Top ten tips for Vietnam!

Well, that is officially everything from my Vietnam travels! And now to finish off I’m going to give my personal top ten tips along with my top ten favourite photos (in no particular order) Enjoy….

1.) Be prepared for the climate: Sounds kind of obvious I know. But really, if you’ve never been to Asia before then you just cannot image what the heat feels like. The air is thick with humidity and you will sweat even you feel you shouldn’t! It may simply have been because of the time of year we visited, but we found the North of Vietnam far more hot and humid than the South, so prepare yourself for endless sweat! 14075055_10210170913654384_1269167155_o

2.) Trains are your new best friend: Vietnam is a big country but the train system there is pretty amazing. Depending on how much you’re willing to spend and how concerned you are about your personal comfort level during a journey, there are different seats and beds available to you. We booked all our trains in advance even before getting to Vietnam which actually worked out really well, so if you’re feeling organised I would recommend it. The Man in Seat Sixty-One is an awesome website to check out to help you with your travel planning. 

Here’s a link to their map of South-East Asia!

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3.) Overnight trains are not as bad as you might think: sure, the rooms are a bit small and not up to the standard of a hotel, and you begin to debate with yourself if you actually need to use the loo or whether you can hold it for the next 10 hours. But in reality, they’re fine. They’re an easy and inexpensive way to deal with long journeys (our longest train was 16 hours but we slept for the majority of it) and if you’re on a budget then it’s great since you get travel and accommodation in one! 

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4.) Be careful with your money: the exchange rate between the British Pound Sterling and Vietnamese Dong is 1: 2908.43 – so essentially £1 is 3,000 Dong. This can cause some confusion when you’re trying to work out quickly how much something costs. Believe me, it is unfortunately easy to hand over 50,000 Dong (£17.20) instead of 5,000 Dong (£1.72) without realising it until it’s too late. 

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5.) Keep an eye on your taxi metre: all the taxi’s we rode in were perfectly fine except one. You should always take taxi’s with metres in them which we did every time. Unfortunately, what we didn’t realise until it was too late was that one taxi driver had increased his metre to an absurd rate, so that we were charged way, WAY more than we should have. We knew that we were being scammed, but unfortunately the rest of my group didn’t share my desire to confront the driver about it! Learn from our mistake. If a taxi driver has obviously scammed you demand a receipt, or if he doesn’t give you one take down his taxi number and registration number. That way you can ask your hostel reception staff to phone up the taxi company and get your money back for you. 

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6.) The road has no rules!: Perhaps the only rule would be ‘if there’s a space, take it’. Traffic lights are not a thing, and vehicles will not stop for you if you politely wait at the side of the road. If you’re confident, step out and make your way across the road. Just make sure that you leave cars and bikes enough time to slow down or move around you! Don’t panic, just walk across slowly. Or, if you prefer the safety in numbers approach, wait until there’s a crowd wanting to cross the road and tag along with them.

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7.) A one time splurge: Vietnam is a country where you can enjoy most things at an incredibly cheap cost. If you are a student looking for some inexpensive travel then this is a brilliant place for you. But there is one place where you simply have to make an exception – Ha Long Bay. Yes, this could be the most expensive day you will have on your entire trip. But there is one simple thing you have to remember. It is worth itSpend the money, you will never regret it.

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8.) Buy travel pants: Because they’re really comfortable, and they will keep you so much cooler than you would think. Because they’re colourful and pretty (and yes, I know how much of a girl I’m sounding right now). Because years after I first went to Vietnam I still wear my first ever pair as my pyjamas and not only are they still the most comfortable thing ever, but they are also one of my favourite souvenirs of all my travels. 

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9.)  Vegetarians will be fine: the two girls I was travelling with were both vegetarians and I must confess before we went out there I was slightly worried this may prove problematic. I was completely wrong. All the places we went to had vegetarian dishes and even the boat trip to Ha Long Bay had separate meals for them! Not sure I could say the same about vegans however. 

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10.) You’re going to be stared at: don’t be surprised when this happens. Everywhere you go, and all the time. You’ll be walking down the street and you will see people pointing you out to their friends. People may even come up to you and ask to take a photo with them (I should start charging for this – i’d make a fortune!) It’s a strange feeling at first but either you accept it and get used to it, or you get annoyed by it. I promise you, the first option is a lot less stressful!

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So there you have it, my top ten tips for Vietnam! An amazing country and one I already can’t wait to go and visit again. Stay tuned for the rest of my adventures!

