We left Saigon to travel northwards, along the eastern seaboard of Vietnam to a place called Nha Trang. Our plan was to spend two weeks here by the breathtaking South China Sea, and then travel further north to the city of Hanoi, (some 1300kms north which would take us 2 hours of a flight from Nha Trang), to learn some more about this country and its people. We travelled on the quaintest old train that wound its way through the little streets of Saigon where people’s front doors opened onto the tracks and children played happily until the next scheduled train was due to arrive. Little faces looked out from their tiny homes, waving in delight at the train as it passed by. The train itself was like something out of a Sherlock Holmes movie! The interior of the carriages were covered with wallpaper, with oil style lamps dotted along the inside walls. The chairs were old but so comfortable, and our fellow passengers, the local Vietnamese people, had literally everything but the kitchen sinks packed in with them (if they had kitchens!). The trains in Vietnam are a far cry from the high speed bullet train we had travelled on in Japan, but this train had such character that it was, on every level, the most enjoyable 9 hour train journey I had since leaving Ireland.
At each stop along the way, elderly Vietnamese women jumped onto the train with boxes of fruit, trying to sell their wares to passengers, in an absolute frenzy, so they could jump off the train with their pockets full of Vietnamese Dong before it took off again for the next stop. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them didn’t make the deadline and had to continue on for miles before being able to get off again. And how did they find their way back home? Taxis and cars are practically non-existent outside of the cities, so they’d basically have to walk for miles with their boxes of fruit in tow. Or wait for hours for the next train back! We opted out of food on offer from the trolleys of large soup pots passing us in the trains aisle. Nobody spoke enough English to tell us what the pots held, and we weren’t brave enough to try out the local cuisine. What did happen though was the the people around us, noticed that we weren’t eating and generously took out fruit that they had bought from the women who had been on the train earlier, and offered some to us. I was particularly moved by the generosity of a woman who clearly was quite poor, travelling with her young son and husband, taking out all sorts of food and fruit from her bag and offering it to us. This was a regular occurrence that we experienced during our time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have so little, yet they are happy to share with us, foreigners in their country, what little they had. We could all take a leaf from that book!
Now one piece of advice I’d give anyone travelling by train in Vietnam; Know how to ask for the stop you’re getting off at in the Vietnamese language! Don’t assume that someone on the train will speak English, not even the staff on board. They don’t! And the trains can be delayed along the way, so banking on a time of arrival to know what station is the right one just doesn’t work. We learned this the hard way, albeit it could have been worse. After about 8 hours into our journey, we asked one of the train assistants if the next stop was Nha Trang, but in the same breath, asked him what time it was due to stop there. His response answered a very different question (we think). He said “yes” (but if you ask any other question apparently, (because of the lack of English), the answer will always be the same…”yes” 😁). And so we grabbed our cases and bags and began making our way towards the exit doors. No other passengers seemed to be moving, which we thought was quite strange. In fact, I’m sure I saw a few smirks and giggles from the locals who I guess had seen eejits like us travelling on their trains before. One hour later, we’re still at the exit door. The station was nowhere near, and we weren’t even sure when the train did eventually stop whether it was Nha Trang. We had to take the risk, jump off and suck it and see. Luckily it was!
When travelling through Vietnam also, you really cannot rely on ATM machines being readily available. So cash, cash, cash all the way. The currency, the Vietnamese Dong, takes a bit of getting used to. €1 is equivalent to 27,000 Dong. When you’re trying to convert this back to Euro from millions of Dong, it becomes quite confusing. But everything from food to drink to accommodation is unbelievably cheap. A two course meal with drinks, for two people, would set you back no more than €15-€20. You actually feel like a millionaire when you look at all the notes of Dong in your purse…I’d always hoped to be one someday. I guess I just got the wrong country 😂😂😂.
We had been forewarned before we arrived, that when travelling by taxi in Vietnam, make sure it is a metered taxi! This is the downfall of travelling through Vietnam, or in fact many countries throughout the world. There are serious scams going on in relation to taxis, so if you fall foul of riding in a taxi that isn’t metered you could end up having to pay a serious amount of money for them to take you to where you want to go, not to mention the other dangers that I don’t dare to think about. There are hair raising stories of how tourists have been caught out and robbed by travelling in cars that appear to be taxis but aren’t. We had been given good advice, to download an app called Grab. It basically works the same as Uber and is regulated and monitored, and extremely cheap. So, stay with the metered ones, no matter how desperate you might be to get somewhere!
