Good morning Vietnam!
The Vietnamese Embassy was within walking distance of Sunshine Bedz and of course by the time I got there, it was closed. So I had to wait until the following day to apply for my VISA. Three days later, I had a new stamp in my passport and two days after that, I was on a flight to Ho Chi Minh.
The KL Ekspress train goes from downtown KL straight to the airport, stopping at both terminals. I left downtown KL for the airport giving myself plenty of time. I stopped at Terminal 1, not knowing that all Air Asia flights leave from Terminal 2. No problem, I thought, I’ll get back on the train to the next terminal. But instead I boarded the train going the other way, back to the city, missing my flight and spending a night in KL airport.
To this day when asked what my favourite country is, I say India and Vietnam for very different reasons.
The roads in India are chaotic, but they were nothing compared to the roads in Saigon. With a sales tax ranging from 100% – 300% on cars in Vietnam, motorbike is by far the most popular means of transportation. Saigon has a population of around 8 million people and there are nearly 4 million motorbikes. Crossing the road will get your adrenaline pumping.
Things you need to be aware of:
Walk at a steady pace
People in Vietnam ride on motorbikes before they are born and ride them even though they can only just see over the steering. They are used to the constant flow of traffic and have the maneuvering skills of Valentino Rossi. Stopping and starting will put them off their stride and you are more likely to get hit. The same is true for cars.
Hold the hand of an old lady
NOT AS A HUMAN SHIELD. Standing next to one while they cross often gives you a better chance with the traffic slowing down for you to walk across safely.
Put your hands up
Walking out in front of an approaching vehicle is normal and you can wave your hands, especially at night, to let them know you are crossing and they’ll slow down.
If all else fails close you eyes and run!
I stayed at The Hideout in Saigon which was a party hostel, perfect if you are travelling alone. The pub crawl started from here and you could get two free beers between 7 and 8 pm. The war museum in Saigon is not to be missed. At the time they had a photo exhibition which showed the horrific after-effects of the chemical Agent Orange on the Vietnamese. The photos were harrowing to see, but it was important that they were acknowledged.
A guy from Holland was walking around the hostel offering free tickets for Vietnamese X Factor. When was I ever going to get the opportunity to see Vietnamese X Factor? So I took him up on the offer and joined two other people from my hostel.
Hiring a motorbike to drive from the south to north or other direction is the chosen adventure for most people in Vietnam. As much as I love driving around on a motorbike, on this occasion I’d give it a pass. Getting lost, crashing and breaking down are all possibilities on a motorbike trip. Riding for long durations can be tiring. I hadn’t done any preparation and if I did I would have preferred to have longer than the 30 day visa.
I opted to drive the Hai Van pass, which is a stretch of road the goes over a mountain between Hoi An and Hue and was made famous by the Top Gear TV Show. We each hired an automatic moped from our Sac Lo guesthouse for $25 and they would transport whatever you don’t want to take with you to your hostel in Hue.
The first part is a long stretch from Hoi An across through Da Nang. With the gusts of wind blowing in from Da Nang Bay brought about a few scary moments. The views of the bay from the mountain are spectacular and we stopped numerous times to take in the sites and take some photos. There were some hairpin corners both up and down the mountain but not as much traffic as I thought there was going to be. Driving into Hue the road is still under construction, so a lot of it is unpaved. Number one rule when driving in Southeast Asia….the bigger vehicle always wins! Disobey this unwritten rule and you will find yourself moved to a gravel trap at the side of the ride by an oncoming bus!
Ha Long Bay
I heard mixed reactions about Ha Long Bay. But there was no way I was going to miss this gem of Vietnam. Some people do ‘castaway tours.’ I didn’t really want to be stuck on a boat with a bunch of people whose company I didn’t enjoy.
We asked the owner of a restaurant if he knew someone who could take us and sure enough he did. A guy in the restaurant owned a tour company. Everything came together for my cruise of Ha Long bay. I enjoyed great people I was travelling with, who have become good friends. We had clear skies and we hardly saw any other people that day.
When I applied for my visa, they asked for a return ticket, so I foolishly booked a return ticket from KL to Saigon. Which meant that when I arrived in Hanoi I would have to somehow make my way back down to Saigon to fly to KL. I decided not to get back down to Saigon but to fly straight to Bali instead.
The amazing people, both local and travellers, abundance of activities, great food (pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner) and ever-changing landscape as I travelled from south to north made Vietnam a very special place. A group of friends and I still have an ongoing joke about how every town or city in Southeast Asia has a Why Not Bar.
With the low cost of living, excellent food and high speed Internet, Saigon has been a digital nomad hub for a number of years. I have no doubt it will become an economic powerhouse in the future. Saigon was everything that I expected.