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where -‘ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.” – Lewis Carroll

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Củ Chi tunnels

 The  Củ Chi tunnels are a definite must whilst staying in Ho Chi Minh City. They get their name from their location in the Củ Chi District, although they are actually only one section of a far larger network of tunnels which lie beneath much of Vietnam as a whole. At their peak, the tunnel system ran all the way from the Capital of South Vietnam to the Cambodian border! The tunnels were made famous due to their use by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. However, don’t image it as just one tunnel running directly under the surface, since the complex actually stretched several stories down underground. During the Vietnam War they were not only used as hiding places, but also as routes for supplies and communication, food and weapon storage, living quarters and even kitchens and hospitals! 

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It is a very worthwhile day trip to go on, even if (like me) you’re not especially knowledgeable or interested in the history of the Vietnam War. We were picked up from our hostel and transported to the tunnels, and along the way we stopped off at a workshop. At first I wasn’t entirely sure why we had stopped here in particular. But as we got off the bus the long line of wheelchairs provided an answer. The shop provides work for the descendants of those exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals during the Vietnam War, and who were born with disabilities as a result. They are taught their trade and employed there, selling their wares in an enormous shop. Some of the artwork on display was truly beautiful. If I had the space to buy it, or the money to ship it home, I could easily have bought a dozen different items. 

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IMG_5793After some time to look around and shop we were put back onto the bus and taken to the tunnels. At Củ Chi 75 miles (121 km) worth of tunnels have been preserved and turned into a war memorial park. It’s actually possible to crawl through the tunnel system, although it’s amazing to realise that these tiny little tunnels have actually been enlarged to better suit Western tourists! (I dread to think how small they must have been previously). A word of warning, if like one of our group you’re not a fan of small spaces, don’t go down there. Whilst you’re not in the tunnels for a particularly long period of time it is small, quite dark despite the lighting, and incredibly hot! 

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As well as an opportunity to explore the tunnels we were provided with an English speaking guide who took us around the area. We were told how the Viet Cong created their tunnel system despite American efforts to destroy their efforts, how they produced weapons and tended their wounded underground. We were even shown the incredible variety of booby traps that were used against the American soldiers – truly astonishing all the different ways humans can think to kill or injure one another!

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Once you’ve finished the tour there is an area where you can sit and enjoy a cold drink. Unfortunately I can’t say ‘in peace’ since you will inevitably be kept company by the continuous sound of gun fire! The park has its own shooting range where you can pay to use a variety of different weapons. There are assault rifles such as the AK-47 and even the M60 machine gun. Some of the groups on the tour seemed to have a great time playing with all the different toys there! 

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The tunnels offer an insight into a different type of warfare used during this war. It’s astonishing to think that there were people who lived in these tunnels for long periods of times – even years, when after only 10 minutes even I (who quite enjoys small spaces) was craving fresh air and sunlight. The booby traps offer a gruesome insight into the Vietnamese way of fighting, particularly striking after having visited the War Remnants Museum the day previously. Perhaps visiting these two sights one after the other is the best way of beginning to see both sides to this picture. 

“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.” Anthony Bourdain

Ho Chi Minh City – Our final stop in Vietnam

Our final stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City (formerly named Saigon). To me this city seems to sum up Vietnam as a whole perfectly. It is a wonderfully chaotic blend of history and culture along with the dizzying business of modern 21st century life! Once again Lonely Planet seems to take the words right out of my mouth: ‘The ghosts of the past live on in buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, but now the real beauty of the former Saigon’s urban collage is the seamless blending of these two worlds into one exciting mass.’ IMG_5780If you only visit one museum in the whole of Vietnam, make sure that it’s the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the most popular museums in the country. It primarily deals with the Vietnamese War, although there is also some information here relating to the first Indochina War against the French colonialists. 

IMG_5782When you first enter the compound you come across equipment from the period including tanks and a variety of airplanes. In one corner there are even a number of unexploded weapons – although thankfully with their charges and fuses removed! As you explore the museum you find it is organised into different themed rooms, each filled with photos and short explanations of what the images show. 

IMG_5783A warning before you visit this museum, some of the images on show are very graphic. For example, there are rooms documenting the use and effects of Agent Orange and other chemical sprays, napalm and phosphorus bombs. There are images of the war itself, and of the descendants of those involved who have been crippled by exposure to these chemicals. There are even exhibits such a guillotine used by the French and South Vietnamese to execute prisoners and jars of preserved human fetuses believed to have been deformed by the chemicals already mentioned.