So onwards we went by taxi, to our beautiful Airbnb accommodation in Nha Trang. We have had nothing but fantastic hosts and accommodation in every place we have stayed throughout our travels. That was, until now! When booking we noticed that there were no reviews on the accommodation, which is quite unusual. We ticked it off as probably being the fact that it looked so new and pristine clean. Bad move! The accommodation itself, to be fair, was spanking new, to the point that it still hadn’t been fully equipped with kitchenware. But having a pristine clean apartment with two bedrooms and directly across from a beautiful beach…sure what more could we have asked for? That was, until about 7 a.m. the following morning when we heard the noise of Cango hammers and drills all around us. We were in a brand new building to be sure. Our apartment was one of the few that had been finished and the remainder of the building was basically a construction site. We had been told that breakfast was included with our accommodation! So we thought this would involve an “opt in” or “opt out” and that we could make our way to wherever it was served and voila. Happy Days! Not so! At 8.00 a.m. each morning after we had been woken by the major construction going on around us, a Vietnamese lady would arrive with a plate with slices of melon and a couple of cold fried eggs on top. Fair enough, we thought we could take in the breakfast and have it at our leisure. Again, not so! As soon as the breakfast lady had delivered our food, a team of cleaners would arrive. Five cleaning ladies, ready to attack the apartment with gusto. And this was every morning! If we didn’t answer the door when they knocked, they had their own key and just opened the door to let themselves in!
Day two of the stay I had decided, nope, not having this! Not an ounce of privacy…ah no! I thought if I advised our “Host” that we would only be requiring cleaning twice a week and that we would be out some mornings doing outdoor activities (seeing as the indoor ones were out…unless we wanted an audience 😜) so he could cut back on the breakfast deliveries also; Sure wouldn’t that sort it? Not so! He replied to my messages saying “yes”. (Probably similar to the train attendants). And the knocking on the door every morning continued, with the team of smiling Vietnamese ladies greeting us each time we opened the door to our gobsmacked faces looking back at them! How many days do you have to open the door and tell them “Go Away please”? Nope, they returned with even more gusto the following day. At a different time each day then…which meant absolutely no privacy at all! I started imagining hearing the door knock at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning! It was getting to me I guess 😤. So back onto our Host, who at this point was totally ignoring my 2,000 word rants! Even on the last day of our stay when I notified him that I was leaving the key at reception, I opened the door to another group of smiling Vietnamese women who had arrived, yet again, to clean, but also to collect our key. Moral of the story? Do not everrr book accommodation on Airbnb unless there are a number of reviews to refer to. I notice following my review on the site, that his accommodation is available for the next year. Funny that!
To avoid the stress of our streams of visitors to our apartment each morning, we decided to make our way to the beach early, and relax on the sun loungers by the most beautiful sea I have ever seen. The South China Sea is warm and spotless clean, and swimming in it is definitely everything that you expect and more. Clear blue skies, golden sand and palm trees every day! This is the beauty of the place! It’s the stuff that holiday magazines display for that dream holiday. The issues with the apartment faded away into insignificance in light of the rest of our surroundings. Nha Trang itself is a huge city with bustling side streets of markets and bars and restaurants. It is the total opposite end of the spectrum to Saigon. It is called “the Riviera of Vietnam” for good reason, and that is the wealth that is apparent everywhere you walk. However, that is in the “tourist” sections of the city only. Venture into the back streets and again you will find the inner layer of the same onion, the poverty hidden away from the naked eye, albeit not to the same extent as we had already seen in Saigon.
We booked a boat trip one morning out to some islands off the east coast of Vietnam through a local tour company and were provided with the most attentive tour guide called Hung, who brought cold beer in a cooler box for us (I guess knowing we were Irish he knew this was a good move 🙏). The Funky Monkey Boat had a crew of hilarious Vietnamese and Cambodian entertainers who knew all of the familiar songs from their passengers home countries. One guy on the boat who called himself “Monkey Boy” (a native of Cambodia), burst into song with “The Fields of Athenry”, when he discovered that he had two Irish passengers on board. He was the most endearing character we met in Vietnam and we have remained in contact with him, and Hung since.
