh Mi in Hue
Following a brisk cycle, we soon found ourselves meandering along the lovely waterfront of Hoi An’s old town, consisting of beautiful French period buildings lined up along either side of the river. As we proceeded, we found ourselves having to zig zag through the numerous narrow cobbled streets, seeking to keep in the shade as much as possible due to the punishing sun that was bearing down on us. By far the majority of buildings were either shoe, shirt or dress shops. For those not in the know, Hoi An is famous for offering tailoring at a fraction of the cost you’d normally expect to pay in the West.

Hoi An old town under tree
Hoi An Old town boats
Despite initially doing well to ignore the relentless cries from people trying to peddle their wares, we soon gave in, not wanting to miss out on the bargain basement prices for tailor made clothing and shoes or the opportunity to have a go at hardcore bartering. Eventually a deal was struck for a pair of casual leather shoes for me, and a pair of sandals for Joella, all for a great price.

Trying on Hoi An tailored shoes
Day 2 – Shopping (and nearly a scary dietary transformation)

The next day kicked off with another excellent brekky, before then heading down to the old town to once again flex our bartering muscles. We both managed to pick up what we wanted for half the initial asking price; I got some new sunglasses (I wonder how long these will last me), and Joella a necklace and earrings – happy days 🙂

The negotiations were relatively easy, but navigating the streets was a little awkward. Everyone had to constantly jump out of the way as queues of cyclo’s (cycle taxis) cruised past, indicating yet another tour bus had recently arrived. This became even more hectic in the evening when even more tourists appeared, a shame given how beautiful the town was at night, in amongst all the glowing lanterns.

Cyclo taxis in Hoi An Vietnam
Night time in Hoi An Vietnam
Paper lanterns in Hoi An Vietnam
Later that evening, as we escaped the centre of the old town, something very peculiar happened. Something that may scare the living daylights out of many of you: I very nearly became… a vegetarian!? But if you tasted the food served up at this amazing vegetarian restaurant, you’d soon understand why. The flavours of our pepper mushroom stew, and lemongrass and chilli tofu were absolutely incredible 🙂 Oh, and it all being washed down with what are believed to be the cheapest beers on the planet (approx 9p per half pint) probably helped too – many of Hoi An’s restaurants serve up their own beers, made fresh each day.

Day 3 – Lazing on the beach (and extortionately priced second-hand books)

Deciding we’d had enough of the old town, and given it was another scorcher of a day, the beautiful An Bang beach was to be our destination for the morning. Following a 20 minute cycle, then dodging locals trying to charge us to look after our bikes, we found ourselves on an immaculate white sandy beach. Once we’d set ourselves up under an umbrella, we couldn’t resist running into the soothing turquoise sea to cool down, or the nearby coconuts!  

An Bang beach Hoi An Vietnam
Jonny drinking coconut
Seeing Joella had recently finished one of her books, we thought we’d pop past the second-hand bookshop to swap it for another. The place was very impressive, spread out over a number of rooms in between floors, all arranged by language. After finding ourselves some new books, we discovered how relatively expensive everything was even when swapping, and many were priced as new, fairly disappointing considering these were VERY old and VERY tatty books indeed. So we left briskly without making a purchase.

Joella choosing a book in Hoi An Vietnam
Overall Hoi An was very beautiful, if a little touristy. We can definitely understand why it’s one of the most popular places on people’s schedules of Vietnam, and having a beautiful beach nearby seals the deal. 

Goodbye central Vietnam; we’re now off to Saigon in the South, for an adventure through the Mekong Delta…