The museum does indeed present a shocking view of the wars in Vietnam. That being said, the images and the information provided should be taken with a pinch of salt as they are understandably very one sided. But no matter what your personal opinion is about the Vietnam war or America’s involvement in the country, the pictures are incredibly moving and you should be prepared to see some harrowing images before you enter this museum.

“The open road is the school of doubt in which man learns faith in man.” – Pico Lyer

A trip to the spa!

So far our trip to Vietnam had been pretty much non-stop travel. We were up every morning early and out all day seeing the sights – which is exactly how we liked it. But the continuous travels combined with jet lag soon began to have an effect. We therefore decided to have a day off from our hectic schedule to relax. But of course, this was still an opportunity to do something new, so we decided to visit Thap Ba Hot Spring Center!

IMG_5736As it turned out, this was one of the best choices we made of the trip! We started off our ‘treatment’ by visiting the mud baths. Now a little part of my brain was being very British and was wondering how many people would have shared the same mud as me. Would I be sitting in mud that had just been congealing there for the last month? Would I be essentially relaxing in things other that mud?!?! But never fear! I watched in delight as, once the group before us left, the mud was drained away, the ‘bath’ washed down with clean water and refilled with new mud! So the tiny little anxious part of my brain was quickly put to rest.

13501574_10209050562917360_6600742349127699665_nSecond surprise of the day was the actual consistency of the mud. Because really, ‘mud’ is the wrong word to use for what we were sitting in. Mud suggests something thick, clumpy. What we were sitting in was more like muddy water. Which I suppose makes sense when you consider that the point is to sit in the sun and let the mud dry and harden. If it was thick and gloopy it wouldn’t cover your body evenly and I suppose would take too long to dry. It was a very funny experience, especially considering the fact that we were supplied with little kiddie buckets which we used to pour the muddy water over each other. The only slight downside to the day was that there was light rain throughout our visit, which meant that we couldn’t dry off in the sun like you’re supposed to. But believe me, at the time we were so happy that we were cool that we couldn’t have cared less!

IMG_5740Part 2 of the spa trip was to rinse all of the mud off in nice strong showers. Now if you’ve never experienced a mud bath before, I want to let you into a little secret. It doesn’t matter how long you stand in that shower, it doesn’t matter how hard you scrub, you will NEVER get all the mud off you the first time. It simply isn’t possible. Be prepared to see mud in the shower for the next couple of days, even when you thought you were entirely clean! The second part of washing all the mud off was to walk through a small passage like structure that shot out jet streams at you from all angles. Sounds nice right? Nice and relaxing, perhaps it felt like a massage? No. Those jets were strong. And I mean STRONG. Strong enough that we were all shrieking and trying to get through as quickly as possible! Not something I would try for a second time, although admittedly very funny to watch others do.

IMG_5745Part 3 of the spa trip was far more relaxing. This part of the day saw us lounging in baths of hot water. As someone who loves a good bath every now and then, this was absolute heaven. It was such a nice feeling to simply lie there and unwind, although slightly strange to be enjoying the heat when normally our days were spent determinedly searching for places with air-conditioning!

Once we had finally had enough of the hot tub we had free range to go and enjoy a couple of different pools. There was also a cute little waterfall area where a lot of groups had pictures taken. It was amazing to finally have a swim, and actually so much more enjoyable since it was slightly cloudy and rainy that day. As someone who burns very easily, it was great to have fun playing in the pool knowing that I didn’t have to worry about sun cream or if my skin was going pink at all!

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Spa trips may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but this is a trip I would still recommend. It’s just something a little bit different, and an experience all in itself. In reality we went there more for the amusement factor than anything else, and spent most of the time messing around and amusing ourselves. It’s amazing how quickly you revert back to being 2 year olds when handed a bucket and a bath full of muddy water to play with! 

13557687_10209050563837383_6322232704889177131_n“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend. Robert Louis Stevenson

Hello Hội An!

Our next stop in our travels North to South of Vietnam was to the amazing Hội An! Sadly we were only there for a very short period of time, so we didn’t really get to see much of the area. But what we saw was truly gorgeous, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that Lonely Planet (my Bible whilst I travel) describes it as ‘Graceful, historic Hội An is Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town’.IMG_5514Hội An, which translates as ‘peaceful meeting place’, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. This is due to the Old Town, which is a particularly well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port from the 15th century to the 19th century. During the 18th century the town was considered by both Chinese and Japanese merchants to be the best destination in southeast Asia for trading. Indeed the Japanese even believed that the heart of all Asia (the dragon) lived beneath the earth of Hoi An. However, after the 18th century the prominence of Hội An fell until it was almost forgotten. The positive to this decline however, is that the town remained practically untouched by change for the next two centuries.