The Funky Monkey boat was taking us for a scuba diving and snorkeling experience, out into the seas alongside the islands. Now anywhere else in the world (I found out later), ensures that you complete a training course before embarking on a scuba dive. Not here! Being a strong swimmer with a passion for swimming in the ocean, I was only too happy to give this a try…not even considering the possible dangers of doing so without having any experience of scuba diving before this. My rationale was that this was the purpose of my journey; to experience new adventures and do things that I had never done before in my life. This was, for me, the perfect opportunity to do just that. And after all, I was to be accompanied by an experienced scuba diving instructor. Sure how much safer could I be? So, on went the wet-suit and the oxygen tank. A five to ten minute lesson on how to breath with the somewhat complex apparatus, and off I went. Off the boat, out into the ocean, with my diving instructor. As he gently pushed me down further and further towards the bottom of the sea bed, any fear that I had was replaced with absolute wonder and amazement at what I was seeing in front of my mask! The most beautifully colored fish, swimming past my face, eel like creatures slithering along the sea floor. And then, the instructor took my hand and placed it on the coral that was swaying on the sea bed. I never knew that coral was soft, having only seen it out of the ocean. And as I combed my hands through the mounds of coral, more fish darted out in front of me. Trying to concentrate on breathing through the mouthpiece was difficult with the distraction of taking everything in that I was seeing, and I struggled at one point and had to be brought to the surface very quickly for another quick re-run of using the mouthpiece and oxygen correctly. I wasn’t deterred, not a chance was I gonna stop at this point, and down I went again; with such an enthusiastic diving instructor who had explained to me how to signal to him when we were down at the bottom of the sea, if I was in difficulty, I certainly felt like I was in safe hands. The sense of achievement I felt, despite the initial fear, was overwhelming. It was certainly, for me, the highlight of my trip to Vietnam, and an experience I will make sure happens more and more as I travel further around Asia. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, feel the fear and do it anyway, as the saying goes.
We had a fabulous lunch on the board the boat where we had the option of selecting live fish from fish-tanks submerged in the ocean at one of the fishing villages we stopped at en-route before docking for lunch.
In terms of food in Nha Trang, the local cuisine is most famous for fresh seafood and barbecued pork rolled in rice paper. The area’s “bird’s nest soup” is also deemed one of the best in Vietnam. Bird’s nests are collected in the wild, on bird farms on the islands off the coast and even in some houses in the inner city and used for cooking. The birds nest is not made from leaves or twigs that we are all too familiar with. It is taken from a bird called a swiftlet, indigenous to certain parts of Asia and Australia. Swiftlets, unlike most birds, make their nests by expelling saliva. The saliva dries and hardens upon contact with air to form the nest which is, of course, edible. So, in other words, what you’re ingesting is…bird spit. It is widely believed that eating these nests in a soup-like mixture can cure heart disease and even cancer, although proper research to support this theory is still being explored. It’s also expensive however, and so we decided to stick to the other local cuisine on offer, more because the thoughts of eating birds spit just didn’t appeal to my western and unadventurous palette. 😝 At that point, a sausage, rasher and fried egg was all my western palate longed for ….. it’s the simple things in life really 😂
And so, after spending two weeks lounging around the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang it was time for us to move on to Hanoi, where we had booked our next Airbnb accommodation at crazily cheap cost in the Old Quarter of the city. The influence of the historical French occupancy of this city is the first thing that strikes you as you arrive into this particular part of Hanoi. From the architecture of the buildings you could be forgiven for thinking you had landed in an old old city in France. Our accommodation was just one such building that was draped in French history, and belonged to a Vietnamese elderly woman whose family history went back generations to France. Our large bedroom in the old building had one of those wonderful old high ceilings with a three-bladed fan hanging from the centre ceiling that would not have been out of place in one of those old movies with hospital rooms where romance bloomed between the nurses and patients, during the Second World War.
Another great tip for anyone travelling to the cities of Saigon or Hanoi in Vietnam (or indeed anywhere around Asia) is that there are fantastic enthusiastic young students who want to improve their conversational English skills who advertise to accompany western tourists, free of charge, offering to be your tour guide for a day. Eager to learn about the history of the city, we took advantage of this in Hanoi and booked a tour only to be accompanied by two wonderfully enthusiastic and educated guides Ann and Quinn, who brought us around the old quarter. We visited an old heritage house, visited the markets and cobbled streets of the city. The crafts and trades of the local merchants were used to name the streets of the old quarter of Hanoi, e.g. Bamboo Wares Street, or Copper Wares Street. Again, along these streets, we saw examples of poverty where tiny, narrow alleyways between shops housed families in tiny dark spaces with no light, just one tiny room at the end of the alleyway. It was during this particular trip that we stumbled across stalls with full bodies of dogs, cooked and ready to be eaten, on sale. This is a delicacy in Hanoi, and while it is easy to judge this practice, I think it’s important to mention that these dogs are not stray or pet dogs as is often speculated on, but specifically bred for the food market. It is difficult to comprehend and while I may not agree with such a practice, I’m conscious of the fact that there are practices that our culture engages in that are just as offensive to people from other cultures. I’m sure the Indian culture are horrified that we butcher and eat cows for example, whereas they venerate these animals. The debate goes on, however, again, we cannot judge other cultures by holding our own up as a paragon!
And so, our three week stay in Vietnam came to an end, shortened due to the fact that we had been offered the most wonderful opportunity of teaching English in China. We excitedly prepared to go back again to one of the most beautiful places on this planet, Yangshuo in Southern China, to begin our teaching of English at the Omeida Language Academy.
The best was yet to come!