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My number one recommendation for anyone visiting this area is the night market. Even if you only have one day to explore make sure you pay it a visit. During the day Hội An provides an incredible insight to the history of Vietnam, and walking down the streets of Old Town you could almost imagine yourself transported back in time. But like so many places, night is when the town truly comes alive! Suddenly there are market stands and lights everywhere, and more people than you thought possible. As you walk along the river there are dozens of women selling small candle lanterns, which float along in the current. The night market stretches along the streets selling everything you can imagine, from souvenirs, to food to brightly coloured lanterns for you to take home.IMG_5495IMG_5547

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Another spot that is definitely worth a visit is the Japanese Covered Bridge, dating to the 16th – 17th century. The bridge gets its name from the fact that when it was built, it divided the town and marked the boundary of the Japanese settlement there. The bridge is also interesting since it is the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple attached to one side. But be warned, you’ll have to fight all the other travellers for a good photo of this spot!

IMG_5660Hội An is also famous for another, completely different reason – its tailors. Strolling down the streets you will find dozens of shops where you can have clothing custom made in just a matter of days. When I visited Vietnam a few years ago with my family I had a jacket made. I quite literally drew the design I wanted, was measured, picked the fabrics and then within two days it had seemingly magically appeared. However, I would recommend staying in Hội An for at least a couple of days if you’re planning on having anythin made. It’s definitely worth going back for a couple of fittings and making sure that all the details are to your liking. Another option is to send your measurements over along with instructions for what you want. This is exactly what both my parents did whilst I was there this summer, which is how I somehow managed to find myself in a Vietnamese tailors picking out the fabrics for my father’s work suits – not a situation I had imagined myself in when I first started planning this trip!

 

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“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Pagoda #1 – the first of many!

Not only was Hué home to our first imperial enclosure but also our first pagoda – compulsory viewing for anyone visiting Asia! The first of many, Thiên Mu Pagoda is located on Hà Khē hill, a short taxi drive away from the royal residence. Built in 1601 by the then governor of the area now known as Hué, Thiên Mu is the tallest religious building in Vietnam!IMG_1870

For those who don’t know, a pagoda is a type of tower with multiple eaves, although they are built in a range of architectural and cultural styles. Modern pagodas are an evolution of the Indian ‘Stupa’, built to hold religious relics (such as the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) and were also used as a place of meditation. Some pagodas are also used by Taoists as a house of worship. The word itself can be slightly misleading however, as due to the French translation, the English word ‘pagoda’ is used more as a generic term as a place of worship.

Thiên Mu is certainly an awe inspiring place to visit, and the area surrounding it is equally as beautiful. Whilst there you can walk around the gardens which, as we saw whilst we were there, are tended by the Buddhist monks who live at the site. If you are interested in the history of Vietnam this is also an excellent place to visit as it house the Austin motor vehicle used by Thich Quang Duc in 1963 in his self-immolation protest against the Diem Regime. As someone who didn’t learn anything about Vietnamese history growing up, seeing this car for the first time and learning the story behind it was a truly shocking experience.

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“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, in dimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” – Pico Iyer

Hue’s Imperial Citadel

Our first visit to an imperial site was definitely an impressive one! Hue’s Imperial Citadel (also known as the Imperial Enclosure) was the home and capital of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty between 1802 and 1945. The complex included not only the royal residence, but also its temples and palaces. The interior of the Citadel, the Purple Forbidden City, was reserved solely for the royal family. Sadly a visit today doesn’t really provide the full experience of the site since much of the complex was destroyed in bombing raids during both the American and French wars. The extent of the loss is made incredibly clear when you learn that out of the 148 buildings that once existed, only 20 have survived to the modern day.

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Sadly once you’re inside the complex it’s actually pretty difficult to tell what building is what as there aren’t many signs provided. Personally I found it was more a case of ‘I recognise that from a picture I’ve seen’ rather than any real understanding of what the buildings were. Despite this, the site is absolutely stunning and it’s not difficult in the slightest to imagine it as the home of a royal family! 

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“It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst, and then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold onto it and it flows through me like rain and I can feel nothing but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid, little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure, but don’t worry. You will someday.” – American Beauty